Tahrir Square by Robin Yassin-Kassab
Cairo felt different. Tahreer Square, of course, carried a new set of meanings. The traffic, the pollution, the Stalinist gloom of the Mugamma building – these had shrunk, and revolutionary grafitti, redignified national flags, and the endlessly various Egyptian people now dominated the eye. It didn’t feel the same either to walk over the Qasr el-Nil bridge, not after the glorious battle of January 28th. (I kept trying to work out where the police van was burnt.) And the streets were in fact cleaner, even that, in central Cairo at least. In ritual overcompensation for the years of filth, people had been observed during the revolution’s 18 days scrubbing the pavements with toothbrushes. A man in a café called Ali Jabr explained it to me: “The Egyptians used to hate their country just as they used to hate themselves. Anywhere you went in the world, the people thought the Egyptians were rubbish. And the Egyptians agreed. After the revolution we know we aren’t rubbish, so we pick our rubbish up from the streets.”
You know that something rare and powerful is occurring, something all-encompassing, not limited to a political or intellectual elite, when even a mobile nuts-and-seeds stall has ‘Social Justice’ stenciled on its side.
I visited in late March and early April. My plane to Cairo was a quarter full at best. The airport was almost empty.
The immigration guard peered long at me and asked if I was originally Iranian, prompting me to wonder if anything had changed at all. There were no pictures of Mubarak on the walls. That was a change.
Then the driver who took me into town. He addressed the revolution immediately. “Tell me congratulations!” he grinned. I did so. “We’ve finished with him!” he exulted. “We’re free!” Pictures of some of freedom’s martyrs swung from the rear-view mirror.
I asked who he wanted for president now.
“Whoever proposes the best programme. The personality isn’t important. The ideas are important, the policies. I’ll judge on that.”
Most of Egypt considered itself a potential winner, but the losers were visible too. There was the burnt-out frame of the National Democratic Party headquarters for a start, hulking over the river like a man shamed in the stocks. And the police, who I was told “are sulking.” Certainly fewer patrolled than when I had last been here, and those who did certainly seemed less sure in their swagger, as if they’d recognized themselves at last – poorly trained, underemployed, unloved.
The news on the cab radio as we drove from the airport: the Ministry of the Interior was burning, the fire blamed on police officers protesting outside for a pay rise and the prosecution of their corrupt commanders. But their undeclared demand was for respect. I saw a poster pasted anonymously to Nileside walls pleading for trust to be restored in the police “on the basis of mutual love, not insult… for there are many noble men in the police force.”
During the revolution, Mubarak’s interior minister Habib al-Adli (currently on trial) ordered the police to withdraw from duty at the same time as he ordered the prisons emptied. This was the regime’s apres-moi-le-deluge card, to demonstrate just how awful post-regime chaos would be. Marauding thugs, some with agendas but most opportunists, poured through the prison doors, picked up or were handed weapons, and swarmed the city’s neighbourhoods. The people formed Neighbourhood Committees in response, and defended their homes. As side-effect to the restoration of order, there was a degree of vigilante injustice. Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr, who writes for al-Masry al-Yowm and blogs at www.inanities.org, observed ten men beating up a fifteen-year-old, a suspect miscreant.
As well as withdrawing on orders, the police were often driven from the streets. Policemen begged residents in the towered apartment blocks around Tahreer for civilian clothes, and dumped their uniforms in order to fly. Police stations burnt all over the country. Even after Mubarak’s fall, a policeman was thrashed in Ma’adi, south Cairo, and his vehicle burnt, for brandishing his gun pre-revolution style at a man who’d transgressed traffic regulations.On March 5th the dreaded State Security Intelligence buildings were stormed.
Which meant Egypt had changed at street level. Authority in general was open to question.
A friend in Ma’adi detected several resulting, and contradictory, trends. The previously snooty, he noted, were now treating their social inferiors with exaggerated respect. Uncovered women were moving more pridefully than usual, as if they felt they owned the moment. Salafis appeared all over the place, comfortably frowning, as if they’d been hidden before.
The army was gently enforcing the curfew, from midnight to six am when I arrived, then put back to two. I contravened once, taking too long in a Downtown café. APCs blocked some main roads, but side roads were open. It was easy to take a taxi to my hotel.
I was there during a period of calm, but still the universities were demonstrating for the dismissal of pro-Mubarak teaching staff; still outside Maspero, the state TV and radio building, activists and media workers were protesting against an anti-protest law and demanding the sacking of compromised officials. ‘Sarkhet Namla’ or ‘An Ant’s Scream’ was showing at the cinema, a film whose plot eerily anticipates the revolution: filming finished in October 2010. At the Talee’a theatre ‘A Ticket to Tahreer’ was playing, billed as an ‘improvised documentary’ of recent events. Zamalek’s galleries displayed pictures of crowds and fists, flags and blood. The city was fuller than usual of intense discussion, and an atmosphere of disbelief, of expectancy. It was a healthy time.
And Egypt, lest we so suddenly forget, had been seriously sick. It seemed so stuck in its sickness that it would never get well. The sickness was political, economic, cultural and social. The country that had been the undisputed leader of the Arab world, the home of Um Kulsoom, Naguib Mahfouz, Saad Zaghloul and AbdulNasser, the seat of al-Azhar, had become a tragi-comedy. Tiny Qatar demonstrated more political pluck. At least a third of Egyptians were illiterate. Half lived in extreme poverty. The clerical establishment issued unintentionally amusing fatwas and justified the construction of an underground wall on the Palestinian border. Pollution, sectarian hatred and sexual harrassment were on an inexorable rise. The buildings collapsed, the trains caught fire, the ferries sank. Egypt was stagnant, the stagnant heart of a stagnant Arab world. That’s how it looked to the outside, and to many on the inside too.
And then the revolution.
‘We want our rights’
“…revolution in Egypt always began unexpectedly, … a ferment went on beneath the Egyptians’ calm surface, which made them, at the very moment they seemed to give in to oppression, erupt suddenly in revolution.”– Alaa al-Aswany
Nobody expected the uprising, but in retropect everybody agrees that Egypt in the months before was breathing a political atmosphere in ferment.
