‘Rescue the Revolution’

Notes from Cairo

By Michael C. Hudson

For those of us that thought the Egyptian revolution had run out of steam, the experience of last Friday’s marathon “happening” in Tahrir Square was firm evidence that any death knell remains premature. Equal parts political rally, religious celebration, Woodstock (Egyptian style), carnival, and family outing, this was Egyptian society–suddenly free–and exuberantly expressing itself. I watched toddlers happily having their cheeks painted the colors of the Egyptian flag, a group of veiled women camped out under a bush taking refuge from the hot sun, a teenager beating a drum while held up by his buddies, an old man with his granddaughter on his shoulders proudly displaying a handmade poster proclaiming “rescue the revolution,” a couple of guys sitting and chatting with a poster reading “Facebook… Reload” propped up beside them, and the eminently entrepreneurial souvenir sellers. The enthusiasm and optimism evoked the spirit of an American political rally — with the buttons and banners showcasing the “January 25 Revolution” to boot.

On the whole, this was a youngish crowd of middle class Egyptians — almost everyone was plugging at mobile phones and cameras — alongside laborers and others. I saw a few bearded men but not many: the two main Islamist tendencies, the Muslim Brothers and the much more radical salaffiyin, were not discernibly present. More significantly and conspicuously absent were the military and the security forces. Hard as I looked I could not find any uniformed men or tanks. In fact, even the armored personnel carriers lined up in front of the old Nile Hilton just the day before were nowhere to be seen. I heard that this demonstration would be bigger than any other since Mubarak’s downfall, and it was. At any one point there must have been tens of thousands in the square.

The collective expression of Egyptianness — “raise your head, you are Egyptian” was the slogan of the day — was unforgettable. But the other remarkable thing about it was its length. People just couldn’t get enough. I got to Tahrir around noon while a large crowd was observing Friday prayers led by an imam delivering a sermon that fused religion and protest. I mingled for a couple of hours and then decided that was about it. But when I came back three hours later the crowds were even larger, and they remained there well after dark. By that point there were a half dozen grouplets of demonstrators eddying here and there through the square: a handful of teenage girls led by a fiery young woman in full niqab; a very elderly Coptic priest assisted by young followers; young men on a makeshift stage, replete with powerful loudspeakers, exhorting the crowd to “rescue the revolution.”

And the revolution does need rescuing.

Despite the carnival-esque atmosphere, these people were in Tahrir on serious business: they sense that their revolution is in danger, and they are right. The Higher Military Council who sent Mubarak packing to a comfortable retirement in Sharm al-Shaykh has so far been opaque in its decision-making, and answers to nobody.

The military, led by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, rushed through a package of constitutional amendments with minimal consultation but via referendum, which set a speedy timetable for elections next September. (The rapid pace certainly favors the best-organized political tendencies, the Muslim Brothers and the apparatchiks of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which have been playing at Egyptian politics for decades — longer than most of the revolutionaries have been alive.) They proposed rules that would severely discourage strikes or demonstrations that might adversely affect the economy. Further, the Council has been suspiciously slow in bringing to trial Mubarak’s closest cronies–men like Safwat Sharif and Fathi Suroor–on corruption charges (not to mention the President himself). The protesters, students, think tank experts, and professors I spoke with fear that Egypt may be trading in one dictator only to have him replaced with another form of authoritarian rule. Will the old structure minus its longtime boss actually recreate itself?  Some think it hasn’t disappeared at all. One newspaper commentary was headlined “Egypt is still Mubarakstan.”

Granted, the Egyptians have achieved something unprecedented in the modern Arab world: the ousting of a dictator through popular will. But it remains unnervingly uncertain whether genuine civilian government will emerge to complete the revolution. It’s difficult to avoid observing that the revolution has to come to terms with some enduring political realities.  One is the army. The other is the Islamists.

