Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution: Revisiting Tahrir Square

CAIRO — Just after Friday prayers, Mohammed Abbas, a member of the Revolutionary Youth Council, joined protesters crowded in Tahrir Square to demand justice for 840 protesters killed in the demonstrations that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It was early July, and Abbas looked as if it felt good to be back, mingling with the different protest groups, hugging acquaintances and leaning in close to whisper private conversations.

Among the more hopeful outcomes of the 18 days that led to the collapse of the Mubarak government on Feb. 11 was the way the protests brought together people who would never have been free to assemble (there were laws against that) or get to know each other (for 30 years the regime exploited the divisions in Egyptian society). Some bonds formed in those heady days had endured.

Abbas, from a working class family loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, now has friends who are Marxists, Christians, Nasserists, Salafists, liberals and Socialists. Some are rich kids from the posh enclave of Zamalek, a small island just across the Nile. Others are from the sprawling districts like Shoubra and Imbaba that envelop the capital. Back in January and February, these relationships were part of what Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch called the “Tahrir moment:” a collective revelry over the gentle belief that a diverse movement had toppled a dictator and was ushering in a new Egypt.

FRONTLINE producer/cameraman Tim Grucza and I returned to Cairo several weeks ago to revisit Tahrir Square and catch up with the leaders of the protest movement whom, like Abbas, we had followed during the most dramatic moments of the revolution. Our trip coincided with a sudden return of protests in the square that erupted out of a frustration with a failure by the interim government to bring to justice those who killed unarmed protesters.

Violence flared as the police tried to push the protesters back in running battles for several days. The protesters dug in, intent on forcing Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military leadership which has been running the country, to address the revolution’s initial grievance, the issue of police brutality.

Protesters demanded that police under the Ministry of Interior be held accountable for firing live rounds and killing unarmed protesters, and that Mubarak answer for abuses under his rule.

On Aug. 3, an apparently ailing Mubarak was wheeled in by gurney to a courtroom with a steel cage for defendants in a spectacle that has riveted the Arab world. He faces a possible death sentence for charges ranging from corruption to murder. On Aug. 15, Mubarak appeared again in court amid protests against the transitional government’s decision to no longer televise the proceedings, which are set to continue next month.

Despite the unified cries for justice, the protest movement has largely splintered along lines of political parties and factions. All are competing for a spot in elections scheduled for November — and to shape events in Egypt after Mubarak. The country of 82 million is still far short of the goals of its first free and fair elections, the writing of a new constitution and the reform of the police force. 

Morayef, who coined the term “Tahrir moment,” acknowledged the new challenges when we met with her this time. But she remained optimistic.


Six months ago, Abbas emerged as a leader when Tahrir Square was a forest of tents, swelling with more than 300,000 people. On the Thursday night in February that Mubarak defied expectations by vowing to remain in power, Abbas took off his shoe and raised it to the air, a deep insult in the Arab world. Soon tens of thousands of people in Tahrir were joining him with their shoes raised high. He grabbed a microphone and told the crowd, “The Army has to choose between the regime and the Egyptian people!”

Then he began a ferocious chant and the huge, swelling crowd followed in unison: “The Army and the people hand in hand! The Army and the people, hand in hand!”

Abbas returned to Tahrir Square one afternoon in early July wearing a crisp white shirt and old shoes with a cracked sole. He stepped onto the barren patch of grass at the center of the traffic circle and approached the large canvas tent of the secular April 6 Movement activists, with their signature black t-shirts that depict a white fist of protest. He saw old friends and wrapped his burly frame in a hug around these hipsters. They were the cosmopolitan youths who used Facebook and Twitter to bring people to the streets back in January. But Abbas was not on Facebook. He represented the working class muscle that the Muslim Brotherhood could command. But now as Abbas walks through the square, he feels the movement that was once unified is now adrift.

His own relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood has soured. Over the summer, after we spoke, The Daily News Egypt reported the Muslim Brotherhood had expelled Abbas for joining a rival party. During our conversations, Abbas, 26, told me he was impatient with the slow pace of reform and the toll that six months of revolution has taken on the protesters and the whole country.

“All sides are saying the same. The military has let us down,” he said. “We trusted them to lead and they have not done it.”


The tenuous bond between the ruling military council and the protest movement now seems broken. In late June the Egyptian police were scrambling to reassert authority. The country’s former Interior Minister, Habib el-Adly, was arrested and has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption. But many other officials have not been charged and there is a growing concern in the protest movement that the military will ignore grievances over corruption and brutality.

