Revolution delayed?

Tourists have fled, the economy has collapsed and Egypt’s nascent democracy has stalled

George Henton

The Egyptian revolution took the world by storm. As images of the mass protests beamed into homes around the globe, millions looked on, captivated by what people power could accomplish. Feb. 11, the night beleaguered president Hosni Mubarak resigned, will forever remain an iconic moment, with its scenes from Cairo’s Tahrir Square of Egyptians celebrating new-found freedom and the end of 30 years of autocratic rule. For many of the protesters who had spent years risking their lives by planning revolution in a tightly controlled state, and then 18 days battling against tear gas, bullets, and brutality in a popular uprising, that evening in Tahrir Square was the closing chapter. As influential blogger and activist Wael Ghonim tweeted, “Mission accomplished.”

The Egyptian military stepped in to fill the leadership vacuum. To shouts of “the people and the army are one,” it quickly suspended some provisions of the unpopular constitution. On March 19, a set of constitutional amendments that paved the way for elections was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum that drew record numbers of voters. The military’s 18-member ruling council has set a firm end date for its leadership: parliamentary elections in September will permit legislative powers to be transferred to a civilian government, while executive powers will be handed over after a presidential election in November. This was to be the road map to the “new Egypt.”

But more than a hundred days on, the revolution appears to be faltering. The ideals that drove the revolt still exist, in continuing calls for reform and institutional change. But in the aftermath of the uprising, the most populous country of the Arab world is also struggling to maintain law and order, wrestling with a dying economy, facing continued protests and strikes—and battling to keep the lid on boiling religious divisions. During those heady days in Tahrir Square, Muslims and Christians appeared to have found a new unity. But no longer: the last four months have witnessed continued outbreaks of sectarian violence.

“We have to pray, we have to cry loudly, to send a voice to all the world to show them what is happening to us now!” cried Mattias Nasr, a Coptic priest, one night in May as flames ravaged the church behind him in the northern part of greater Cairo. Indeed, in Cairo since Mubarak’s downfall, more than 24 people have died, 200 people have been wounded and three churches burnt in religious clashes. The growing animosity between Muslims and Christians has become one of the gravest threats to the country’s stability.

Many Christians say they fear that the fall of the police state has allowed long-simmering tensions to explode. “I am afraid now—I keep my family in my home,” said Aisha Abbas, 38, a mother of four, as she walked briskly but nervously back to her home after shopping. “I don’t feel safe as a Christian living in this city.”

Christians, who make up 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80-million-strong population, say the revolution has worsened the already precarious position of religious minority rights. Islamists, meanwhile, who were marginalized or suppressed for six decades, are now better able to flex their political muscle.

The danger, say Christians, lies in the resurgence of fundamentalist Salafis, who were repressed under Mubarak. Following a puritanical interpretation of the Quran, many Salafis have been released from detention in recent weeks. Among them is Abboud al-Zumar, who had spent three decades behind bars for his role in the assassination of president Anwar Sadat in 1981 (among his fellow prisoners in the ’80s was Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s Egyptian deputy, who was recently announced as the new head of al-Qaeda and is currently believed to be in hiding in Pakistan). Hundreds more are reported to have been quietly allowed to return to Egypt from abroad.

In early May, Coptic Christians blocked the roads outside the regime’s television building in Cairo’s Maspero district, in a more than two-week-long protest against the increase in religious violence. In traditional Coptic black robes, priests prayed in makeshift tents, while outside, men, women and children held banners asking for the reopening of churches that had been closed by Mubarak’s regime. “The government gave us permission to open 16 churches in Egypt. But when we went to a church we found Salafis standing in front, blocking our path. They swore at us and beat us,” said Peter Alfred, 22, a Copt.

The city is rife with rumours and suspicions of army collaboration with the Islamists. Some claim the army asked leading Salafis to talk of reconciliation as a way of calming the sectarian violence, instead of arresting the Islamists who took part. Others argue that riots in early May between Copts and Salafis—one started after a rumour that a Coptic convert to Islam was being held in a church, and resulted in the church being burned and at least 12 killed and hundreds injured—have been initiated by Mubarak’s old guard in an attempt to institutionalize chaos and upend the revolution. “The army is not arresting these people, they are arresting us!” said Isaba Margos, a 19-year-old Copt. “This is a prelude to dictatorship. It is an illusion that this is about religion—this is a country in poverty, with a lack of political representation, and they are trying to create a mob.”

The question of human rights remains a serious one in Egypt. At least 5,600 civilians, including protesters and ordinary criminals, have been sentenced by military courts since Mubarak stepped down and the military took over, according to Human Rights Watch. Many demonstrators from the Tahrir Square protests remain in prison; on June 1, the military came under renewed criticism when it admitted that some demonstrators had been tortured and that it had forced some female detainees to undergo “virginity tests” as “evidence” that they had not been sexually abused by soldiers.

In Tahrir Square, cars pass where tents stood during the revolution, but, pinned to one side, the stage of the hard-core protesters continues to ring with the chants of dissatisfied citizens. “The army council basically are part of the old regime,” says Mohammed Arwan, 32. “Let’s not kid ourselves—they are corrupt like anyone else.”

