In Tahrir, the beginning and end of a Pharaoh

by Nadim Fetaih on December 3, 2012

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Egypt’s revolutionaries are back in Tahrir, and this time they are there to finish what they started: to topple the Pharaoh and institute real democracy.

When Sadat came to power in 1970, the Muslim Brotherhood went from being an illegal political group to the only political organization with free reign to grow. They were able to express their views openly; they were able to spread their Islamist ideology without consequence; they were able to indoctrinate children without government intervention; and were able to spread to the grassroots of the most impoverished areas of Egypt.

This was over 40 years ago. It is obvious, then, that having been the only opposition force in a tyrannical regime for over a generation, that the Muslim Brotherhood was the only real party capable of taking the Parliament and Presidency once representative democracy had been put in place in the wake of the overthrow of Mubarak.

When the revolution began on January 25th, 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood initially boycotted the revolt, saying it was morally wrong to go out in protest. But once they realized that it was a movement that would not end without victory, they sided with the people. Imams in mosques began ending each prayer by telling the men and women inside to hit the streets. As beautiful as that may sound, make no mistake: it was a political decision and not one of morals. Mubarak’s ousting on February 11th, 2011 opened up a void that hasn’t been seen in Egypt in generations. The time had come for the Muslim Brotherhood to make its move.

When, over the summer of 2012 Egypt’s first “democratic” elections took place, the basic choice was one which many of us in the West have long been familiar with: a choice between the lesser of two evils. Yes, the choice was between a representative of the old regime, Ahmed Shafiq, and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi. Having had enough of the old regime, people went out in scores to vote in Morsi – and thus the first elected president in 60 years came to power.

This is the story that everyone in the West heard – the accepted belief of what is going on in Egypt. “The revolution is over!” was the message to be sent. This was democracy, this was what the Egyptian people had been fighting for. But behind the scenes the revolutionaries, who largely boycotted the election to express their discontent at the lack of real choice, never stopped fighting against the continued repression of the state and the concentration of power inside a single office claimed by an Islamist party.

The Egyptian revolution has also not been disconnected from international pressure. The IMF, for example, has promised billions in aid to help rebuild Egypt’s economy no matter who was in power, demanding the typical neoliberal free market reforms in return for its emergency funding. This, coupled with Obama’s promise to continue the $1.2bn per year in military aid to Egypt, shows something very important: the Muslim Brotherhood is but another puppet to international forces, just as the Mubarak regime and its predecessor had been.

Egypt’s geography, size, and cultural importance for the rest of the Arab world make it an important ally to the West and Israel. The media’s job, then, was to make Morsi a hero for Egypt and its allies. And they did well, praising Morsi as the man who helped negotiate the ceasefire between Israel and Palestine. Just as they did with Sadat, the international community believed that Morsi was a responsible pragmatist and a reliable diplomatic partner — not a tyrant.

Then, just a day after the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel was announced, a decree was sent out publicly by Morsi that shocked not only the Egyptian people but also the international community:

FACTS ABOUT THE NEW DECREE (According to Al Jazeera):

  • President says new decree is aimed at ‘cleansing state institutions’
  • Decree allows president to appoint public prosecutor for a four-year term
  • Morsi gave himself power to enact any law he wants
  • Morsi’s decree effectively sacks the current prosecutor general, which means no authority can revoke any presidential decisions
  • Morsi has ordered the retrial of officials linked to killing of protesters
  • Morsi’s decree to remain in force until a new parliament is elected
  • Parliament cannot be elected until a new constitution is in place
  • Morsi also extended the timeline for drafting the new constitution
  • Morsi says he has to have absolute power to protect the revolution

The decree did not only ensure absolute power for Morsi; it also ensured that the upper house of Parliament as well as the constituent assembly (charged with making the new constitution) cannot be dissolved. Both of which, coincidentally, are controlled by a majority of Muslim Brotherhood representatives. Some members of both groups have walked out in protest, but could not stop the process.

Fears have become reality within the past couple of months as new laws and parts of the constitution continue to not only suppress women’s rights, but also steadily turn Egypt into an Islamist state. It is because of this downward spiral in Morsi’s legitimacy that many revolutionaries have been taking to the streets for months now hoping to spread awareness about the hijacking of the people’s revolution.

