Five taboos that fell with Mubarak

Ekram Ibrahim, Monday 23 Jan 2012

Egypt's January 25 Revolution did more than topple a dictator - it broke several taboos that had kept the country in a state of paralysis

Army Officers
Army officers chant against ruling military council in Tahrir protest on 8 April, 2011 (Photo: Reuters)

Over the course of the last year, Egyptians from all walks of life have managed to tear down the walls of fear behind which they had been mentally imprisoned for decades. In the year-long journey since their January 25 Revolution, they have learned to speak their minds, overcoming longstanding fears of repressive authoritarianism. On more than one front, they have managed to break longstanding taboos that had left the country in a state of stagnation for most of Egypt’s modern history.

The military: No longer untouchable

After having spent decades completely immune from criticism – even discussion – Egypt’s military, which has governed the nation since Mubarak’s ouster in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), is now a common topic in the media and among the citizenry.

For most of its modern incarnation, the Egyptian armed forces had represented a red line in the local media. While this is no longer the case, some quarters, notes columnist Yasser Abdel Aziz, “have continued to exercise self-censorship when it comes to both the SCAF and the army.”  

In the first month after the revolution, the taboo of criticising the SCAF, along with many other things, was broken. Yet the SCAF still issued constitutional amendments and warned its detractors not to criticise it in the media.  

“The mainstream media never cover rights violations committed by the SCAF,” prominent writer Gamal Fahmy told Ahram Online. “We, the citizens, must therefore raise awareness through new media channels.”

Revolutionary groups recently launched a campaign, dubbed Kazeboon (“Liars”), aimed at raising awareness about rights abuses committed by the SCAF in recent months.

The trial of the century          

In ancient Egypt, Egyptians viewed their ruler as God. This God was only criticised – or disobeyed – very rarely, if ever. In modern Egypt, perceptions of the temporal ruler have since moved from a Godly figure to a paternal one.

The events of last 25 January not only succeeded in toppling longstanding president Hosni Mubarak, but also ensured that he answer charges in court for crimes allegedly committed during his 30-year tenure. Some Egyptians have even gone so far as to demand his execution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for his alleged involvement in killing unarmed protesters over the course of the 18-day uprising.

The development, undreamt of before the revolution, has served to raise the bar in terms of accountability.

“Many Egyptians now realise that the president of the republic is just an official who is not above censure or punishment,” political activist and prominent columnist Abdel Halim Kandil told Ahram Online.

Coptic disobedience

Egypt’s Coptic Christians have long been represented solely by Coptic Pope Shenouda III. “The church has failed to grant Copts their rights over the last decade,” said Samer Soliman, assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

But for the first time in modern history, Egypt’s Copts last 25 January disobeyed direct orders issued by their spiritual leader. During the early days of last year’s uprising, the pope called on his flock not to participate in the demonstrations – but many Copts didn’t listen. Since then, many Copts have become more politically active than they were before.

Almost one year later, for example, on the occasion of Coptic Christmas (7 January), some Copts could be heard chanting during Christmas mass, “Down with military rule!” – even though the pope had just thanked the country’s military rulers in his sermon.

“This was the first major act of disobedience by Copts in the pope’s presence,” Bishoy Tamri, a leading member of the Maspero revolutionary youth group and one of those who chanted anti-SCAF slogans at Christmas, told Ahram Online.

This taboo-breaking by Copts, meanwhile, has since transcended mere political demands. In July of last year, the Coptic “Right to Life” movement organised a number of protests and ramped up calls for a civil personal-status law that would allow them to divorce and remarry outside the church.

“To a great extent, the church has returned to its original role, that of a spiritual temple,” said Tamri.

Rise of genuine opposition

“Human beings are by nature political animals,” Greek philosopher Aristotle asserted. Egyptians have finally returned to the human practice of participating in politics after years of seeing such participation as taboo.

During the Mubarak era, only a small elite had anything to do with politics. For people to enter the political arena, they had to be part of a licensed political party, even though these had been shorn of all efficacy.

Political groups – such as Kefaya and the April 6 youth movement – were among the first to mobilise the masses and voice genuine opposition. “The revolution allowed the public to become involved in political issues and feel that their actions were significant,” Soliman told Ahram Online.

Now, Egyptians are organising via civil protest initiatives and youth movements, rather than merely through official political parties. Average Egyptians, meanwhile, are now following the news and talking politics – both at social gatherings or through online social-networking media – as never before.

The end of State Security

The Egyptian Revolution also succeeded in destroying certain state institutions long associated with political repression. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)’s headquarters was torched, along with numerous police stations and several State Security Investigations (SSI) buildings in both Cairo and Alexandria.

The SSI had been used by the former regime to suppress political dissent through intimidation and torture.

“Breaking into these institutions – smashing down doors and leaking confidential files – was unprecedented,” Amr Ezzat, a researcher at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who participated in the sacking of SSI headquarters in Nasr City in the wake of the revolution, told Ahram Online.

After several SSI buildings had been stormed, the interior ministry announced the agency’s dissolution in March of last year. It has since been replaced by Egypt’s new Homeland Security body.

“Breaking into these buildings was a symbolic act,” said Ezzat. “We were way ahead of the SCAF in terms of meeting the people’s demands; in terms of dissolving pre-revolution Egypt’s most feared and hated entity.” 

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