Reclaiming Egypt’s revolution?

Yasser Elwy , Friday 5 Jul 2013

Yasser Elwy argues that recent events in Egypt mark the continuation of the 25 January revolution

Tahrir Square
Fire works are seen over hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathering in Tahrir Square during a demonstration against Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo Sunday, June 30, 2013. (Photo: AP)

A military coup, that’s what this is! Well, it must be. Unquestionably, what happened in Egypt is a military coup. Shame! Boo to the generals, and long live the president!

If only it was that easy, with clear villains and a heroic victim. It would be unquestionably easy to call it a coup. Complexities abound, however. What with the crowds in the streets. Millions took to the streets since Sunday. A CNN Cairo correspondent said that this was the biggest crowd he had seen in his twenty years of working in Egypt.

Do the math, count the years backwards, allow for the sheer growth in population, and you will reach the easy conclusion. These were the largest demonstrations in Egypt’s history.

It gets worse. How dare Mohamed ElBaradei, an “unquestionably” democratic icon in Egypt, and a Nobel Prize laureate, lend his full support to what is “unquestionably” a military coup? And what about “Tamarod” – a hitherto obscure grass-root group that managed to have 22 million Egyptians sign its petition calling for an early presidential Elections?

A petition, a legitimate, and perfectly democratic mechanism, was signed by 22 million Egyptians, vastly outnumbering the votes the elected president managed a year ago – indeed, only slightly less than the 25 million who participated in the presidential elections, with the victor emerging with the support of some 51 per cent thereof.

Furthermore, the elected president’s first year was filled with “un-orthodox” practices, if not clearly undemocratic. A decision to combine both legislative and executive powers, unconstitutionally appointing a prosecutor general, sponsoring and attending a sectarian rally that called for a fight against the Shia – four of whom were murdered a week later – are but some of these practices that alienated the vast majority of the population, and caused the unexpected success of Tamarod’s petition-signing campaign.

Reneging promises made in the “Fairmont Hotel Meeting”, a meeting that the presidential candidate had with prominent opposition figures, did not help either. In that famous meeting, which took place after the first round of the presidential elections, Mohamed Morsi promised the opposition an all-representative constitutional assembly, and a consensual constitution and government if they support his candidacy in the second round. They did, delivering in the process 8 million extra supporters to the 5 million who voted for him in the first round, and allowing him to win by a narrow margin.

A couple of months later, a final draft of the constitution was finished, voted on and presented by a one-sided constitutional assembly in less than 24 hours, amidst wide popular uproar. The draft was later approved in a referendum, during which irregularities and foul-play cries by the opposition were virtually ignored. The result was a constitution that the president himself acknowledged, four months later, was in need of a revision.

The illegally-appointed prosecutor general started questioning political opponents. One such high-profile incident was Bassem Youssef, the vastly popular satirist, who was questioned for “insulting the president”, but was not arrested. Many others, including young blogger Ahmed Abou-Doma, and the grass-root activist Hassan Moustafa, were not as lucky and ended up in jail. Other opposition activists were not even prosecuted, but were simply killed by an “anonymous” culprit. Mohamed Gaber (Gika), the admin of Facebook page “Against Muslim Brotherhood Ruling”, Mohamed El-Gindy, the leftist activist, were among others who “mysteriously” lost their lives during the last few months.

The combined effect of these “undemocratic” practices and the maintenance of the same socio-economic policies alienated increasing numbers of Egyptians. Cries of “a revolution betrayed” were heard over and again.

To their credit, however, the disillusioned Egyptians resorted to democratic means of protest. Massive demonstrations became a regular feature of the last year. A call for a million-man march, a trademark of Egypt’s January 25 revolution, was issued every month since June 2012, according to the presidential speech on 26 June 2013.

In the same speech, the president himself also cited 9,400 protests, sit-ins and strikes during his first year in office. He cited these protests to argue that he was not given a proper chance to rule – a favourite argument that is often reiterated by his supporters.

It was a rather novel argument to blame massive protests and repeated strikes for a government’s failure – one almost unheard of in any democracy. Others, with a more orthodox imagination, preferred to consider it a serious sign of an eroding support base. Economic stagnation and failure to undertake any radical measures to redress the structural imbalances of the economy made the crisis of legitimacy all but incurable.

Early elections were called for to resolve the crisis of legitimacy. The unbelievably large number of signatories of Tamarod’s petition to hold early elections, rendered the early elections all the more urgent. Mr. Morsi refused.

An unprecedented outpour of demonstrators on Sunday was met with a defiant presidential speech on Tuesday, insisting on maintining “the president’s original plans for political reform”, and vowing to continue his presidential terms come what may. Twenty three protestors were killed in three days of demonstrations. Presidential statements did not mention them, referring only to the numbers of cases of sexual harassment in Tahrir Square to question the morality of the protestors. Not only were the numbers of cases inflated for dramatic effect, but also, as the prominent novelist Ahdaf Soueif noted in a recent interview that she gave to Democracy Now, the assaults were committed by organised gangs, video-taped, and their numbers were cited by presidential speeches at lightening’s speed.

The army eventually sided with the demonstrators, not unlike what it did on 11 February 2011. A few key differences, however, are worth noting. The presence of, and speeches by Mohamed ElBaradei, in his capacity as the designated representative of the opposition’s National Salvation Front (NSF),  Tamarod’s leaders, and representatives of the Salafist El-Nour Party, have an unmistakable significance. Gone are the days when the army could assume responsibility alone, even amidst popular blessing (as was the case in February 2011).

The seven-point roadmap bears unmistakeable resemblance to proposals made by NSF and the Nour’s Party during the last week. In both form and substance, there are indicators of an emerging new balance of power. For one thing, it is now clear that, with Al-Azhar’s blessing, and Nour’s party’s endorsement of the transitional roadmap on one hand, and the unprecedented crowds which included Islamist as well as secular protestors, it was clear that this is not the Islamists versus the seculars.

As the historian Khaled Fahmy pointed out to the New York Times, it was the whole society versus a clique, thereby creating the most existential crisis in the ninety-year history of the Muslim Brotherhood.

One might, of course, still insist on a legalistic approach to what happened, or indulge a ballot-box fetish (notwithstanding the fact that the demonstrators were specifically calling for early elections), and insist that neither this, nor for that matter, what happened on 25 January, which, incidentally, had a more overtly military endgame, were revolutions. One might argue that the demonstrators have no right to call for early elections, and that once elected, a president has every right to finish his term, come what may. Then, and only then, can one call this “unquestionably a coup”.

Does this mean that we have a happy ending? Not quite. Not yet anyway. The revolution took place to fulfill specific goals – embodied in the legendary trio “bread, freedom and social justice”. We are certainly not there yet. The road to full redemption is long, problematic and complex. Setbacks can and may occur. But if we were to take home only one thing from the amazing outpour of Egyptians that took to the streets in millions to reclaim their revolution, it will be this: Egypt’s revolution continues, its contradictions abound, but a revolution it remains.

Short link: