Pro-democracy activists marching through the crowded streets of Cairo last week were met with smiles and laughter from some but also suspicion and hostility. Setting out, they had expected trouble, and maybe even violence.
Not everyone in this working class neighbourhood of Imbaba liked their chants and when they stopped outside a mosque to screen a film critical of the military council, one angry local resident forced them to move on.
It’s a scene that illustrates just one of the problems facing Egypt’s pro-democracy groups as they try to rally support for a campaign against military rulers they believe are standing in the way of promised change.
Though Egypt has just held its most free elections in six decades, political reforms in the country of 80-million have fallen far short of the overhaul sought by the young reformists who occupied Tahrir Square on January 25 2011, precipitating the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
Hardly represented at all in a new Parliament dominated by Islamists, those activists now find themselves side-lined and fighting to salvage a reputation they say has been damaged by media loyal to the state, which has cast them as foreign-backed troublemakers.
“We must present the revolution’s real message because the official media is delivering misinformation,” said Omar Almasry, a blogger who took part in the march.
“People power made the revolution a success. Now we are missing it,” said Almasry, an independent liberal, who left his camera at home in anticipation of trouble.
Watching the procession from a bus stop, Mohammed Hussein expressed the scepticism felt by those Egyptians who are more concerned with making a living than further upheaval.
“They want revolution, revolution, revolution. But then what?” said the 42-year-old school teacher. “There must be someone behind them.”
The sentiment reflects the challenge facing the groups which set off the anti-Mubarak uprising a year ago as they try to bring people back into the street.
“The youth movement has a long way to go in reclaiming the revolution,” said political analyst Mohamed Soffar.
While many Egyptians have tired of endless protests, refocused their attention on their livelihoods and left the military council to its business, among the activists, distrust of the generals has only grown with time.
They doubt the armed forces will meet its promise to fully hand power to civilian rule by the end of June and are concerned the military rulers are trying to co-opt the revolution for their own ends.
“We went into the revolution for democracy, freedom and social justice,” said Saeed Abu el-Alaa, a 28-year-old leader of the Youth Socialist Alliance, one of the groups pressing for deeper and faster reform.
“The democracy we are living is superficial and false.”
Human rights group Amnesty International has faulted the generals for “a catalogue of abuses that was in some aspects worse than under Hosni Mubarak”, including violent suppression of protests and a surge in military trials.
Headed by field marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s defence minister for two decades, the military council has defended its role in the post-Mubarak Egypt, portraying itself as the guardian of the revolution.
“If there is pent up frustration between some youth and the armed forces, then it must be eradicated,” said Major General Ismail Etman, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, addressing the youth complaints.
The newly elected Muslim Brotherhood, which was slow to back the uprising, is cooperating with the military for now, fuelling suspicions it might agree to a power-sharing deal, although it remains publicly committed to democratic reforms.
Both the Brotherhood and the military have called for celebrations on January 25, setting them at odds with youth groups who want the day to be an occasion for mass protest.
“I call for another revolution,” said Ahmed Harara, a 31-year-old who was blinded while taking part in the protests last year. “It will take four or five years at least until we get rid of this regime.”
Even without the overt support of the well-organised Brotherhood, leading activists say they are better placed today than they were a year ago to bring people into the streets.
Ahmed Maher, a founder of the prominent April 6 movement, dismisses any suggestion that the youth groups are floundering.
April 6, for example, now has 20 000 committed activists across Egypt, seven times its size when it helped launch the uprising, the bespectacled 31-year-old civil engineer said.
“Whoever talks about an end to the role of the square is deluded,” said Maher, speaking at a side street cafe where Cairenes meet to talk politics.
The activists say they are learning from their mistakes and are seeking to address criticism of their failure to join forces with like-minded groups and to build grassroots support.
Organisation is improving, said Sally Touma, a leader of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, set up last year after the uprising erupted. “You have to do some self-reflection on the mistakes that were made,” she said.
“We have to organise people in groups so the revolution is in every neighbourhood,” she said, speaking while taking part in the Imbaba protest.
Part of a campaign called “Liars”, the march was one of some 300 events held since December aimed at highlighting what the activists call the military council’s dishonesty.
The rally was itself the result of closer coordination between nascent political groups with the same aims.
The night before, representatives of five groups gathered in a cramped office for the third time in a month. Packed into a smoky room, the attendees voted on “The Revolution Continues Movement” as a new umbrella name for their alliance.
“There’s no need for each group to work on its own,” said Abu el-Alaa, the socialist youth leader who was attending the meeting. “Our main aim is organisation, organisation, organisation to preserve our existence and our revolution.”
But he agreed the revolutionaries needed to urgently address their image problem to counter what he described as the “theft of the revolution”.
“We are lacking popular support, despite the fact we are stronger.” — Reuters