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The day after

Print edition : Mar 11, 2011 T+T-
ANTI-GOVERNMENT PROTESTERS AT Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11.-KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

ANTI-GOVERNMENT PROTESTERS AT Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11.-KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

When the celebrations at Tahrir Square on the night of February 11 died down, the question Egyptians asked themselves was: What next?

IT was a night to remember. Just after sundown on February 11, after the evening prayers had been said, Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman, a long-time regime loyalist whom many called the establishment's torture-in-chief, appeared on state television. Grim and ashen-faced, he read out a historic statement of surrender, remarkable for its brevity and momentous in its impact: President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the office of President of the republic and has charged the high council of the armed forces to administer the affairs of the country.

The statement underscored a huge victory for the great Egyptian uprising, which had begun 18 days earlier with confrontations between a courageous group of protesters, mostly young and idealistic, and the hated state police.

Earlier on that fateful Friday, Mubarak, dictator for 30 years, had left Cairo, vacating his luxurious presidential palace in the upscale Cairo suburb of Heliopolis to occupy yet another palace, in the Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh. In resigning from the presidency, under pressure from a full-blown pro-democracy movement, he had been forced to end an infamous authoritarian era that began when he assumed power in 1981 following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat at a military parade.

Suleiman's words, aired over television for less than 30 seconds, had an electrifying effect. With bottled emotions of anxiety, defiance, fortitude and hope exploding, Tahrir Square in Cairo, by now a well-established icon of the uprising and occupied by hundreds of thousands that day, was set alight. Some fainted with emotion, while others, struggling to grasp that they were participating in a huge transformational moment in Egypt's history, simply wept. Egypt has been reborn, cleansed from within. We are now in control of our destiny, a man said. As the protesters hugged and kissed each other and flashed victory signs, the overwhelming emotion was that of well-deserved pride.

The celebrations at Tahrir Square were a culmination of a movement led by Egypt's tech-savvy and liberal youth. After detailed preparations that lasted many years, they formed the nucleus of a pro-democracy movement that managed to draw Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood as well as liberals of the Wafd party, mostly part of the traditional liberal Egyptian elite, into a movement for fundamental change. The movement was coordinated through the wireless mediums of the Internet, text messaging and mobile phones and, when technology did not work, through word of mouth. They took on the might of the state, withstanding vicious attacks by the state police, state-sponsored militia, and the regime's well-oiled propaganda machinery, which relentlessly demonised the movement as destabilising, terroristic and treasonous.

Mubarak's fall marked a moment of rebirth for Egyptian nationalism, inclusive and proud. Throughout the 18 days of pro-democracy revolt, there were remarkable scenes when human chains of Coptic Christians kept guard when Muslims prayed, the roles reversing every Sunday when the Christians were in prayer. At the end of the day, we are all Egyptians and boundaries of religion do not define either our lives or our society, said Amir, a 27-year-old Coptic Christian, at the square. Throughout the night, the crowds waved Egyptian flags while a joyous roar drowned sounds of firecrackers.

The celebrations were preceded by a day of tumultuous developments. Protesters, piqued by the previous night's address by Mubarak, who announced that he was not immediately stepping down, decided, for the first time since the January 25 revolt began, to target the President directly by marching boldly towards the military-encircled presidential palace. A stand-off with the military commenced there, but with Mubarak's exit from the presidency, it ended in bonhomie. Soldiers shook hands with protesters and even pasted on a nearby tank pictures of those who had fallen during the uprising.

Protesters had also gathered in large numbers in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, outside yet another palace belonging to Mubarak. In Cairo, several hundred people, along the stately Nile corniche, surrounded the state television building, from where Mubarak's convoluted Thursday address had been broadcast. Disregarding the extra layers of razor wire and heavy military presence, the protesters successfully blocked access to the building.

The celebrations notwithstanding, as the night wore on, the mood in Tahrir Square turned from euphoria into one of circumspection. Many felt that the pro-democracy movement was incomplete because the entire regime had not gone. As one man, part of Egypt's cyber-active brigade, put it: The dictator is gone but the dictatorship has not. There was also much anxiety about the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which was now running the state, in the transition to democracy.

Next morning, as daylight lit up the square, liberated for the first time in 30 years from the dark shadow of the Mubarak era, the debate on the future of what had been billed as the January 25 revolution well and truly commenced. It raged around one crucial issue now that Mubarak was gone, should the pro-democracy agitation be de-escalated or should it be stepped up, perhaps with new tactics, until the time the entire regime collapsed and from its debris a new democratic system emerged?

Wael Ghonim, the cyber activist from Google whose electrifying presence at Tahrir Square after his release from custody went a long way in perking up the uprising, suggested that the protesters should go home and engage in nation-building. Posted on his Twitter account was the message: Dear Egyptians, Go back to your work on Sunday (the first working day in the Arab world), work like never before and help Egypt become a developed country.

