| Protesters celebrated Mubarak's ouster but also warned the military junta that it must implement real reform [EPA]
The reports started coming in shortly after midnight: Contacts I met in Cairo earlier this month, a few of them still camped out in Tahrir Square, said the Egyptian military was using force to expel protesters from downtown Cairo.
Protesters had gathered on Friday, the two-week anniversary of Hosni Mubarak's ouster, to remind the country's military junta that they want real democratic reforms.
Witnesses in the square said soldiers, many wearing masks and wielding cattle prods or automatic weapons, forced everyone to leave. A number of people - it is not clear how many - were injured and arrested during the onslaught.
The crackdown highlighted a tension that is likely to worsen in the months leading up to scheduled elections in September. Many protesters do not trust the military, and say they will continue agitating for political and economic reforms; but the military's patience with demonstrations seems to be wearing thin.
An ongoing process
It is tempting, and convenient, to view the serial uprisings sweeping the Middle East as finite events. Tunisians protested for 28 days and won the ouster of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali; Egyptians did the same with president Mubarak after 18 days.
Now the world is focused on Libya, where an embattled Muammar Gaddafi clings to an ever-shrinking power base. Perhaps, if he is toppled soon, attention will shift to another embattled autocracy - Yemen? Bahrain?
But the Egyptian revolution (like the Tunisian one) is far from over, and it would be a mistake to view it in the past tense.
The protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt have a long list of demands: free and fair elections, an end to the country's decades-old emergency law, and a more equal and less corrupt economic system, to name a few. None of these have been achieved yet.
In other words: Toppling Mubarak was a major achievement, but it is a milestone, not an endpoint.
"We need to decide our own destiny," e-mailed one activist who was in Tahrir Square last night, an architect who asked to remain anonymous. "We can't trade one zaim [leader] for another."
The military leadership's appearance on Dream TV was generally well-received
The junta has so far said the right things about democracy and reform. Three of its leaders - Mohamed al-Assar, Mokhtar al-Mollah, and Mamdouh Shahin, all of them generals - made an unprecedented appearance on Egypt's Dream TV earlier this week.
They took questions from journalists and the public during the three-hour programme, which generally won positive reviews from Egyptians.
And they promised a number of significant reforms:
- The current government, headed by prime minister Ahmad Shafiq, will be temporary.
- High-ranking officials accused of corruption during the Mubarak regime will be investigated and arrested (several have been already, and the generals promised more).
- Political prisoners will be released (though they did not specify when).
- Egyptians will be allowed to vote in upcoming elections using their national IDs, rather than using the old fraud-ridden system of voting cards.
But despite their pledges, and the endless chants of “the people and the army are one!” that echoed through Tahrir Square this month, there is a lingering unease about the army's motives. It is the oldest pillar of the modern Egyptian state, after all, the source of all four post-revolutionary presidents and a powerful political and economic force in its own right.
Saturday's crackdown, with its echoes of the repressive tactics used by Mubarak's government, only deepened that mistrust.
"Can we now please stop this our-army-is-cute tune which everyone has been singing for a month now?" tweeted Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist and labour activist. "Those generals are Mubarak's, not ours."
A system worth restarting?
The military, for its part, seems to be trying to outmanoeuvre the protesters, by pledging political reforms while simultaneously casting the rallies as a drag on the struggling Egyptian economy.
The labour movement was a key force behind the protests that toppled Mubarak: Strike actions across the country siphoned off support from the country's economic and military elite, which came to view Mubarak's continued grip on power as a threat to the Egyptian economy.
Since Mubarak's overthrow, organised labour has continued to rally for better wages and working conditions. Strikes since February 11 have affected textile mills, banks, public transportation and several other sectors of the economy.
The junta has seized on labour's continued role to paint continued protests as a threat. It issued a statement last week warning that protests organised by the labour movement are "illegitimate," and threatened to take "legal steps" against the demonstrations.
Egypt's economy has undoubtedly suffered from a month of unrest. Tourism, which accounts for more than 10 per cent of the country's gross domestic product, is the most visible example: Hotel occupancy rates in places like Sharm al-Sheikh, which normally run 60 to 70 per cent during this time of year, have plummeted into the single digits.
But labour activists view this as a rare opportunity to win real economic reforms. Corruption and nepotism were hallmarks of the Mubarak-era Egyptian economy, which allowed a handful of well-connected cronies to enrich themselves through monopolies and back-room deals.
Average Egyptians receive few protections: The government guarantees them a minimum wage of just six dollars - per month - and even the average salary, LE300 (US$51), is hardly enough to provide for a family.
Strike actions are likely to continue, in other words, with a few activists even now calling for a nationwide general strike to oust the Shafiq government and the military junta.
The military has promised changes, but it is also keen to get Egypt "back to work" and restore much of the status quo. Opposing it is an energetic, organised protest movement, which does not entirely trust the military and will continue to agitate for far-reaching reforms.
This tension will probably come to define Egyptian politics over the next few weeks and months, and decide the (still uncertain) outcome of the Egyptian revolution.