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Egypt Revolution: With Mubarak Gone And Elections Underway, Protesters Face Bloody Crossroads

First Posted: 12/28/11 09:56 AM ET Updated: 12/31/11 09:23 AM ET

CAIRO -- On a mild afternoon in mid November, a little more than a week before Egypt was due to begin voting in its first democratic election since the fall of president Hosni Mubarak, a boy in a black beret paced atop a police van.

"Salmiya, salmiya" -- peacefully, peacefully -- young demonstrators in Tahrir Square's nervous crowd urged the boy. The van's windows were already smashed in, its body bearing marks of the crowd's frustration. In the early hours of the day, the police had broken up a small tent city in the square, beating sleeping protesters with batons. Police control of the square was short-lived. Their retreat left behind the police van, but protesters worried the boy would incite another attack.

Throughout the early days of the revolution in February, salmiya had been a slogan of sorts, a way to both reinforce -- and perhaps project -- an aura of nonviolence upon the uprising. It wasn't always enough then, and wasn't on this day. In the distance, up Mohamed Mahmoud Street, flanks of riot gear-clad police could be seen moving in. Tear gas began to fill the square again.

People ran screaming in all directions.

Back at the van, one of the protesters raised his fist in the air over the crowd, joining the boy. "Mish salmiya!" he yelled: not peacefully.

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Nine months after the fall of Mubarak, the Egyptian revolution has found itself at a bloody crossroads. The elections that began in late November are ongoing, but even before the first ballot had been cast, revolutionaries were already questioning the vote's legitimacy. In the eyes of many of them, the interim military council that took over for Mubarak, and had promised to steward the nation through its transition to democracy, was an outright failure. The Egyptians in Tahrir Square in February had put their faith in the military, by many measures the most popular institution in the country. "The people and the Army are one hand" -- eid wahda in Arabic -- the revolutionaries said at the time.

Now, they are frustrated and despairing. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), as the military's leadership committee is known, has continued many of the most vile abuses of the Mubarak era: killing demonstrators, detaining bloggers without trial, and reportedly subjecting female protesters to gruesome "virginity tests," which they defended as the only way to prevent women from claiming they had been raped in detention. Around Tahrir Square, revolutionaries argued over the best way to move the revolution forward: participate in a flawed and potentially bankrupt election process, or stay on the street and fight?

If the failure of the interim regime to bring about an orderly transition wasn't already evident, it became so in mid-December as the military attacked protesters who had been camped outside Parliament for weeks. Using batons, electric prods, and sheets of glass thrown from the tops of buildings, military policemen swarmed the streets, lashing out at anyone in their path. One widely viewed amateur video shot during those clashes showed soldiers dragging a female protester down the street, ripping off her abaya to reveal her bare stomach and blue bra. A masked security officer then stomps on her chest. Protesters, for their part, fought back, throwing rocks, Molotov cocktails, and even unleashing fireworks at the security officials.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to the crackdown with her strongest remarks yet, calling it "shocking" and a "disgrace," while at the same time urging the protesters to "refrain from acts of violence." In a controversial essay, Steven A. Cook, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations who recently returned from Cairo, wrote that the fighting, particularly on the part of civilians, had produced a "warped, demented, bizarro version of Tahrir Square."

"The country has retreated from the moment of empowerment and national dignity that the uprising symbolized and is now grappling with a squalid politics and the normalization of violence," Cook wrote. "What is perhaps most disturbing is that the weekend's battle, which left 10 dead and hundreds injured, didn't seem to have a point."

Egyptians, too -- including some of the most influential revolutionary activists -- worried that the spike in violence, and the protesters' continued participation in it, might be a step backward for the revolution. "Of course I'm concerned about it," said one leading activist, asking that he not be identified, amid the clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November.

Even before the recent resumption of fighting, the protracted sit-ins and demonstrations that had periodically commandeered Tahrir Square since the fall of Mubarak -- and that were blamed for everything from a steep drop off in tourism to increased traffic -- were perceived less and less favorably by the general public. Polls taken by Gallup over the summer showed that between 80 and 90 percent of the country viewed continued protests as "a bad thing."

But contrary to Cook's claim, and the presumptions of many others, protesters say the turn toward violence this fall wasn't without purpose -- indeed, it wasn't really even much of a turn. "When people talk about the great peaceful revolution, they forget about Jan. 28, when people burned more than 100 police stations," said Karim Medhat Ennarah, a 28-year-old activist and human rights worker with the Egyptian Institute for Personal Rights.