Journalist and blogger (at the indispensable www.arabawy.org) Hossam Hamalawi suggests precedents which paved the way for 2011, starting with mass protests in support of the Palestinian Intifada (2000) and against the invasion of Iraq (2003). “The regional is local here,” he argues, describing how protestors marvelled at the contradictory weakness of the regime with respect to Israeli and American assaults on the region on the one hand, and its enormous, unreasoning strength when dealing with peaceful Egyptian activists on the other. By 2004, demonstrators had begun to chant explicitly against the president.
From 2005 on Mubarak sought American approval for his son Gamal’s proposed succession to the presidency by pleasing America’s Israel lobby as much as he possibly could. Egypt went far beyond the Camp David peace treaty to strictly enforce the siege on Gaza, to scupper any attempt to reconcile Palestinian factions, and to sell underpriced oil, gas and cement to Israel (while obstructing concrete shipments to demolished Gaza). These policies represented another assault on Egyptian dignity, national now as well as personal. Hence the descriptions during the revolution of Mubarak as an ‘agent’, and such slogans as kalamu bil-abri, ma byafham arabi – Speak to Him In Hebrew, He Doesn’t Understand Arabic. The Palestinian tragedy had become once again a symbol of everything wrong with the domestic order, especially in Egypt, where the nation’s status as client state rankled deep in people’s hearts.
Then there were the workers, inspired by AbdulNasser but left to rot on starvation wages during the Sadat and Mubarak decades even as a new gangster-capitalist class flaunted its wealth. Their revolt had many precedents, most importantly the strike and street battles in the textile city of Mahalla al-Kubra in April 2008 (three killed by police, hundreds arrested). The young activists who coordinated the January 25th revolution called themselves the Sixth of April Movement in tribute. On that date the idea of a nationwide general strike gained ground, for better working conditions, higher wages, and the right to form independent unions. Industrial activism spread throughout the country over the next three years.
Add in to the mix the well-educated but unemployed (or underemployed) young people, the brain drain generation, who stereotypes informed us wanted nothing more than to flee their homeland for burger-merchandising careers in the West. It turns out they wanted nothing more than freedom, and were finally prepared to bleed in the streets in order to achieve it.
Many were galvanised by the murder of Khaled Said, a blogger from Alexandria who uploaded videos of policemen conducting drugs deals. Khaled was punished for this in June 2010, when police dragged him from a cybercafe and beat him to death on the pavement outside. Police torture was endemic and sytemic, and murders not uncommon, but this one was as effectively publicised by activists as it was clumsily mishandled by the state media. The ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ Facebook group was one of the most visible motors of the January 25th protests.
Texts, tweets and status updates. Social media was certainly a useful weapon against an ossified dictatorship whose stalwarts had been formed in an earlier technological age. Obviously the internet, like satellite TV, renders state control of print and broadcast media irrelevant, and obviously it provides a means of organising. But its role has been exaggerated by some Western commentators who optimistically assume that techology-savvy means culturally-Western. The telephone also played a role – no-one would claim that telephone users share an ideology or attitude. And Mubarak’s teargas also came from the West.
Torture. Poverty. Illiteracy. Capitulation to foreign powers. Universal corruption. Egypt’s social fabric was being ripped apart. During the 2006 Eid holiday a mass of young men groped and ripped clothes from women walking through Downtown Cairo. The assault – against the covered and the uncovered, the old and the young, the accompanied and the unaccompanied – continued for four hours. The police, who would stave a man’s skull just for thinking wrong thoughts, were nowhere to be seen.
On New Year’s Day 2011 a bomb attack on an Alexandrian church killed tens of worshippers.
Commentator Issandr el-Amrani (of www.arabist.net) sums up the causes of the revolution thus: “a general moral crisis, with the state’s institutions in a condition of advanced necrosis.”
“The time has come for us to leave our seats in the auditorium and create the next scene ourselves.”– Alaa al-Aswany.
How then did the dam burst?
“It was a perfect storm,” says Max Rodenbeck. “Egypt was definitely moving towards a revolutionary moment, with the whole system built around the aging president. But serendipity was a large part of it. The government made a series of mistakes. If Mubarak had made the concessions at the start that he made later on, he could have deflected it.”
Rodenbeck is Middle East correspondent for the Economist and an engaging host. He’s lived in Cairo for 30 years, written a history of the city, and knows the place inside out. “There were 1,800,000 people in the security apparatus,” he told me. “Egypt had the world’s most formidable riot police, and they were beaten. They were overcome by people’s bravery. That was impossible to predict.”
The precurser was Tunisia. Tunisia showed that the nebulous ‘Arab street’ had greater potential, greater power, than most Arabs dared dream. When Ben Ali flew out of Tunis on January 14th, a celebratory protest erupted outside Cairo’s Tunisian embassy. The people chanted:
thawra thawra hatta an-nasr; thawra thawra fi shawarea masr!“Revolution, Revolution Until Victory! (the old PLO slogan)/ Revolution, Revolution in the Streets of Egypt!”
For the love of irony, the revolutionaries planned their first big protest for Police Day, January 25th. Activists marched from various densely-populated areas of the city, calling up to the flats for people to join them. The different marches congregated Downtown and pushed their way into Tahreer. At nightfall the riot police swept the square clean in 15 minutes. But the day had broken the fear barrier. Around the country, over a million had gone out – representing the whole people, of all ages and classes. Openmouthed Egyptians gazed at their screens and discovered at last that they were not alone, that their compatriots were marching in every major city, that change was therefore possible. In retrospect the revolution looks prophesied – in novelist Alaa al-Aswany’s comments, in the poetry of Fuad Ahmed Negm, in the grumbles and eye-rollings of countless Egyptians – it seems almost inevitable, but until January 25th nobody believed the moment could actually come. Nobody expected it. In that sense the revolution was entirely unplanned. It was an unprefigured confluence of events, an act of God or fate.
