Egypt's Protesters Struggle On, Having Dislodged Mubarak, but Not His Regime

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Mohamed Hossam / AFP / Getty Images

Egyptian protesters chant slogans in Cairo's Tahrir Square on July 13

It may be midsummer in Egypt, but Cairo's Tahrir Square has recaptured some of the heady spirit of the Arab Spring that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. For the past six days and nights, the square has been occupied by a permanent protest camp, its impromptu dance circles, mingling of families and mix of social classes reminiscent of the February days and nights that preceded Mubarak's ouster.

The revolutionary fervor in the square isn't shared by a growing number of Egyptians frustrated by the ongoing protests, which have periodically shut down businesses and infrastructure in the months following the uprising. Protesting is counterproductive and it's time to move on, many argue. And the military leadership that seized control of the country — ostensibly temporarily — after Mubarak stepped down agrees wholeheartedly.

"We have to differentiate between rightful demands that the armed forces are going to listen to and implement, and destruction, which is something that the armed forces are never going to allow," Major General Mahmoud Hegazy, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said at a press conference on Tuesday.

But the men and women blocking traffic talk politics and raise banners together late into the night. And Tahrir Square, rich with opportunity for political parties signing up new members and even the vendors hawking patriotic wares, occupies a special place in the hearts of those who made the revolution. There's a reason the tech-savvy activists tweet and Facebook message their relief and nostalgia every time thousands pour back into the square. Partly, it's a therapeutic exercise for a country still reeling from decades of repression. Mostly, though, it's because for many Egyptian activists, Tahrir remains the only way they know to press for change from a military regime that has not satisfied the demands of many.

"The ex-regime is still controlling the country," says Wafik Ghitany, a member of the liberal Wafd party, expressing an increasingly common sentiment. "The military council is the same one that was headed by Mubarak himself."

Indeed, the inherent conundrum in Egypt's now five-month-old political transition, and for the protest movement spurring it on, is that protesters are essentially demanding that a dictatorship prosecute itself; they're counting on a corrupt elite to reform a corrupt system. Mubarak has fallen, many point out, but the generals who helped keep him in power are now in charge.

This week, the protesters achieved some victories. Interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf promised a Cabinet reshuffle. And on Wednesday, the government said it would dismiss nearly 700 police officers hired under the ex-regime — a key demand of protesters who have complained that Mubarak's brutal Interior Ministry has not been held accountable for its abuses. The military also announced that elections slated for September would be held in October or November, calming the fears of many liberal parties and activists who fear being eclipsed at the polls by better-organized Islamist rivals if the poll is held too soon.

Yet, still the protest in Tahrir winds on. That may be due in part to the realization that there's a big difference between a regime being responsive to public opinion and being willing to cede power to a democracy. "Nobody can challenge the military — [not] even a democratically elected President. At least not for another 10 years," predicts Hisham Kassem, a prominent newspaper editor and publisher. The military will be comfortable with "anyone" as President, he adds. Why? "Because they know nobody can touch them."

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