October 28, 2011 9:22 pm

Egypt: the unfinished revolution

In February, the fall of Hosni Mubarak unleashed euphoria in Cairo: now, frustration is rife and unrest troubles the streets as the country faces an uncertain future. Ahead of next month’s elections, the nation’s people talk about revolution – and finding the way forward

A few hours after Hosni Mubarak’s vice-president appeared on state television to announce Egypt’s leader of 30 years was stepping down, I took a walk down the banks of the Nile. On that mild February night, a wild party of liberation had broken out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The scenes along the way were breathtaking. They belonged to an Arab world I had never known. Dragging their children out of bed, Egyptian families swarmed the streets, from the Kasr al-Nile bridge to the state television building, hugging each other in congratulations, lifting the children up on the army tanks and posing for pictures with soldiers. The army officers, who had placed the future of Egypt above their loyalty for Mubarak, were giddy with the hero status bestowed on them and the chants of “the army and the people in one hand”.

Down in Tahrir Square, where young Egyptians had camped out for nearly three weeks, new banners were already drafted to mark Mubarak’s departure, some held by old men who stood still amid the moving crowds. The voice of Umm Kalthum, the Arab world’s most famous singer, rang out, “ana al shaab, ana al shaab” (I am the people), and to this old revolutionary tune, the people hummed their own new slogan: “Lift your head high, you are Egyptian.”

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Roula Khalaf

Seized by a swell of patriotism and a longing for dignity, a population dismissed for decades as too hopeless and subdued to change its destiny was shocked by its own sudden empowerment. Tunisians had brought down their own dictator a few weeks before, sparking the Arab spring winds that blew through Cairo. But in Tahrir Square the real Arab revolution had triumphed. Egypt is not just another Arab country: it is the heart of the Arab world, its biggest nation, with more than 80m people. It determined whether Arab armies fought wars or made peace, and it gave the region its most illustrious leaders and most celebrated artists and authors. On the morning after, on February 12, the celebrations were still ongoing in Tahrir but they had taken on another startling face. As young people discovered Egypt was theirs, rather than Mubarak’s, they carried their brooms and descended on the square to pick up the rubbish and scrub the nearby monuments on the bridge.

These images were still fresh in my mind when I returned to Cairo in October, a few weeks before Egyptians vote for the first post-revolution parliament. Rows of barbed wire protected the state television building on the Nile, which I had passed through eight months earlier, a site now known as the scene of a massacre. Two days earlier, protesters from the Coptic Christian minority had clashed with the army, and the footage of military vehicles hysterically pushing through the crowds and crushing demonstrators was posted on YouTube.

It was the nastiest violence since the revolution and 27 people, most of them Christian protesters, were killed. For days during my visit, I heard Egyptians argue on the satellite stations over who had killed the Christians protesting over the partial demolition of a church in southern Egypt. The wrath of the Copts was directed at the army while the generals in charge of the transition proclaimed their shock at the suggestion that the soldiers who had protected the revolution would turn against the children of Egypt.

A funeral mass and protest held after Coptic Christians were killed during a protest in October

Well beyond the scene of bloodshed, the mood of Cairo was transformed, from euphoria to frustration. The memories of that glorious February moment in Egyptian history were fading as people were stuck back in the grind of daily life, finding that little had changed. In Tahrir Square, I looked for a monument to the revolution and its martyrs, but could find none, as if the upheaval has not reached its conclusion. The youth movements that mesmerised the Arab world with their formidable leadership of the revolution have splintered, failing to coalesce into a political organisation that can influence the future. Many of them want to keep up the pressure, now on the army, by returning to Tahrir on Fridays. Much of the rest of the country, however, wants peace instead of more turmoil.

Israa Abdel Fattah

Israa Abdel Fattah. The blogger was one of the most prominent young activists of Tahrir Square

“The problem for us is that we prepared for the January 25 protests without knowing it would be a revolution. We made the desert fertile but we didn’t know how to plant it,” Israa Abdel Fattah, one of the most prominent young activists of Tahrir Square, told me. “We came from different ideologies and after the revolution we joined different political parties. Maybe we should not have left the square, maybe we should have chosen a few people from Tahrir to rule.”

Impatient for concrete benefits no one can deliver, many Egyptians say the stability they crave is still elusive, with every dawn creating more questions and fewer answers. Mubarak is on trial but why has his state not been dismantled? The businessmen accused of cheating and stealing are behind bars but why are workers still so badly paid? Will the army do as it promises and hand over power to an elected government?

