Leading Egyptian presidential candidates Amr Moussa, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and Mohamed Morsi. / Reuters, AP
[Originally published in The Atlantic.]
CAIRO — Egypt’s first real presidential contest ever, for which the candidates met last night for the Arab world’s first-ever real presidential debate, has all the makings of a genuinely interesting fight. The front-runners nicely capture a wide stretch of the spectrum, while leaving out the extremes. Voter interest appears high, and the military rulers seem unlikely to allow major fraud based on their record with parliamentary elections.
But enthusiasm about the debate should not obscure the unsatisfying circumstances of the presidential election, which itself does not guarantee a full transition to civilian rule or democracy.
The president’s powers still have not been delineated, and the significance of the race and its victor could be heavily tarnished by future decisions about the assembly that will write the next constitution, among other unresolved questions about whether Egypt will have a presidential, parliamentary, or hybrid system.
Islamists have proven themselves to be the dominant political bloc, garnering more than two-thirds of the vote in parliamentary elections earlier this year. The winner of the presidential race, even if he is secular, will owe his victory to Islamist voters, and will have to govern in tandem with a parliament that has a veto-proof Islamist majority. Islamist politics are malleable and by no means monolithic, but they will drive the political agenda after decades of total exclusion.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, has heavily manipulated the process, deepening its unaccountable and authoritarian mechanisms of control. Crony-packed courts and the presidential election commission have made a series of arbitrary decisions. Egypt’s next government will have to negotiate artfully to wrest the most important powers out of the hands of generals.
The campaign has galvanized Egyptians. This week, the candidates crisscrossed the countryside in bus caravans, and thousands turned out in even the minutest villages.
“He has a special charisma,” gushed an English teacher named Ahmed Abdel Lahib, during a pit stop by the Amr Moussa campaign in a Nile Delta hamlet called Mit Fares. “Egypt needs a man like him,” he said of the former Arab League secretary-general.
Hundreds of men thronged the candidate, shouting, “Purify the country!” and “We want to kiss you!” In his tailored suit, and carrying the patrician demeanor he honed over decades as Egypt’s foreign minister and then Arab League chief, Musa clambered onto a makeshift stage for his short stump speech (fix agriculture, the economy, and health care, long live Egypt!). Men pushed over chairs and slammed one another into the walls of the narrow alley to get closer to Moussa and touch his sleeve.
The oaths of loyalty felt a tad staged and excessive, but similar displays characterized all the major candidate rallies, and could reflect the old authoritarian rallies, or a desire for a galvanizing leader like Gamal Abdel Nasser, the nationalist colonel who took power in a 1952 coup, or simply the enthusiasm of voters who for the first time in their lives will likely get to choose their president.
Moussa has presented himself as a secular elder statesman who can stand against what he portrays as a power-hungry Islamist tide, personified by the other two front-runners: the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and the ex-Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. It is Aboul Fotouh who most worries Moussa’s strategists: he is giving the former minister a run for first place, marketing himself as potential bridge candidate, a “liberal Islamist” who can appeal to Islamists as well as the secular nationalists and revolutionaries who are wary of Moussa’s connections to the old regime.
Thousands of fans in the market town of Senbelawain waited hours on a recent night for Aboul Fotouh, who seems perpetually delayed by traffic (he was late for the historic presidential debate for the same reason). When he arrived, the retired doctor was greeted like a rock star with swoons and chants. Bearded Salafis and women in full-face-covering niqabs jostled with clean-shaven students.
Aboul Fotouh is a more gripping orator than Moussa, with a gruff, gravelly voice that he controls well, shifting cadence to maintain his audience’s attention. “If this country succeeds, the whole Islamic world succeeds,” Aboul Fotouh shouted, provoking cries of exultation. He talked extensively about sharia, in a way apparently calculated to burnish his Islamist credentials while reassuring his left flank that he opposes such literal interpretations as severing the hands of thieves. Aboul Fotouh’s stump speech played to his Islamist base rather than to his revolutionary and secular sympathizers.
A Muslim Brotherhood member in the audience named Yousef Eid Hamid, 38, said he was campaigning for Aboul Fotouh in defiance of his organization’s strict orders to vote for Morsi. “We are not machines,” he said. “You cannot love a candidate, and then just change.”
Backroom deals with the military will likely be decisive in determining how the winner can govern, but retail politics seem to be taking root for now. During Thursday night’s debate, the two front-runners, Moussa and Aboul Fotouh, dug at each other’s records. Aboul Fotouh portrayed Moussa as a corrupt, weak stooge for Mubarak who will continue the old regime’s authoritarian ways. Moussa attacked Aboul Fotouh as a fire-and-brimstone Islamist who founded a radical group in the 1970s and now disingenuously presents himself as a moderate.
Egyptians crammed cafes to watch. During a half-time walkthrough (the debate lasted more than four hours, from 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.) at the Boursa pedestrian arcade behind the Cairo stock exchange, I met several people who had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood for parliament but were leaning toward the anti-Islamist Moussa for president.
“I will give the Muslim Brotherhood domestic policy, but I want to keep them far away from security and foreign policy,” said Abdelrahim Abdullah Abdelrahim, 44, an import-export businessman built like a bouncer. “These Islamists want to march on Al Quds” — Jerusalem — “and wage war. It’s not the time for this.”
He went on to mock the Salafi legislator who tried to sound the call to prayer in parliament, and his Noor Party colleague who tried to claim his nose job bandage was really the scar from a politically motivated assault. “People are more tired than before,” Abdelrahim said as he lost another round of dominoes to a friend.
At the presidential rallies in the Delta, I met numerous voters who were shopping or just checking out the opposition. Leftist revolutionaries, committed to minor candidates guaranteed not to reach the second round, listened to stump speeches to consider whom they’d be willing to hold their noses and vote for in a runoff. Confirmed skeptics came, in case they might change their minds.
Arguments broke out. At the end of one Moussa pit stop in Dikirnis, an older man dismissed the candidate as a “felool,” or remnant of the old regime. Another man pushed him hard in the abdomen: “He is not a felool! Amr Moussa is a great man!” The critic scuttled off to his nephew’s pastry shop, where he continued his invective against Moussa. The nephew, 37-year-old Ahmed Burma, smiled benevolently. “My uncle jumped on the revolutionary bandwagon,” he said. “But I’m supporting Amr Moussa. I run a business with 90 employees. Let’s give this guy a chance to work.”
Still, the polls and predictions are little more than guesswork. Most of the voters live without internet or phones and are beyond the reach of the campaigns’ opinion researchers. Egypt has had only one real election in its modern history: the parliamentary ballot that concluded this January. Twenty-seven million people voted, more than two-thirds of them for Islamist parties.
Even with the Islamist vote split between Aboul Fotouh and the Brotherhood’s Morsi, it’s all but assured that one of them will face Moussa in the runoff June 16 and 17. Morsi might fare better than many analysts seem to think, as the Brotherhood deploys its formidable get-out-the-vote operation, which no other campaign can currently match.
The Islamists in parliament haven’t acquitted themselves well, wasting time on fringe religious debates while the economy sinks, deferring to the army on crucial issues such as military trials for civilians, and alienating almost every major constituency in the country other than their own by trying to impose a constitutional convention packed with Salafist and Brotherhood members.
If turnout is as high as it was for parliament (and it might be higher, since the president has always been the commanding figure in Egypt’s modern political system), Moussa would need to convince more than 6 million people, a full third of those who voted Islamist for parliament, to switch allegiance and vote for him. His advisers believe that’s possible.
They also seem to think that Moussa’s year-long bus tour of rural areas will pay dividends, and that their basic selling point resonates with common voters: a pair of safe, experienced hands for a transition.
Nonetheless, Moussa’s strategy smacks of secular liberal wishful thinking, a common affliction among Egypt’s veteran political class in a year and a half of dynamic change. It might just work out for him, but an equally likely scenario would have the voters that propelled Islamists to parliament eager to give someone with their values more of a chance for success than has been allowed by three months of parliamentary machinations under the shadow of the military.
WBUR’s Here & Now discussed the precarious mechanics of the transition in Egypt with me today. As the latest turns demonstrate, this is a process with no rules, or as I call them, “fake rules.” Shafiq is out! Shafiq is back. What next? There’s a very real, and destabilizing, possibility that some court declares the entire process invalid since it’s based on the dubious legal authority of the SCAF, and the constitutional declaration that materialized from whole cloth after the March referendum, which blessed a text that largely vanished. Listen to the conversation here.
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Khairat al-Shater, who was disqualified from his campaign. Reuters
Many Egyptian liberals rejoiced at Tuesday’s news that three of the most polarizing — and popular — presidential candidates, including those representing the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafists, would not be allowed to compete. The final ruling from the Supreme Presidential Elections Commission followed a lower court decision a week earlier that disbanded the lopsided and widely detested constitutional convention, which had been forced through by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi allies.
On the surface, the decisions about the presidential race and the constitutional convention both thwart some serious electoral shenanigans by the Muslim Brotherhood and others, but this is hardly progress for liberalism in Egypt. Unfortunately for Egypt’s prospects, both rulings came from opaque administrative bodies with questionable authority and motives. In the case of the presidential commission, there is no avenue for appeal. And in the potentially more important matter of the constitution, a decidedly political question was buried in a layer of obfuscating legalese.
No one in Egypt can explain the rules governing the two most important hinge points in Egypt’s pivot away from authoritarianism: the selection of the president and the drafting of the constitution.
Sadly, it augurs well for the ruling military junta and the increasingly bold coterie of reactionary forces in Egypt — and poorly for all the emerging political factions, from the secular revolutionaries to the most conservative Islamists.