On the 28th, the Friday of Anger, Egyptians reclaimed their streets. In every region, they swarmed from the mosques after prayers. Christians began their marches from the churches. The Muslim Brothers finally gave the protests their blessing, and they proved indipensable organisers and fighters. For the first time, the people vastly outnumbered the police, and they met their bullets with rocks. In some remarkable instances they diminished violence simply by telling the police to not be scared. They fought their way back onto Tahreer, and held it thereafter. From Friday on the square was liberated territory. In the streets, popular sovereignty had already replaced the regime.
At this point the police were withdrawn, the prisons emptied, and the Neighbourhood Committees leapt into the vacuum. According to Max Rodenbeck, “the urban middle class expected the rabble to destroy everything. When that didn’t happen, the bourgeoisie joined the revolution. It was their participation which tipped the balance.”
Google executive Wael Ghonim’s tearjerking interview helped too. On Muna Shazli’s popular show (on privately-owned Dream TV) this bourgeois young man wept for those killed and insisted the revolutionaries were not Hizbullah operatives or Iranian provocateurs (as Mubarak’s sectarian, anti-resistance propaganda had claimed) but patriotic Egyptians like him. The protests swelled the day after the interview.
The assault on Tahreer by plainclothes thugs is known in Cairo as ‘the day of the camels’ – for there as here the day was distilled by its most striking TV image. Most Egyptians experienced the revolution primarily through the media, judging the battle between state TV (and Saudi-owned channels) and the rest, led by al-Jazeera. That channel’s English broadcasts were watched in the White House, while the Arabic station relayed images of Tahreer to the crowd in Tahreer. And when the internet went down – a world first for Mubarak, quickly seconded by Qaddafi – the media’s absence became as much a part of the story as its presence.
Glimpses of history from those 18 days of continuous revolutionary struggle. The arrival of the military to chants of ‘The People and the Army – One Hand!’ The officers raised on the revolutionaries’ shoulders. Mubarak’s three speeches – an unperturbed, rubber-masked godfather addressing his children. Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, with at least a metaphorical gun to his head, curtly announcing Mubarak’s resignation. The army’s communiques. The military spokesman’s salute to the martyrs.
More than 800 people died. Thousands are still missing.
The military’s role is murky. Most probably the high command did give orders to fire on protestors, but the rank and file refused. The possibility of revolution within the army spurred the top ranks to action. There are whispers of an assassination attempt against Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s last-minute vice president. Significantly, the military’s Communique Number One was issued a day before Suleiman declared Mubarak’s resignation.
But the coup saved Egypt from civil war. Like the army in Tunisia, but unlike in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen or Syria, the military stood as one with the people against the president. Or, more cynically, the body of the regime sacrificed its head so as not to lose absolutely everything.
Alongside its appointed left/liberal caretaker cabinet, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) rules until the September elections, and will continue to wield great influence afterwards. The army represents a huge sector of the economy. It owns land and businesses, receives vast amounts of American aid, and therefore, at the high command at least, it wants the status quo preserved as far as possible.
The SCAF responds flexibly if reluctantly to popular pressure, removing prime minister Ahmad Shafeeq, arresting Mubarak and sons, announcing that provincial governors will be replaced– but there has been no systematic rupture with the old regime. Unlike in post-revolutionary Tunisia, where three major commissions were rapidly appointed, Egypt has no clear programme for truth and reconciliation. Cases against former officials are dumped randomly on the public prosecutor.
So the people are forced to push to achieve their further aims, yet as they do so they are conscious they might provoke the military too far. A crackdown could erase all the progress made. And even if the military could be pushed aside, what would replace it?
Cairo felt like an inheld breath. It was the turning point of spring and summer. There was an air of reflection, of taking stock, and of puzzled expectation, of humility before the forces of history.
“In Egypt today most people are concerned with getting bread to eat. Only some of the educated understand how democracy works.” – Naguib Mahfouz
On the cab drive to Heliopolis I told the talkative national-chauvinist driver that the future belonged to China. He said no, it belongs to Egypt, obviously so. Egypt has diamonds and gas and the cleverest people. He clicked his fingers. “Unlike the Libyans, who are stupid to a man. It’s not their fault, of course. Qaddafi made them stupid. But Libya’s not a real country. Egypt is the only real country in the Middle East.”
He drove through the busyness of Cairo – a city of crushing crowds, flyovers and underpasses, streets like ravines through which traffic surges five or six or ten lanes deep, walled by high inhabited stone, mammoth statist rectangles or French-era apartment blocks garlanded in Dickensian filth. Up to the curfew the Downtown streets were as packed as ever, reflecting so much swing and bustle and sparkling light they made you want to burst out laughing.
Heliopolis, however, was relatively calm, reassuringly lowrise, radiating the atmosphere of an overcrowded seaside town. Here was the recently vacated presidential palace. Here, amongst pretty whitewashed commercial streets, was the Cilantro cafe. And here inside was Ethar Kamel el-Katatney, contributing editor for Egypt Today, winner of CNN’s African Journalist of the Year, and author of a book recounting her Islamic studies in Yemen. She has an MBA and a Masters in Arts and Television. She’s 24 years old.
Tens of thousands followed Ethar’s tweets during the revolution. She’s certainly not an organiser in the classic sense, but an informant, a news bearer, a connector.
She didn’t go out on January 25th. She knew how it would end – in clouds of tear gas or in a police cell – and she didn’t see the point. It was when the internet was cut – on January 26th – that she realised the gravity of the moment. The next three weeks she described as ranging the full spectrum of human emotion, like Bollywood. “Every event was followed by a reaction. The day of the camels swung the pendulum against Mubarak. The day the foreigners were attacked put a different slant on things again. And now everything is up in the air. No-one can predict the future. It’s not an easy time.”
Ethar referred to “Holes in the Conscience”, a book by psychiatrist Ahmed Okasha. The argument goes like this: the Egyptian population, not used to taking decisions or bearing political responsibilities, not well-equipped to deal with change, now faces information overload and therefore profound confusion, a bewilderment as to what is to be done. And deep fear. Half the nation, she reminded me, lives on less than two dollars a day. Any disruption to this income means starvation.
