Cairo still rocked by protests two years on

By Anne Penketh

On second anniversary of fall of Mubarak, Egyptians take to Tahrir Square over lack of progress

The blackened burned-out shell of the former ruling party headquarters in Egypt still stands at the entrance to Tahrir Square in Cairo, a stark reminder of the violence that left 846 protesters dead during the revolution that forced President Hosni Mubarak from power.

Today, with Mubarak in jail and facing a retrial for failing to stop the killing of peaceful protesters, thousands of protesters will again converge on the square to mark the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

This time their ire will be directed not against Mubarak but at his successor, the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi who came from the ranks of the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood.

He is accused of failing to deliver the goals of the revolution exactly two years ago: bread, freedom and social justice. But he has also been branded a "new pharaoh" for ramming through a constitution drawn up by Islamists and lacking the support of opposition parties which say that the document rides roughshod over basic freedoms, particularly of women and the Coptic minority.

"We want the constitution changed, but I don't think they will," said the International Secretary of the Social Democratic Party, Hussein Gohar.

He noted that constitutional amendments require two-thirds of the Parliament for adoption, which made changes unlikely. Egyptian commentators say that the Islamists - the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, and the ultra-radical Salafists - are likely to retain their grip on power in the elections next (northern) spring. "We're going to march but we won't be calling for Morsi to stand down," Gohar went on. "There's no point in getting him to leave, he's been elected. But he has to be a real president for all Egyptians and not just for the Muslim Brotherhood."

The Social Democratic Party, formed after the revolution, is part of an umbrella group called the National Salvation Front for the main opposition parties. It aims to forge a political coalition in the next elections to counter the formidable party machine of the Muslim Brotherhood whose stronghold is in the conservative rural areas.

But one seasoned Egyptian observer said: "The opposition is divided, they put personal interests first. We don't have any statesmen here."

The Government should be an easy target - it has been condemned for a series of policy u-turns and for failing to slow an economic downturn that has left the majority of Egyptians under the poverty line. Rising prices have hit the poor people hard, and more stringent measures are expected if a deal on a US$4.8 billion ($5.7 billion) loan is agreed with the International Monetary Fund.

Consequently, the popularity of the ruling Islamists has been in decline. Only 33 per cent of the population bothered to turn out for the constitutional referendum last month. But political scientist Mostafa-Elwi Saif, a professor at Cairo University, said "in the elections, the Islamists will still win because they are so well organised. People will vote for the Muslim Brotherhood for the next three to four years, even though they are disappointed."

He describes the polarisation of society as "a crisis of the elites", the Islamists versus the non-Islamists.

With the continuing uncertainty and political turmoil, some liberals fear that the Islamists will eventually reveal their true face.

The Muslim Brotherhood "are rigorous, they have group thinking, and they see their job as not yet finished", said Mahmoud Karem, the head of the human rights council during the revolution who stepped down last month. He too is concerned about the constitution's ambiguities and its disregard for the rights of women, children and Copts.

Ali, a Cairo doctor, said: "They see themselves as Islamists first, and secondly as Egyptian."

Ali noted that many Egyptians had begun to arm themselves, not only to protect their families in the absence of the once-hated police who he said now behaved as though they were "on holiday". Insecurity is still rife across Egypt which has had five Interior Ministers in the past two years. Ali suggested that some had worries about the political crisis deteriorating to the point of armed conflict. There were violent clashes on Friday (NZ time) on the eve of the anniversary, as groups of protesters tried to break down a wall outside the Parliament in central Cairo.

Ali keeps a Browning automatic at home in a gated community in a posh Cairo suburb, while some neighbours had AK-47 assault rifles, he said.

"People are still worried that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists will bare their fangs, and it will turn to that," he added.

Where did the weapons come from? According to different Egyptian sources, they have flooded across the border with Libya, but also from Sudan and the troubled Sinai peninsula in eastern Egypt.

Other Egyptian observers remain convinced that Egypt will muddle through. Saif places his hopes in the young people who spearheaded the revolution in 2011.

If the Islamists ignore the views of Egyptian youth, he said, "They could return the momentum to the streets. If they take to the streets again after the parliamentary elections, they can be agents of change again, even if they're not in the majority."

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