Cairo, Egypt -- Five months ago, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced from power following 18 days of nationwide protest that claimed the lives of more than 800 Egyptians.
"Hold your head high; you're Egyptian," protesters chanted in the streets after Vice President Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak's resignation. In the Middle East's most populous nation, the moment's jubilation then seemed capable of wiping away decades' worth of humiliation under the U.S.-supported despot.
Since that historic February evening, however, Egypt's political constituencies have been locked in a battle over how to turn the page on the Mubarak era and set the nation on a path toward representational democracy. The protesters who filled the streets and public squares in January and February brought with them years of grievances: from pervasive corruption and police brutality to yawning economic inequality and government collusion in Israeli's blockade of Gaza. But Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), to which Mubarak relinquished power, and the former regime officials who remain in ministry-level positions throughout the government have been slow to respond, if at all, to demands for change.
Egypt is entering another period of political turmoil. The summer sun burns very hot above this North African nation, and the politics are again beginning to boil.
"This is the first time that there has been a serious, sustained opposition to the SCAF," says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, a Gulf affiliate of the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute. Hamid says that the matter comes down to "competing legitimacies." On one hand, the revolutionaries who brought down Mubarak claim to represent the will of the public. On the other, the SCAF, which is presiding over Egypt's transition to representational democracy, claims that they are "nonideological" and, thus, the institution best able to maintain order until popular elections occur.
The SCAF's crisis of legitimacy is a result of a tenacious revolutionary spirit that continues to draw thousands of Egyptians to weekly protests in public squares; leads them to block highways and walk out of their workplaces; and turn to social-media sites to vent.
But over the past two weeks, the challenge to the SCAF's authority has reached a point of crisis. This escalation began on the evening of June 28, when government-backed thugs attacked the families of protesters killed during the January uprising. The family members had been camping out in front of the government's television and radio building in downtown Cairo for several weeks to demand justice for their slain kin. The "martyrs' families" campaign has become a rallying point for the revolutionary movement: The attack on them triggered 16 hours of pitched street fighting in downtown Cairo. Volleys of stones, Molotov cocktails, tear gas, and rubber bullets were exchanged. By the time the conflagration diminished late the next afternoon, over a thousand had been injured.
This past Friday, a protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square to "reclaim" the revolution drew numbers not seen since February. Several thousand Egyptians have remained in the square, camping in dozens of tents or sleeping on the bare ground, directing traffic and collecting garbage around the bustling protest zone, and -- most critically -- debating the country's political situation. Protesters in Suez -- historically a setting for anti-regime militancy -- have blocked the main highway leading to Cairo and staged a sit-in of their own that has attracted thousands to the town's main square.
Meanwhile, some Egyptians openly grumble about the reappearance of protesters, often within earshot of them. For many, the continued protests prevent Egypt's return to "stability" -- an elusive idea that means a return of the tourists to the pyramids or perhaps extended military rule. They want, in other words, to move on, whether or not the aspirations of the January uprising are achieved.
Some of these naysayers may shrug their shoulders at political change, and some may even be Mubarak supporters. But others may be concerned about their own material conditions, which is understandable given the state of Egypt's economy. Food prices are on the rise, particularly for vegetables and bread. The unemployment rate is officially 11.9 percent; among young people it is 25 percent, which is significant when three-quarters of the population is under the age of 35. A quarter of Egypt's 82 million inhabitants live on less than $2 per day, while gilded, gated communities have bloomed on the outskirts of Cairo.
The uprising has been, in part, an expression of these economic concerns, and the expansion of Egypt's trade-unionist movement is one indicator of that. Workers along the Suez Canal and in Cairo's government ministries have gone on strike, demanding better wages and working conditions despite a ban on labor protests. They have formed an independent, national trade union federation and are pushing for passage of a labor law that protects workers' rights to organize and collectively bargain. But members of the workers' movement are also just as likely to talk about a "redistribution of the nation's wealth."
Even Weal Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive who attracted international attention during the uprising because of his secret detention (and because of his business pedigree, love of liberal democracy, and use of social-networking media that made him a darling of Western pundits), warned -- through a tweet, no less: "Economy must get to our priority list. A real counter revolution could occur if people get insecure and unable to fulfill their basic needs."
But the gulf between preferences for economic reforms by trade unionists and the lumpen working class or political reform by revolutionary youths and liberals might be less stark then several recent polls indicate. "For the great majority of Egyptians political and economic reforms are intimately connected," says Joel Beinin, a Stanford University historian of the Middle East. Beinin argues that efforts at workplace democracy gave rise to the movement that overthrew Mubarak and that the trade-union movement remains a dominant, if woefully overlooked, political force in Egyptian politics.
In a March referendum, 77 percent of Egyptian voters approved as series of constitutional reforms, which included steps for electing a new parliament, president, and a process for drafting a new constitution. Liberal parties have squabbled with this timeline, fearing that it will hand victory to the Muslim Brotherhood, which, despite being officially banned under Mubarak, has developed a robust party apparatus. For their part, the Brotherhood points out that changing the order of the polls means usurping the will of the people, a point that is difficult for liberals to counter.
"The Muslim Brotherhood is playing the long game," Hamid says. "The protesters are playing a short game, which is why they're going to lose. The Brotherhood is thinking years ahead. They are in a very strong position."
Hamid predicts that the Brotherhood and the nascent Salafist parties, which are espousing more explicitly sectarian platforms than any of the Brotherhood factions, will garner at least 30 percent of the parliamentary vote, if not a majority.
The demands emanating from Tahrir Square -- and cities such as Suez -- may indeed be focused primarily on the short term, rather than articulating a clear, unified agenda for governance post-SCAF. But that doesn't mean the massed opposition in Tahrir or elsewhere is blind to upcoming political challenges.
"It's always been the case," Beinin says, "that we are in the middle of a revolutionary process -- and a lot remains unknown. That's the nature of the process."
The revolutionary spirit has once again filled Egyptian public spaces and is bringing a previously unseen amount of pressure to bear on the SCAF and the remnants of the Mubarak regime. But it has as yet to reach a critical mass that might capture, once again, broader public support and force out the ruling click.
Who a year ago, though, would have predicted the fall of Mubarak?
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