Egypt at the Crossroads

“The Egyptian voices will be heard, and if not heard, it will be only because the blood already shed has not been enough…”

With these words, Saad Zaghloul, one of 20th century Egypt’s most celebrated nationalist revolutionaries, gave voice to the fierce, unrelenting aspirations of a people struggling to regain their freedom.  Many echo Zaghloul’s sense of righteous fury today, a year after the dawn of Egypt’s third revolution in less than a century.  Far beyond anger at the glacially slow pace of prosecuting former President Hosni Mubarak and his apparatchiks, Egyptians are confronted on a daily basis with the unforgiving lead and steel of counter-revolutionary brutality, orchestrated by those with interests vested firmly in the resurrection of autocracy.  This trauma extends to serving members of the military, who find themselves torn between disobeying direct orders from their superiors to assault unarmed protesters, and violating their intrinsic loyalty to their countrymen.  That such a situation has come to pass is a horrific demonstration of how so many of the 25th January Revolution’s goals have been assailed by the forces of reaction.

The fortitude of the Egyptian people, strengthened beyond measure by the turbulence and travails of the past year, is questioned only by those given to fanciful self-delusion, particularly in circles where Orientalist thinking still prevails. Bearing the enormous hardships of a punishing economic climate, Egyptians have remained steadfast in the oaths sworn in Tahrir Square, as witnessed by the enormous participation of voters in the parliamentary elections held between November 2011 and January of this year.  Yet, while the fidelity of the masses remains uncorrupted, the conduct of those whom today hold the reins of power in Egypt is far less commendable.  Among the ever-increasing catalogue of crimes committed against ordinary Egyptians in the year since the Revolution are acts that would have been shocking even under the Mubarak tyranny.  From the Maspero killings in October of over two dozen protesters outside the Cairo headquarters of state-run radio and television, to the continuing subjection of female protesters to so-called ‘virginity tests’, the scourge of unpunished injustice has persisted in Mubarak’s absence.  This was exhibited most shamelessly in November when, before the eyes of the world, the plaintiff calls of unarmed protesters in Tahrir Square, and elsewhere were answered with bullets, and lethal gas.  The fruits of this repression, uncannily reminiscent of scenes in January and February 2011, were dozens of dead civilians, and hundreds of wounded, including those whose eyes were deliberately targeted by the Ministry of the Interior’s forces with the intention to blind.

Each of these profane offenses shares a basic similarity – they have all transpired under the watch of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), the body of senior military officers appointed by then President Mubarak who have ruled Egypt extra-constitutionally since his resignation on 11th February 2011.  In the exultant joy of Mubarak’s fall, through which Egypt avoided the fevered summer of bloodletting endured in neighbouring Libya, a degree of latitude was extended to SCAF, whose training in the art of war had not prepared them for the political, and bureaucratic duties of governance.  Yet increasingly, cause has been given to view SCAF’s actions as having positioned it as the primary body frustrating the aims of the Revolution, and attempting to preserve as much of the decaying carcass of the old regime as possible.

Among the most telling of its acts was its attempt to permanently subvert civilian government through putatively non-negotiable provisos that would have granted SCAF a veto over powers central to the exercise of civilian rule, including the authority to declare war.  Indeed, this flagrant challenge to the sovereignty of the people was one of the primary factors that provoked millions of Egyptians to return to the streets in protest in November, and represented yet another symptom of the inelegant and purposefully retrograde approach to reform of the constitution that has befouled the last year.  Just as with the rushed and thoroughly inadequate constitutional amendment referendum in March 2011, the intention was to force through lasting changes to Egypt’s system of government that would entrench the power of the rulers over the ruled.  In the opinions of many, both at home and abroad, SCAF’s desired destination for the civilian revolution has been the transformation of 21st century Egypt into a shoddy replica of the stratocracy of 20th century Turkey.  That Turkey’s senior generals used their intrusion into politics to successfully execute four military coups against democratic governments between 1960 and 1997 is a fact not lost on the Egyptian people – nor perhaps on SCAF’s most enthusiastic and self-serving patron, the United States government, which continues to survey the process of popular will in Egypt with profound unease.

Unrepentantly using methods lifted directly from the dictators’ playbook, SCAF presents each of its actions as being in furtherance of the people’s wishes, in defence of the people’s security, and in utter accordance with the objectives of the people’s Revolution.  Thus, even as political freedoms are denied, the Revolution is being served.  Even as peaceful protesters are murdered, or disabled permanently by the bullets of the Ministry of the Interior, the Revolution is being served.  Even as the mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters of the Revolution’s martyrs are molested and sexually degraded in the streets, the Revolution is being served.  It is revealing that under the rule of SCAF, an institution that would quiver in terrified horripilation at the mere thought of injuring a fair-skinned citizen of a Western state, purported servants of the people have been seen fit to preside over the attack, detention, torture, and killing of their countrymen with utter insouciance.  When the skulls of Egyptian civilians in Maspero are rendered planate under the wheels of tanks without punishment, one can only conclude that the abeyance of justice in Egypt has become even more profanely conspicuous.

