Opinion Columns & Blogs

Cairo’s Spring gives way to November chill

The massive crowds of rebellious youths have long since left Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which is jammed again with honking cars and trucks stuck in endless gridlock.

Egypt’s revolution is stuck in gridlock, too, trapped by a standoff between seculars and Islamists. The Egyptian military is worsening the tensions.

Why have things gone so wrong? I asked three leaders of the Tahrir revolt — whom I had interviewed during the heady days of the Arab Spring.

Their answers, and their stories, illustrate how much has already changed in Egypt — and the difficulty of predicting how the revolution will end.

Surgeon Shadi el-Ghazali Harb, 32, raced home from London when the Tahrir Square revolt began. He soon became the head of a liberal youth group and one of the coordinators of the demonstrations. In February, as we sat in a Cairo cafe frequented by political activists, he insisted that liberals and social democrats must join one big coalition to “fight back the Muslim Brotherhood” at the polls.

Ghazali Harb told me he intended to run for parliament on that coalition ticket. He also said his biggest fear was that a new constitution would fail to remove Article II, the 1980 proviso that makes the principles of Islam “the source” of legislation.

Last week the doctor-activist said he had decided not to run, because he believed the military would still retain the real power after forthcoming elections.

The new parliament is supposed to choose a committee that will write a new constitution. But the military fears that the Islamists will win a majority and will remove the constitutional provisions that guarantee the military’s power. So the generals are trying to promulgate rules that ensure the new parliament will be toothless — and that civilians can’t control the military’s power or budget.

Mohammed Abbas, 26, a business administration graduate of Cairo University, was one of the young Muslim Brothers who defied his elders by joining the Tahrir revolt and working closely with liberals and leftists. In February he told me the Muslim Brotherhood was too resistant to change. Later that spring, the group expelled him and about 50 other young activists from the movement.

This was clearly painful for Abbas. However, he has moved on. I interviewed him in the offices of his new political party, al-Tayyar (the Current), part of a coalition that represents the spirit of Tahrir Square. “We found a third way between secular and Islamists,” he said. His coalition includes leftists, social democrats and religious youths. But he fears that the values of Tahrir are being dissipated because of the clash between seculars and Islamists.

Hossam Bahgat, the dynamic executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told me in April that the Tahrir experience had taught Egyptians how to change their own lives. Last week he told me, “It’s like a different planet and a different era since April.”

His gloom is fed by the military’s arrest of prominent bloggers and the strong re-emergence of the secret police, which is intimidating media and civil society organizations. It also is sending thousands of Egyptians to military trials.

He believes the only way to tame the Islamists is through elections that pull them into the system. Suppressing them, he says, will only re-create the tensions that led to revolution.

I fear he’s right.