A Year After Egypt's Uprising: One Revolution, Two Perspectives

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Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images

Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, carry an obelisk with the names of those killed during last year's uprising, marking the first anniversary of the revolution on Jan. 25, 2012

Twelve months after a popular uprising erupted in Egypt, captivating the world and dislodging its authoritarian President, many in the country question whether the country is on the right path and whether the revolution has delivered on its promise. The unity of last year's revolution has given way to new realities and widening differences among Egyptians.

On the one-year anniversary marking the start of the revolution, I spent the day in Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of Egypt's struggle for change, asking people what Jan. 25 means to them. Their answers can be categorized into two groups: the anniversary was either about celebrating the revolution or trying to reinvigorate it.

The invigorators argue the revolution has not lived up to its potential. They say this Jan. 25 was all about renewing calls for sustained protests against the military to hand over power to a civilian government immediately. Last year, the people had coalesced around this once central demand: the fall of the regime embodied by the departure of the President Hosni Mubarak. The word regime was commonly used but perhaps less understood than it is now. A year later, those critics contend the regime is still very much in place and that the biggest mistake was entrusting the military with the keys to the revolution after it assumed power.

History has yet to write its final chapter on what role the military played in easing Mubarak's departure. But anecdotal evidence, key decisions throughout the year and recent statements by the military, as embodied in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), suggest it has embraced its newfound role as the country's paramount power over the past year. In a posting on its Facebook page on the eve of the Jan. 25 anniversary, the ruling military council wrote that the "military protected the revolution, stood with its objectives, embraced its demands and promises to fulfill it." The military is operating from a position of strength, observers say.

Political analysts say the military has managed to outmaneuver other forces in the country (Islamists, revolutionary youth, liberals, business elite and even foreign governments) by creating conditions on the ground whereby everybody discreetly feels the military should play a role in safeguarding the political process despite calls for its complete marginalization from political life.

Antimilitary activists say more than 12,000 civilians have been detained by military tribunals in the past year — more than the Mubarak era that lasted over 30 years. One year after the President's fall, not a single senior officer in any Egyptian security force has been convicted in the killing of protesters in the 18-day uprising. The trial of the former President was slow to start after the revolution. Since he left office, Mubarak has not spent time in prison, instead remaining under 24-hour medical watch at advanced medical facilities. Lawyers from his defense have been allowed to call hundreds of witnesses, a process that could delay his trial indefinitely. And while Mubarak is granted all of the protections of due process, civilians facing much lesser charges are being tried rapidly in military tribunals. Lawyers, victims and revolutionary groups have questioned the intent of the SCAF or government prosecutors to deliver true justice. Fueling their suspicion is the fact that the entire ruling military council and the country's general prosecutor are among the handful of officials appointed by Mubarak who have remained in power.

But there are signs of hope that the country is changing for the better. Many Islamist politicians and sizable part of the middle class in Egypt say while the pace of reform has been slow, certain gains have been made that are irreversible. Change is tangible. Those celebrating the revolution look at the gains achieved in the past year with optimism that the country is moving in the right direction.

A new parliament is being established. And people are enjoying newfound freedoms of speech, of the media and of the right to protest. There has been an explosion of political parties across the entire political spectrum, from socialists to ultraconservative Islamists. But above all, the relationship between the state and the citizens has changed. "A psychological barrier of fear has been broken," says Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive who rose from obscure activist to the global face of the Egyptian revolution after he and friends started a Facebook page that helped mobilize street protests. There is no going back to the ways of past oppression, he and others say.

But among the democratic realities that have emerged in post-revolutionary Egypt is the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafist movement in mainstream politics. These two parties overwhelmingly won the majority of seats in parliament. Will their mandate from the people be seen as a direct order to challenge the military? Some argue the Islamists are content with the democratic process undertaken by the military because it has paved their way to power. Some Egyptians fear the Brotherhood and the military have cut backroom deals. One popular theory is that the military will move the democratic process at a pace and under conditions favorable to Islamist parties at the expense of the lesser and weaker secular and liberal forces and that, in return, the Islamists will not mobilize their massive street support against the military or hold it accountable for past misdoings.

So whether Egyptians are celebrating or hoping to reinvigorate the revolution, one thing is certain: a year later, the success of that revolution still remains very much in question.

Mohyeldin is a foreign correspondent for NBC News based in Cairo.