CAIRO — A year ago, Tahrir Square was a carnival of unity — Egyptian protesters stood Christian with Muslim, Islamist with leftist, women with men, rich with poor — for the common cause of bringing down Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime.
Now, Mubarak is gone, and so is the show of solidarity that ended his regime and galvanized other Arab Spring rebellions. The revolutionary movement has fragmented into rival blocs overseen by an all-powerful military council. The square itself is a bullet-pocked battleground where a small, perpetual demonstration snarls traffic and chokes downtown Cairo businesses.
Within this mosaic, Islamists have emerged as Egypt’s dominant new political force, much to the dismay of liberal protesters, whose Western-style demands sometimes run counter to strict religious teachings. As the competing groups bicker over parliamentary posts and the ruling Mubarak-era generals wield their authority, revolutionary activists say their dreams of speedy democratic reforms and civil liberties seem as distant as ever.
“We didn’t win,” said Mohamed Abla, a well-known painter and vocal critic of the military council. “The revolution has moved into another stage now, and it seems we still have to fight and fight and fight.”
After a bloody and difficult transitional year, Egyptians began streaming back to Tahrir Square by the thousands today, though there’s no clear revolutionary agenda for the commemoration of the first protests last Jan. 25. Some groups call for a renewed uprising to bring down the military council; others want a somber remembrance of the “martyrs” — the estimated 1,000 protesters killed in the past year’s uprising and subsequent spasms of political violence.
Liberal blocs are worried that Islamists will turn the event into a victory rally after winning more than 70 percent of parliamentary seats in the first post-Mubarak election. The Muslim Brotherhood and the literalist Salafist factions, meanwhile, are nervous that the gathering will lead to clashes with government security forces, forcing Islamists yet again to choose between supporting fellow protesters or staying in the good graces of the powerful generals.
The discord surrounding the anniversary mirrors the frank talks going on in closed political negotiations, with the newly emboldened Brotherhood pulled in at least three different directions: left toward established liberal parties, right toward the ultraconservative Salafists or into a risky partnership with the status-quo generals.
Women, Coptic Christians and the revolutionary youth barely register in power-sharing negotiations, those groups complain.
“The euphoria of their stunning victory and upsurge might result in miscalculations, particularly if they seek to appease the military at the expense of the revolutionary objectives of other forces,” said Khalil al-Anani, a professor at the United Kingdom’s Durham University who’s written extensively on the Brotherhood. “It’s an uncertain game that might lead to unintended outcomes.”
Activists of all backgrounds agree that the revolution remains unfinished as long as the generals are in place, but they argue over how and when to wrest control of the Arab world’s most populous nation from the entrenched military brass. How easily Egypt moves to civilian rule will set the pace for domestic reform and serve as an example — whether good or bad — for other pro-democracy revolts that spread throughout the region last year.
Facing unprecedented public criticism after the recent violence, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces pledged to hand over power to an elected government after presidential polls in June, a sped-up timetable approved by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Islamists are under intense pressure to live up to their campaign promises, and they want to avoid a total system breakdown that could detract from their parliamentary priorities. At the same time, however, they’re resistant to prolonged military rule and members have said bluntly that they’d move to curb the council’s broad powers, a swing that would realign them with a key demand of the other revolutionary factions.
Liberals and youth groups are still pushing for an immediate transfer of power to a caretaker government, though so far they haven’t been able to draw crowds big enough to imperil the military rulers. They’ll try again on the anniversary today, they vowed, but this year there’s no guarantee that millions of protest-weary Egyptians will join them.
“The military council has outfoxed all of us,” said Maher, of the April 6 group. “They are still here, and yet they’ve never fulfilled any promise of reform or met any demands of the revolution.”