Worldview: Arab Spring in Cairo gives way to November chill

Posted: November 03, 2011

CAIRO - The massive crowds of rebellious youths have long since left Tahrir Square, which is jammed again with honking cars and trucks stuck in endless gridlock.

Egypt's revolution is stuck in gridlock, too, trapped by a standoff between seculars and Islamists. The Egyptian military is worsening the tensions. As elections approach, the generals are trying to ensure they will continue their dominant role even after the voting.

Why have things gone so wrong? I asked three leaders of the Tahrir revolt - whom I had interviewed during the heady days of the Arab Spring.

Their answers, and their stories, illustrate how much has already changed in Egypt - and the difficulty of predicting how the revolution will end.

Surgeon Shadi El Ghazali Harb, 32, raced home from London when the Tahrir Square revolt began. He soon became the head of a liberal youth group and one of the coordinators of the demonstrations. In February, as we sat in a Cairo café frequented by political activists, he insisted that liberals and social democrats must join one big coalition to "fight back the Muslim Brotherhood" at the polls.

Ghazali Harb told me he intended to run for parliament on that coalition ticket. He also said his biggest fear was that a new constitution would fail to remove Article II, the 1980 proviso that makes the principles of Islam "the source" of legislation.

This week, the doctor-activist said he had decided not to run, because he believed the military would still retain the real power after forthcoming elections.

The new parliament is supposed to choose a committee that will write a new constitution. But the military fears that the Islamists will win a majority and will remove the constitutional provisions that guarantee the military's power. So the generals are trying to promulgate rules that ensure that the new parliament will be toothless - and that civilians can't control the military's power, or budget.

Like many liberals here, Ghazali Harb is torn. He, too, fears the Islamists. But he says the revolution that toppled a military dictator will be a failure if it doesn't establish civilian rule.

And he bemoans the fact that the Tahrir Square youths were unable to translate their triumph into practical political terms. "We were too concerned with demonstrations rather than building an organization," he says. "We could not get ourselves together and stand as a united front before the Islamists and the old elite."

Mohammed Abbas, 26, a business administration grad of Cairo University, was one of the young Muslim Brothers who defied his elders by joining the Tahrir revolt and working closely with liberals and leftists. In February, he told me the Muslim Brotherhood was too resistant to change. Later that spring, the Brotherhood expelled him and about 50 other young activists from the movement.

This was clearly painful for Abbas. However, he has moved on. I interviewed him in the offices of his new political party, Al Tayyar (The Current), part of a coalition that represents the spirit of Tahrir Square. "We found a third way between secular and Islamists," he said. His coalition includes leftists, social democrats, and religious youth.

He said his Tahrir experience taught him how to "get into conversations with people totally different from myself and even admit the other might be right." But he fears that the values of Tahrir are being dissipated because of the clash between seculars and Islamists. The only way to soften that clash, he says, is through fair elections. The military's plan to cramp the parliament, he says, will only make those divisions worse.

Hossam Bahgat, the dynamic executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told me in April that the Tahrir experience had taught Egyptians how to change their own lives. This week he told me, "It's like a different planet and a different era since April."

His gloom is fed by the military's arrest of prominent bloggers and the strong reemergence of the secret police, who are intimidating media and civil society organizations. They are also sending thousands of Egyptians to military trials.

"They are basically building a military regime to replace Mubarak's police state," says Bahgat. He believes the only way to tame the Islamists is through elections that pull them into the system. Suppressing them, he says, will only re-create the tensions that led to revolution.

"The spirit of Tahrir is still there," he says, "but the transition is blocked, so we will face the same demons as under Mubarak." The military's attempt to create stability by force, he says, will sow the same seeds of instability that brought the Mubarak regime down. I fear he's right.


E-mail Trudy Rubin

at trubin@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|