Ali Gomaa, the Mufti and not a friend of the uprising, warned that revolutions tend to eat their children. There’s a large receptive audience for the sentiment. “The countryside isn’t Tahreer,” said Ethar. “The people want money and security first of all.”
Or as Bill Clinton might say, it’s the economy, stupid. People of all classes fear an economic collapse and the social consequences, which might not be very far distant. The tourists have been scared away. An enormous chunk of capital has fled overseas, a trend exacerbated by the popular hunt for corrupt officials. And the poor want justice soon – something the economy is unable to deliver. As well as fear, there’s a potentially explosive discontent.
Take the man who worked the late shift at my nearest kiosk (his second job of the day). “The revolution was in January,” he told me. “This is late March, and I’m living the same conditions. I can barely provide the basics to my wife and two children. This poverty is an insult to the people’s dignity. Wasn’t the revolution supposed to bring dignity? That’s what they said it was for. So where’s the dignity? I’m waiting.”
Revolutions, in Max Rodenbeck’s words, are “apt to be two-humped beasts.” France, Russia, Iran – first comes the bourgeois, democratic wave, then the second, something much more radical.
“The factor that brings about justice in any society is the application of the law against powerful people rather than against the small.” – Alaa al-Aswany
In Huda Shaarawi’s old apartment, now the Garden City Club, Issandr el-Amrani told me that Egypt’s GDP in 1945 was higher than Italy’s. For the subsequent decline he blames the mismanagement of the 50s, Nasser’s expensive adventurism, and US-backed crony capitalism in the Sadat and Mubarak eras.
“It leaves the country with serious structural problems. There are six and a half million civil servants. That’s too many. But there is potential too. Egypt is a rich country full of poor people. It has resources: the unexploited minerals in the desert, the gold, the oil and gas, the Suez canal.
“But Egypt has a mafia. People don’t realise the extent of it because there’s been a poor business media here. But the mafia is everywhere.” To illustrate his point, el-Amrani details the “larceny” of the Israeli gas deal, the cuts and kickbacks.
Max Rodenbeck says, “The economy is precarious. There’s a huge national debt. The outgoing government, despite its corruption, was probably the best team of technocrats that Mubarak ever had. Now the competent people have been disgraced as much as the NDP fat cats. The present government, if clean-handed and friendly, is not particularly qualified to manage things. It’s being forced to make the public happy by raising salaries and employing more workers. If it ends up printing money, there’ll be hyper-inflation. It’s very dangerous indeed.”
As decades’ worth of resentment was all at once expressed, unrest bubbled in every economic sector. It was like the lid lifting off the proverbial pressure cooker: strikes against starvation wages, corrupt bosses, remembered insults. Schoolchildren even demonstrated for an easier curriculum.
Some suspected old regime involvement. The popular new prime minister Essam Sharaf saw in the strike wave “an organised plan to destabilise Egypt.”
Such was the fearful context (in March) in which the SCAF drafted a law to ban those strikes and protests deemed to damage the economy, on pain of a one-year jailterm. Protestors and rights groups condemned the law. The SCAF promised it would be temporary, only to be used when necessary, and that it was intended to assure stable change. The revolutionaries understood it as another move by the forces of counter-revolution – that is, disenfranchised Mubarak cronies, NDP apparatchiks, state security officers, and the tainted rich.
Ethar el-Katatney was reporting on a demonstration in support of dismissed prime minister Ahmad Shafeeq when she came across a bejewelled, lavishly coiffeured woman. She asked her why she’d come out to protest. “I don’t support Shafeeq,” insisted the woman. “I’m protesting against the dictatorship of Tahreer.”
‘The people want to write their constitution’
“Egypt’s history is replete with lost opportunities for democratisation.”– Alaa al-Aswany
On 9th March, soldiers and plainclothes thugs violently broke up a small protest camp in Tahreer. 170 protestors were taken to the army’s base behind the Egyptian museum, where they were allegedly tortured. Amnesty International described as ‘shocking’ reports that female detainees were subjected to ‘virginity tests’. In Egypt the allegations made less of an uproar than they might have; they were covered by a couple of newspapers’ online English-language websites, but not in print or anywhere in Arabic. According to someone who knows, the reason is simple: the SCAF ordered editors not to touch the story.
Hossam Bahgat’s Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights was the first organisation to speak out during the revolution against the army’s involvement in detention and torture. Besides these problems, Bahgat was concerned by the army’s excessive penchant for military courts where protestors and common criminals were being tried in five-minute sessions and in the absence of proper legal representation. The army was also legislating, for instance amending the penal code to increase sentences for sexual violence, including a mandatory death sentence for rape with intent. What bothered Bahgat was that such measures, arising from “a misguided, short-sighted urge to show that the army is in control of domestic security,” have been implemented without democratic consultation. And they are a typically military overreaction; there is no proof that sexual crime has increased since the collapse of the Interior Ministry.
As for the torture allegations, “the SCAF now says they’ll be examined. There have been no new allegations after March 9th. So we hope the army has got the message.”
We spoke on April 3rd. On April 8th, the army opened fire on protestors breaking the curfew in Tahreer. As soldiers charged the crowd, they detained five uniformed officers who had ‘joined the revolution’ and denounced the SCAF from the stage. The two killed in the assault may have been mutinous officers.
The army’s role has been increasingly questioned, and not only by rights activists and protestors in Tahreer. Another cab driver, a middle-aged, well-educated man who works as a state engineer in the mornings, an ‘average Egyptian’of the sort not normally associated with Trotskyist thinking, spoke of the necessity for revolution within the army’s ranks. “What’s the difference between Mubarak and (chief of staff) Tantawi?” he asked, then answered himself: “Nothing.”
The SCAF oversaw the 19th March constitutional referendum, which limited presidential terms and ensured judicial supervision of elections yet left the bulk of the constitution untouched. Translator Muhammad Fouda, a supporter of Muhammad al-Barade’i, explained why he’d voted no: “The new parliament will write the next constitution, and will present it for referendum in one chunk, not article by article. There will be no discussion. A lot of the bad things will stay.”
