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Freedoms conceded

Jan 24 2012 07:42 Reuters

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Cairo - A few dozen activists huddle around tents on a grubby traffic island in Cairo's Tahrir Square, a forlorn reminder of the revolutionary ardour that ended Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.

A year on, the revolution youth activists spearheaded appears to have stalled as the military rulers who replaced Mubarak seem to be exploiting opposition splits and popular fears of chaos to shore up their power and limit the scope of change.

Many Egyptians admire the youthful fervour of the revolutionaries but oppose their implacable hostility to the military caretakers, who have pledged to step aside by mid-year and hand power to elected civilians.

In a nod of approval to the army's transition timetable, voters have thronged polls for Egypt's first free parliamentary vote in decades and elected an assembly dominated by Islamists.

Their victory is a huge change in itself. Egyptians speak more freely a year on, their daily protests evidence both of newfound liberties and hope that people can make a difference.

For activists, however, the revolution will be incomplete as long as the army remains in power. Too little has changed, they say, to end a street movement demanding deeper, broader, faster reform. New campaigns have been born, such as 3askar Kaziboon, or Military Liars, in which activists roam the streets showing videos of protesters wounded since the end of the 18-day revolt.

"The more time has passed the more people have become convinced that the regime has not changed... They decapitated the regime so that the people would calm down, convinced that change has happened when it has not," said Amal Bakry of the No To Military Trials pressure group set up after the revolt. "It's still present in its ministers, its government, in everything."

Kamal al-Ganzouri, the generals' choice for prime minister, led the cabinet under Mubarak in the 1990s.

Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the general who is now Egypt's ruler, was Mubarak's defence minister for two decades. A leaked US embassy cable said officers called him Mubarak's "poodle".

An emergency law in force since 1981 remains. The generals say it is necessary to keep order, but activists say it allows them to ride roughshod over civil liberties as Mubarak once did.

No To Military Trials estimates 12 000 people have been referred to military courts since Mubarak fell, four times the number who faced that fate during his 30-year tenure, when state security courts were the venue of choice for emergency trials.

Some were jailed for their criticism of the military council and now speak of a campaign to crush the pro-democracy movement.

Sipping tea at a cafe in an upscale district of Cairo, Bakry said her group struggled at first to convince Egyptians that the army was trying to block real democratic change.

The army was feted for pushing Mubarak aside last February and ensuring order when his hated state security forces fled the streets, but its handling of street protests in recent months has appeared at times to take a leaf out of Mubarak's book.

In October, at least 25 people were killed near the state media building in Cairo. Protesters say military police drove vehicles into a crowd of protesters and fired live shots. The army blamed foreign elements and other instigators. Watching state media, some Egyptians thought the army had been attacked.

"People were not emotionally ready to face the truth," Bakry said. "They did not want to admit that the revolution had been defeated and... that the army, so highly regarded among the people, was doing all these things.”

Transition to civilian rule

Egyptians willing to give the army the benefit of the doubt went out to vote for parliament from November 28 and found they could cast their ballots for the first time without fear of intimidation from thugs or finding ballot boxes already stuffed.

The new assembly, which held its first sitting on Monday, is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood - officially banned from politics under Mubarak.

Egyptians speak more freely since the revolt, they can and do protest more freely despite repeated crackdowns and they have set up a dizzying number of political parties in recent months.

There has been an increase in what activist Mozn Hassan, head of Nazra for Feminist Studies, calls "active citizenship".

"It could fail, it could be stolen but there are spaces and subjects open now that you could not discuss in 2010," she said.

"Whether you like what happened or not, there has been an experience with political parties now."

But critics question how much say new deputies will have in drafting the new constitution or naming the government. Under the latest timetable, there will be a two-month window from the end of parliamentary elections in March to presidential polls in June in which to name a 100-member body to draft the document, agree on its contents and put it to a referendum.

To those who have campaigned for years for an empowered parliament and for the rule of law, it seems the generals are railroading the reform process. The army says it will not field a presidential candidate, but activists worry it will back its preferred choice via state media, with others unable to compete.

Veteran activist and politician Ayman Nour told Reuters the army was conceding control of parliament to politicians while trying to keep its grip over the powerful presidency.

"They see it as them giving parliament to political forces, or Islamic forces, while they keep their right to a president who belongs to them," he said. "They want a person to whom they can give instructions, who guarantees loyalty to them."

Disappointed by what they see as the superficial reforms of the army-led transition, candidates have quit the presidential race. Mohammed ElBaradei, former head of the UN nuclear agency, withdrew, complaining too little had changed. So has Nour, the only man to ever challenge Mubarak to the presidency.

Since the uprising, Nour has failed to overturn a Mubarak-era conviction on charges of falsifying party registration documents that bars him from the presidential race. Critics complain that Egypt's judiciary is still filled with Mubarak-era appointees who resist change. Mubarak-era laws remain in place.

"I warned from Tahrir Square of the danger of leaving responsibility in the hands of the army, and I said clearly that I fear the military beret and the religious turban," Nour said.

"The counter-revolution is managing Egypt now."

One year on

Egypt's most powerful Islamist force, the Muslim Brotherhood, has largely kept its followers off the streets to focus on winning elections, consolidating its power inside parliament and working through the institutions of state.

Egyptians, tired of political turbulence that has hit the economy and keen to restore normality, say it is time to end protests and give the newly-elected parliament a chance.

Despondent at the Brotherhood's position, street activists want to wrest back the initiative and are urging mass protests against the generals on the January 25 anniversary of the uprising.

With marches, wall art and videos of wounded protesters, activists are trying to revive the euphoria that swept the Arab world in 2011 for fear that creeping fatalism among their compatriots could allow Egypt to return to authoritarian rule.

"I am against protesting on January 25. Military rule will be meaningless after the parliamentary and presidential election; you are rushing something that if you wait will come on its own," said 30-year-old Ahmed Farouq, an optician who, like some two-thirds of Egyptians, voted for Islamists.

"Ordinary citizens want to calm down and achieve stability."

The army has declared January 25 a public holiday to celebrate, part of what critics say is an effort to appropriate what the revolution stands for and limit calls for change. It appears to have stepped up Mubarak-era scrutiny of civil society groups.

In December, Egyptian authorities swooped on some 17 non-governmental groups, part of a probe into what they say are illegal foreign funds for political activities.

Nazra was not raided but has faced a smear campaign.

"They said I was an American agent!" said Hassan, slumping her head on the desk in mock shame. "Our funding delays worsened after the revolution. It was hard anyway but it worsened."

The April 6 Youth Movement, one of the army's most prominent critics, has been labelled a foreign-funded agency doing the bidding of unnamed outsiders. Its members say they are regularly attacked by "concerned citizens" who think they are spies.

Many campaigners say the real revolution has not happened in the government but in the Egyptian people, who have found more courage to stand up for their rights.

"The real change is in the people who acted, people like me who had never been to a protest in my life before January 28 last year... Now there are thousands, hundreds of thousands who are willing to be part of this change," said Bakry.

Hassan agreed: "Uprisings are 18 days, protests are 18 days, but if you want use the word revolution in a difficult society like Egypt's... you are talking 10 years." 

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