Cairo’s quest

Print edition : April 04, 2014

A view of Cairo's Tahrir square on January 26. Photo: AHMED TARANH/AFP

"Glory to the Unknown". Posters such as these are a reminder of the 2011 upsurge. Photo: vcbxcv xcvc

The divides in Egypt run deep. A difficult politics underlies its society but people want to remain optimistic.

ONE SUNDAY MORNING, in February 2014, I walked across the 6 October Bridge, crossing the well-mannered Nile river, thinking of a different emotion—a more formidable sensibility—and walked down to Tahrir Square, El Midan. Along the road I passed young men from upper Egypt, dressed in black, standing behind small metal barriers, armed and bored, smiling when you smile at them—the human face of the military. They are now in charge, having substituted themselves for the popular rebellion of the past three years. Nevertheless, the graffiti on the walls near Tahrir, along Mohamed Mahmoud Street, hinted at other things. In 2011, the police killed 50 people in one memorable encounter on that street. Protesters returned on the first anniversary of that massacre, only to die once more—among the dead this time was 16-year-old Gaber Salah Gaber, or Jika, who had been injured there in 2011. In 2013, a Cairo court sent First Lieutenant Mahmoud El-Shinnawy to prison for three years. The “eye sniper” was convicted of shooting deliberately into the eyes of protesters. “Glory to the Unknown”, says one drawing. It is the sign of the continued upsurge.

These drawings are the most public reminder of the inspirational protests of Egypt’s Arab Spring. Tahrir Square itself is quiet. The previous night, I watched on YouTube Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Square. It is the first Egyptian film to be nominated for an Oscar (it did not win). Noujaim put the film up on the Internet so that as many people as possible can view it. The film is heady, following individuals such as the actor Khalid Abdalla ( The Kite Runner) and the singer Ramy Essam (Erhal or “Get Out”) as they become part of the crowd. Noujaim retells the excitement of the mass protests, depicts fairly graphically the crackdown by the security forces and the resilience of the people. The Square is a film about protests. It rarely warns us of the difficult politics that underlies Egyptian society. In one corner stand the people and in another Egypt’s long-ruling President Hosni Mubarak and his establishment—the exhilaration would dissipate if the contradictions among the people were allowed to be truly grasped, and it would dampen further if the granite block of the establishment were on full display. Other films, such as Ibrahim el-Batout’s Winter of Discontent ( El Sheita Elli Fat) and Ahmad Abdalla’s Rags and Tatters ( Fars wa-gata), take us into the heart of the security establishment. They warn us that Tahrir is an opening, not an ending. Ahmed Hassan, the narrator of Noujaim’s movie, suggests as much. He tells us that the mass upsurge in Egypt cannot be reduced to this or that political accomplishment; it has produced a new way to see the world.

Ahmed Hassan’s insight can be found elsewhere. The rock band Cairokee and the singer Aida el Ayouby produced a haunting song called Ya el Midan. It opens with Aida el Ayouby’s melancholy voice, “Oh Square! Where have you been?” and then describes the wide range of people who filled it, “the ones who gave up and the brave ones, the ones who scream, and the silent ones”. Listening to this song makes one wistful for the mass demonstrations, but then there is the enduring lesson: “There is no going back, our voice is heard, and dreaming is no longer prohibited.”


As I walked away from the Square, an elderly woman sold me a facsimile of the identity card of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. It has his particulars and then his profession: Saviour of Egypt.

Since July 2013 when the Egyptian military removed Mohamed Morsy from the presidency, debates have torn apart families, friends and political parties. A friend tells me she is afraid to broach the subject with her son who has very strong views on what happened on July 3 when the military took charge. Good and decent people sit on both sides of the debate. One side is clear that what the military did was a coup since it entered the political process to depose a legitimately elected head of government. Others say that while this might be true technically, it fails to meet a much more important test. Morsy, they say, had become undemocratic. It is an intractable debate, now made mute by military power.

During the first elections after the removal of Mubarak, two candidates remained in the second round —Ahmed Shafik, a die-hard member of the old regime (known here as the foloul, or “remnants”), and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsy, by default the representative of the Tahrir dynamic. Morsy won the election with a small margin, 51 per cent of the vote. Much of the support for him came from those who would not in good conscience be able to vote for his opponent. That would have been like voting Mubarak back to power.

Once in office, however, Morsy did not govern as the winner of a complex and narrow mandate. To inoculate himself from the “remnants of the regime”, he adopted wide-ranging powers. He then proceeded to push the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda on matters of family life and public order, against his liberal allies. Protests against Morsy’s policies were met with violence that mimicked the high point of the bloodshed during 2011, with Mohamed Mahmoud Street as a focal point of the continued struggle. In 2012, young people from the sha’bi (working class) areas of Cairo took to the streets alongside workers, liberals and other disenchanted people. A 12-year-old street child on Mohamed Mahmoud Street told the anthropologist Mayssoun Sukarieh, “Last year Egypt was one hand, and now we are divided.”

