Egypt’s Headless Revolution

CAIRO – “The man who taught me to sacrifice my heart for Egypt is dead,” said Vivian Magdi, mourning her fiancé. Michael Mosad was killed in the Maspiro area on October 9, when an armored vehicle hit him during a protest called to condemn an attack on an Egyptian Church in the southern Aswan region. The protest left 24 dead and more than 200 injured – a higher toll than that taken by the so-called “Battle of the Camels,” when former President Hosni Mubarak’s security forces and armed thugs attacked pro-democracy protestors in Tahrir Square at the height of the revolution.

Now, Tahrir Square is once again the scene of clashes. “This is January 25 all over again!” screamed a friend, as he barricaded himself in the square. Others were helping him to set up tents. More than 20,000 Egyptians filled Tahrir Square on November 19, with at least 3,000 staying overnight. Intermittent clashes with Central Security Forces erupted throughout the day, just as they had on January 25. “They are back and we are not leaving….down with Military Rule….down with the Marshal (Tantawi),” another protestor told me.

The latest wave of protests reflects increasing frustrations with the management of the country’s political transition by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). But the Tahrir clashes highlight another problem. Unlike Egypt’s revolts of 1882, 1919, and 1952, the revolution of 2011 is leaderless. That was a source of strength during the overthrow of Mubarak’s dictatorship; now it is a source of weakness.

The unity of opposition is usually a critical factor in successful democratic transitions, as in Poland, Chile, and South Africa, for example. In Egypt, the political unity was maintained – just barely – during the struggle against Mubarak, but began to splinter once the SCAF took over. Ideological polarization, leadership struggles, inflated egos, and inexperience in coalition management and negotiations caused serious rifts within the ranks of opposition politicians. One leading activist summarizes the pattern: “If a leader emerges, other opposition figures are very willing to take him down, rather than join him up.”