Without the military’s commitment to accountability for past abuses and misrule, the protest movement fears Egypt transformation to democracy will stall. The military is in many ways the last institution standing. Gone is the once-powerful National Democratic Party that Mubarak and his son led. The charred carcass of the party’s headquarters, burned by protesters, lies just off the square.

The army remains strong even if its relationship with the protest movement and the liberal parties has become uneasy. It has been pulled closer to the Muslim Brotherhood, a political alliance that is baffling to many outside observers but makes sense to Egyptians. Although the Brotherhood was outlawed as a political party for decades, it was a part of the landscape, controlling unions, establishing health clinics and schools particularly in poor areas. Since the toppling of Mubarak, the Brotherhood’s leadership has been careful not to criticize the military and sought to establish itself as part of the mainstream.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s new Freedom and Justice party seems positioned to do well in the parliamentary elections. Some observers estimate the party will win 30 percent of the total of 508 seats. Meanwhile, more hardline religious movements are gaining strength. A rally in Tahrir Square in the end of July that brought many tens of thousands of supporters was viewed as an extraordinary showing of support for several new political parties aligned with the puritanical Salafist stream of Islam. They include members of the once-outlawed al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, or The Islamic Group.

Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya was once led by the blind Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who is now serving a life sentence in a U.S. federal prison for his role in inspiring the 1993 plot to blow up the World Trade Center. In the early 1990s, the organization was crushed through harsh tactics by the Mubarak regime. But Gama Islamiya has now formed a political party with Rahman’s sons as one of its most visible leaders. Some expect the three most prominent parties that make up the Salafist block could win as much as 10 percent of the parliamentary seats.

The date for elections has been postponed before, but military officials have said they are expected to take place in November. The military will provide security, but the judiciary will be in charge of supervising the election and counting the votes. The parliamentary vote will be followed by a presidential election that is likely to be held at some point early next year.

Over the objections of some of its reformist members, the Muslim Brotherhood has said it would not field a candidate for president.

Today, the protest movement faces looming questions about the role of religion in politics and about whether it will try to challenge the military to be more progressive. Its power to influence the military is unclear. Many in the protest movement worry that the “January 25 Revolution” was in fact not a revolution at all, but in effect a military coup sanctioned by the protesters. In Egypt, observers say there is a silent majority that supports the control of the military and is tired of the protesters and the protests in downtown.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, said that he believes the liberal and leftist groups that took part in the demonstrations have “lost touch” with the Egyptian people. He said they have alienated a vast majority that is anxious for the return of tourists and business as usual. Egypt’s multibillion dollar tourism industry is particularly hard hit.

Hamid said the liberal opposition has not presented any effort to address concerns about the economy, explaining, “They’ve failed to develop a long term strategy beyond Tahrir Square. Where is the organized development of new parties? Where is the community outreach in poor neighborhoods and agricultural areas? People care a lot about the economy and what’s going to happen to them. The liberal and leftist groups have become detached from the bread and butter issues.”


The April 6 Movement, which was widely credited for igniting the revolution through its social networking, seems isolated and fractured. In the FRONTLINE film Revolution in Cairo that aired in February, we focused on Ahmed Maher, the founder and leader of the April 6 Movement and a key organizer of the very first days of the revolt.

Maher had suffered imprisonment and beating at the hands of the police in the months before the ‘January 25 Revolution.’ But the bald, quiet civil engineer with two young children persevered. In retrospect, he quite literally “engineered” the revolution by understanding the structural weaknesses in the system and finding a way to erect a new opposition through Facebook and his Twitter account and his cell phone, which was — and still is — perpetually glued to his ear.

Maher bristles at the notion that what happened in Egypt was the first “Facebook revolution.” 

As Maher spoke, you could see the strain of the movement. He looked tired and stressed and he spoke of a growing sense that the movement is struggling to affect change, not play politics. Maher was criticized when it was reported in a Council on Foreign Relations blog that he accepted an offer from a Beverly Hills public relations firm to represent the movement pro bono. He and his wife have a newborn who arrived just after the revolution, their second child, and he said he was struggling to balance his family, his work as an engineer with his dedication to being an activist.


On the day after the big demonstrations in Tahrir Square on the evening of June 28, we found online activist Gigi Ibrahim. We weren’t surprised to learn that she had once again played a role in calling people into the streets through Twitter and Facebook.

