Armed Forces Day

10/10/2011 04:37 pm ET | Updated Dec 10, 2011

Even if you could not see the military jets flying over Cairo on October 6th, you could hear them. Throughout the day, in nearly every part of the city, the air would fill intermittently with a loud passing roar, as if a single sound effect from a war film had been plucked out and played everywhere.

If you stood in the right place, you could see six or eight F-16's in a tight formation leaving behind them streaks of red, white, and a third color. I assumed the third stripe would be black, completing the color set of the Egyptian flag, but to the naked eye it really looked more like blue. On Twitter, comments proliferated suggesting that the colors represented the billion dollars plus of American military aid still being given.

On the first Armed Forces day since the revolution, the sound of the jets laid out in the open the tension that has defined the revolution's immediate legacy. Mubarak is gone. On that front, the protest movements have succeeded. But since early February, Egypt has been run by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), usually collapsed into the single figure of Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, the de facto head of state. The Emergency Law, one of the main grievances of the anti-Mubarak movements, has been reinstated for months. When I read articles in newspapers criticizing and defending the law, I have to remind myself that the revolution really did happen, that I haven't stepped a year into the past.

On October 6th, speaking to the Egyptian people on national television, Tantawi said that Egypt "is witnessing a comprehensive transformation in its national course, the foundations and background of which cannot be ignored, in light of the changes and crises that loom on the horizon."

That kind of line recalls the rousing speeches of Gamel Abdel Nasser, whose bold statements reflected Egypt's role as a political leader in the Arab world fifty years ago. Now, statements like this sound a little dated. At Tahrir square, only hundreds gathered to watch the air show and a brief show of pageantry. No streets were closed off.

But the numbers aren't exactly the point. The statements of those who gathered, especially to the Arabic language press, showed a very different perspective from that of the protestors who usually fill the very same square. Take for example the words of Osama Muhammad, reported in Egyptian independent paper Al-Masry Al-Youm; "October celebrations this year came at just the right time," he said, "because we were unhappy for a long time after the revolution, due to the crises of the trials and the sit-ins and the strikes."

I have been in Egypt for three weeks now, and it did not take long to see how the hope and excitement of the Arab Spring, so celebrated among American observers, has given way to an ambivalence and political complexity much harder to report on or analyze with a simple narrative of liberation. Contrary to the banners that read "Mubarak=Tantawi," many Egyptians still support the army. They supported the revolution too, but have been waiting for months and months to see anything really change, to see the proliferation of parties mean something other than a few more stages and microphones every Friday at Tahrir. The longer nothing happens, the more likely they are to assume that maybe the army really should be in control.

The sound of the jets inspired fear in some, who remember when they ominously crossed the Cairo sky during the revolution. But to others, that same sound is reassuring.