But in cyberspace, which has emerged as a parallel domain where the future of the revolution was being energetically debated, Ghonim's tweeted advocacy was soon to face considerable flak. Hossam el-Hamalavy, a Cairo-based socialist journalist and blogger, also a pro-democracy leader, counter-tweeted to say: Each time he [Ghonim] tweets, I get even more furious with this guy. Here he wants the strikes to end, though the job isn't finished yet!!

Another blogger, drawing an analogy with the statement by George Bush, the former President of the United States, when he prematurely declared that the Iraq war had been won, observed: The Mission Accomplished' people on Twitter, you are gravely mistaken. By asking the people to trust Mubarak's Generals you are digging our graves. Calling for an escalation of protests, Hamalavy observed in an interview posted on the website Znet that the higher echelons of the military, now in charge of steering Egypt's political transition, cannot simply be trusted. While we have great respect for the young officers and soldiers with us at Tahrir Square who refused to fire at us, we know that the Generals are not our friends, he observed.

The young blogger's conviction that the military top brass, still paternalistic and rigid, was simply not intellectually equipped to usher in modern bottom-up democracy in Egypt, is also borne out by some of the cables released by the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks. One of the cables, released in March 2008, described Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the Defence Minister and the man now heading the governing Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as being opposed both (to) economic and political reforms that he perceives as eroding central government power. The cable tellingly adds: He [General Tantawi] and Mubarak are focussed on regime stability and maintaining the status quo through the end of their time. They simply do not have the energy, inclination or world view to do anything differently.

Many of those who want to deepen the pro-democracy campaign say that otherwise they will be hounded by the state. Egypt's emergency laws, which have provided the legal underpinnings, however dubious, for arbitrary arrests, torture and other gross human rights violations, can still be used against them, and therefore these laws have to be urgently dismantled. The call for a comprehensive purge within the ranks of the infamous state security apparatus, which served as a reliable tool of the Mubarak regime to crush dissent, can also not be postponed. Egypt's Parliament, occupied by those who are beneficiaries of astoundingly brazen rigging during the recent elections, must also be dissolved. Besides, the opposition is also demanding that the archaic Constitution be abolished and rewritten. The voices demand that the plutocrats, the products of crony capitalism and entrenched nepotism, be brought to book.

Some of the demands of the protesters seemed to be fulfilled on February 13 when the military's Supreme Council suspended the Constitution, dissolved Parliament and set a six-month timeline for holding fresh parliamentary and presidential elections.

However, the military's announcement was short on detail, suggesting that some authoritarian elements of the Mubarak era were yet to be dissolved. For instance, several pro-democracy figures, including Mohamed ElBaradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief, have demanded the abolishment of the existing Constitution and its replacement with a fresh document that better reflects the country's democratic aspirations. But instead of calling for a new constitution, the military's statement on Sunday said that a committee was being appointed which would amend the Constitution and then work out the rules to seek approval for them directly through a popular referendum.

Within hours of the military communiqu, opposition leader Ayman Nour called for the formation and involvement of a judicial panel that would help draft a temporary constitution to run the country and a second committee to draft a new permanent constitution.

The military's announcement also fell short of meeting two other equally important opposition demands. First, the communiqu avoided any reference to the opposition's demand for the formation of an interim government that should include a significant civilian component of opposition figures for steering Egypt's democratic transition. In its statement, the military said that the caretaker Cabinet, which was appointed by Mubarak, would assume operational control.

While the jury is still out on whether the military, built on the Nasserite tradition of political interventionism, is interested in, or indeed capable of, responding to the popular aspirations for democracy, Egypt's revolutionary youth is unlikely to wait too long. A hard core of Egypt's young brigade is well organised and has already shown that it is able to mobilise the country's long-suffering working class, professional groups, and the brightest of the intelligentsia.

Since 2006, waves of industrial strikes, beginning with textile workers in the Nile delta city of Mahalla, have been organised. The torture and death in custody in June 2010 of Khalid Said, a university student in Alexandria, was another benchmark that quickly ignited a youth movement determined to free Egypt from the Mubarak regime. During the uprising, professional groups such as lawyers and doctors, distinguished by their black robes and white coats, were regular visitors to Tahrir Square.

Faced with a critical mass calling for fundamental change, the generals in the Egyptian Army have now to make a choice. They can either abide by the call for democracy that is ringing loud and clear across Egypt or enter into a risky phase of confrontation with a well-developed mass movement.

In case they prove obstructionist, the generals could risk the survival of the Egyptian military in its present form. Escalating tensions between the military and the pro-democracy movement are likely to expose and deepen the existing horizontal divide between the conscripted lower ranks, which has on several occasions demonstrated its empathy for the uprising, and the military top brass, representative of the Egyptian old guard.