The military has been the backbone of republican Egypt since the Free Officers’ coup of 1952 that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. The three men who have ruled Egypt since then, Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, were all military officers. Over the years the armed forces have garnered popular respect, especially for the October 1973 War in which Egypt, partnered with Syria, scored a moral victory against Israel. Thanks further to generous American aid contracted into the peace treaty with Israel, they have become a substantial and wealthy institution, carving out for themselves something of a parallel economy and holding major shares in Egypt’s biggest companies. It is hard to imagine a civilian president stripping them of their perks.  And let us not forget that the military enjoys intimate contact with and support from the Pentagon.

The Muslim Brotherhood, long suppressed, outlawed, and feared, now present themselves as moderates along the lines of Turkey’s democratically elected Justice and Development (AK) Party. Neither Egypt’s old opposition parties like the Wafd and the Tagammu nor, so far, the youthful protesters in Tahrir have the organizational capabilities of the Brothers. Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, an eminent Egyptian political scientist estimated that the Muslim Brothers might get 30 percent of the vote in a free election but that its actual influence in the People’s Assembly would be even better due to its discipline, while the other 70 percent would be distributed among small fractionated groupings. Yet if we have learned anything from this new generation of Egyptians, it is that their collective will cannot be underestimated; one of Egypt’s tycoons, Naguib Sawiris, put his name and fortune behind the creation of a new liberal Free Egyptians Party earlier this week and is fast gaining support.

There is still another grouping whose influence cannot be so easily estimated. The Islamists of the Salafi movement are the new boys on the block — or Square, as it were — and are far more radical than the Brothers. As apparent ideological successors to the al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, mercilessly repressed by Mubarak in the 1990s, the extent to which their radical Islamist orientation will find an echo remains to be seen.

Maybe the most realistic outcome the protesters of Tahrir can hope for would resemble the Turkish model of the post-Ataturk period in which the military allowed long stretches of significant party politics and competition. Unlike Turkey today, in those years there was no doubt as to who was in charge when push came to shove: every decade or so the Turkish army would push aside the civilian politicians and reset the system to their liking. One veteran insider told me that the Egyptian officers are quite uncomfortable being in the spotlight at this moment of transition; they much prefer the shadows. Whether down the road Egypt might continue to emulate Turkey, where the military no longer plays that decisive role, and moves toward a genuinely civilian political system is certainly a possibility. In any event, the Egyptians of Tahrir, heady with freedom and empowerment, and mobilized as never before by the new satellite and social media, are not going to let their revolution, incomplete as it may now be, slip away.

Michael C. Hudson is Director of the Middle East Insitute at the National University of Singapore. The views expressed herein are his own.

This piece first appeared on Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel and can be downloaded here: Insight 20 Hudson.

Soccer versus Islam: The Battle for Egypt’s Future

By James M. Dorsey

Soccer-crazy Egyptians, preoccupied with the direction their revolution is taking in the wake of last month’s ouster of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in office, took this weekend’s defeat by South Africa in a crucial African qualifier in their stride. The loss all but means that the seven-time African champion has no chance of qualifying for this year’s African finals.

The calm with which Egyptians accepted defeat contrasts starkly with riots that erupted on two continents in late 2009 when Algeria stopped Egypt from making it to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The differing responses to defeat highlight the impact of past political manipulation of the beautiful game and the public’s shifting focus in an environment in which the post-Mubarak military government has not hitched its popularity to soccer success and the fuelling of nationalist sentiment.

“For the first time, I am not upset because we lost. In the past, football was the only thing that cheers us up, but now we are living in a bigger alternative that cheers us up every day,” said Egyptian soccer fan Adel Mazen on Twitter. “When you lose your country, you look for it in football matches, but when you have it back, you can’t care less about football,” added Yasser Taha, another soccer fan, in a posting on Facebook.

The concerns of young men like Adel Mazen and Yasser Taha focus these days on ensuring that youth groups that initiated the popular revolt against Mubarak’s regime remain players in the creation of a democratic Egypt, maintaining pressure on the country’s military rulers who took over from Mubarak with a pledge to lead Egypt to democracy within six months and the stemming of the rising influence of Islamist organizations that unlike the secularists have the advantage of an already existing political machinery in forthcoming parliamentary and presidential election.

