Before 25 January, stage set for the next battle

Amira Howeidy, Thursday 23 Jan 2014

The third anniversary of the 25 January is exposing fault lines in the official narrative of 30 June

Tahrir 3 july
An aerial view shows protesters against ousted President Mohamed Morsi in Tahrir Square in Cairo July 3, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

It is almost a week since Egyptians voted in support of a new constitution in a referendum whose results are being hailed as an overwhelming public endorsement of the political order that followed the army’s removal of Mohamed Morsi on 3 July amid mass protests against his rule.

It was the third constitution-related plebiscite and the sixth time the electorate has gone to the polls in three years, and under three different regimes.

Today, as the third anniversary of the 25 January uprising approaches, few are looking in the direction of Tahrir Square, epicentre of the events that led to Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow. Instead, it is the figure of Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi, minister of defence and army commander-in-chief, casting the longest shadow over post-revolution Egypt.

As the fourth year since Mubarak’s ouster begins a single question looms: will El-Sisi be the next president?

For months anonymous “sources” have flooded the media with stories about the general’s ever-evolving intentions. But rather than enlightening the public, the often conflicting information contained in these “leaks” suggests far more uncertainty in decision making circles than meets the eye.

“I don’t think there’s a consensus within state institutions over the issue. The decision and its consequences aren’t that simple,” says Hassan Nafaa, columnist and professor of political science at Cairo University.

Interim president Adly Mansour has yet to announce the order and dates of the coming elections though most commentators now expect the presidential poll to precede any parliamentary vote, reversing the order set out the 3 July political road map.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere ahead of the fourth anniversary of the 25 January uprising which falls seven months into the military’s removal of Mohamed Morsi, is as febrile as ever.

Tuesday’s newspaper headlines dramatised the sense of apprehension. The privately owned Al-Watan proclaimed “El-Qassam and Israeli bombs in the heart of Cairo”. El-Shorouk opted for “Egypt enters a state of extreme alert ahead of 25 January” while Al-Masry Al-Youm announced: “25 Jan, the interior ministry coordinates with the revolutionaries and warns the Brotherhood”.

So what will happen on the day?

Many revolutionaries expect that rather than coordination the authorities will attempt to exploit the symbolism of Tahrir Square and turn the anniversary into a love fest for the police and military. Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim has already called on Egyptians to congregate in city squares to mark the anniversary next Saturday, seemingly blind to the irony that what he is asking the public to commemorate is an uprising sparked by the brutal practices of the ministry he now heads. The uprising began on the 25 January, National Police Day, to protest systematic violations committed by the police.

The government adopted the same strategy on the second anniversary of the November 2011 clashes in Mohamed Mahmoud Street when police killed 47 protestors. It can hardly be said to have been a success. A hastily erected monument in Tahrir commissioned by the government to commemorate the victims was torn down within 24 hours by angry protestors.

According to the official news agency MENA, 260,000 policemen, 180 battalions and 500 combat groups will be deployed to secure Saturday’s celebrations.

Should the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamic alliance decide to take to Tahrir clashes with the police are guaranteed.

The influence of the revolutionary bloc has long been on the wane. The Way of the Revolution Front is one of only a handful of groups actively preparing to mark the anniversary. In Cairo plans for two marches, beginning in Mohandiseen’s Mustafa Mahmoud mosque and the press syndicate in down town Cairo, converging on Tahrir, are underway.

The Front is still discussing possible coordination with El-Dostour party’s youth wing and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi’s Popular Current.

“There is agreement we must steer clear of all forms of violence on the day,” says Mohamed Othman of the Way of the Revolution Front. “We are preparing for every possible scenario, including having to avoid Tahrir altogether and end the marches by Qasr El-Nil Bridge. Nobody knows what might happen.”

It is unclear whether El-Sisi supporters such as the Kamel Gemeilak campaign, which is calling for his nomination as a presidential candidate, and Masr Balady, a political grouping that contains, among others, former interior minister Ahmed Gamal El-Din and Mubarak-era Mufti Ali Gomaa, are mobilising for a rally in Tahrir. The Salafist Nur Party has said it will not be taking part in the celebrations to avoid possible violence.

Since 3 July there have been concerted attempts to co-opt each and every occasion to reinforce the legitimacy of the post-Morsi political order and establish it as the outcome of the 30 June “revolution”. It is a narrative that is looking ever more confused as the anniversary of the 25 January uprising approaches. For months now the loudest proponents of 30 June have been attacking the January uprising. They denounce it as a Brotherhood-Hamas plot to destabilise Egypt, and demonise its leaders as traitors in the pay of foreign powers.

The official storyline tries to be more nuanced, portraying the 30 June revolution as an extension – and correction - of 25 January, though the ongoing prosecution of the January uprising’s most prominent activists has exposed the fault-lines in this particular narrative. Alaa Abdel-Fatah, a prominent blogger and political activist, Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, both leaders in the 6th April opposition group, have been in prison since November facing charges of violating the new protest law. This week it was announced that Abdel-Fattah would face an additional charge of insulting the judiciary. Political scientist Amr Hamzawy, activist Mostafa, El-Naggar, Morsi and a number of other jailed Brotherhood leaders, are among the 25 co-defendants in the case.

The changing atmosphere is forcing a shift in political activism. According to the Revolution Front’s Othman serious consideration is being given to fielding a candidate to represent the “revolutionary bloc” – regularly denounced as fifth columnists by the media – in the presidential elections. “There can’t be just one bloc advocating El-Sisi,” he says.

Sabahi has already declared his willingness to stand against El-Sisi. Speculation is rife over whether Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futuh, leader of the Strong Egypt Party, will also throw his hat in the ring. There is little doubt that El-Sisi will win if he stands. But, says Othman, the presidential race offers an opportunity to forge a revolutionary alliance and give it a voice that, however small, “will break the mental image” of El-Sisi which is being marketed to the public.

This isn’t the time to take political battles to the street which is what the Brotherhood is doing, adds Othman. “The public isn’t ready or interested in that.

This article was first published in Ahram Weekly

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