At an International Press Gathering last week, foreign journalists came to hear remarks by a few Egyptian counterparts about what to expect on January 25th, the first anniversary of one of the most reported revolutions in recent history. The nervous joke passing between the crisply dressed Americans and Europeans was that if the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, currently running the country, wanted to get rid of negative coverage in one fell swoop, all it would take is a well placed bomb here, in a warehouse hidden among the downtown blocks.
Amid the stark concrete walls, a handful of influential Egyptian journalists and editors described what they thought might happen when big numbers return to Tahrir next week.
"I think it will pass quietly," former Al Jazeera bureau chief Amr El Kahky said. Hisham Kassem, an oft-quoted source in American articles about Egypt and a lifetime newspaperman-dissident, looked out over the expectant faces and said, "In the past, I was the revolutionary at these kinds of things. Now, I'm going to be a wet blanket."
"I don't think very much is going to happen," he continued, explaining that contrary to many versions of the story, he believes that the military deployed last January not to help the protesters topple the Mubarak regime, but actually to save it. When they realized that the regime, in fact, could not be saved, they pushed the leader out of power to save themselves and got stuck running the country.
And then, Kassem argued, "the media took this on as a revolution," and "raised the expectations," when in fact a regime change, a real revolution was, and is, far from over. The media focused on young, camera-friendly revolutionaries and led them to expect instant leadership. "But politics is cruel," he said, filling his role as a wet blanket. "You will find yourselves irrelevant."
That realization has been creeping into the activist community slowly over the past few months, amidst the demoralizing violence of October, November, and December, the dwindling numbers in Tahrir, the electoral sweeps of the Islamists over revolutionary and liberal parties, and the confident power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
And as these disappointments festered, they led to a wave of disillusion. Novelist and public intellectual Alaa Al Aswany told journalist Robert Fisk "The biggest mistake of the revolution was that overthrowing Mubarak was too good to be true." A blogger and activist who goes by Zeinobia wrote caustically: "We do not plan. We only react and do not accept criticism and everybody has its own agenda over the country's best interest."
"There is a disconnect between the revolutionaries and the people," wrote blogger and activist Mahmoud Salem, better known by the name Sandmonkey. "Our priorities are a civilian government, the end of corruption, the reform of the police, judiciary, state media and the military, while their priorities are living in peace and putting food on the table."
Perhaps because activists have found formal political channels so cruel, many are organizing renewed protests for a handover of power to civilians on January 25th. They are hoping that memorializing their prior victory will take a forward-looking, and, perhaps for the most optimistic among them, populist turn.
Adding to their fuel, Mohammad ElBaradei, once the presidential candidate for many revolutionaries, has decided not to run believing that to do so would be to give up the dignity of refusing to play a corrupt game. On Monday, the newly elected People's Assembly met for the first time, to persistent but small marches and the attention of thousands throughout Cairo watching the proceedings on television.
In recent months, a dynamic has emerged in Cairo where anti-SCAF protesters flock to their symbolic home, Tahrir, while pro-SCAF Egyptians fill up a square in the working class neighborhood of Abbasiya, kicking out journalists and westerners and watching Tawfiq Okasha, Egypt's Glenn Beck, accuse Tahrir of bringing the country to ruin. During these competing rallies, many local television channels show a split screen, the irony, of course, being that the two rallies look the same at first glance: the same Egyptian flags, the same fists in the air, the same megaphones, and the same outrage, if differently focused.
On January 25th, the SCAF have signaled that both groups, with a myriad of different demands, hopes, and expectations, will be at Tahrir, meaning that the potential for confrontation is far greater than ever before.
But everyone agrees there are simply too many variables to know what to really expect. After all, nobody admits they predicted that the public suicide of a street vendor in Tunisia would spark mass outrage in Egypt, just as they didn't expect elections to produce huge victories for illiberal Salafi parties.
"I expect people to express anger, but from there everything is possible," said activist Dina Samak to the foreign correspondents in the downtown warehouse. Kassem, the wet blanket, had to admit: "I still don't understand what happened last January."