Between hope and fear

Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, by Ahdaf Soueif, Bloomsbury, RRP£14.99, 224 pages

The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions, by Marwan Bishara, Nation Books, RRP£17.99, 176 pages

After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts, by John Bradley, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£10.99, 256 pages

“Drunk on Tahrir” is how one alcohol-shunning Saudi democracy advocate describes his feelings as he watched the Egyptian revolution unfold last year. Tunisia had already ousted its own dictator, but it was when protesters poured on to the streets of central Cairo in late January that the Arab spring fully captured the imagination of the world. Eighteen days later, on February 11 2011, the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak had come to an end.

Egypt’s revolution remains unfinished, its results far from satisfactory for those who fought for the regime’s downfall as well as for others, like the intoxicated activist in Riyadh, who revelled in their struggle from afar. As Egyptians mark the anniversary of Mubarak’s fall on Saturday, many will be following a call for civil disobedience by young activists who led the revolution and now want the military rulers who took over to get out of the way.

At the commemoration of the launch of the uprising last month, crowds in Tahrir Square replaced “Down with Mubarak” with “Down with the Murshed” (the field marshal), in reference to the head of the ruling military council. More rage was unleashed against the generals and their inept leadership of the transition after football violence left 74 people dead in early February in the most tragic unrest since last year’s uprising.

For Egypt’s liberals in particular, disappointment with the military council has been compounded by the rapid assertion of Islamist power, a pattern that is being repeated across the region. Not only has the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition party during Mubarak’s rule, won 46 per cent of seats in the new parliament, but it has been joined by an ultraconservative group of Salafi Islamists whose policies are even more hardline.

Looking across the region, the inspiring drama of Tahrir Square might also have ushered in false hopes. Two regimes were swept away with astonishing speed in the first months of 2011 but others have put up a determined fight. Syria’s uprising has been raging for nearly a year and the country is being dragged into a militarised conflict as its people take up arms in the face of relentless state repression. Libya’s revolution invited foreign intervention; its interim president repeatedly warns of civil war as its transitional government still struggles for control.

Yet, for all the pain and the setbacks, there is no doubt that the political upheaval has transformed the consciousness of Arabs. Last year’s revolts, particularly the drama in Tahrir Square, opened Arab eyes to the tantalising possibility of change. In a region held back by authoritarianism and bedevilled by social divisions and sectarian tensions, people were brought together in a rare show of unity, the liberals embracing the Islamists, the Muslims praying next to the Christians. Beyond the revolutionary countries, people looked on hopefully, believing for the first time in the possibility of overcoming decades of tyranny and inequality.

For those hoping to relive the moment it all changed, novelist Ahdaf Soueif, author of the Man Booker-shortlisted The Map of Love and also a leftist activist, takes you into an unfolding revolution almost day by day. In Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, the story of Egypt’s uprising is intertwined with biographical detail and wrapped in an overwhelming passion for Cairo, a city that she feels had been disfigured by previous regimes and only now can be reclaimed as her own.

Unsurprisingly, her diary at times feels rushed, but Soueif’s story is not that of a simple observer – she was active in revolutionary circles and had militated for and dreamt of change for decades. She hurried back to Cairo to join the revolution, to face the tear gas and the baltagia, the regime thugs, and, like hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, she kept returning to Tahrir. It is this extraordinary resolve that defeated the regime’s strategy of appealing for a return to normality to stem growing chaos and a deteriorating economy.

Activists such as Soueif held on to Tahrir as a new, idealistic world, even if they would later discover that it represented a fleeting moment rather than a new Egyptian reality. “Once you’re inside, the Midan (square) is amazing. Even the light in here is different, the feel of the air. It’s a cleaner world. Everything’s sharper, you can see the leaves on the trees. Badly lopped, they’re trying to grow out. Everyone is suddenly, miraculously, completely themselves. Everyone understands. We’re all very gentle with each other. As though we’re convalescing, dragged back from death’s very door.”

It did not take long for Soueif and other activists to suspect that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had exploited their revolution, siding with it because the generals had their own agenda – in particular an interest in getting rid of Gamal Mubarak. Son of the president and heir apparent, he had never fully won the approval of a military establishment that has always been the backbone of Egyptian regimes.

Military rulers, argues Soueif, have been looking to perpetuate the old regime, implementing only cosmetic changes. For all the disillusionment, however, she insists she is not losing hope, concluding that optimism is a “duty” and reminding us that had Egyptians not been optimistic, the revolution would have never taken place.

One of the themes in Soueif’s book is the relationship between what she calls the old revolutionaries, people like her who have struggled for democracy, and the youth who had the courage and the mobilising skills to “change the world”. The same idea is picked up by Marwan Bishara, the senior political analyst for Al Jazeera English television, in The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions.

