How Liberals Are Losing the Battle for Egypt's Future

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Kept guessing by the military leaders and pressured by a small activist base that disdains working within the system, the same Egyptians who led the Tahrir uprising are now losing out

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Protesters in Cairo / Thanassis Cambanis

CAIRO, Egypt -- The enraged crowd had a target: the satellite television transmission truck parked at the edge of Tahrir Square, by the Hardees. "Get out, get out!" screamed a hundred men, while the most agitated swarmed the truck, pounding it with their open palms. A half-dozen toughs fended them off. One brandished a pocket taser. Why, I asked a bystander, did this mob want the television signal silenced?

"Some channel broadcast there were only a few hundred people in Tahrir," he explained. "We can't have that."

Except, of course, that it was true. This past Friday, October 7, was "The Friday of 'Thank you, now please return to your barracks.'" It was intended as riposte to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which of late has reinstated many of the most decried and oppressive practices of the late Mubarak regime, and capped off its assertion of junta power with a grand martial celebration on Egypt's national holiday to observe the victory against Israel on October 6, 1973.

The activists are terrified and energized, but the wider public does not seem to share their fears. So Tahrir, from Friday to Friday, seems emptier and emptier. What that proves is an entirely different question, but it is an observable fact that elicits anxiety to the Tahrir revolutionaries and satisfaction among supporters of the military council.

Revolutionary demonstrators are angry, and afraid their gains are slipping away. And like many Egyptian political players, they are not all instinctively liberal, as evidenced by the flashmob that would rather tear up a TV truck than admit that, this one time, state television was telling the truth about the paltry protest turnout.

I saw similar explosions of anger from skeptics of the revolution (or maybe just average, apolitical citizens) irritated by the disruptions caused by labor strikes. Workers are demanding living wages, and some of them are overtly trying to keep the revolutionary spirit alive while pressuring the regime, which at most levels has preserved the exact same stifling policies and personnel that Mubarak put in place.

In downtown Cairo, stranded commuters cursed the bus drivers, who are on strike because they want to earn a base salary higher than $100 a month. I was stranded overnight at the Luxor Airport after air traffic controller shut down Egypt's airspace, and I heard travelers rail against the pampered workers who, emboldened by the revolution, were now heedlessly and selfishly inconveniencing their fellow Egyptians.

•       •       •       •       •

It's hard to escape the feeling that Egypt's January 25 Revolution is being eaten alive. It's too soon to write it off, and too soon to predict that a full-fledged military dictatorship will rule the country for the foreseeable future; but that grisly outcome now is a solid possibility, perhaps as likely an outcome as a liberal, civilian Egypt or an authoritarian republic.

Eight months after a euphoric wave of people power stunned Egypt's complacent and abusive elite, it's possible to see the clear outlines of the players competing to take over from Mubarak and his circle, and to assess the likely outcomes. The scorecard is distasteful. The uprising -- it can't yet be fairly termed a revolution -- forced the regime to jettison its CEO, Hosni Mubarak, in order to preserve its own prerogatives.

In the last two months, that regime has made clear how strong it feels. In September, in quick succession the military extended the hated state of emergency for another year, effectively rendering any notion of rule of law in Egypt meaningless; unilaterally published election rules that favor wealthy incumbents and remnants of the old regime, and that disadvantage new, post-Mubarak competitors; indefinitely postponed presidential elections, and refused any timetable for handing over authority to a civilian; reinstated full media censorship, threatening television stations and imposing a gag order on all reporting about the military; and the country's authoritarian ruler, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, unleashed a personal public relations campaign on state television odiously reminiscent of Mubarak's image-making. Furthermore, the government advanced its investigation of "illegal NGOs" that allegedly took foreign money, including virtually every important and independent dissident organization.

Taken together, these moves show a military junta fully confident that it can impose measures of control as harsh -- or, in the case of widespread military trials for civilians, harsher -- than those employed by Mubarak.

Politically, the military council might seem incoherent, habitually announcing extreme positions and then undoing them after the next street protest, but the overall arc is unmistakable, if hopefully not inexorable.

The soundtrack for the SCAF and its millions of supporters in Egypt (because let's not forget, the old regime had its loyalists and there are many more who remain convinced by state propaganda that the January 25 uprising was a plot against Egypt) could be the song from the satirical film Bob Roberts: "The Times they are a-changing back."

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Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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