Three months after the Egyptian military ousted the country’s first democratically elected president, Egypt now resembles the kind of police state whose oppressive policies gave rise to an iconic Arab Spring.
Nearly three years and many protests, elections and governments later, it seems only the electorate has changed. The public, desperate for stability at any cost, has embraced the iron hand that rules and rejected the revolutionary and Islamist groups who pushed for change.
Even a protest on Friday by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi underscored the point. The Morsi supporters sought to claim the mantle of defenders of the revolution and provocatively marched toward Tahrir Square, the iconic center of Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising. But the military stopped them, and Cairo residents helped, throwing rocks, bottles and objects at the Morsi demonstrators. Five people were killed nationwide.
Sunday, the military has called for demonstrations to mark the 40th anniversary of its 1973 war with Israel, which while a military loss proved to be a political victory for Egypt as it won back the Sinai. The demonstrations are expected to dwarf Friday’s pro-Morsi rally – more evidence that the vast majority of Egyptians have acquiesced to military rule.
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For six weeks, Egyptians have abided by a curfew that has all but ended nightlife in much of the country. They’re largely silent about the arrests of thousands of civilians, some being tried before military tribunals. The military has conducted several operations on cities purportedly sympathetic to Islamists, rounding up citizens on charges as vague as supporting terrorism, all without any public outcry.
The streets are lined with posters of Gen. Abdel Fatah el Sissi, the defense minister who engineered the Morsi’s ouster July 3. Already a campaign has begun calling for Sissi to run for president in elections tentatively scheduled for next year, though the jury remains out on whether he can deliver what Egyptians want most: a vibrant, or at least not dying, economy.
“We gave Sissi the mandate and still we have seen nothing from him,” said Karim Magdy, 24, a waiter.
The mass protests that once drew international attention are now a distant memory. Indeed, the military enjoys unprecedented popularity since the 2011 uprising that was supposed to end its grip on the country. Residents say they’ve lost interest in protests; they did not lead to change or solve their immediate problems.
“Should I look for a job or protest? All the youth now are smoking hash because they are desperate and unemployed,” said Mohammed Abu Zaid, 23, who’s unemployed himself and who once protested.
Amid such sentiment, those who had been at the center of Egypt’s political change – the revolutionaries, whose 18 days of demonstrations toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate, Morsi, became not only Egypt’s first freely elected president, but also its first to be ousted in a coup – are trying to regroup.
“If I have a problem, I should go to television channels and tell them my problem. They should escalate my voice to the person responsible. “I don’t have to protest and hurt someone to get what I want,” said Saleh Ahmed, 59, a cafe worker in Maadi. “Protesting distracts the country from developing. Enough. We want the country to move on.”
Both revolutionaries and the Brotherhood say the days of expecting revolutionary change are over. The public is weary of talk of change that so far has brought only instability.
“We are at square one as a revolution,” said Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the primary organizers behind the protests that led to Mubarak’s resignation.
Last month, seven revolutionary parties, including Maher’s, agreed to put aside their differences and form a coalition, the Revolution Path Front. Instead of seeking the presidency or changing the way the nation operates, the front now seeks smaller victories like raising the minimum wage in the private sector and getting the state to restart train operations, which had been fully shut down since Aug. 14 when the police and military routed a Brotherhood sit-in, killing as many as 1,100 people. Earlier this week, the government opened some stops.
“We are pushing for the problems of the people,” said Hatem Tallima, a member of the Revolutionary Socialists movement and one of the 152 people who signed the document creating the new front. “This affects traffic and workers who pay more to ride in minibuses.”
The attention to such working-class concerns as pay raises and better working conditions marks a shift for the so-called revolutionaries, who mostly hail from Egypt’s elite classes. It’s a recognition that most Egyptians have thrown in with the military-imposed government and will remain loyal to it unless living conditions don’t improve.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood moved its media operations to London, seeking in part to rebuild its credibility with the West. Its television channel, which the military shut down within hours of Morsi’s ouster, now runs from outside the country.
Internally, the Brotherhood is back to operating underground, holding furtive meetings about how to rebuild its popularity with young people and the general public. With its best-known leaders under arrest, the Brotherhood’s direction is now dependent on middle-level officials who hadn’t previously exercised wide-ranging authority.
How successful they’ll be is an open question. The government has shut down the Brotherhood’s newspaper, and a judge banned the Brotherhood from “all activities,” a ruling that if it stands would prevent the Brotherhood from providing the kind of social services that helped make it once the most powerful organization in the country. The protests that the Brotherhood has organized, such as Friday’s. have been nothing compared to the huge protests the Brotherhood had been able to turn out.
No one is expecting quick results, certainly nothing on the scale of the last three years, when protests in the streets turned out two presidents.
“It will be like the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution,” Tallima said of the prospects of the new revolutionary movement influencing events. “It will take years.”
In the meantime, everyday citizens said they are watching Egypt’s flailing economy as a driver of change, not political groups. Unemployment hovers around 15 percent amid rising inflation on food staples, which makes up as much as 50 percent of an average Egyptian’s spending. The latest transition government has done little to address the economy, instead depending on billions of loans and aid packages from allied nations to sustain the economy and its reserves.
“Protesting won’t feed us. We want to eat. It seems that there is no hope in this country. People died and lost their eyes in 25th of January (2011) and still nothing had changed,” said Ahmed El Sebaai, 38, a taxi driver. “Once hunger reaches real Egyptians like me, a hunger revolution will take place.”
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.