In his journey into the past abuses that explain the Arab spring, Bishara argues that the youth awakening was inspired by the sacrifices of political, community and labour leaders over many years. In Egypt, these people include George Ishaq from Egypt’s Kefaya movement, an organisation that had played an instrumental role in raising awareness about the dangers of a hereditary transition years before the youth launched the revolution.

In Tunisia, Bishara rightly notes, the uprising started by young men and women in a remote town became a nationwide revolution when labour unions and banned opposition groups joined in. “While the revolution marked a break with the past, it was also a by-product of a long history of social and political struggle in the Arab world,” he says.

The old political activists were given renewed hope by an internet-savvy generation who broke the wall of fear, taking to the streets to protest against a political order that had oppressed society, sought to fool it by creating façades of democracy and pretended to liberalise the economy. During the rule of the autocrats, no segment of society was spared state pressure. Regimes’ political opponents were harassed and jailed; the youth were subdued by state intervention in universities and even their sports were hijacked by the patronage of members of the regime. In Egypt, for example, both of Mubarak’s sons, Gamal and Ala’a, styled themselves as youth leaders.

Worse yet, writes Bishara, the dictators focused “less on the utility of their leadership and more on the continuity of their legacy”, promoting their heirs and producing what he calls “autocrats in waiting”. The sons, in fact, became “power brokers, or power mediators, between the three pillars of influence: the regimes’ old guard, the ‘business whales’ or the new oligarchs who devoured everything they had access to, and western governments and multinationals with interests in the region’s emerging markets.”

The author does not spare the west from blame for perpetuating the region’s dictatorships. Governments that claimed to have supported the Arab revolutions had in reality “folded” the dictators into the US regional order, with little regard to the fact that the Arab world had become “ever more stagnant, leaderless, polarised and downtrodden”.

The US and others are now treading carefully as they adapt to a new Middle East in which the main political actors – the Islamists – were largely shunned in the past for fear of upsetting the ruling autocrats. The pictures of Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Egypt, visiting the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo last month would have been unthinkable a year ago.

The relationship between western governments and Islamists will be an important factor in future regional stability. For the first time the US and its allies must deal with representative governments and with popular sentiment opposed to many western policies in the Middle East. But the Islamist-led governments that are assuming power at a time of extraordinary economic difficulty will also have to recognise that they need western support, including financially.

There is no shortage of doomsayers predicting a disastrous Islamist order in the Middle East. Among them is the British journalist John Bradley, whose After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts betrays a certain nostalgia for Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the secularism that he had imposed (Ben Ali was “by no means a tyrant”, he writes, though he acknowledges that his wife, Leila Trabelsi, is an “odious woman”).

Bradley does not conceal his predisposition to oppose Islamists. In his previous book Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East (2010), he had argued, according to his own account, that “the best place for Islamists who want to overthrow the Tunisian state is, indeed, the prison cell, where they might be persuaded to modify their ideas, and not least because the first thing they would do if they gained power is deprive everyone else (and especially women) of their treasured liberties faster than they can scream, ‘Allahu akbar’.” This is, he claims, “precisely” what has happened since the revolution.

The “bearded zealots”, laments Bradley, had played a small role in the revolution before taking it over into a “disastrous turn”. True, some of the hardline Islamists in Tunisia have behaved appallingly since the revolution, terrifying the liberal, secular elite. But most Tunisian Islamists are supporters of the Nahda party, which won the post-revolution elections. Its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, is an Islamist thinker who has gone further than most in reconciling political Islam and democracy.

Bradley is more charitable towards the Egyptian revolution but appears equally confused about the country’s Islamists, describing the Muslim Brotherhood as promoting the “Wahhabi” customs of Saudi Arabia that are, in fact, associated with the rival ultraconservative Salafis. (But then Bradley insists that “finding differences between the two groups, aside from the Muslim Brotherhood’s clear renunciation of violence, is like splitting hairs.”)

The forceful return of political Islam has been a disappointment to liberal Arabs and to westerners who had hoped, though never quite believed, that the more secular elements of society that raised their voice during the uprisings would form strong and coherent political blocs during political transitions. The lines of struggle between Islamists and liberals have been drawn, and there will undoubtedly be numerous battles ahead, whether it is over the drafting of new constitutions or the inevitable longer-term attempt to promote a greater Islamisation of society.

But it would be a mistake to lump Islamists together as a single group – some have already made political accommodations and others will surely mature as they move from repressed opposition to assume responsibility in government. Having reached power through the ballot box, they will need to be judged on how they behave in government. As Bishara says: “The harder part of this revolutionary journey will come as the Arabs, sooner rather than later, discover that democracy and freedom come with greater responsibility.”

Roula Khalaf is the FT’s Middle East editor

For more on Egypt after Mubarak, see FT Magazine and the Comment pages

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.