Mazen and Taha’s shifting focus highlights the change Egypt is experiencing. In Mubarak’s days, Egyptians like many of their brethren across North Africa and the Middle East had few options to express pent-up anger and frustration outside of the mosque and the soccer pitch. For many, soccer matches offered one of few things worth looking forward to in their lives as well as opportunity to express dissent in the protection of large numbers of like-minded fans.

To some Egyptian soccer fans, reduced interest in the game constitutes a protest against the abuse of the game by the Mubarak regime and others ruling the majority of countries in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf to divert attention from social, political and economic problems, and to attempt to polish its tarnished image. “Football is not our priority anymore,” says Ahmed Mohieddin Al-Sayed.

Mubarak, like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Middle Eastern leaders, publicly associated himself with soccer. His visits to the national team’s training sessions and attendance at matches was headline news, often moving uncomfortable political developments or opposition criticism off the news agenda. In a country in which food price hikes provoked mass protests, Egypt’s 2006 victory in the African Cup of Nations allowed Mubarak to allow government-controlled prices to rocket unnoticed. “Good, so our national team’s schedule is free till 2014. I pity the government now, they have nothing to distract us with,” quipped Ahmed Nour after Egypt’s defeat at the hands of South Africa.

As a result, Egypt’s secretive military rulers are so concerned about soccer’s political impact and its potential as an opposition rallying point that they only recently reluctantly agreed to lift a ban on professional soccer matches almost three months after its imposition at the beginning of the protests that led to Mubarak’s ousting. Military fears of soccer’s rallying potential have been reinforced by the key role militant soccer fans played in the protests as well as their post-revolution efforts to impose change on Egypt’s soccer infrastructure and management that was closely aligned with the Mubarak regime.

The soccer pitch could well again emerge as a platform of protest as Egyptians seek to chart a course towards democracy in an environment marked by confusion about where the military is leading them. Soccer’s potential as a rallying point increased this week with the ruling military council’s decision to declare illegal all demonstrations that impede the work of public institutions. Soccer fans demonstrated their resolve earlier this month when they unfurled banners at a friendly match between two Egyptian Premier League terms criticizing players for not having joined the anti-Mubarak protests. “We followed you everywhere but in the hard times we didn’t find you,” read one banner. The sense of having been let down by players goes a long way to explaining this weekend’s acceptance of defeat. “The team that lost is Mubarak’s supporters’ team,” tweeted Khaled Tarek.

Soccer fans may achieve their first post-revolution victory when the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) meets on Thursday in emergency session to discuss Egypt’s poor performance against South Africa. The association is likely to consider firing crowned national coach Hassan Shehata, whom fans want to see dismissed despite his leading Egypt to three straight African titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010, because of his support for Mubarak at a time that they were on the streets of Egyptian cities demanding the president’s resignation. National team captain Ahmed Hassan warned in advance of the meeting against firing Shehata. “We are in a very difficult situation but qualification isn’t impossible yet. It is nonsense to attack the coach – who has led the team to so much glory – after losing one game. The Egyptian Football Association must support Shehata who must make his final decision about leaving or staying in his position without any pressure,” Hassan told Al Ahram Online.

Ironically, the battle for Egypt’s future could well revive soccer’s rivalry with Islam. Across the Middle East and North Africa, soccer constituted until the recent wave of anti-government protests the only institution that rivaled political as well as non-political Islam in creating alternative public spaces to vent pent-up anger and frustration. In various Middle Eastern nations, including Egypt, soccer had emerged as the only non-religious, non-governmental institution capable of successfully taking a stand against militant Islamists or military and security dominated repressive regimes. As the demonstrations created new, unrivalled public space, soccer fans brought organization and street battle experience to the protests.

With Egyptians focusing on what kind of state emerges from their revolution, Islamist groups and Mubarak’s old guard National Democratic Party (NDP) could gain the upper hand in the run-up to elections. The Islamists and the NDP benefit from having already built party organizations while the secularists and others have yet to establish political parties and electoral campaigning capability. As polling scheduled for June and September nears the soccer pitch could become a venue for expression of opposition to the rise of religious forces and the resurrection of the old guard. That is the military’s fear as they anxiously anticipate the resumption of professional soccer matches on April 15.

