Egypt Looks To Complete An 'Unfinished Revolution'

Nov 23, 2011

In the autumn of the Arab Spring, Egyptians fear they're losing their revolution.

That is, if it ever really was a revolution.

As the country braces for next week's scheduled election, people from the urban sprawl of Cairo to the rural reaches of Upper Egypt are left wondering if the so-called "January 25 Revolution" wasn't actually a popularly supported military coup.

The events of the last several days have proven how difficult it will be for the ruling military council to relinquish its power and permit what Egyptians hope will be the first free and fair elections in Egypt in more than 60 years of military-backed autocratic rule.

Since Friday, thousands of demonstrators, from both religious and secular parties, have converged on Tahrir Square to protest the military's attempts to put forward a constitution that would shield the armed forces from oversight and in effect shape the powerful military establishment as a state within a state.

Amid running street battles to control Tahrir Square, which reportedly have left dozens of people dead and hundreds wounded, there is some question as to whether the Nov. 28 parliamentary election will go forward as planned. But there is no question that this first election since deposed President Hosni Mubarak was toppled nine months ago presents a fateful moment for Egypt's 80 million people who represent the heart of the Arab world.

The election marks the beginning of what seems to be a chaotic and clumsy series of elections and runoffs over the next two months that will ultimately give shape to a new parliament.

That newly elected parliamentary body — both the upper and lower houses — will be part of a process that will adopt a constitution next year in advance of a still unscheduled presidential election.

Military's Grip Remains Strong

During the last nine months since Mubarak was toppled, the military has remained in charge through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

The weekend protests opposed attempts by SCAF to try to control the process of shaping a new constitution and specifically to shield the military's budget from civilian review.

The military, which was widely seen as heroic during the revolution, has turned heavy handed in recent months, and political candidates and analysts say they fear the military is showing signs that it will thwart a transition to civilian rule, a promise it has made publicly to the Egyptian people.

"These parliamentary elections are in many ways more important than the presidential election," said Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2008 who now heads the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Cairo.

Democracy: 'A Hope, Not A Reality'

"This parliament will shape the future of Egypt," said Fahmy, explaining that the new constitution the parliament will adopt will provide a framework for what role religion and the military will play in Egypt, where the idea of democracy is still a hope, not yet a reality.

For 30 years, America backed Mubarak and his autocratic regime in the name of regional security, even as that support stood in sharp contrast to American rhetoric on democracy. More recently, that support undercut the idealism and hope that President Barack Obama brought to Egypt in June 2009 when he addressed the country and the Muslim world in a speech titled "A New Beginning."

On one day in October, Tahrir Square was filling up with men, young and old, pouring out of the nearby mosque after the noon prayer.

They clustered in groups on the sidewalks of Tahrir Square, the now historic urban center where Egyptians gathered for a wave of protests that toppled Mubarak on Feb. 11. And these Egyptians traded conversation, told jokes and argued relentlessly. They bought newspapers, which on this day were filled with garish photos of the downfall and death of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Families gathered and went about shopping and stopping for tea.

Changes Still Unfolding

On this day, it was clear the square continues to be the place where the country's conversation of revolution and what it means unfolds on a daily basis.

Amid the crowd, Sheik Gamil Alan, a dean emeritus of the law school at al-Azhar, the Muslim world's premiere theological institute with more than 1,000 years of tradition, climbed the few steps to take a rickety stage. The aging sheik, with gray hair and a long gray beard, wore the traditional scholarly robes and red-felt fez of an al-Azhar scholar. A younger man helped him up to the podium and turned on the microphone, which whined and then screeched with feedback.

He spoke into the microphone to what seemed a lingering and listless crowd, saying, "We need a road map to rescue Egypt."

But as he tried to speak, the loud speakers were distorting and there was more screeching feedback.

Across the road a few dozen protesters, some of them waving Syrian flags, chanted for the downfall of President Bashar Assad in Syria. They were shouting, "We are staying, Assad is going!" It was a variation of a popular chant — "We are staying, Mubarak is going" — during the days of January and February when Tahrir Square was packed with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in 18 heady days that toppled the regime.

Amid the shouting and the distortion and the cacophony of sound there was not much of a chance for a hearing on the big issues on that day in Tahrir Square. Slowly, the crowd turned away as the sound of the feedback grew more and more difficult. And the knowledgeable sheik, with his reasoned arguments and desire to help his countrymen focus on the issues, descended the stage, disappointed but not disheartened.

"The revolution is one very, long conversation; it will continue," he said.

"We don't know where this is going," he added. "But we will find our way."

Charles M. Sennott is the executive editor and co-founder of GlobalPost. Mohannad Sabry, an Egyptian journalist, was the managing editor of the Open Hands Initiative-GlobalPost reporting project.

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