They toppled a pharaoh, but now the small circle of liberals, leftists and Islamists who orchestrated Egypt’s revolution say they realize they failed to uproot the networks of power that Hosni Mubarak nurtured for nearly three decades.
They were naïve, they say, strung along by the generals who seized power in their name.
“The system was like a machine with a plastic cover, and what we did was knock off the cover,” said Islam Lotfy, back then a rising star in the Muslim Brotherhoodwho had predicted that if they ousted the head of state its body would fall. The roots of the ruling elite were “much deeper and darker” than they initially understood, he said.
Even before Egypt’s highest court dissolved Parliament on Thursday, and its military rulers reimposed martial law, the once close-knit team of young professionals who guided last year’s uprising had been pushed to the sidelines of a presidential runoff between two conservatives: Ahmed Shafik, Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister, and Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that was Mr. Mubarak’s main opposition.
Some said they had become too taken with their own fame, distracted by the news media’s attention, and willing to defer to their elders in the Mubarak-era political opposition. They failed to build a movement that could stand against either the Muslim Brotherhood or the old elite.
“We are the spark that ignites the world; we know how to inflame things,” said Ahmed Maher, 31, a leader of the April 6 Youth Movement and one of the early organizers. “But when we have a strong entity that can stand on its own feet — when we can form a government tomorrow — then we become an alternative.” He said his group was embarking on a five-year plan to start building such a movement.
Some said they almost welcomed the rise of Mr. Mubarak’s former protégé, Mr. Shafik, because his return could help them rally the public once again.
“When you think about it, the revolutionaries were never in power, so what kind of revolution is it?” said Sally Moore, an Irish Egyptian leftist who was at the forefront of a movement to boycott the elections.
Many of the young leaders say that in those early days they were too afraid of appearing to grab power for themselves. Some say they were just intoxicated by their victory over Mr. Mubarak. “You could say we just wanted to be happy,” said Asmaa Mahfouz, another early organizer.
Activists like her became celebrities overnight, she said, and some wrongly believed that appearing on television would spread their ideas and mobilize the public. “We didn’t understand that the media isn’t an alternative to the streets.”
All now say they were successfully manipulated by the military leaders.
“We were duped,” Mr. Maher of April 6 recalled. “We met with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on February 14, and they were very cute. They smiled and promised us many things and said, ‘You are our children; you did what we wanted to do for many years!’ ” Then they offered the same smiles and vague promises the next week, he said, and the next month after that.
Others fault the Muslim Brotherhood, the 84-year-old Islamist group, Egypt’s best-organized political force. Before Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, the Brotherhood lent its full support to a united front pushing for the presidential candidacy of the Nobel Prize-winning diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, an inspiration and mentor to the young organizers. During the revolt in Tahrir Square, the Brotherhood became a pillar of the protests, its leaders taking their cue from the youth.
But since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, Brotherhood leaders have shown little interest in listening to the younger leaders or consulting with Mr. ElBaradei. Instead, the Brotherhood almost immediately began preparing for elections. With the generals, it backed a referendum scheduling parliamentary elections before the drafting of a new constitution.
“They betrayed us at the first corner and continue to betray us,” Ms. Moore said. The resulting timetable killed any hope of unity against the military among those mobilized by the revolt.
“Even though not many of the revolutionary movements got into the Parliament, they were still affected by the polarization,” Mr. Maher said. “They were accusing each other of treason, even among the youth groups.”
Mr. Lotfy, the Brotherhood’s former rising star, was expelled from the group and founded a political party, the Egyptian Current. It allied with the presidential campaign of the dissident Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, trying to combine an Islamist background with liberal positions on individual rights and social justice.
Mr. Lotfy called their centrist project the best hope to defuse the polarization between Islamists and secularists, but most of the liberals or leftists he worked so closely with at the start shunned their efforts because of their Islamist roots. He said he could no longer speak with Ms. Moore, a Coptic Christian who publicly defended the Brotherhood during the initial uprising, “because of the difference in backgrounds.”
“Egyptian liberals are not real liberals,” he said, accusing many former allies of “Islamophobia.”
Others in their circle say they still talk occasionally but cannot agree. Mr. Lotfy and Mr. Aboul Fotouh “still come from the Brotherhood world,” said Shady el-Ghazali Harb, a liberal who voted for a Nasserite socialist in the first round of the presidential race, to avoid either an Islamist or Mr. Shafik. “We cannot have our choice between true Islamists and not-true Islamists,” Mr. Ghazali Harb said.
He then joined Ms. Moore in pushing to boycott the election that is now in doubt altogether, hoping the effort would give rise to a broader movement in opposition to the Brotherhood and the old military-business elite.
“You don’t find a lot of people around us now,” Ms. Moore said. “And we are fighting on two fronts, which makes it difficult.”
Mr. Ghazali Harb said he and the others had fallen out of touch with perhaps their group’s most prominent member, Ziad el-Elaimy, who was elected to Parliament. Mr. Elaimy has receded from public view since he was censured by parliamentary leaders a few weeks ago for comparing Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the governing military council’s leader, to a donkey. Mr. Elaimy did not respond to requests for an interview.
“He disappears a little bit,” Mr. Ghazali Harb said, suggesting that perhaps Mr. Elaimy considered his seat in Parliament to be enough for now.
Many young activists who helped start the revolt are returning to Mr. ElBaradei. After he quit the presidential race, saying it was doomed under military rule, he is trying to organize a political movement for liberals opposed to Islamists and military-backed authoritarianism.
Mr. Lotfy, Mr. Maher and Ms. Moore, however, are each going separate ways. Whoever wins the presidency, all vow to keep fighting. “If it is Morsi, I will be in the opposition,” Mr. Lotfy said. “If it is Shafik, asylum.”