Added to this host of transgressions are the alarming statistics showing that the number of military trials of civilians (in which defendants’ basic legal rights, and constitutional protections are removed) under the 12 months of SCAF’s exceeds the total number of such trials during the presidencies of both Anwar El-Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak combined.  Even among the most zealous of libertarian advocates, there is the occasional grudging acceptance of the temporary of restriction on liberty in the interests of national security.  Yet the seemingly inexorable increase in the use of military trials against ordinary citizens has no connection to the perseveration of law and order, or the protection of the state’s frontiers.  On the contrary, routine resort to military trials is just another of the tactics of autocracy embraced with avidity by SCAF as a means of deterring legitimate, lawful dissent.

In this procession of repression, the discredited and despised police force, the agents of the very worst of Mubarak’s obscenities, have found a new lease of life.  In the first months of the Revolution, when the citizenry’s shackles of fear had been broken, the police retreated in comparative timidity avoiding commission of many of their habitual abuses.  However, anyone observing in even the most casual fashion the almost carnal demonstration of police brutality during the protests of November would note that their self-assurance has returned ebulliently.  The same holds true for their paid accomplices outside of police force, who infiltrate crowds of protesters for the purposes of aiding police violence.  Given the propensity for flagrant malefaction exhibited daily by what Egyptians have come to know as “the thugs”, both uniformed and in civilian garb, one cannot help but marvel at the fact that so many of those who committed crimes in service of Hosni Mubarak remain in their positions of privilege and power, permitted to greet each new day with new offences against their fellow citizens.  It is all the more offensively ironic to note SCAF’s decree on 24th January, that the reviled emergency law will now be lifted except for in instances of “thuggery” or “disturbance of peace” – an exception aimed squarely at protesters, rather than the police, and the civilian bandits employed in their service.

Purported analogies have been drawn with the military’s role following the Revolution of 1952. However, basic examination of the two eras shows that there is no valid comparison to justify SCAF’s approach to governing the state.  Unlike the 1950s, there is no foreign army of occupation on Egyptian soil, no Cold War struggle between competing superpowers, no state of war involving Egyptian forces on the eastern frontier, and no deposed king waiting in the wings to return to power from exile, but rather a former president resigned from office and now in an Egyptian prison.  Moreover, unlike the aftermath of revolution in 1952, when members of the military government were the targets of reactionary plots, the most striking acts of counter-revolutionary violence and intrigue today are those conducted with the full knowledge of SCAF.  In view of this dire reality, one is entitled to question the sincerity with which SCAF hailed what it termed “the victory of the people” over the old regime, whose downfall they took pains to celebrate with a military parade in Tahrir Square one week after Mubarak’s resignation.

Indeed, the chain of events under SCAF’s rule represents a profound threat to the dignity of the Egyptian military, which occupies a special place of reverence and affection in the hearts of the people.  Military personnel, both officers and soldiers, were among the multitude of Egyptians who rose against the Mubarak dictatorship in January and February 2011, standing resolutely with the swirling mass of millions to denounce their commander-in-chief, and tear posters and banners bearing his image.  It is a foul affront to such servants of the people to now be ordered to connive with Mubarak’s police force against their own kinsmen.  As Egyptian history has borne witness more than once, soldiers do not wish to serve the occupants of gilded palaces, or the bearers of self-flattering titles – they wish to serve their country.  The worst nightmare for a soldier is to be ordered to confront his own fellow citizen, a terror that compelled many army officers to refuse to report for duty during the November protests.

The recent parliamentary elections have added a further factor to the situation.  In a move that testifies to the wholly dysfunctional and reactive nature of the transition process, Egypt now has a new parliament, but no amended constitution, and no president.  Rather than pursuing a genuine agenda for methodical reform, the respective components of the Egyptian system of government are being set on divergent courses, the directions of which are determined by SCAF on a whim. Nonetheless, the parliament, which opened on Monday of this week, is the first for a generation whose membership was not determined in advance by the now disbanded National Democratic Party.  Reaping the benefits of their immensely strong network of activists and charities, and the comparatively feeble organisational base of more centrists parties (most often labelled as ‘liberals’, regardless of the accuracy of that designation), the electoral bloc led by the Muslim Brotherhood, in the guise of the Freedom and Justice Party, secured almost 50% of the seats.  While it had long been assumed that the Brotherhood would gain the highest number of seats, the sheer extent of its success has startled many, both in and outside Egypt.  Even more unexpected was the rise of the Salafi Al-Nour Party, which now comprises one fifth of parliament.  That the expression of Egypt’s democratic will should have rewarded political movements whose role in the outbreak of the 25th January Revolution was peripheral at best is curious to many, and confounding to the centrist political movements who view themselves as the rightful custodians of the revolutionary seal.

