I have had the opportunity to be in Cairo three times for brief visits in the last 20 months, the first a few weeks after the departure of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, the second in February of 2012 when the revolutionary process was treading water, and this third one over the course of the previous ten days. What is striking is how drastically the prevailing mood and expectations have changed from visit to visit, how fears, hopes, and perceptions have altered over time, and why they are likely to continue to do so.

I. The Overthrow of Mubarak

On the first visit, shortly after the extraordinary exploits in Tahrir Square that started on January 18, 2011, there was a spirit of stunned amazement that made it seem as though the ‘Arab Spring’ was a genuine historical phenomenon of epic proportions and that Egypt had become the core site of a new post-Marxist radical politics that relied on militant behavior and a radical ethos of transformation, but avoided ideology and hard power tactics. It was being widely celebrated as a remarkable expression of democratic populism, especially the empowerment of youth, women, with social networking via the Internet being accorded a special prominence during the popular mobilization process. The sentiment could be summarized in different ways: ‘the impossible happened,’ ‘I never expected to experience this rising up of the people of Egypt,’ ‘We have our country back,’ ‘I have never been so proud to be an Egyptian.’ It was an upheaval with transformative potential, magnified and catalyzed by the immediately prior Tunisian rising, which exhibited what seemed to be an innovative form of largely nonviolent radical politics that almost miraculously wrote the script on the set of its unfolding while occupying Tahrir Square along with other less-media-exposed arenas of protest and opposition. (And not so incidentally, inspired the occupy movements that spread around the world in the following months, with Occupy Wall Street being the appropriate epicenter.) It was treated as an amazing instance of ‘spontaneous empowerment’ at the time, although more knowledgeable observers and participants tended to stress a cumulative process with distinct roots in reactions to prior abuses by the Mubarak police apparatus and in important labor protest strikes.

Of course, even during this period of afterglow, there were deep concerns in Egypt just below this surface of enthusiasm. There were a wide variety of cautionary reactions relating to the lasting significance of what had taken place, and skeptical viewpoints as to whether the deeper challenges of Egyptian poverty and class inequalities could be effectively addressed without a more ambitious political process that challenged and dismantled the institutional infrastructure of the old regime. On the one side were a variety of sentiments that expressed doubts about whether it was enough to be rid of Mubarak, and gave a range of opinions about what was not done and still needed to be done if Egypt would be able to find a path to sustainable and equitable social, economic, and political progress. This outlook was reinforced by the understanding that if forward momentum of this sort was not achieved post-Mubarak, the likely sequel would be regression. There was also widespread skepticism as to whether Egypt could both solve the problems of democratic transition and at the same time address the inequities and failures of the inherited neoliberal economy. Such a challenge could only be met through constituting a new economic order that was far more responsive to the needs of the Egyptian people and less hospitable to capitalist-style investment, a process that would certainly undermine investor confidence, at least in the short-run.

Egyptian friends expressed other concerns to me, as well, including worries about what the United States and Israel might be doing or plotting behind the scenes to embolden the armed forces to move in counter-revolutionary directions and reverse an emancipatory process that might threaten the regional status quo. There was an anxiety that these outside forces that had exerted such a strong influence in the former configurations of state power in Egypt would not give up their former leverage without trying to restore the substance, if not the form, of the old reliable order. It did seem at the time that democratizing forces were almost certain to become hostile in the future to the geopolitical arrangements favored for the region by Washington and Tel Aviv, and that the political self-determination of Egypt was threatened by the likely machinations of these external forces. At this stage, there was broad agreement that American support was one of the props of the discarded Mubarak leadership, and that Egyptian democracy depended on curbing Washington’s future influence.

There was also debate in early 2011 about three elements of the domestic political scene: (1) whether the armed forces would facilitate or obstruct the establishment of a constitutional democracy in the country; (2) how to allow the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) to participate in political life while retaining the belief that it would be disastrous if it end up dominating the democratizing process; and (3) intense speculation about who would carry the presidential torch across the finish line.

With respect to the MB, there was uncertainty and controversy as to the orientation of its leadership, some suggestions of inter-generational conflict between the traditionally conservative older generation and a more modernity-oriented and moderate younger generation. There was also disagreement as to whether its Islamic orientation was rather insignificant because its real goals were to promote private business interests and to gain access to the commanding heights of governmental authority. There were estimates at the time of MB strength as being somewhere between 25-30%, almost no mention of the Salafis as a political force to be reckoned with, and a liberal secular consensus that it was fine for the MB to take part in the political process, assuming that MB strength did not turn out to exceed those estimates. Some anti-Mubarak secularists did say that if it turned out that the true strength of the MB was 40% or more, then Egypt would be in deep trouble of a not clearly specified nature. In effect, the secular consensus implicitly believed a year and a half ago that a political process dominated by the MB, even if it came about by democratic procedures, was unacceptable. But such a prospect was widely dismissed as so unlikely as not to be worth discussing. Implicitly, there were some prophetic fears even before the MB grassroots nationwide strength was disclosed in a series of electoral moments, that majoritarian democracy was not a legitimate outcome for Egypt. In a way, the MB seemed at first to acquiesce in this understanding, signaling their agreement by pledging not to compete for the presidency, presumably to avoid threatening the kind of ecumenical unity that was so powerfully displayed at Tahrir Square a few weeks earlier.

