25th January 2012
Istico Battistoni - 10/02/2012
One year later, Egypt is taking to the streets again. January 25th 2012, Tahreer Square is filled with young people but also with women, kids and elders who zigzag between opposite streams. They ask for the military rulers to step down believing they have protected the interests of the Mubarak’s regime. “Yasqut, Yasqut Hakm al-‘Askar”, “The military rule shall fall!” - they chant or write in many forms and only the Muslim Brotherhood pretends to celebrate, echoing patriotic songs through their megaphones. And the others reply: “This is a revolution, not a party!”
One year later, the revolution in the largest Arab country is showing its mettle. How come… when only three days earlier the “Maglis as-Sha’b”, the Lower Chamber was holding its inaugural session? And if four days later the polling stations would reopen for the election of the members of the “Maglis as-Shūrā”, the other chamber? if the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, , has announced a partial removal of the Emergency Law in the evening of January 25? The answer is simple: the revolution is unaccomplished, and the youth is taking the initiative to express their frustration and preserve the wind of change from the wind of political restoration attempting to discredit the revolution’s movements. The list of planned counter-revolutionary measures is long: the aggressions against a Coptic rally in Maspero and against the sit-ins in Mohammad Mahmoud street and in front of the Council of Ministers have left 84 dead, shot or intoxicated with the gas inhaled; female demonstrators have been first forced to undertake humiliating virginity tests, then beaten or dragged on the soil half-naked by the military police like in the case of Samira Ibrahim, in an attempt to break the women’s will to take to the streets – something that not even the British army did during the occupation of Egypt in 1914-22 (like writer ‘Alaa al Aswany recently reminded in the newspaper Al Masry al-Youm). About 1800 demonstrators have lost their eyes due to the targeted shots perpetrated against them by the security forces, like doctor Ahmed Harara, who lost both; court cases against the security forces for the killing of demonstrators have been long and ineffective, resulting in the liberation of the accused officers, some of them having even been promoted afterwards. Investigations were opened on foreign funding of civil society organizations dealing with human rights and democracy issues while political parties like the Islamic ones were not subject to any investigation. A new draft law proposes to restrict rights and freedoms, limiting civil society’s scope of action to development and charity. The daily difficulties generated by a suspiciously planned scarcity in fuel and gas supplies, increased prices of basic food, and transport strikes along main railway lines have made people believe that this chaos is an inheritance of the Egyptian revolution and not a responsibility of the current authorities. Media campaigns have been trying to dishonour the revolutionary youth and to reduce the revolution to an “Any Other Business” matter.
At Ramses train station, Hani Mahmoud Adel Abdelmonim, pedocardiologist, reviews the four or five newspapers he bought that day. He came from Alexandria because he was afraid that very few people would go back to Tahreer and was positively surprised by the crowds. “Now, the Muslim Brothers have the most difficult part to play. They have to prove that they are with the revolution and not with the army who has prevented the revolution from cleaning the country from the old regime’s powers”. He is convinced that the army has favoured them as well as the Salafist movement by convoking elections in difficult conditions where only Islamist parties were ready for the race. This was done to crush the revolutionary youth and get a deal with a conservative authority. Hani Mahmoud, who regards El Baradei very highly, enumerates what has “not” happened since the departure of former Pharaoh Mubarak. Sixty-five parties and political movements agree with him: immediate transfer of the transitional powers from the military to a civilian authority in charge of drafting a new constitution, organizing presidential elections and ensuring that the army does not benefit from privileged powers beyond civilian scrutiny; fair punishment for the old regime’s figures whose trials are never-ending and where Mubarak´s lawyers are asking that he should be reinstated in office; a serious investigation of those who planned crimes against pacific rallies since the army replaced the former president; involvement of all political, ideological, social and cultural forces of the country in drafting the new constitution; preservation of the civil and democratic character of the country and of fundamental freedoms and human rights; transparent and limited public officials’ remuneration and related service oriented working standards; equal access to medical insurance for all; suspension of military trials, cancellation of martial laws and “purification” of the security forces; an independent judiciary power; “purification” of public media, promotion of its impartiality and establishment of a new legal framework.
One year later, a counter-revolution is taking place. In Yemen, president Saleh negotiates his immunity from prosecution in exchange of resignations and the political transitional context is confused. The Syrian bloody crush of demonstrators by the regime accelerates the escalation toward civil war. Security has not regained control in Libya, and episodes of insurgency by former Gaddafi loyalists still continue. Only in Tunisia is the transition proceeding rapidly and civil society is playing a part in the course of developments besides the political forces along a common direction.
