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Egypt's Unfinished Revolution: Revisiting Tahrir Square

A return to Cairo as Egypt begins the daunting work of building a new nation.

Abbas returned to Tahrir Square one afternoon in early July wearing a crisp white shirt and old shoes with a cracked sole. He stepped onto the barren patch of grass at the center of the traffic circle and approached the large canvas tent of the secular April 6 Movement activists, with their signature black t-shirts that depict a white fist of protest. He saw old friends and wrapped his burly frame in a hug around these hipsters. They were the cosmopolitan youths who used Facebook and Twitter to bring people to the streets back in January. But Abbas was not on Facebook. He represented the working class muscle that the Muslim Brotherhood could command. But now as Abbas walks through the square, he feels the movement that was once unified is now adrift.

His own relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood has soured. Over the summer, after we spoke, The Daily News Egypt reported the Muslim Brotherhood had expelled Abbas for joining a rival party. During our conversations, Abbas, 26, told me he was impatient with the slow pace of reform and the toll that six months of revolution has taken on the protesters and the whole country.

"All sides are saying the same. The military has let us down," he said. "We trusted them to lead and they have not done it."


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The tenuous bond between the ruling military council and the protest movement now seems broken. In late June the Egyptian police were scrambling to reassert authority. The country's former Interior Minister, Habib el-Adly, was arrested and has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption. But many other officials have not been charged and there is a growing concern in the protest movement that the military will ignore grievances over corruption and brutality.

Without the military's commitment to accountability for past abuses and misrule, the protest movement fears Egypt transformation to democracy will stall. The military is in many ways the last institution standing. Gone is the once-powerful National Democratic Party that Mubarak and his son led. The charred carcass of the party's headquarters, burned by protesters, lies just off the square.

The army remains strong even if its relationship with the protest movement and the liberal parties has become uneasy. It has been pulled closer to the Muslim Brotherhood, a political alliance that is baffling to many outside observers but makes sense to Egyptians. Although the Brotherhood was outlawed as a political party for decades, it was a part of the landscape, controlling unions, establishing health clinics and schools particularly in poor areas. Since the toppling of Mubarak, the Brotherhood's leadership has been careful not to criticize the military and sought to establish itself as part of the mainstream.

The Muslim Brotherhood's new Freedom and Justice party seems positioned to do well in the parliamentary elections. Some observers estimate the party will win 30 percent of the total of 508 seats. Meanwhile, more hardline religious movements are gaining strength. A rally in Tahrir Square in the end of July that brought many tens of thousands of supporters was viewed as an extraordinary showing of support for several new political parties aligned with the puritanical Salafist stream of Islam. They include members of the once-outlawed al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, or The Islamic Group.

Al-Gama'a al-Islamiya was once led by the blind Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who is now serving a life sentence in a U.S. federal prison for his role in inspiring the 1993 plot to blow up the World Trade Center. In the early 1990s, the organization was crushed through harsh tactics by the Mubarak regime. But Gama Islamiya has now formed a political party with Rahman's sons as one of its most visible leaders. Some expect the three most prominent parties that make up the Salafist block could win as much as 10 percent of the parliamentary seats.

The date for elections has been postponed before, but military officials have said they are expected to take place in November. The military will provide security, but the judiciary will be in charge of supervising the election and counting the votes. The parliamentary vote will be followed by a presidential election that is likely to be held at some point early next year.

Over the objections of some of its reformist members, the Muslim Brotherhood has said it would not field a candidate for president.

Today, the protest movement faces looming questions about the role of religion in politics and about whether it will try to challenge the military to be more progressive. Its power to influence the military is unclear. Many in the protest movement worry that the "January 25 Revolution" was in fact not a revolution at all, but in effect a military coup sanctioned by the protesters. In Egypt, observers say there is a silent majority that supports the control of the military and is tired of the protesters and the protests in downtown.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, said that he believes the liberal and leftist groups that took part in the demonstrations have "lost touch" with the Egyptian people. He said they have alienated a vast majority that is anxious for the return of tourists and business as usual. Egypt's multibillion dollar tourism industry is particularly hard hit.



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Hamid said the liberal opposition has not presented any effort to address concerns about the economy, explaining, "They've failed to develop a long term strategy beyond Tahrir Square. Where is the organized development of new parties? Where is the community outreach in poor neighborhoods and agricultural areas? People care a lot about the economy and what's going to happen to them. The liberal and leftist groups have become detached from the bread and butter issues."