360° Analysis

Egypt’s Stolen Revolution


July 20, 2011 15:49 EDT

Vivian Ibrahim comments on reasons the revolution was a success and on the political and social turmoil that followed it. Political parties must make sure that Egypt now has a representative democracy.

Western academics and media struggle to describe the recent intifadas in Tunisia and Egypt. The result is a series of clichéd phrases, from the orientalist ‘Jasmine revolution’ and ‘Arab Spring’, to the social media obsessed “Twitter and Facebook revolutions”. All these terms demonstrate a misunderstanding of the uprisings’ nuances and their unique, country-specific circumstances; after all Tunisia is not Egypt, nor is Egypt Bahrain. This article will focus on Egypt, the political landscape leading up to the January 25th revolution and its aftermath. Besides examining mainstream alliances and alignments that have been made by more well known political actors, this article will explore newer and less visible political actors in Egypt.

A Youth and Technology Revolution?

In June 2010 Khaled Said, a 28 year-old Alexandrian, was brutally attacked and murdered by Egyptian police forces outside a cafe. As pictures of his mutilated body quickly circulated the internet and mobile phones, an unprecedented public awareness and a series of campaigns and demonstrations followed. Prior to the January 25th revolution, congregations of more than five people in the street were illegal and punishable by imprisonment. To circumvent this, silent protests took place across large cities in Lower Egypt to mourn the death of Said and oppose ongoing police brutality. Attendees wore black and stood at least one meter apart, often facing the Mediterranean Sea or the Nile. Protestors had warned attendees that caution should be used: no one leaving or entering the protests should talk to fellow protestors to avoid any arrests under the congregation laws. This unconventional silent vigil had a powerful impact and made the Facebook page Kolina Khaled Said (“We are all Khaled Said”) a regular information portal for demonstrations and remonstrations against the state. It has since emerged that there were at least five administrators of this page, including the now famous Google executive Wael Ghoneim. While the case of Said was by no means the first of its kind, the demonstrations and tactics used, drew on a culture of resistance that had been growing in Egypt since the inception of an anti-government coalition group called Kifaya or “Enough”, in the autumn of 2004. This along with worker strikes in the Delta city of Mahalla foreshadowed increasing civil disobedience.

In early 2011, a youth coalition of thirteen representatives was formed from five different political parties. Ranging from the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood to liberals supporting the campaign of former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohammed El Baradei, to Socialist Revolutionaries; these members were a mixture of friends and political adversaries. Following the fall of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Aliin Tunisia on January 14th, the youth coalition agreed to co-ordinate their efforts to ensure the success of protests scheduled to take place on national police day in Egypt on the January 25th. Their aim was to hold the Minister of Interior accountable for police brutality and the failure of the State Security Services to prevent the bombing of Al-Qidassayan Church in Alexandria that left at least twenty dead on New Year’s Day. They were also driven by the long-term despair of poverty, unemployment and repression. Using the “We are all Khaled Said” page to co-ordinate and spread the word, dry-runs of the routes to be followed were undertaken; it was expected that a few thousand people would attend. As one coalition organiser later recalled in an interview: “I get chills every time I think about it, we couldn’t have expected anything like the numbers or the force of people we had, they all came out, they were shouting from balconies in support” (Interview conducted in London June 4th 2011).

Stolen Euphoria: Back to Party Politics

The first few days of the eighteen day revolution were the most critical. This was the period when the bloodiest battles took place and when the majority of the 847 people lost their lives not only in Cairo, but more importantly in the cities of Alexandria, Suez and Ismailiyya. It was also in the first week that the now infamous Ma‘arakat al-Gamal or “Battle of the Camels” took place; a scene which left most Cairenes in shock and which was reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia. Following the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak on the 11th February, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) led by Field Marshall Muhammad Tantawi has been the main force shaping Egyptian politics. The aim of the 20 man military council is to help Egypt transition to a civilian government, although much skepticism has been voiced. Arrests and trials of civilians in military courts have continued,as well as accusations of forced virginity tests on female protestors. Moreover, SCAF have also been accused of playing politics. It is widely believed that they are responsible for the creation of the Youth Union, which aims to rival the Youth Coalition who were instrumental in mobilising the revolution. During Egypt’s referendum in March, which presented limited constitutional adjustments, SCAF supported the quick amendments which failed to address fundamental flaws in the constitution. Moreover, since the referendum SCAF has been accused of including several additional clauses that were not in the original plebiscite.