It’s not just that liberal, short-term gains came through illiberal means. It’s that the pair of game-changing decisions call into question what forces, if any, have control over political life in Egypt.
Events are moving so fast that even seasoned Egyptian activists are still spinning. Presidential candidates put themselves forward on April 6. The frontrunners were all controversial: Hazem Salah Abou Ismail, a charismatic Salafi preacher who has criticized military rule but also embraced extreme, at times conspiratorial, political views and wants to implement Islamic law; Khairat Shater, the most powerful man in the Muslim Brotherhood, who broke his own promise that his group would not have a candidate; and Omar Suleiman, the Hosni Mubarak regime’s spy chief, who reversed himself at the last minute and entered the race with the active support of the reconstituted intelligence services.
The presidential election commission invalided ten candidates, including these three front-runners, on technicalities. Sheikh Hazem fell afoul of a rule that he originally supported, thinking it would hurt secular liberals; he was disqualified because his mother — like millions of Egyptians — had taken a second, in this case American, passport. Shater was banned because he served prison time under Mubarak’s rule; he had been convicted of fraud by a military court, almost certainly a fabricated case that was part of the ancien regime witch hunt against the Brotherhood. Suleiman, whose candidacy had caused the most alarm among liberals and Islamists alike, was kicked off the ballot because some of the petition signatures he collected were deemed fraudulent.
The first ruling technically was consistent with regulations, which themselves are a disturbing sign of the nationalist chauvinism ripening in Egypt. The second two sound like trumped-up technicalities, even if their immediate impact is to calm Egypt by removing divisive candidates from the race. Suleiman’s exit is undeniably good for Egypt, but there was a more legitimate process underway in parliament to exclude his candidacy on the merits, because of his prior role as Mubarak’s henchman and vice president. Alleging forged signatures was a signature old regime trick to discredit opponents such as Ayman Nour after he challenged Mubarak for the presidency in 2005.
In Shater’s case, the military regime had issued a pardon for the trumped-up old conviction. One vestige of the old regime, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, gave Shater the green light; another carryover, the elections bureaucracy, vetoed it.
Meanwhile, the constitution-writing farce ground to a halt last week, on April 10, when it was invalidated by the Supreme Administrative Court, a lower court subject to appeal. The Brotherhood and the Salafis had packed the Constituent Assembly with a veto-proof majority of its own members. According to its founding rules (which were dictatorially issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces last year), the constitutional committee was supposed to broadly represent Egyptian society. Instead, it was an Islamist monolith, alienating virtually every other imaginable constituency, from the establishment clerics of Al Azhar and the Coptic Church to women, workers, peasants, liberals, and nationalists. Egypt’s many constitutional and legal scholars were notably absent.
A boycott had already weakened the Assembly, which lost legitimacy with all but the staunchest supporters of the Brotherhood and the Salafi Noor Party. But it was dissolved on a technicality. According to the court, the Islamists in parliament aren’t allowed to appoint themselves to write the constitution. The court said the Brotherhood had broken the rules — which is odd, given that the Brotherhood had followed the constitutional process to the letter even while abnegating its spirit.
The ruling leaves the Brotherhood free to appoint another, equally imbalanced and illegitimate assembly, so long as its members are Islamists not already sitting in parliament. The fundamental problem remains — the Brotherhood is able, and appears willing, to behave in the same authoritarian manner as Mubarak’s regime.
What’s really going on here? Who decided to disqualify three presidential front-runners? Who shut down the constitutional process that had been convened, however poorly, by the freely and fairly elected parliament? On what grounds?
In both instances, a group of essentially anonymous and unaccountable bureaucrats radically transformed the political landscape, citing reasons at best opaque and at worst nonsensical, deploying jargon and legalese to set the parameters of Egypt’s future state.
We have no idea, really, who these officials are, whose interests they serve, whether they are acting in good faith, as independent decision-makers, or at someone else’s behest. It’s a replay of the way major decisions were made in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, with a charade of faceless government cogs announcing policies rooted in a complex hierarchy of laws while the all-powerful president claimed complete and impartial detachment.
This is what Issandr El Amrani at the Arabist calls “lawfare” in the Egyptian context, and it extends a nefarious precedent, cultivated during decades of dictatorship. From 1954 to 2011, civilians ruled Egypt under a nominally liberal constitution; in practice, those civilian presidents were retired generals who exercised absolute authority through the military and police, all the while ignoring the constitution on the pretext of a decades-long “state of emergency.”
Today it’s a different, more complicated story; there’s evidence that more players than the ruling military junta have a role in these behind-the-scenes decisions. The next two months are crucial. Presidential elections are to begin May 23 and conclude June 17. Field Marshal and acting president Mohamed Hussein Tantawi suggested this week that a constitution must be written in a hurry, before a new chief executive takes over at the end of June. Procedurally, that’s a near-impossibility. A year and a half of posturing and maneuvering will play out in this final stage, when the old and new power players in Egypt will fight for control of the next phase.
The way this election and constitution-writing process is playing out will at best cast a pall over the transition and, at worst, presage a return to outright authoritarian military rule.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe, subscribers only.]
CAIRO — It might have seemed naïve to an outsider, but one of the great hopes among the revolutionaries who humiliated Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak more than a year ago was that the country’s strongman regime would finally yield to a democratic variety of voices. Both Islamic revolutionaries and secular liberals spoke up for modern ideas of pluralism, tolerance, and minority rights. Tahrir Square was supposed to turn the page on a half-century or more of one-party rule, and open the door to something new not just for Egypt, but for the Arab world: a genuine diversity of opinion about how a nation should govern itself.
“We disagree about many things, but that is the point,” one of the protest organizers, Moaz Abdelkareem, said in February 2011, the week that Mubarak quit. “We come from many backgrounds. We can work together to dismantle the old regime and make a new Egypt.”
A year later, it is still far from clear what that new Egypt will look like. The country awaits a new constitution, and although a competitively elected parliament sat in January for the first time in contemporary Egyptian history, it is still subordinate to a secretive military regime. Like all transitions, the struggle against Egyptian authoritarianism has been messy and complex. But for those who hoped that Egypt would emerge as a beacon of tolerant, or at least diverse, politics in the Arab world, there has been one big disappointment: It’s safe to say that one early casualty of the struggle has been that spirit of pluralism.
“I do not trust the military. I do not trust the Muslim Brothers,” Abdelkareem says in an interview a year later. In the past year, he helped establish the Egyptian Current, a small liberal party that wants to bring direct democracy to Egyptian government. Despite his inclusive principles, he’s urged the dismissal from public life of major political constituencies with whom he disagrees: former regime supporters, many Islamists, old-line liberals, and supporters of the military. He shrugs: “It’s necessary, if we’re going to change.”
He’s not the only one who has left the ideal of pluralism behind. A survey of the major players in Egyptian politics yields a list of people and groups who have worked harder to shut down their opponents than to engage them. The Muslim Brotherhood — the Islamist party that is the oldest opposition group in Egypt, and the one with by far the most popular support — has run roughshod over its rivals, hoarding almost every significant procedural power in the legislature and cutting a series of exclusive deals with the ruling generals. Secular liberals, for their part, have suggested that an outright coup by secular officers would be better than a plural democracy that ended up empowering bearded fundamentalists who disagree with them.
When pressed, most will still say they want Egypt to be the birthplace of a new kind of Arab political culture — one in which differences are respected, minorities have rights, and dissent is protected. However, their behavior suggests that Egypt might have trouble escaping the more repressive patterns of its past.
IN A COUNTRY that had long barred any meaningful politics at all, Tahrir’s leaderless revolution begat a brief but golden moment of political pluralism. Activists across the spectrum agreed to disagree — this, it was widely believed, was the very practice that would lead Egypt from dictatorship to democracy. During the first month of maneuvering after Mubarak resigned in February 2011, Muslim Brotherhood leaders vowed to restrain their quest for political power; socialists and liberals emphasized due process and fair elections. The revolution took special pride in its unity, inclusiveness, and plethora of leaders: It included representatives of every part of society, and aspired to exclude nobody.
“Our first priority is to start rebuilding Egypt, cooperating with all groups of people: Muslims and Christians, men and women, all the political parties,” the Muslim Brotherhood’s most powerful leader, Khairat Al-Shater, told me in an interview last March, a year ago. “The first thing is to start political life in the right, democratic way.”
Within a month, however, that commitment had begun to fray. Jostling factions were quick to question the motives and patriotism of their rivals, as might be expected from political movements trying to position themselves in an unfolding power struggle. More surprising, and more dangerous, has been the tendency of important groups to seek the silencing or outright disenfranchisement of competitors.
The military sponsored a constitutional referendum in March 2011 that supposedly laid out a path to transfer power to an elected, civilian government, but which depended on provisions poorly understood by Egyptian voters. The Islamists sided with the military, helping the referendum win 77 percent of the votes, and leaving secular liberal parties feeling tricked and overpowered. The real winner turned out to be the ruling generals, who took the win as an endorsement of their primacy over all political factions. The military promptly began rewriting the rules of the transition process.
With the army now the country’s uncontested power, some leading liberal political parties entered negotiations with the generals over the summer to secure one of their primary goals — a secular state — in a most illiberal manner: a deal with the army that would preempt any future constitution written by a democratically selected assembly.
