Hope without Illusion: Ten Signs of Change in Egypt
Jadaliyya, 14 May 2016
Egyptians occupying streets, blocking traffic, and chanting patriotic slogans: Contrary to conventional wisdom, these images became part of Egypt’s contemporary political arena well before the January 2011 Revolution. We saw them on multiple occasions in 2006, 2008, and even in 2010, when Egypt’s national football team won the Africa Cup of Nations.
Those are but a few examples of the intense mobilization that took place during the lead up to the revolution. The tide of that mobilization is what yielded the Kefaya movement, the Youth of April 6 and of the Muslim Brotherhood, bloggers’ activism, the independent students’ union, the famous Facebook groups such as “We Are All Khaled Said” and “We Are All Sayed Bilal,” and others, the protest movements, strikes, and rallies of workers, students, trade unionists, and artists, and even the occupation of streets for non-political purposes. All these movements, groups, and events, despite the seemingly low ceiling of their demands, were akin to training exercises for building political awareness and experience—until the decisive moment came on 25 January 2011.
There is no doubt that the period between 2013 and 2015 were particularly difficult for advocates of transformative change in Egypt. Yet in some ways they were similar to the 1980s and 1990s, when the Mubarak’s regime had succeeded in suppressing politics and dissent under the pretext of fighting “terrorism.” There are ten reasons to believe that we are now reliving Mubarak’s last decade in office, that is, an era of political “exercises,” which, slowly but surely, are paving the way for new, promising opportunities.
1. The Cost of Repression is on the Rise
In 2013, the senior leaders of the security apparatus were authorized to act against Egyptian dissidents with impunity. And indeed, they got away with killing almost a thousand people in the dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in in August of that same year. From that day on, it became well known that torture and killing was fair game for the police.
But, more recently, when an ordinary citizen named Talaat Shabeeb died of torture at the hands of police officers, scores of ordinary citizens took to the streets in the southern governorate of Luxor. These citizens were not killed or arrested and they pressured the state into referring the four suspected officers to trial.
Also recently, after a similar wave of popular outrage and pressure, a police officer was convicted of killing Ismailia pharmacist Afify Hosny and was sentenced to eight years in prison. The officer who killed protester Shaimaa al-Sabbagh was handed a prison sentence of fifteen years—although it was later overturned.
Residents of Al Darb Al Ahmar, one of the poorest areas in Egypt, demonstrated in front of the Cairo Security Directorate, chanting revolutionary slogans, to protest the killing of one of its residents at the hands of a police officer. The police did not force them to disperse and not a single tear gas canister was shot at them. Instead, the murderer was brought to trial and the Minister of Interior apologized to the family of the victim.
While it is too early to speak about accurate figures on police torture for 2016, it is noticeable that this form of brutality has become less visible, even though it certainly has not disappeared. The once-regular headline of “A citizen tortured death” now appears less frequently than it did prior to the abovementioned incidents.
2. The Power of Individual Heroes
On this year’s anniversary of the January 25 Revolution, a woman went to Tahrir Square by herself to wave the four-fingered Rabaa gesture and chant against President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. Also to mark the anniversary and to bring to focus the issue of police abuse and brutality, Shady Abu Zaid and Ahmed Malek went to Tahrir Square to shoot a video satirizing security forces. A family took to the entry-point to Tahrir on Qasr al-Nil bridge holding pro-January 25 Revolution banners. And a citizen stood in front of the High Court with a muzzle on his mouth and while holding names of political detainees.
All these examples illustrate that individual citizens have managed to overcome state restrictions on conventional demonstrations and unauthorized assembly by using innovative forms of expressions of dissent. Their creativity is undermining the ability of the regime to suppress.
In all the abovementioned cases, none of the concerned individuals were killed or arrested. It is as if the sole individual enjoys the same protection and strength as the ones afforded by the millions when they band together. That these individuals are making their respective statement from a place of loneliness carries a symbolic meaning and generates an enormous impact.
3. New Political Communities are Emerging
Student union elections had been suspended for over two years. Some of the most dynamic student leaders graduated from universities, while others got detained by security forces. In the most recent student union race, the names of 146 students were removed from the ballot altogether. The state adopted new regulations to undermine the ability of independent students to get elected.
