A people’s history of the Egyptian revolution (3)

Hani Shukrallah , Thursday 5 Sep 2013

It may have been a marriage of convenience, but it had all the hallmarks of a match made in heaven. Why did it sour?

3. Continuing revolution, the great spoiler

Looked at one way, the course of Egypt’s history since January 2011 would appear as a progressive descent into chaos and mayhem. There are indeed those who see it only as such – and if anything, they’ve lately become considerably more vocal and open about saying so. The overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood rule on 3 July has been deemed an opportunity by a variety of what I’ve come to call – with due apologies for political incorrectness – “Mubarak’s widows” to loudly bemoan the good old days of the tyrant, his gangs of vicious torturers, voracious crony capitalists and ever scheming party bosses.

A wholly different picture appears, however, once you bring the people, their consciousness, political will, social aspirations and dream of liberty into perspective. And this is the picture of a people persistently battling to recapture their revolution, which – almost by definition – is constantly being hijacked.

We might now resume our narrative. The initial post-Mubarak arrangement seemed a match made in heaven, with each party getting just the right amount of privileges and making precisely the requisite commitments. It might not have been born of love, but then the most durable marriages aren’t. Happily, it enjoyed the blessing of Uncle Sam and a host of other lesser aunts, uncles and cousins in Europe.

It did not pan out that way. You may count the ways, but my basic proposition here is that whatever fault-lines and areas of tension there were in this marriage of convenience, these could have been contained, plastered over and more or less smoothly negotiated and re-negotiated, bargained and re-bargained away. (After all, look at Turkey where years of a gradual, fairly trouble-free political process eased the Kemalist, firmly secularist military out of its monopoly on power).

It should have worked. But for one thing: the Egyptian people, with tens of thousands of revolutionary youth at their vanguard, would not let go of the freedom and justice their revolution had promised, and by virtue of which they felt themselves entitled to.

In less than two weeks after Omar Suleiman’s fateful television address, when millions of Egyptians celebrated the fall of Mubarak to chants of “the people and the army one hand,” the occupation of Tahrir would resume, demanding the ouster of the Shafiq cabinet and the prosecution of Mubarak and his clique; the sit-in is attacked violently by army contingents attempting to break it up, for which SCAF would hasten to apologise the very next day.

It wouldn’t let up.

Mohamed Mahmoud
Protesters throw stones towards riot police during clashes at Mohamed Mahmoud street (Photo: Reuters)

In March, the sit-in resumes yet again in Tahrir, triggering the first serious clash with the country’s military rulers by 8 April; tens of thousands would again hit the streets, by 27 May the second “Day of Rage” is called, and hundreds of thousands yet again rise up in protest, not just in Tahrir but in many parts of the country. Among their chants is: “Tahrir is here, where is the Brotherhood?” Ahram Online would quote prominent Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey summing up the day in a tweet from Tahrir: “I believe today has proven that we don't need the Muslim Brotherhood to turn out big crowds."

It is outside the scope of this brief history to provide a chronology of the relentless revolutionary upsurge of the Egyptian people during the past two years and a half. We might note however two key events, the Maspero massacre in October of that same year, named “Bloody Sunday” (in which 25 protesters were killed and hundreds injured), followed soon after, in November, by the Mohamed Mahmoud Street confrontation, possibly the fiercest and most violent since 28 January, in the course of which some 50 protesters were killed and hundreds injured. Many lost one or both eyes, which were particularly targeted by police shooters.

In Maspero, the ruling SCAF apparently saw an opportunity to violently bring an end to the revolution by making an example of the thousands of Copts, and their Muslim supporters, who had gathered before the state television building in downtown Cairo to protest the burning of a church by an Islamist-led mob. Copts, they seemed to have thought, would be “easy meat” – in view of the sectarian schism in the country, which for years had been deepening in scope and intensity, thanks to the rise of Islamism and the dirty tricks of the Mubarak police bodies.

The Mohamed Mahmoud confrontation which followed would prove this a vain hope. It was possibly the most heroic single event of the Egyptian revolution – at the very least, the full equal of the iconic battles of 28 January and 2 February’s “Battle of the Camel.”

I witnessed parts of the four-day saga, and will be haunted for the rest of my life by the scenes of young men and women, armed with stones and the odd Molotov cocktail bomb charging under heavy police fire, motorcycle ambulances whizzing to and fro to pick up the injured and dead, also under fire, a young man laughing after his eye had been shot out, and the volunteer doctors working non-stop in a field hospital they’d set up on the street corner, itself not quite out of firing range.

Taking to Tahrir and other “freedom” squares around the country was not the only form of resistance, however. Egyptians, almost overnight, had become politicised as never before. Political space, which under Mubarak had shrunk nearly to oblivion, widened exponentially, political debate became the nation’s primary pastime – in homes, offices, coffee houses and on the country’s chaotic transport system, it was politics, politics and even more politics. On television, public opinion programming would outpace soap operas, even soccer. And the internet would go wild.

The new generation of activists, now in the thousands, were not about to go home.  And, in an explosion of creativity, they were constantly creating new ways of fighting on. The “Military Liars” campaign was one such remarkable initiative. Like the Tamarod (or Rebel) campaign a couple of years later, the idea probably originated within a small circle of friends, but – also like Tamarod – would spread like wildfire, with hundreds of young people informally and without the benefit of a “mother” organisation jumping on the bandwagon, setting up screens (usually made up of bed-sheets) and platforms on street corners, at universities and schools – anywhere they could find a foothold – and using almost every medium of expression available, from video footage to street theatre, to relay their message: the military rulers are liars, this is the truth!

I don’t have a full count of the activities of the Military Liars campaign. But they ran into the hundreds.

The walls of the nation’s cities (and there are plenty of those) would provide another medium of expression. An explosion of graffiti, some of it remarkably artistic, would make its signal mark on popular awareness. (An aside: anthropologists and cultural studies scholars would do well to explore the affinity Egypt’s young revolutionaries have for black America).

So determined were the young people to defend this new-found space of free expression I recall this one occasion when the military rulers sent city workers to paint over much of the Cairo graffiti; it was back the very next day.

Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafist and jihadist allies (whatever their dubious share in the 18 days), consistently boycott these fierce and determined battles to fulfil the stated aims of the revolution, they worked actively against them, openly urging the military to crack down, justifying and indeed vehemently defending the killings, the abuse, the detentions and the torture, all the while singing the praises of SCAF (in their chants, they would call SCAF head, Field Marshal Tantawi, the Prince of the Faithful, and condemn the protesters as atheists, infidels, communists and – most insidiously – as Coptic Christians.)

The Brotherhood-military marriage would begin to crack under the strain.

Next: It’s the people, stupid!

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