The Muslim Brotherhood responded by branding the liberals traitors and scrapping its conciliatory rhetoric. The Islamists, with huge popular support, abandoned their initial promise of political restraint and instead moved to contest all seats and seek a dominant position in the post-Mubarak order. The Brotherhood now holds 46 percent of the seats in parliament, and with the ultra-Islamist Salafists holding another 24 percent, the Brotherhood effectively controls enough of the body to shut down debate. Within the Brotherhood, Khairat Al-Shater has led a ruthless purge of members who sought internal transparency and democracy — and is now considered a front-runner to be Egypt’s next prime minister.
The army generals in charge, meanwhile, have been using state media to demonize secular democracy activists and street protesters as paid foreign agents, bent on destroying Egyptian society in the service of Israel, the United States, and other bogeymen.
Since the parliament opened deliberations in January, the rupture has been on full and sordid display. The military has sought legal censure against a liberal member of parliament, Zyad Elelaimy, because he criticized army rule. State prosecutors have gone after liberals and Islamists who have voiced controversial political positions. Islamists and military supporters have also filed lawsuits against liberal politicians and human rights activists, while the military-appointed government has mounted a legal and public relations campaign against civil society groups.
THE CENTRAL QUESTION for Egypt’s future is whether these increasingly intolerant tactics mean that the country’s next leaders will govern just as repressively as its last. Scholars of political transition caution that for states shedding authoritarian regimes, it can take years or decades to assess the outcome. Still, there are some hallmarks of successful transitions that Egypt appears to lack. States do better if they have an existing tradition of political dissent or pluralism to fall back on, or strong state institutions independent of the political leadership. Egypt has neither.
“Transitions are always messy, and the Egyptian one is particularly messy,” said Habib Nassar, a lawyer who directs the Middle East and North Africa program at the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York. “To be honest, I’m not sure I see any prospects of improvement for the short term. You are transitioning from dictatorship to majority rule in a country that never experienced real democracy before.”
Outside the parliament’s early sessions in January, liberal demonstrators chanted that the Muslim Brotherhood members were illegitimate “traitors.” In response, paramilitary-style Brotherhood supporters formed a human cordon that kept protesters from getting close enough to the parliament building to even be heard by their representatives.
At a rally for the revolution’s one-year anniversary in Tahrir Square, Muslim Brotherhood leaders preached and made speeches from a high stage to celebrate their triumph. It was unclear whether they were referring to the revolution, or to their party’s dominance at the polls. It was too much for the secular activists. “This is a revolution, not a party,” some chanted. “Leave, traitors, the square is ours not yours,” sang others.
Hundreds of burly brothers linked arms, while a leader with a microphone seemed to taunt the crowd. “You can’t make us leave,” he said. “We are the real revolution.” In response, outraged members of the secular audience tore apart the Brotherhood’s sound system and pelted the stage with water bottles, corn cobs, rocks, even shards of glass.
The Arab world is watching closely to see what happens in the next several months, when Egypt will write a new constitution and elect a president in a truly competitive ballot, and the military will cede power, at least formally. Even in the worst-case scenario, it’s worth remembering that Egypt’s next government will be radically more representative than Mubarak’s Pharaonic police state.
Sadly, though, political discourse over the last year has devolved into something that looks more like a brawl than a negotiation. If it continues, the constitution drafting process could end up more ugly than inspiring. The shape of the new order will emerge from a struggle among the Islamists, the secular liberals, and the military — all of whom, it now appears, remain hostage to the culture of the regime they worked so hard to overthrow.
My review of the two latest Egypt revolution books is up at The Daily Beast. I discuss Wael Ghonim’s memoir and Ashraf Khalil’s reported book about the uprising.
Two books released this month can help us start to make sense of this puzzle, with detailed accounts of the uprising a year ago and some insight into the institutions and attitudes that shape Egypt’s largely conservative society.
The first is a memoir by Wael Ghonim, the celebrated Google executive who helped spark the uprising with a wildly popular Facebook page dedicated to a middle-class kid beaten to death by the police. Ghonim tapped into a demographic that proved crucial to the Egyptian uprising: upwardly mobile college-educated youth frustrated by Egypt’s stagnation but wary of politics and activism.
As he tells his own story, Ghonim is a driven, socially awkward young man—ambitious but almost allergic to fame. His early clandestine ventures online revolve around building a library of religious recordings called IslamWay.com. He’s offered great sums of money but instead quietly donates it to charity, all while he’s still a teenager. In the years around 9/11, he marries and pursues his dream, which has nothing to do with unseating Mubarak’s tyrannical police regime. No, young Wael wants nothing more than to work at Google, a goal he finally achieves in 2008.
For a broader look at Egypt’s transformation, one can turn to journalist Ashraf Khalil’s Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. Khalil’s illuminating reporting situates the revolt in the stultifying decades that preceded it. (I should mention that Khalil is a friend dating back to the days when we were both based in Baghdad.) He spends nearly half his story on the final decades of Mubarak’s crony rule, detailing the pompous ineptitude of the aging dictator with eternally young hair. And he does an admirable job pulling together the threads of the early dissident and activist efforts rooted in the late 1990s.
By the time Khalil gets to the demonstrations of Jan. 25, 2011, we understand why some Egyptians felt they could no longer “walk next to the wall,” as the proverb instructs, and felt they might as well risk death or imprisonment rather than submit to Mubarak’s capricious police state. But we share the wonder of Khalil, and many of the activists he interviews, who even as they promoted an uprising doubted that Egyptians would join them in significant numbers.
The state of the revolution in Egypt is today, for me and probably many others watching it closely, cause for rage and despair. The case for despair is obvious: the dumb, brute hydra of a regime has dialed up its violent answer to the popular request for justice and accountability, and has expanded its power. The matter of rage is more complicated: in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries, it was righteous anger — forcefully but strategically deployed — that brought fearsome police states to their knees. The outrages of Egypt’s regime are still on shameless display. The only question is whether the fury they provoke will make a difference.
When we see the Egyptian soldier enthusiastically stripping a female protester while another kicks her abdomen, rage is a natural response. So too when we see soldiers and their plainclothes henchman cheerfully chuck rocks and chairs from a fifth-floor roof, and in at least one case, piss down below on their fellow Egyptians peacefully protesting in front of parliament, drawn to the streets in part because of the dozens of their comrades already killed by the state. Most enraging of all is the self-righteous, imperious lying that accompanies the industrial-scale state abuse of its citizens. General Adel Emara hectored the Egyptian reporters who tried to question him about last week’s outrages in Tahrir Square, including the blue bra sequence.
Like the American generals in the early years of the Iraq occupation who complained that the nay-saying media was telling mean, inaccurate stories about their swimming success, Emara blamed the media. The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces was protecting the nation and the demonstrators downtown were spreading chaos. “The military council has always warned against the abuse of freedom,” he said, apparently without irony. In statements this week, the military has incredibly claimed that the bands of hundreds or thousands of unarmed protesters are actually a plot to overthrow the state — a grotesque reversal of the truth.
The new prime minister, Kamal Ganzouri, blamed the “counter-revolution” and “foreign elements” for the demonstrations. He also promised no violence would be used against them, even as security forces shot more than a dozen people and beat hundreds of others. No shame here, but perhaps some ulterior plan to discredit protest entirely. An angry response might be the only one possible, the only way potentially to thwart this colossus. Remember the original protests a year ago in Tunisia and Egypt: people billed them as “Days of Rage.”
Why the violence against demonstrators, against women, against foreigners? Apparently the SCAF believes it can intimidate people into submission, that it can succeed where its authoritarian predecessor Hosni Mubarak failed. The death tolls of this year, and the arrest of 13,000 civilians brought before military trial, are measures of the repressive reflexes of the current military rulers. On November 19, police set upon a small group that had camped out on the edge of Tahrir Square, beating them and destroying their tents — and sparking two weeks of street battles that left at least 40 dead and 2,000 wounded. More recently, on December 16 security forces attacked a follow-on protest in front of the parliament building and the ongoing fighting has killed at least 16 people and critically wounded hundreds.
There are few plausible explanations for the recent spasms of violence against nonviolent demonstrators. It’s hard to imagine why state security attacks civilians during periods of calm, sparking new protests and reinvigorating the revolutionary movement. Perhaps the military has a strategy designed to discredit protesters and revolutionary youth, allowing or even engineering street violence which they can then use in the state media to portray activists as hooligans. Or, perhaps, the police and common soldiers have developed such an intense hatred for the demonstrators — who let us remember, succeeded at putting the security establishment on the defensive for the first time in 60 years — that whenever they confront a protest their tempers flare and they lash out.
There’s also a theory that the police, and even some parts of the army, are simply in mutiny, disregarding the SCAF’s orders. Some believe that the SCAF genuinely believes that all protesters are saboteurs, foreign agents, and traitors out to gut the Egyptian state. Some also suggest that the SCAF is simply incompetent, and that each sordid episode of protest, massacre, political agreement, and betrayal is an act in a bumbling melodrama starring a cast of senescent, befuddled generals, most of whom lived their glory days in military study abroad programs in Brezhnev’s Moscow.
Whether there’s a plan or no plan, some of the results are becoming clear. The Muslim Brothers and the Salafis, who dominated the election results so far, have essentially supported the SCAF’s vague schedule to transfer power to a civilian president by summer. Liberals have coalesced around a new demand for a president to be elected immediately and take over by February 11, the one-year anniversary of Mubarak’s resignation. The SCAF has continued its divide and conquer tactics, undermining all dissent in public while meeting in private with politicians from all parties.
All power still rests in the hands of the military, which has designed an incomprehensible transition process clearly engineered to exhaust any revolutionary or reformist movement. (Before Egypt can have a new government with full powers, the military believes there must be a referendum, two elections of three rounds each for a legislature, another referendum on a constitution, and then a presidential election. That doesn’t include runoffs and do-overs.)