Liberals argue that the ruling military council has not introduced wide enough reforms, fast enough. “I believe Mubarak has left, but the regime hasn’t,” says George Isaac of the leftist Kuffiyeh (“Enough”) movement. “They are everywhere. There are 40,000 members of the National Democratic Party [Mubarak’s former party]—all these should be removed.” Indeed, there is increasing frustration that the revolution has thus far only succeeded in removing the regime’s top man. And barely that: demonstrators were infuriated by the army’s initial hesitance to take the Mubarak family to court, and that after his resignation Mubarak was allowed to retire for months to his luxury villa in Sharm el-Sheikh. (While Mubarak is now in hospital, reportedly ill with stomach cancer, his two sons have since been imprisoned. All three face trials in August for corruption, among other charges.)

“We are here to keep the blood of the martyrs alive,” says Ayman Mahou, an electronics shop owner demonstrating in Tahrir Square. “We are all still affected by Mubarak—we will never forget the past, his money, his family and friends; we want to finish the past.” Adds fellow protester Sumeh Assisah, a surgeon: “People are so angry about everything: the relationship between Muslims and Christians, people still being imprisoned, our media still not free. I am angry, and I am afraid of what the future will bring.”

With parliamentary elections just over two months away, the talk on Cairo’s streets should be of political parties, campaigns, democracy, policies and manifestos. But the sullen nature and focus of the continuing Tahrir Square protests, say analysts, show that the much-needed business of establishing democracy has been slow to start. The men, women and youths who helped spark the revolution are struggling to change their rhetoric from anti-Mubarak slogans to new politics, but few have formed political parties through which to contest the election. Those who have done so lack the resources and organization to successfully run a campaign. Prominent publisher and democracy activist Hisham Kassem defines the syndrome as “prolonged opposition trauma.” “It is not natural to be in opposition for 30 years,” he says. “It will take time to move from that mind frame. Mubarak killed all traction for political activism.”

In this climate of confusion and lack of political thrust, Egypt’s long-established and well-organized Muslim Brotherhood is thriving. Although it was previously banned, analysts say its newly formed Freedom and Justice Party could be set to wipe the floor in September’s elections. The FJP says it will contest up to 50 per cent of parliamentary seats, but won’t run a candidate in November’s presidential race. Still,with other parties so fractured—or non-existent—it could still become the dominant force in a new parliament.

It is hard to miss the new Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, with its Quran and crossed swords carved into the facade of the shining six-storey building. Inside, surrounded by velvet curtains and gilded furniture, spokesman Issam el-Erian exudes confidence. “The revolution is on track,” he declares. “In a few months we will have a new parliament and a new constitution for a new Egypt.”

Opponents argue that the Muslim Brotherhood is less likely to thrive in an emerging pluralist environment where their platform of opposition to the regime is weakened. “Probably Mubarak’s opposition is dead with him, and that could include the Muslim Brotherhood,” Kassem concedes. “They lost the ‘I hate Mubarak’ vote.” He says Egyptian society is traditionally a society of moderate Muslims, unlikely to tolerate an extremist form of Islam: “The bulk of Egyptians pray five times a day and don’t feel the need to be part of the Muslim Brotherhood to go to heaven.”

But even so, that still leaves the issue of the lack of credible non-sectarian parties. So serious is this problem that on June 19, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said he backed delaying the parliamentary election. “It could give more opportunity for political life to crystallize,” Sharaf said in an interview aired by Nile television. Leftist parties that were instrumental to the uprising agree. They also call for the constitution to be totally reformed before the elections, arguing that provisions of the current constitution will allow too many of the old-guard politicians to stay. “We would be building a new country with the parties and groups that support the regime,” says Isaac. “Time is too short—we want to delay the elections. We want to let the young build a party.” And, he adds, “Security is in a miserable situation; we can’t do elections without fair security.”

If anything, though, Egypt’s security situation may only deteriorate further. And tensions are being exacerbated by the fact that the troubled economy—one of the main problems that helped spur the uprising—has now almost ground to a halt.

The 18-day revolt stopped new foreign investment and decimated the pivotal tourist industry, which remains down by 40 per cent. Economic growth has been slashed, corruption continues to be endemic, and billions have reportedly been siphoned out of the country by the rich. The dusty streets beside Egypt’s historic pyramids are mostly empty. Only cats paw at the trinkets of the stalls where visitors from across the globe would wander.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 53 per cent of Egyptians believe that economic conditions have worsened since the revolution. “People are so angry,” says Mohammed Dagat, a resident of a Cairo slum. Indeed, for those expecting a better life of higher salaries, the revolution has instead left a bitter pill of prolonged poverty. “The men that live on $2 a day—in a couple of years, if they still live like that, they will come out to the streets again,” says Kassem.

Some are already on the picket lines. Strikes by workers in industries throughout Egypt’s economy continue, with new-found determination to fight for better labour rights. “No one is afraid anymore,” says Mohammed, 43, a cashier. “Not after the revolution.” Adds electrical engineer Mustafa Hamid, 25: “Our revolution has changed the political civilization in Egypt. Our government was bad, our police were not human, they were savage animals. Now we will improve our standards of living—our people must have jobs.”

For all the criticisms and complexities of the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising, it is too early to declare the revolution a writeoff. Despite the perceived absence of real change, and the lack of adequate political organizing, Cairo remains alive with revolutionary buzz. “Eight out of 10 people are talking about the political future of Egypt, where before the subject was taboo,” says Kassem. The strikes too are a sign that people power is still the new reality.

It remains a question of time, say analysts. After 30 years of an autocratic regime, endemic corruption and poverty, real change will take years. “Democracy doesn’t exist yet, but a broader spectrum of freedom has emerged,” says Kassem. How this freedom will be harnessed, though, remains the question.

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