Revolution II

By: Albrecht Hofheinz, Cairo, University of Oslo.

When I arrived in Egypt in mid-October, the mood was gloomy. It had been a week after the Maspero massacre where at least 24 people protesting against discrimination against the Copts were killed by security forces and thugs in the streets around Egypt’s state broadcasting corporation. While the protests were going on, state TV claimed that members of the army had been killed by protesters (a claim subsequently revealed as made-up), and called on the ‘honorable’ people of Egypt to rush to the defense of its armed forces. Deliberate misinformation, the incitement of sectarian violence, and the portrayal of the army as the savior of Egypt’s stability — all this nourished the sentiment that Egypt’s January 25 revolution had not only not been completed, but was in serious danger of being derailed. “There are two important dates in modern Egypt’s history: 52 and 25,” a friend told me. “[19]52 was a military coup that turned into a [social and economic] revolution. Jan 25 [2011] was a real popular revolution that is being turned into a military coup. SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) have made a deal: ‘al-shāriʿ muqābil al-sharʿiyya’ (street for legitimacy)”: SCAF gives the MB legitimacy as a political force and control of the government following the upcoming parliamentary elections; in return, the MB provides SCAF with the support of the street, of large sections of the Egyptian population. The outcome: SCAF will continue to be in control of a puppet government ultimately answering not to the people, but to the military.

Egypt’s politics is, however, perhaps a little more complicated than that, and the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated groups are not necessarily willing simply to serve as backers of continued military supremacy. During a major demonstration on Friday, 28 Oct. 2011, presidential candidate Ḥāzim Ṣalāh Abū Ismāʿīl (affiliated to but not a member of the MB) called for a sit-in on Tahrir Square on Friday 18 Nov. to press SCAF for a definite and real hand-over of power to civilians. The draft “al-Silmī document” (2 Nov. 2011) proposing supra-constitutional principles including some that would exempt the army from civilian oversight further enraged the public, and on 18 Nov., Tahrir was packed with people from across the political spectrum calling for SCAF to “go”. Meanwhile, however, some secular-minded Egyptians were so worried about MB dominance that they stayed away from this demonstration, and a few ridiculed the “thawragiyya” (‘Revoluzzer’ in German; people who agitate for revolution for revolution’s sake) and expressed the view that SCAF control of Egyptian politics was preferable to Islamist control. Yet others called for boycotting the elections since they would only serve to give legitimacy for continued SCAF rule. In other words, the Egyptian public was heavily divided, and not a few commentators remarked that this was in SCAF’s best interest: “Divide and rule”.

The MB had called off the sit-in on 18 Nov., leaving Tahrir Square to about 200 protesters (many of whom said to have been relatives of people killed during the Jan/Feb. revolution). In the early hours of Saturday morning, Central Security Forces (CSF, a paramilitary police force) stormed the square to evict these people who had spent the night there. The excessive violence used against this small group who had not been obstructing traffic at all produced an outcry and made thousands of people return to Tahrir and to other public spaces in many Egyptian towns to protest police violence and SCAF’s protracting handover of power to civilians. These protests were met with even more violence over the following week; gas (including some varieties that are invisible and more toxic than ordinary tear gas), rubber bullets, live bullets, and police clubs claimed between over 40 (government figures) or over 70 (hospital sources) lives. But far from emptying the square, CSF and military police violence helped to fuel public anger; hundreds of thousands of people descended onto the streets to express their outrage and join the demonstrations. The protests and fights have been amply covered in the media; not least have they been live broadcast by Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr and the private Egyptian channel CBC. I myself have visited Tahrir daily; I have been on a dark Muhammad Mahmoud Street lit up only by fires (to defuse the effects of the gas) when the battle started there on Saturday night; I have run away with peaceful protesters when the more nasty invisible gas spread on Tahrir on Tuesday; I have stood packed in the crowds debating politics; I have seen the wounded and asphyxiated being carried away to the field hospitals; I have seen a mother proudly if a bit worried bidding farewell to her daughter who was engaged on the spot to help in the emergency clinic on Mohammed Mahmoud (a place where police allegedly cast in a tear gas canister earlier on during the protests; one doctor died). I have debated the role of Islam in the constitution with some of the many ‘independent’ Muslim Brothers on the square (many Muslim Brothers are participating in the protests despite their party’s official reluctance to endorse them). I have talked to a self-described young salafi who was not sporting the proverbial beard but for whom ‘salafi’ meant simply to live up to the example of the Prophet and the Pious Ancestors, the Salaf, instead of bowing to the dictates of some Party or the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. I have spent ‘quiet’ evenings on the square, 200 m away from the battle on Muhammad Mahmud, with activists from 6 April Youth Movement. I have taken pictures of the street art on the square and of a man spraying an advertisement for a marriage agency on the sidewalk. I have recorded young people performing their own poetry before leaving for Muhammad Mahmoud to “fulfill their dream” — they had stickers on their chest saying “shahīd taḥt al-ṭalab” (martyr in spe). I’ve been sprayed with anti-gas liquid (a mixture of milk and yeast) and I have eaten my dinner on the square. I have seen middle-aged couples and meticulously manicured upper class girls touring the revolution, side by side with ragged guys from Cairo’s slums whose voice was hoarse from hours of anti-SCAF chanting. I’ve been questioned by government informants and reassured of my presence by protesters who wanted me to take pictures. I’ve seen children 5 years old running around and begging and playing “down with the system”. I’ve seen politicians driving to the square in polished black limousines to distribute food and encourage “steadfastness,” and I have seen others like the Islamist lawyer Muntaṣir al-Zayyāt being edged out of the square as protesters there didn’t want them to “ride” the revolution. I’ve experienced the adrenaline rush of the violent action; been amazed by the engagement of the many men and women discussing politics like on a Greek agora, the mother of all public spheres; enjoyed the carnivalesque atmosphere of the square; been subject to man-handling and intimidation by pro-system thugs outside the square; and been relieved of my phone and money by club-wielding robbers in a central street at night. And when I went to the police to report the robbery, I was held up for four hours while they apparently checked into my identity — other foreigners have been arrested for participating in or instigating violence, and the allegation of spying is never far from the surface.