Meanwhile there’s a debate underway about who “lost” the revolution, as if the demonstrators and liberal Egyptians could have gotten it right and changed Egypt over the last 12 months. Steven Cook partly blames the protesters for “narcissism” and “navel-gazing,” claiming they lost the opportunity to engage the public because they were too busy on Facebook and Twitter. Marc Lynch writes that the protesters have not captured the imagination of the wider public, though he (correctly) holds the SCAF responsible for bungling the transition so far.
Perhaps the most depressing read this week is a dark and self-critical essay by the revolutionary, blogger, and failed parliamentary candidate Mahmoud Salem, better known by his blog pseudonym Sandmonkey. He now believes that he and his fellow revolutionaries blew a chance to connect with Egyptians during the brief, hopeful moment after Mubarak quit; that, Salem argues, is when people were willing to change. Now that moment of possibility has evaporated.
One common thread runs through these writings, and through much of the critique of the uprising: that the revolutionaries never bothered to try to reach “the people.” There is some truth to that claim. Some of the most talented organizers among the original January 25 revolutionaries quickly turned their focus to party politics. Their efforts might bear fruit within one or two election cycles — five to ten years — but theirs is a dreary and inside job of crafting party platforms, opening branch offices, and recruiting staff and members. Another crucial cadre of revolutionaries were radical by conviction; it was by design, and not by accident, that they invested their energy in street protests and in forging links with labor activists, in order to spread the revolution into the workforce. That’s not to say that the remainder, who number at best a few thousand, didn’t try to engage the Egyptian public; they’ve been trying, but they haven’t been too successful. They go on television, they write newspaper columns, they hold press conferences. In August and September, they put on Revolutionary Youth Coalition road shows, where they went to towns and neighborhoods across Egypt to explain the goals of the protests. Even without a budget, however, they could have done that kind of outreach, in cafes and poor neighborhoods, every week since February 11; instead, much of their time was tied up in Tahrir protests whose utility made less and less sense even to sympathetic Egyptians.
The revolutionary youth alone hold promise for Egypt’s politics of accountability, rule of law, minority rights, and civilian control over the army — the unpopular but important bulwarks of a more liberal order. It would be a mistake to focus too much on public opinion of the protests, or even the gatherings’ size. What matters is their impact. The military, in fact, has set the parameters. Since February, they have scorned those who negotiate with them in good faith at polite meetings. The only concessions the generals have made — including, last month, their agreement to schedule presidential elections a year and a half earlier than they’d originally wanted — came as the result of violent protests in Tahrir Square. Perhaps the revolutionaries found it simple to flood Tahrir in response to every crisis; but it was the generals who taught them that protest was the only tool that actually worked.
So when it comes to blame, save it for the military, the actor driving events and the sole authority responsible for Egypt. The act, now ragged, has the generals pretending to be reluctant rulers, eager to hand over the keys if only a responsible captain would materialize to steer the ship of state. The rest of the players in Egypt merit mere disappointment: the mediocre politicians; the Muslim Brothers who repeatedly passed up the opportunity to take a moral, national position rather than defend their narrow institutional self-interest; the activists who failed to weave a national culture movement in the aftermath of January 25; the Egyptian elites who didn’t invest their money and influence in revolutionary causes; the civil servants and state institutions that slavishly serve whoever is in power; and Washington, which has utterly failed to persuade its billion-dollar welfare ward, the SCAF, to behave responsibly.
Is Egypt’s revolution dead, beguiled by its own hype, endlessly occupying and fighting over meaningless patches of pavement while the rest of the country forgets about their utopian aims? “Symbols are nice, but they don’t solve anything,” Mahmoud Salem writes. “There is a disconnect between the revolutionaries and the people. … Our priorities are a civilian government, the end of corruption, the reform of the police, judiciary, state media and the military, while their priorities are living in peace and putting food on the table.”
Can persistent revolt eventually beget genuine revolution, like wind carving a valley through granite? I’m of two minds. The women’s marches this week fill me with hope. With determination and creativity, Egyptian women flooded the streets to shame their oppressors and reclaim the righteous narrative fraudulently hijacked by the SCAF. “Egypt’s women are a red line,” they chanted, and for once, the SCAF issued a formal apology. But another recent encounter, a private one, fills me with despair. A man I’ve known for some time, who used to work in the tourist trade and whose financial well-being teeters precariously between Spartan and destitute, confided in me that he saw only one option to provide for his children in the new Egypt: to rob an armored truck. At first I thought he was kidding, but he was not. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “I have a plan. No one will get hurt. The bank can afford to lose the money. I will be able to be strong again for my children.”
I hope I dissuaded him, but for my friend and presumably many like him, this year of political turbulence has been more terrifying than inspiring, for reasons only tenuously connected to the SCAF’s abuses, the missed opportunity for a cultural revolution, or the birth of a new Arab politics. The junta’s propaganda habitually describes critics as unpatriotic, counter-revolutionary, or “not Egyptian,” eager to present a uniform mold of the “true Egyptian.” On the contrary, however, the proud marching women and the marauding soldiers are all Egyptian, just like the perplexed revolutionaries and the would-be bank robber. All of them will be aboard for the voyage.
A veiled woman casts her vote during the second day of the parliamentary run-off elections at a polling station in Cairo. Photo: Reuters
CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s liberals have been apoplectic over the early results from the recent elections here. Everybody expected the Islamists to do well and for the liberals to be at a disadvantage. But nobody — perhaps with the exception of the Salafis — expected the outcome to be as lopsided as it has been so far. Exceeding all predictions, Islamists seem to be winning about two-thirds of the vote. Even more surprising, the radical and inexperienced Salafists are winning about a quarter of all votes, while the more staid and conservative Muslim Brotherhood is polling at about 40 percent.
The saga is unfolding against a political backdrop of alarmism. One can almost hear the shrill cries echoing in unison from Cairo bar-hoppers and Washington analysts: “The Islamists are coming!” In short order, they fear, the Islamists will ban alcohol, blow up the sphinx, force burqas on women, and declare war on Israel.
Before we all worry too much, however, and before fundamentalists in Egypt start to crack the champagne (in their case perhaps literally, with crowbars), it’s worth taking a look at what’s really happening with Egypt’s Islamists.
Egypt is still not a democracy, so election results mean only a little; the key players in shaping the country remain the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the plutocrats. To a lesser degree, revolutionary youth, liberals, and former ruling party stakeholders will have some input. The new powers-that-be in Egypt and other Arab states who are trying to break the shackles of autocracy are likely to be more religious, socially conservative, and unfriendly to the rhetoric of the United States and Israel. That doesn’t mean they’ll be warmongers, or that they’ll refuse to work with Washington, or even Jerusalem, on areas of common interest.
Islamism has been on the rise throughout the Arab and Islamic world for nearly a century and will probably set the political tone going forward. The immediate future will feature a debate among competing interpretations of Islamic politics, rather than a struggle between religious and secular parties.
I’ve been traveling, and behind on posting. Here’s the link to last wee”s Brian Lehrer show on WNYC, with filmmaker Jehane Noujaim and me discussing the voting in Egypt.
Liberal candidate Basem Kamel inspects a polling station for fraud on Monday. Photo: Rolla Scolari.
CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt took another step, albeit a conflicted one, along the trajectory it began in Tahrir Square almost ten months ago. Millions voted Monday in a parliamentary election marred by the ham-handed meddling of the ruling military junta, but with almost none of the widespread violence and fraud that many had feared.
“I’m suspicious, but I have to do something,” said Manar Ahmed, a 27-year-old trying to make a career transition from call center work to tourism. On Monday, she heeded the call of Egypt’s revolutionary youth parties, which urged people to vote and then join the anti-government sit-in at Tahrir now in its tenth day. She wore a colorful orange floral print headscarf and listened patiently as two of her friends explained why they were boycotting the election. Once they finished, she calmly but firmly disagreed.
“We’re going to make many mistakes along the way, but we have to learn from our mistakes,” Ahmed said. “We have to work, and see what happens. We still have to learn how to think.”
Revolutionary parties, consumed for the last ten days in a wave of murderous police violence and the protests it spurred in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities, faced a quandary. Many of their supporters urged a full boycott. “If we vote, we give legitimacy to the military, which is illegally ruling our country,” said Albert Saber, 26, who refused to cast a ballot even though he had already chosen a line-up of independent pro-revolution candidates in his east Cairo district.
At the same time, the activist party leaders realize that the next parliament will play a key role in a transition to civilian rule, if one occurs, and they understand they might have more influence if they have a voice inside the chamber of deputies as well as on the streets outside.
“The next parliament will have no authority, same as the last one,” said Moaz Abdel Kareem, a youth leader and founder of the Egyptian Current Party, founded by liberal breakaway members of the Muslim Brotherhood youth wing. “This election is fake, a special effect to make it look like the military is working for the people.”
His party suspended its campaign, but its candidates still stumped in polling stations on Monday as part of their unified list, which they named “The Revolution Continues.”
There was a tangible sense in Cairo that street protest was being left behind, dwarfed by voter turnout and the cautious embrace of electoral politics that it heralded. With notably less enthusiasm than they showed during a national referendum in March — the first poll after the Tahrir Square uprising — Egyptians queued for hours, with a mix of muted excitement and markedly modest expectations.
“Change won’t come immediately. It will come step by step,” said Taghreed Ibrahim Hassan, 46. She had come to vote in Shoubra, Cairo’s most densely populated area, with female relatives spanning three generations; she stood out in the voting line for her loud laugh and booming exclamations of enthusiasm.