Some vigilante groups have been scouring downtown Cairo looking for abusive men who (verbally and physically) attack women. Their attitude would range from peaceful – placing themselves between the abusive man and the woman until the woman gets to safety – to a more reactive form of violence. One group has been seen spray-painting men in the eyes who committed abuse against women in the streets.

As soon as Morsi’s new decrees came to light, however, scores upon scores of people began to hit the streets and the infamous Tahrir Square was lit up, once again, with the rage of the people. Signs were seen showing half the face of Morsi with the other half Mubarak’s face, stating: “Mohamed Morsi Mubarak”. And therein lies the mistake of the Muslim Brotherhood: they believed that they had waited long enough for the revolutionary spirit of the masses to cool down. They obviously thought wrong.

In the past year and a half, Egyptian society has achieved an unprecedented level of political consciousness. The revolutionary sentiment among the revolutionaries themselves — especially those who fought in the front-lines during the overthrow of Mubarak, and many of whom lost friends and/or family in the uprising — is particularly strong. So when the average Egyptian found out about Morsi’s decrees, they felt as though their struggle had been in vain. But rather than giving up, they took back to Tahrir — and started another sit-in.

But inside Egypt, the people are divided. A schism of epic proportions has developed between Morsi’s supporters and his detractors; a schism that has only now begun to surface. On the one side are the liberals, the leftists, the judges, the youth, intellectuals, and revolutionaries. On the other side are the Muslim Brotherhood members, sympathizers, and many of the poverty-stricken people who have been bought out with a kilo of sugar, bread, or (in the rare occasion) meat – the same people who were bought out on the day of the Camel attacks during the 18-day occupation of Tahrir Square.

The streets have once again become a small war-zone. Tear gas thrown by the police; Muslim Brotherhood militia attacking peaceful dissidents; stones and Molotov’s being thrown by the revolutionaries. But all of this happens as we await, whilst biting our nails, the position of the military. This, just like the beginning of the revolution, will tip the scales in either direction. If the military sides with the dissidents, Morsi will be unable to stand up against the people for long. His Pharaoh-like rule will come to and end as quickly as it came. But if the Egyptian military decides to side with Brotherhood, expect a civil war.

In November 2011, the New York Times declared that the Egyptian revolution was an unfinished revolution. At the time, it was true: the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) had held onto power as a “transition government”. All throughout this time, military trials on civilians were being conducted and it seemed that the Egyptian people had simply fought one oppressive, tyrannical regime, only to be met with another. The system itself had not been brought down. Only its face had changed: from Mubarak, to the SCAF, to Mohamed Morsi.

Currently, we are witnessing the slow and painful birth of the final stage of that unfinished revolution. Having been forced by reality on the ground to recognize the inherent fallacies embedded within the representative democratic process, is it possible that the Egyptian people will rise up demanding something more? Could it be that the Egyptians — almost two years after inspiring the world to rise up for real democracy everywhere — could be back on the barricades demanding such real democracy themselves?

These questions, along with the decision of the Egyptian military, can only be answered with time. But no matter what the answers are, nearly two years since the beginning of this revolution, the end is nigh. It will no longer be the unfinished revolution. Either this revolution will succeed, or it will fail. This time, though, things may not be as simple as they were in 2011.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Lalamumu December 3, 2012 at 09:58

Thanks for this. Two reactions.

I haven’t checked with my friends in Cairo, but I think the situation might be complicated by the fact that Morsi had promised to retrial Mubarak and Interior Minister Adly if he is elected. This was a major demand of most revolutionary groups, as they demanded ‘justice’ for the martyrs. I understand that Morsi could only do that by sacking the previous Public Prosecutor (appointed under Mubarak’s time) and making sure that his decrees (including the one that re-opened the trial) could not be revoked. Of course, this move may open the door to scary tyranny. But there is a logic to it. Clever Morsi…

Secondly, Egyptian society seems indeed deeply polarised but I wouldn’t say the schism runs along the lines of liberalism/leftism on the one hand and (religious) conservativism on the other. Most Egyptians are deeply religious and do not agree with the small but vocal number of liberal intellectuals. I have a few Egyptian friends, who participated body and soul in the Revolution, who feel very strongly that liberal intellectuals only care about protecting their (bourgeois) way of life and have hijacked the revolution which is really about granting every human being the right to live decently. Many liberal intellectuals and public figures like to emphasize the need to protect personal liberties (including protecting minorities, women, freedom of expression but also drinking alcohol, criticising religion etc…) rather than a radical redistribution of wealth which, of course, will directly affect them too.

