Tahrir Square Revolution in Egypt Has Been Nonviolent, Leaderless, and .... Unsuccessful

CAIRO – Since its beginning, Egypt’s January 25 revolution has been hailed as a model of nonviolent resistance to oppression and also as a portrait of popular, leaderless action. But the most recent Tahrir sit-in, which began last Saturday in response to the sentencing of Mubarak and his top aides, highlights that this tactic is no longer successful — if it ever was at all.

Chants of salmiya, or peaceful, were the hallmark of Egypt’s 18-day uprising and the events that followed, even as protesters faced lethal doses of tear gas, bird shot and live ammunition. While uprisings in nearby Libya and Syria evolved into armed insurgencies, Egyptian revolutionaries maintained near complete allegiance to the principle of nonviolence.

Similarly, revolutionaries in Libya and Syria formed political leadership bodies to rally the international community for support and achieve the revolution’s goals. Libya’s National Transitional Council secured a NATO no-fly zone and is overseeing the post-Gaddafi transition, while the Syrian National Council has lobbied the Arab League and the United Nations to intervene there.

In contrast, revolutionaries in Egypt continued using protests and sit-ins to force peaceful concessions from the military council. The revolution was not about any one person, the popular refrain went, but about the ideas of freedom and democracy. Stars of the uprising, such as Google executive Wael Ghoneim and former IAEA chief Mohamed el Baradei, repeatedly refused to take leadership positions despite the undeniable need for unity. Perhaps they feared appearing like the power hungry Mubarakites whom the revolution had targeted.

When the military council took control of Egypt on February 11, protesters returned to their homes confident in the generals’ promise to safeguard the revolution and reassured that they could return to Tahrir at any time. In the subsequent year and a half, that confidence has been largely lost and people have returned to Tahrir many times only to win superficial, piecemeal concessions.

With presidential elections underway, the looming choice between an Islamist government and a Mubarakist one is unavoidable. Socialist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi has emerged as the first widely-acknowledged leader of the revolutionary movement. Along with Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotoh and Khaled Ali, fellow presidential hopefuls with revolutionary credentials, Sabahi has encouraged a return to Tahrir in demand of Mubarak’s retrial and Shafiq’s exclusion from the election.

This tactic is misguided and doomed to fail, as it is grounded in the erroneous belief that masses in Tahrir can single-handedly transform the nation in a brief period. What is clear now is that the 18 days in Tahrir didn’t change much. The protests were the culmination of years of resistance and an important milestone, but they merely replaced the face of the regime. The true work of reform has barely begun.

Mubarak’s swift exit from power mired Egyptian revolutionaries in the idealism that made the revolution possible in the first place. To call for a return to the square with expectations of changing the course of the election and the county is laying the foundations for disappointment and failure. Egypt and its revolution need some different strategies.