Revolution 2.0: Fulfilling Egypt’s democratic promise

Anti-government protestors shout slogans and wave flags from a broken advertisement board as they take part in demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir square on Nov. 25, 2011.

CAIRO, Egypt — As attention turns to the parliamentary elections in Egypt, the struggle continues between the popular democratic movement in the streets and a ruling military council that seems unwilling to relinquish power to civilian rule.

This past Friday I participated in a huge pro-democracy rally in Tahrir Square. The demonstration was completely peaceful and much larger than those we witnessed earlier in the week. The huge throng filled the entire square and was reminiscent of the historic mass mobilizations in February that brought down the Mubarak dictatorship.

The rally was announced as a "million man march" and had the backing of a broad cross section of Egyptian activist groups, from liberal secularists to conservative Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood did not support the march, although many of its youth members joined the crowd. The rally had a positive and hopeful spirit, in sharp contrast to the earlier violent clashes.

More from GlobalPost: The roots of Egypt's rage

Smaller pro-democracy protests were held on Saturday in Alexandria, Suez and other cities. A pro-military rally of approximately 15,000 people was organized in Cairo’s Abassiya neighborhood, but it was much smaller than the demonstration in Tahrir Square.

The atmosphere in the square on Friday was almost festive. We saw families with children, vendors selling food and drinks, and everywhere the red, white and black stripes of the Egyptian flag, face-painted on children, and thanks to a group of laughing teenagers, also painted on our hands. It was a diverse crowd, young and old, women and men, middle class and the very poor. We were welcomed and greeted warmly by many.

More from GlobalPost: Military trials threaten Egypt's democracy

The crowd was friendly but determined in its commitment to fulfill the promise of the revolution. There were no speeches but constant chanting from groups throughout the square, all with a similar message: Military rule must end.

“How long will you stay in the square?” we asked a young woman. “Until the generals leave power,” she replied.

“The military should defend the nation not rule it,” said one of the many hand-written posters. An older man explained that the generals who took charge in February have lost their legitimacy and must step aside in favor of civilian democratic government.

The current wave of protests, which some have dubbed Revolution 2.0, began a week ago on Saturday, Nov. 19. On that day military police used force to disperse a small rally and encampment in the square led by injured veterans and families of victims from the January to February revolution. The protesters had gathered to demand compensation for the victims and prosecution of those responsible for killing and injuring hundreds of unarmed protestors in the first wave of the revolution. They also criticized increasingly blatant efforts by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to maintain permanent political power and exempt itself from civilian democratic control.

The assault on the 19th touched off several days of violent clashes in the square between protestors and security forces. Instead of forcing people away and clearing the square, the military attacks had the opposite effect. They stirred tens of thousands of people to come to the square to defend those being attacked. Growing numbers of people joined a swelling chorus calling for the military regime to step aside and allow a rapid transition to full democracy.

As the crowds grew larger each day, the attacks by security forces intensified. Near the Ministry of Interior building just off the square the scene resembled a war zone. Security forces and pro-military thugs fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition into crowds of rock-throwing youth, some of whom retaliated with Molotov cocktails. More than 40 people died in the clashes, and some three thousand were injured, according to official figures. In response to the military attacks the civilian cabinet resigned en masse, refusing to serve any longer under military control.

Where the revolution goes from here is uncertain. The military council is digging in its heels and refuses to step down. It has appointed a new civilian Prime Minister, Kamal el-Ganzouri, a Mubarak-era apparatchik, but it refuses to accept a genuinely independent civilian leadership.

The revolutionary movement has been reawakened by the events of the past week, and it is unlikely to relent until the military steps aside in favor of a fully empowered civilian interim government — one that can shepherd the country through the parliamentary elections that are beginning this week, the constitution-writing process that will follow, and the presidential elections that all hope will complete the democratic transition and bring to power Egypt’s first popularly elected civilian leader.

David Cortright is the director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and has just returned from Egypt where he spent a week meeting and interviewing pro-democracy activists