Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.
CAIRO — When I first met Mahmoud El-Hetta, just weeks after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, there was an air of optimism about him. His excitement was almost tangible as he walked into a downtown Cairo café just a block from Tahrir Square, clad in a t-shirt bearing a cartoon image of the Egyptian revolution’s spiritual leader Mohamed El-Baradei in his trademark glasses.
The streets of downtown were filled with the same enthusiasm, as a plethora of Egyptian flags wove above people energetically voicing their hopes for the days ahead. Hetta was among the first group of youths who believed in the revolution; he was a member of the National Association for Change, founded in 2010 by El-Baradei, who was perhaps the only public figure to predict a popular uprising.
Baradei’s threat to run for the presidency a year before the revolution, an effort to invigorate political activism, was considered foolish by a mostly apathetic population at the time. But Hetta and thousands, if not millions, of other young people believed in El-Baradei’s vision and took the world by surprise when they peacefully toppled their dictator in a matter of weeks.
Today, Hetta walks into the same café with a much more grounded demeanor, his optimism transformed into sober determination. Now the streets of downtown are speckled with military officers, guiding traffic and setting up checkpoints to implement martial law, decreed by the ruling military earlier this month and quickly struck down by an Egyptian court.
Recent political events in Egypt — the lenient verdict on ousted President Hosni Mubarak, his family and top regime members, the declaration of martial law, the dissolving of parliament, and amendments to the Constitutional Declaration that amplified the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ power — have made it clear to remaining skeptics that what happened in 2011 was not a revolution after all and is slowly revealing itself to be a military coup.
But Hetta does not believe that Egypt will go back to its days of dictatorship, at least not for too long. The youth, Hetta says, have come to understand the true meaning of change and will not rest until a truly civilian government is established. Although he cites flaws in the leadership of revolutionary figures and movements, Hetta holds on to hope that they have learned from the past.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' aggressive consolidation of power in recent weeks and the election of a “non-revolutionary” candidate, Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohamed Morsi, as president means “the opposition will be built anew on more collaborative grounds,” Hetta says. “They now know that they cannot move forward in their current state.”
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Throughout the past sixteen months, SCAF has waged gruesome battles against the revolutionaries. Mostafa El-Naggar, a democracy activist and member of the dissolved parliament, suggests that SCAF has been fighting for its power “with all of its might, and will never exit from the scene completely.”
Along the way, the Brotherhood has often served as a compliant partner. Since the fall of Mubarak, an estimated 12,000 individuals, predominately political and humanitarian activists, have been held under military detention. In the fall and winter months, SCAF took on a far more aggressive role. Hundreds were killed in protests throughout the year. They were trampled by military tanks, shot from above by snipers, suffocated with tear gas (the tear gas was manufactured in the US), blinded by rubber bullets and dragged through the streets. Young soccer fans, known for their political activism, were killed attending a match before the eyes of millions of viewers.
In etching a path toward cementing its supreme rule, SCAF has taken advantage of the Brotherhood as both a socially influential group and an elected legislative power. It was with the Brotherhood's help that SCAF convinced the population to delay drafting a new constitution, a decision proved highly detrimental to the transition process. It was again with the assistance of the group that SCAF detained and violently silenced revolutionaries, who both national media and parliament deemed as thugs. The voices of the revolution were often drowned out by the traditional powers.
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Many revolutionaries are fatigued by the many battles they have lost. One long-time activist, Shady Sayed, has recently left the April Sixth Movement, known for its opposition role years before the revolution. “That’s it, the revolution is over,” he shrugged as the second day of elections came to a close. He held little optimism at Morsi’s victory, citing the Brotherhood’s record in collaborating with the Mubarak regime and SCAF as a likely indication of the president’s future performance.
Among most recent protests, a march opposing the judicial decision to effectively dissolve parliament, made just days before the presidential elections, had a relatively dismal turnout.
Laila Soueif, the mother of former military detainee Alaa Abdel Fattah and a symbol of the fight against military rule, marched in frustration. “We would have needed at least a million demonstrators to stop the elections from going forward,” she said. “Clearly that didn’t happen.” Soueif ended up voting for Morsi and hoped for his victory because “he would be a weaker leader and that would give the opposition room to move.”
However, Abdelrahman Mansour, the young man who ignited the revolution with his call for protests on January 25, remains effusively optimistic. “The revolutionaries are tired,” he said, “but the wall of silence has been destroyed and cannot be rebuilt — we will come back with new strategies and methods of organization.”
Mansour envisions the real revolution taking place over the next few years, as the opposition strengthens itself to challenge both the old regime and the Brotherhood.
“Both of these organizations are old and experienced,” said Mansour, “but they are weak. They have no strong, binding ideology and their actions are often inconsistent.”
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A former Brotherhood member, Mansour left the group before the revolution because of the leadership’s failure to accommodate viewpoints of younger members and out of opposition to the behind-the-scenes deals brokered with the Mubarak regime, often primarily for the personal benefit of the group’s leadership.
In the days ahead, the revolutionaries will be crucial to the Brotherhood. Out of principle, and despite their resentment towards the organization, young activists will likely use their street power to pressure SCAF into properly distributing powers. If their calls are successful, the subsequent actions of the Brotherhood will be crucial.
The Islamist group has already lost a great deal of its popularity for its failure to bring real change and for its unprincipled, and often hypocritical, stances. If the Brotherhood's leadership continues to act out of pure self-interest, it will jeopardize the already meager potential of the group as a long-term political actor in the country.
Although many revolutionaries are embittered by the country’s current political state, the fact remains that Egypt today is not what it was two years ago. The Egyptian people have toppled a pharaoh; they have prevented inheritance of the presidency and elected a new leader through relatively fair elections. Citizens now realize that politics have a fundamental impact on their daily lives, and that apathy is not an option. They are now fully aware of their rights and are not willing to give them up.
The military regime and the Brotherhood are decades-old establishments, dominated by the voice of an older generation and old modes of thinking — their glory years likely lay in the past. In the years to come, politically empowered youth across the country will rise in experience and influence, rendering the change that they seek simply a matter of time.
For more of GlobalPost's coverage of the revolution in Egypt, check out our Special Report "Egypt Votes."