A year on from the outbreak of protests that eventually toppled a reviled dictator, his wife, sons and cronies, an oppressive regime that had dragged near every Egyptian into the dirt of depression and impoverishment, has the revolution been won, and if not can it still be won?
Much has changed, but more remains the same. Perhaps it was inevitable that this, the saddest lesson, would be played out: loss of hope from such a high of euphoria, borne of the unprecedented collective consciousness that appeared to grab the masses from nowhere — those beautiful 18 days in which no mistakes were made.
What a contrast to the catalogue of mistakes made in the days and months — indeed hours — that followed the departure of Mubarak. That is, as soon as the leaderless revolution needed leaders.
Many perhaps regret the indulgent celebrations held in Tahrir Square for weeks following 11 February, including handshakes and baby photo-ops with military soldiers who soon would be clearing the square by force, torturing artists with zeal, and subjecting the women of the revolution to virginity tests. And this was just the beginning. Some, too, might regret the lost time, and sense of buoyant surety, that led to the constitutional amendments defeat — the first and final (in that there was no revival) defeat of the revolution so soon after its supposed success.
It was in the wake of this defeat that calls gathered for a “second revolution”. The calls alone were acknowledgement of the failure of the first revolution. But even at this time most of the focus was on the “regime.” Few have been ready to understand that the problem is in the state. In this context, three incidents stand out on the sad path Egypt has taken in the last year; three incidents that perhaps cannot be outweighed by the positive changes that have survived, among which is a level of liberty of discourse unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history, prisoners of conscience of the revolution — first among which is Maikel Nabil — notwithstanding. These incidents increase in intensity and reveal something dark about the state that has survived as the former regime fell.
The first incident occurred on the first day of Ramadan. The plan to have a communal iftar in Tahrir Square was aborted as the Central Security Forces drove people out with sticks. To be sure, the stick generally is not an implement of fatal force. But there is something in the stick that is worse to the honest eye than the gun. Something representative about how the old regime thought of the people, and so gives its reappearance a particular significance. It was not 50 sticks, but 300. Some 300 sticks that had to be found, gathered from their place of storage, transported and handed out man by man, with instructions on what was coming next. It was on this day that the Muslim Brotherhood fell into line with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, for as a force they could not bring together Tahrir and Islam.
The second incident was the runaway vehicle near Maspero that literally drove over Egyptians, flattening them and killing them. Several vehicles were doing the same, but the APC that did so was several tons in weight and at no point in the video footage did it appear that it would stop. Rather, this was crowd control. The mask fell that night, 9 October. What was seen on the Corniche in the capital was really how the military regarded the Egyptian people: like sheep to be rounded up, and if necessary swept up. How heartbreaking now to see again the image of the woman who that night lost her fiancé, his face bludgeoned and distorted out of all proportion as she sat wailing, holding what the army had left of him.
The third instance is something akin to a war crime or crime against humanity: the open-air gassing of crowds of people on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. If Maspero was crowd control, Mohamed Mahmoud was pest control. It was quite a feat, indeed, to get the concentration of CS gas so high in open-air space that people died, asphyxiated. But this is what the military and the Central Security Forces clearly aimed at; testament to which is how they attacked field hospitals, killing even medical personnel there to help the helpless. It didn’t get worse than this, and heaven knows how deep and wide the economic catastrophe must be that Mubarak led the country into for the people as a whole not to simply refuse to participate in Egyptian public life after witnessing these horrid and impossible scenes.
And now here we are, a parliament full of suits. Of over 500, how many in there risked and lost? How many in there fought and won? Is it five, or is it 10? Is it one or two per cent of the whole? And so it is that when Dr Essam El-Erian, a decent man no doubt, arrives, it is the police who greet him, smiling, because we have carefully and successfully transitioned from one regime to a new regime in the making, without touching the foundations of the state itself, without touching its practices, its torture, its governmental rationality. How lost were the crowds and the intellectuals of the revolution, again in November, to call for the end of SCAF. The problem is not SCAF; it is the rationality of SCAF. The problem is not who, but how. The real issue is not taking power, but defanging power. What else, indeed, do rights really mean?
Over 1000 people died, and not for glorious nothingness. The so-called intellectuals of the secular left bear a heavy burden, if they could see it. In failing to put forward an economic plan for Egypt they allowed the people to turn against the revolution, tired and hungry. In failing to form a solid and wide-ranging coalition they gave the revolution on a plate to the next best-organised political forces, including a newcomer that has nothing to do with the freedom of spirit, body and mind that was necessary to confront snipers and firebombs in January. And by failing to understand that a revolution must be led by its people, the people who constituted the revolution, not puppets of the like of ElBaradei, they sealed the fate of the revolution and the outcome of its last gasp, figuratively and literally: the zero political outcome that emerged from the heroic frontline resistance waged by football fans in Mohamed Mahmoud Street against the police that always brutalised them and means to continue doing so.
Same police force. Same sticks. Same rape by forced sodomy. Same tactics. Same governmental economic incompetence. Same one-party dominance. Same exceptional powers. Same bureaucracy. Same hall of mirrors. Same malaise. Same same same. The Arab Spring but an echo. Did we dream it?
Or perhaps something else can happen. Perhaps the people can start again to talk about freedom, and to practice freedom. Egyptians rose up for dignity. They refused torture. Real freedom is sovereignty of person; collective freedom is national sovereignty. Unless the rationality of the use of force is questioned it will not matter who exercises force, and it could even be a revolutionary. The idea of a social contract is that the people choose the cost of government; that is, the cost to their freedom of being governed. Political discourse in Egypt at present has accepted that replacing persons not structures and rationalities is the most important thing, and everyone in parliament is consciously or unconsciously complicit with this. But when the people called for the end of the nizam, the system, it meant more than persons; it was the violence of that system, and the costs of that government.
To SCAF: No more talk of foreign conspiracies. The Egyptian people are against the violence of the Egyptian state. They will oppose it regardless of what you pretend. Stop killing and beating the people.
To the people: It is time you took control of the mouthpiece. It is time for a completely free and cleansed media in Egypt. Otherwise you do not hear the truth of what happens; you hear what SCAF wants to you to hear, while people are fighting and dying still for your freedom.
To the politicians: Congratulate yourselves and pretend you are more respectable in parliament today than you were outside of it yesterday. But remember: the people are the greatest force in Egypt, and you cannot dictate — no more than Mubarak could — something as fundamental as the feeling of freedom.
The writer is a Cairo-based political analyst.