The year began in Egypt with a sudden but thankfully short-lived rash of self-immolations by aggrieved Egyptians following the example of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young street vendor who set himself ablaze in a solitary protest in southern Tunisia, December 2010. Tongue in cheek, commentator Issandr el-Amrani predicted “a year of spontaneous combustion” and imagined the authorities grappling with an epidemic of suicides across the oppressed nation. But millions of Egyptians, inspired by the Tunisians who drove out President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, had other ideas about how best to express their grievances. Less than a month after the first Egyptian doused himself with petrol and lit the match, President Hosni Mubarak had been toppled from the throne he had held for almost 30 years, pushed out of office by the largest street demonstrations the Middle East has seen since the Iranian revolution of 1979.
As the sun set on February 11, Vice President Omar Suleiman appeared on television to announce that Mubarak had ceded power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a group of some 20 generals who remain in power as the year draws to a close. Egyptians went home to rest, declaring themselves confident that their revolution was in safe hands and the generals would oversee a speedy transition to democratic and civilian government.
But the next 10 months have not been easy for almost anyone in Egypt. Many of the revolutionaries, especially the liberals and the leftists, say the military council has betrayed their revolution; the generals have sent more civilians to military trial than Mubarak ever did and have failed to purge the security forces and bureaucracy of the brutal and corrupt officials who thrived under Mubarak. The generals themselves soon learned that managing civilians was not the same as barking orders at conscripts in boot camp and that there were limits to the goodwill Egyptians showed them when they took power. Ordinary Egyptians lamented the lawlessness in outlying areas, the rising unemployment and the higher prices. Egypt's Coptic Christians, said to make up some 10 percent of the population, saw four of their churches set ablaze or demolished and then scores of young Christians massacred outside the state television building on October 9, in an incident that the military shows no willingness to investigate.
Hundreds of thousands of workers and civil servants, no longer deterred by state security and the riot police, have staged strikes, sit-ins and protests for better conditions; strapped for cash, the government cannot possibly meet all their demands. The upper echelons of the old regime have had it rough, but not as rough as many thought they deserved. Mubarak himself appeared in court lying on a gurney, charged with giving orders to shoot the demonstrators who brought him down in January and February; his sons and senior ministers are in detention, some convicted of financial crimes, others still on trial. The Islamists appeared to be the most obvious beneficiaries. Free to campaign for imminent parliamentary elections without fear of harassment, they have made hay while the sun shines. But their politics is fragmented across a broad ideological spectrum — from the hard-line and literalist Salafis to urbane intellectuals for whom Islam is the cultural backdrop to liberal democratic politics.
What happened in Egypt was not quite, or is not yet, a revolution. State structures have survived, though much weakened and vulnerable to contestation by competing political forces. The ruling military council has been cautious and conservative to a fault, taking no bold initiatives and usually acting only in response to street protests. The police force collapsed in the first few days of the uprising but is slowly finding its feet, without any fundamental change in its authoritarian mentality. The social and economic systems remain in place, and there is little popular demand for dramatic changes that go beyond eliminating corruption, favoritism, inefficiency and other vices.
The euphoria of the uprising has dissipated, along with the sense of unity and purpose that opposition to the Mubarak regime generated. But for the moment Egypt is a place where people can breathe more freely and can cast their votes with some confidence that they are choosing their own leaders.