Instead, Tahreer Square and other Egyptian cities are full of people again. Several stages have been set up in the Square: there are the socialists, al-Wafd party, the independents, the 6th of April Movement and even the al-Azhar University, while the two main stages are for the Youth of the Revolution and for the Muslim Brothers. The latter is definitely the best equipped. However, this is not enough for the Islamist movement, who does not support a fast power transfer to a civilian authority, and the mainstream call is for the Military Supreme Council to step down. “Liars!”, “Kādhibūn” is the most commonly used word referring to the generals as those who have betrayed the revolution. And also “Silmiya”, “Peacefully!” Three young veiled girls carry signs saying: “Tunisian revolution, long life to the best! Libyan revolution, long life to the strongest! Egyptian revolution, God help us!” Artists find several ways of portraying popular mistrust. Hosni, one of them, uses the perimeter walls of the American University to display a self-made public exhibition of his beautiful political cartoons entitled “Brainwash”. Other activists collect money for the martyrs’ families under a gazebo on which well designed political posters are hanging. A man walks with a banner showing a Mahatma Gandhi icon and famous words. Others carry a banner saying: No to the criminalisation of the right to strike. A large image of the Mubarak, former Minister of Interior el ‘Adly and General Tantāwy’s faces with a loop around the neck is dominating the square. Where is this youth heading to? What if the generals lose their patience? Will the youth’s courage and their disregard of death be enough to resist a new violent wave in this second round of the Egyptian revolution? Ahmed Elemary, who has reached Downtown Cairo from a rural village to join the protests, says: “Why are the youth divided in different stages? Why do they scream their slogans from different spots?” He fears lack of unity and wishes there was a single stage where everybody would be able to talk, analyze and propose, not just to shout loud slogans and bad words to those who have betrayed the revolution. He came to learn and listen to wise voices, to leaders, but there is none, with the exception of known actors such as Khaled Saleh, Sharihane or Farouq al-Fashawy, who jumped on one of the stages. No overall leader. This was the uprising’s strength but it might also be its Achilles’ heel. To face the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces a lot of strength and unity is necessary and Mubarak´s system is still there. The same men hold key-positions. Three powers are confronting each other: the Islamic majority in the new parliament, the Supreme Council with the old State apparatus and the civil protest. Other demonstrations followed January 25, 2012, like two days ‘later “Friday´s Second Day of Anger” (named in honour of the first revolutionary Friday rally in 2011) everywhere in the country, but how long will the confrontation last if people’s requests are not satisfied?
At this point, civil society has an important role to play because the real battle is between a top-down concept of power and authority, where the leaders dictate what the people need and the recognition of bottom-up legitimacy for any government. This is the main challenge in any of the countries facing transitional processes in the region. We should wish that the social movements who are protesting in the North for the loss of democratic legitimacy of elected structures and organized political parties, for the government’s incapacity in implementing social justice, fighting corruption, challenging climate change and creating sustainable employment, speaks to the youth of the Arab revolutions. We should wish they create a common front aiming mainly to question and change the concept of power and rebuild active citizenship and community ownership as the basis for any governmental legitimacy. This might seem to be a titanic enterprise and it definitely is. If civil society does not develop into a counter-power or an accompanying power democracy will fail. This is why the Egyptian establishment is so afraid of NGOs and plans restrictive rules even in post-revolutionary times. There is one clear lesson we should have learnt in 2011: without social mobilization there is no progress. Those who believe that democracy is about elections and freedom of registration for political parties are mistaken. Democracy is about social justice, fair access to development, transparency and participatory governance, respect of diversity and respect of future generations. Any single step in this direction has only been achieved through civil empowerment without which, political systems and economic structures evolve into regimes applying different levels or kinds of abuse or usurpation of individual and collective rights. In an extraordinary statement issued by al-Azhar University on January 8, 2012, Sheikh al-Tayyeb enlightened the Muslim community on the concept of freedom, clarifying that it is not enough to enjoy electoral freedom. Liberty is ripe when you enjoy the free right of belief and creed, of opinion and expression, of investigation and scientific research and of artistic creation. This is a strong statement against those who call to apply “the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” and basically to intervene in the individual’s personal and public realm of expression. It is also an invitation to see democratic development as a multifaceted process, which must criss-cross several aspects of public life. It certainly goes against the idea of top-down authoritarianism and this makes this call unique in the Muslim world, in this challenging context of change. It is time to think in terms of regional alliances of popular and civil society forces from both the Western modern, technologically advanced and democratically mature world and the Muslim neighbouring countries experiencing a process of transition. Democratic progress must be seen as a regional issue, because the problems and the challenges are common, and civil society must build joint strategies and tools to keep showing the direction and pointing their fingers at dangerous national, sectarian or private interests.
On January 25, while taking a late lunch on Champollion street, I was drinking a tea sitting beside a group named “Here is the Square, Mosque Church Parliament”. They were chanting revolutionary songs and laughing. They are young or middle-aged males and females wanting the unity of people against the enemies of their revolution. Their spokesperson, Mohammad ‘Azouz, is a lawyer: “We want to raise public awareness on the importance of raising their voice for the revolution’s sake”. They have understood where the point is: if you get silent, the old forces regroup around you. That is how it works.
“As members of civil society, we need to increase social participation in public affairs, build local and regional networks and reach peripheral areas” – wrote to me Ayman ‘Okeyl, chairman of Maat, an NGO working on peace, development and human rights. That in itself is worth a revolution.