CAIRO — Egypt's revolutionaries can point to the moment their revolution began to go astray: It was the day of their greatest victory, when protesters ecstatic with the fall of President Hosni Mubarak cheered the army that stepped in to take his place. "The army and the people are one hand," they chanted.
In the nine months since, the ruling generals — all appointees of Mubarak and diehards of his rule — have kept an iron grip on a process that revolutionaries had hoped would mean the dismantling of the old regime in a transition to democracy. The military has solidified its hold, giving itself overwhelming powers while governance of the country has faltered, leaving Egyptians worried about turmoil in the streets and a faltering economy.
The youth groups that engineered the 18-day uprising against Mubarak that began Jan. 25 have been squeezed out, marginalized and isolated.
"We should not have left the streets. We handed power to the military on a silver platter," said Ahmed Imam, a 33-year-old activist, of the January uprising. "The revolutionaries went home too soon. We collected the spoils and left before the battle was over."
Months of anger over the military's handling of the transition period boiled over this weekend, sparking deadly clashes in Cairo's Tahrir Square that left at least 21 protesters dead and hundreds wounded.
The demonstrators were initially demanding the military quickly announce a date for the handover of power to a civilian government, but the mood shifted Sunday after an attempt by security forces to clear the square. Now, protesters say the ruling generals are nothing more than an extension of the Mubarak regime, and are calling on military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his council of generals to step down in favor of an interim civilian administration.
Elections to choose the first post-revolution parliament, starting on Nov. 28, promise to be the nation's first fair and clean vote in living memory. But instead of a sense of joy and excitement, Egyptians seem more thrown into confusion. The electoral system is cumbersome and complex and voting is spread out over months. Many are unclear over who is running.
Islamic fundamentalist parties — particularly the powerful Muslim Brotherhood — are expected to come out the biggest winners in the vote and grab a plurality of parliament seats. But no matter who wins, there are doubts whether the next government to be formed will be strong enough to challenge the ruling generals, who will remain in place and have resisted major reform.
Already, the military is seeking to manage the main priority for the next parliament — the formation of a panel to write a new constitution. The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has demanded a political role for themselves as "protectors" of the constitution, provisions that would keep the military budget secret and a veto power over the body drafting the constitution.
When a president is elected — a vote is initially set for late next year or early in 2013 — the occupant of the land's highest office is likely to be beholden to the generals, either because he will have a military background or because they may by then have more sweeping powers than him.
"If I had left Egypt on the eve of the revolution on January 24 and returned today, I would not have known that a revolution had taken place except for the lack of security and the deteriorating economy," Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent reform proponent, said during a TV talk show appearance last week.
It's a stark contrast to the atmosphere in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began with protests that led to the Jan. 14 fall of its longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Elections there in October saw an outpouring of enthusiasm and optimism as voters flocked to the polls. Islamists emerged the strongest party from Tunisia's elections, but even liberals who worry about increasing religious sway saw the vote as a democratic victory.
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