In the weeks since President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign, on February 11, the same coalition that led the uprising in Tahrir Square has frequently and vigorously taken action to continue the Egyptian revolution. Labor federations, student movements, women’s organizations and new liberal-leaning Islamist youth groups have forced out Mubarak’s allies at television networks and newspapers, shuttered the hated State Security and police ministries, confiscated police files on dissidents, triggered more cabinet resignations and pursued indictments against perpetrators of police brutality, state corruption and religious bigotry. They have established new political parties, fended off attempts to circumscribe women’s rights, expanded the millions-strong independent labor federation, reclaimed university administrations and staged the first truly free elections for university councils, professional syndicates and labor unions in Egypt’s modern history. Mubarak is under arrest in a hospital; his sons languish in Tora prison (Cairo’s Bastille); and a dozen oligarchs have had their assets seized. And yet, most of the Western press seems not to have noticed these political achievements and social struggles.
Instead, the New York Times and Western commentators at Al Jazeera have asked “Is the ‘Arab Spring’ losing its spring?” and “Could Egypt’s revolution be stolen?” Hillary Clinton warned that the revolution could end up a mere “mirage in the desert.” The Western press dwelled on the results of the March 19 referendum—in which 77 percent of voters approved a set of hastily written constitutional amendments—to conclude that an old guard alliance of the army and the Muslim Brotherhood had come together to turn back the people’s revolution. Prepared largely in secrecy by a committee of army officers and a judge attached to the Muslim Brotherhood, these amendments set the stage for parliamentary elections in September and presidential elections in November. But they did not suspend the emergency decree or limit the overwhelming power of the presidency, as much as opponents had hoped.
It’s true that the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of Mubarak’s NDP supported the amendments while liberal, leftist and Christian organizations lobbied against them. But the result can’t be read as a signal that three-quarters of the Egyptian people intend to vote for Islamist parties or that they support elements within the army still linked to the Mubarak regime. As Egyptian youth organizer and author Amr Abdelrahman said, “Some within the army misinterpreted the ‘yes’ vote on the referendum as a vote against protesters and for the army, rather than as a vote celebrating both groups at the same time.” In other words, Egyptians were motivated to vote yes for democracy, yes to launch a newly open political system and yes to thank the army for protecting the people from violence.
Indeed, soon after the referendum, public opinion turned strongly and quickly against the tentative alliance between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Public protests soared to levels not seen since February 11. Tens of thousands demonstrated and held sit-ins on university campuses; thousands of farmers in the rural south rose up to organize against the repressive tactics of the military council; and even the people of Sharm el-Sheikh (the Red Sea beach resort and location of Mubarak’s exile villa) took to the streets to insist that the army hold former regime leaders accountable for their crimes. There was ample evidence of internal dissent within the armed forces, and key youth and liberal leaders within the Brotherhood began talking of moving in new directions. This post-referendum crisis reopened veins of conflict, but in a good way, pressuring the army to identify with—not against—the revolutionary youth.
That was most clear on April 8 during a huge protest called the Day of Cleansing, which united tens of thousands of women, students and religious groups in Tahrir Square. Demonstrators were enraged that the army had drafted a draconian new law that banned protests and strikes. Rather than lifting the state of emergency, the army seemed to be refortifying it, and there were signs that it was trying to back away from prosecuting Mubarak, his family and his former ministers for corruption, torture and abuse of power. As Gen. Mohamed al-Assar of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said on April 11, “Officials can be investigated for financial crimes, but political crimes and corruption are not penalized by current Egyptian law so former officials cannot be charged in those ways.”