Like most things in life, the Egyptian Revolution produced winners and losers. On the anniversary of its beginning, SIMON ALLISON looks at why the activists are introspective and the military is celebrating.
This time a year ago, Hosni Mubarak was sitting pretty in his presidential palace, preparing to deal in his ruthlessly efficient fashion with yet another challenge to his authority. There had been a few in his three decades as Egypt’s head of state, but none serious enough to loosen his tight grip on power. This time was different.
Descending on Tahrir Square in Cairo, and on various landmarks in Egypt’s other major cities, particularly Alexandria, was not a small, ragtag bunch of activists. Instead, his policemen were confronted by hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from all areas of society: the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, the secular and the religious, the young and the old. It was as broad a cross section of Egyptian society as possible, and in such numbers that their demands were impossible to ignore. This was the beginning of the Egyptian revolution and Mubarak had only 18 more days to enjoy the luxuries of his exalted position.
It’s been a year since those heady, liberating days that changed Egypt forever. On this auspicious anniversary, it’s worth taking the time to look at how its protagonists – and antagonists, the distinction is not always clear – have fared since.
Of course, the biggest loser in all this was Hosni Mubarak himself. After his resignation, he went into internal exile in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, and his health deteriorated rapidly. But the low point had to be his appearance in court; wheeled into a humiliating prisoner’s cage on a stretcher, a frail-looking Mubarak was charged with ordering the killing of unarmed protesters during the revolution. He’s fighting the charges, and fighting his downfall too: his lawyer argued in court just this Sunday that Mubarak’s resignation letter was invalid and that he remained president, and thus entitled to presidential immunity from prosecution. This argument was ridiculed. There’s no way back for Mubarak now.
But it’s not just Mubarak and his allies that feel aggrieved by the revolution. Increasingly, the activists who sparked the mass demonstrations are indulging in a lot of introspection. These are the original revolutionaries – the young, liberal, social media-savvy Egyptians that organised the initial protests – and they’re beginning to think that they’ve been duped by a military that never intended to facilitate a democratic transition. Blogger Mahmoud Salem (aka Sandmonkey), summed it up best:
“One of the points that always gets overlooked in the discourse of the revolution is the feeling of responsibility that has befallen many revolutionaries. At times when none of you are watching, in moments we don’t talk about with others, we face what the revolution has wrought, and we take a long hard look at ourselves and what we’ve done. The worst thing about this exercise is how lousy the story gets the moment the 18 days were over. If we hadn’t made the choice to revolt and then hand over power to the same people who used to give the best military salutes for 30 years to the man we revolted against, then all of the misery that followed from the thousands who were injured and maimed, the hundreds dead that we know about (and those we never even heard of their deaths), the thousands who ended up receiving years long sentences from completely unfair and illegal military trials, to the hundreds of thousands who lost their jobs, to the millions facing hard times economically due to a transitional government that failed to enact a single economical plan or measure to improve the economy in any way, and to the public, which we introduced terms like ‘forced virginity tests’ into their everyday vocabulary, would not have happened. Yes, we definitely share a responsibility for all of this, but it’s not for causing it, because we didn’t cause it, but for being unable to stop it. Any of it.”
While the liberal activists are wringing their hands, understandably concerned that the freedoms they fought for have yet to fully materialise, another group of revolutionaries is having a rather better time in the new political dispensation. The Muslim Brotherhood was a major factor in the sheer number of people that participated in the demonstrations. Their organisational base was able to mobilise tens of thousands, and they weren’t afraid to hold hands with the liberals and the secularists, focussing instead on the greater goal of removing Mubarak. And in his absence, they – along with the Salafists, a more radical Islamist group – have thrived. At the conclusion of the recent parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood received by far the most seats, followed by the Salafists. It’s presumed the Brotherhood, or at least the political party representing it, will easily win the presidential elections when they happen. Their current popularity is a deserved reward for their long years of persecution under Mubarak, when they represented the only cohesive political opposition, and provided important social and welfare functions in areas ignored by the government. But they have been criticised for being too cosy to the interim military government, unwilling to take a stand against the military’s repeated rights infringements.
Of course, it’s the military that have emerged as the revolution’s biggest winner. They know it too – they’re planning a huge celebration on Wednesday to commemorate the revolution’s beginning, and have ordered all Egypt’s foreign embassies to follow suit. But their role in it was always ambiguous – refusing to attack protesters, yet unwilling to defend them either. Eventually, seeing that nothing less than Mubarak’s head would appease the masses, they stepped in, promising to take over government until a new political dispensation could be worked out. This would be achieved by September 2011, they said.
But September came and went, and Egypt is no closer to getting rid of the military government, who have now pushed their own deadline back to March 2013. Their rule has been problematic, to say the least; of particular concern are the military trials which have sent 16,000 people to prison, most without benefit of a lawyer. This is hardly the freedom from oppression the revolution was meant to herald. They also want to lead the process of writing Egypt’s new constitution, primarily to include a clause preventing any civilian government from messing with military funding. They’re unlikely to cede power without some kind of guarantee of their future – and they’ve got the guns to keep themselves in power as long as they like.
So Wednesday will be bittersweet for most Egyptians involved in the unprecedented events sparked by the 25 January protests. So much has changed, but not all of it for the better, and the free and democratic Egypt envisioned by almost everyone in Tahrir Square has yet to come to pass. But Egypt is closer to that future than they’ve ever been before – for that, if nothing else, the revolution was a success. DM
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle