Eyewitness: Cairo

Ricky Ghosh reports from Cairo on Egypt's post-revolutionary stagnation

My friend Ahmed is a well-educated and urbane publisher, (just) middle-aged and middle class. In January, he used his body and his Twitter account to help bring down a corrupt despot. Crossing a busy street in downtown Cairo, I somehow avoid an overloaded donkey cart, then an accelerating 4x4 with tinted windows, as he impatiently waves me over.

Ten months after the first demonstrations started in Tahrir Square, Cairo has settled into an uneasy calm. The demonstrators in "Freedom Square" have been cleared out, and Mubarak is on trial. The friendliness of the protestors towards the army, sharing food and even kisses, was a remarkable feature of the revolution, and the same army is now in charge. So why does Ahmed shake his head, declaring sadly: "We've failed"?

Rising instability has bred a climate of suspicion and fear - an Egyptian friend says the "security vacuum" is the worst she's ever seen. In October, in the worst violence since the revolution, a peaceful march of Coptic Christians was brutally suppressed in Maspiro Square, leaving at least 26 dead and hundreds wounded. According to witnesses, the demonstrators were fired upon without provocation by the army. State TV has been accused of provoking the violence by urging Muslims to "defend the army" from the Christian protestors.

That attack is just the latest in a series of violent disturbances involving the military. In September, they stood aside and allowed angry crowds to storm the Israeli embassy. Female protestors have been arrested, beaten, given electric shocks and forced to undergo "virginity tests" at the military's hands. Gangs of paid thugs have been driven around in army trucks after attacking activists. Bloggers who criticise the SCAF regime, or even the pace of change, have been thrown in army jails, without trial.

Moreover, the coalition of Tahrir, between urban, liberal elites and generally poor Islamists looks frayed. There have been bitter public arguments over the future constitution and over the influence sharia law should have. An Islamist victory, feared by the west and the Egyptian elite alike, is the most likely outcome in the parliamentary elections at the end of November.

The police still act with impunity. In a recent case, two officers dragged a young man out of a cybercafé and publicly assaulted him, before torturing him to death. When they were found guilty, despite their incredibly lenient sentences, their supporters attacked the victim's lawyers in the courtroom. Last week, Mubarak's party, the NDP, won a court decision allowing their candidates to stand in the elections, despite having been ordered to disband after the revolution.

The army has ruled Egypt for 60 years and has, again, avoided change by dividing the political opposition and channelling public debate into a false choice between freedom and stability. While I still hope that Ahmed will be smiling this time next year, I'm not optimistic. The ubiquitous slogan of the revolution - "the army and the people are one hand" - which was so popular in the heady days of spring, today rings with painful irony.

Comments