Even the frequent use of the term salmiya understated just how often the original revolution was conducted gruffly, even violently: For every suspected informant for the police who was ejected peacefully from Tahrir, there were many others who were detained in urine-stained cells underneath it, or in the commandeered offices of a travel agency, where they were slapped, interrogated, and paraded for visiting journalists.

Indeed, one of the most significant days of the revolution came several days into a Tahrir sit-in in February when Mubarak supporters stormed the square on camels. The spectacle of the fighters on camelback stole much of the media spotlight, but the 20 hours of fighting by the protesters that followed was a turning point in the revolution: Had the protesters not employed violence to hold the square, the uprising might have been over.

Eleven thousand people were wounded during the initial uprising that overthrew Mubarak, and at least 800 were killed. As Ennarah and others like him see it, the violence is an inescapable reaction to a brutal regime whose vestiges have yet to be eradicated.

"You have to remember that the revolution fundamentally was a revolution against the police state," said Hani Shukrallah, the 71-year-old editor of Egypt's Al Ahram Weekly, whose son has been a regular in Tahrir. "And now it's become a kind of vendetta, also: 'You've killed a thousand of us in January and February, you continue to kill, and we are not going to allow this to happen anymore.'"

It can be difficult to comprehend, from an outside vantage point, the depths of the humiliation and dehumanization that Egyptians of all classes were subjected to on a regular basis under Mubarak -- and the amount of anger that has engendered. To people like Ennarah and Shukrallah, the revolution was never just a battle for economic justice or political rights, it was a struggle for human dignity.

"I think at the heart of it, we're all motivated by one thing, which is anger and the refusal of state brutality," Ennarah said. "It manifests itself in different ways for different people, so while I may be able to translate it into political demands, many other people may not be able to express them -- or they are much more oppressed than I am, or they have much less to lose. ... I'm not calling for violence, but I'm saying it's very natural."

The same activist who had confided that he was worried about violence sapping support for the revolution also told me a story. It was Jan. 25, the first day of widespread clashes in Cairo between protesters and the security forces, and the activist found himself on one of the bridges separating Tahrir Square, in downtown, from an island in the Nile called Zamalek. Police in riot gear had arrived to block the protesters from reaching the square.

"I remember being one of the last people to finally give up and leave the bridge," said the activist, who is by nature a soft-spoken intellectual. "Until the end I was standing there, just staring at the police in their riot gear, pointing their weapons at us, and forcing us to do what they wanted us to do. And I remember thinking, 'If I could, I would kill them all.'"

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For the revolutionary politicians who had spent months preparing for a chance to participate in democratic elections, the spike in violence in November was more than a little inconvenient. One day, while the fighting was ongoing, I paid a visit to Ahmed Naguib, a revolutionary youth leader who was a long-shot candidate for a seat in Parliament. Back in February, Naguib had been a ground organizer in Tahrir, a de facto leader and spokesman by virtue of his boundless energy and perfect English. But as we sat drinking tea in a stairwell of a building where Naguib was meeting with local newscasters, the frustrations of the faltering political process seemed to have defeated him.

"This is all our fault," Naguib said, slumped against the railing. "We left the square too early, and now 30 people are dead. It's very hard to run for office and have a revolution at the same time."

A few days later, Naguib quit his race. "To hell with the elections," he said. "To hell with all of it."

The choice may have been obvious for Naguib, but it was not easy -- especially for the more developed liberal political parties. Throughout the fighting in Tahrir, the conservative Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party, by far the most established of the post-Mubarak political forces, declined to halt its campaigning. The Brotherhood, which long ago renounced its terrorist activities, had continued to function underground during Mubarak's time, building up a massive, loyal following among Islamists who opposed the secular nature of the regime. Despite its anti-Mubarak impulses, the party had played little overt role in the leader's overthrow, and now stood to gain the most from a successful election -- indeed, in the first rounds it would go on to take the largest share of the vote, more than 40 percent.

This left liberal, secular parties with a dreary choice: turn their back on the youth fighting in the streets, or sacrifice the elections to the Muslim Brotherhood and other more established parties that are composed of remnants of the old regime and that don't much care for grassroots action.

"We are in a real dilemma," said Raied Salama, a political adviser to Egypt's newly formed Social Democratic Party, a few days before the vote. "If we are not in the elections and the Muslim Brotherhood is, then the Parliament will be theirs, and it will be the end of the democratic process that we are going through. On the other hand, if we do this, we cannot satisfy the people in the street."

The SDP eventually decided to stay in the race, but some of the staff said they were in conflicted over the choice. "I feel like Tahrir is one thing, and all the political parties are something else," said Hala Mostafa, one of the party's spokesmen. "Personally, I am with Tahrir. I say it all the time."

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