A Revolution of Cross-Purposes: Can It Change Egypt?

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

An injured Egyptian attends a protest in Tahrir Square.

The rippling banners, and marchers with signs have filled Tahrir Square to the brim. Diverse swarms of families have joined them, as have the political and religious leaders with bullhorns; and there are the tea and koshari vendors; and even the cotton candy man, his enormous pink cloud of sugar visible from across the sea of thousands.

Eight days into the most dramatic mass protest to hit Egypt since the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak last winter, the crowd in Cairo's central square on Friday reached its largest number since the demonstrations began a week ago, with tens of thousands pressed to Tahrir's limits. Clashes between protesters and Egypt's central security forces have left nearly 40 people dead. But with signs and chants still calling for the downfall of military rule, and rejecting the ruling generals' latest concession — the appointment of a new Prime Minister — the revolution's latest incarnation shows no signs of flagging.

But while the crowd in the square appears to be a single unit, the enormity of the throng camouflages deep divisions on the way forward just days ahead of parliamentary elections. There are splits in opinion among the protesters that have splintered party coalitions ahead of the historic vote. Within the square, demonstrators are at odds over the prioritization of their revolutionary demands, and over the optimal end-all: a timetable for the military's transition to civilian rule versus an immediate transfer of power.

Rejecting the newest Prime Minister, Kamal al-Ganzoury, as yet another member of Mubarak's old guard, some members of the protest movement have proposed that the military council immediately choose an interim leader from a list of five prominent opposition leaders selected by Tahrir's activists. "These five people represent the revolution, and there is a consensus," reasons Adil Fathi, a lawyer. The names range from popular Islamist Abdel Monem Abul Fotouh to liberal Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei — both presidential candidates — but the idea is unlikely to sell with the majority of Egyptians who aren't in Tahrir.

Indeed, as big as the crowds are in the square and its counterpart protests in other major cities, Egypt's population of 85 million is even bigger and more divided. And that is a huge problem for the revolutionaries. In the poor and densely populated Cairo district of Abbassiya on Friday, a large crowd of Egyptians held a simultaneous protest of the opposite nature: in support of the military. "[The Abbassiya protesters] are demanding respectfully and politely that these people [in Tahrir] go back home and let the military council and the government do their job," said Osama Hosni, a fence-sitter who had decided to visit both demonstrations before making up his mind. The people in Abbassiya want stability, he added — something Egypt desperately needs. But he said that should come as a product of democracy. "Once the people's assembly is formed, that will help bring stability back to Egypt," he said. "Now people are protesting freely, but we also need stability, and that comes with elections."

On Friday, the military announced that the country's parliamentary vote, set to begin on Monday, would extend over two days, rather than one — an amendment meant to encourage voter turnout, but likely to further confuse an already bewildered populace of eligible voters. Whether to proceed with the election or not, given the past week's violent confrontations between protesters and Egypt's security forces, is already a question that has fractured political coalitions and voters alike. "I've changed my mind because of what happened," said Hamid Mohamed, a protester. "I was going to vote. But because of what happened last week, I'm not going to." He carried a sign that said, "Hey pyramid, you're making me blind" and which depicted a blind man with a cane feeling his way toward a figure representing Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who appears to be making away with the Egyptian flag. Accusations that the military was trying to blind Egyptians, literally and figuratively, to their actions was a common theme in Tahrir on the day the ruling council affirmed that the vote would not be postponed.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party, widely predicted to capture a sizeable chunk of the seats in Monday's vote, opted to sit the protest out — a move that earned it condemnation from liberal parties and many of its own supporters, and led others to allege that the leadership of the Brotherhood was conspiring with the military. "I think the Muslim Brotherhood is waiting to see what the political atmosphere is, and they think there are people here who want to postpone the elections," said Hosni.

Others argue that the protesters could have it both ways: "We want elections to be held on time, and at the same time we are demanding the rights of our colleagues and friends," said Tareq Ramadan, a protestor who wore an eye patch in solidarity with those who have lost their eyes to rubber bullets in recent days.

Even so, many protesters say the continued presence of a mass movement in Cairo and in other major cities will seriously challenge the credibility of any election next week, no matter how many turn out to vote. If the violence declines, the protesters and the military may also settle into a contest of wills. "This was our experience with Mubarak — staying here to force change," said one protester, Ashraf Shendi. But most in Tahrir says this time will be harder than the last. The winter uprising lasted 18 days and toppled a dictator, they say. This time demonstrators seek to topple the powerful military leaders he left behind. Whether the latter is possible without serious violence, or at least greater numbers remains to be seen. "In every revolution, only 15% of the population participates. There is no 100%," says Adil Fathi, the lawyer. "But we hope that more people will join. We need more pressure."

Others are more cynical. "The truce is not going to last very long," predicted Mohamed Rageb, a Brotherhood supporter, of the relative calm in the square. Like other Brotherhood supporters who disagreed with the leadership's abstention, he had decided to join the protest and had seen the violence unleashed on the protesters. The junta is "just testing the people," he says. "They're waiting for people to get frustrated and desperate. They're waiting to see how it affects the people here, and the general public and the media — whether more people will join or whether people will disperse." By late Friday night, Tahrir Square was as packed as ever, and the clashes between protesters and police on its side street front lines had resumed.