Egypt's bitter taste of change

Looking back at an intense week of protest ahead of Egypt's elections, activists in the now-iconic Tahrir Square argue over how to approach the military rulers.


    When the wind whips up the dust around Cairo's Tahrir Square it's still possible to taste the tear gas in the air.

    The acrid smell and the bitter taste catches in the nose and the back of the throat making people sneeze and cough.

    On the edge of Tahrir, the heartbeat of February's uprising in Egypt, the ropes are back. These are the temporary checkpoints, manned by self-appointed stewards, blocking the way to the latest protest. Everyone coming in is patted down. A young man with the dirty sweatshirt and crooked teeth motions me forward.  He holds his hands up and repeats the same phrase in Arabic. "He says he's sorry" says my friend "but says it's for everyone's safety".

    The check is cursory and quick and I'm waved on with a smile.

    In Tahrir, small groups gather listening to the debates which are loud, but to the untrained ear, sound angry and dangerous. The discussion is what should happen with the election, now just days away. Some argue that there is no point as the military will never step down others insist the only way to make the change is to vote.

    The revolution returned to Tahrir just over a week ago. Thousands gathered, angry as the military failed to keep its promise to hand over power to a civilian government within 6 months of February's uprising. Police tried to break it up with tear gas and rubber bullets. People in the square said they also fired real bullets. The injuries of some of those from the square suggest they may be telling the truth.

    As news of the trouble spread through Cairo's suburbs, thousands more turned up to support the people in the square. The battles went on for days, and not just in Cairo but in Suez and Alexandria and elsewhere. Across the country, more than forty people have died. Thousands have been injured.

    The ruling military council facing a re-run of the scenes which dragged down Mubarak had to act. It promised it would hold presidential elections by June. It has also backed away from the idea that it would exercise "political guardianship" over any new government which would give generals a final say on major policies and allow it to dominate the writing of a new constitution. At the same time it wanted immunity from public oversight even when a new president was put in place. It made Kamal el-Ganzouri the new prime minister. He served in the same role under Mubarak so it's an appointment not widely welcomed

    The crisis has undoubtedly been the biggest challenge to Egypt's new rulers and overshadowed the start of the country's first parliamentary elections since Mubarak was replaced.

    In the square there are mixed feelings about the elections going ahead. Sameer Hassan says he's been to Tahrir many times. When he speaks his voice booms and he waves his hands to emphasis each and every point. He tells me: "We will have no elections. We will have no government except one that is chosen from Tahrir Square."

    People around him nod and a few applaud. But just a few steps away Hanan Abdullah has a different view. She believes people have to vote to get the chance they want: "It's been the bloodiest time in Egypt. The past nine months have been chaotic and full of thugs. We want to move forward, and we want the youth to the fore. If people stand their ground they'll get what they want which is a new government."

    In the streets around Tahrir, living in Cairo for millions of residents goes on as normal. The shops are open, traffic is moving. And the military is keen to draw attention to that insisting that while the people in Tahrir have a voice, they do not speak for the majority of people in Egypt.

    Shadi Hamid is an analyst with the Brookings Institute think tank based in Doha. He's aware of the importance of the next day days for Egypt, but says it's important the results are conducted in the right way: "Are the elections going to be peaceful and orderly, or is there going to be considerable violence and chaos and uncertainty? Because if that happens, if there is violence, that will cast doubt on the legitimacy of the results."

    The military will, of course, monitor the results of the voting very closely, and the people will closely monitor the military for its reaction. The latter was widely regarded as the saviour of the revolution, the guarantors of change from a despised and discredited regime. Now many people see them as the biggest obstacle on the road to a new democratic Egypt.

    Follow Alan Fisher on Twitter @alanfisher 



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