Maintaining momentum in Egypt's evolving revolution

The verdicts on Hosni Mubarak's henchmen reveal how much is at stake in Egypt's presidential election.

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The pharaoh has been tried, but it is the system that is being convicted. The life sentence for former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is unique in one regard, and more of the same in many others.

That Mubarak was tried, and found guilty, is an important victory for the still-evolving Egyptian revolution and should not be underestimated.

The now-convicted Mubarak has the dubious distinction of being the first Arab leader to be deposed, tried and convicted by his own people. Yet the Egyptians have also achieved a more important feat: this is the first time that a former head of state, supported by bigger powers, presumably has been tried against the will of those powers. Make no mistake: the American and British governments that long supported Mubarak against his own people had no wish to see him tried in open court.

It is not merely the precedent that this case sets; it was the fear of the detail of what he might say. In the end, however, the powers that supported Mubarak were no match for the forces opposing him.

Yet the verdict handed down in the Cairo courthouse is also more of the same from the old regime. It shows clearly that the regime - not merely the military, but the entire security apparatus of the military, the police and their allies - will do everything to maintain the old order, that they have not understood the demands of the revolution.

The essence of the problem is not what happened to Mubarak or his sons, but the acquittal of six security officials, including those accused of ordering the shooting of protesters. Their release is a sign the old regime intends to hang on.

The Egyptian revolution took the establishment by surprise. When the account of Mubarak's last days is written, it will likely show a regime in chaos, unable to comprehend the scale of what was happening around it and hoping that a symbolic gesture, removing the president, would placate the protesters.

Since then, the military has been making it up as it goes along, sometimes swept along by events, sometimes pushing back, sometimes hoping to shape events to its liking. That is probably what the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), though it did not directly influence the verdict, hoped would happen: that Mubarak's conviction would quiet the revolution and allow their candidate to gain the presidency by promising stability.

That has not happened, and already protesters have returned to Tahrir Square, urged on by Hamdeen Sabahi, the defeated presidential candidate who comes closest to representing the revolutionaries. They - and by revolutionaries I mean all those who genuinely seek not merely a new figurehead but a new way of doing politics in Egypt - recognise that the entire regime will content itself with only cosmetic change, that the old guard has not internalised the ideas of the revolution.

The Mubarak verdict was not the first sign of this, but it is the most definitive.

Nonetheless, calls to boycott the run-off presidential election are misguided. The process is not perfect, but having now passed through the parliamentary vote and the first-round presidential election, it must at least run its course. Protesting in Tahrir Square (and elsewhere) is important to pressure the regime, but the vote matters; it must proceed.

When it does, then what next for the revolution?

It is hard to hear, especially for those millions of Egyptians who never in their nightmares would have imagined casting a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, but for many it is important that Ahmed Shafiq, the former prime minister, does not win. A president from the army would be a negation of the revolution, dragging it back to within the limits the regime can accept: a president controlled by the army, with a heavily circumscribed parliament.

And if Mr Shafiq wins, expect him to use the power of the courts to curtail the Muslim Brotherhood's power. This would be an acceptable outcome for the feloul, as the Egyptians call the regime remnants.

But a win for Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood's candidate, should be qualified. In particular, supporters of Mr Sabahi and Amr Moussa, who between them received around a third of the votes cast, will want to extract serious concessions from the Brotherhood in return for taking their supporters to Mr Morsi. In particular, the revolutionaries need to push the Freedom and Justice party to say, explicitly and unequivocally, that they will not impose changes on the Christian community.

The revolutionaries - at least those political figureheads associated with them, like Mr Sabahi - should also accept that the revolution has been disruptive, and explain to the silent majority of Egyptians that the protests are not a way of life, but a way of politics. This should go some way to undercutting Mr Shafiq's "stability" platform.

The roots of the 2011 revolution go back years, to the beginnings of the Kifaya movement and the 2005 presidential election. The revolutionary momentum now present in Egypt must be channelled and organised, because it will take years to fully dismantle the deep state that now runs Egypt.

The verdict against Hosni Mubarak is unique and the scale of what Egyptians have achieved is still remarkable. It is a victory for the people, and a failure for the regime and its old allies. But for many reasons this is not enough to sustain the momentum. The revolutionaries have already returned to Tahrir Square. They must now prepare for a new phase.

On Twitter @FaisalAlYafa