“This time our voices will count,” she said. “This parliament won’t represent us perfectly, but we won’t be stuck with it forever.”
Up until the day before voting began, there was uncertainty whether it would be postponed or even cancelled. The election process has been remarkably confusing and opaque. Even some sophisticated, internet-equipped citizens have been unable to figure out when and where they’re supposed to vote. The country has been divided up into three regions, which vote at different times. Each region has a two-day vote, and a runoff the following week; furthermore, voters have to cast two ballots, one for individual candidates and one for parties. Even professional elections experts have described the setup as bewildering.
The final votes for parliament will be cast in mid-January, and the body won’t convene until March. So far, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which retains full dictatorial powers in Egypt, has suggested it will not relinquish any control of the government to the next parliament — a position that has infuriated many Egyptian political activists.
Monday’s mostly peaceful voting provided a welcome respite after a decameron during which 42 demonstrators were killed and more than 3,200 injured in clashes with the police and military. Some local clashes closed polling stations in Upper Egypt, but by nightfall there still were no reports of bloodshed.
Still, this election is but a step in the still heavily uncertain struggle to end military rule in Egypt. The generals in control only agreed last week to hold presidential elections by the middle of next year, under pressure from the unyielding stand of Tahrir protesters against the belligerent and widely detested police. So far, the military has treated the civilian cabinet as an afterthought. It still insists that no elected official could ever be allowed to have any authority whatsoever over the armed forces. That debate has only begun this month, at least in public; its resolution is far from certain.
For the Egyptians that patiently lined up before dawn on Monday, the vote is still of paramount importance: for the first time, a parliamentary election will be a realistic poll, if a rough one, of the actual preferences of the Egyptian people. It won’t be a festival of ballot-box stuffing, thuggery, and vote-buying like the country’s previous elections.
“The old service that Mubarak used to offer, where he would cast a vote on your behalf while you sat at home, has been cancelled,” liberal candidate Basem Kamel told a rally a week before the vote. “If you don’t like the next parliament, you’ll have only yourself to blame.”
On Monday, Kamel dodged traffic on foot while visiting the polling stations in Shoubra. When he received a report that someone was collecting identity cards to vote on behalf of a group of woman, he burst out the door of his headquarters.
“Move, move, move,” he grunted, as he rushed to the polling site at the Faculty of Engineering on Shoubra Street. He pushed past the military policeman at the door and checked in each of the six classrooms where women were voting.
The judge supervising in one of the rooms smiled at Kamel. “Pray for us,” he said.
He didn’t spot any overt wrongdoing, although he did see volunteers from some political parties in the voting rooms, steering people to choose their party when asked for help reading the ballot.
“I didn’t find anything,” Kamel said.
His coalition stands to do best among the liberals, but the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to be the top finisher. It benefits from nearly 80 years of grassroots organizing and considerable funds.
The Brotherhood’s might was on display outside of polling stations, where it had set up information tents where volunteers on laptops could look up a confused voter’s correct polling place, and helpfully mark it down for him or her — on a card emblazoned with Islamist party’s logo.
Sherif Mostafa, a civil engineer who waited hours to vote on the desert plateau of Moqattam, said he was sure the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party would succeed in parliament, despite the military council’s desire to neuter it.
“I hope the whole system changes,” he said. “These are very decisive elections, which are going to decide the future of Egypt.”
As the front-runner, the Muslim Brotherhood attracted the most complaints for campaigning on election day, especially from Kamel’s liberal Egyptian Bloc.
Already, tensions have flared between the Islamist and secular parties competing for seats; between the liberals standing for election and the revolutionaries who would boycott; the military dictatorship and the panoply of political forces agitating for genuine civilian rule; the realists who want to absorb old regime stalwarts into a new government and the purists who want to banish them.
This week’s voting is just one gyration in a long orbit. There’s still plenty of room for missteps and mayhem in the parliamentary polling alone. Then comes higher hurdles: writing a constitution, electing a president, negotiating a modus vivendi with the military, and learning to wage politics in state that for 60 years has allowed none. Indeed there are, as Manar Ahmed sagely observed, lots of mistakes still to be made and lots of new skills to be learned.
Sacha Pfeiffer at WBUR’s Here & Now talks to me about Egypt’s first day of voting in parliamentary elections. Listen here.
Demonstrators and restaurant patrons listen to Field Marshal Tantawi’s national address at Cafe Riche, near Tahrir Square, on Tuesday evening. Photograph: Thanassis Cambanis
Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi’s televised offer of presidential elections sometime before July barely registered among the thousands of young Egyptians jostling to get to the front line of a fight with police that was boiling well into its fourth day. Each casualty seemed to double the number of people cramming into Mohammed Mahmoud Street, eager to charge the phalanx of riot police unleashing a literally non-stop barrage of bullets, rubber pellets, and tear gas.
Call it the Tantawi multiplier effect.
With dozens dead and thousands injured, the calls in the back alleys around Tahrir have escalated. They don’t want Tantawi’s head; they want the end of military rule, period.
“Things have only gotten worse over the last 10 months, as if Tantawi and the military council were punishing people for the revolution,” said Hadi Ismail, a 31-year-old computer programmer. He wore an argyle sweater, a blue canvas blazer, and a face mask against the tear gas. He stood with a trio of friends in a narrow lane swirling with the noxious chemical, taking a break from the battle.
“We gave the military council its power. They have forgotten that,” Hadi explained.
Less eloquently, but in flawless English his friend elaborated: “It’s the same bullshit as before. We need a material change now. No more military rule.”
So long as Tahrir remains full, and the ranks of young people willing to fight police remains undiminished, Hadi and dozens of others I interviewed believe the ruling military junta will inexorably tilt toward compromise and eventually defeat – just like Mubarak.
“All the people are willing to die,” Hadi said matter-of-factly “People are even more aware and determined than on January 28. The second wave of a revolution is always stronger and more violent.”
Out on the square, an older man with missing teeth stopped a pair of youth with tell-tale white smears on their face, traces of a yeast mix that soothes tear gas. “Protect your revolution,” he said, tears in his eyes, and not from any gas. “Save our country from those who are killing it.”
Hundreds of thousands have converged on Tahrir Square, in a manner not seen since the 18 days that felled Mubarak. This time, unlike the last, many of the dead have been paraded on stretchers through the crowd, their corpses reflecting the ghostly street-lamp light like halos.
It’s hard to square the outrage, stoked each hour by the growing body count, with the insouciant language of Egypt’s latest dictator. Tantawi, like Mubarak before him, seems to believe he is dictating terms to an unruly rabble; maybe he even believes his own claim that “invisible hands” are stoking divisions within Egypt.
The boys and girls in the square, the men and women, the unemployed and the well-to-do, express a simple disgust with the police who kill civilians, and the regime which is responsible.
“I’m not asking, I’m giving orders,” said Ahmed Fouad Saleh, himself a retired air force officer now demonstrating in Tahrir Square. “We will have a new government.”
A youth activist who helped establish a new political party earlier this year, Shady ElGhazaly Harb, shook his head in disgust, and a measure of disbelief, at the intransience of the junta that dumped Mubarak as its figurehead but seems to have retained a fair number of his ways.
“They still haven’t learned a thing,” ElGhazaly Harb said. “If they don’t leave power now, these people won’t leave the square. Nothing else will do.”
Many questions and mysteries as the military, police, and demonstrators wrangle over Egypt’s future; much too much that we don’t know, especially about who controls the police, and how the military makes decisions.
Does public opinion (or the silent majority) matter? The commentariat in Egypt and abroad places a lot of weight on the public opinion that is skeptical of protest, and always was — before January 25, during the initial uprising, and now. These voices, which are loud and important in Egypt, are apt to believe official protestations of “foreign agents,” “hidden hands,” or “secret agendas,” and quick to blame protests for destabilizing the country or hurting its economy, even if there’s no evidence to support that belief. While this view gets trotted out a lot, especially on Egyptian state television, it’s unclear whether it represents a force with any power in Egypt. This year, only a few forces have had any effect at all on politics: the army, the police, the ex-ruling party, the Islamists, and persistent street protesters. Arguably, liberal and other organized political parties have played a bit role. Note that none of these actors represents a huge swathe of society, with the exception of the Islamists. All of them have shaped events this year.
[Originally published here in The Atlantic.]
CAIRO, Egypt — Mina Daniel’s mother slumped over his coffin, sobbing and imprecating him one final time.
“We were supposed to be going to your wedding,” she keened, slapping her face and thighs in grief. Before he was killed, her son had assured her he would fine. “Don’t be afraid of the shooting, they are just trying to scare us,” he told her.
Mina, 25, was killed on October 9 outside Maspero, the headquarters of Egyptian state television and the symbol of the dictatorship’s propaganda leviathan. According to his autopsy, one bullet smashed the back of Mina’s head while another entered his shoulder, ripped through his lungs, and exited his back. He died within moments, but has fast become the symbol of what Egyptian activists hopefully call “the second revolution.”
His mother, Nadia Faltas Beshara, grieved as any mother would. She covers her head and speaks with the inflection of Upper Egypt, where she lived before moving to a working-class suburb north of Cairo where many poor Christians live. She is a stark riposte to the false claim that Egypt’s revolutionaries are feckless bourgeois, armchair socialists.
The dominant storyline to emerge in the weeks after the Maspero Massacre is that it marks the beginning of the end of Tahrir Square. The military has shed its inhibitions about using violence against the people, according to this pessimistic view, while a great number of Egyptians has proved ready to believe official propaganda and willing to organize flash sectarian lynch mobs at the beck and call of state television.
