January 25 marked the two-year anniversary of the start of Egypt’s democratic uprising. Tomorrow we mark another date that is nearly as significant -- the drastic reduction of state authority in Egypt. It is not year clear how it will be rebuilt.
Several things happened on January 28, 2011: Mubarak’s feared police force was defeated on Qasr al-Aini bridge and saw its stations stormed across the city, breaking the state’s aura of power and the police's own confidence. Both police and citizens now know that a neighborhood or city, if sufficiently outraged, can overrun stations again, as we have seen this weekend in Port Said.
Secondly, many of the estimated 800 to 1000 violent deaths during the uprising happened that day, often in chaotic circumstances that would make it hard to ever prove to courtroom standards who was responsible for their deaths -- even if prosecutors and police had done a proper job investigating. Over the next two years, judges’ inability to convict any top security officials helped break the state's credibility. Egyptians have lost faith in their legal system -- a problem exemplified by the upheaval triggered by Port Said case, where pretty much any set of verdicts would be rejected, violently, by one side or the other.
Thirdly, the Muslim Brothers joined the uprising, giving the Islamist group enough revolutionary credentials to contest and win elections. This set the stage for the polarization that now dominates Egyptian politics and discourages political factions from cooperating, even in a limited way, to reconstruct the state.
After two years of seeing unrest grow familiar, it’s worth reflecting on just how remarkable today's status quo is: the central traffic circle in the national capital has for most of the past two years been a state-free protest zone and a theater for street fighting -- and a constant annoying reminder to Egypt's successive post-uprising governments that they are not fully in control of the country. Usually this kind of situation ends in some way after a few days, weeks, or in rare cases months: the protesters give up, or they achieve their goals, or there's a crackdown, or civil war, or people agree to resolve their differences in a formal institution with rules like a parliament, or something.
Nothing like this has happened in Egypt.