CAIRO – The liberal and youth movements that backed the military's removal of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi are now pushing to ensure their calls for change are heard in the face of the generals' strong grip on the new leadership. At stake is the hope that the Arab world's most populous nation will emerge from more than two years of turmoil as a democracy.
Morsi's removal brought a wave of celebration after millions nationwide joined four days of protests last week demanding his removal. But that is giving way to a harder reality for the democracy advocates who organized the protests — including many of the same movements that led the uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011 then opposed the military's subsequent 17-month rule.
Many are wary of the military's influence and skeptical that it backs their reform agenda and insist they must not become a liberal facade. But they are also under heavy pressure to keep unity within the military-backed leadership: The charged nationalist, pro-army atmosphere that has swept the country has little tolerance for breaking ranks at a time when Islamists continue protests demanding the return of Morsi.
Earlier this week, the head of the military issued a sharply worded statement that reinforced that message, warning political factions against "maneuvering" that holds up progress.
The strategy of the revolutionary groups — an array of leftist, secular and liberal movements — is to push hard for figures they trust to take the top spots in the new government being constructed that will run the country, probably until early next year.
So far they seem to be succeeding. Leading reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei, an iconic figure to some activists, has been named vice president. An economist active in the movements is the new prime minister.
ElBaradei's appointment is "a great revolutionary gain," Mohammed Abdel-Aziz, a leader of Tamarod, the youth activist movement whose anti-Morsi petition campaign led to the protests, wrote on the group's Facebook page. Once the government is formed, the next battle is to "impose the vision of the revolution, more importantly, on the permanent constitution."
On Thursday, the National Salvation Front — the main grouping of liberal and secular parties, in which ElBaradei is a senior leader — demanded the Cabinet "be made up from figures who belong to the Jan. 25 Revolution."
Much is on the line for the movements: They have to prove their gambit of supporting the military ouster of the country's first freely elected leader can bring a democracy. When army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi announced on national TV on July 3 that Morsi had been removed, standing with him were ElBaradei and representatives of Tamarod, along with the sole Islamist group backing Morsi's ouster, the Al-Nour Party, and other figures.
Their presence implied that they would have a say in power. But it opened them to charges that longtime proponents of democracy were fomenting a military takeover. Morsi's Islamist supporters say the military's coup has destroyed democracy and is bringing back dictatorship. The United States has expressed concern over the military's move, though it acknowledges the popular support for it. "It's clear that the Egyptian people have spoken," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday.
The liberals' position was made even harder after more than 50 pro-Morsi protesters were killed by troops and police in clashes Monday.
Amr Ezzat, a human rights researcher, said the military will have to respect the voices of the revolutionary movements, which it ignored when it stepped into rule after Mubarak. The street is too primed to rise up again on "a new adventure."
"ElBaradei has a role and influence in what is going on. El-Sissi knows there is opposition out there, which managed to turn things upside down. It must have a representative (in power). This is progress," he said.
If the politicians backslide on democracy promises, activist groups on the ground say they are willing and able to take to the streets again to demand their agenda, which includes social justice, respect for human rights and civil liberties, and greater accountability over government and the military.
Some are already dismayed by the return of military power and the police, which were hated under Mubarak but now are basking in public praise after backing Morsi's ouster.
Sally Toma, a longtime activist, called what has happened "a coup against the revolution."
"We are against the military and the Brotherhood. We struggle against both," she said, adding that a new Tamarod-style canvassing campaign called "Manifesto" to collect popular demands is already in the works. "We are back to square one. Our demands are the same."
Already, the liberal movements are hitting back against any signs by the new leadership of turning against their agenda.
One notable example came amid negotiations over the prime minster post last week. Abdel-Aziz of Tamarod publicly accused the spokesman of the new interim president of lying and demanded he be more accountable to the public. It was sparked when an agreement to appoint ElBaradei as prime minister was blocked by Al-Nour. The spokesman told journalists there was no final deal to name him — the sort of spin that in the past went unchallenged.
Bigger frictions erupted when the interim president issued a declaration that was effectively a truncated constitution for the transition period, defining the basic government authorities until elections early next year.
Tamarod and the Salvation Front objected that they had not been consulted and demanded changes. In part, they said it gave too much power to the president, a post they had envisaged as symbolic. But in particular, they were up in arms that it retained clauses opening the door for greater Islamic law that Islamists had put into the constitution they drafted and passed under Morsi.
The groups saw that as a gesture to Al-Nour and protested that the Islamist party was claiming undeserved influence even after Morsi's fall.
Mai Wahba, a founding member of Tamarod, said the group had since negotiated with the interim president and that it is satisfied its concerns are being addressed. She said Tamarod was convinced the Islamist clauses will be removed in the amended constitution.
She acknowledged that the support of Al-Nour is needed for the interim government.
"Don't forget, Al-Nour can go ally with the Brotherhood and represent pressure on national security," she said. "The situation right now won't stand divisions again among the civil current. This will benefit the Islamist current."
Still, that sort of compromise and pragmatism does not go over well with some groups in the street. One activist group, the National Community for Human Rights and Law, denounced the constitutional declaration as "repressive," saying it belongs to the "Mubarak and Morsi era, not to the revolution."
The killings of the Morsi supporters on Monday are also proving a moral test for the democracy advocates. Human rights groups are torn between their mandate to document violations and their reservations about the Brotherhood's own attitude on rights advocates.
Ghada Shahbender, a leading rights activist, said that her "personal dilemma" was that rights groups defended Islamists suppressed during the Mubarak regime, but after Mubarak's fall the Brotherhood turned against rights activists. "Today we are supposed to go defend them, stand in their defense," she said.
After the killings, Shahbender said human rights lawyers went to the morgue to document the deaths and help families find their slain loved ones. Brotherhood lawyers turned them away, saying their help was not needed.
Over the past two years, Brotherhood officials accused rights groups of being foreign-funded and echoed the military's justifications for crackdowns on protesters during the post-Mubarak military rule.
Shahbender said she has also been documenting attacks by Morsi supporters on their opponents the past weeks. In one incident in Cairo near where she lives, she said, "they stood on top of a mosque and shot people in cold blood. ... I am trying to be unbiased but I am a human being."
She too reflected that hope that reform-minded figures like ElBaradei in government will advance their cause, noting that the new interim president called for an investigation into killings.
And, she said, "we have a vice president who has always pushed the human rights agenda to the forefront."