For more than two weeks Tahrir Square in central Cairo was the focal point of the Egyptian revolution, a sacred place where swelling crowds of protesters overturned three decades of government efforts to divide the Egyptian people.
Again and again, protesters at Tahrir spoke of the feelings of unity and brotherhood, of pride restored in being Egyptian and Arab. A simple set of demands – the dictator Hosni Mubarak out, fair elections, a reformed constitution and a rejection of fights over ideology – saw tens of thousands of previously apolitical Egyptians join hands with the country’s small core of long-standing reformers.
Now, just five days since Mubarak was forced to step down, the rank-and-file among protesters have deserted Tahrir and bickering has broken out among protest leaders.
'Divide and conquer' strategy?
Critics say Egypt's military, which took direct control of the country for what it insists will be a maximum of six months before restoring civilian rule, is seeking to exploit the divisions.
The head of the Egyptian military, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Tuesday appointed a council to reform the Constitution with limited input from the broad coalition that led the first stage of the revolution.
There have also been indications that he and other military officials are favoring some groups over others in an attempt to break apart a broad front that viewed Mubarak’s removal as a first step, not an end point.
“One thing I don’t really like is that the Supreme Military Council has not tried to speak to the parties or to movements that drove this phenomenon,” says Wael Nawara, a spokesman for the Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, whose leader Ayman Nour was imprisoned after he sought to run for president against Mubarak in 2005.
“They’ve singled out a few young people to talk to, they’re from the people’s movement, but there are a lot of others that need to be included,” he says. “The military should not try to revive the old tactic of divide and conquer.”
Among those young people was Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim, whose online activism helped kick off the protests on Jan. 25 and who briefly emerged as the face of the movement after he was secretly detained by the Mubarak regime for over a week during the height of the protests.
But Mr. Ghonim is politically inexperienced, having been involved in activism for less than a year. His own political leanings are as yet unclear.
The Ghad Party is a member of the National Association for Change, an umbrella group of reformers that coalesced around former UN nuclear watchdog boss Mohamed ElBaradei a year ago, and Mr. Nawara says the absence of real outreach to the group by the military is worrying.
Other activists say they’re worried the Muslim Brotherhood, a group outlawed under Mubarak but officially tolerated as a sort of fig-leaf opposition, will cut deals with the military regime behind the backs of other reformers. “They’ve done that sort of thing before,” charges one leftist activist who helped organize recent protests. “Before the 2005 elections, there were signs they were negotiating with the regime to take an ‘acceptable’ level of parliamentary seats.”
Yesterday, the military named Tariq al-Bishri – a judge respected for his independence, yet who is also close to the Muslim Brotherhood – to head the constitutional reform committee. Other members of the committee appear to be legal figures very close to the Mubarak regime and his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
“The appointment of Sobhi Saleh, a former Brotherhood MP in Alexandria, to the same committee has sent an even more worrying message: that the Army is drafting the [Muslim Brotherhood] to help calm down the national euphoria by giving the group a privileged position in amending the Constitution,” writes political analyst Issandr El Amrani for Al-Masry Al-Youm.
He argues the move “will revive longstanding perceptions of a symbiotic relationship between the regime and [the Brotherhood] at the expense of public interest.”
And today, a spokesman for the new constitutional committee said that a full overhaul of the Constitution, a key demand of Egypt’s democracy activists, is not in the works. Ismail Etman told Al-Hayat TV in a statement that a handful of articles will be simply amended, and urged public protests to cease.
Nawara, spokesman for the opposition Ghad party, says he sees signs that the process of constitutional reform is being dangerously separated from politics.
“Changing the Constitution doesn’t require a committee, it requires a a national dialogue – people need to talk about the nature of the state they want: A strong presidency? Is there going to be proportional representation in Parliament? The role of religion, and so on,” he says.
“This dialogue needs to take place in the press, in the parties, and down to the grass roots. Then after some months a consensus will emerge. This isn’t a matter for appointed committees to decide. It’s a matter for the people to decide.”
Dim prospects for Friday protest
Less than a day after Mubarak’s removal, with the raucous party in downtown Cairo starting to wind down and thousands of protesters volunteering to pick up trash, take down barricades, and repaint curbs before heading home, men were grabbing microphones and delivering political bromides.
The unity that brought together Christians and Muslims without acrimony, and men and women without the sexual harassment usually endemic in large mixed crowds, appeared to fray. Islamist activists who appeared to be from the Muslim Brotherhood were demanding that men be separated from women in the crowds gathered to hear celebratory concerts on the makeshift stages around the square.
And the rank-and-file protesters were starting to drift away.
Sameh Sabri, a burly bank worker who’d joined the protests, explained why he was helping with the cleanup. “We didn’t own this space – none of this was ours before,” he said, gesturing at the square. “It is now. But it’s time to head home and give the military a chance. We can always come back if we have to.”
The view of Mr. Sabri and many others like him dim the prospects of a mass demonstration called for this Friday at Tahrir to remind the military that political reform must move forward.
(This story was edited after posting to correct the name of the Ghad Party spokesman to Wael Nawara.)