Egyptian revolution: Death and rebirth

Marie Girod , Monday 4 Jun 2012

The first phase of the Egyptian revolution ended when toppling Mubarak was deemed enough. The second phase has been below the surface, and perhaps now it can fully emerge

People wanted elections for the sake of stability. Yet there is nothing vaguer than the word “stability." It is in all fascist leaders’ vocabulary, specifically in order to maintain control of the people. The economy and security are the predicates that define this so-called stability. Progress in these two areas is said to bring more comfort to some people, and the bare minimum to others: bread. I remember that during the 18 days of the uprising in Egypt, an outraged friend said, “Some people in the square are screaming ‘Awzeen aysh!' (We want bread), but this is not why we are there, we want freedom!” The rest would follow, I imagine he meant. In 1977, under Sadat, a revolt for “bread” occurred in Egypt when subsidies for certain foods were cancelled. The country suffered another bread crisis in 2008. But when bread is given to people, it acts as a sleeping pill. Bread is not enough to satisfy people’s needs; it is just enough to calm their passions, at least for a while.

The tremors of a country in transition trigger injustice and violence, both psychological and physical. The same injustice and violence were actually constant during the 30 years of Mubarak’s dictatorship; now, they have been brought out into the open because a revolution reveals truth. The truth about what people really need and want, about alliances and divisions, the truth about past lies. New lies appear although they are now known to be untrue, but in such an atmosphere of such uncertainty, we swallow them for the sake of stability.

The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) as the protector of the nation, of the revolution, and the organiser of a fair transition; elections promising democracy, even though no one can agree on its definition yet — such are the current illusions, which act as tranquillisers. This treatment is skillfully distributed in the necessary dosage to keep people at home, or at least far away from local revolts (labelled “thugs and bloodshed”). It is sufficiently strong to ensure the efficiency of the brainwashing process (media propaganda); of course, it goes with a nationwide, silent but palpable state of depression (over the elections and the constitution).

Does stability include any of the primary demands from the beginning of the revolution, such as the eviction of all ex-NDP members from the political scene, or the freedom of speech and freedom to protest? Of course not, because to attain stability, one cannot tolerate efficient alternative thought. For example, the Disenfranchisement Law was passed too late, just a month before the presidential poll was scheduled to take place, and has not been effectively implemented yet. Media discourse was predicated on the assumption that two candidates are leading in the opinion polls — Abdul Moneim Abul-Fotouh and Amr Mousa — and they were given much more room to express themselves on television and billboards in the street than anything the other candidates could obtain.

Respect for the essence of the revolution is gone

What will the next president do, and what can he do? Will he allow Tahrir Square to host tents that keep the memory of massive gatherings against a corrupt system alive? Will he allow protests and sit-ins anytime and anywhere? Or will he allow trade unions and human rights organisations to be a counter power? Of course not. He might claim the people have chosen a president they trust, and that he will honour their trust by doing his best to bring them peace and prosperity; he might claim that there is no need for revolt anymore. Many before the first round said that people will have to accept the result whatever it is. The legitimacy of these elections was not questioned anymore, to the point that advocates of stability appear to be progressive, and those calling for a boycott to be old-school troublemakers. 

In fact, no president will be able to bring people what they need in the short term. Jobs, education, social services and healthcare require investment and the building of infrastructure over a very long period. Any attempts from people to speed up the process, or to express scepticism or disappointment by going on strike or protesting in the streets, will be repressed for the sake of stability during the democratic transition process, or the semblance of one. 

The nearer we came to the presidential elections, the less talk there has been of revolutionaries or of SCAF. There is more discussion of vague entities such as “third parties”; recently, considerable attention has been focused on the Salafists, contributing to concealment of the real source of chaos, as usual. In The Egyptian Gazette a report was published about the neighbourhood of Abbasiya following the clashes that took place there in early May. It did not contain clear criticism of the revolutionaries and the Salafists, nor any direct praise for the army: just a list of complaints from local residents who have had to cope with a violent siege for days on end. This report constituted a call for stability without giving any reasons for it; it played on mere sensitivity, and avoided any mention of the fact that some locals had actually taken part in the protest. Well done! No one can deny how hard it is for shop owners to see their benefits going down because of protests when the economy is already weak.

Tahrir’s hiatus

This brings me back to the past, to the time when we thought all agreed on being in Tahrir for the same goal(s), which at least allowed the Egyptian revolution to begin. But during the 18 days of the uprising, there was already a latent hiatus between political activists and the people. The activists wanted, and still want, a massive social change: to them, Mubarak’s stepping down was just one step in the process. On the contrary, the majority of the people wanted a change of president, and they essentially stopped at that. As soon as Mubarak left power, it was time to go home, they said. Thus, they began to kill the revolution that day.