A temporary civilian cabinet, which operates alongside but is distinct to SCAF and is concerned with the political functions of the country, is led by Dr. Essam Sharaf. The new cabinet, however, has been crippled by a range of problems left behind by the thirty year dictatorship. Sharaf, who spent the majority of the revolution in Tahrir Square, has enjoyed broad support, particularly from the Youth Coalition. But his challenges range from the long-term inadequacy of Egypt’s education system, which produces too many graduates and not enough jobs, to an economy crippled by debt. Most recently, the IMF has sought to distance itself from past policies which included praising former President Mubarak for ‘progress’ in Egypt’s economy. Instead, the IMF has negotiated a new $3 billion loan package with Sharaf’s government which aims to place Egypt on the road to long-term economic re-adjustments. While the IMF discussions have only received minor coverage in Egypt, the negotiated loan demonstrates the disconnect between the cabinet, public opinion and some commentators. Since the revolution there have been serious public discussions concerning the possibility of Egypt’s economy faltering and falling into bankruptcy. For many, particularly amongst the socio-economic elite, the loan signifies the credibility and endurance of the Egyptian economy. For others from a wide political and ideological spectrum, the loan epitomises Western imperialism in another guise. Mubarak – the puppet of the west – has been removed and replaced by more neo-liberal policies.  The revolutions were as much about long-term economic failures and rebellion as they were about dictatorship; some of the most prominent slogans heard focused on rising bread-prices, economic social justices in addition to political freedom. Moreover it has been argued that if the loan is accepted, it will lack a popular mandate since Sharaf’s cabinet is transitional and unelected.

While Sharaf negotiates the day-to-day running of the country and the old guard of military personnel in SCAF remain, political manoeuvrings and the formation of new and not-so new political parties are also being negotiated. Most prominent is Muhammad El Baradei, who is celebrated in Western circles but is largely viewed with suspicion in Egypt. He joined the protests on the 28th January and was promptly placed under house arrest by the former regime. In the nine months prior to the revolution, El Baradeitoured Egypt as well as European cities with large diaspora communities in an attempt to discuss his ‘seven points.’ These were basic universal demands that lacked any actual implementation plans. At a meeting in London in June 2010, he said it was not his intention to run against President Mubarak in the scheduled elections that had been due this year in September and that he would only participate in demonstrations if there were already one million Egyptians on the street. Since the revolution in February this year, El Baradeihas announced his interest in running for presidency and has been regularly courted by popular media outlets.

Other presidential contenders include the former National Democratic Party (NDP) member Amr Moussa. Once Egypt’s most celebrated Foreign Minister 1991-2001, he was widely believed to have been sidelined to become Head of the Arab League in 2001 as he was regarded as a threat to the former President. The personal popularity of Amr Moussa has continued and he has recently resigned as the head of the Arab League to pursue his campaign. During the final days of the revolution, Moussa was regularly seen on television and walking around Tahrir Square in a casual sports jacket. Critics claim that this was an attempt to shed the image of his close working relationship with the former regime and former president. Although not officially a member of any new party, he has mass popularity on the streets in Egypt. He is a seasoned diplomat, a known face and speaks with an ease that El Baradeifails to command for the popular vote. Yet for many, particularly those who took part in the revolution, Moussa’s close relationship with the NDP and Mubarak could cause his possible candidacy to be regarded as a regressive move.

Perhaps most significant is the role and presence of the Muslim Brotherhood. While they claimed that they refrained from the January 25th revolution because they wanted to avoid parallels to Iran’s 1979 revolution, others have cited the long-term implicit cooperation between the Brotherhood and the Egyptian State as the reason. Shabaab al-Ikhwan or the “Brotherhood Youth”, who were active and still play a major role in the broader Youth Coalition, are increasingly divided from the main organisation. On May 27th the Brotherhood Youth attended mass demonstrations in Tahrir (Cairo) as well as other cities despite the main organisations’ boycott and insistence of working with SCAF. Those who had participated in the May demonstrations were suspended. Due to party restrictions in the past, members of the Muslim Brotherhood have generally stood as independent candidates. Recently however, they have formed a political party Hizb al-Horreya wa Adala “Party of Freedom and Justice”. Despite this new ‘formalisation’ as a political bloc, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official stance has still been to avoid fielding a presidential candidate. What has emerged is a split with one Muslim Brotherhood member, Abdul Moneim Abu al-Fatooh putting himself forward for presidential elections due to be held in late 2011/early 2012. Abu al-Fatooh has resigned from the higher echelons of the Brotherhood, although many suspect he remains an active member. In recent weeks he has spent considerable time in Europe rallying diaspora. While the right to vote abroad has finally been granted by SCAF decree, communities await measures to be undertaken to ensure its implementation prior to forthcoming elections.

