Egyptian rebels with a cause… and effect

 
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By Khaled Diab

The dedication and success of the Tamarod rebellion against President Morsi is awe-inspiring, but the movement’s current trust in the army is worrying.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

A stone’s throw away from Egypt’s emblematic Tahrir Square stands the Groppi Rotund, a tearoom which was once the preserve of well-heeled Europeans and wealthy Egyptians at a time when Cairo – at least its European quarter – had pretensions of being the Paris of the Middle East.

Groppi’s, a dusty, crumbling ghost of its former self, has borne immobile witness to most of the major events and upheavals which have gripped Egypt over the past century or so. It is even rumoured that the Free Officers, who met to plot the overthrow of the monarchy at another café just off Tahrir Square, used the phone in Groppi’s to communicate.

If true, this was an appropriate venue to meet a group of young activists in the Tamarod movement, most of whom describe themselves as Nasserists, though the movement itself is non-partisan. Tamarod, which means ‘Rebellion’ in Arabic, was a petition campaign, which began life in late April 2013, calling for President Mohamed Morsi to step down and launch early presidential elections.

Though he looks like your typical Egyptian guy next door and is not rebellious in his appearance, Hassan Shahin, 23, a journalist who is still completing his degree in media at Cairo University, was the originator of the idea. “The source of the concept was that we wanted to reach ordinary citizens in order to instigate change in society,” the young revolutionary told me after he’d finished some urgent-seeming communications on his tablet. “There was a sense of depression amongst the people, and they didn’t believe that the Muslim Brotherhood would go without bloodshed.”

The reason they felt the need to “reach ordinary citizens” was because “the opposition had lost touch with the people”, Shahin observes. “They talked about political questions and ignored social demands. You need to respond to social demands to move the street.”

This was reflected in the care the Tamarod activists took to pitching the message of their campaign. “The petition was a way to reach ordinary citizens, so we worded it in a way that would appeal to them,” he explained.

It also manifested itself in the campaign’s grassroots nature and its successful efforts to shove the Egyptian secular opposition out of its comfort zone in Cairo and some major cities and make it a truly national movement. “Citizens had ownership of the project,” Shahin said. “We had representatives in every governorate and we gathered over 10,000 volunteers in the first two weeks alone.”

It is a sign of how far Egypt has come that a mass, nationwide mobilisation campaign should have such a, well, rebellious name in a country once famed for its apparent placidity and conformity, and where causing “fitna” (“sedition”) was frozned upon. Tamarod, whose name was inspired by a radical Syrian political magazine, Shahin informed me, was a movement both to rebel “against”, but most importantly to rebel “for”.

“The idea was to rebel against the Muslim Brotherhood’s project of religious fascism which was causing popular disillusionment and depression,” Shahin noted, though I found his casual use of such a loaded word as “fascism” troubling. “But our rebellion was also more for than against  – for law and order, for equality, for social and economic justice.”

Although the young revolutionaries behind Tamarod were confident that their campaign, which was dreamed up in a small Dokki flat, would make a large splash, they did not expect it to be quite so enormous. “We had confidence in the Egyptian street, but we were surprised by just how many people got involved,” admits Shahin.

Tamarod says it managed to collect some 23 million signatures (a figure which has not been independently verified), which is only a couple of million short of the total number of votes both Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq collected in the second round runoff.

I put to Shahin the criticism that Tamarod and other supporters of Morsi’s ouster were anti-democratic to get his views on the matter. “Morsi had an illusory democracy. He abused the constitution, represented just the Brotherhood, and used its militias to terrorise,” he asserted, employing yet another emotive word. “People came out in rebellion against this terrorisation and intimidation.”

The Muslim Brotherhood have warned of – many say “threatened” – the dire consequences of Morsi’s ouster, including the prospect of civil war. For his part, Shahin contends that the reverse is true. “If the army hadn’t intervened the situation would’ve escalated into a civil war,” he believes, one that would’ve pitted an embattled, desperately unpopular president and the Muslim Brotherhood against revolutionaries and much of the population.

How about those who contend that civil war is now more likely? “There are risks ahead but it is impossible that there’ll be a civil war. If the Egyptian people were bloody and violent, they would’ve gone to Raba’a [al-Adawiya] in their millions to finish of the Muslim Brotherhood,”

“What happened on 30 June was a popular revolution supported by a patriotic army,” said the young activist who just a year and a half earlier was out protesting against this very same “patriotic army”. Shahin even quite literally got trampled upon by the heavy boot of military rule when he attempted, on 28 December 2011, to aid a woman who was being brutally beaten and dragged away by soldiers, exposing her torso blue bra, in an iconic moment which symbolised everything that was wrong with the direct interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

This shift baffled and bothered me, so I decided to probe him on it, especially in light of how Tamarod had heeded General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s chilling call to take to the streets to provide him with a popular “mandate” to combat “violence and terrorism” (Luckily, some revolutionary movements, such as the 6th April Youth Movement, refused to participate). And how about the deaf ear the generals turned to the demands of revolutionaries to hand over power immediately to civilian rule during the first transition? What about the red lines SCAF drew around its empire and the back room influence it enjoyed over Morsi? How could Tamarod bring itself to trust the junta now?

“The first transition created deficiencies at the time. Even if there were errors committed by SCAF, it was the president’s job to establish the right foundations for Egyptian democracy,” insisted Shahin. “We need to differentiate between the institution of the army and a group of leaders who made mistakes… The army which produced Orabi and Nasser is patriotic.”