However, the ascent of religious parties merely corresponds to the fundamental realties of Egypt today.  In the midst of exigent economic times, and the deliberate fostering of lawlessness by the police force eager to sow trepidation into the hearts of the populace, Egyptian voters have opted for security in certainty.  The Freedom and Justice Party, and the substantially more radical Al-Nour Party campaigned on platforms of simplicity, appealing to voters’ affinity for succinctly articulated policies, and clear-cut statements of intent.  This was in stark contrast to the desultory approach of centrist parties, numbered in the dozens, who were encumbered by their own lack of clarity.  While the Brotherhood commanded respect for its issuance of vague yet powerful electoral messages, far too many centrist parties hindered themselves by presenting an appearance of equivocation.  In the face of SCAF’s stubbornness, and police brutality, such politicians spoke softly of negotiation and co-operation, words that felt entirely meaningless amidst the blood, bullets, and gas canisters in Tahrir Square, where many of their core constituents were encamped.  In this environment, it is easier to understand why the enormous manifestation of revolutionary spirit among the masses found no suitable host through which to be channelled at the polling stations.

As such, the Muslim Brotherhood is now placed as the dominant civilian political force, eclipsing the torchbearers of 25th January with a political agenda of its own. The question at hand is whether the Brotherhood will act in the national interest, and risk a confrontation with SCAF, or continue with the course of collusion with the military government that has so aided its meteoric rise over the past year.  Adhering resolutely to the principles of self-preservation and self-aggrandisement that helped keep the movement alive and well during its years of proscription, the Brotherhood have chosen their battles with great care.  When the prevailing winds have required its participation in the protest movement, the ranks of protesters have been swelled.  Yet, when connivance with SCAF has offered opportunities for political advantage, the protests have been abandoned, with their participants left to be felled by the ordnance of repression.  Thus, the Brotherhood can be expected to chart a course in government that permits it to continue to present itself as a proponent of change, while still flirting with reactionary elements.  The consequences that this may have for Egypt’s political trajectory are uncertain.

On this day when Egyptians mark the beginning of their most recent revolution, the country stands at a crossroads.  The Revolution’s glory is being chiselled away dramatically by its enemies, and by the growing tensions reverberating across the land, spanning the political, economic, social, and religious spheres.  The common calls for liberty, dignity and social justice once dominant in the streets appear now to echo at a distance, falling on deaf ears, or drowned out by the crushing of skulls and the cutting down of protesters.  The ‘temporary’ transition period has become a seemingly endless tunnel, with continually moving boundaries set by SCAF, and no genuine end in sight.  Although the common stated desire has been to ensure the swift handover from military to civilian rule, there remains a lack of ability to move forward methodically.  This, along with a fragile unity of purpose among political parties, has resulted in national frustration, individual anxiety, and exhaustion with the continued strife in the streets.  Rather than a joyous moment of accomplishment, millions of citizens are apprehensive, and uncertain of the future.  The fascination of leaderless revolution has become the frustration of incomplete revolution, whose sacrifices are mocked by the remnants of the old regime still clinging to their respective centres of power.

Yet, with every protest, the strength of the Revolution is rallied once more.  While the full demands of the revolutionaries remain unfulfilled, with critics accusing SCAF of continuing to treat the entire country as its fiefdom, the continuing protests nonetheless forced SCAF to accelerate the election process, and made the prospects of the permanent constitutional supremacy of the military leadership all the more unlikely.  It is this, and only this, that keeps the hope of true civilian government alive.  Without the willingness of the people to sacrifice their bodies for the country, there would be nothing to arrest the advance of the counter-revolution – certainly not Western governments, who look on with petrified chagrin at the prospect of genuine democracy in the Arab World, lest the electoral decisions of the people conflict with the political, and corporate goals of the West.

As he lay on his deathbed in 1927, Saad Zaghloul is said to have expressed to his wife the dire outlook for freedom in his country – “Cover me, Safeya, for there is no hope”.  Having mobilised unprecedented masses to resist alien military occupation and domestic monarchical corruption in the Revolution of 1919, Zaghloul ultimately resigned himself to the fact that he would never look upon a truly free Egypt.  For him, the momentous march of liberty was to end in a cul de sac of frustration.  However, while the fires of Revolution were dimmed for a time, they were never extinguished, and the banner that he held aloft was passed on to another generation, just at it had been passed to him.

The culmination of the journey that began one year ago today remains some distance in the future.  From the broken shell of tyranny, a new edifice is still waiting to be raised.  This is the job of the Egyptian people.  The great pyramids did not construct themselves, nor did the splendorous lighthouse on Pharos Island, nor the historic canal, which joins the two seas on Egypt’s northern and eastern frontiers.  Such wonders were achieved through the dedication, toils, and sacrifice of the Egyptian people themselves.  So must it be with the new system of popular government conceived in the womb of revolution.  Mindful of the melancholic pronouncement of their forefather, Saad Zaghloul, it is to this generation of Egyptians that this challenge is bestowed.

Tamer O. Bahgat is a transnational lawyer with an International law firm in London, with experience in corporate and international law, with a focus in economic and constitutional reform. 

Khalid El-Sherif is a legal and policy professional with experience in regulatory reform, public and private international law, with a focus on development in the Arab World.