Especially after the first bloody clashes between the army and protesters (on 8-9 April 2011, the army cleared Tahrir Square, sending commandos to crack down on protesters and defected army officers at the sit-in), some argued that revolutionaries should go home in order to think and to build the future, instead of expending energy in protests and fighting against the police. This gathering of protesters and defected army officers caused considerable fear, because a potential mutiny within the army could herald the fall of the real system in control of the country. It is not only the weapons of the army that are hard to fight against: its status is already untouchable. Many protesters have chanted against SCAF, many people have criticised SCAF from the safety of their homes, but everyone is more or less aware of the impossibility of pushing it to step down by means of an uprising in the streets. This does not mean it is meaningless to continue chanting slogans against it, because the spirit of a revolt does not have to stay between four walls, but should bring all together in the public sphere.

The truth is that both SCAF and the interior ministry effectively managed to keep protesters busy responding to their attacks, so as to prevent any sit-in from growing to the point that people would come up with political plans for their future. They had seen how a massive gathering during 18 days had led to the fall of the regime, and they had no choice but to acknowledge this and make do with it, at least in the beginning. Whether it was due to a military coup or purely to popular pressure, in point of fact it was the people who won on 11 February 2011.

The appropriation of public space and freedom of speech are necessary conditions for activists and people to develop their revolutionary movements. We cannot ask them to go home and only express themselves on Twitter or Facebook (for those who have access to these networks at home) while working the two jobs they need to earn enough money to survive. We cannot ask revolutionaries to relegate the memory of torture and death to the background of their demands. We cannot ask them not to see what a devious and filthy game is being played against them, and the whole country.

Security dangers are partly made up

People continue focusing on the apparent increase in crime rates (robberies, car-jackings, etc), complaining about it, and hoping the next civilian government will solve the problem. But why has safety on the streets not been part of the military’s mission during the transition period? The army surely has enough skills to train policemen to secure the streets properly. This is a naive question indeed, but it is part of the decades-old taboos the country has not been able to shake off. The police was the armed enforcer of the Mubarak regime, yet it also consists of an entire population that has been sacrificed: thousands of young men forced to do their military service as policemen every year, thrown into the streets without a pound in their pockets, kept away from their families and studies. In the meantime, high-ranking policemen — some of which are skilled — have been following the rules of the corruption game, more than the law.

The regime had decreed a holiday to honour the police force on 25 January, but in 2011, it turned into a day of insurrection. Shortly afterward, this entire section of the population suddenly left the streets, only to reappear in disgrace after the military had taken over control of the streets in the most glorious way. Since then, the police force, especially the riot police, has been used as the military’s partner in the streets, in the most vicious way: face-to-face fighting against their fellow citizens. Today, we cannot even say who is good and who is bad among policemen, thugs or soldiers. These three categories have been mixed in a game which consists in exchanging their clothes and uniforms time and again, so as to spread confusion during attacks on protesters. As a result, no one can easily identify a clear enemy, but together, these forces have certainly made enemies among the people.

The question of military service is avoided by the political scene. If it is out of topic to consider canceling it because Egypt has sensitive’s borders to protect, at least reforming it substantially could be considered. Putting face-to-face soldiers and people who never wished to fight against each other has been criminal for society. Especially that most of the soldiers are just there to fulfill their one to three years of duty, enduring much humiliation during their training. Education is not made only at school or university; the model of education that is provided by the army for the low ranks has to be abolished or totally changed to respect individual dignity and not serve a selfish oligarchy.

From reality to myth and so on

The revolutionaries have been cornered, the parliament had been paralysed since the beginning and the constitutional process is at a dead end. This leaves space for others to express their will and belief in a new government. This situation serves the purpose of the electoral spectacle and it kills the primary essence of the revolution, making us forget how we ended up in this state of affairs.

Yet the idea of a compromise was not absurd. On 16 May, Ahram Online published the results of a survey carried out in the cultural field, about artists’ voting intentions. Before choosing a candidate, many expressed rejection of the election process as a farce, and also because it is scheduled before the writing of the constitution. But most of them were also aware the elections would happen anyway, and it is rather more in their interest to take part than to opt out. Those who expressed this opinion mainly indicated they planned to vote for Hamdeen Sabbahi (a Nasserist) or Khaled Ali (a lawyer and activist), two candidates they see as willing to respect the revolution, and offering fair and serious electoral programmes.

