Youth activists Moaz Abd El-Kareem, Sally Moore and Mohammed Abbas. Photo: Platon (Human Rights Watch)
On a sweltering night shortly before the start of Ramadan, the Muslim Brotherhood convened a political rally in the Nile Delta town of Shibin El-Kom. Most Cairenes wouldn’t even drive through the capital of Monufiaprovince unless they had family there. Agriculture is the only business in this marshy area at the start of the maze of canals and river branches that marks Egypt‘s breadbasket. The peasants, or fellaheen, who till the land are religious, nationalistic and socially conservative. The elites who rule Egypt have their roots in such places – the previous two presidents, Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat, were born in Monufia – but once in power dismiss them as backwaters. Among the nation’s power players, though, the Muslim Brothers are an exception; their leadership comes largely from the educated working classes and boasts an easy familiarity with the fellaheen.
The rally in Shibin El-Kom officially launched the parliamentary election campaign of the Muslim Brotherhood’s new political wing, the Freedom And Justice party. Informally, the Islamists were striving to distinguish themselves from the revolutionaries who had upended the country’s crusty political order in January and who were again occupying Tahrir Square – and naming the Muslim Brotherhood among their counter-revolutionary enemies. Activists had set up a utopian tent city in Cairo’s central plaza, trumpeting their vision for a civil state and decrying the fact that half a year after Mubarak’s resignation the nation was still governed by a military dictatorship. After a month in the square, however, they were drawing fewer people every day, their message drowning in a stream of dictates from an increasingly nasty Military Council and criticism from increasingly acerbic Islamists.
The scene couldn’t have looked more different in the Delta. The Brotherhood had selected for its rally a dirt track off the town’s main bypass. Several thousand people, mostly professionals, merchants or farmers, came with their families; volunteers were encouraged to donate blood at ambulances. On stage, party leaders paid tribute to the local families of the martyrs of the revolution – protesters killed in January and February – then moved on to business. A women’s committee chief outlined the jobs women held in the party; a farmer spoke about its agricultural cooperatives. Finally, party head Mohammed Morsy gave a rousing speech. “The people gave their revolution to the military to protect,” he thundered. “The only legitimacy in this country today comes from the people.” In closing, he ordered his audience to demonstrate the party’s discipline and breadth in their neighbourhoods – by picking up the garbage.
Six months after Mubarak surrendered to millions of Egyptians, the same generals still rule. Arbitrary detention and allegations of torture are commonplace, if less widespread than before. State media still demonises critics of the junta, and the military – without public consultation – will decide exactly what process is supposed to lead to democratic elections and a civilian government. Reformers and revolutionaries fear the military, stronger now than under Mubarak, will outmanoeuvre them. And they fear Islamists will sweep the elections and control the writing of a new constitution, leading to a democratic Egypt that’s neither secular nor liberal.
In short, the problem is this: idealistic revolutionaries dream of an Arab democracy that reflects popular values but opens its arms to Muslims, Christians and people who want a secular state. But they look outgunned by the religious right, which wants majority rule, and whose force was apparent on the last Friday in July when a million people flooded Tahrir Square demanding “Islamic state, not civil”. Above the fray, the generals rejoiced: the more profound the divisions between Islamist and secular opposition, the better for them.
The summertime scenes in Tahrir Square belie the sense that the revolution is increasingly marginalised and under threat. At its core, the revolution represents a force that is much more willing to criticise authority, and tolerate diversity, than perhaps mainstream public opinion. The original throngs that fought riot police drew on at least three major and messily overlapping constituencies. First were the activists – organisers of all political and religious stripes who had come to trust each other over years of strikes, tiny protests and mass arrests. Second were the politicised people previously afraid to challenge the regime but who brought to the protests a distinct agenda – labour unionists, socialists, liberal NGO workers and more conservative religious activists. Finally, there were the hundreds of thousands of angry and apolitical Egyptians sick of Mubarak’s police state.