Shortly before the recent outbreak of violence in Tahrir Square, a friend fantasized about what he would do if he had a time machine with two buttons, one labeled “Back to Mubarak,” the other labeled “Stay the course.”
This decent, eminent professional — a tear-gassed veteran of the original Tahrir Square protests that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak last January — found it a difficult choice. He lives in my affluent suburban Cairo neighborhood, where his own family is not among those who have personally suffered from the spiking rates of car theft, often at knife- or gunpoint; the house break-ins, or the increasing sexual abuse of women. So perhaps, my friend mused, he would hang on to his now frail optimism and hit the “Stay the course” button.
As Cairo completed its second day of voting, November 29, part of an elaborate and drawn-out election process that will extend into next spring, a country battered by the events of the past 10 months waited with similar weariness and wariness to find out just what “Stay the course” will mean.
The slogans in Tahrir Square are different this time. Now it is “Down with the SCAF,” referring to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which remains the country’s only real power center, and “Transfer power now to a civilian national salvation government.” But aside from a minority still camped in Tahrir Square and opposed to participation in elections, it is also “Go out and vote.”
It is considered a certainty that the party of the Muslim Brotherhood will win a plurality, at least, in the parliamentary poll. But that is the beginning of the story, not the end. The real question is what kind of coalition the Muslim Brotherhood will construct to govern — and whether that coalition will really govern at all. Will the SCAF reserve key aspects of that role for itself with a Potemkin government out front?
Aside from a small number of parliamentary seats, election results for the parliament’s lower house will not be known until January. Then come elections for the Shura Council, an equivalent to the United Kingdom’s House of Lords. There are dozens of parties, but most have grouped themselves into one of four large coalitions: the Democratic Alliance, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s party; an Egyptian Bloc alliance that ranges from center-right to center-left secular parties; an alliance of socialist parties, and finally, an alliance of four Salafi, or Wahabi-oriented Muslim fundamentalist parties.
The Egyptian Bloc and the socialist alliance hope to offset the expected large vote for the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Salafis may do surprisingly well. They are a terrifying force, both to truly traditional Muslims and to liberal secularists (many of whom are also observant Muslims in their private lives). The critical question revolves around the Muslim Brotherhood. If after all the elections the Brotherhood secures a plurality as expected, will its leaders turn for their majority to the secular parties of the center and the secular socialists, as happened recently in Tunisia? Or will they turn to the Salafis and form a hard-line Islamist government?
As we often say here, Allahu Allam, or only God knows. Meanwhile, we live with the reality that moved my friend to reconsider Mubarak, however fleetingly. The transitional civilian government set up by the SCAF has been utterly ineffectual. And the SCAF itself has been curiously passive in exercising its power — except, apparently, to drag out and delay promises to “the Tahrir Revolutionaries.”
It took about nine months for the mainstream of Tahrir protesters (and their counterparts in Egypt’s major cities) to decisively, almost despairingly, realize they had not made a revolution last winter: It was a massive intifada that had led, instead, to a soft coup d’état.
The army leadership’s decision to intervene and oust Mubarak after the state security forces had failed to contain the original Tahrir rebellion through brutality was not an easy decision. Mubarak was one of their own and, in more ways than one, their paymaster. But the younger officers were fraternizing with the protesters, and the conscript rank and file that the young officers led were as much civilians in uniform as they were soldiers.
Of course, if one is a student of modern history with a keen interest in revolutions, it wasn’t that difficult to see in mid-February what Tahrir was and was not. There were the surface artifacts of revolution: the overthrown dictator and his two sons under arrest and eventually facing trial; the trials, too, of some of his closest associates from state security and from the closest of the crony capitalists; schools and municipalities taking the name of the dictator or that of his wife off buildings and renaming them after “the Revolution” or the martyrs of the uprising; the global drumbeat of media honoring Egypt’s democratic revolution. In those first months, delegates from the proliferating youth movements and from political parties both old and new were received courteously by the SCAF.
But underneath this avalanche of procedural change were enduring continuities. No one paid attention when the independent, almost underground, trade union groups were not treated with a similar courtesy. And it was no accident that the first “demonstration” to be broken up by the military after the fall of Mubarak was a labor strike. While politics bubbled, the stark economic conditions that were the Tahrir rebellion’s true ballast remained unchanged.
Now, in a curious way, history is repeating itself. Last January, the left-liberal April 6 Youth Movement that called for a demonstration at Tahrir Square had no expectation it was setting off an uprising. Its leaders hoped for merely a few thousand demonstrators. But Mubarak’s pervasive crony capitalism, corruption and reflexive brutality had reached a tipping point. When the police sought to quash the unexpected tens of thousands who turned out, thousands more from the fed-up middle and working classes flooded the square in response.
It is all happening again. A very small body of protesters, perhaps 50 or so, re-entered Tahrir in November. Standing together, they could occupy the little park at the square’s heart without blocking traffic. Many mainstream protesters were engaged elsewhere as members and cadres of several new political parties.
But the protest occurred just as SCAF was dragging out what little it did deliver: the process of bringing Mubarak and his sons up to Cairo from their Sharm el Sheikh retirement retreat and putting them on trial, for one; setting up a dragged-out election process under which the military would not yield power until June 2012, at the earliest, for another.
Meanwhile, the lack of security has increased greatly. So we have had a replay. On Friday, November 18, all parties participated in a large nonviolent demonstration in Tahrir, demanding implementation of the deferred reforms. After a few hours most went home. But a few hundred joined the 50 or so “rejectionist” protesters who have re-established a small tent camp in Tahrir. The next day, State Security and a special reserve force of the army attacked this encampment. Word spread by satellite TV, mobile phone, Facebook and Twitter, moving thousands to drop what they were doing and rush to the square to confront the security forces. More came on that Sunday, and still more on Monday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, amid clouds of tear gas, the street fighting intensified, and the number of protesters killed in the Tahrir neighborhood and outside Cairo swelled to more than 40.
Those attacked included the prominent Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, one of my former students at the American University in Cairo. Eltahawy was blindfolded, beaten up and sexually assaulted by security forces while covering the troubles at Tahrir Square, then detained at the Interior Ministry for 12 hours. Several other journalists covering the street fighting were also detained, including the amazing Egyptian-American documentary filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, who shot and edited the award-winning 2004 documentary “Control Room.”
The renewed rebellion and repression amid what appears to be two days of credible polling is emblematic of the disjunction that today characterizes Egypt’s unfinished revolution. But for now, Egypt’s masses appear to have concluded that they have little choice but to stay the course.
Contact Abdallah Schleifer at email@example.com