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Analysis: Egypt still in turmoil after 16 months

SHARE Analysis: Egypt still in turmoil after 16 months

CAIRO — On the eve of a presidential election and two weeks before they are supposed to hand over authority, the military generals who were the power behind Hosni Mubarak's autocratic rule are more entrenched in control than anyone in Egypt had ever intended. That shows no sign of changing.

They are poised to have a president who will bend to their will, with no parliament or constitution to put checks on them for the near future. They are also in a position to mold the new constitution to their own purposes.

How did Egypt get to this point, after a revolution intended to sweep out Mubarak's old order and bring democracy? A ruling Thursday by judges he had appointed dissolved the freely elected, Islamist-dominated parliament and sealed the military's leading role. But it was only the latest step in a path Egypt was put on soon after Mubarak was removed by his military brethren on Feb. 11, 2011, in the face of 18 days of pro-democracy protests.

For 16 tortured months, three factors have shaped that course:

— The military firmly controlled the transition.

— The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's strongest political force, tried to ride that transition to win power, but overreached.

— And the young leftist and secular revolutionaries who launched the revolt were in too much disarray to bring their dreams to fruition.

The international scene also played a significant role: Saudi Arabia and the United States deeply worried about instability and saw in the generals someone they could or had to trust.

There was a brief glimmer of a possibly different route right after Mubarak fell and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Mubarak's defense minister, stepped in to rule. The council promised to hold elections for a parliament that would oversee the writing of a constitution, then presidential elections.

The leftist and secular revolutionaries, particularly reform leader Mohammed ElBaradei, argued that elections supervised by the military would be a farce and any constitution would be tainted. Instead, they proposed a civilian leadership grouping the "revolutionary powers" immediately start to rule and oversee the constitution.

Divided and politically inexperienced, they were resoundingly overruled. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists — who had joined the revolt against Mubarak — broke with the revolutionaries and backed the military-run transition. They had no time for worries over military rule or talk of a revolutionary government, keeping a laser-like focus on elections in which they were confident of vaulting to power on a strong popular base.

Now the revolutionaries are saying: We told you so.

"A lot of time and effort went into campaigning for the presidential and parliamentary elections. They proved to be nothing, a scam," said activist Lobna Darwish. "It proved to be a distraction from working on direct street action, organizing people on the neighborhood and street level" to reach the revolution's goals and remove the military.

As a poster circulating on activists' social networking sites puts it: "The revolution asked for bread, freedom and social justice. They gave us troops, police and military police."

Gone is the parliament, the Brotherhood's main gain in the past year. Mubarak regime veteran Ahmed Shafiq, seen as the military's favorite, is competing in the presidential runoff election on Saturday and Sunday against the Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi. With no constitution, the powers of a new president will be up to the military to determine even after it "steps down" as promised by June 30. The generals have taken over legislative powers, and they can pick the members of the body that will write the constitution.

A turning point was a referendum in March 2011 in which the public overwhelmingly approved the military's plan for the transition. The Islamists strongly backed the plan, even proclaiming a "yes" vote to be required by God. The public trusted the military, was enamored at the promise of free elections and saw the revolutionaries' alternative as vague. The plan passed with 70 percent of the vote.

From then on, the military pointed to that referendum as proof of legitimacy for whatever it did.

While the generals portrayed themselves as the protectors of the revolution, their control meant there was no move to dismantle the system that Egyptians had risen up against.

Most commanders of the feared security forces and intelligence agencies remained. Regime cronies kept their hold on state TV and newspapers. Mubarak-appointed judges and prosecutors made only superficial efforts to investigate or prosecute members of the regime, leaving the vast legacy of corruption and political skullduggery intact.

Only a handful of low-level police officers were convicted in any of the deaths of 900 protesters in the uprising. Mubarak and his interior minister have been sentenced to life imprisonment for failing to stop those deaths, but not of ordering them. With a largely shoddy prosecution case, other security bosses were acquitted, and Mubarak and his sons were cleared of corruption charges.

The generals showed they could resort to even more brutal tactics than Mubarak. Troops cracked down on an early protest of military rule in Tahrir Square, detaining and torturing activists and carrying out humiliating "virginity tests" on female demonstrators in the nearby Egyptian Museum. Further crackdowns by security forces left more than 100 dead, and more than 12,000 went before military trials.

State TV, firmly in the generals' hands, depicted revolutionaries as troublemakers or worse — agents paid by foreign powers to spread chaos. That fueled resentment of the activists among some in the public, frustrated with the instability and an economy sliding downhill fast.

Notably, the Muslim Brotherhood repeated the same accusations against protesters — the starkest sign of their accommodation with the military for most of the past year.

For most of its 80-year history, the Brotherhood operated as an outlawed secret society that had to dodge security crackdowns on its wide social networks, finances and cadres. Protests and street politics threatened the Brotherhood's goal after Mubarak's fall of winning a legitimized place at the table.

That meshed with the immediate needs of the military to control the process and the streets, said Omar Ashour, an Egyptian expert on Islamic movements.

The highly organized Islamists largely stayed out of anti-military demonstrations, isolating the revolutionaries. In turn, the military paved the way for parliamentary elections — and the Islamists won big. The Brotherhood captured nearly half the seats and more radical Islamists took another quarter.

But the victory was hollow. The generals prevented the Brotherhood from creating a government, keeping military-appointed Cabinets in place. With the head of state — the military — required to approve laws, passing legislation was a useless exercise.

The Brotherhood's own ambitions prompted a backlash. It and other Islamists sought to pack the constitution-writing assembly overwhelmingly with their own people, prompting a walkout by leftists, liberals and moderates. A court dissolved the panel.

With Thursday's court ruling, they have lost parliament completely.

The generals "played this well," Ashour said. As for the Brotherhood, he added, "all their gains are gone. ... Their chance of (being significant players) is very much minimum."

The Brotherhood is also now largely without allies. Its former leftist and secular partners accused it of selling out the revolution. Repeatedly, it resisted concessions to work with other parties. It viewed the revolutionaries as immature with little popular support.

Indeed, some have seen the military as a bulwark against an Islamic state. Emad Gad, a lawmaker with the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, welcomed parliament's dissolution, saying divisions made agreement impossible and said the generals can now form the constitution-writing assembly.

Throughout, revolutionary groups have struggled to form a cohesive strategy.

They prided themselves on being a leaderless movement, which was a source of their strength. They used anger over police torture as the basis for launching the protests that grew into a nationwide uprising in which everyone brought different grievances against Mubarak's system to Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt.

But the unity disintegrated after Mubarak fell.

Some revolutionaries joined new liberal political parties to contest elections. But their ideologies were indistinct, their efforts to build popularity fumbled, and they won no more than 6 percent of the seats in parliament.

Others turned to street action and long-term organizing on the neighborhood level. Many of them feel vindicated, saying that while elections have proven futile, they have managed to mobilize some in the public against the military.

Hossam el-Hamalawy, a leftist who was one of the first to call for the military regime to be dismantled and an advocate of labor-oriented street action, recognizes that the revolutionary groups have lacked the tools to "fight back."

A national organization linking labor and youth movements is even more urgent now, he wrote Friday in an online magazine, Jadaliya.

But, he argued, the military has failed to stem the revolutionary drive. Any deal from now on between the military and political groups aimed at stopping protests and strikes "is futile."

Correspondent Sarah El Deeb has covered Egypt and the Middle East for the past 10 years. Lee Keath, the Middle East enterprise editor, has covered the region since 2005.