Many revolutionaries also voted no because they feared the path towards elections was being rushed, that they needed more time to organise. The beneficiaries of quick elections would be those with known faces and organisation already in place – in other words the NDP in rebranded packages, and the Muslim Brothers, with their cell structure and social services network.
On the day, 40 percent of the electorate voted, tripling the participation of Mubarak-era ‘elections’. 77 percent voted yes.
The Muslim Brotherhood had endorsed a yes vote. An article describing a ‘yes’ as a religious duty was taken down almost immediately after appearing on the MB website. But Salafi leaders were more forthright. Shaikh Muhammad Hasnain Yaqoub declared the referendum result “a dramatic victory for Islam over non-Muslim voters,” adding that those who didn’t like it could migrate to the United States. He worried that a ‘no’ result would have allowed liberals to tamper with Article Two of the constitution, which declares sharia the major source of legislation. For the same reason, and because they dread the rapid empowerment of the Brotherhood, most Copts voted no. Thus the first exercise of the democratic era resulted in religious polarisation.
Nobody really knows why the silent majority voted yes. There are plenty of theories. Perhaps Egyptian voters were swayed by Islamist propaganda. Perhaps they consider an extended period of military rule the worst option, and so they voted for speed. The most likely explanation is that the silent majority is scared. It wishes the revolutionary process to stabilise soon before it swings onto more radical ground.
So parliamentary elections should be held by September, and presidential elections some months later. Max Rodenbeck again: “The young revolutionaries include extremely sophisticated and bright elements. One would hope that these people are the future. Getting the people onto the streets and then organising the defense of Tahreer Square – these were impressive achievements. But electoral politics is a different game. More experienced and cynical forces will come into play. Violence and money will play their roles.”
Although most Egyptians live in cities, the countryside will dominate parliament. This means the choices made by rural notables – a freefloating element with money and influence but no obvious ideology – will be crucial in deciding the coming dispensation. In the past such people backed the NDP, the only horse running. Now they will gravitate towards whatever party looks like a winner, with the proviso that there is enmity between the notables and the Muslim Brothers.
If the revolution does swing into a second hump these rural potentates will become less relevant, but for the time being they have to be taken into serious consideration. Consistently hardnosed, Issandr el-Amrani thinks young liberals and leftists should be making contact with elements of the NDP, to use their expertise. Another friend, a former investment banker who’s moved back home to participate, is educating himself more directly in rural opinion by making road trips out of Cairo. One of his ideas: the MB become known when they offer social services. So the liberals and leftists could do the same. Teach kids computer skills, for instance. Become a political force through practical engagement.
“I am fed up. After 62 years in public service, I have had enough. I want to go. If I resign now there will be chaos.” – Hosni Mubarak
The revolution was, famously, leaderless. It was too big for a leader. Which means that, at the time of writing, there was no obvious front-running party or presidential contender to define Egypt’s new face.
There were candidates aplenty, including: former foreign minister and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, experienced, widely respected, but too closely associated with the old regime; Sami Enan, the military’s potential candidate; Ayman Nour, founder of the reformist Ghad Party, imprisoned under the Mubarak regime and injured during the revolution; Muhammadel-Baradei, a principled man distinguished by service as IAEA head, but also the victim of a partially successful Mubarak smear campaign which had him as a foreign national with an Israeli wife and a libertine daughter; and Judge Hisham al-Bastawisi, popular for explicitly contesting and detailing election irregularities in December 2005, and suffering the consequences – exile and a heart attack.
I asked Max Rodenbeck who would control the parliament. “There are majorities against everything,” he replied. “Against the MB, the NDP, the Copts. It’s more difficult to know what – or who – a majority is for.”
A great deal of business money will flow towards a competent liberal party as soon as an obvious candidate arises. Contestants include Baradei’s National Association for Change, the Tahreer Revolutionaries Party, the Wafd Party – which dominated before the 1952 coup, but is at present a withered shadow, and the Social Democratic Party, which proposes ‘market socialism’.
And what of the left? Ballooning strike action was perhaps even more crucial to the revolution’s success than street protests. Yet the the activism of the working class will not automatically translate into leftist electoral success. The best-known leftist party, the formerly tolerated Tagammu, has been marginalised by poor leadership and its compromises with the old regime. 73 leading party members resigned while I was in Egypt. New parties, such as the Popular Alliance, an umbrella group, are being formed.
But cold facts would obstruct a socialist programme. The Mahalla textile factory, for instance, doesn’t make a profit. That’s what Issandr el-Amrani told me in the Garden City Club. “There is a strong idea of redistributive justice here, but it’s impossible to implement hard left policies in present conditions. Egypt owes money. It has to obey external demands. It can’t take risks or rock the boat. It’s as simple as that.”
The left’s strength is developing in movements rather than parties. Akram Youssef’s Progressive Youth, for example, aims to popularise leftist ideas in Egyptian communities. And the Democratic Workers Party is looking a year ahead at least, to stage two, and is much more interested in building a country-wide workers’ movement than in playing the electoral game. One of its declared intentions is to illuminate the class relations of military top brass versus rank and file.
‘Demands of the people’
“By the second Friday of the Revolution, Egyptians were reclaiming a legacy long appropriated by political Islam: the legacy of jihad, which means not blowing yourself up to bring down America but simply fighting the good fight. We all undertook jihad during the Revolution, many Muslim Brothers and some Salafis were with us, not as Islamists but as Egyptians. We all practised jihad in Tahrir, but none of us were jihadis.” – Youssef Rakha
Will an al-Azhar unshackled from the sultan’s whim reclaim its authoritative place in Islamic thought? Will the revolution therefore halt the ascendance of Saudi-Wahhabi influence? Will Egyptian Islam stop functioning as an escape from reality and begin to attend to real issues? Will clerics now address torture, poverty and social division as confidently as they’ve addressed issues of dress and personal hygiene in the past?
It remains to be seen to what extent political revolution will feed into a revolution in Islam. What is certain is that the Islamists of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a movement with an eighty-year history, will play an important role in shaping the next phase.
