The first anniversary of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution might have given revolutionaries the momentum they need to continue pursuing their outstanding demands. At the same time, however, the anniversary and its aftermath have left the rift between liberal and leftist political groups and the Muslim Brotherhood – which swept recent parliamentary elections – much wider.
Since March 2011, the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) have both incurred the wrath of secularists for what the latter describe as “deviating from the path of the uprising to pursue their own interests.” Their detractors point to the group’s decision to refrain from taking part in a number of protests calling for the fulfilment of revolutionary demands, and for their apparent closeness to Egypt’s military rulers.
With deadly clashes between protesters and security forces erupting in Cairo both before and during Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls, the Brotherhood’s foremost priority, say critics, has been securing the lion’s share of seats in the assembly – a goal they eventually achieved after refusing to support anti-government demonstrators.
As the Brotherhood’s attitude towards the violent clashes generated resentment against the group and its party late last year, their assertion that the revolution commemoration should be marked by celebrations appeared to have been – for their detractors, at least – the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“I’m not here to celebrate or sing or dance. I came here to demand retribution for the killers of the revolution’s martyrs and those responsible for injuring protesters,” said Muslim cleric Mazhar Shaheen, who delivered the sermon ahead of midday prayers on the “Friday of Dignity,” on 27 January, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Toppled president Hosni Mubarak, his two sons, ex-interior minister Habib El-Adly, and six of the latter’s former assistants are still standing trial on charges of instigating the use of live ammunition by the ministry’s Central Security Forces (CSF) against unarmed protesters during the 18-day uprising early last year.
Many critics believe the trial lacks credibility, pointing out that not a single policeman had yet been convicted for gunning down anti-regime demonstrators. “It would be idiocy to celebrate while the parents of slain protesters are still shedding tears and while many others remain in detention,” Shaheen, dubbed the “revolution’s Sheikh,” declared to the applause of Tahrir Square demonstrators.
In the run-up to the uprising’s anniversary, revolutionary groups decided to take to the streets en masse to call on Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to immediately hand over power to a civilian administration. They also issued additional demands, including the speedy prosecution – to the full extent of the law – of those responsible for killing and injuring protesters.
The Brotherhood, on the other hand, remained in the square until Saturday, 28 January, with the stated aim of providing security, citing speculation that hired thugs might try to sabotage state institutions. They stuck to their plan on 25 January, reaping the fruits of their decision the following Friday, when thousands of protesters verbally attacked the group and demanded their departure from the flashpoint square.
“We want a secular state, not a Brotherhood or Salafist one!” and “I can hear the mothers of the fallen saying ‘the Brotherhood has traded my son’s blood for power’!” were among some of the chants repeated by revolutionaries. Some activists even hurled plastic bottles and other projectiles at the Brotherhood’s podium erected in Tahrir Square.
The spat did not lead to casualties, but it nevertheless intensified existing divisions between the Brotherhood and secularist political currents. It also drew a strongly-worded criticism of the group from Kamal El-Helbawy, a former Brotherhood spokesperson who is still deemed one of the group’s leading lights.
“Be part of the Egyptian people. Don’t repeat the same mistakes you have made throughout history by letting the ego of your intelligence push you to political opportunism,” El-Helbawy addressed the group in a public statement.
“Would a troubled man flagrantly celebrate the death of his son?” he went on to ask. “The least you can do is to stand silent out of respect for the martyrs that allowed you to become a legal group.”
Later, on the anniversary of the 28 January 2011 “Friday of Rage,” thousands converged on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, which arguably saw the bloodiest confrontations between protesters and police forces during last year’s uprising, both to pray for the souls of slain protesters and commemorate their sacrifices.
Leading the prayers, Sheikh Attia Hamam expressed hope that the Brotherhood would be rewarded with “isolation and suffering for their own tricks.” He also heaped scorn on the ruling SCAF in a scene that left some observers flabbergasted, including prominent political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan.
“I was upset to hear anti-Brotherhood slogans as people likened them to the military council,” he said. “I was terrified by the Imam, who declared that the SCAF and the Brotherhood had ‘betrayed the revolution’ … I never wished to see such a day.
“I sympathised with some of the Brotherhood’s young cadres when they shouted ‘one hand’ [a symbol of national unity] as they were puzzled by what had happened earlier in Tahrir,” Hassan added. “We would like the leaders of the group to explain how things managed to go that far.”
Columnist Mohamed El-Agati was more direct about his feelings towards the Brotherhood and the FJP.
“Dr. Ammar, look at the justifications for the group’s reactions and you will know why,” he said. “It’s the same approach adopted by the Mubarak regime and the [now defunct] National Democratic Party, but with a beard.”
Reactions by Brotherhood members were mainly defensive. Leading group member Mahmoud Ghozlan, for example, said: “In the Brotherhood’s vast experience we have found that every time such an unethical attack occurs, popular support for the group increases.”
Leading FJP figure Ahmed Abou Baraka, for his part, stated: “We cannot separate the revolutionaries from the Brotherhood. The latter was established in 1928 during a state of revolution. It has fought injustice and seen tens of thousands of its members martyred in different eras, under presidents Nasser, Sadaat and Mubarak.”
He added: “Those who want us to apologise should themselves apologise to the Egyptian people for asking the SCAF to remain in power for years when they said that Egypt’s political forces were not ready for parliamentary elections.”
In March, the SCAF held a popular referendum on proposed constitutional amendments that were approved by the overwhelming majority of Egyptians. The choice meant that the SCAF would remain in power for six months starting last April, with the option of extending the transitional phase by another three months.
The amendments also stipulated that People’s Assembly elections be held right away, to be followed respectively by elections for the Shura Council (the upper, consultative house of Egypt’s parliament), presidential polls and the drafting of a new constitution.
What happened in reality, however, was a different story.
The SCAF has now been in power for almost a year and has repeatedly promised to hand over executive authority in June following scheduled presidential elections. Facing pressure from continuous demonstrations, nonetheless, the military council is reportedly mulling the idea of stepping down in the short-term future – an option the Brotherhood has never supported.
“We agree that power must be transferred from the military council to an elected civilian authority,” said FJP Secretary-General Mohamed El-Beltagi. “But the FJP also believes we should remain committed to the current timeline that calls for a handover of power in June.”
As it currently stands, a new national charter is also due to be drawn up before upcoming presidential polls, even though the results of the March referendum stipulated the opposite.