Mr James M Dorsey is a visiting senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Street, Stage, Shrine & Square: Protest Sites as Contested Terrain

Insight 18 Rosario

By Terisita Cruz-del Rosario

February 1986 at EDSA: the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue — an urban highway of six lanes worming its way through six municipalities of Metro Manila, unconvincingly organises the flow of traffic in both directions. A most curious venue to stage an uprising. Yet, twenty five years ago, EDSA set the stage for a people power uprising that toppled the two-decade Marcos dictatorship. No longer neutral, empty territory, EDSA became a charged space, what William Sewell terms “a matrix of power.”

In Argentina, the 70s and 80s was a period of ‘murderous dictatorship’ of the military regime. Public spaces were invisible, the citizenry cowed into privacy and silence. Until fourteen mothers donned white scarves and invaded the Plaza de Mayo with their demands to know about the disappearances (desparecidos) of their loved ones. Soon thereafter, the square resurrected as Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, reconfigured as a protest space, openly demonstrating against a repressive regime.

More recently, in the center of Cairo stands Tahrir Square, a rotunda that witnessed the gathering of Egypt’s disaffected.  Wired youths brandished cell-phones in one hand and stones in the other and they spoke to the teeth of power using Facebook. Eighteen days later, curtains came down on Mubarak’s regime.

Protesters world over, wherever they may be found, transform physical spaces and convert them into a kind of political pilgrimage site. There, they undertake a quest for personal and social redemption to find their courage and recover their lives from the grip of fear and prolonged repression.

They trek in large numbers to protect one another, to share a moment when new social meanings are being fashioned out of collective action. They convert these spaces into repositories of collective sentiments, drawing on one other to weave a grand narrative of history-making and nation-building.  They are, of a sudden, human agents of history and society.

Public spaces provide opportunities for re-fashioning what political scientist Dag Angkar terms as ‘political architecture.’ Rather than inherently constraining, these places present a crucial resource to apply spatial agency.  In these sequestered sites, physical and metaphorical notions of space coalesce, so that what was once a mix of street, floor, and cemented highway meld into symbol, sentiment, and statement. Here is where the silence is broken.

However,  protest space is also highly contested terrain. They are sites of social conflict and clashes over symbolic codes. They represent competing claims to legitimacy and control over power, battles over alternative visions of the future, struggles to redraw the boundaries of community and society. Blood spills, taints the pavements and carries the dead.

Remember Bangkok a year ago? In its fashionable Rajdamri district, where street vendors intersect with smart shoppers, the Red Shirts camped out as an affront to the urbanised enclaves of the upper- and middle-class Yellow Shirts. Right there, Major General Khattiya who went rogue for the Red Shirts was shot in the head while speaking to several journalists.

Watch Libya unravel. Benghazi as contested territory has emerged not only as the most visible arena of Libyan resistance, but also as the most potent symbol of the irreversible course of change in Middle East politics. Watch Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria too.

Parallelisms among all these countries are inevitable. Street action among everyday people interacts with formal institutions — the courts, the political parties, the media, the military, the Mosque, the Church.  Where formal and informal processes intersect, political dynamics change. Within days, political careers will ebb and wane, new ones will be forged, and the world will yet again bear witness to another upheaval in human experience.

Above all, what these geographies of struggle provide is the very best application of human agency, of fearless improvisation and a resurgence of creativity, often times without structure and direction, somewhat like collective street-jazz.  Yet hope abides in this massive energy that refuses to be silenced.  An illiud tempus according to theatrical critic David Cole, a time to re-imagine an alternative universe of relationships and thus a place where there is no thought of surrender or defeat.

Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Her recently published book Scripted Clashes: A Dramaturgical Approach to Philippine Uprisings provides an explanatory framework for people power events in the Philippines over two decades. She can be contacted at tdelrosario@nus.edu.sg. The views expressed herein are her own.