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Egypt's continuing revolution: Scenes of despair and hope

As ballots are counted in Cairo, activists clash with the military in Tahrir Square.

Cairo tahrir square 2011 12 17Enlarge
Egyptian protesters set the ground floor of the building housing the ministry of transport and communications in Cairo on fire during protests on December 17, 2011. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – In the bipolar reality of Egypt’s continuing revolution, there were two scenes in the last 24 hours that captured how this country is racing between despair and hope.

The first was the image of seething violence in a running street battle in Tahrir Square where the death toll has risen to nine. More than 300 have been injured as of midday Saturday. By Saturday, the streets around Tahrir square were carpeted with rocks, broken glass and the wounded bodies of protesters. The crack of gunfire from soldiers echoed. A fire smoldered in a parliamentary building where protesters had thrown Molotov cocktails and set it ablaze. 

The clashes erupted between military police and a group of protesters who fought back when the military employed brutal tactics in breaking up a peaceful sit-in in front of the cabinet offices and then burned the protesters’ small tent community to the ground.

“Look at them! They are thugs and they think they can steal this revolution from us, but they will not succeed,” said Ahmed Wajdy, 30, a financial analyst, standing in Tahrir Square on Friday night. He pointed up to security forces on a roof-top of a 10-storey parliamentary building, throwing rocks and at one point a huge filing cabinet, down onto protesters.

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Dozens of wounded protesters— some with deep gashes in their heads from the rocks thrown by the soldiers— were being rushed from the scene just off Tahrir Square on the backs of motorcycles. Some protesters used corrugated tin ripped from a fence to protect themselves. A few vendors sold plastic construction helmets, and Egyptian protesters with faces concealed by scarves, threw rocks up at the soldiers and into the windows of a parliamentary building. 

Amid the chaos and bloodshed, Wajdy observed, “The military will not give up its power easily. It is the same old Egypt unless we really fight for change.” 

Just hours before, a second image here was a far more hopeful vignette.  Millions of votes were being counted Friday night beneath an enormous tent in  the shadow of the pyramids. Judges were sitting at long tables counting ballots by hand at the end of what was an orderly second phase of the first elections since a protest movement ended the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak. 

At these vote counting centers, there were some reports of soldiers beating party activists trying to get into observe, and a few judges there to officially monitor the vote were caught up in the scuffles. It wasn’t all pretty, but it was seen as one more huge step forward for the country by most voters who stood on long lines to cast their ballots. 

“It’s the first time in my life, I feel my vote counts,” said Fatima Ali, 30, a mother of two young boys with a traditional headscarf who was waiting on a long line in the poor neighborhood of Imbaba on Thursday to cast one of those votes being tallied in Giza. 

“I truly believe this is a new Egypt. And I am proud of that,” she said. 

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So who is right? Is this truly “the same old Egypt,” as Wajdy fears amid the renewed violence? Or is it “a new Egypt,” as Fatima chooses to believe.

And the answer, of course, is that it is both. 

It is hard to find even the most cynical of Middle East analysts who would not concede that the largely non-violent uprisings that toppled Mubarak were a thrilling and historic moment that restored a level of dignity to Egyptians who for too long had lived under the thumb of the U.S.-backed regime of Mubarak.

The elections that took place this month and last in a three-phase process that finishes in January have been marked by a high voter turnout and very few allegations of vote rigging, which were always widespread under Mubarak. 

Based on scores of interviews with voters across Egypt, from the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Mohandessin to the industrial town of Sohag to the rural poverty of Suez, there seems to be a genuine sense that this election was free and fair and that it matters. The new parliament will help give shape to a new constitution and profound change lies ahead. 

But an existential battle lies ahead in defining the role of the military in a new Egypt, where for the last 60 years the vast army with its enormous financial holdings has held the upper hand through the generals who’ve held the presidency. 

Political analysts here agree that there are huge challenges that Egypt will need to confront if it is going to succeed in purging the country of the authoritarian mindset and brutal tactics of the old regime.

An influential civilian advisory council announced it would suspend its operations, and eight of the 30 members announced they were resigning as a rebuke to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for the violence against civilians in Tahrir Square and the judges in the vote counting centers.

One of resigning members, a political scientist named Moataz Billah Abdel Fattah, urged other members to resign as well and wrote on his Facebook page:

“If what’s happening is intentional and planned, then it’s a conspiracy that I will not take part in. And if it wasn’t intentional or planned, then it means that we’re facing broken/disjointed institutions with no knowledge of how to manage crises, and consequently I won’t be able to correct their behavior no matter what I did… Allah is there for you, Egypt.”

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/egypt/111217/tahrir-square-clashes-revolution-cairo