There’s another way of reading these events though, and it’s the one favored by Nadia Faltas and by the many friends of Mina Daniel.
“The government engineered this to divide us,” Nadia Faltas said even in the freshest hours of her mourning. With no self-consciousness, she has embraced the galvanizing role of the martyr’s mother.
Khaled’s mother with Mina’s mother / Cambanis
She has appeared in Tahrir Square and at other demonstrations with the mother of Khaled Said, the young man beaten to death by police in the summer of 2010, apparently in retribution for his efforts to publicize police brutality. The regime laughed off the weekly 2010 protests over Khaled Said’s killing, but within six months those small protests, and the Facebook pages connected to them, sparked the Tahrir Square uprising.
That is the model that Mina Daniel’s friends invoke as they contemplate his death and the sheer unmediated brutality with which it was meted out. In front of Maspero, 27 civilians were killed and according to the military some number of soldiers that it is keeping secret “in order to protect the feelings of the nation.”
“Mina’s death has now put a burden on us. His blood is on our necks,” his friend Kareem Mohammed, 20, said a week after the massacre, at a strategy meeting of the Youth Movement for Justice and Freedom, the grassroots group of which Mina was a member. “We have to achieve what he dreamed of, a united nation free of military rule.”
Religious Copts sometimes come across as parochial and chauvinistic, concerned primarily with the oppression of their church. But Mina transcended that narrow categorization. He fought against military trials for civilians, and took part in all the major stages of the uprising against Mubarak’s regime. During the initial uprising, he was shot in Tahrir Square and struck in the head with rocks. He contested the institutionalized discrimination that prevents Copts from freely building churches, but he exhorted members of his sect to engage in the broader political struggle against authoritarian rule.
Many of Mina’s close friends were Muslims. After he was shot but before he died, he said he wanted his funeral to pass through Tahrir. Late on Monday night, after his autopsy and a rousing mass at the Abbasiya Cathedral, several hundred of Mina’s friends marched several miles back to Tahrir Square with his coffin. They ignored a few toughs who pelted them with rocks along the way.
On that Sunday, a march for the rights of Christians converged with a sit-in in front of Maspero, the squat concrete labyrinth that holds the headquarters of state television. Symbolically, it is the lungs of the regime, where its noxious but effective televised propaganda is authored. Among them were many revolutionary youth activists, hardly Coptic chauvinists, and Muslims who supported the protesters call for religious freedom and equality.
In short order, shots rang out. Plainclothes thugs milled among the demonstrators. Eyewitnesses saw men in civilian clothes shooting from passing vehicles. Military Police turned on the crowd. An armored personnel carrier drove over unarmed demonstrators, its driver appearing to hunt them down. State television reported — erroneously, without evidence, and possibly with malignant intent — that Christian mobs had attacked army conscripts. Announcers and officers summoned “honorable Egyptians” to Maspero to defend the army.
Lynch mobs quickly swarmed downtown. “The Muslims are here, where are the Christians?” they chanted. Christian men and women were beaten. The military police did nothing to control the murderous disorder for nearly six hours. Only after midnight did the army — which doesn’t technically need help from unruly thugs armed with swords and sticks — reestablished control of the streets, finally allowing Christians to take their wounded to the Coptic hospital on Ramses Street without fear of attack.
To the demonstrators, it’s clear what happened.
“Tantawi is dealing with the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis and it will hurt the Christians,” said Nabil Mansoor, a psychologist who accompanied his friends to the hospital to pick up their son, who had been beaten on Sunday but has escaped with scabs on his forehead and a sprained shoulder. “They want the Copts to leave Egypt. They want ethnic cleansing like in Bosnia.”
The military has been tightening the screws of censorship while peddling a brew of lies, delusion, paranoia and justification. General Adel Emara said it simply wasn’t military doctrine to run people over, even though Egyptian police have been known to do so as a crowd-control technique. At a briefing intended to exculpate the army, Emara and another general showed the video of the predator-APC chasing down and crushing people to death; most of the viewers already had seen photos of the young teenage boy, his skull crushed into a lopsided cartoon shape but his face still intact. General Emara had a cosmically diametric interpretation of the APC video; the driver, he said, was trying to escape the frightening crowds — not to kill them. Of course, the general added, it was possible that a Christian fanatic had hijacked the APC and then killed his fellow marchers in order to incite anger against the military leadership. Among such claims — which offend logic — the military sprinkled dark accusations of a “hidden hand” at work, a favored rhetorical trope of Mubarak’s time. It reeked of misdirection, or worse.
“We are not circulating conspiracy theories, but there is no doubt that there are enemies of the revolution,” General Mahmoud Hegazy said.
As testimonies are collected and documentary evidence is amassed, and as time passes and the details and chronology come more clearly into focus, there is the stark suggestion of a hidden hand at work, though: the old secret police and their legions of minions.
Thousands of angry armed men materialized almost instantaneously the night of the Maspero killings. Some of the bullets collected by protesters appear not to be of standard military type. It’s entirely possible that the protesters and the military both are telling the truth — and that the violence was orchestrated by the veteran provocateurs and thugs who for the last two decades have unleashed themselves, with police permission, on political dissidents time and time again.
If this is the case, the revolutionaries and the military rulers have a common enemy: the feloul, or “remnants” of the ex-regime, who would be just as unhappy to lose power to a military dictatorship as to an elected civilian government.
“We can’t take our eyes off the bigger issue. The military is leading us toward fascism, especially by manipulating minorities,” Shabha told an emergency gathering of Youth for Justice and Freedom. Mina’s friends, most of them barely in their twenties argued about the most effective way to rebound from his death, and the murky massacre of which it was part. The room was filled with smoke, and some of the activists had tears in their eyes. After four hours of argument, they agreed to fight on in two arenas — within the system, they would run candidates for parliamentary elections; against the system, they would stage memorials as protests, hoping sympathy for the slain Che Guevara-look-alike would turn public opinion against the state and toward the revolution.
In the weeks since, Mina’s friends, and many who never met him, have held candlelight vigils across Cairo. Not just in Tahrir, but in other downtown squares like Talaat Harb, and far from the city center in rundown neighborhoods like Ezbet El-Nakhl at the end of the subway line.
“We have to go back to the streets and work with everybody, regardless of ideologies,” said Hossam Hafez, another Justice and Freedom activist. “Otherwise, tomorrow, the day after, we’ll all be Mina Daniel. Our nerves are strained, we’re empty handed nine months after the revolution. This is the only way to regain it.”
It was supposed to be a master class in revolutionary activism: two stars of the Tahrir Square uprising visiting Occupy Wall Street to swap tactics and sass. It ended up more like an undergraduate teach-in.
For Asmaa Mahfouz and Ahmed Maher, the visit to Zuccotti Park was an exhilarating – if surreal – break from the punishing workload of fighting the military dictatorship back home in Egypt.
“Where is the tear gas?” Maher asked with a smile, but he seemed genuinely puzzled by the cordial relations between the Wall Streeters and the cops.
Maher and Mahfouz both have been arrested before by Egypt’s notoriously abusive police, and Mahfouz recently was hauled before a military court martial for allegedly insulting her country’s military rulers.
Mahfouz had a question of her own. “Where are the organizers?” she asked. “There must be organizers.” No one knew. She ended up chatting at the welcome table with a young man wearing a straw hat.
“How do you sustain yourselves? How do you keep yourself energized?” he asked. “That’s our main problem.”
“You need a message,” she told him.
She inscribed an Egyptian flag (“From Tahrir Square to Wall Street”) with black marker and presented it to the hundreds who gathered to hear her and Maher.
Mahfouz, 26, spent years protesting when most Egyptians stayed home, and became a phenomenon with her self-produced YouTube editorials. She lambasted rulers with homespun humor, and exhorted people to join her at protests. Eventually they did, in the millions.
Maher, 31, worked with virtually every activist group in Egypt, and founded the April 6 movement, which was instrumental in organizing textile worker strikes in 2008. His grassroots political organization boasts the kind of street muscle and labor ties that Occupy Wall Street still only hopes to build.
People asked about the role of women in the Egyptian uprising, the connections between youth and labor movements, and the importance of social media. Some of the questions were well intended but astonishingly vague: “How do you overthrow a system?” one man asked. Maher politely replied, “It’s easier to overthrow a dictator than an entire system.” He didn’t belabor the point that the Egyptian revolutionaries, so far as they are concerned, have not yet won; they still are fighting their system. Egypt’s military rulers have staged a vicious campaign against Maher’s April 6 movement, accusing them with no evidence of working as American spies and subjecting them to a public inquiry.
The Americans wanted to know how they could help Egypt.
“Get your revolution done. That’s the biggest help you can give us,” Mahfouz said, expressing the hope that America would one day cut off the $1.3 billion yearly payments that sustain Egypt’s military.
She also advised Occupy Wall Street to select its own leaders and craft a simple message “that no one can change.”
On Monday evening at Zuccotti Park, Mahfouz was eager to model the fiery disobedience with which she’s inspired countless Egyptians. “Let’s march!” she said after an hour-long question-and-answer session, grabbing an Egyptian flag and flashing the victory sign with both hands.
A few hundred demonstrators fell in line behind her and Maher, who gamely joined the English chants. The police allowed the march onto Wall Street itself, and at each corner the American leaders consulted an officer about the preferred route. Weary of the somewhat stilted slogans, which lacked the umph and rhythm of Egyptian chants, Mahfouz and Maher taught the crowd the iconic cry of the Arab uprisings: “Al shaab yurid isqat al nizam,” or “The people demand the fall of the regime.” The crowd adopted its own hybrid: “Al shaab yurid isqat Wall Street.”
