Democracy in Egypt locked behind closed doors

Many of the Egyptian protesters who successfully ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak two months ago say their popular revolution has been hijacked by the secretive military council now running the country, Neil Macdonald writes from Cairo.

Military, corporate elite hijacking popular revolution, disillusioned protesters say

Cairo — Michel Abdel Melik fancies himself a bit of an authority on the subject of Egyptian revolution. Since 1960, he's operated Cairo's Café Riche, a 103-year-old institution that once hosted secret meetings where angry men hatched the uprising that threw off the patronizing hand of British colonial rule. When the empire's police showed up, the plotters would scarper through a secret door behind the basement bar. Melik has the keys and loves swinging it open for visitors.

In later years, members of Cairo's intelligentsia, people like Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and the famed poet Naguib Sorour, patronized the place. Both of those men were revolutionaries of a sort, and both suffered for speaking their minds. Sorour was tortured by the military; Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by Islamist assassins.

Melik knew them both. He also lived through the 1952 ouster of the legendary hedonist King Farouk and has studied the events of 1919 that took place in his café's basement.   

He says what began here in February eclipses everything in the past century. This one, he says, is truly an uprising of the people.

"This is, pardon my language, a bastard revolution," says Melik. "It has no father. This revolution, it came by itself."

It's gratifying to see the old man's pride.

And yes, a bunch of the old regime's leaders are behind bars, including Hosni Mubarak's two sons, one of whom he'd been grooming to succeed him as pharaoh. The lads are reportedly stunned and docile inmates.

Even Mubarak himself, just weeks ago this country's iron "father," to use his term, is in custody, although confined at the moment to a hospital near Cairo. Apparently, he developed an awful case of nerves when agents of the state came to arrest him.

Little has changed

The spectacle of the arrests and charges has certainly caught the public's attention. Ask a Cairene about the Mubarak clan's troubles, and you'll get a grim smile. I have asked repeatedly.

But one suspects the arrests are a neat example of panem et circenses — a little bread and circuses to appease the restive masses. Otherwise, it's hard for a visitor who was last here 12 years ago to perceive much change in this huge metropolis's filthy air.

General Mamdouh Shaheen, a member of Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, at a news conference in Cairo March 28, 2011. The secretive military council that has replaced Hosni Mubarak rules by decree ((Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters) )

Mubarak has been replaced by a secretive military council that rules by decree. The hated emergency law is still in place — although the council has promised to lift it before the legislative elections set to take place in September. Human rights activists say political prisoners remain in jail. And the military, so praised by the crowds who dislodged Mubarak on Feb. 19, is clearly far more interested in restoring the cherished stability that has so profited Egypt's elite than in fostering any fundamental change.

Shadi Harb, a leader of Egypt's youth movement, sat in Café Riche with me the other day and talked about "the people behind the closed doors."

"They are just waiting for us to, I believe, lose the momentum, and lose the people," he said. "The people behind the closed doors are planning to hijack the revolution."

Harb, a bland looking young man with a true revolutionary's heart, understands there is an order of things here — powerful, entrenched interests who haven't the slightest intention of ceding power just because most Egyptians want them to.

He says he and his comrades are trying to keep the public focused but fears that the military and corporate elite intend to manipulate the elections.

"Unfortunately, the keys are with those people behind the closed doors," Harb says. "They can still control the critical mass, which from a distance seems OK, a nice democracy. But they can swing the votes one side to the other, just with a switch."

He suspects their tool will be the Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood intends to contest the elections. It is organized. It owns a lot of powerful pulpits. And despite its efforts to project an image of moderation, its slip showed last week when deputy supreme guide Mahmoud Ezzat told a newspaper here the Brotherhood intends to establish an Islamic state if it takes power and implement strict Islamic law.

The military, of course, will not allow that to happen. It would be bad for business. But Harb suspects the junta — that's what it is, after all — might well allow, or even encourage, a Brotherhood win.

A 'compromise revolution'

Egypt will not become another Iran, says Harb, but it could "turn to a new Algeria, if you understand what I am saying." Meaning the military, after a Brotherhood victory, would have to regretfully cancel the elections and retain total power in order to prevent Egypt from becoming a new fortress for al-Qaeda.

Harb is a courageous young man, but he'd better watch his mouth. The military has no patience for such criticism.

"Mubarak has been changed for a military council that cannot be criticized," spits Loai Omran, a young architect-turned-activist. "We still have God."

He doesn't hold out much hope for the council's promised reforms.

"They're trying to keep the same system but change some names and faces … This… fake democracy," he says, his face twisting as he pronounces the words.

Soldiers remove barbed wire in Tahrir Square after a five-day sit-in by protesters demanding civilian rule and swifter prosecution of disgraced former officials. ((Asmaa Waguih/Reuters))

Omran was in the famed Tahrir Square earlier this month when soldiers firing live ammunition and brandishing electric prods charged a group of protesters who were demanding that the new regime meet some of their basic demands. Dozens of people were injured; one was reportedly shot dead.

A few days later, Tahrir Square was scrubbed of any revolutionary symbols by a military that has run out of patience. It even planted new sod. Today, Tahrir is just another Cairo roundabout.

Perhaps, unlike Libyans, Egyptians have simply not paid a bloody enough price to rid themselves of tyranny.

As Omran puts it, this has become a "compromise revolution, one being paid for in installments."

Even Michel Abdel Melik, standing in the doorway of his famous café, acknowledges it. He won't see a truly changed Cairo in his lifetime, he says. "But my sons, or my grandsons…" Then he trails off.