CAIRO — Egypt's activists can point to the moment their revolution began to go astray: It was the day of their greatest victory, when protesters ecstatic with the fall of President Hosni Mubarak cheered the army that stepped in to take his place.
They chanted: "The army and the people are one hand."
In the nine months since, the ruling generals – all Mubarak appointees and die-hards of his rule – have kept an iron grip on a process that revolutionaries had hoped would dismantle the old regime in a transition to democracy. The military has solidified its hold, giving itself overwhelming powers, while governance of the country has faltered, leaving Egyptians worried about turmoil in the streets and a failing economy.
The youth groups that engineered the 18-day uprising against Mubarak that began Jan. 25 have been squeezed out, marginalized and isolated.
"We should not have left the streets. We handed power to the military on a silver platter," said Ahmed Imam, a 33-year-old activist. "The revolutionaries went home too soon. We collected the spoils and left before the battle was over."
Months of anger over the military's handling of the transition period boiled over this weekend, sparking clashes in Cairo's central Tahrir Square that left more than 20 protesters dead and hundreds wounded.
The demonstrators were initially demanding the military quickly announce a date for the handover of power to a civilian government, but the mood shifted Sunday after an attempt by security forces to clear the square. Now, protesters say the generals are nothing more than an extension of the Mubarak regime, and they are calling on military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his council of generals to step down in favor of an interim civilian administration.
Elections that begin Nov. 28 to choose the first post-revolution parliament promise to be the nation's first fair and clean vote in living memory. But instead of a sense of joy and excitement, Egyptians seem more confused. The electoral system is cumbersome and complex, and voting is spread out over months. Many are unclear over who is running.
Islamic fundamentalist parties – particularly the powerful Muslim Brotherhood – are expected to be the biggest winners, getting most of the seats in parliament. But no matter who wins, there are doubts whether the next government will be strong enough to challenge the generals, who will remain in place and have resisted major reform.
Already, the military is seeking to manage the parliament's main priority: the formation of a panel to write a new constitution. The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – the generals' command body – has demanded a political role for itself as "protector" of the constitution, a veto power over the body drafting the document, and provisions that would keep the military budget secret.
When a president is elected – a vote initially set for late next year or early 2013 – the winner is likely to be beholden to the generals, either because he will have a military background or because they may have more sweeping powers.
"If I had left Egypt on the eve of the revolution on Jan. 24 and returned today, I would not have known that a revolution had taken place except for the lack of security and the deteriorating economy," Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent reform proponent, said during a TV talk show appearance last week.
It's a stark contrast to what happened in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began with protests that led to the Jan. 14 fall of longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Elections there in October saw an outpouring of enthusiasm and optimism. Islamists emerged as the strongest party, but even liberals who worry about the increasing sway of the clergy saw the vote as a democratic victory.
Significantly, Tunisia's military played almost no role in the transition, fading into the background as a civilian interim government managed the country. Political parties and reformers had a voice in the system through the 150-member High Committee to Realize the Goals of the Revolution, which acted as a quasi-legislative body. Authority was clearly centered with civilians that the public was free to challenge and criticize.
In Egypt, the civilian government has been little more than "secretaries" for the generals' council, as ElBaradei put it. The council has been secretive, issuing sometimes cryptic decrees, cracking down on critics and seeking to discredit groups behind the uprising and turn the public against them by depicting them as "foreign-run." The generals have put at least 12,000 civilians on trial before military tribunals and have been accused of torturing detainees.
The military's prestige was dealt a heavy blow by clashes during a Coptic Christian protest on Oct. 9 in which 27 people died, most of them Christians. Video showed soldiers mowing down demonstrators with armored vehicles. The military tried to deny its troops opened fire or intentionally ran over protesters, blaming the violence on Christians and "hidden hands."
Moreover, the generals have decided to enforce Mubarak's deeply hated emergency laws, dragged their feet or failed to dismantle some of the regime's darkest aspects. They allowed the detested state security agency, blamed for the worst abuses under the deposed leader, to retain most of its officers after dissolving and renaming it or resisting calls to bar members of Mubarak's ruling party from public office.
"They have grown hostile toward us and their rhetoric is always full of references to foreign conspiracy, paranoia and xenophobia. I think they are convinced that Egyptians are not qualified for democracy," said rights activist Hossam Bahgat.
Liberals have debated where they went wrong, with some saying they should have kept up the movement in the streets. Protests have continued since Mubarak's fall, but on a much smaller scale. They have forced the military to back down on some of its actions, but, in general, political movements have struggled to unite on an agenda for the protests – with the Muslim Brotherhood in particular largely staying away except on the occasional issue that rouses its leadership. Some of the liberals' rallies have been hit hard by military crackdowns.
"Simply put, the revolutionaries did not know their own points of strength and weakness at the key moment when the president stepped down," said Negad Borai, a rights lawyer and activist. "They were not up to that historic moment."
Other activists believe the revolutionaries failed to channel their popular appeal into strong political parties. The refusal by many of the revolutionaries to sit down and talk with the generals, they say, distanced them from decision-making.
"Their uncompromising rejection of the military and their isolation from the street have turned them into something of an Internet elite," said Mustafa el-Naggar, a prominent activist and co-founder of a political party, el-Adl, or Justice.
Still, some revolutionaries are optimistic. They argue that the generals were likely to fail to revive the economy or restore law and order to the streets. The failures, they argue, will force them to return to their barracks eventually and allow a democratic process led by civilians or else face a new popular backlash.
The military's biggest fear appears to be falling under civilian authority. Since the 1952 coup that overthrew the monarchy, Egypt's four presidents have come from the military, allowing it to build up an unquestioned state-within-a-state, with major business interests and political power. So have many provincial governors and heads of major and strategic facilities such as seaports and airports.
Egypt's increased economic hardships and the tenuous security have driven many to wonder whether the revolution was a good thing after all. Crime rates have hit highs not seen in years, sectarian violence has risen, and the police – who vanished from the streets 10 months ago in circumstances not fully explained – have yet to fully take them back. All of this has helped the military depict itself as the nation's savior.
It's a far cry from the idealism of a revolution staged by a people long disparaged as apathetic.
During the heady days of the uprising, protesters dreamed of democracy in an Egypt rid of authoritarian rule that for decades repressed freedoms, rigged elections and turned a blind eye to torture and corruption. In Tahrir Square, the activists' notion of sectarian harmony, diversity and self-reliance was put in practice.
"Every one of us saw the Egypt we wanted right there in the square," says activist Ahmed Ghamrawy. "My best moments came when I saw protesters picking up trash, distributing food or saying 'sorry' when they bump into you."
Prominent columnist Bilal Fadl says the revolution succeeded in bringing the masses "into the political equation for the first time," but then failed to keep that bond.
"The biggest mistake of the revolution is that it has failed to communicate with the street," Fadl said.