The Brothers still living can be divided into three generations, the first of which was formed in the 1950s and 60s, the AbdulNasser years. The MB supported the 1952 Free Officers’ revolution, but in 1954 were charged with the attempted assassination of AbdulNasser (a charge they denied) and were banned and savagely repressed. Sayed Qutb is the most famous of the period’s ideologues shaped by imprisonment and torture.
The second generation, shaped in the seventies and eighties, had an easier time of it. Chastened in the pursuit of its social justice and anti-imperialist targets, post-Nasserist Egypt employed Islamic symbolism in the political sphere more and more overtly. Using language previously alien to Egyptian statehood, Sadat described himself as a Muslim president of a Muslim country. To eliminate opposition to his pro-West, pro-business policies, Sadat had to eliminate those socialists and nationalists who still clung to the revolutionary implications of Nasserism. And so he entered an informal alliance with the Muslim Brothers against the nationalist left.
Once state persecution had eased, the Brothers renounced violence as a means of achieving an Islamic state, focusing instead on the steady Islamisation of society by persuasion and example. The founders of liberal breakaways from the Brotherhood belong to this generation. And, disgusted by the mainstream’s rejection of violence, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya also split from the Brothers in the 70s.
The third generation was formed from the 90s on, and fills the movement’s often untraditional youth wing. It has gleaned the dual experience of harsh repression, when Islamists of any stripe were blamed for violence against policemen and tourists in the 90s, and of semi-toleration, when Brothers were allowed to run in (rigged) parliamentary elections, albeit as independents.
The MB achieved 20% of the vote in the 2005 elections. Their success prompted another regime crackdown. In future elections the Brothers seem assured of their 20% base, a starting point which can be significantly improved upon. Nobody else has the mobilising capacity or the guaranteed finance (members dedicate a portion of their income to the movement). According to Max Rodenbeck, the Islamist trend from its right to its left represents perhaps 40 to 50% of the electorate.
Yet for now, aware of the fears they provoke, the Brothers have modest expectations. Their new party, al-Hurriya wal-Adala, or the Freedom and Justice Party, aims to field candidates in only a half of parliamentary seats. And the MB won’t contest the presidency.
I spoke to leading Muslim Brother Essam el-Eryan, who Sarah Carr feistily describes as “a member of the Dark Force which is the Muslim Brotherhood, and who himself is jolly and almost always laughing and a bit cuddly.” I would not go so far as ‘cuddly’, but it was a pleasure to hear the man talk.
He spoke of Egypt’s position at the heart of the Arab world, its leading role in both victory and defeat. “Before 1952 Egypt was the beacon of enlightenment to the Arabs, during the Nasser years a stronghold of anti-colonial resistance, and after 1973 the trailblazer of normalisation with Israel and intimate relations with the United States. And now Egypt will lead in the age of democracy.”
I asked, “And the Brothers don’t want to take power in Egypt?”
“This is not a moment of power. No, this is the moment for building a new political order. We need five or ten years at least to build a democratic civil society.”
“Then there will be a democracy.”
He’s a great politician, an expert in not answering the question, but el-Eryan is justifiably cautious. He’s conscious of the success, domestic as much as external, of Mubarak’s demonisation campaign, as well as unresolved debates within the movement and society at large on the role of religion in a pluralist democracy. The media, academia, the elite, and lots of working class Egyptians, are deeply suspicious of the Islamists. It’s one reason why the old regime survived so long.
Ethar el-Katatney told me that most people supported the Brothers for the services they provided, services the state failed to provide – for economic reasons, in other words. And now people fear the economic ramifications of a Brotherhood majority, that it would frighten away Western investment, that tourists would stop coming.
Others, like a couple of men from Mahalla come to Cairo for the day (we met in a café), by no means opponents of the Brotherhood, wanted an MB minority in parliament on a sophisticated point of principle. “Their job is to criticise, not to legislate. They should be in parliament to expose corruption and to protest when the state does something immoral. But they shouldn’t make the government.”
In any case, the Brotherhood will not remain a unified force, despite Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie’s decree that Brothers must not join parties other than Freedom and Justice. With the advent of freedom comes a dividing or a blossoming, depending on your perspective. Ex-Brother Ibrahim al-Houdaiby calls it “the challenge of freedom.”
In the 70s the rifts were initiated by violent groups exasperated by the quietist line of the conservative mainstream. Today the splits are reformist-led, by Islamists who accept a greater separation of religious and political life, who (in contrast to the Brotherhood’s official 2007 programme) are untroubled by the prospect of a Christian or female president.
The Wasat (Centre) Party split away in 1996, and was finally granted a licence a week after the revolution. Wasat stresses the equality of all citizens under the law irrespective of their religious origin. And now prominent Brothers Ibrahim al-Zaafarani, Haytham Abou-Khalil and Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh have resigned from the Brotherhood and may be constructing the Nahda (Awakening) Party, which will probably be slightly less liberal than the Wasat party, and will focus on economic issues.
Essam al-Eryan was dismissive of the Nahda – “It’s not a good idea. It won’t be successful. It’s a dream or a protest action, not a party” – and denied that the proliferation of parties was proof of division in the movement. But I remembered the reported words of the Prophet – “Difference of opinion in my community is a blessing.” In part due to the Brothers’ efforts, Islamic ideas are current throughout society. In a democracy, there’s no reason why one party should lay exclusive political claim to these ideas. Let right and left present their own interpretations, and let the people decide.
To the chagrin of the MB leadership, the youth wing – the troublesome third generation – seems to agree. The youth wing organised its own conference on March 26th. Among other things, it objected to the Supreme Guide’s command to vote only for Freedom and Justice. Sameh al-Barqi’s speech also encouraged internal reform in the movement, urging the empowerment of the elected Shura Council and arguing that the Guidance Bureau should execute the decisions of the Shura Council, not rule from the top. Other speakers called for a greater role in the movement for women and the young.
The MB cadres tend to be professionals. Salafis, on the other hand, are often recent migrants to the urban slums, living the full initial flush of alienation, or alternatively, people who migrated directly from the village to Saudi Arabia and back again. Permitted to preach by the old regime for their convenient doctrine of loyalty to even an unjust ruler (before the revolution they issued a fatwa against Baradei for opposing the ‘wali al-amr’), Salafis are taking the fullest advantage of the new dispensation.
