Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution
It was one year ago today that protesters first started gathering in Tahrir Square, inspired by the recent events in Tunisia, to protest the 30 year old authoritarian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Within a month, Mubarak was out of power and Egypt was being run by a military junta that was promising to return power to the people as soon as possible. To mark that anniversary, and note the fact that things have not changed as much as hoped, protesters returned today to the place where it all started:
CAIRO — Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square, the crucible of their revolution, on Wednesday in a mixture of celebration and agitation to mark the first anniversary of the protests that forced out Hosni Mubarak, the former president.
By midmorning, tens of thousands of people had packed the square here, smiling, cheering and waving Egyptian flags, but it was already evident that the spirit that unified last year’s uprising had been replaced by new tensions between Egyptian political factions over their view of the military rulers who took power when Mr. Mubarak was ousted.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that won nearly half the seats in the newly elected Parliament, sent many of its followers to the square.
The Brotherhood’s leaders have endorsed the military’s timetable for a handover to an elected president by the end of June, and they sent thousands of their members out to ensure that a spirit of celebration prevailed, erecting soundstages and setting up security checks at each entrance to the square. An abundance of Brotherhood flags, buttons and disposable plastic hats filled the crowd.
There were reports that Brotherhood followers had drowned out chants attacking the ruling military council with their own tributes to the revolution.
Groups of ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis, political rivals to the Brotherhood who won about a quarter of the seats in the new Parliament, said they would also turn out to help secure the square and keep the day peaceful, and there were plenty of men with the Salafis’ trademark long beards mingling in the crowd.
The crowd in the square on Wednesday morning was overwhelmingly male, with very few women in sight.
Youth groups and other activists — including many of the leaders of the original uprising — were determined to make the day a huge demonstration calling for an immediate end to military rule, urging Egyptians to gather at mosques, churches and other strategic locations around the city for marches to the square that would arrive by midafternoon.
The plan resembled the convergence of marches that set off the Tahrir Square protests last January, but this time each was named for a “martyr” killed over the last year by the security forces of the military-led government trying to suppress challenges to its power. More than 80 people have been killed in clashes with security forces since October.
The military rulers have endorsed the calls for an anniversary celebration and have made the day a national holiday. Some activists accuse them of trying to co-opt the occasion.
There was no visible presence of soldiers or the police. But most Egyptians seemed to expect that Brotherhood members, known for their discipline and organization, would keep the peace.
After a year of protests and crackdowns, many note a pattern: the conflicts with security forces never begin on the days when crowds fill the streets but only days later when the authorities move in to clear out the stragglers.
One year after the tumultuous events that marked a watershed in the so-called Arab Spring, Egypt is still under martial law, with the ruling military council acting as the highest authority.
With the military cracking down, the Islamists pushing their own agenda, and the economy threatening to cause the progress of the past year to unravel amid financial chaos, it’s not surprising that the activists who were at the heart of the protests consider their revolution unfinished:
etworks as events unfolded.
Ms. Ibrahim, who first spoke to The Lede last January, two days into the uprising — and minutes before Egyptian authorities shut down the Internet in a desperate attempt to stifle the protests — says now that she is frustrated by the lack of fundamental change.
“Really, what we have achieved,” she says, “was only just to topple Mubarak; we have Mubarak’s generals running the country — the SCAF, the military council, the 19 generals who are still killing and are leading counterrevolution. We want them to step out of power, but we understand that they are not going to go out of power easily.”
Mr. Elshamy, who was arrested at a protest in May and given a year’s suspended sentence by a military court, agrees that there is still work to be done. He also intends to spend Wednesday marching to Tahrir Square, in part, he says, because “what I saw in prison made me feel more determined.”
Unlike Ms. Ibrahim, Mr. Elshamy did not boycott the parliamentary elections organized by the military council in November. Even though the elections were “extremely late” and imperfectly run, he says, the vote was “an extremely important” step in the right direction. All in all, Mr. Elshamy concludes, “I definitely think things, even though they are not much, much better, definitely are not worse.”
Eric Trager, who was in Cairo when the protests started a year ago, is more sanguine about the whole affair:
It is tempting to believe that things might have turned out differently had Washington worked harder to bolster the young revolutionaries who seemingly exemplified America’s own liberal values when they took to the streets last January. These brave activists, after all, had won America’s hearts to the tune of an 82-percent approval rating at the height of the revolt, and their photogenicfaces carried the promise of a more democratic, friendly Egypt.