In the overpopulated, destitute parts of Imbaba on the northern outskirts of Cairo, fruit markets are surrounded by piles of garbage and cars rumble through unpaved roads clogged by toc tocs, the three-wheel motorbike taxis. Shadi, a young vendor in a men’s clothing store, bemoans that police have stopped doing their job. Drugs are sold more freely and car thieves are thriving, he tells me. “It’s the same, before the revolution and after the revolution. I’m 29, I can’t get married, I’m trained to work in a hotel but I have to sell clothes. I want to buy a car, I want to buy a house, I want a better life, I want to learn English.” Nearby, a trader of home appliances sitting idly in his store sums up the prevailing sentiment: “We are living in fog. We see five metres ahead of us but not more.”

The families and friends of the Christian victims of the killings at the state television building held a candlelit vigil on Talaat Harb square, a few minutes’ walk from Tahrir. While they shouted “down, down, with military rule”, young artists from a new organisation promoting independent culture held a silent protest across the street. Hamdi Rada, a photographer, tells me he has not taken snaps since the revolution because his mind is confused. Instead, he is helping other artists promote their revolutionary work. One of the exhibitions he has supported is for a painter whose drawing was called “Floating over Cairo skies”. It depicts two people floating above all the problems of the city. I had not seen the drawing but I keep thinking about it in the days ahead. Cairo, it seems to me, is floating somewhere between the freedoms unleashed by the revolution and the stubborn, nefarious remnants of dictatorship. It is not an unusual state after a revolution but it is one that makes Egyptians uneasy.

Members of Egypt’s medical syndicate line up to vote for their new leadership

For many Egyptians so much has already changed. There are dozens of new political parties and politicians frantically preparing to contest the first real electoral campaign. At the conference hall in Madinat Nasr, a Cairo suburb, I watch the country’s medical syndicate hold its first election for a syndicate leadership in 19 years. Long lines form in a compound flooded with pictures of candidates, and supporters of competing lists hand out leaflets to the voters. Across the city, at the Shorouk bookstore, I look through books about Mubarak and his family that were banned last year and I find a whole new section dedicated to writings about the revolution.

But the empowerment of Egyptians and their determination to be masters of their own fate came so rapidly and abruptly that it has also generated a threatening sense of anarchy. Workers have been emboldened to fight for their rights but some are also taking the law into their own hands, attacking managers they want to oust. I met young activists who were taking on a Turkish textile factory in Shebeen al Qom, a town in the province of Menoufia, where Mubarak’s family comes from. Home to peasants and workers, the town had been controlled by the now dissolved National Democratic party, the ex-ruling party, and the revolution had, essentially, passed it by. The youth who wanted to protest had to go all the way to Tahrir, some 70km away. They put up a banner in the square saying the people of the province apologise to the rest of Egypt for their ties to Mubarak.

One of them is 28-year-old Mahmoud Abdel Nasser. He returned from Tahrir and set up an independent syndicate at the company where he worked as a supervisor. He promptly called a strike, putting forward demands that included an increase in the insured wage. The confrontation escalated and more than 40 workers, all from the syndicate, were prevented from entering the factory earlier this month. When they protested in the street, they were beaten up. “The first revolution did not succeed so we are preparing for another one and the next one will not be in Tahrir Square, it will be everywhere,” says the fiery Mahmoud. When I tell him that many Egyptians are tired of revolution and the explosion in labour dissent is strangling the economy, he is uncompromising. “Yes, people want protests to end. But all I want is to be respected.”

The struggle between revolutionary expectations and reality is also illustrated through the continued battles waged by human rights defenders. Back in downtown Cairo, at Café Riche, the intellectual hangout whose most famous customer was the late Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, Amir Salem, a human rights lawyer representing families of revolution martyrs in the trial of Mubarak and his sons, says that in some ways Egyptians are not recognising the value of the gift they have received. “I never imagined in my life that I would be the number one lawyer in court seeing Mubarak and his sons in the cage. I was arrested nine times in my life and I was the one in the cage.” The revolution broke a history of fear of state security, the shady apparatus of the interior ministry responsible for the worst abuses against citizens. “People now have the courage to report abuses, which scares all the torturers,” he says.

Salem tells me, however, that none of the gains achieved is guaranteed. He points to the black tie he is wearing in mourning for the Copts who died outside the state television building. There might have been infiltrators who provoked the military police into ramming their trucks through the crowds, but it is no justification for the violence, he says. “Egyptians destroyed the idea of dictatorship but the system is still the same,” he says.

Young people prepare a protest banner with the slogan 'Rule of the military – The people have chosen the red line'

The new masters of Egypt – the group of generals in the supreme council of the armed forces – have been overwhelmed with the responsibility that fell on their shoulders the morning after Mubarak’s departure. They have stumbled from crisis to crisis, ruling by trial and error, attempting to please everyone, while, in effect, satisfying no one. The generals have not purged state institutions, afraid, as one of them has said, that the “state” would collapse after Mubarak’s departure. But many Egyptians are desperate for a new state: human rights defenders are upset because Mubarak’s public prosecutor is still in office and universities are on strike because their heads are still Mubarak appointees.

The generals have now extended the transition period, from the original and unrealistic six months to another frustratingly long stretch that could extend into 2013. Their plan is to hand over power to an elected president, after the new parliament drafts a constitution. But the military rule has been so erratic that politicians suspect it will take a confrontation to disentangle the army from politics. The generals have begged for understanding that a country beset by widespread poverty and rampant unemployment cannot satisfy all the demands for better wages and better lives. Since the revolution, the interim government has seen its financial resources battered by the loss of tourists and frozen investment.

So desperate have they been to put an end to the strikes that they revived the emergency laws whose abolition had been a major demand during Mubarak’s rule. The strikes and sit-ins have continued though, and the army’s resort to the old regime’s strategies attracted more critics. “On February 12 we woke up thinking this is the first day in the new Egypt and that we would fight for justice for victims of the past and rebuild the democratic institutions for the future. We never expected we’d be so overwhelmed by a fresh wave of abuses or that we would be imprisoned by the moment,” says Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist who was part of the revolutionary youth of Tahrir Square.

Mohamed ElBaradei

Mohamed ElBaradei. The Nobel laureate was a prominent spokesman during the revolution and is now a presidential candidate

The army has also taken on the job of policing the country, for which it is as ill-suited as governing. Egypt’s police force has been in crisis ever since that turning point on January 28, three days after the revolution started. The protesters defeated the police on that day, returning to confront them no matter how hard they fought or how much tear gas they fired. The police then melted away, demoralised, and afraid of the rage of the people. It has yet to return to the streets in full force. “Why can’t they [the army] restore security after eight months,” asks Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate who was a prominent spokesman for the youth during the revolution and is now a presidential candidate. We are at his house in a gated community outside Cairo, near the Pyramids. It is a Friday, the Muslim weekend and ElBaradei is casually dressed in a bright pink shirt and beige trousers. “Maybe they [the army] don’t want to crack down on the police system. Are they holding files against each other?” he goes on. He says there are supposedly 165,000 so-called baltagia, the thugs employed by the former regime, and are now blamed for everything that goes wrong in Egypt, yet they are rarely arrested. “It’s a surreal situation. People … were so proud after the revolution… Now the revolution is starting to get a bad name because the situation is getting worse.”

Police and central security forces guard Rod El-Farag police station in Cairo following a firefight between police and gang members

When I hear that baltagia had assaulted a police station after what newspapers described as a quarrel over a parking lot, I make my way to Rod al Farag, a Cairo neighbourhood once famous for its fruit and vegetable market. Police vehicles line the streets nearby, blocking access to the station. “We know everyone says we don’t work but here we are,” an officer tells me sarcastically. “What did the revolution do? Weapons are coming in from the borders, and we are like everyone else, we want stability,” he goes on. When I reach the station, a group of plain-clothed police rush out, one of them brandishing a machine gun. “We are preparing for a second round,” he says, expecting the thugs to return for another fight.

The army is promising an overwhelming deployment to encourage Egyptians to vote on November 28, hoping the country’s mood will be transformed again by the first exercise of freedom. The excitement over the elections has yet to reach the majority of Egyptians. But the preparations have been tantalising for the politicians preparing to run.

Hazem Farouk of the Muslim Brotherhood

Hazem Farouk of the Muslim Brotherhood. A dentist who joined the party at university, he is preparing to run in Egypt’s parliamentary elections

Among them is Hazem Farouk, whose political life under Mubarak was something out of a Hollywood movie. A dentist who joined the Muslim Brotherhood, the 80-year-old Islamist organisation repressed by successive Egyptian regimes, during university, he ran for the first time in 2000. He was an independent affiliated with the Brotherhood, which was officially banned. He relates how he used to be chased by four-wheel drive vehicles and harassed by baltagia on motorcycles during his campaign. “One of their tricks to stop people from voting was to park a heavy oil tank in front of the polling station, open the pipe and fire a greasy black substance at the voters.” Meanwhile, government supporters were trucked from one polling station to the next, voting more than once in what Farouk calls the “circulating voting cards”. By far the most egregious elections, however, were last year, when the cheating was blatant and the ballot boxes were stuffed. “People were so enraged, we felt so insulted,” he says of the rigging, which galvanised Egyptian anger, and according to many political commentators, contributed to the eruption of the revolution.