As they wound back to Zuccotti Park, demonstrators awaited a cue from the police before crossing Broadway. It was too much for Mahfouz. She stopped in the middle of the intersection, stopped traffic, pumped a fist in the air, and demanded the fall of Wall Street. Nervous demonstrators skittered to the sidewalk, leaving Mahfouz with just the cameras and a few dozen stalwarts who seemed willing to accept her invitation to be arrested.
For a few seconds, there was a palpable crackle of tension. But the police, it seemed, didn’t want the hassle. They stepped back, and without a confrontation, the moment subsided. Mahfouz joined her comrades back on the sidewalk.
“I wanted to show them that they need to be tough, even if they get arrested,” she said with her trademark toothy smile. With that she repaired for a private session with Occupy organizers – she finally had found them – and the long trip back to Cairo the following day.
[Originally published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, subscription required.]
Review of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, By Steven A. Cook. Illustrated. 408 pp. Oxford University Press. $27.95.
On the morning of Feb. 11, 2011, hours before Hosni Mubarak submitted to the millions of his subjects clamoring for his resignation, a half-dozen retired generals sipped coffee poolside at the Gezira Club, kitted up for tennis and contemptuously dismissed the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. “Who do they represent?” scoffed a man who until recently had worked in state security. “They are loud, but don’t forget there are 79 million Egyptians who are not in Tahrir Square. They are the majority.”
It never crossed their minds that Mubarak might capitulate, as he would do later that day, or that the passivity of most Egyptians did not equal support for a regime that had squandered Egypt’s position at the head of the Arab world while excelling only at abuse and corruption. That rank incomprehension — one might less charitably call it arrogant cluelessness — stretched from the coffee klatch at the Gezira Club through the entire government. Yet Egypt had managed to remain a stable linchpin of American policy in the Middle East for decades, until suddenly it wasn’t.
This transformation, along with the internal decline from pride of the Arab world to shameful decaying autocracy, is the subject of Steven A. Cook’s “Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.” The book clearly was in the making long before the uprising.
Cook’s central contention is that since the military coup of 1952, Egypt’s leaders have never had an ideology. Instead, they have resorted to an increasingly complicated and cruel apparatus of coercion, bullying the citizenry into consent but failing to create any positive reason to support the state.
Cook isn’t trying to tell us why Egyptians revolted in 2011, or what might come next, although his perceptive analysis helps answer both questions. His real aim is to diagnose Egypt’s decline and directionlessness in the modern era, from Nasser’s charisma to Mubarak’s dead-man governing act, and to shed light on America’s role. With meticulous historical context and the acumen of a political scientist, Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, weaves together a narrative drawn from archives, interviews and his own firsthand reporting during a decade of visits to Egypt.
His story begins with a quick survey of Egypt’s modern political awakening, an excellent primer for the uninitiated. Egypt first revolted against its colonizers in 1882, ushering in an age of ferment that included a British-dominated monarchy and a religious awakening inspired by the pioneers of the Islamist revival. Corruption flourished, as did ego-driven power struggles within the elite. Disgust began to reach a boiling point in 1948, when Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officer compatriots fought in Palestine against the newly declared state of Israel. Between the king’s incompetence, the greed of the governing liberals and the Machiavellian scheming of the British, who humiliatingly still occupied the Suez Canal, Egypt’s leaders were doomed.
Nasser’s coup in 1952 threw all the bums out and placed power in the hands of a small group of young, unknown officers, who promised to advance the national interest as impartial technocrats. A charismatic orator, Nasser became the voice and conscience of Arab nationalism, and experimented with reforms that gave land, education and jobs to the peasantry.
Egypt’s people invested great hope in the idea of an apolitical, incorruptible military leadership — a comprehensible but unfounded reflex that prevails again today. The Free Officers tapped a deep and historically grounded wave of rage against foreign interference, a backlash that has never subsided.
Nasser flirted with the Soviets but never embraced Communism. He used the Muslim Brotherhood to achieve power, then ruthlessly crushed the organization when he realized it was becoming too popular to control.
By the time his mismanaged army collapsed in the 1967 war with Israel, Nasser’s reforms had stalled. Anwar Sadat, the weak officer who inherited the presidency in 1970, carved out a power base by gutting what remained of civil society. Sadat relaxed the restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood and encouraged free enterprise, spawning a wealthy new elite that matured into Mubarak’s crony capitalist circle.
Cook does an excellent job telling the story of Sadat’s daring trip to Jerusalem, which quickly and unexpectedly led to the Camp David accords — a peace treaty almost universally reviled in the Arab world, including Egypt. With that one move, Sadat managed to become the darling of the West, while sacrificing almost all his domestic support. Few of his countrymen mourned when he lost his life to an assassin’s bullet in 1981, and his vice president, Hosni Mubarak, assumed power.
The lesson for Mubarak and Egypt’s ruling class was to risk nothing. Gone was Egypt’s sense of destiny as helmsman of the Arab world. Abandoned, too, was the confidence to imagine developmental leaps forward like the Aswan dam.
The joke goes that upon being sworn in, Mubarak took his first ride in the presidential limo. The veteran driver reached a fork in the road. “Nasser always turned left here,” the chauffeur said. “Sadat always turned right. What would you like to do?” After long thought, Mubarak decided: “Just stay where we are.”
Under Mubarak, poverty and inequality leveled off for a time but then began to increase again. The sacrifice of liberties ceased to be a Faustian trade-off for security and economic progress once the government could no longer deliver on bread-and-butter issues. Egypt became little more than a byword for a brutal security state — though one that was a stalwart ally to Washington and Jerusalem.
By the 1990s most of Mubarak’s energy was going into suppressing political dissent and fighting to preserve his special relationship with Washington. He deployed an army of secret police officers and informants that rivaled East Germany’s, infiltrating everything from the doormen’s union to student theater groups. But by 2011, spies, tear gas and heavy-handed repression were not enough to keep him in power.
Readers looking for a full account of this year’s uprising will have to wait for the spate of coming books by journalists, insiders and political analysts. What Cook has given us is a scholar’s well-informed, analytical history, which offers invaluable insights to anyone interested in how Egypt came to its present impasse. “The Struggle for Egypt” is at its best when delivering finely honed details, as when Cook explains the relationship among Egypt, America and Israel. He offers a surprisingly engaging disquisition on Public Law 480, the American “Food for Peace” program that was the progenitor of an unhealthy aid-driven relationship between Washington and Cairo.
But Cook’s storytelling is laced with clichés and hackneyed images (“jaw-dropping,” “live wire”). This is the kind of book where “the mist off the Nile . . . creates an odd sense of foreboding and anticipation” on the morning of the 1952 coup. (Was it really the mist, or was it the tanks surrounding all the government buildings?) He awkwardly drops characters he has met into his account without any apparent connection to the narrative, only to allow them to disappear a few pages later.
These stylistic hiccups, however, are merely occasional irritants in a substantial and engaging book. Cook knows his material and gets the important points right. His account should be particularly sobering for American readers, who will find in these pages a damning exposition of why United States aid and political influence are currently viewed with such profound suspicion in Egypt.
History offers today’s Egyptian reformers many warnings, most importantly about the danger of an unaccountable, all-powerful military. Egyptians have long suffered from the gap between their leaders’ rhetoric and practice. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak spoke the language of revolution, Arab pride and economic prosperity, but presided over a military welfare state that impoverished its people and ruled through systemic torture. This disconnect will plague anyone who tries to resuscitate Egypt after Mubarak. For if the man who ruled for 29 years, 3 months and 28 days is gone, the dysfunctional, Orwellian system he did so much to create and sustain lives on.
Which way is Egypt’s revolution heading, and what is the ongoing military dictatorship doing? I wrote the following at the end of last week, before Sunday night’s killings at Maspero. Read with that in mind. The moment is a glum one, with the increasing evidence that the ruling junta won’t hesitate to use the most crude and violent methods of Mubarak and his predecessors. The military council has kept its goals opaque. None of this assessment is intended to be predictive. Egypt’s uprising already has defied unbelievable odds, and there’s no reason to think it will fail to change the system at this point, after only eight months. But there’s also no reason to think the old regime won’t fight for its own survival.
CAIRO, Egypt — The enraged crowd had a target: the satellite television transmission truck parked at the edge of Tahrir Square, by the Hardees. “Get out, get out!” screamed a hundred men, while the most agitated swarmed the truck, pounding it with their open palms. A half-dozen toughs fended them off. One brandished a pocket taser. Why, I asked a bystander, did this mob want the television signal silenced?
“Some channel broadcast there were only a few hundred people in Tahrir,” he explained. “We can’t have that.”
Except, of course, that it was true. This past Friday, October 7, was “The Friday of ‘Thank you, now please return to your barracks.'” It was intended as riposte to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which of late has reinstated many of the most decried and oppressive practices of the late Mubarak regime, and capped off its assertion of junta power with a grand martial celebration on Egypt’s national holiday to observe the victory against Israel on October 6, 1973.
The activists are terrified and energized, but the wider public does not seem to share their fears. So Tahrir, from Friday to Friday, seems emptier and emptier. What that proves is an entirely different question, but it is an observable fact that elicits anxiety to the Tahrir revolutionaries and satisfaction among supporters of the military council.
Revolutionary demonstrators are angry, and afraid their gains are slipping away. And like many Egyptian political players, they are not all instinctively liberal, as evidenced by the flashmob that would rather tear up a TV truck than admit that, this one time, state television was telling the truth about the paltry protest turnout.
