On Sunday Egypt staged gigantic protests, the culmination of an original experiment in mobilisation, where millions signed a document demanding the resignation of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. On Monday the military stepped in. Its chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, issued a statement giving political parties 48 hours to deliver "the demands of the people".
Till then, Morsi had been holding on tight. The Brotherhood says that when Egyptians elected Morsi, they entered into an unbreakable contract to keep him for four years. The protesters say he was elected on a stated commitment to the goals of the revolution and promises he made, and that he's broken every one of those. So Morsi has broken his contract with the electorate.
Some of the promises were to do with plurality. What Sisi now seems to be saying is that Morsi should form a government with the non-Islamist parties. But Morsi has sidestepped this move many times, and it's difficult to see who would agree to form a coalition with him now. Is this a coup? If it is, it seems to be reluctantly mounted. Sisi's statement is clear: the military does not want to rule. But he is wooing the people; he makes a point of praising their self-empowerment, and as I write six military helicopters flying Egyptian flags circle over my house.
Last Sunday afternoon I sat on the kerb at the Roxy intersection in Cairo watching the marches coming from every district of the city towards Morsi's seat at the Ettehadeyya palace. People streamed by on both sides of the eight-lane road. For three hours they didn't stop. Tahrir Square too was fuller than it had ever been. And across Egypt the streets of one town after another filled up. Once again people had taken to the streets to drum a president out of office.
But there are differences between now and January and February 2011. In Revolution phase I, Mubarak's ruling National Democratic party (NDP) was the known and declared enemy, as was the security establishment. The military was an unknown quantity which we could (let ourselves) believe would protect the country in the process of transition. The revolution was against corruption and brutality and was for "bread, freedom, social justice".
The 29 months between then and now have taught us a great deal. We've learned the extent to which our institutions are hollowed out and our judiciary largely crooked and partisan. We've seen the bankruptcy of the political elite that was considered the opposition to Mubarak. And the military, under the leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), saluted our martyrs but demonstrated its devotion to its own business interests and a murderous contempt for the people. These lessons have been learned the hard way, with young people losing friends and limbs and eyes. That was Revolution phase II.
In June 2012, when we were in the terrible position of having to choose a president who was either a Brotherhood candidate or a military remnant of the Mubarak regime, I wrote in this paper: "The revolution will continue because neither the old regime nor the Islamist trend in its current form are going to deliver 'bread, freedom, social justice'. Neither of them are going to validate the sacrifices made by the 1,200 young people murdered by the regime, the 8,000 maimed, the 16,000 court-martialled."
A week later, having listened to Morsi's promises, I wrote: "Maybe, maybe, we have voted in a president whom we can support, or oppose with honour – without being shot." Well, the shooting hasn't stopped, neither has the torture. The economic situation has worsened, and Morsi has outdone Mubarak in opacity and cronyism. On top of that, his regime is dangerously inefficient. The situation in Sinai, and our relations with Africa, Syria and Saudi Arabia point to disasters ahead. So, one year into Morsi's presidency, we've arrived at Revolution phase III.
But phase III is in grave danger of being co-opted by our enemies: the supporters and remnants of the NDP and the security establishment. On Sunday the revolutionaries who've been steadfast for two years found themselves in uncomfortable company: the previous head of state-security led his own march. There was a police march in uniform. We saw protesting police officers chatting easily under the white banners of young men murdered by the police. Men who'd attacked us in February 2011 moved among us in Tahrir. Around these groupings there was the undeniable swirl of "the people". And there were chants calling for the military to step in – although there were also chants against them.
The people insist on treating the army as their own. When a military helicopter circled overhead it was transformed into a moving constellation of green dots as the crowd roared and targeted it with playful laser beams. People want to believe the military has learned its lesson and doesn't want to rule; that the "bad" people are no longer in Scaf; and that the army chief, General al-Sisi, will oversee another set of elections.
The revolutionaries are working hard to point out that this phase is not against Morsi and the Brotherhood as such, but against the continuation of the policies that marked the Mubarak era. Without radical change, these policies will carry on under the next president – be he army-appointed or otherwise. But the people want to get rid of Morsi first and deal with the rest later.
Could we have waited for parliamentary elections and used the dismal performance of the presidency over the last year to vote the Brotherhood out of office? It is accused of fixing the electoral districts in a way that privileges the party. We now know that a large proportion of the judiciary (who will oversee elections) are Brotherhood supporters. And in the tug of war between the presidency and the constitutional court over the election law, no one is sure how often the elections will be postponed.
The Tamarod (Rebel) campaign brought the crisis to this critical point. The people who started it had no idea it would grow so big. But they tapped into something real and strong; something that brought millions out on to the streets. Morsi is choosing to fight it by shooting protesters. Until last Sunday if he'd appointed a prime minister from outside the Brotherhood, people might have given him another chance and the organisation would still have had a seat at the table. Now, graffiti on the presidential palace walls says, "The legitimacy of your ballot box / Is cancelled by our martyrs' coffins", and we are back to standing at the morgue, clocking the murdered as they're carried in, and fighting with the coroner to let parents check if their children are in the state's fridges.