Egypt's Popular Putsch

Egypt's Popular Putsch

In 1952 Egypt had a coup, which turned into a permanent revolution. Now Egypt has had a revolution that has turned into a coup. So goes a quip doing the rounds in Cairo. It is a line that sits nicely with the refrain heard in the West about Egypt a year after millions of protesters drove Hosni Mubarak from his pharonic throne of power. With the Egyptian military in charge, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the emergence of the once-hidden Salafists and the fragmentation of the broad-based liberal-minded alliance that pushed the Egyptian strongman from power, there is plenty of sand if not grist for the pessimists' mill.

Echoing the change in mood, in an interview with The Times the British Foreign Secretary William Hague predicted that the Middle East would face "a lot of problems and even convulsions" in years to come. The BBC reporter I ran into on my last visit to Cairo six months ago, was clear he thinks the British government was naïve when it backed the upheavals. Knowingly, he suggests the Foreign Secretary "may finally be listening to SIS." Having pronounced on the matter, the BBC's star reporter returned to his Blackberry. Perhaps he is right.

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But then you would not expect the Secret Intelligence Service to say anything else, would you? Their job is to look for dangers not hopes. And what should the government have done differently? Taken to the airways and said the protesters should back off? Or that their revolution would bring more danger than freedom?

As I drove through Cairo in late summer 2011, my car edged past throngs of Salafists who had been bussed into the centre of the city to show that they too could have a say in Egypt's future. That day, the Takbīr -- Allāhu Akbar -- rang through the world-famous Tahrir Square. The multi-coloured image that dominated the 18-day revolution earlier in the year - where a million protesters wore jeans, t-shirts and bandanas - were on that day six months ago replaced by a monochrome picture. Nearly all the Salafists had donned plain white-washed garments not unlike those worn during the pilgrimage to Mecca. They lit up the square. If one ever needed an image of the transformation of a liberal spring into a summer of Islamism, one needed not look further.

Yet this view is too simple, too neat an image. For it is too early to write off Egypt's revolution. Egypt has been fundamentally changed in the last year. A country where people never talked about politics - because there was no point - has come alive with debate. In cafes, aboard the large ships that are moored on the Nile, on TV and in newspapers every issue is being argued over, debated and debunked. People who previously lived in the shadow of Mubarak's state have emerged, seeing each other - and themselves - for the first time. The light, in a sense, has come on. What people see is both good and bad.

Tahrir Square, the iconic centre of the revolution and a must-see destination for European politicians, had been re-occupied by protesters unhappy with the pace of change in Egypt. Hoping to revive the spirit that shook the country at the start of 2011, they argued long into the night. Like Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park -- but with fewer gimlet-eyed fanatics - people gather around speakers, listen to arguments or just hang out, comfortable in the sense of solidarity and hopefulness that the place still emits. Here they felt free.

It is this outburst of debate, a hallmark of a free society, that will be difficult to temper and impossible to stop. It may move from the pavement to the newly elected parliament. But it will not easily disappear - even, if Islamists forge a de facto, case-by-case alliance the new legislature. For once you have seen something, turning off the light again does make you forget what you have already seen. Egyptians, subjects for 5000 years, have now become citizens.

But at the same time, the British Foreign Secretary is on to something. The easy part is over, especially for the liberals. The re-occupation of Tahrir Square six months after the ouster of President Mubarak turned out to be a strategic blunder by a frustrated and increasingly fragmented set of liberals who could not but revert to using the one tool they know has worked before - direct pressure - rather than join forces across divides and build up an election-wining party or set of parties. In his ramshackle office a mile away from Tahrir Square, one protester is clear that going back to the square is the right thing to do. "Only pressure works", he told me while we sipped tea. The weekend before I arrived in Cairo, a group of protesters depart the reoccupied Tahrir Square for the Ministry of Defence, where the military junta, the SCAF, is headquartered. They are met by rent-mob reminiscent of the thugs that attacked Tahrir Square on the Charge of the Camels, the regime's last stance.

Daniel Korski is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.


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