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Nadim December 3, 2012 at 17:03

You’re definitely right about the divisions, there are undoubtedly many more lines being drawn in the sand. The left is incredibly divided, the liberals are in it for themselves (as you mentioned), and there are many proponents of the old regime staying in Tahrir alongside the revolutionaries. As one of my friends has told me, this revolt is less so for the entire populace than it is for parties’ interests. Many revolutionaries (from what I’ve been told) are vehemently against the sit-in as they have seen this division and do not believe it is coming from the right sentiment. Almost every tent there has the flag of different political groups (April 6, political parties that were born from Tahrir, leftist parties, etc.).
But, in saying so, just because people maybe religious does not mean they are pro-MB. Many know that division between religion and state is incredibly necessary to ensure the best possible Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood youth revolutionaries for example continued to fight in the months after the 18 day occupation – against the wishes of the MB.
But, in the larger picture, the main fight is against the complete control of the government by MB members and the increasingly Islamic Egypt coming out of it. What I continue to hope for is the reach for the utopian world that existed in Tahrir during those beautiful 18 days. I hope that a non-hierarchical, truly democratic nation can be born from this frustration and division. It is a dream, I know, and may never happen, but no matter what, it seems that this will be the fight that will decide the fate of Egypt.
As for the retrials, yes, this may have been a wish of many revolutionaries, but as you mentioned is a clever ploy by Morsi to appease the people. The “look over there” tactic as I like to call it, but while some people may have fallen for it, others know it is but a ruse to distract and appease the increasingly angry Egyptian people as this rushed constitution is pushed through. This is, of course is not the only issue. The use of police made dissidents remember the old regime – as they are not being used for civil disputes, nor in protecting the citizens but only against dissidents. There has also been mass censorship – some news shows who attacked the MB were taken off the air – that has been incredibly autocratic. Put simply, the MB, like any other political party in representative democracy, is only there to help themselves and those who believe in them. The poor are still getting poorer, the rich getting richer, and neoliberalism continues to rule. This, in effect is the largest fight.

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Lalamumu December 11, 2012 at 22:19

thanks for your beautiful and generous answer.

I do think it is important to be careful not to identify the ‘liberals’ as the ‘good guys’ in this struggle. It might be counter-intuitive to Western minds, but many Egyptian liberals are causing more trouble than anything else. Yes – the Muslim Brotherhood is somewhat hideous (in its leaders and capitalist ideology), but the issue is not religion; although many Muslim Brothers would like us to believe it is, i.e. that they are the upholders of faith and their opponents are impious traitors. To suggest that the MB are religious fanatics that can only be contained by enlightened secular liberals, as some Western commentators tend to, reverts this false dichotomy but does not subvert it. Ultimately, in Egypt, where religion is venerated, this false dichotomy will always work in the MB’s favour.

Praying for the best. I suppose we were fools to think this was going to be easy. The beautiful 18 days in Tahrir, as inspiring as they were, are definitely over.

I wish you the best for the work you do.

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Christos December 3, 2012 at 12:06

Say they were to bring down the Muslim brotherhood, what next? Just another party no doubt. Unless there is an accessible direct democracy platform available to the masses.

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dave December 4, 2012 at 07:28

“All power directly in the hands of the toiling masses, that is social revolution. All power in the hands of a bureaucracy which the workers have no choice but to obey, that is counterrevolution.” Cuban anarchist, Enrique Roig San Martin.

I hope I have that quote verbatim, anyway, great piece Nadim.

All power to Tahrir Square!

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