I saw similar explosions of anger from skeptics of the revolution (or maybe just average, apolitical citizens) irritated by the disruptions caused by labor strikes. Workers are demanding living wages, and some of them are overtly trying to keep the revolutionary spirit alive while pressuring the regime, which at most levels has preserved the exact same stifling policies and personnel that Mubarak put in place.
In downtown Cairo, stranded commuters cursed the bus drivers, who are on strike because they want to earn a base salary higher than $100 a month. I was stranded overnight at the Luxor Airport after air traffic controller shut down Egypt’s airspace, and I heard travelers rail against the pampered workers who, emboldened by the revolution, were now heedlessly and selfishly inconveniencing their fellow Egyptians.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that Egypt’s January 25 Revolution is being eaten alive. It’s too soon to write it off, and too soon to predict that a full-fledged military dictatorship will rule the country for the foreseeable future; but that grisly outcome now is a solid possibility, perhaps as likely an outcome as a liberal, civilian Egypt or an authoritarian republic.
Eight months after a euphoric wave of people power stunned Egypt’s complacent and abusive elite, it’s possible to see the clear outlines of the players competing to take over from Mubarak and his circle, and to assess the likely outcomes. The scorecard is distasteful. The uprising — it can’t yet be fairly termed a revolution — forced the regime to jettison its CEO, Hosni Mubarak, in order to preserve its own prerogatives.
In the last two months, that regime has made clear how strong it feels. In September, in quick succession the military extended the hated state of emergency for another year, effectively rendering any notion of rule of law in Egypt meaningless; unilaterally published election rules that favor wealthy incumbents and remnants of the old regime, and that disadvantage new, post-Mubarak competitors; indefinitely postponed presidential elections, and refused any timetable for handing over authority to a civilian; reinstated full media censorship, threatening television stations and imposing a gag order on all reporting about the military; and the country’s authoritarian ruler, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, unleashed a personal public relations campaign on state television odiously reminiscent of Mubarak’s image-making. Furthermore, the government advanced its investigation of “illegal NGOs” that allegedly took foreign money, including virtually every important and independent dissident organization.
Taken together, these moves show a military junta fully confident that it can impose measures of control as harsh — or, in the case of widespread military trials for civilians, harsher — than those employed by Mubarak.
Politically, the military council might seem incoherent, habitually announcing extreme positions and then undoing them after the next street protest, but the overall arc is unmistakable, if hopefully not inexorable.
The soundtrack for the SCAF and its millions of supporters in Egypt (because let’s not forget, the old regime had its loyalists and there are many more who remain convinced by state propaganda that the January 25 uprising was a plot against Egypt) could be the song from the satirical film Bob Roberts: “The Times they are a-changing back.”
Former ruling party members have regrouped. They have lots of cash and experience, and plan to run aggressively in the parliamentary elections that begin in just seven weeks, on November 28.
Meanwhile, the opposition to Mubarak is as fragmented as ever. The revolutionary zeal of Tahrir Square has flagged. Many of the most determined activists from January 25 have invested themselves in electoral politics, which they know is a long game. They’ve committed to build real political organizations, but it’s not clear how good they’ll be at doing so, or how quickly they can accomplish it.
The Muslim Brotherhood and a few tarnished, coopted official opposition parties like the Wafd already had nationwide organizations when Mubarak fell. The rest — the people who actually took to the streets in January — are struggling to make meaningful inroads and to learn the business of politics.
The Revolutionary Youth Coalition, which includes all the most credible groups from January 25, is trying this week to forge a unified slate of parliamentary candidates. But even if they’re wildly successful they won’t convince the crucial Islamists to join them.
With no experience of participatory politics, the parties are having to learn much too quickly, in a burning crucible. In September, leaders of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition accepted an invitation to meet with the head of state intelligence. The official, they said, tried to explain the government’s efforts to both secure the nation and to improve basic rights, and that the activists responded with their own demands for more reform. They deliberately publicized the meeting — and were then roundly rebuked by many of their own followers as sellouts.
A more extreme exercise in political trial-by-fire occurred the last weekend of September. The leading political parties negotiated with the military council over the authoritarian and opaque election law. They wrested some key concessions from the junta, including limits on former ruling party members running for office and a rule change that will allow political parties to run candidates for “independent” seats. But the final communiqué signed by the party heads included nothing solid about ending the state of emergency, retrying the civilians convicted in military courts, or most importantly, transitioning to civilian rule. In fact, the agreement between the political parties and the military left open a scenario in which a new civilian president won’t take office until 2013, more than two years after the Tahrir Square protests began. More woundingly, it included a sycophantic blessing to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
As soon as the document was published, there was an uproar. The leader of the liberal Adel Party rescinded his signature. The Egyptian Social Democrats, who had only tentatively endorsed it, eventually signed but only after several influential members resigned in protest. The agreement was widely viewed with disgust. Some pundits suggested that the activists were struggling to adjust to the messy give and take of politics. A more accurate analysis would say that the party leaders got snookered by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, signing a document when they could have trumpeted the concessions they won while pushing for more. Even more importantly, the parties got a lesson in accountability politics that will mark the more adaptive among them like a cattle brand. Even revolutionary politicians aren’t used to representing real constituents, who speak up, and speak up loud, when they don’t like their leaders’ decisions.
The September fiascos are a snap clinic in electoral politics, and are taking place in hothouse where rule of law and liberalism are at best tenuous aspirations. Revolutionary activists who profess to value liberalism and rule of law see no irony, and no danger, in calling for the application of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1950s Treason Law to block the return of the Mubarakistas. They forget, or ignore, that Nasser used that law to shut down political life entirely, and that criminalizing the “pollution of public life” endangers anyone who disagrees with the powers that be.
Time is short until elections, and recent events have established that the military controls the process, whatever it might be. That process changes from week to week; the uncertainty and backtracking and vagueness increasingly look like a strategy by the junta to keep everyone else off balance and maximize the divisions among any pretenders to authority.
It’s possible that the military doesn’t want a return of the old regime — perhaps because it has begin to enjoy the prospect of keeping for itself all the power that it accrued when Mubarak went away.
This was the view from the 6 October overpass, looking down at Ramses Street just before midnight. Reporters saw 17 (or 16) bodies in the morgue in the Coptic Hospital there, some shot dead, others killed by being run over. Crowds surging toward the hospital from the direction of Tahrir Square chanted “Islamiya, Islamiya!” Many were carrying truncheons. They threw rocks. The people in front of the hospital threw rocks back. A bus burned, its engine parts and tires exploding every few moments while black smoke belched upward. Four cars were burning as well. Around midnight, the warring sides merged and began chanting “Muslims, Christians, one hand.” It was near impossible to approach the hospital itself. After I left, the military apparently deployed to the street, more than four hours after violence broke out.
If you’re interested in how torture and police brutality works in Egypt, take a look at this video, which is making the rounds this week and provoking a lot of anger. Allegedly, this torture session took place at a police station in the El-Kurdi police station in the El-Daqahliya governorate, and involves police as well as soldiers. What’s most striking here is not the violence and brutality, but the casual good cheer with which it is dispensed. These men are in an office, they know they’re on camera, and they’re not self-conscious in the least. The man who repeatedly electrocutes the detainees chuckles after delivering a shock. This appears to be what institutionalized torture looks like. Reliable accounts and the hard work of human rights researchers and activists suggest it’s as endemic as ever in Egypt, even since the revolution.
CAIRO, Egypt — Retired Egyptian Army General Hosam Sowilam knows how to control a conversation. With a jocular smile and a booming voice, he’ll hold and repeat a phrase — “Chaos! Chaos! Chaos!” — until he’s drowned out the question he doesn’t care to answer, dispelling even the shadow of doubt as he regains the floor.
“What happened on January 25?” Sowilam bellowed by way of introducing his history of the uprising in Tahrir Square. “Many of our youths went to Serbia and the United States of America, where they received training in how to overthrow the regime. They received training from Freedom House, and funding from the Jewish millionaire Soros.”
He goes on to weave a detailed story of a foreign plot against Egypt, in which unscrupulous agents from America, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, backed by a web of corporate interests, took advantage of Egyptians legitimately dissatisfied about Hosni Mubarak’s plan to transfer power to his son.
“Look!” he says, pointing in a bond dossier at a page of logos from companies like Edelman and CBS. “All these corporations were behind the Arab spring. This is very dangerous.” There are headlines about Soros from websites like truthistreason.net and AnarchitexT.org (“I don’t know any thing about them,” Sowilam says. “I found them on the internet.”) Other data comes from better-known sources like The Washington Post and Wikileaks. He has carefully translated key points into Arabic to share with Egyptian reporters.
Although Sowilam holds no official role in the army that governs Egypt today, he considers that army his life, and relishes any chance to speak for its values and mindset, if not its official policies. He remains close to senior officers, and had a second career after the military at a defense think tank and now as an unofficial spokesman for the military. (I first met him a year ago while reporting a story about the military’s view on then-President Mubarak’s succession plans; Sowilam adamantly criticized the notion of hereditary power, but also warned that the military never would permit Islamists to rule Egypt.)
Bald and squat, with a body shaped like a calzone, Sowilam has the typical build of an artilleryman. An early career surrounded by the thud of big guns marred his hearing, which is why he often shouts in casual conversation. Born in 1937, Sowilam came of age and attended the military academy in the 1950s, in the halcyon era of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Free Officers revolt. He took his commission when the army was at the zenith of its power, boldly refashioning Egypt’s political and economic order. He fought in the humiliating defeat of 1967, which he directly attributed to the Free Officers’ “disastrous experiment” with running the country. He later served abroad, including a stint as military attaché in India.
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.