The balance of opinion that I encountered in late February 2011 seemed to feel that an active role for the armed forces was a necessary feature for any successful transition to constitutional democracy. The alternative was assumed to be a descent into societal chaos, followed by economic collapse. On the role of the armed forces in the upheaval, there were differing assessments, some thinking that the military leadership had itself been eager to avoid a Mubarak dynasty, abhorring the prospect of power shifting to his younger son, and thus initially allowed and even welcomed the popular rising, so as to let the movement rid the country of the Mubarak factor rather than to stage a coup on its own. Yet, the armed forces were certainly not willing to loosen their grip on the reins of power and privilege that included a major stake in the private sector economy, and thus favored a rapid return to societal normalcy. The surviving military leadership remained tied to an authoritarian style of politics, which in effect meant business as usual from the perspective of Tahrir activists. Others in Egyptian civilian society were more hopeful about the intentions of the armed forces believing that the upper echelons of the military, while not revolutionary, shared the reformist goals of the uprising, favored constitutional reforms, and sought to withdraw as quickly as possible from the political arena, limiting its role to facilitating order during a transition to a law-based political democracy.

There were opposite worries, as well, in the afterglow of the Tahrir Square victories. Above all, a sense among those who understood politics in a conventional Western liberal manner that this movement that was so exciting during the days of struggle that culminated on January 25th lacked leadership, cohesion, program, and vision. As such, it would not be able to meet the challenges of the next phases—managing the practical procedures of governance or competing effectively in electoral arenas for a major role in policymaking circles. This innovative political revolutionary process had the short-term effect of allowing the battle for the future of the country to be waged by two essentially anti-democratic forces with hierarchical structures of organization that were at odds with kind of disorganized unity exhibited during the days of struggle in Tahrir Square: the MB and assorted remnants of the old order, an unholy alliance between the Mubarak beneficiaries, the old bureaucracy that had not been deconstructed, big business interests, economic sectors such as tourism and small shopkeepers, and Copts deeply worried about moves toward Islamism. This eventuality culminated in the presidential runoff between Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik.

Many of those that had flooded the streets a year earlier never cohered sufficiently to envision ‘next steps,’ and seemed either to retreat from political arenas altogether or leave the field to those who were more traditionally organized to compete for power. On a more radical side were those who were outside the mainstream of the earlier uprising, but remained engaged on the basis of believing that the movement that took shape in Tahrir Square could only reach its necessary transformative goals if it persisted in a populist mode that kept the poor masses in Egyptian society fully mobilized. Among such activists there existed a shared conviction that the revolutionary process needed to be deepened in a spirit of urgency or else the system would quickly slip back to its old ways. This radical element while affirming the originality of the Tahrir style and outcomes rejected all efforts to achieve revolutionary goals by means of party politics and elections, including traditional leftist approaches. At the same time, without being willing to endorse a blueprint for transformation, radicals identified their preferred movement with the realization of a just and independent future for the country, especially for those Egyptians so long disempowered and barely subsisting. This Egyptian radicalism remained committed to the Tahrir politics based on maintaining popular unity across the typical divisions of class, religion, and ethnicity, without advocating its own program or promoting particular leader, affirming the continuing need for confrontational tactics, and comfortable with the idea that chaos might ensue and persist for some years. Chaos was accepted as the price that must be paid if the movement that overthrew Mubarak was to grow into a genuine ‘revolution,’ and not degenerate into either a ‘counter-revolution’ or a species of ‘liberal reform’ that left the majority of Egyptians in as miserable a shape as during the Mubarak era.  In the end this radical vision was based on beliefs in local empowerment and emancipation, the creativity of people, a robust labor movement, and a bottom up view of political reconstruction, rejecting both MB and liberal secular views of top down political order. This radicalism drew its inspiration from a sense that a new kind of transformative politics had been revealed in Tahrir Square, but that it was a flowering that would wilt if not nurtured by an uncompromising insistence that the wellbeing and dignity of the Egyptian masses was the core challenge, and could not be achieved by elections, parties, and government.