But the activists were never who we hoped they were. Far from being liberal, their ranks were largely comprised of Nasserists, revolutionary socialists, and Muslim Brotherhood youths—an alliance of convenience for opposing Mubarak and, later, for denouncing the U.S.
Thus, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Egypt in March 2011, a group of leading activists refused to meet with her. They also turned out to be intolerant conspiracy theorists: When classically Cairoesque rumors that a “Jewish Masonic” ceremony was to be held at the pyramids on November 11, the April 6th Youth Movement’s Democratic Front declared that this non-existent event should be prohibited. “We are committed to the achievements of the revolution, which emphasized freedom,” they said in a statement. “But freedom is not absolute freedom, and … it is constrained by the regulations and beliefs of the Egyptian people, who do not accept that these celebrations be protected in the wake of the revolution.”
Not that the revolutionaries were the horse to bet on anyway. Their continued reliance on street protests following Mubarak’s ouster angered the wider Egyptian public, which desperately wanted a return to normalcy. In late October—only one day before the registration deadline—they finally formed an electoral coalition, the Revolution Continues Alliance (RCA), to compete in parliamentary elections, but it was too late. The RCA won merely 2.35 percent of the parliamentary seats, and will play a minimal role in shaping Egypt’s political future. Meanwhile, Islamist parties captured nearly 70 percent of the vote by tapping into the Egyptian public’s religious sentiments and using their well-established social services networks to turn out supporters.
I’m not sure that it this is all that surprising. After all, it wasn’t so much the protests that led to the end of the Mubarak regime as it was the fact that the military finally turned on him and forced him to leave. Mubarak’s downfall wasn’t the triumph of popular protest, it was a military coup. Having done that, they have spent the last year consolidating their power while allowing at most the rudimentary appearance of democratic institutions. Since the days of Nasser the Egyptian military has been the constant in Egyptian politics and society, it’s difficult to believe that they would give that position up easily now.
Trager also points out that the situation in Egypt poses problems for the United States, which first quite naturally backed the military government in its decision to overthrow Mubarak and supported its promises of a gradual transition to democracy but which has since lost credibility with the people as it has cracked down on an increasingly dissatisfied populace. As a result, Washington is turning its eye to a potential partner that doesn’t seem reliable at all:
As the SCAF’s repressive rule has undermined its legitimacy both within Egypt and abroad, the Obama administration has looked increasingly to the Muslim Brotherhood as a potential partner. Thus, administration’s policy of “limited contacts” with the Muslim Brotherhood, which it announced in June, expanded to diplomatic meetings with the organization in October, and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with the Brotherhood’s political leaders in January. The Brotherhood, the thinking goes, won a 47 percent plurality in the recent parliamentary elections, and Washington’s interests are hardly served by having hostile relations with Egypt’s legitimately elected leaders. This argument, however, is only half right: While Washington should maintain open lines of communication with the Brotherhood, it should have no illusions about the Brotherhood’s willingness to act as a partner on key American interests.
In this vein, the Brotherhood’s leaders have said repeatedly that the organization intends to put the Camp David Accords to a referendum—a strategy that it apparently believes will enable it to sink Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel while escaping the blame. Brotherhood leaders have additionally called for banning bikinis, beach bathing, and alcohol despite the fact that these are essential elements to Egypt’s tourism industry, which comprises roughly ten percent of Egypt’s stagnating economy. The organization also supports new legislation that would limit foreign funding of NGOs, thereby undercutting Washington’s ability to aid pro-democratic organizations. Finally, and perhaps most consequentially, the Brotherhood intends to establish the sharia as the principal source of Egyptian legislation and criminalize criticism of Islamic law, thereby rendering Christians and secularists unequal citizens.
In all honesty, I’m not sure what options there are at this point, or what options we ever had. As I’ve noted before, the situation in Egypt a year ago was largely out of our hand to begin with and that seems to be even more the case today. if this comes down to a confrontation between the military and Brotherhood, though, my guess is that you’ll see the advent of another repressive military regime in Egypt. And the people of Egypt will still be screwed.