Cairo’s Tahrir Square is permanently occupied these days. Though the wave of unrest that swept Egypt after embattled President Mohamed Morsi’s consolidation of power in November 2012 has subsided, the tents remain, as do the banners hanging from lampposts denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood. Wiry young men, some of them brandishing sticks, patrol the entrances to the square to prevent pro-government thugs from entering.
At the center of the square, a “Revolution Museum” honors the past two years of protests, first against dictator Hosni Mubarak, then against the interim military government, and now against Morsi, who in the opposition’s view has himself betrayed democratic hopes in Egypt by centralizing power and pushing through a new constitution drafted by conservatives in the Muslim Brotherhood and other Morsi allies. The museum, for its part, is a makeshift affair: the walls are made of plastic sheeting attached to wooden stakes, and tacked to the walls are hundreds of handwritten signs and photos of violent confrontations between protestors and police. Eight hundred forty protesters died in the 18 days of the initial uprising in January and February 2011, with dozens killed in protests since then.
Among the people taking in this montage when I visited this Sunday was Ahmed Hassan, a pharmacist’s assistant from the Nile Delta town of Mansoura. Dressed in rubber sandals, soccer pants, and a dirty T-shirt, Ahmed, who is 25, has been sleeping in a tent in Tahrir for a month. “We’re not leaving,” he told me. Ahmed and his fellow protesters say they want Morsi to void the new constitution and they plan to stay until that happens.
Before Morsi’s power grabs, it wasn’t uncommon for non-Islamist revolutionaries like Hassan to count Muslim Brotherhood members as their friends and comrades in a common fight against the remnants of the old dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak. But after a month of fighting, those alliances have been broken. When a few weeks ago, in December 2012, supporters of the president attacked opposition members camped out outside the presidential palace and triggered street fighting that killed seven people, it only made matters worse. “[Morsi’s supporters] call themselves the Muslim Brotherhood,” Ahmed tells me. Like most protestors, he considers himself a devout Muslim. “Well, what does that make us then? The brotherhood of nonbelievers?”
For now, the battles have subsided. Both Morsi’s supporters and their pro-democracy opponents are regrouping after a constitution drafted by the presidents’ allies passed in a nationwide referendum in early December 2012 in which a meager third of eligible voters went to the polls. What remains is a sense of permanent crisis and the fear that another confrontation between the government and the opposition is inevitable. The opposition is planning another major protest on January 25, the anniversary of the uprising against Mubarak. This time, they will be protesting Morsi and the new constitution. But with ongoing violence by police and frequent small protests by the opposition, no one knows exactly what will spark the next showdown.
“Expectations, and the stakes, are high,” Cairo-based political analyst Elijah Zarwan tells me. “There's the risk that a toxic political atmosphere and economic crisis could combine to produce serious unrest if swift action is not taken.”
What kind of “action” remains to be seen. Some Islamists believe that reconciliation between the two sides is still possible, but only if the opposition gets on board with the political process set in motion by Morsi, a process dominated by the president’s allies. In December, citing his new constitutional powers, Morsi appointed a third of the new representatives of the upper house of parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood, with its strong political machine, is expected to prevail in upcoming elections (the date hasn’t yet been set) to replace the dissolved lower house. The opposition parties are electorally weaker, or are boycotting the election outright. Ibrahim Omar, a member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, improbably contrasted Egypt’s political polarization with the recent US election. “After the elections we saw Mr. Romney congratulating Mr. Obama in a very civilized manner,” he told me. “That’s the way it has to be in Egypt.”
But my walk through the vicinity of Tahrir Square this week made Ibrahim’s take seem wildly optimistic, if not altogether unbelievable.
Over the last few months of unrest, Egypt’s security forces have erected a maze of concrete walls blocking some of the streets leading to the square. Qasr Al-Aini Street, in more stable times one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, is blocked not only by a concrete wall but also a series of barbed wire roadblocks manned by the black-uniformed members of the Central Security Forces, their riot shields leaning against the barricades. The shells of burned out cars are parked in the road.
The buildings facing Tahrir are splashed with new graffiti. Many of the tags from the first year and a half after the revolution saying, “Down with military rule” have been replaced with “Down with the Guide’s rule,” a reference to Mohammed Badie, the “Supreme Guide” of the Muslim Brotherhood. On one wall there is a new larger-than-life set of portraits of the “martyrs” of the revolution, including the students and other young people killed in the recent fighting.
Commemorating the “martyrs” is a central feature of the revolutionary protest repertoire. For example, one of those depicted in the new mural is Jaber Salah, known by his nickname “Gika,” a 16-year-old activist who was shot dead by security forces in November. The Revolution Museum also displays a large color print of a now-famous photo of him. In the image, Gika, wearing a red Superman T-shirt, is riding the shoulders of a comrade during a protest, his arms outstretched, his mouth open wide in mid-chant. “We will not forget you, Gika,” the poster in the museum reads, “The blood of the martyr will get us to freedom.”
Gika would have turned 17 last Saturday. That night, members of the opposition group “April 6th Youth Movement” staged a “Martyr’s birthday” demonstration downtown, with a hundred or so activists beating drums, signing songs, and waving a large white banner bearing Gika’s face on it.
After checking in on that demonstration, I walked back through the neighborhoods adjacent to Tahrir Square. Suddenly, as I neared the square, I heard shouting, then an explosion, outside a huge complex of buildings that houses the Interior Ministry. From one side of the intersection, stones came sailing in, aimed at the Central Security troops guarding the perimeter of the compound. Young men appeared from around the corner, dragging chairs and assorted debris into the road. There was shattered glass on the sidewalk from the broken windows of a police kiosk on the corner. Across the road, riot cops lined up. They began rhythmically smacking their batons on their riot shields. An armored van drove into the intersection while plainclothes officers with walkie-talkies closed the street to traffic.
Then… nothing happened. After 15 minutes, the standoff was over. The stone-throwing young men drifted off into the night. The street was reopened to traffic in one direction, but the riot troops remained in ranks blocking the street leading to the Interior Ministry’s black gates.
What I had witnessed was not one of the vast, telegenic protests of the Egyptian revolution. It was one of thousands of smaller acts of rebellion against authority taking place throughout the country every single day. One human rights group recorded 3,817 separate protest actions in Egypt in 2012, work stoppages, hunger strikes, sit-ins, road blockades, invasions of government offices, even attempted public suicides.
Many of these protests center on worsening economic conditions. Political unrest, in turn, drives tourists and foreign investors away. Economic anxiety ratcheted up again last weekend, when in a bid to keep negotiations for an IMF loan on track, the government introduced a new currency system for auctioning its reserves of US dollars, causing a sharp drop in the value of the Egyptian Pound. On New Year’s Eve, the currency exchanges in the elite Zamalek district were crowded with worried members of the upper classes, many attempting to buy dollars.
The trouble is, while an IMF loan is seen as the easiest way to stabilize the economy, currency devaluation, cuts in subsidies, and other measures demanded by the IMF will cause more economic pain for most Egyptians—just look at Greece. If anything, the squeeze on ordinary Egyptians will only destabilize the situation here even further.
Egypt enters 2013 facing two interlocking crises: one political, one economic. As analyst Elijah Zarwan told me: “Morsi faces the same Catch-22 Mubarak did, only more acutely: The economy is sick, but the cure is as painful as the disease. Mubarak believed he had time to delay. Morsi does not have the luxury of that illusion.”