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One year ago, just before Egypt’s President Mubarak was toppled, protesters called the military to their side: The side of history. Hundreds of thousands chanted, “The army. The people. One hand.” The army was seen, then, as heroic. But now many fear the mighty Egyptian military with its vast economic resources will not relinquish power — that it has betrayed the revolution.
An architect of Egypt's uprising tries to change the system from the inside.
GIZA, Egypt – Framed against the great pyramids of Giza with a half-moon on the rise, a phalanx of Egyptian Army soldiers with three armored vehicles guarded the entrance to the vote counting center here.
This was the face of the Egyptian Army as protectorate of the country in its first elections in Egypt since the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak. It was dusk and the soldiers seemed to be doing a good job keeping order.
But by nightfall on December 16th, just a few miles away in Tahrir Square, the army was engaged in its brutal and deadly crackdown on protesters, revealing what many feel is the true face of the old regime.
Before the violence erupted, Mohammed Abbas, a burly, working-class 26-year-old printer, was monitoring the vote counting center in the last light of a long day in Egypt’s election process. He sat in a brown aviator jacket under a long blue tent with rows of tables with glass ballot boxes from which judges were pulling the ballots and counting them by hand.
A member of the Revolutionary Youth Council during the 18 days of protests that ended Mubarak’s 30-year reign, Abbas was now a political candidate and he was here to see how his small party had fared in a run-off for a contested seat.
“[The military wants] to be not ‘one hand,’ but the upper hand.”~Mohammed Abbas
As the last round of voting for the lower house of parliament comes to a close this week, Abbas’ one-year odyssey from Tahrir Square to the ballot box has been extraordinary. His journey reveals the enormous challenges and high stakes that lie ahead in Egypt, the mounting frustration with the role of the military and of religion and ultimately perhaps a sense of hope tempered by an awareness that building a democracy will not be easy.
I have gotten to know Abbas through the last year and I was there alongside him in Tahrir Square one year ago, the night before Mubarak stepped down, when he famously took the stage and shouted a challenge to the military and to the crowd of more than 200,000 gathered there.
“The army has to choose between the regime and the Egyptian people,” Abbas shouted to the crowd in the cold February night.
Then he led a chant that seemed to galvanize the crowd: “The army! The people! One hand!”
The words thundered in Tahrir Square and the strategy of forcing the military to choose sides appeared to work. The next day Mubarak stepped down and his 30-year reign was over. Almost immediately, Abbas began to emerge as a face of the Revolutionary Youth Council and whispers of hope started to form around him and other young leaders as the next generation of parliamentarians.
Now nearly a year later, here was Abbas bathed in the blue glow of the tent and the string of bright lights under which the vote counting was taking place. He wore a clean, white sweater under his jacket, and I asked him about that famous chant, “The army. The people. One hand…”
I wanted to know how he felt about the army now that it had repeatedly shown willingness to use lethal force against the protest movement.
Abbas said, “They want the old system and the old regime. They want to be not ‘one hand,’ but the upper hand.”
He said this with something of a sarcastic smile, but also with the pride of a young political candidate who just landed a very nice sound bite for a reporter. There was a sense that he was starting to get the game of politics.
On this night, he was waiting for the final tally for the small party he helped to start, known as the Egyptian Current Party. Abbas was forced out of the Muslin Brotherhood for founding the party, which seeks to have faith inform the shape of a new government and ultimately a new constitution but not control it. It opposes the implementation of Islamic law in Egypt and supports a more just approach to economic development.
Abbas himself was slated to be a candidate in the January 3 round of voting in the district of Banha, north of Cairo, but on this evening he was anxiously waiting for word on how Egyptian Current fared in this seat in Giza.
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