Meanwhile, the state managed to infiltrate universities with a group of students who support the regime under the umbrella of a group known as “The Voice of Egypt’s Youth”. When elections were finally convened last year, the results took all sides by surprise. Students who profess support for the January 25 Revolution won all but four student union seats. Thus they were entitled to select from among themselves the president and vice-president of the national student union. After the elections, they began making statements expressing solidarity with political activism inside universities and with detained students. It was not long before, the Ministry of High Education began waging in a legal battle against them to annul their electoral gains. Yet the fact remains, rising networks and organizations are generating new communities of young political activists and leaders.
Prisons are also becoming large schools of a kind. Emerging from them are new names that gained attention and recognition for paying the price of the struggle inside prison cells. These emergent figures have also earned wide respect for their efforts to develop a new discourse combining revolutionary radicalism with a rational, level-headed approach. Examples of that trend include Hany Elgamal and poet Omar Hazek.
Also gaining prominence are young figures who bring to the table scholarly and practical expertise. These include Ahmed Saqr, Ashraf El Sherif, and Ahmed Abd Rabou. Joining them are communities of young lawyers like Malek Adly, Mohamed al-Baqer, Mokhtar Monir, Mahmoud Bilal, and Sameh Samir. There is a new generation of young journalists who have demonstrated a great deal of success and are leading a strong presence in the media arena.
Meanwhile, the “young-versus-old” binary is dissipating and the idea is beginning to take hold that the revolution is for all citizens who believe in change and not for the youth only, as mainstream discourse once suggested. In that regard, the accomplished biographies of the late Radwa Ashour and the late Ahmed Seif El-Islam are turning into sacred legends in the eyes of our generation. After all, how can “grey hair” be deemed non-revolutionary when it crowns figures like Bahey Eldin Hassan, Gamal Eid, Basma El-Husseiny, Mona Mina, and Hussein Khairy.
4. Promising Prospects within the Egyptian Diaspora
The January 25 Revolution’s generation was primarily comprised of students or new graduates with little academic or professional experience–and of course, no financial resources.
After 2013 in particular, a large wave of youth traveled to further their education or to work abroad. At the moment, many young Egyptians affiliated with the revolutionary current and residing abroad are rising academically, professionally, and financially.
One can almost envision a reality that could surface in a matter of a few years: Once the public sphere witnesses some openings, members of this diaspora will return to aid revolutionary change in Egypt by supporting political organizations, parties and initiatives, and proposing new solutions. The existence of that community means that, if the opportunity arises, we can select for top posts in governance and management individuals who represent us and who hold the necessary political and academic expertise.
On a related front, the network of pro-change Egyptian professionals is widening within the diaspora, among, for example, engineers, medical professionals, and economists. While many of them are currently working in silence, once the opportunity arises, they have the potential of presenting an important voice in Egypt and outside of it.
5. Discord inside the Counter-Revolution
On 23 January, in a first in Egypt’s political history, the Egyptian president fiercely criticized parliament for rejecting the civil service law, holding it responsible for hindering the “reform” plan he proposed. Since that incident, the government has not referred to the parliament any agreements related to loans or tariff increases.
Yet is this not the “rubber stamp” parliament that was elected under the full guardianship of the government with an election law that was specifically engineered to hand the pro-regime electoral lists a decisive victory? The resistance the government is facing, quite ironically, from its own allies reflects the fact that the January 25 Revolution’s subversive discourse and tools have taken deep root in society, even among those who overtly reject the revolution’s objectives. Such tools and tactics include mobilization at the grassroots, media pressure to block government policies, and subverting individual monopolies of power within the regime.
All these tools, which one often associates with revolutionary currents, are now prevalent within the counterrevolutionary camp as well. The result is that the centralized power of the regime’s core is faltering, albeit, through the pressure of its very own supporters and allies. We see pro-regime media figures voicing their disagreement with the president’s policies, including, for instance, his calls for dialogue with the ultras football fan association. Businessmen are openly criticizing the government’s handling of the economy, and we even see low-ranking police officers organizing strikes and sit-ins. That is to say, even if Mubarak’s state continues to prevail as a ruling authority, it is no longer able to exert absolute power or vest it in a single individual ruler per the Mubarak era.
6. The “Authoritarian Bargain” is Collapsing
Since July 1952, the Egyptian state has ruled through a peculiar bargain, wherein authority maintained hegemonic control over the political and economic realm to the marginalization of democratic rights. And in return for their acquiescence, people were awarded social and economic benefits.
The state since the Sadat era has also taken on several foreign policy initiatives to secure its position domestically. Its peace with Israel and its security and counter-terrorism cooperation with the West have encouraged the latter to turn a blind eye to Egypt’s human rights record. Relatedly, Cairo’s collaboration with Gulf Cooperation Council States, particularly as it relates to resisting Iran’s ascendancy in the region, has afforded Egyptian rulers generous aid from these countries.
