Splintered views threaten collective spirit of Tahrir

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor, Cairo

image captionTahrir feels different because it is reflecting a society that is more unstable and lawless than it was nine months ago

Tahrir Square in Cairo does not feel the same as it did during the uprising in January and February that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak.

During that first occupation, the square reflected a country in ferment - full of debate, and uncertainty, and violence; but all of it pivoting around a single, simple demand that Mubarak had to go.

This time round, Egyptians still debate the future passionately, and there is uncertainty, and some terrible violence. But hatred for the old president was the glue that united his opponents, and without it politics here are much more splintered.

When the job was removing the dictator, deciding everything else could be put off.

Now the time has come to make choices, and it is painful.

In the square, attempts are being made to recreate the old collective atmosphere.

Over the weekend, a few young people were trying to clean the place up. Tahrir Square was full of rubbish left by its occupiers, visitors and scores of vendors of Egyptian fast food - piles of sticky paper mixed with the remains of grilled sweetcorn, roasted sweet potatoes, dense stews of liver and peppers and plastic pots of kushari, a mixture of pasta, rice and lentils.

Tahrir feels different because it is reflecting a society that is more unstable and lawless than it was nine months ago. Women feel much less safe than they did then, pockets have been picked, and fierce gangs of football fans known as Ultras have led the fight against the police. The Ultras are heroes to some of the protesters. Others who opposed President Mubarak and do not like the square's new atmosphere are appalled by their aggression.

Tahrir activists have tried to regain the upper hand in the debate about Egypt's future by arguing that the key political question is as simple as it was in Mubarak's time.

Their target is the military council that has ruled the country since it gave President Mubarak the final push on 11 February. An effigy of Field Marshal Tantawi, the military council's chief, dangles from the traffic lights in Tahrir Square where they used to have mock executions of President Mubarak. Protesters are demanding that the generals give up politics for good and hand over immediately to a civilian, transitional administration.

That is a concession that the generals are not prepared to make. They have even tried to secure their place above not-yet-elected civilian politicians by protecting it in the constitution.

Once again, Egyptians are not sure what is going to happen to them tomorrow, let alone a week from now. The country is divided and uncertain. Monday is the start of a complicated, multi-stage election that is due to stretch out into the New Year.

'Couch party'

In established democracies, elections are supposed to provide a clean end and a new beginning. But in Egypt, which is struggling to deal with the poisonous legacy of a dictatorship, the election could make the country's divisions even more bitter.

image captionWill the elections, starting on Monday, heal or inflame Egypt's divisions?

When President Hosni Mubarak was forced from office, the prospect of a democratic election was almost unbearably exciting for those Egyptians. There were plenty of them who could not wait to get on with the future.

But now it is happening, many of the people who fought hardest to end the old regime are approaching the election with severe misgivings.

Some Tahrir Square veterans want the election to be postponed. The atmosphere created by the bloodshed of the last week has, they argue, made a fair poll impossible. To add to the confusion, others are saying that the elections are not going to be cancelled so they should get on with winning votes.

The liberals and secular activists in Tahrir are being outflanked by a tacit alliance between the military council and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest political movement. The Brotherhood says it sympathises with the people in the square but has not joined them. It does not want anything to disturb the progression towards elections, which it expects will give it a dominant position in the parliament that will write Egypt's new constitution.

The support that Egyptians gave the uprising against President Mubarak has not been transferred automatically to the people who have reoccupied Tahrir Square. Callers to radio phone-ins have directed a lot of criticism at them.

Some of the callers have identified themselves as members of the "party of the couch", the Egyptian term for the silent majority who prefer to stay at home than demonstrate. Their role in the election could be decisive. One woman told a phone-in that Tahrir was Egypt's new dictator. She claimed to be a typical member of the couch party, and warned that her opinion still mattered.

The generals appear to believe that the couch party is on their side. If so, it will be hard for secular liberals to argue with the will of the people.

The Tahrir protesters can pull in big crowds. They will not buckle. The generals are determined to protect their institution, which they believe sustains and protects the country.

It is a recipe for more conflict.