Although their sole legal political action since the revolution has been to distribute leaflets against ‘kafir’ democracy, up to five Salafi parties are currently brewing. As for illegal activities, in the brief time I was there these included cutting the ear off a Copt accused of renting a room to a prostitute, burning an ex-prostitute’s furniture, provoking a village brawl by attacking a Copt’s beer shop, and attempting to destroy Islamic shrines in Alexandria. This last action prompted some Sufi shaikhs to consider forming their own party to defend shrines and moulids.
The plot thickens inexorably. There were rumours too of clean-cut tele-preacher Amr Khaled’s political ambitions. His position in March: he wouldn’t rule out either forming a party or running for president if these options would help him realise Egypt’s development goals.
“..the more important truth is that despotism will never protect anyone from religious extremism, because religious extremism is one of the symptoms of despotism.” – Alaa al-Aswany.
The Mubarak regime dealt with its Islamist challenge in two ways: politically, it rigged elections ever more blatantly and persecuted its visible opponents; socially, it pandered to the most retrograde desires of Islamism (limiting the construction of churches, banning books) as well as doing its best to whip up petty chauvinism over the most ridiculous of pretexes (for instance the mutual football hooliganism of Egyptian and Algerian fans). And when sectarian fights enveloped villages, when churches or shops were burnt, the state failed to respond effectively. Its approach was through formal reconciliations, featuring financial compensation and hand shakes, but not resolving any underlying issues. There were never any prosecutions, and no rebuilding.
Yet the regime marketed itself as the protector of Christians, waving the Brotherhood bogeyman at home as it did to the West. In this Mubarak enjoyed the connivance of the Coptic Church, which Pope Shenouda – who supported Gamal Mubarak’s succession to the presidency – ran like his own dictatorship. The Church instructed its followers not to participate in the revolution. (Of course many disobeyed.)
It was widely noted in Christian circles that no church was attacked in the days of looting, for every church was protected by neighbourhood committees, very often by Muslims. Clearly, the people in this democratic mood were a better guarantor of sectarian peace than the old regime had ever been. Many Egyptians now believe that the regime was behind the New Year’s church bombing in Alexandria, that it was another clumsy ploy to scare Christians into loyalty.
But the sectarian hatred is real. Ethar el-Katatney warns, “it’s a recent phenomenon, but the idea of co-existence is being slowly and steadily removed. The Gulf invests in Salafis, their TV stations, and the approach appeals in Egypt because it’s very one-plus-one-equals-two. It promotes itself as a curriculum, a way of life. And we have the problem of fake religiosity, when people enjoy neither the world nor the sweetness of faith, so they envy the people who are different, and turn on them easily. We need better-educated shaikhs. We need Muslim leaders to take responsibility for the problem.”
Essam el-Eryan could have been more reassuring on diversity. When I asked him if Turkey’s Justice and Development Party was a model for the MB’s Freedom and Justice, he answered no, Turkey’s situation was completely different. Turkey wants entrance to the EU, and is a NATO member, unlike Egypt. And Turkey is a mosaic of peoples, Turks and Kurds, Sunnis and Alevis, while Egypt is homogenous.
A moment later he noticed his ommission. “Of course here we have Christians,” he caught up, “but they are citizens too.” As if the Alevis were not Turkish citizens.
Magdy Samaan is a journalist for al-Shorouk newspaper, and a Protestant. His religious community constitutes perhaps a million people, perhaps ten percent of Egypt’s Christians. Here’s his list of culprits for sectarian division: “Hate speech in mosques, schools and the media, the old regime’s manipulation of the problem, the absence of the rule of law, the current absence of security. These can be overcome by democracy. It’s true that Salafis are proliferating, but they threaten the Sufis as much as they threaten the Christians.”
Christians, like their Muslim compatriots, await the future with hope and trepidation. Christian political impulses are diverse and nuanced, and the response to Islamism is not one of unanimous alarm. Rafiq Habib, for instance, an Anglican intellectual, is a key member of the MB-offshoot Wasat Party.
Yet the suspicion of difference is a deeply-flowing strain in Egyptian society. Sarah Carr, the proudly Egyptian daughter of an Egyptian mother and a British father, writes perceptively on the issue. Not surprisingly, she feels strongly about Article 75 of the Constitution, which disqualifies electoral candidates whose spouse or grandparents hold a foreign nationality. “Imagine them doing that in Britain,” Sarah urged me. “It’s nothing to do with security.”
For a couple of days during the revolution Cairo witnessed a string of attacks on Western foreigners, plus light-skinned Egyptians and anyone who looked ‘different’ – men with long hair, for instance, or women with short hair. The attacks followed state media propaganda to the effect that Israeli spies were posing as foreign journalists, and that foreigners stood behind the unrest (like so many pro-Zionists, Mubarak was an anti-Semite). Hossam Bahgat blamed the violence on straightforward brainwashing, arguing that dark-skinned foreigners are the more usual victims of Egyptian racism. Sarah Carr, who was collating incidents of anti-foreigner violence for Hossam’s EIPR when I met her, thought it went deeper than that, that it’s the result of Egyptians being second class citizens in their own country – to British, French, Albanians, Turks – for hundreds of years. This tradition, she asserted, was continued by the NDP, whose high ranks lived like colonists, residing in gated communities, educating their children in foreign languages and foreign universities, viewing the people as a threatening rabble.
Whether the ‘other’ is a Christian, a Shii Muslim, a white or a black, two visions of Egypt – as homogenous or plural – are in competition. Max Rodenbeck cast it as a “battle of narratives, a battle of dreams, between ‘the Islamic conquest’ and ‘national brotherhood’.” Which side would win? “Well, Egypt has thrived whenever it’s welcomed diversity. One positive thing is the general aversion to fitna. Having a free press to air the issues is also very important, but it’s a race against time.”
