x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Egypt's uprising continues to be a work in progress

The next few months will determine how democratic the new Egypt will be. But there is already new vitality in the country's public life.

There is a dramatic video made by Egyptian activists that has been circulating online lately. In it, actors play the roles of some of the major protagonists of the Egyptian uprising and its aftermath: Hosni Mubarak, the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, the liberals, and of course the courageous activists who took to the streets a year ago and toppled a "Pharaoh".

The narrative shows the military turning the political players against each other: the Salafist against the activist, the Muslim Brother against the Salafist, the liberal against the Islamists and so on. Later, the politicians do nothing as the military beats the activist: they are too busy with ballot boxes, and finish by fighting each other for an empty throne. The video ends with the words, "All of you sold Egypt."

For some of the revolutionaries who participated in last year's uprising, which began a year ago today, this serves as an accurate depiction of their betrayal at the hands of, well, everybody. The Muslim Brotherhood, which did not even back protests last January, has won nearly half the seats in parliament and is set to be the key negotiator of the military's handover of power to a civilian government by next July.

Since last October, over 100 protestors have been killed in clashes with army and police, even as elections were under way, and very few politicians joined the protestors' call for an immediate end to the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Even as the anniversary of January 25 was being prepared and the same revolutionaries called for a "second revolution," the leading political parties were calling for a calm celebration of the revolution and trust in parliament to continue to transition process.

Meanwhile, the SCAF added insult to (grievous) injury by announcing it would distribute a "January 25 medallion" to every wounded revolutionary and every soldier drafted into military service since the uprising.

So is this what the Egyptian revolution of 2011 has come to, a deal with Islamists and the military to stabilise the country, repress democracy activists and keep the country going pretty much as it used to, except with a more religious and overtly militaristic veneer?

Not so fast. Implicit in the video is not only disappointment with Egypt's elites, but with its people. In recent months I have often heard the complaint that Egyptians are all too easily manipulated by the military and Islamist politicians, and too eager for a return to normality. It may be true to some extent - in autocracies and democracies alike public opinion is manipulated - but the bottom line of this worldview is a dead-end idea: that the people betrayed the revolution. It is an idea with no future because if not for the people, in whose name are the revolutionaries speaking?

In Egypt and other countries, I have heard the same thing from ordinary people. Most are too busy to take part in activism, because they must work to earn bread for their families. Joining in protests is too risky for them, because they risk getting arrested or hospitalised, and they are afraid - not for themselves as much as about what their families would do without them. And they are also willing to give the politicians a chance to negotiate a better future for them, having voted, many of them for the first time in their lives.

This is a bitter pill to swallow for the revolutionaries, whose comrades languish in military prisons, in hospitals. They have buried friends and paid a high price for their courage. It is little wonder they feel betrayed.

And yet they have been right to keep protesting, to keep spreading the truth about the murders committed by the military and police. Almost every time protestors have taken to the street they have managed to extract concessions from the SCAF and political parties alike. Note, for instance, the recent pledge by the Muslim Brotherhood's General Guide, Mohammed Badie, that the military will be held accountable for its mistakes, or SCAF's release of nearly 2,000 prisoners, many of whom had been put through the military justice system the protestors oppose.

The reality is that the generals, even as they scheme to expand their powers, are on the defensive in a way that is unprecedented in over 60 years of military rule.

The military, the backbone of the regime since 1952, may retain for some time to come both formal and informal influence in post-Mubarak Egypt. The next few months will be crucial to determine exactly how far that influence, not unusual in countries that are attempting a transition to democracy, will go.

But Egypt has also gained a new vitality in its civil society and in its political life: look not only at the many political parties that have been created (including, for the first time in Egypt's history, political parties based on a liberal, social-democratic platform), but at the myriad youth groups, single-issue advocacy movements, and other organisations that have made a discourse on human rights and democracy mainstream. This is another Egyptian first.

There is little doubt that there will be trials and tribulations ahead. The military and the security services will not relinquish power easily. Islamists in parliament may want to implement agendas that are not just conservative, but retrograde. Egypt's economy stands on the brink of a disaster that could discredit the revolution.

But a year later, the Egyptian revolution is real. Its anniversary an occasion to celebrate, to mourn, to express anger at the missed opportunities and mistakes of the last 12 months and to remind those who cling to power and those who have only just reached it that the Egyptian people have expressed a genuine desire for change, for accountability, and for social justice.

As Egyptian activists like to say, the revolution continues.

 

Issandr El Amrani is a writer and analyst based in Cairo. He blogs atwww.arabist.net