For many decades Café Riche in downtown Cairo was the favorite meeting place for celebrated writers, like Naguib Mahfouz, poets, artists, journalists, retired politicians and other activists.
It still is today —more than a year after the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak in a peaceful popular uprising. The century old café is famous for being one of the secret locations where Egyptian nationalists met to plot the 1919 revolt against the British.
It is only few hundred meters away from Al Tahrir Square, the cradle of the 25 January revolution. Last Friday, the day the powerful Muslim Brotherhood called for a million-man demonstration to denounce the surprise presidential candidacy of Mubarak’s last deputy and his trusted intelligence chief for more than 20 years Omar Suleiman, Café Riche had the usual gathering of young activists, lawyers, journalists and intellectuals.
The mood was somber. One lawyer told me that the Islamists had kidnapped the revolution and that the army, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), should intervene to end this farce. A young Egyptian, who participated in the revolution, concurred. “This is not what we expected when we gathered at the square and offered tens of martyrs,” he said.
As we sat in the café, hundreds of the followers of Salafi leader and presidential candidate, Hafez Salah Abu Ismail, marched through the street heading to the square. They walked briskly chanting “Jihad, Jihad.” Almost all were bearded young men, wearing Gulf-style jalabiyas. In few moments they disappeared.
On that day Al Tahrir Square was teeming with people; all supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (JFP). There was no sign of police security in downtown Cairo. Even traffic was regulated by young MB activists. To get into the square you had to be body searched by them. My companion, a journalist who covered the revolution, told me that the spirit of the square had gone. Inside there were banners denouncing the military, Suleiman and even Amr Moussa. On the stand MB leaders warned of an American-Israeli conspiracy to bring back symbols of the defunct regime.
The square looked more like a Friday market than a political gathering. Peddlers were selling water bottles, Egyptian flags and other trinkets. It was mainly a show of strength by the MB. They wanted to send a message to SCAF. None of the revolution youth movements and leftist parties participated in the demonstration. The political atmosphere was charged, especially after Suleiman had decided to run for president. His candidacy had set the political stage on fire. Was he the army’s candidate? Was it a response to MB’s decision to field two presidential candidates, Khairat Al Shatter and Mohammad Mursi?
Followers of television preacher turned politician, Abu Ismail, were also flexing their muscles. Two days earlier they had surrounded the headquarters of the State Council in Dokki. The row over his mother’s dual citizenship had become the most important political topic for weeks. He has rejected claims that his mother had an American citizenship; vowing to make trouble if the state accepted any documentation from the United States on the status of his dead mother.
On Friday evening his followers marched to Ouroba Street, where the Higher Committee for Elections was meeting to decide the fate of 23 potential candidates who had submitted their applications. Cairo was tense. The Salafis were demanding that the committee accepts Abu Ismail’s papers. Police and army had left the headquarters of the committee unprotected. The judges had to vacate the premises.
It was a tense night. Then Abu Ismail ordered his supporters to retreat. Late in the following day the committee rejected the candidacy of 13 hopefuls, including Abu Ismail, Al Shatter and Suleiman. It was a shock, but it defused the situation. The army, it was believed, had proved its neutrality. The MB vowed to protest the ruling but they did not escalate the situation. Even Abu Ismail’s campaign had to comply — for the time being. Suddenly there was a sigh of relief.
Egyptians know that they are heading toward a decisive crossroad. For some of the MB’s supporters their next vote in the May presidential elections will decide the future of the country. A taxi driver, who had voted for the Islamists in the parliamentary elections, told me that he would vote for Suleiman because “the country needs a strong leader.” Another said that the Islamists had shown that their hunger for power is no different from Mubarak’s men.
On Sunday SCAF was able to score another victory. It managed to convince party heads to accept a new formula for the composition of the Constitutional Committee which excludes parliamentarians altogether. A new constitution must be approved before the end of June. It is another battle over the future of the country. It will decide the powers of the president and the structure of the political system in Egypt.
Many Egyptians, including some of the key figures in the 25 January revolution, now want SCAF to play an active role to curtail the power of the Islamists who have a majority in the Egyptian Parliament. As things stand now the battle for the presidency will be between secular politician Amr Moussa and moderate Islamist candidate Abdel Munim Abu El Futouh. Between now and the 23 May deadline there will be many surprises. It will be a battle between those who want a secular state and those who are leaning toward a more Islamist system of government. The disqualification of Al Shatter and Abu Ismail was well received by the liberals and leftists. Suleiman’s possible withdrawal means that the old regime will not come back. But one thing is for sure: The spirit of the January 25 revolution is now gone.
(The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. This article first appeared in Arab News on April 18, 2012.)