Yet currently the state is no longer able to deliver its own end of this bargain. Domestically, it is unable to subsidize fuel, electricity, or water. The state’s confused economic policies and the dollar crisis have resulted in price hikes of basic goods. It is not surprising, therefore, that the president himself has repeatedly said that the state can no longer meet all of people’s expectations. Interestingly, his proclamations come at a time when the regime continues to subsidize its own allies inside of the state in the form of salary raises and bonuses for military and police officers, not to mention the judges.
Thus, wide segments of society are showing signs of rebellion and discontent. Interestingly, the first protest to enter Tahrir Square after the 3 July coup did not carry political demands. Rather, it was protest organized by a group of masters and doctoral degrees holders demanding government jobs. Their protest was violently dispersed, but eventually authorities released the thirty protesters who had been arrested.
We are also witnessing the resurgence of workers’ activism notwithstanding the various laws restricting their ability to strike. According to a Democracy Meter report, 2015 saw more than 1,100 cases labor action, including 207 strikes. Two workers were killed, eighty were fired, and ten were sentenced to prison. Further escalation seems likely in 2016, which started off with a strike staged by 10,000 workers across fifty-six branches of Petrotrade, or Petroleum Trading Service Co.
Deteriorating living conditions, moreover, are affecting wide segments of the so-called “Hizb Al-Kanaba.” Hizb Al-Kanaba is Arabic for the “Sofa Party” and denotes those who stayed home and passively watched the January 25 Revolution unfold from their “sofas”. Observers believe that in 2013 millions of the “Kabana” tendency left their sofas and mobilized in support of Sisi when he called for nationwide demonstrations and marches to authorize him to suppress his opponents’ protests. And yet today, it has become clear that these once ardent supporters of Sisi from among the Kanaba tendency are returning back to indifference and passivity. When the president urged Egyptians to participate in the 2015 legislative elections, his calls went unheeded as evidenced by images of empty polling stations. Luckily for the Egyptian opposition, popular fascism in the country lacks organization and ideological depth, and is certainly not perseverant. Even if many of those who once backed the regime have not shifted their support to the opposition, they have certainly lost the energy and fervor they had in 2013.
The Egyptian state is also strulgging to keep its external backers content. With the expansion of terrorism in Sinai, the regime is unable to preserve its image as a guardian of stability. Nor is it able to demonstrate any nominal commitment to human rights in eyes of Western opinion shapers. This has led to a multitude of condemnations from the West. The latest European Parliament’s resolution on Egypt is a case in point. Gulf countries are also showing signs of impatience. Their aid to Egypt has been reduced after Cairo’s support for Russia’s airstrikes against the Syrian Opposition and its failure to lend military support to Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen.
7. Small, Successful Revolutions
On 12 February 2016, thousands of medical doctors gathered in the heart of Cairo, chanting against the Ministry of Interior, in a legendary scene that may very well be repeated in the coming weeks and months. Doctors did not protest for abstract demands, but rather for a detailed set of demands that concern Egyptian doctors regardless of their political leanings. In some ways this speaks to the distinct character of the 2016 political scene. In contrast to the previous era in which unified, broad-based political messages were the name of the game, now there are various political battles and fronts that are complementing each other and fighting for specific, practical demands. The focus on clear, basic demands has been key in overcoming the political polarization and tensions within social groups.
That same trend is reflected in online activism. Instead of a single Facebook Page advancing the call for change per the era of “We Are All Khaled Said,” there are now a variety of pages and platforms that are taking on the battle for change on multiple fronts. Among these pages are “So He Would Not Be Surprised If He Comes,” which was created to highlight the deteriorating state of public healthcare facilities. The title sarcastically references then-Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s expression of surprise during a publicized visit to a poorly maintained healthcare facility. Others include the “Internet’s Revolution” Page, which was created in protest of poor Internet services in Egypt, and finally, the political satire-rich “Asa7be Sarcasm Society” Facebook Page.
8. Fear-mongering is Failing
On the 2016 anniversary of the January 25 Revolution, Muslim Brotherhood members took to the streets in forty protests, where no one was reportedly killed. In fact, these protests received very little attention. What is most striking are not the protests per se, but people’s response to them. One friend who participated in these protests reports that he saw people sitting at cafes and going about their lives just as the protesters marched right next to them. In contrast to the anger such Brotherhood protests used to elicit in the past, observers did not show any signs of anger, or try to harm the protesters or disperse them. Popular fascism is on the retreat.
