CAIRO – A black smoke covered Cairo's Tahrir Square. Around a dozen protesters who had been holding a weekslong sit-in demanding an end to military rule had come to the conclusion their gathering was useless. So over the weekend, they splashed gas on their tents and banners, burned them to ashes and left.
Last year, Tahrir was the icon on the revolution, where hundreds of thousands massed daily in the uprising that ousted longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak in the name of democracy. Now, it has seen better days, dirty and littered with trash. Street vendors sell everything from sandwiches to socks during the day. At night, young men peddle hashish.
Ahead of Egypt's historic election for a new president next week, Tahrir Square's woes reflect the disarray of the protest movement that called for a democratic transformation in the Arab world's most populous nation.
The revolutionary leaders, largely secular and leftist, have no viable candidate in the race. Instead, the vote has boiled down to a choice between former members of Mubarak's regime, who the revolutionaries believe will keep the old system intact and will not challenge the military's grip on politics, and Islamists, who they worry will impose an equally authoritarian system but based on religion.
The youth groups behind the revolution are left divided and muddled over the election and how to handle the post-election era. Some groups call for a boycott of the vote.
Many in the movement believe that the real confrontations are still to come when they press their agenda on whatever new government emerges.
But they are divided even on how to do that. Some question the reliance on protests since Mubarak's fall. Activists staged multiple protests in Tahrir the past year that repeatedly turned in to bloody clashes with police and the military. But they often failed to reach a unified list of demands or create a cohesive political movement. And the turmoil turned sections of the population against them, guided by a persistent military line that the protesters were to blame for chaos.
"We are left with an orphaned revolution. The people don't know what the revolution wants to do," said Rami Sabri, a member of the Popular Socialist Alliance, a newly formed party.
Support from Egyptians craving stability amid the turmoil and economic woes has vaulted two former regime figures to front-runner status — ex-foreign minister Amr Moussa and ex-prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. The latest polls have them slightly on top, though the polls' reliability is unknown.
Religious constituencies have elevated two Islamists: the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi and a moderate, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh.
The revolutionaries who intend to vote have been split. Some — including Wael Ghonim, the Google executive famed for his role in the Facebook page that helped launch the anti-Mubarak revolt — have backed Abolfotoh, drawn by his open views and strong backing for the uprising.
Another favorite is the youngest of the 13 candidates, Khaled Ali, a labor activist known as "the lawyer for the poor."
Ali is a distant underdog in the polls and has almost no chance of winning. But his candidacy is aimed at showing Egyptians that the revolution does have a face.
"Give the revolution a chance to rule," the 40-year-old Ali proclaimed at a recent rally.
During the 18-day uprising that led to Mubarak's fall on Feb. 11, 2011, the protesters' slogan was "bread, freedom and dignity."
Under that slogan, the revolutionaries had multiple calls for change. Security forces that formed the brutal basis for Mubarak's police state had to be reformed. A political system that ran on patronage and corruption had be dismantled. The regime's grip on state media that controlled the agenda had to be lifted. The economy had to be reformed to benefit the large population of poor rather than a rich elite. Long neglected infrastructure and dilapidated hospitals and schools had to be rebuilt. Freedom of speech, long muffled by the police, had to be unleashed.
Over the past 15 months, however, almost none of that has been carried out. The military generals, who are all stalwarts of Mubarak's regime, took power after his fall and the bulk of Mubarak's system has remained.
Most revolutionaries believe none of the top candidates will push for radical change.
Ali, who helped organize labor protests in the early 2000s that were the first to call for Mubarak's ouster, has sought to set an agenda for the coming period. He calls for return of the public sector and state subsidies of the poor.
But at the top of his campaign is "demilitarization" of the country.
The military is infused through the system. It provided all of Egypt's four presidents. Former generals head many state institutions. Most governors come from army ranks. Laws enshrine the military's economic might — for example, giving it the priority over large swaths of land, some of which it leases out to cronies.
All this will take pressure to uproot, Ali said recently in one of the many political TV talk shows.
"Mubarak is not just a name, it is a system, policies and a network of interests. It will not go away without real confrontation."
The military council dealt heavy blows to protesters the past year, with successive crackdowns that left dozens dead and others put on trial before military tribunals.
Ahmed Fawzy, Ali's campaign manager, said the protests turned into "useless confrontations."
"We have gone too far in these rallies. With protests every day, it lost value," he said. "People came to hate the revolution."
The tactic did bring some successes. Over the months, protests forced the military to put Mubarak on trial and set a clearer timetable for handing over power.
Also, many Egyptians recognize the elections wouldn't be taking place at all without the revolution. For the first time, Egyptians are fully engaged in politics. Private networks air daily debates and interviews with most of the 13 presidential candidates. In homes, workplaces, coffeeshops, people are in heated discussions never seen before.
Kamal Khalil, a leading leftist activist, says the continued protests swelled the number of "revolutionaries," and that this is a popular base for pressing demands for change in the future.
"Egyptians are one thing before the revolution and another thing after. We used to have thousands of revolutionaries, but now we have tens of thousands," he told a recent gathering of a socialist group.
As for the election, he dismissed it as a lot of fuss for nothing, using an Egyptian proverb.
"A lovely funeral," he said, "but held for a dog."