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How Egypt Won the Battles But Lost the War

01/12/2014 10:49 EST | Updated 03/14/2014 05:59 EDT

When talk show host David Letterman asked news anchor Scott Pelley on June 27, 2012 what happened to the "Arab Spring," the latter replied: "It's almost as if the revolution never happened."

This was what Omar Kamel, an advocate for social justice and civilian rule, feared the most -- the populist uprising that cost the lives of thousands killed and injured would be overwritten by recent events in Egypt's modern history.

Kamel had previously warned in an opinion piece titled The Two Histories of Egypt that the Egyptian revolution could unravel as quickly as it had erupted, but no one seemed to notice.

It was February 21, 2011 -- ten days after Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's longest serving president, had been deposed.

People were jubilant, having broken shackles which for decades stifled their spirits. In Tahrir Square, the symbol of their new-found liberties, they expressed long-restrained freedoms.

Fear had been defeated and hope for a new Egypt had emerged.

No one wanted to hear that things were not what they seemed.

"Meanwhile, under the radar, rogue elements from the military, in alliance with the fragmented and still unaccountable security forces get together, and they start to operate. The nation is weakened, step by step, and in time the people come to realize that it was not so much a revolution as a re-boot," warned Kamel, who himself had been tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and injured during the many populist demonstrations calling for democracy and an end to military rule.

He was one of the few who protested after the military clashed with protesters on February 25, 2011.

The military apologized for the clash, but the violence convinced Kamel to join the No Military Trials for Civilians group.

Nearly three years later, Kamel's warnings appear to be prescient. The concerns and dire predictions of the very few at the time have now become the dominant narrative for many in Egypt who believe the revolution has been reversed.

Dalia Hamed, the Managing Director of ComStratEg -- a media research and consultancy firm, is angry that real opportunities to establish an inclusive civilian democracy during the post-Mubarak period were repeatedly squandered.

"The revolution has largely been derailed because the youth movement that led the Tahrir protests had no leadership and was mostly controlled by a group of easily manipulated [and] ambitious, yet naive young activists. It is no secret that the Muslim Brotherhood jumped at the opportunity and totally took advantage of the circumstances, and were soon ruling the country," she says.

But the Brotherhood, once popular underdogs in their fight against the Mubarak regime, also missed the chance to include the voices of the opposition and other parties in their efforts to rebuild the nation.

Less than eight months after their candidate Mohamad Morsi became president, the Brotherhood were widely believed to be hoarding political power, while assigning ministries and gubernatorial positions to their allies and sympathizers.

As the economy teetered on the verge of collapse, unemployment soared and inflation set in, many believed that rather than create political consensus in democracy-building institutions, the Brotherhood were slowly transforming Egypt into an Islamist state.

On June 30, millions of Egyptians took to the streets again to pressure Morsi to change his policies or resign.

Three days later, the military removed the Islamist president and established an interim government that promised to redraft the constitution and hold both parliamentary and presidential elections within a year.

But the months that followed would be bloody.

On August 14, security forces forcibly dispersed pro-Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood camps in a section of Cairo near the presidential palace.

The ensuing violence left at least 600 people dead and more than 4,000 injured.

Most Egyptians expressed disbelief at the violence and vandalism which broke out in August. On social media, tweets of condemnation and vitriol were replaced with resignation, prayer, and shock at the number of dead among protesters and security forces.

The violence continued as students clashed with police in Al Azhar University in November and December; Egyptian military personnel were attacked and killed in the Sinai and northern Egypt; the minister of interior survived an assassination attempt and police stations and military barracks came under attack.

On December 23, a car bomb destroyed part of a five-story security headquarters in Mansoura in the Daqahliya province north of Cairo.

The government immediately blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the attack and classified it a terrorist organization, effectively ending any hopes of political integration, let alone reconciliation.

Could the government have taken such a far-reaching step without popular support?

No, says Hamed.

"For many Egyptians, when faced between two fascist regimes, one being the military and the other is the theocratic Muslim Brotherhood, I believe that many are choosing the military," she says.

In the interim, at least, most Egyptians are likely to support the military-backed government's referendum on yet another batch of constitutional amendments.

A recent survey conducted by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research shows that 74 per cent of the electorate will vote yes, 3 per cent will vote "no", and 23 per cent say they are still undecided.

Shaima El-Elaimy, an advocate of civilian rule who was shot at and tear-gassed several times during demonstrations in the past three years, believes Egypt has gone full circle.

"We're back to the same situation we were in when Mubarak was in power," she says.

El-Elaimy predicts that tens of thousands of people will fill Egypt's squares and public spaces on the third anniversary of the revolution ... to endorse the current Defense Minister Abdel-Fatah El Sissi as a candidate for expected presidential elections later this year.

On January 11, El-Sissi said he was looking for a mandate from the people before deciding whether to run for president.

"Everything is as it always was with the US and Europe, and Israel's security will continue to be the priority it has always been," El-Elaimy says.

Sawsan Gharib, a coordinator and spokeswoman for the April 6 opposition movement which was at the forefront of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, believes that Egypt's future could prove to be more bleak than its past.

She says the government's new measures such as the recent anti-protest law which was passed without parliamentary oversight, and the sentencing of those involved in pro-Brotherhood protests or unsanctioned demonstrations to five years in jail, are worrisome signals that the country is reverting to rule by repression.

"I feel we have removed a dictatorship in 2011 only to make a U-turn and go back [to] where we started and sometimes I feel we are even going back to an era worse than when we started," Gharib says.

A reset of the type that Gharib describes may be a setback for some, but is seen by many others as a correction.

Nervana Mahmoud, an Egypt observer and blogger, points out that it is the silent majority now who will determine Egypt's future directions.

"The mood in Egypt now is down, a mix of confusion and pessimism. People do not know who they can trust any more. Egypt is not on a revolutionary track, simply because the silent majority have had enough, and want stability," she says.

The lack of stability in the last three years has garroted Egypt's economy, debilitated its foreign currency reserves, and erased nearly three decades of efforts to promote the country as a healthy investment destination.

Unemployment and inflation continue to rise beyond the capacity of a workforce that was already struggling to put food on the table.

For Mustafa, a supermarket home delivery man and father of two young girls, the economy was always the most important concern -- not democracy or civilian rule.

"They're ruining the country, all of them -- the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, the secularists and those people protesting in Tahrir. What do they want? They've been protesting non-stop for two years," he said.

Mustafa earns less than $135 a month. The money has never been enough, he says, and he supports his income with tips and handouts he receives from the foreigners he delivers grocery items to in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. Many of those foreigners have left.

While he does not intend on voting in the upcoming referendum, he believes El-Sisi is the right man for the job to stabilize the country and boost the economy, which some analysts believe could start happening by mid-2014.

Hamed agrees that Mustafa's comments are critical because they reveal what the layman is thinking three years after the January 25 Revolution.

"While the majority of Egyptians are quite happy to be rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, many fear that the Mubarak regime is about to be restored," she said.

"But for the layman, the situation over the course of the last three years was so bad they actually lament for Mubarak's days."

Nearly three years after he published his warnings, Kamel says he is disturbed by the growing divisive nature of Egyptian society, the narrow-minded narrative of absolutes - "you're either with us or against us" -- and the government's recent policies which have radicalized any potentially peaceful or political opposition.

Clashes In Egypt