GIZA, Egypt – Framed against the great pyramids of Giza with a half-moon on the rise, a phalanx of Egyptian Army soldiers with three armored vehicles guarded the entrance to the vote counting center here.
This was the face of the Egyptian Army as protectorate of the country in its first elections in Egypt since the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak. It was dusk and the soldiers seemed to be doing a good job keeping order.
But by nightfall on December 16th, just a few miles away in Tahrir Square, the army was engaged in its brutal and deadly crackdown on protesters, revealing what many feel is the true face of the old regime.
Before the violence erupted, Mohammed Abbas, a burly, working-class 26-year-old printer, was monitoring the vote counting center in the last light of a long day in Egypt’s election process. He sat in a brown aviator jacket under a long blue tent with rows of tables with glass ballot boxes from which judges were pulling the ballots and counting them by hand.
A member of the Revolutionary Youth Council during the 18 days of protests that ended Mubarak’s 30-year reign, Abbas was now a political candidate and he was here to see how his small party had fared in a run-off for a contested seat.
As the last round of voting for the lower house of parliament comes to a close this week, Abbas’ one-year odyssey from Tahrir Square to the ballot box has been extraordinary. His journey reveals the enormous challenges and high stakes that lie ahead in Egypt, the mounting frustration with the role of the military and of religion and ultimately perhaps a sense of hope tempered by an awareness that building a democracy will not be easy.
I have gotten to know Abbas through the last year and I was there alongside him in Tahrir Square one year ago, the night before Mubarak stepped down, when he famously took the stage and shouted a challenge to the military and to the crowd of more than 200,000 gathered there.
“The army has to choose between the regime and the Egyptian people,” Abbas shouted to the crowd in the cold February night.
Then he led a chant that seemed to galvanize the crowd: “The army! The people! One hand!”
The words thundered in Tahrir Square and the strategy of forcing the military to choose sides appeared to work. The next day Mubarak stepped down and his 30-year reign was over. Almost immediately, Abbas began to emerge as a face of the Revolutionary Youth Council and whispers of hope started to form around him and other young leaders as the next generation of parliamentarians.
Now nearly a year later, here was Abbas bathed in the blue glow of the tent and the string of bright lights under which the vote counting was taking place. He wore a clean, white sweater under his jacket, and I asked him about that famous chant, “The army. The people. One hand…”
I wanted to know how he felt about the army now that it had repeatedly shown willingness to use lethal force against the protest movement.
Abbas said, “They want the old system and the old regime. They want to be not ‘one hand,’ but the upper hand.”
He said this with something of a sarcastic smile, but also with the pride of a young political candidate who just landed a very nice sound bite for a reporter. There was a sense that he was starting to get the game of politics.
On this night, he was waiting for the final tally for the small party he helped to start, known as the Egyptian Current Party. Abbas was forced out of the Muslin Brotherhood for founding the party, which seeks to have faith inform the shape of a new government and ultimately a new constitution but not control it. It opposes the implementation of Islamic law in Egypt and supports a more just approach to economic development.
Abbas himself was slated to be a candidate in the January 3 round of voting in the district of Banha, north of Cairo, but on this evening he was anxiously waiting for word on how Egyptian Current fared in this seat in Giza.
‘Killing their own sons and daughters’
As the long hours of vote counting grew tedious, Abbas fielded frantic texts on his phone that indicated the situation was deteriorating in Tahrir. He and several friends in the party began reaching out to the network of protesters, trying to get a read on the ongoing clashes in the square.
His own path in this revolution, treading a perilous line between street protests and the promise of new elections, was unfolding right here in this tent on this night.
Abbas hails from a family that relied on the Muslim Brotherhood for health clinics, kindergartens and moral support in the days when poor districts of Cairo, like his native Imbaba, were neglected by the regime.
He is an only son and his father died young from simple hepatitis which went neglected under a failing health care system. Left to take care of his mother and sisters by working in a printing shop, his status as an only son and primary provider for his family allowed him to avoid military service, which is mandatory in Egypt.
And so Abbas went solidly into the revolution as a member of the Brotherhood and eventually as one of its representatives in the Revolutionary Youth Council. Like most Egyptians he respected the role the military played in the heady days of protest, holding a line between the protesters and the regime. Ultimately Abbas, like the majority of the protest movement, accepted the military’s promise to become the guarantors of a transition of power from Mubarak to a newly elected civilian government.
On this night that transition of military power was very much hanging in the air with a great deal of uncertainty. For Abbas, it came down to a lack of trust.
“We were relying on the army. They took our side. We thought they’d never turn on us. But I stopped using the slogan, “The army, the people,” on April 8 when I saw the army shooting and killing their own sons and daughters,” says Abbas, a grave look sweeping over his face and the smile of a candidate gone.
Abbas adds that he feels betrayed not only by the army, but also by the Muslim Brotherhood and its powerful new Freedom and Justice Party, which won 40 percent of the seats in the first two rounds of voting. In its race for political power, the Muslim Brotherhood has simply grown too close to the military, Abbas believes.
“I didn’t leave the Brotherhood, they left me,” he says, adding that he feels the Brotherhood has not used its rising political clout enough to challenge the brutality of the military, particularly in November and December when it seemed the military had spun out of control as it killed scores of protesters.
‘Freedom to choose’
Eventually the news from Tahrir escalated further. Abbas abruptly left, heading out of the warm glow of the tent and the buzz of the vote counting into the gathering darkness and toward the streets of Tahrir. As he left, I spoke with Major General Rageh Ahmed, who was in full uniform and seated alongside a high court judge at the head table in the tent overseeing the vote counting.
“We are both here to guarantee this election,” he said, smiling to the judge
I asked him about the rising violence in Tahrir and the sense that the military was reacting with excessive force. He looked stern and surprised by the question and gave an answer that was as confusing as it was revealing.
“The military was the same before the revolution as it is now and it will be the same in the future,” Major General Ahmed said.
It would turn out to be a night of horrific violence in Tahrir Square. Abbas’ fellow protester, Emad Effat — known in Tahrir simply as “the Imam” because he held a degree from the prestigious theological institute Al Azhar — was killed by the army. When I saw Abbas the following day his determination to challenge the military, both politically and in the streets, was more firm than ever.
On Jan. 3, Abbas faced his own election for one of four seats in Banha, the main constituency in Qalioubeya governorate. He ran as an Egyptian Current Party member under the Continuing Revolution Bloc. But the effort failed. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party took two of the seats. Al Nour, the party of the more puritanical Salafist wing of Islamists, won one seat. And the traditionally liberal Al Wafd Party won the remaining seat.
Despite the political defeat, Abbas said he recognizes that his party’s middle-of-the-road message of trying to balance religious faith and progressive politics is not being heard in the tumult of Cairo’s first election since the end of the Mubarak era. Still Abbas says he is determined to continue his and the party’s efforts.
“We are looking to further establish our party, we will invest the popularity we gained during this election, we will continue to run for the municipal departments which is as important as the parliament but on the community level,” he said.
That night in the tent in Giza, I asked Abbas if he has hope for the future in Egypt and how he feels about being part of a long and seemingly difficult process of Egypt’s move toward democracy. He said he hoped the military would “stop standing in the way” of so many young people like himself who he says put everything on the line to build a new Egypt. But, in the end of the day, he said, “I am proud of this revolution. And, yes, I am hopeful.”
He added, “We now have freedom to choose, and that is the diamond of our revolution.”
GlobalPost correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed reporting for this article.