How Liberals Are Losing the Battle for Egypt's Future

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.

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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."

Former ruling party members have regrouped. They have lots of cash and experience, and plan to run aggressively in the parliamentary elections that begin in just seven weeks, on November 28.

Meanwhile, the opposition to Mubarak is as fragmented as ever. The revolutionary zeal of Tahrir Square has flagged. Many of the most determined activists from January 25 have invested themselves in electoral politics, which they know is a long game. They've committed to build real political organizations, but it's not clear how good they'll be at doing so, or how quickly they can accomplish it.

The Muslim Brotherhood and a few tarnished, coopted official opposition parties like the Wafd already had nationwide organizations when Mubarak fell. The rest -- the people who actually took to the streets in January -- are struggling to make meaningful inroads and to learn the business of politics.

The Revolutionary Youth Coalition, which includes all the most credible groups from January 25, is trying this week to forge a unified slate of parliamentary candidates. But even if they're wildly successful they won't convince the crucial Islamists to join them.

With no experience of participatory politics, the parties are having to learn much too quickly, in a burning crucible. In September, leaders of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition accepted an invitation to meet with the head of state intelligence. The official, they said, tried to explain the government's efforts to both secure the nation and to improve basic rights, and that the activists responded with their own demands for more reform. They deliberately publicized the meeting -- and were then roundly rebuked by many of their own followers as sellouts.

A more extreme exercise in political trial-by-fire occurred the last weekend of September. The leading political parties negotiated with the military council over the authoritarian and opaque election law. They wrested some key concessions from the junta, including limits on former ruling party members running for office and a rule change that will allow political parties to run candidates for "independent" seats. But the final communiqué signed by the party heads included nothing solid about ending the state of emergency, retrying the civilians convicted in military courts, or most importantly, transitioning to civilian rule. In fact, the agreement between the political parties and the military left open a scenario in which a new civilian president won't take office until 2013, more than two years after the Tahrir Square protests began. More woundingly, it included a sycophantic blessing to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

As soon as the document was published, there was an uproar. The leader of the liberal Adel Party rescinded his signature. The Egyptian Social Democrats, who had only tentatively endorsed it, eventually signed but only after several influential members resigned in protest. The agreement was widely viewed with disgust. Some pundits suggested that the activists were struggling to adjust to the messy give and take of politics. A more accurate analysis would say that the party leaders got snookered by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, signing a document when they could have trumpeted the concessions they won while pushing for more. Even more importantly, the parties got a lesson in accountability politics that will mark the more adaptive among them like a cattle brand. Even revolutionary politicians aren't used to representing real constituents, who speak up, and speak up loud, when they don't like their leaders' decisions.

The September fiascos are a snap clinic in electoral politics, and are taking place in hothouse where rule of law and liberalism are at best tenuous aspirations. Revolutionary activists who profess to value liberalism and rule of law see no irony, and no danger, in calling for the application of Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1950s Treason Law to block the return of the Mubarakistas. They forget, or ignore, that Nasser used that law to shut down political life entirely, and that criminalizing the "pollution of public life" endangers anyone who disagrees with the powers that be.

Time is short until elections, and recent events have established that the military controls the process, whatever it might be. That process changes from week to week; the uncertainty and backtracking and vagueness increasingly look like a strategy by the junta to keep everyone else off balance and maximize the divisions among any pretenders to authority.

It's possible that the military doesn't want a return of the old regime -- perhaps because it has begin to enjoy the prospect of keeping for itself all the power that it accrued when Mubarak went away.