Artists are among the key protagonists in a revolution as they have alternative means of expression and represent a source of counter-propaganda. Most of all, they have a duty to fight any attempts to erase the memory of the revolution, and to constantly criticise the system. Ahram Online’s survey is interesting, yet it still divides people into categories according to their specific needs, and analyses their choice of presidential candidate in these terms. The real question is about what is good for all, not about a candidate as an individual: it is about the guarantees we should demand before one man is entrusted with implementation of a programme, even though his hands are tied. But these guarantees do not exist yet. We cannot find any other common interest for all than to guarantee the basic, necessary conditions for democracy (freedom of participation in society) to exist: freedom of expression and movement. There is no other way but this, and the rest will hopefully follow.

On 25 January 2011, when people called for the regime’s downfall from many cities across the country, some said there was no reason to do so and that all should wait for elections scheduled later that year, since Mubarak was too old to stay on as president in any case. The revolutionaries refused that argument; they knew they would have no choice at the end of Mubarak’s term of office. It was clear that Gamal Mubarak was not the ideal candidate for most Egyptians (except businessmen), and there were no alternatives to the election of yet another figure from the political establishment. So Egyptians went for the big change, but the hardest part was to keep the people on the side of the revolution long enough to set up new bases in society, before electing someone who will be in charge of respecting this stage of the revolution. This has not happened, for many reasons.

What if 25 January 2013 becomes Police Day again – a day of celebration of the police and the people together, for the sake of the new Egypt, unified around its president, in a “democracy”? Is this a myth, or could it come to pass? Omar Suleiman as a presidential candidate was real, the massive voting intentions in his favour were real (according to opinion polls), and just hearing from the streets seemed to confirm it. On the contrary, many people now say the Egyptian revolution was a myth. This is the curse of it. The revolution is hard to carry at the moment. But it is not dead, because it has opened many doors that are impossible to close. A new generation of revolutionaries will knock at these doors when the right time comes.


Hamdeen Sabbahi would have gained more votes if he would have been more visible in the media as Moussa and Abul-Fotouh covered the whole election theater. Still, today, Sabbahi is a leader for the revolutionaries.

Too late? Many argued the elections had to happen and the results were to be respected. But a big part of those who were saying so were believing either Moussa or Abul-Fotouh would win. Since, the worst scenario happened and many of those who were asking to the revolutionaries to go home are now fearing for their beer and bikinis. It reveals how cheap is their idea of freedom. On the other side, it will be hard to convince revolutionaries as well as others that accepting a remnant of the old regime or an Islamist dictatorship is okay.

So there is a legitimate open position to stand for, the boycott of the second round, and maybe to stand on the side of political activism for the third man, Sabbahi, because he is part of the few who has no bad intentions and has a credible programme. Being anti-Shafiq and anti-Morsi won’t be enough. Refusal needs to be turned into a constructive choice and fight, and maybe the revolutionaries are there now. Egypt has many souls ready for a new era. Fatalism is feeding the dictatorship of the army and the old regime, almost not hidden anymore. Emergency law has just ended, but who can believe that alone can change everything?

This fatalism, much bloodshed, and the speeches about security and economy killed the first phase of the revolution. A cab driver not seeing any scandal in having Shafiq in the second round of the poll argued: “But we are all feloul (remnants of the regime) at the end.” Others believe in a moderate Islam as promised by Abul-Fotouh or Morsi. It is like no one wants to consider there are other choices. Any alternative thinking and proposition would trigger more incertitude, it seems. But the rules at present are not in favour of the people.

The question always had been about when the second phase of the revolution will sparkle. Those willing and believing in the first uprising were few, and equally those willing to have a second. The possibility of alternatives is present; the scattered options prove it. People are very divided and change their minds everyday about the second round, from who to vote for by faith or default, to considering a boycott. So why not in a parallel move start gathering the unhappy around an alternative for the future? The Egyptian Revolution missed or refused a leader in its beginning; maybe it was its success. After a year and a half, the question of leadership emerges as a variety of candidates step up for the presidential elections. The people came to know that other profiles than military, ex-National Democratic Party leaders, or Muslim Brotherhood members can lead and embody change.

Despite that, some say Egyptians are still not ready for democracy and that this explains the two horses in the second round. The issue is not that people are not ready for democracy, the issue is how to lead them safely to change.

The writer is a French journalist based on Cairo.

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