Five months after the mass uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian people’s struggle for democracy has more or less disappeared from the Western media. But for many Egyptians, this remains an unfinished revolution.
On Friday 8 July, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets across the country. Several thousand people are still taking part in open-ended sit-ins in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, refusing to leave until the Egyptian government meets their demands. The protesters are frustrated with the slow pace of change and the interim government’s failure to clean out elements of the old regime.
The uprising has borne some fruit, with the arrest and the ongoing trials of former regime officials including Mubarak’s sons, increased freedom of expression and the freedom to form political parties. Nonetheless, there is a widespread sense of apprehension among many of Egypt’s youth that their revolution has been hijacked.
Since Mubarak was forced to step down in February, Egypt has been under de facto military rule by the Supreme Council Armed Forces (SCAF). The Council is composed of 20 generals, some of whom were closely allied with Mubarak.
The SCAF is overseeing the transition to civilian rule. Last March, the Council held a referendum to decide which should come first, a parliament or a constitution. Egypt’s Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, ran an effective scare campaign arguing that a constitution vote is a vote for "instability". On the other hand, the liberal and secular forces argued that a constitution should be drafted first in order to guard against any restrictions of basic freedoms that could be imposed by political parties with conservative agendas such as the Islamists.
Ultimately that argument was lost and parliamentary elections were originally set for September, after which a constitution will be drafted for the approval of the new Parliament, followed by presidential elections in December.
The SCAF has been slow to respond to the demands of the people.
Chief among these is a public trial of Mubarak for corruption charges and for his role in ordering the killing of protestors. He has been charged with several offences, but is yet to appear in front of a court and remains in a hospital in the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh. Egypt’s wealthy Gulf neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia, are exerting considerable pressure behind the scenes for Mubarak not to be tried. While keeping a neutral stand publicly, it is rumored that they have threatened to cut off aid and withdraw investments, which would be a double blow to Egypt’s already faltering economy.
Another unfulfilled demand is the trial of police officers involved in the killing of more than 900 Egyptians (and wounding of thousands of others) during the revolution. On 28 June, an event in Cairo was held to honour the families of the deceased, where they demanded justice and retribution for their relatives. The event turned into a bloody confrontation when the families clashed with police forces in down town Cairo, with police subjecting the families to the Mubarak-era techniques of tear gas and rubber bullets. Indeed some cynical activists have commented that instead of one Mubarak, Egypt now has 20.
In addition to popular frustration with the SCAF, there is also growing friction between different political factions. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest organised opposition group, is the clearest winner of the uprising so far. After years of being suppressed by the regime, the Brotherhood is now able to campaign freely as a political party and have opened glitzy new headquarters in Cairo, as well as offices in most of Egypt’s governorates.
The ultra-conservative Salafists have also seen a resurgence in post-Mubarak Egypt. In a marriage of Islamist convenience, the Salafists are now loosely allied with the Brotherhood.
Holding parliamentary elections in September doesn’t give people the time to organise formal political parties, making it more likely that the Brotherhood and the Salafists will be able to win a majority of seats. Should this happen, they will quite possibly dominate the future course of Egypt, as the next parliament will be tasked with approving the new constitution. This possibility is unsettling for secular Egyptians, as well as Egypt’s Christian minority.
With the SCAF initially insisting that the elections will not be postponed, the possibility of an Islamist-controlled parliament has become a reality. Ironically, the Brotherhood, suppressed by the Mubarak regime for so long, is now colluding with the SCAF in order to institutionalise its gains from the revolution.
It is for all these reasons that the people have taken to the streets again, with some protesters taking an increasingly confrontational stance against the SCAF. In the current wave of protests, several activists blocked a key road from Cairo to the Suez Canal, as well as barring entry to a large government complex in Tahrir Square in the capital. Some of the more militant activists are calling for a nationwide civil disobedience campaign, should the demands not be met.
Since the 8 July protests, the SCAF has begun to give in, albeit slowly, to the people’s demands.
The Interior Ministry has announced the early retirement of 600 high-ranking police officers. It also announced that rather than suspending 60 junior officers accused of killing protesters during the uprising, they are to be transferred to desk jobs pending the outcome of their trials.
The SCAF have also announced that the September parliamentary election date is for "registration", effectively meaning that the actual elections will be held in October or November.
Prime Minister Sharaf has also announced a cabinet reshuffle, expunging all Mubarak-era ministers, as well as those deemed unacceptable to the protestors. The key ministries of Interior, Defense and Justice remain unchanged.
To many Egyptians, it is now increasingly obvious that the Tahrir protests do actually work, and it is now up to the 20 Generals of the SCAF to listen more closely and to act upon the demands of the people.
Should they choose not to, they might enter in a confrontation with the youth of the uprising, with both sides having much to lose should that occur. Expect to hear more about the Egyptian uprising over the next few months, as the people attempt to take control back of their revolution.
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