The fear is that Saudi Arabia is also running in the race, or at least seeking to trip up the ‘plural’ runner. Issandr el-Amrani reminded me that the Sauds are facing the end of their Arab supremacy, and are struggling desperately to retain influence. People worry that Chief of Staff Tantawi, who was Egypt’s military attache in Afghanistan, has very close ties to the Saud princes. Salafi-inspired chaos would be another obvious conduit of Saudi influence. (In May Salafis burnt a church in Cairo’s Imbaba neighbourhood, causing the stock market to crash the next day.)
Magdy Samaan fears outside intervention of two types – from Saudi Arabia, either to support conservative Islamist rule or, via Salafis, to play spoiler, and from the US and Israel, to press the army into a permanently dominant role. “But if the Egyptians are left alone,” he continues, “they’ll build a functioning civil democracy. I’m very optimistic about this. In Tahreer I met ordinary people with an extraordinary level of political awareness, people learning very fast. The young, social-media-savvy activists are a minority of course, but they are a determined, active minority, and they’ll be very influential in the wider society.”
“The people I saw in Tahreer Square were new Egyptians, with nothing in common with the Egyptians I was used to dealing with every day. It was as if the revolution had recreated Egyptians in a higher form… There was a deep feeling of solidarity and courteous conduct, as if the revolution had not only rid Egyptians of fear but also cured them of their social defects.”– Alaa al-Aswany.
There were a million revolutionary theatres – mosque plazas, village squares, factory floors – Tahreer Square iconises them all. It symbolises perfect democracy, in which freedom and responsibility are one, in which all participate and all difference is respected. Ethar el-Katatney sums it up as “a sense of unity. No suspicion. It felt like Haj. The different colours, the two genders, different social classes, all together.”
Revolutionary Tahreer provides the second icon of the century, separating 2011 from 2001, January 25th from September 11th – an entirely different crowd scene this time, the crowd no longer signifying the victimised or manipulated herd. In Tahreer the crowd means power, the agency of positive change.
Tahreer generated symbols of harmonious pluralism. Muslims praying under the protection of Christians. Coptic mass held on the MB stage. A Quran-bearing shaikh intertwined with a Bible-wielding priest, both surrounded by a crowd chanting “One Hand! One Hand!”
First the revolution was televised; then it was commercialised. On my visit, I found the following on sale in the square: revolutionary T-shirts, keyrings, flags, cards, posters. One poster shows the ‘corruption team’ – top Mubarak cronies photoshopped in football gear. As well as small businessmen, I could see Beduin from the Sinai, the wives and mothers of political prisoners, street-tough boys posing in their vests, students wearing backpacks, families enjoying history in the making, the middle classes, the workers, the poor. Groups rippled through carrying enormous Egyptian flags, like ant work parties bearing outsize leaves. Free Libyan flags flapped among the Egyptian. At the edge of Qasr al-Nil Bahraini students displayed gruesome pictures of the repression in their country. Speakers on the stages (a plurality of makeshift stages, not a single stage or a single dragooned crowd) demanded an end to the Israel gas deal – “Who sells his resources underprice to his enemy?” – and the trial of the ‘heads of corruption’, and for the anti-strike law to be cancelled, and for the people’s right to debate and write their own constitution. “We have broken the barrier of fear,” called the man who talked on that stage. “So there is no excuse not to continue until the goals of our revolution have been achieved. Whoever thinks the revolution has succeeded is making a fool of himself.”
This jumbled assembly of protests was gathered ‘to rescue the revolution,’ and such was the general, unifying fear: that the revolutionary moment was coagulating, that the momentum for change was endangered.
One banner read: ‘The bottom line: We will not be ruled by USA or EU anymore, despite our sincere love for their people.’ Another declared the existence of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party (under construction). Leaflets called for workers to establish free trades unions, or for the citizenry to beware the army’s true nature, or for the release of the prisoners (17,000 ‘Islamist’ detainees still languish in desert camps. Most have not been tried or even charged with a crime. Because they are from the poor classes, Egypt very nearly forgot about them).
Passionate disputes enlivened clumps amid the swirl – Is the army a friend or enemy of the people? Do Islamists threaten democracy? The discussions quickly moved beyond mere rhetoric. People constructed arguments, offered evidence to back their points of view. It was a bit like Speakers’ Corner, minus the lunatics, plus a great deal of practical urgency. The crowd was more engaged, better informed, than any other crowd I’ve been a part of.
“The revolution was a breakthrough for the health of our society, but it hasn’t solved all our ills in one go. We need to work. But now we have a chance. The oxygen had been sucked from our society for at least thirty years. Now we can breathe.”– Hossam Bahgat
The struggle for Egypt’s future is being fought between religious, civil and military forces,
between homogenising and pluralising urges, between those who desire revolutionary acceleration and those who fear sudden change. Regionally, the usual suspects will interfere, overtly and covertly. But the Egyptian people are still, for now, in the driving seat. Their achievement has rearranged the maps, shaken the earth – the Arab earth shakes from Bahrain to Libya, Yemen to Syria – and where all was stagnation, everything is in flux.
Sarah Carr again: “Tahreer was wonderful, a mini-Utopia. I wish you could take the atmosphere there and put it in a jar. I wasn’t harrassed once. There was one Salafi who told me to wear my jacket around my waist while we were being attacked by thugs. I just looked at him. Is this the moment to be worrying about my waist? Worry about the molotov cocktails. Apart from that incident, all I saw of the Tahreer people was intelligence and respect. But step out of Tahreer, and you were back in Egypt.”
Did anything last of it? “Yes. It created a zest which didn’t exist before.”
Or more than that. Not only a zest, but a contagion. Even in Libya and Syria – where the Allahu Akbars attain higher frequency with every massacre experienced – the people still chant One Hand and One People, injecting some Tahreer into dictator hell. There is an awareness abroad, amongst ordinary people from Maghrib to Mashriq, that rights matter, that everybody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. The acuteness of the awareness marks a true generational – and historical – change.
Hossam Bahgat says, “People have woken up. Previously apolitical people are interested now. People are engaged. This is the biggest guarantee for the future.”
CM01: The Arabs are Alive (Hurst, London, 2012)