The military was able to draw upon this disenchantment to move against Morsy. The immediate spur, a senior retired military officer told me, was when Morsy went to the Cairo Stadium on June 15, 2013, and spoke alongside Salafi clerics such as Mohamed Abdel-Maksoud and Mohamed al-Arifi, the former fulminating against those who had protested against the Brotherhood government and the latter calling for death to the Shias and using the most sectarian language to describe the conflict in Syria. Morsy went on to announce that he would break relations with the Syrian government and would welcome jehadis to travel from Egypt to that war. A week later, a mob entered the village of Abu Musallim in Greater Cairo and lynched four Shias, including the cleric Sheikh Hassan Shehata. Shias make up about 1 per cent of Egypt’s population. This was a war of hatred unleashed by the Brotherhood. It was, the officer recalled, the final straw for the military. It moved against Morsy as soon as possible. Egypt’s military claimed to be drawn into the conflict because of a call from the Tamarod (Rebellion) movement that had organised mass demonstrations against Morsy. El-Sisi played the movement cleverly—he asked the activists to call the people to the streets to give him a legitimate mandate to crack down on the Brotherhood, which is precisely what happened. It is how the liberals walked directly into the arms of the military. Mohammed ElBaradei, Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, Laila Rashed Iskander, Tahir Abu-Zayd, Durriyah Sharaft Aldin, Maha el-Rabt, Mahmoud Badr, and Mohamed Abdel Aziz joined the military’s new campaign. These liberal politicians and their parties have no mass base because there is a limited following for their policies —whether their economic policies that favour International Monetary Fund-style austerity or their social polices that allow them to join with the military against what they see as social dangers (such as the Islamists). Because they have no mass base, they cannot fight the Islamists themselves; they must do it from the barracks.

El-Sisi captured the empty space. He sent in his armed forces to imprison the Brotherhood and anyone who threatened him. Men with beards found themselves under threat. The Brotherhood has weathered storms before. It will take refuge in the professional unions, where it has always been strong—organisations of engineers, lawyers, journalists and doctors. Mosques beckon, as does their charity work. The flood will seek to drown them, but they have ready-made arks at hand. El-Sisi’s crackdown came alongside a process to chill the press into sanctification of his role in saving Egypt. Three fronts emerged as if from nowhere— A Nation’s Demand, El-Sisi for President and Kamel Gemilak (“Complete Your Kindness”). These campaigns gathered millions of signatures asking the General, then Field Marshal, to lead the country. It was to be an election by acclamation.

One hand or two or many?

Cafes in the triangle made by the neighbourhoods of Zamalek, Garden City and Dokki buzz with frustration and anticipation. Something surely must happen. Tahrir could not have brightened up life and so quickly left Egyptians in the dark once more. A new media project — Mada Masr—has its office in an old art deco building in Garden City. It takes in the complexity of this moment in Egypt and tries to make sense of it for itself. Many of the posts on its website read more like the voice of a journalist trying to understand a moving political field than of a news reporter casually putting together the news of the day. There is a cryptic tone to its headlines: “Elections law will immunise presidential results” and “He who has lost something does not give it”. The latter story is by a young journalist, Passant Rabie, who tracks the dissatisfaction among the police for the task they have been set by the military. An anonymous police officer tells Passant Rabie: “Every regime that comes into power uses the police force to rid it of all their opponents. Every regime politicises us.”

These are hard times for the press in Egypt. As we spoke in Mada Masr’s office, the government held Al Jazeera reporters in prison, accusing them of conspiring with the Brotherhood. A courageous blogger, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, has been in prison since November 2013 for calling for a demonstration against the new Constitution. Mada Masr’s editor Lina Attalah tells me that space for dissent in Egypt has never been very wide, but over the past few months “the little dissidence left for websites and individual journalists is met with prosecutions and arrests”.

El-Sisi looked at the emergent workers movement and felt pressured to co-opt sections of it. The immensely popular labour leader Kamal Abu Eita of the Egyptian Real Estate Tax Authority Union went into the government set up by El-Sisi after Morsy’s ouster. He held the post of Minister of Manpower. Eita used his position to push unsuccessfully for a higher minimum wage. Mada Masr’s opinion editor Dina Hussein tells me: “There is talk that the decision to increase the minimum wage was behind the [February 2014] ousting of the government of [Hazem] al-Beblawi due to uncertainty on how such a policy would be financed.” Eita had also used his pulpit to attack the strike wave that continues in the belt of large textile mills in Mahalla. Egypt’s unemployment rate is near 14 per cent, with a staggering 69 per cent of the unemployed between the ages of 15 and 29 (these are based on government data). Prices continue to rise and despite infusions of capital from Saudi Arabia, the public finances are in a mess. This has set in motion labour unrest from Alexandria’s bus drivers to Kafr el-Sheikh’s pharmacists.

Workers played a crucial, but underappreciated, role in the Tahrir dynamic. Their unions did not always serve them well. The only sanctioned left Nasserite party, Tagammu, had joined the streets and its activists linked with those of other small socialist groups to form the Socialist People’s Alliance Party in 2011. During the tumultuous period of 2013, the Socialist Alliance backed the military and lost the most vibrant organisers who went on to form, in November, the Bread and Freedom (Eish we Horria) Party. Its Cairo secretary, Akram Ismail Mohamed, tells me that his party wants to do more than put out press releases and articulate a purist political line. Such practices have short-circuited the Egyptian Left. Ismail is eager for mass contact, and tells me that Eish we Horria has activists in many of the 27 governorates, even in upper Egypt, which is otherwise cut off from Cairo. Campaigns against torture and alongside the workers’ struggles will draw together popular linkages. Eish we Horria’s Mona Ezzat goes further, taking her party into the fight for housing for slum dwellers. It will take considerable time to draw in the unions and the people’s organisations into “one hand”, the symbol of unity during the Tahrir uprising. As of now, the divides in Egypt run deep. Bridges are being built, but construction is slow.

At Cairo University, the students ask, “How do you remain optimistic?” That question itself is the answer. By asking it, the students and Egyptians in general indicate that they want to be optimistic.