CAIRO — As the crowds marched to Tahrir Square Wednesday, a sense of excitement coursed through the dusty air. Young boys sold Egyptian flags. Vendors smoked sweet potatoes in wheeled wood burning stoves, weaving their carts amid the throngs of people. The national colors of red, white and black bedecked both graffitied lampposts and painted faces.
The day was declared a national holiday to mark the first anniversary of the 18-day uprisings that brought down former president Hosni Mubarak on Jan. 25, 2011. Although many of the hundreds of thousands of protesters refused to call it a celebration, the overall mood in the streets of Cairo was that of proud defiance. For the youth who helped define the early stages of the revolution, it was a day of mixed feelings.
“We’ve been so close to danger,” Sarrah Abdelrahman, a 24-year-old youth activist and award-winning video blogger, said. “Normal 24-year-olds don’t talk about ways to prevent getting eyes poked out from rubber bullets.”
But the successes of the revolution, which allowed for the first freely-elected parliament since 1952, the freedom to form political parties and an opening up of the media, still haven’t convinced many protesters.
“But what are we celebrating? We’re still fighting for the same thing,” Deena Abdelmonem, a senior studying at The American University in Cairo said. Many Egyptians share Abdelmonem’s frustration, disillusioned by slow progress since the revolution began a year ago.
“The old regime has not gone away. It has regrouped,” Dina Shehata, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said. Shehata cites the continuation of the state of emergency law, military trials of civilians and human rights violations as still-unsolved issues. “The fundamental structure of the state remains unchanged,” she said.
This political plateau has alienated many young people who stood at the front lines of the revolution last year. According to Shehata, youth involvement has diminished in the past year because Egyptians now see parliament — not the protesters — as the legitimate representatives of the people.
“I think the role of the youth now is the voice of conscience, or a pressure group, that will edge whoever is in power to respect freedoms and so forth,” she said. “But they have failed to organize themselves as a political actor.”
From the parliament’s 498 seats, only eight members went to The Revolution Continues Alliance, a coalition dedicated to answering the demands of the protests. “They’re not government people,”Abdelmonem said. “They’re revolutionaries.”
Marwan Abdel-Moneim, also a senior at the AUC, explained that parties such as the 25 of January Youth Movement did not succeed at the polls because of poor funding and lack of political experience.
“Their campaigns were really bad. You wouldn’t see them in the streets,” he said.
According to Abdel-Moneim, rumors of electoral fraud cast a pall over the legitimacy of elections in the minds of the protesters. But, he admits, “This was the best election we’ve had. Other elections were even messier.”
Compared to the more established parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s decades-old Freedom and Justice Party, startup candidates don’t stand much of a chance. But the fundamental stumbling block for youth revolutionaries is the anarchic flavor of their movement.
“It’s not that the people who have been protesting want to be a part of the system or want to be a part of power,” Abdelrahman said. “It’s a revolution on the system itself. … We don’t want power to exist, because power corrupts.”
Abdelrahman said that parliamentary elections may placate the public, but problems remain with the ruling military junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. According to Amnesty International, the council has committed human rights abuses — from trying civilians in military courts to killing protesters — that in some cases exceed the brutality seen during Mubarak’s rule. Recently, the junta has come under fire for subjecting some female jailed protesters to “virginity tests” and torturing others.
“How can you be concerned about parliament when you still have people being killed in the street?”Abdelrahman said.
Calls for SCAF’s exit were loud and insistent at Wednesday’s gathering in Tahrir Square. A popular Arabic chant among anti-SCAF protesters translates to “Down, down with military rule!” Another group marching to the square brandished a larger-than-life effigy of the council’s leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and shouted for his removal. If their message wasn’t clear enough, signs emblazoned with the Twitter hashtag #f***SCAF emphasized the point.
SCAF has promised to hand over power to parliament at the end of July, but in the meantime the council can essentially overrule the legislature. Anti-SCAF activists suspect that the council will never hand over power and have rallied for an immediate transition.
“This whole charade of ‘democracy’ under a military dictatorship … wastes our time,” Abdelmonem said. “I think we should be devoting all our time and efforts to getting rid of the military council. … In order for true democracy to exist, we have to get rid of this oppressive force.” She boycotted the recent parliamentary election, claiming that the council used it to divert attention.
In spite of these allegations of abuse, the council has maintained an approval rating of over 80 percent. Abdel-Moneim credits this to Egypt’s historical trust in the military.
“Egypt really glorified its army in the past. The army is really put on a pedestal here,” he said, adding that abuses committed by the military are often covered up due to its control over state media.
“The military really humored the protesters earlier in the year,” Abdel-Monein said. “Everyone thought, ‘Oh look at the army, they’re protecting us, they want our revolution to succeed.’”
But after the fall of Mubarak, the military’s interest did not necessarily lie with the people, he said.
The AUC senior has many graduating friends who will have to complete Egypt’s mandatory military service. Stories of former protesters being drafted into the organization they once opposed are common.
“If they know that you’ve participated in the revolution, they’ll make your life hell during the army,”Abdel-Moneim said. “They keep tabs on everyone. They check your Twitter. They stalk you.”
In the past year, four AUC students have been arrested and a number injured in the protests.
Ahmed Aboul Einen, an AUC senior, was leaving the protests on Jan. 26, 2011 with two female AUCstudents when an armored personnel carrier began shooting teargas canisters nearby.
The three students attempted to hide from the plainclothes State Security police but were seen. Officers strangled one of the girls with her scarf and slapped the other, turning to Einen after he stepped up to defend them.
“He said, ‘Let the girls go, I want the guy,’” Einen recounted. “Six guys grabbed me, one on my left, one on my right. They tied my hands up with a scarf. I don’t know how many people were beating me, because they were behind and in front of me.”
The beating lasted for 10 minutes as the officers questioned Einen about his involvement in the protests. After an elderly bystander told the officers that Einen was not protesting, they lightened up, he said.
“It turned from beating me for being a protester, to beating me to scare me from becoming one.”
Einen didn’t sustain serious injuries and was back in the square protesting two days later. He said that fellow protesters he knows have fared worse; a friend of his was shot beneath his eye with a rubber bullet. Of the 18 days of the January uprisings, Einen was out in the streets for eight of them.
“I don’t have a personal motive. It’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “And we finally had a chance to kick these people out and we took that chance.”
But Einen says that although a vocal minority of AUC students have spoken out about the revolution, most are actually apathetic.
“More people have not protested than those who have, and more people do not support it than do,” he said. The university has ties to the old regime — Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, and his children,Gamal and Alaa, are all AUC alumni, as are several children of National Democratic Party politicians. But according to Einen, the overall reason for diminishing support for the revolution isn’t political but stems from a desire for stability.
“Many people feel that the longer the protests continue, the more the country becomes unstable,”Shehata said. “I think the elections have shown that many people prefer the reformist rather than revolutionary path.”
But for activists such as Abdelrahman, the fatigue of the majority is no deterrent.
“A lot of people don’t understand. A lot of people, even in my family, don’t understand. They think it’s just adrenaline, or think like, ‘Oh, these kids and their rock and roll,’ and stuff like that,” she said. “But it’s really something that shook our lives and changed us and kind of converted us. When you’ve gone through such a huge, life-changing experience, you’re devoted to that cause for life.”
The video blogger and activist, who graduated from theAUC last year, has gained a following of over 20,000 on Twitter. Even in this age of instant information, change is slow, she said.
“It’s not going to be as quick as posting a Twitter update or a Facebook update. It’s going to be very difficult. It’s going to be a long time,” she said. “I’m 24 years old. Me and a bunch of people are not going to give up until we die.”
She stressed the importance of on-the-ground demonstrating, debunking a popular misconception in Western media of the “Twitter revolution.”
“When people are attacked in the square and you’re risking your life, you don’t hold up your smartphone and [say], ‘protect me, Twitter,’” she said, flashing her phone for emphasis. “No, you protect the square with your flesh and blood. You risk your life. You don’t risk your Twitter account.”
A year since the uprisings began, Egypt is straddling two eras: before Jan. 25, 2011, and after. Since taking their first breath of fresh air after years of oppression, young activists are striving to make their voices heard. Many of the demands of the protesters have not been met, but what has been most successful about the post-Mubarak era has been the ability to challenge the status quo.
Among the failures of the much-hoped-for revolution, Abdelrahman sees glimpses of success that continue to motivate her.
“I think it’s that sudden feeling of ownership over the country. Because once you feel that you own something, you want to make it better, you want to make it prettier, you want to make it the best. It’s like having children, I guess,” she said. “They’ve converted us to parents of the revolution.”
“A lot of people would say, ‘Parliament is bad, the military is bad, you’re getting arrested, the public is not with you, the media is militarized … ’” she said, rattling off innumerable challenges. “My common answer, to them and to myself, is that I don’t have any hope in anything but myself and my generation and my revolution.”