The regime has long used the “threat” of the Muslim Brotherhood to stifle dissent, presenting itself as the only savior that can protect society from the return of a vengeful Brotherhood. And yet now the Brotherhood’s presence has been on the retreat due to the deepening of the group’s internal decisions. The Brotherhood’s so-called “sabotage operations” and “pro-legitimacy” protests that used to call for Mohamed Morsi’s reinstatement as president are disappearing. That is to say, the regime’s argument that the Brotherhood is an imminent danger and its return to power is a genuine threat is no longer credible. Thus, the “Brotherhood bogeyman” and secular-Islamist polarization are no longer the center of public concern. Although, these stifling issues have not been removed completely, they have certainly been set-aside for the time being. Meanwhile, Egyptians themselves are becoming more aware of the state’s fear mongering tactics, and no longer buy into the regime’s narrative. In fact, many mocked these very tactics during the height of the medical doctors’ protests. Online forums were full of sarcastic memes suggesting that doctors syndicate leaders Mona Mina and Hussein Khairy must be members of the Muslim Brotherhood, when in reality they are the farthest thing from being so.
9. The Days of “Dignified” Autocrats are over
It took about thirty years to bring down the image of Mubarak as the “wise president,” per old state propaganda, and label him for what he is, a failed tyrant. Before then, his opponents could rarely find funny videos or statements that could be used to mock him publically. The way he spoke, while boring and redundant, was plain enough to keep him shielded from public mockery. Now things have changed.
In only two years, Sisi has lost this once unbreakable reputation as the benevolent leader who has saved Egypt from the brink of disaster. Now people are widely questioning his ability as president, while pointing to his evident failure to bring about meaningful economic prosperity, or, as many do online, mocking his confused, incomprehensible speeches. Now his supporters are abandoning their long-standing slogan that “Sisi will make Egypt as big as this world,” and are instead justifying his rule through much more defensive arguments, such as: “he may not be the best, but there is no alternative” or “its either him or Egypt will follow the path of Syria and Iraq.”
10. The Circle of Corruption is Shrinking and Opposition is Growing
Mubarak was always keen on keeping corruption networks as broad as possible, and thus, he included business people, state bureaucrats, and security officials. He was also keen on keeping the opposition contained by granting them some concessions, such as some limited representation in parliament. There were also firm rules for security repression such that extrajudicial executions and torture were limited to violent groups. Whereas the Muslim Brotherhood leaders were often jailed for limited periods of time, other political forces were mostly safe of that form of repression.
Today, on the other hand, the “corruption circle” has become much smaller and is mostly limited to military and security agencies to the exclusion of disgruntled business people and bureaucrats. In fact, some members of the business community have publicly voiced with their dismay with al-Sisi’s economic policies and have refused the president request for donations.
Additionally, all opposition forces are marginalized, including those who have limited, non-contentious demands. The old, conservative rules of repression no longer apply, wherein even prominent youth who supported the June 30 movement, like Moheb Doss and Mohamed Al-Saqqa, are being detained. Thus, gradually Sisi’s opposition is becoming wider and even includes figures linked to the old regime. It is very evident how many media figures and politicians have shifted their positions from unequivocal praise for Sisi to open opposition to the government, if not the president himself.
All the above evidence points to the reality that we have entered an era similar to 2005 when Mubarak’s demise was just about to start. We are living through the stage of frustration and doubt that will gradually turn into anger. A wide range of social groups and actors are engaged in conscious mobilization and dissent. Indeed, it will take time to get to the following stage, when, much like 2010, anger turns into hope, and when the idea that “there is no alternative” is replaced with a wide feeling that an alternative is possible, even if it is not obvious. The National Association for Change never said that any of its leaders could become president. Neither did it call for Mubarak’s downfall right when it was first founded. And yet its very presence implicitly conveyed that feeling to the public.
Our intent is not to deceive or search for an illusionary optimism. We are well aware of our weakness and fragmentation. And we do realize that there is a significant popular base supporting the current regime. But we also realize that at this stage we are still capable of disturbing the giant that is the regime. In fact, we have regained the momentum in many areas. We also know that the possibilities of the future are open-ended, whether we envision them through our old political imagination, or through entirely new ways. The outcomes of revolutions materialize in a matter of years, not months. We have not won, and we have no illusions about that. But neither have they.
[A version of this article appeared in Arabic in Al-Tahrir daily. The authors would like to thank Sara Khorshid for her translation assistance.]