Struggling to Restart Egypt's Stalled Revolution

Activists and youth groups struggle against time and one another


CAIRO, Egypt -- Egypt's popular revolt was on the ropes. Tahrir Square had been mostly empty for weeks. Top regime figures remained free men. And on Wednesday, the Supreme Military Council released a revised constitution that, among other things, retained a Mubarak-era provision mandating that 50 percent of the parliament consist of workers and farmers.

"They are enabling the traditional forces to enter into and win the elections," said Shadi al-Ghazali Harb, an executive member of the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, on Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, the youth organizations that had catalyzed the early stages of the revolt remained deeply divided on whether to keep protesting and, more importantly, on how to guide Egypt's political future.

The Democracy ReportOn Friday, Egypt's youth activists overcame their impasse by agreeing on the past. Echoing scenes of two months prior, tens of thousands of Egyptians packed Tahrir Square to demand that former President Hosni Mubarak and his deputies be put on trial, and that the public funds they stole from the Egyptian people be returned. Posters carried images of former officials behind bars and activists chanted for the capture of former Shura Council president Safwat Sherif, former parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour, and former chief of presidential staff Zakaria Azmi. The military had held control of the country for seven weeks but, for the Tahrir faithful, the villains remained the same.

"We still have ministers whose money has not been investigated," said Maged Abduh, a businessman. "Zakaria Azmi is still working, as is Fathi Sarour. Why didn't they bring them and ask them about their money?"

Yet for many in Tahrir, the turnout was cause for hope. The demonstration's organizers had overcome many hurdles in the previous days -- in particular, a series of suspiciously widely distributed, anonymous messages falsely claiming that the demonstration had been postponed until next week. And although it fell well short of the "million-man march" that the organizers had promised, the return of flag-carrying crowds signaled to the military that the shaab -- the "people" -- remained invested in their revolution.

"It was good to send the message that we can have more protests, because people think and feel that the process is too slow," said Abdullah Helmi, a member of the Union of Revolutionary Youth.

The demonstration took place without the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which stood aside despite the pleas of its younger members. The Brotherhood's Guidance Office claimed that they had not been informed of the demonstration early enough to make a decision. They told their youth leaders that they feared a low turnout.

"They have their own way of dealing with the issue," said Muslim Brotherhood youth leader Islam Lotfi, sounding disappointed.

But Friday's demonstration still leaves Egypt's could-be revolution searching for a way forward. While liberals and leftists dominated the square -- at one point, the crowds jeered at a Salafist who took the stage -- the overwhelming majority seemed to be independents, with a handful of small, newly forming parties scattered about. They have no leader or even set of leaders who can channel their demands for a better future into a widely agreeable program, and nobody can credibly represent them before the military council. So for now, the masses can only unify against things.

"The liberals have many small parties, and the left as well," said former liberal Wafd party chairman Mahmoud Abaza. "I think the hope of having a constitution that the Egyptian people will create and the fear of being squeezed between the army and the Islamists will create some opportunities for this front. But we need to be patient and we don't have time."

Still, Egypt's opposition groups may soon run out of things to oppose. In anticipation of Friday's demonstrations, the military announced the day before that Mubarak's top aides had been banned from leaving the country. If the military fully relents and opens investigations into their activities and finances, it may be hard for youth and liberal activists to convince people to return in droves to Tahrir Square. After all, the remaining demands from the revolution will have been met.

For the protesters still taking to Tahrir Square, and for those wary that the military could ultimately retain its grip on power, "saving" Egypt's revolution will require a liberal program for moving the country forward -- and fast. The longer that Egypt's revolutionary groups can only rally around rejecting the already-rejected Mubarak regime, the greater the advantage of illiberal forces in shaping the country's future.

Photo: A boy prays during the April 1 demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Amr Dalsh / Reuters