x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Egyptians need to change tack to get themselves heard

Those who seek justice for the people who died in Mohammed Mahmoud Street should consider their tactics carefully.

Last week marked the anniversary of two sets of clashes between Egyptian citizens and security forces: the first was under the government of Field Marshal Tantawi in 2011, and the second was under the Muslim Brotherhood government of 2012. Two years after the first clashes, protests still took place, but the way in which protesters’ demands have been responded to speaks volumes about the road ahead for Egypt.

The anniversary almost went off without a hitch. Thousands gathered in Mohammed Mahmoud Street, where the original clashes took place in November 2011, to denounce both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

There were many who feared that the remembrance might turn extremely violent, but if there were Mohammed Morsi sympathisers in the crowd, they generally did not make themselves known.

There were, however, clashes at the end of the night when, with the gathering more or less over, some youths got the fight they were looking for with the police. Apart from that, the day did not result in the violence many had feared – but that is not a success in itself.

In a state under the rule of law, the rights of citizens are found through the court. Indeed, that is what an adviser to the former minister of interior said in an interview this week.

Major General Mohammed Nur el Din, insisted that “the right of the martyr comes through the courts, and not through demonstrations and marches”.

In theory, he is correct, but that presupposes that the courts are fulfilling the mandate that they are called upon to perform.

After two years, justice has not been secured for those killed in the 2011 street protests, even though they have been recognised as martyrs by the state.

On the other hand, students who are protesters for the bizarre demand of the reinstatement of Morsi have been sentenced to 17 years in jail. It is not hard to see why some may argue that the courts are letting them down with such sentences.The question then becomes: if the courts are letting them down, what path is available for the activists who seek justice?

Some of those who had previously supported the Mohammed Mahmoud Street demonstrations argued that protests were not the way forward at present as they would be used and abused for other purposes.

As if to confirm this point and despite the presence of overwhelmingly anti-Muslim Brotherhood crowds, large parts of the Egyptian media insist the Brotherhood were behind the protests.

The violence that took place, however isolated and remote from the actual vigil in Mohammed Mahmoud, still tainted the anniversary in the eyes of the public – who, it is important to note, are not particularly enthralled with the idea of any protest that could be identified as contributing to any form of instability. There are two tactics reformists and activists might wish to consider.

This first entails the continuation of mobilisations, but not as marches. The days of long, large marches to provoke political change are, for the time being, at an end – partly because of the difficulty of getting large numbers to participate, and partly because any such mobilisation runs the risk of being uncontrollable and infiltrated by other elements.

Moreover, they will invariably be described as pro-Morsi marches by a media that is opposed to any sort of mobilisation.

However, there is another type of mobilisation – and that is the vigil. This tactic was successfully used last month at the Maspero memorial to mark the anniversary of the deaths of 27 Coptic protesters.

In Mohammed Mahmoud, the same could be said – it was generally not a march, but a vigil, and a fairly well organised one at that. The point of such vigils is more for those who attend, rather than aiming to provoke a response from the authorities – but that is still important.

At a time when Egypt is as polarised as it is, spaces where marginalised people can even gather are still important – otherwise, they are invisible not only to society, but to each other.

The second tactic relates to the actual political process. Those seeking reforms of the judiciary, as well as the security sector, cannot fool themselves into thinking that street action on its own can accomplish anything, particularly in a country where the public supports those institutions. Other methods of raising awareness, lobbying public officials, media campaigns, and pressing their case with would be politicians of the future in different political parties, remain especially important – not necessarily as a replacement for the street, but as complementary to it. Had pro-revolutionary forces been able to make that shift in 2011, Egypt might be a different place now.

Instead, the Egyptian government is now in the process of passing a law severely restricting the right of protest.

The law, which bans protests without prior notification to the authorities, is likely to be ignored by many – but even the idea of it is significant.

Of course, the response of activists is also important: in the attempt to get permission for a demonstration against the protest law, activists continue to send a defiant message.

Egypt could not have changed in 2011 without protests. But in a country where the majority of the population are far more comfortable with the authorities, especially in the absence of a well defined alternative, those who seek justice for those who died at Mohammed Mahmoud are required to consider their tactics carefully.

Otherwise, they will not only fail in seeking justice for the past – they will seek more impunity in the future.

Dr HA Hellyer is associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer