Nostalgia for more innocent times is a comforting refuge when hope is scarce. This week, as we inhaled a toxic dose of tear gas in Tahrir Square, we were all gasping for a resurrection of the spirit of the January uprising that led to the spectacular fall of the House of Mubarak. Many Egyptians would give their right arm to relive the spirit of the 18 glorious days that dazzled our collective imagination and filled our hearts with hopes and dreams of a new dawn for young and old.
Those dreams have been assassinated and we know the identity of the assassin.
For nine long months, we have witnessed an undeclared but unrelenting war of attrition against the Egyptian revolution. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) led by Field Marshall Tantawi has executed one of the most brilliant counter-revolutions in modern history. Even if Tantawi were to step aside today, history would have to accord him credit for accomplishing his mission and breaking the spirit of the revolution.
Like any war of attrition, the desired outcome is to vanquish your opponent by exhausting him to the point where you break his will to resist. The day Mubarak fell, it was hard to imagine that the collective will of the Egyptian people could be broken. But in hindsight, it’s clear that the SCAF put together and executed a brilliant blue print for wearing down the exuberance of the Egyptian masses.
On taking command of the ship of state, the SCAF promised to hold power for six months –” just enough time to allow for free and fair elections. By that timeline, which passed unnoticed on August 11, Egypt was supposed to have a new president, a national assembly and a new constitution. That done –” the army was to return to the barracks.
To say that the SCAF broke its promise would be a charitable understatement. The hated emergency laws that were used to enforce the dictates of Mubarak’s regime were briefly rescinded, then reinstated and zealously enforced. Fifteen thousand civilians have since been tried and sentenced before military tribunals. The judges who looked the other way and sanctioned Mubarak’s rigged elections continue to infest the court system. The vast media resources at the disposable of the state remain in the safe hands of the old guard. Censorship is back and every journalist knows that the freshly painted red lines are wider than the old red lines. And, once again, the unrestrained hands of a vengeful police force have been unleashed on peaceful protestors.
At every junction of this nine month odyssey, the military junta has defied the public will. The SCAF insisted on keeping Mubarak’s appointed Prime Minister, Ahmed Sahfiq. Only a show of force by millions of demonstrators managed to convince them to appoint ministers untainted by links to the former dictator. And there was one minister who insisted on keeping his position –” Field Marshall Tantawi –” the 76 year old Minister of Defense, a stalwart Mubarak ally for two decades.
It took concerted public pressure to convince SCAF that Mubarak’s criminal file deserved the attention of law enforcement. When the generals finally conceded to put their old boss and a few of his cronies on trial, they also promised to televise the proceedings. But for unexplained reasons, the cameras were turned off and the trials have been postponed for months at a time on the flimsiest of legal grounds.
At first, it seemed that the generals were simply out of touch with public sentiment and clueless in the art of governing. But with the passage of time, it became evident that they had a deliberate policy of wearing down the revolutionary spirit. Their tactic was to grant concessions only under the duress of mass demonstrations and the predictable result was that the public gradually tired of disruptive million man marches. Simultaneously, the public airwaves, owned and operated by the SCAF, were deployed in a calculated campaign to erode the revolutionary spirit. The talk shows and news programs delivered a not so subtle message that the only fruit of the revolution was economic stagnation and a breakdown in law and order. As part of the effort to undermine the public’s embrace of the uprising, the government media stopped airing the popular video clip music that hailed the sacrifices of the hundreds of young men and women who gave their lives for the revolution.
As if the SCAF needed any reinforcement in their war of attrition against the popular uprising, the political class entered the fray and splintered into sixty odd factions, the largest one being the divisive Muslim Brotherhood which was happy to make back room deals with the generals. A week before the elections, you would be hard pressed to find a single Egyptian who can name ten of the five dozen parties vying for a share of the political spoils.
One of the few tangible gains of the revolution was the public’s right to peacefully assemble and protest. Even that hard won concession has gone with the wind –” first with the slaughter of Coptic demonstrators in Maspiro and now with the lethal show of force in Tahrir.
Today, Egyptians look to Tunisia’s recently elected government with envy. Brutal repression and the loss of thousands of lives have not eroded the spirit of the Arab Spring in Syria and Yemen. The Libyan revolution ended a few weeks ago and Tripoli already has a fully empowered civilian government in place. In both Libya and Tunisia, the military will answer to civilian masters. But in Egypt, under the skillful hands of a military dictatorship that has six decades of experience under its belt, the uprising has been contained, the old guard remains in charge and the revolutionary spirit has floundered.
As an eyewitness to both uprisings, I can testify that there is little of the euphoria or the universal public support that marked the overthrow of Mubarak. Once you exhaust a nation and cheat a people out of dreams as vibrant as the ones Egyptians shared on January 25, it’s hard to revive that revolutionary spirit again. That spirit was the essential fuel that could have propelled a democratic political renaissance, clean government and economic progress. Whether Tantawi stays or goes, he has to take full credit for assassinating Egyptian dreams.