Since February 11th, however, a whole array of new political parties has sprung across the country including the “Free Egypt Party” led by Naguib Sawiris (former owner of the telecommunications ORASCOM empire). But most parties are not ready for the elections expected this September. The timing of the elections is significant; it comes immediately after the holy month of Ramadan in which the pious dedicate the final ten days to prayer in mosques. This is where the unofficial Brotherhood may be able to flourish while preaching in the mosques. In a recent interview with one of the most prominent left-wing opposition leaders and the founder of Kifaya, George Ishaq raised the possibility of delaying parliamentary elections to December 2011: “Not only should parliamentary elections be delayed, but a constitution should be agreed upon first – otherwise whoever dominates parliament will write the constitution. We cannot allow the revolution to be stolen” (Conducted in London Tuesday 7th June 2011).

The Glamour of Revolution and Realities on the Ground

While many liberal parties have emerged in the last few months, the vast majority lack manifestos. Ideologically, they are sitting largely to the centre right, although there is a particularly active left wing party, the Socialist Revolutionaries. The Communist and Anarchist parties have found some renewed interest, although membership is largely confined to a particular social economic elite and can hardly be regarded as representative.

In the Youth Coalition however, there is a palpable tension that the revolution has been taken from their hands and that the ‘Life of Tahrir’ in those 18 days has been replaced by party-politicking minus actual policies. Schisms within the coalition have emerged. For instance, Google executive Wael Ghoneim, administrator number four for the Khaled Said Facebook page, was detained for 11 days during the height of the revolution, and is widely regarded as a “sell-out”. His frequent television appearances, meetings with SCAF, book deal as well as his appearance in TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people has detached him from the reality: “It seems revolution is all now about glamorous TV discussions, everyone now claims they are pro the revolution, but where is the hard work?”(Interview conducted with a leading member of the Youth Coalition in London, 4th June 2011) While speaking to the Youth Coalition, it is clear that concerted efforts are being made to release a political “road map” which includes the aim to write a new constitution before parliamentary elections—an unlikely feat given the referendum has already received a mandate to amend clauses from the former constitution. In the absence of a new constitution, the Youth Coalition want a supra-constitution which guarantees basic individual rights against torture and the protection of minorities like Egyptian Copts (Orthodox Christians), who make up approximately 10 percent of the population.

Fear of SCAF and reprisals are also apparent in the Youth Coalition. The new “Youth Union”, a SCAF construct, may push the Coalition to the sidelines.  “We are waiting for the knock on the door in the middle of the night – I think we will soon be round(ed) up” (Interview conducted with a leading member of the Youth Coalition inLondon, 4th June 2011). As Egypt is currently entering high school diploma examination season, the Coalition have agreed to postpone their calls for Friday demonstrations, as they are aware that people are growing weary of the ongoing struggle. In an attempt to lessen inconvenience, the next major strike was postponed to July 8th although recent unrest has seen more violence on the streets in Cairo. One question remains however: to what extent is the Youth Coalition representative? The reality is that 40 percent of the Egyptian population lives below the poverty line of $2 a day, while only 15 percent of Egypt’s 86 million have internet access. The revolution was not led by technology savvy people but by the workers in towns and cities in mainly Lower Egypt who were not American University Cairo (AUC) graduates paying $13,000 as annual fees. The real challenge for the future of Egypt now lies in the recognition by political parties that the revolution did not only occur in the streets, but opened a new level of consciousness after decades of apathy. Political awareness is at the highest it has ever been and, contrary to the elite discussions that take place in the former regime palaces and conference centres, it is the provincial councils, the religious minorities and the Youth Coalition who are key actors for change. These groups need to be engaged, otherwise Tahrir Square is likely to become a burgeoning symbol of protests once again.


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