Today, Friday 25 November, there are no clashes on Tahrir, since the army has erected a concrete wall on the ‘frontline,’ and so today there is more focus on the political developments than on the gassing and shooting and killing on the battlefield. A new prime minister (Kamāl al-Ganzūrī) has been appointed; he’s 78 years old and has served under Mubarak (1996-99) and is therefore not at all accepted by the crowd on Tahrir even though he was relatively popular during his first term in office. But all the revolutionary excitement should not make us forget that the crowd on Tahrir represents only half the Egyptian population; the other half wants law and order and the military to guarantee this. Not something the revolutionaries on the square like to hear, but opinion polls and my personal impression point in this direction. The social media are dominated by the young protesters, but there is a sizable portion of the population that is not so present on these media. They are often called the “Couch Party” by activists, people who just stay in their couch watching state TV, and it is on them the military leadership puts its hope for the ‘referendum’ on the future position of the military that they have announced. In other words, if the Couch Party and the financial elite and the small shop owners and the peasants give their consent to the military keeping the role of guaranteeing law and order and overseeing the future constitution and government, instead of the other way round (a constitution to which all and everyone is subjected, and a civilian government overseeing the military), the military elite will have won the game.

But while they still stand a reasonable chance of actually succeeding in this game, the protesters and revolutionaries on Tahrir and other ‘Liberation’ Squares across Egypt have also and already succeeded in realizing their promise, repeated throughout the year but actualized only now: ‘If the January 25 revolution gets derailed, the people know the way to Tahrir!” They certainly do, and the 15000 rallying today on Abbasiyya Square in support of the military (and holding up posters praising the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] and even some pictures of Mubarak), these pro-régime people pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands that are on Tahrir right now despite the Muslim Brotherhood party not supporting today’s rally. The Muslim Brotherhood may have lost some credibility today, with the party urging restraint while many young brothers are actually on the square, despite their party’s advice.

And this is characteristic for what is happening in Egypt right now: a very crucial line of divide is not between the Islamists and the liberals/leftists, but between those who want a real change of the regime and those who are more interested in maintaining order and stability. Young Muslim Brothers and young salafis are often in the camp for change alongside young liberals and secularists, while the older leaders of the Islamist parties have shown as ambiguous a position as many liberal parties in their official proclamations who are willing to cooperate with SCAF to secure an “orderly transition” and who accuse the revolutionary stone throwers as a bunch of headless youngsters who don’t have a political vision. It is true that some of the 15-20 year olds who have braced death over the past week to participate in the battle with the security forces appear to have done so at least partly for the pure excitement of it; and I can relate to that from my own experience as a young 15 year old of battling the police and facing tear gas and batons and dogs to occupy and reoccupy strategic places. But the great majority of the people on the Square, and the leadership committees of the anti-régime movements, do have very precise and named and realizable political goals: a real handover of ultimate political power to a civilian leadership *now*, and not at some point in the future, for the SCAF has made, and broken, too many promises before. An end to the state of emergency and to the military trials of thousands of civilians for which the state of emergency provides legal justification. The people that can serve on a civilian presidential council that would oversee the elections have been named and do appear to enjoy the support of a big part of the protesters. But instead, SCAF is maneuvering and making promises that just confirm, to the protesters, that the military is not really willing to give up power in this country.

However, the square doesn’t give in easily; quite to the contrary, its numbers have been swelling by the day. Ahdaf Soueif, a famous Egyptian novelist and aunt of the equally famous Egyptian blogger and activist ʿAlā ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ who currently lingers in jail for refusing to be tried by a military court, Ahdaf Soueif wrote on Wednesday that “This is Revolution II”, it is the continuation and resumption of the revolutionary spirit of January/February, it is proof that there are enough people in Egypt now who will stand up for their rights and are ready to fight for them, it is this Revolution II that is rekindling the hope that the Arab Spring will actually succeed, a hope that had been faltering across th e region as we entered what looked to turn into an Arab Fall.