Ibrahim is Egyptian but grew up in Orange County, California, where she went to high school after her father brought the family for his career. She was featured in the FRONTLINE segment “Gigi’s Revolution” and since then became something of a revolutionary celebrity. She appeared in Vogue and on the cover of Time magazine as one of the young faces of the revolution, and was interviewed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Ibrahim was obsessively working her Blackberry just as she had in January and February — only now the screen was cracked and she was struggling to see the Twitter feeds she is following. (She prefers the Blackberry to an iPhone or Nokia because the Blackberry has longer battery life and she can bring spare batteries.) She was in the middle of the action, finding video footage shot from a cell phone of police using a taser on the family member of a ‘martyr.’ She brought the video to Al Jazeera’s offices around the corner. 

Although they once shared common cause, Gigi Ibrahim’s Twitterati and the Muslim Brotherhood of Essam El-Erian now seem on different paths. El-Erian is a leader of the long outlawed movement who is now launching a candidacy for the parliamentary election under the Brothers’ new Freedom and Justice Party. He said that many protesters have gotten out of step with more mainstream culture — which also wants change, but moves slowly.

I asked El-Erian about allegations among protesters that the old guard of the Muslim Brotherhood was slowing down the pace of change by siding with the military. He was indignant about the question, saying, “We are the victims of the police for more than 60 years … And we cannot be opposite of the people. We are the people.”

The Brotherhood clearly has wide appeal in Egypt’s largely traditional society. But there is a youth movement within the Muslim Brotherhood that has grown impatient with the old guard, like El-Erian.

The Egyptian Current Party is a small faction that includes maverick youth leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Abbas. The parliamentary candidate the party plans to field is Islam Lotfi, whom we had also gotten to know in Tahrir Square.

He was the scribe of a document written on the back of a piece of cardboard torn from a box of plastic water bottles. It was titled “The Birth Certificate of a New Egypt.” Lotfi is a lawyer who has had a new baby born since the revolution. He has not been able to practice law and has put everything on the line to try to build a new party. When we caught up with him he was training new supporters on the rudiments of political canvassing.

Mohammed Abbas was at the party meeting, watching Lotfi and clearly supporting him. But Abbas struggled to clearly explain the mission of the party. Many in the protest movement believe that Abbas would make a good candidate, but he is 26 years old and candidates must be at least 30. It is an electoral law that is met with some cynicism in a country where two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30 (who also account for an estimated 90 percent of the unemployed).

Abbas sees the Current party as representing his more moderate Islamist views and the vision for a new Egypt that came out of his work with the many different players of the Revolutionary Youth Council — even if that larger vision is losing momentum.


You could feel the fatigue in the protest movement on Friday, July 1, when several thousand came together for a rally in the square. The chants were half-hearted and the crowd was relatively small. At one point an April 6 movement leader pleaded with a group of young people, who looked bored, not to leave. They didn’t look convinced.

We saw Abbas there, looking for his friend Sally Moore. And so were we. She is a Coptic Christian whom Abbas met through the work they did together on the Revolutionary Youth Council during the days when the square was filled with tents and optimism. She hails from an upper middle class Christian family, a contrast to Abbas’s poor, traditional Muslim Brotherhood background.

They were unlikely friends, and I wondered if their relationship had lasted. As they reunited in the square, I joined them with my camera.

They walked along with the crowd, going through the motions of another protest and chanting the same slogans. But it seemed as if the revolution, at least for Sally, had become a more interior story, a magical part of history in which she had proudly taken part but which now left her uncertain.

As we slowly walked from Tahrir Square to the Council of Ministers building, she explained, “I am a psychologist, so I guess I look at things psychologically. But I think I feel like a lot of Egyptians that we are going through dramatic change and we are unsettled by it and we are trying to cope in our own ways … It is like the whole country is experiencing trauma.

“We were so elated by the fact that Mubarak had to step down, but we all get pretty quiet and even a bit down when you think about how long it is going to take to bring real change, and how much real hard work there is ahead,” she said.

“How do we do that?” she asked, as protesters left the square in the fading light to get home before nightfall. “I think it is the question we are all asking ourselves.”  

This story was updated to clarify that the Beverly Hills PR firm that reportedly worked on behalf of the April 6 Movement offered its services pro bono, rather than being hired by Ahmed Maher.