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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.
sons and daughters'
As the long hours of vote counting grew tedious, Abbas fielded frantic texts on his phone that indicated the situation was deteriorating in Tahrir. He and several friends in the party began reaching out to the network of protesters, trying to get a read on the ongoing clashes in the square.
His own path in this revolution, treading a perilous line between street protests and the promise of new elections, was unfolding right here in this tent on this night.
Abbas hails from a family that relied on the Muslim Brotherhood for health clinics, kindergartens and moral support in the days when poor districts of Cairo, like his native Imbaba, were neglected by the regime.
He is an only son and his father died young from simple hepatitis which went neglected under a failing health care system. Left to take care of his mother and sisters by working in a printing shop, his status as an only son and primary provider for his family allowed him to avoid military service, which is mandatory in Egypt.
And so Abbas went solidly into the revolution as a member of the Brotherhood and eventually as one of its representatives in the Revolutionary Youth Council. Like most Egyptians he respected the role the military played in the heady days of protest, holding a line between the protesters and the regime. Ultimately Abbas, like the majority of the protest movement, accepted the military’s promise to become the guarantors of a transition of power from Mubarak to a newly elected civilian government.
On this night that transition of military power was very much hanging in the air with a great deal of uncertainty. For Abbas, it came down to a lack of trust.
“We were relying on the army. They took our side. We thought they’d never turn on us. But I stopped using the slogan, “The army, the people,” on April 8 when I saw the army shooting and killing their own sons and daughters,” says Abbas, a grave look sweeping over his face and the smile of a candidate gone.
Watch Many Egyptians Fear Military Is Becoming New Face of Old Regime on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.
Abbas adds that he feels betrayed not only by the army, but also by the Muslim Brotherhood and its powerful new Freedom and Justice Party, which won 40 percent of the seats in the first two rounds of voting. In its race for political power, the Muslim Brotherhood has simply grown too close to the military, Abbas believes.
“I didn’t leave the Brotherhood, they left me,” he says, adding that he feels the Brotherhood has not used its rising political clout enough to challenge the brutality of the military, particularly in November and December when it seemed the military had spun out of control as it killed scores of protesters.
'Freedom to choose'
Eventually the news from Tahrir escalated further. Abbas abruptly left, heading out of the warm glow of the tent and the buzz of the vote counting into the gathering darkness and toward the streets of Tahrir. As he left, I spoke with Major General Rageh Ahmed, who was in full uniform and seated alongside a high court judge at the head table in the tent overseeing the vote counting.
“We are both here to guarantee this election,” he said, smiling to the judge.
I asked him about the rising violence in Tahrir and the sense that the military was reacting with excessive force. He looked stern and surprised by the question and gave an answer that was as confusing as it was revealing.
“The military was the same before the revolution as it is now and it will be the same in the future,” Major General Ahmed said.
It would turn out to be a night of horrific violence in Tahrir Square. Abbas’ fellow protester, Emad Effat — known in Tahrir simply as “the Imam” because he held a degree from the prestigious theological institute Al Azhar — was killed by the army. When I saw Abbas the following day his determination to challenge the military, both politically and in the streets, was more firm than ever.
On Jan. 3, Abbas faced his own election for one of four seats in Banha, the main constituency in Qalioubeya governorate. He ran as an Egyptian Current Party member under the Continuing Revolution Bloc. But the effort failed. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party took two of the seats. Al Nour, the party of the more puritanical Salafist wing of Islamists, won one seat. And the traditionally liberal Al Wafd Party won the remaining seat.
Despite the political defeat, Abbas said he recognizes that his party’s middle-of-the-road message of trying to balance religious faith and progressive politics is not being heard in the tumult of Cairo’s first election since the end of the Mubarak era. Still Abbas says he is determined to continue his and the party’s efforts.
“We are looking to further establish our party, we will invest the popularity we gained during this election, we will continue to run for the municipal departments which is as important as the parliament but on the community level,” he said.
That night in the tent in Giza, I asked Abbas if he has hope for the future in Egypt and how he feels about being part of a long and seemingly difficult process of Egypt’s move toward democracy. He said he hoped the military would “stop standing in the way” of so many young people like himself who he says put everything on the line to build a new Egypt. But, in the end of the day, he said, “I am proud of this revolution. And, yes, I am hopeful.”
He added, “We now have freedom to choose, and that is the diamond of our revolution.”
(Charles M. Sennott is GlobalPost's Executive Editor and co-founder. His reporting in Egypt is part of a 'Special Report' titled "The Army, The People ...," which is examining the role of the military in Egypt's continuing revolution.)
GlobalPost correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed reporting for this article.