Today, Farouk is running on the ticket of Freedom and Justice, the Brotherhood’s new political party. “State security might still be watching us but the people have changed, they feel that they are present, they feel free to vote.” But next month’s election is more hard work than usual, he says. The electoral rules drawn up by the military are deliberately complicated, perhaps in order to produce a fragmented parliament that would make it easier for the army to wield influence. Farouk’s constituency is also seven times larger, the turnout in the poll will be much higher, and there is a real choice for voters.

The Brotherhood is expected to be the largest party in the next parliament. It will be competing in the elections against traditional nationalist parties, new modern liberal parties and more ultraconservative religious groups. In rural Egypt, family and tribal ties are paramount and many voters are likely to back the so-called folouls (remnants of the ex-ruling party) because they belong to the dominant families.

Mohamed Mursi, head of the Freedom and Justice party founded by the Muslim Brotherhood

“I have to go to the voters with a programme that is clearer than others; there are many new forces on the ground,” admits Farouk. His boss, Mohamed Mursi, the head of the Freedom and Justice party, has hardly slept for 10 days, labouring over the formation of the lists that will compete in the elections. “Building a new political system is not easy,” he says, speaking in a shabby office, where the television is tuned to Al-Jazeera and a copy of Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars sits on the desk. Mursi, who studied engineering in California, expects his party to be the biggest single group in parliament but not a majority, which in any case would not be achievable. “There’s a lot of competition and people are in the mood to choose.”

It is hard to keep up with the names of new political parties. It is as if every political analyst I’ve ever met in Cairo is starting one. Some of the liberal newcomers have one thing in mind – to stimulate opposition to the Brotherhood. For months liberal politicians were convinced that the army had struck a secret pact with the Muslim Brotherhood, promising not to stand in their way so long as they help calm the streets. Whether real or imagined (and the Islamists laugh at the suggestion), the deal, say the liberals, came unstuck when the army realised the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be controlled.

One of the new leaders of a liberal party is Mohamed Abul Ghar, a 71-year-old medical professor and long-time activist. Despite his age, he was in Tahrir Square every day during the revolution and has since been persuaded by colleagues to take charge of the recently created Egyptian social democratic party. We meet at Groppi’s, a downtown café whose faded glory has particular resonance for Abul Ghar. He tells me the café was the most elegant spot in Cairo in the 1920s, with a beautiful bar and restaurant, but that was before it was bought by an Islamist in the 1980s. “The main reason I’m in politics is that I’m scared the Muslim Brotherhood will kill the future of Egypt,” he says. “The next parliament will write the constitution and if the Islamists are strong it would be a catastrophe.”

Curiously, though, the Brotherhood is not paying much attention to Abul Ghar’s party. Its leaders say their competition is not so much the new liberal groups but the older traditional parties and the ultraconservative Salafis. The Brotherhood are progressive when compared with the Salafi parties, which are born out of a broad and disorganised religious movement that adheres to a rigid interpretation of Islam. Mohamed Nour, a spokesman for a Salafi party, which by pure coincidence is called Nour (meaning “light” in Arabic), puts on a charming act when we meet, chatting casually with an assistant who joins us with a notepad and is clad in black from head to toe, nothing but her eyes showing. He says the Brotherhood is now “a bit distant from religion” and not as attached to “detail” as the Salafi movement. “We’re close to the people because we’re simple ... we work on three principles, faith, education and work, and that’s what people need.”

Sheikh Mohamed Hassan addresses a crowd at a Nour party rally in Giza in support of Salafi values

No one knows how well the Salafis will do in the elections – Egyptians are conservative but they also like the good life (one man from Imbaba told me the Salafis are trustworthy but he likes to linger in a café after dark, something they could ban). But while the Brotherhood’s traditional constituency has been in the Egyptian middle class, the Salafi parties are targeting the more destitute segments of the population. And they are drawing on the appeal of well-known clerics whose sermons have been broadcast for years on satellite television. A few hours after meeting with Nour, I attend an open-air party meeting to which leaders had invited Mohamed Hassan, a hugely popular and charismatic preacher. Thousands came to listen to him. “We like Nour because it follows what the preachers say,” says one of the attendees.

As the election campaign gets under way, the polarisation between liberals and Islamists will become more intense. The political battle will remind Egyptians of the value of the revolution but it will not be the magic wand many are dreaming of to transform their lives and close the political and sectarian fissures in society.

At a time when the eyes of the world are on Egypt, the country, says Ahmad Said, a liberal politician, is for the first time facing itself. “We were trying to hide from each other and we were aided in this by the dictatorship,” he says. “Now we have to ask what do Egyptians want.”

Roula Khalaf is the FT’s Middle East editor

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