Shahin suggested that the problem was not with the military but with Field Marshal Mohamed el-Tantawi’s leadership of SCAF. But is Sisi’s leadership any less self-interested or any more democratic? Why is General Sisi engaged in such transparent efforts to bolster the army’s popularity by inciting against the Muslim Brotherhood, and why is he employing classic divide and rule tactics? I heard both whispered and loud speculation while in Egypt that Sisi was planning to ditch the khaki and run in elections as a civilian – and if he were to do that, many expect him to win a landslide victory.

Besides, is the army not repeating many of the same mistakes it made in the first transition? No, insists the Tamarod spokesperson. “The second transition is much better. This time, there is the idea of drafting a constitution first. The revolutionaries are now in government,” he cites as two examples.

Even if CC, as his opponents call him, is well-intentioned and honest about his lack of ambition to rule, it is surely not healthy for so many people, including hard-nosed revolutionaries, to be acting like starstruck teenagers at a rock concert.

In fact, many have likened the charismatic and savvy general to Egypt’s legendary second president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But despite his many achievements – and catastrophes – Nasser was no democrat by any stretch of the imagination. As Shahin and his companions at Groppi’s were also self-declared Nasserists, I wondered how they reconciled their admiration for Nasser with their long battle to bring democracy to Egypt, which began for Shahin in 2008 with the anti-Mubarak umbrella movement, Kefaya.

“Nasser made mistakes. He was human,” Shahin admits, though in terms those persecuted by the popular president, whether leftists, liberals or Islamists, would probably find more than a little understated. But to his credit Shahin did not attempt to go to the fantastical lengths Alaa al-Aswany once did in a short story in which he had Nasser giving Mubarak lessons in democracy from beyond the grave.

“But [Nasser] established true social justice and national independence,” Shahin added, echoing one side of what I call Egypt’s clash of freedoms, in which competing concepts of liberty are currently competing for ascendancy. “I came out on 25 January [2011] to complete the [23] July [1952] revolution.”

To my mind, this last comment is the ultimate proof of why revolutionaries, like the Brotherhood before them, should not express such unconditional affection for the army. After six decades of denying Egyptians their democratic rights and many of their fundamental rights, it is obvious that any love is largely one-sided and unrequited. I do not doubt that the army is “patriotic” – it would be a catastrophe if it weren’t – but its behaviour often belies some uncomfortable home truths: it loves Egypt and its own self-interest more than it does Egyptians.

“People will not be cheated by the army. It is a patriotic institution,” Shahin insists. “The political process is now inclusive and the army has no role in this phase beyond defending the Egyptian people.” Of course, many would beg to differ with this assertion, even if Sisi is officially only a deputy prime-minister.

But what if what Shahin regards as the unthinkable were to happen? “There is no military rule now and if it re-appears, I’ll be the first to oppose it,” he emphasises in no uncertain terms.

How about those who say no to both the Muslim Brotherhood and military rule, like the Midan el-Talet (Third Square) movement? “There is no such thing. They are Muslim Brotherhood supporters like [former presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim] Aboul Fotouh and those who represent US interests,” Shahin says.

His words echo the dismissive attitude I heard from many about the Third Square. Does this really reflect the nature of the movement or has the current pro-military public mood led people to turn on anyone who distrusts SCAF or expresses the view that the army should be kept out of striking range of politics? Additionally, the movement, though it does possess an Islamist element, involve all political persuasions.

I had tried to meet the Third Square to find out more about them while in Egypt but their spokesperson failed to get back to me.

Turning to the future, I probed Shahin on what he thought should happen to the Muslim Brotherhood. “We want the Brotherhood to be part of the political process, but they refuse,” he noted. “The trouble is that they believe that the will of the Brotherhood is the will of the Egyptian people.”

Thanks to Arab and international mediation, there have been some early signs that after talking themselves into a corner – or better said, a trench – the Brotherhood is looking for a dignified exit from this crisis, such as a face-saving manner for Morsi to step down.

But it is not just the Brotherhood that has been towing a hard line, the security services and many in the armed forces reportedly want to continue the tough approach they have so far taken, perhaps out of the belief that they can “teach” the Brothers a lesson. But if they do that, it is a sign that they have more than a few lessons to learn themselves.

I ended our encounter by asking Hassan Shahin where the future would take the Tamarod movement. “Tamarod is shifting from being an opposition movement to one that pressures and campaigns for change,” he told me. As an example, he mentioned their latest project called Write Your Own Constitution.

And what about Egypt’s youth who spearheaded this whole revolution with their courage, conviction and creativity; for how much longer will they be left out in the wilderness? Shahin believes that this transition is already bringing some positive developments. “The role of young people has become clear since the road map,” he noted, citing the inclusion of youth deputies.

I left Groppi’s trusting that Egypt’s youth would continue to inspire and challenge society. I also hoped that young Egyptians would lead us towards a brighter future and finally get their fair share of the country’s economic, political and social pies.

As for Tamarod, I greatly admire the rebellious spirit that  gave birth to this daring idea and the rebellious souls who  propelled it to such heights. However, I feel that the movement’s current infatuation with the army undermines its anti-establishment credentials and is a potentially dangerous liaison. But I sense that this is a temporary blip, the honeymoon will soon be over and the young rebels will once again be at loggerheads with the old generals.

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