People are seen at a memorial to victims killed during protests in Egypt since the January 2011 revolution, in Cairo's Tahrir Square December 5, 2013. (Reuters)

For the first time since Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow five months ago, street protests erupted in Egypt last week that were not specifically the work of the Muslim Brotherhood aimed at restoring the deposed leader to the presidency.

The protagonists this time were another group of familiar faces.  The different groups that are commonly lumped together as “revolutionaries” or “youth” and who are associated most closely with the January 25 uprising have returned to the streets.  This time the object of their anger is not Mubarak, nor Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi’s SCAF, nor Morsi, but rather Major General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and Egypt’s interim government.

insights cfr INSIGHT: Egypt DisorganizationThis is quite a twist given the amount of press attention the cult of al-Sissi has received, but there have always been activists and analysts in Egypt who understood the false promise of the military.  Anecdotally, the Egyptian public seems to support solidly the major general and the military-backed interim government – despite what recent polling might suggest – but Egyptian officials have given their opponents a political opportunity.  Will the revolutionaries, youth, liberals, socialist revolutionaries, and whoever else take it and develop a coherent vision for the future? Hope springs eternal, as they say, but probably not.

The current controversy surrounds an anti-protest measure that interim president, Adly Mansour, signed into law on November 24.  Among a range of restrictions, the new statute requires Egyptians to secure seven different types of permits in order to demonstrate, bans gatherings of more than ten people – in public and private – and carries hefty fines, which taken together is tougher than efforts to prevent mass demonstrations during the Mubarak period.

“[The new law restricting assembly] is an astonishing irony… an indication of creeping authoritarianism, and a superlative example of political tone deafness [on the part of Egypt's current government]…” – Steven A. Cook, Council on Foreign Relations

With persistent Muslim Brotherhood street protests, a number of important anniversaries looming – January 25 and February 11 – and apparent widespread support for stability, it is clear why the government took the steps it did to curb demonstrations.  Still, it is an astonishing irony (among the long list that Egyptians have produced over the last three years), an indication of creeping authoritarianism, and a superlative example of political tone deafness that a government, which owes its very existence to massive street protests, is trying to snuff out the rights of Egyptians to express themselves en masse in public.  Adding to the outrage was the death of Mohammed Reda, a Cairo University engineering student, who was killed last Thursday demonstrating against the new law and the recent death at the hands of police of another Cairo University student on November 19.

afp egypt 300 cfr 05dec13 INSIGHT: Egypt Disorganization

Shirts, some depicting Major General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, are displayed for sale on Cairo's Tahrir Square October 6, 2013. (AFP)

As the protests, which have been small by recent Egyptian standards, got going much of the commentary focused on the heavy hand of the Ministry of Interior.  “Haven’t they [the police] learned their lesson?” was a common refrain among the Twitterati and Facebook users.  The lesson that the Egyptian police should have learned, but had not, was that the use of force would not intimidate activists, but rather galvanize them and their fellow Egyptians.  That is what happened during the January 25 uprising and subsequent rounds of demonstrations. That is certainly true for the protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak, but it was not quite the same afterwards.  Besides the big Mohammed Mahmoud Street demonstrations in late November 2011 and the protests against Morsi’s November 22 decree, which morphed into anger over the December 2012 constitution, lots of Egyptians tended to stay on the sidelines when activists took to the streets.  This does not include the mass mobilization of June 30, of course, but until then (with the exceptions noted just above), people came to regard street politics and the response to it as an elite-on-elite affair that had little to do with them.  This is neither to suggest that the anti-protest law is not an affront to every Egyptian who wants to live in a democracy nor the hoary image of “the Egyptian” who just wants stability above all else is accurate, but rather that the activists/instigators lost the revolutionary thread not too long after they brought Mubarak down.  It was clear what January 25 was about; the same cannot be said about what came after it.

As I have written elsewhere, because the revolutionaries never capitalized politically on their one true victory over the last three years and failed to develop a positive vision for the future, the problems of post-Mubarak Egypt have overwhelmed people.  Under dire economic circumstances and unstable politics, a fair number of Egyptians have concluded that they were better off before the uprising.  As a result, the Ministry of Interior seems to have significant public support to kick *$$.

reu egypt cfr2 300 05dec13 INSIGHT: Egypt Disorganization

Youth talk in front of wall with graffiti opposing the Egyptian military, in downtown Cairo December 5, 2013. (Reuters)

One never knows with Egypt, but it seems unlikely that this time around police brutality will galvanize the broader public to join the students from Cairo University and activists from elsewhere in opposing al-Sissi.  At the time the demonstrations were getting into gear over the weekend, al Arabiya reported the existence of “al-Sissi pajamas” for women who could wear them while having a late night snack of al-Sissi chocolates or cookies.  Yet this kind of absurdity can be used against the military-backed government to demonstrate – along with a long list of more serious opposition grievances – just how far it has veered from its own declared principles, post-July 3 and those of Tahrir Square.  This would be a potent political message on which to build an actual political agenda that could capture the imagination of Egyptians.  That is, of course, unless activists distract themselves with the romance of the barricades, leaving themselves disorganized and vulnerable to shrewder political groups who will exploit the revolutionary narrative for their own non-democratic ends.  Sound familiar?

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 INSIGHT: Egypt Disorganization

Steven A. Cook

Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. On Twitter, he can be followed at @StevenACook.