The scenes from Cairo in recent days have been met with alarm around the world, as well they might have been.
Egypt was the second country in the region, after Tunisia, to remove its long-time ruler after a mostly peaceful show of people power. As by far the largest country to have successfully accomplished a revolution, it became a beacon for others.
There is an uneasy symmetry between the heroic tenacity of the protesters on Tahrir Square nine months ago and the more untidy, more volatile nature of the equally persistent crowds now. But there is also a difference, and that difference is mood. The protests of Tahrir Square in February were buoyed by hope – the hope nurtured by Egypt's young population that a better life was possible, and that they could make it happen. That hope now seems a long way from Tahrir Square.
But the seeds of the present discontent were also sown in those early weeks, in the acceptance – part joyous and part in trepidation – that the military should preside over the transition. When the army took over, as Hosni Mubarak bowed to the inevitable, the transfer of power was widely hailed as a liberation. But it was a liberation only insofar as the officers who formed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces accepted that this was a strictly interim arrangement, designed to bridge a perilous power vacuum between the enforced departure of the President and the organising of free elections.
There was always the risk that the military would rediscover a taste for power, or that a failure to accelerate the development of new institutions and robust electoral procedures would provide a pretext for the army to remain as a bulwark against disorder. Either would make the army takeover in February look more like a military coup, with hindsight, than a liberation.
This is not – quite – where things stand today. But it is what the protesters fear, why they have returned to Tahrir Square, and why they are resisting all attempts to dislodge them. Similar demonstrations are reported from elsewhere in Egypt.
The renewed protests, and their geographical spread, show that there can be no going back. But they are evidence, too, of how many opportunities have been wasted as the months have passed. Reforms have barely begun in any sector; living standards have languished or declined further, as the tourist industry has shrunk. Frustration has set in.
These are dangerous times. Only one week remains before the start of parliamentary elections, yet it looks as though they will be a far cry from the exercise in democracy for which the protesters agreed to leave the square all those months ago.
The specific trigger for the new protests was a plan by the military council to claim veto power over a new constitutional drafting committee. The original idea was that such a committee would be set up by the new parliament; any role for the military – let alone a veto over the committee's composition and work – could be seen as negating the whole purpose of the elections.
For voting to proceed in this atmosphere would be a recipe for trouble. But so would be a postponement, which would only compound the growing pessimism and risk new clashes. The military have to be persuaded that any attempt to prolong their hold on power will make an already perilous situation worse.
One solution might be the intervention of an honest broker. The United States, which has kept a low profile in the region since it withdrew its support for the Mubarak regime, and the Arab League, which has taken an increasingly tough stance on Syria, should consider joining forces in such an initiative. Its purpose would be no more and no less than to save the Egyptian revolution.Reuse content