Egypt's Revolution Is Far from Finished

By Zoe Holman, Photos: Amanda Mustard

Aiman high-fives and shakes my hand as he tells me how he was shot in the side in Tahrir Square during last year's January revolution. We're standing on the corner of Mohammed Mahmoud Street, a block back from Tahrir Square, where protesters are milling around a small bonfire of refuse and pitching the occasional Molotov cocktail up into the scorched exterior of a school building that's been under occupation for the past 24 hours by state security forces. Soldiers lob chairs, concrete blocks and even a Venetian blind down onto the gathering below. A field hospital has sprung up on the corner and demonstrators – mostly young men – in trademark eye-patches and Guy Fawkes masks mill about, variously ticking with adrenaline, indignation and impotent rage.

The somewhat nebulous demonstration, now in its third day, has been staged on Mohamed Mahmoud Street to mark the anniversary of the eponymous battles that took place here last November, when more than 40 people were killed and scores seriously injured. In one of the bloodiest incidents since the fall of Mubarak, riot police and state security unleashed tear-gas and "eye-snipers" on crowds protesting the impunity of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for killings during the January revolution. 

The first casualty of the November protests had just been confirmed and, later the same day, Egypt's recently-elected President Mohammed Morsi made his controversial announcement about new presidential powers, again spurring the acrimonious masses back on to Tahrir.

Commentators have been quick to once more diagnose Egypt with revolution after Cairo's display of all the relevant symptoms: record-scale protests, chants of “leave, leave” and a presidential palace under siege by demonstrators. Banners in Tahrir Square proclaimed “Checkmate to the king,” while jubilant tweets declared “Happy second revolution” as hundreds of thousands turned out to protest current president Mohamed Morsi – a member of the Muslim Brotherhood – broadly expanding his own powers and proposing a new constitution that opponents claim would help to impose Islamist law on the country.  

Morsi's amendment came after international acclaim at his successful brokering of a ceasefire in Gaza several days before. But within hours of his announcement, the president was denounced as autocratic, dictatorial and “pharaonic”. Deeming it the "Revolution Protection Law", Morsi has defended his new powers as a safeguard for Egypt's nascent democracy against the influence of former regime elements and insisted that they are "temporary but necessary to complete the democratic transition".

The president has since scrambled to calm the rising tide of dissent by rushing through a draft constitution to be put to popular referendum on 15th December. In a tenuous grab at credibility, he also scrapped his new powers, instead awarding the military the power to arrest civilians. However, with at least six deaths and hundreds of casualties in protests so far, these hasty efforts are unlikely to appease protesters or those in the government and judicial system who oppose Morsi's plans.

The mass protests in Cairo and other urban centres this past fortnight do appear to point towards a recurrence of the revolution that deposed Egypt's former dictator in January 2011. However, on Mohamed Mahmoud Street – already alive with tear-gas and rubber bullets – and across downtown Cairo, it's clear that a low-grade fever has been constantly burning ever since then.

“This is not a second revolution,” said 22-year-old activist and civil-engineering student Farghaly, who took part in the January revolution, the Mohamed Mahmoud demonstrations and was out again this past week to demand the rescinding of Morsi's new powers.

“We are continuing with the same struggle that got rid of Mubarak last year. But this is a new wave of awareness and it will not be the last one. The power needs to be with the people and not in the hands of one man. We will not tolerate another dictator who claims the same authority as Mubarak, or even worse.”

In many ways, the widespread rage manifesting against Morsi reflects the longer-standing grievance of the country's original revolutionaries, who have yet to see their democratic aspirations fulfilled, injustices prosecuted or grief resolved. Many among these classes boycotted the inaugural presidential elections that brought Morsi to power last November and afforded voters an unsavoury choice between the Muslim Brotherhood candidate and former Prime Minister and Mubarak wingman, Ahmed Shafiq. Others now cringe as they explain having voted for Morsi as a defence against Shafiq, as the perceived lesser of two evils – a bitter paradox that was quickly rubbed in their noses by graffiti on the wreckage of Mohamed Mahmoud Street a fortnight ago: “How does your lesser of two evils look now?”  

So has Egypt just supplanted a military dictator with an Islamist one? Amid criticism from human-rights advocates, popular outrage and a string of resignations by presidential advisors, some analysts have defended elements of Morsi's perceived power grab as necessary. Setting a new constitution in place without the threat of sabotage from remnants of the former regime remains a pressing obstacle to be mounted before Egypt's democratic transition can proceed.

However, the president's lack of accountability, combined with more recent moves (such as the accusation that former presidential candidates engaged in a "Zionist plot" to overthrow Morsi) are more suggestive of the classic dictatorial canon of paranoia and megalomania. Rightly, such murky tendencies have riled the sensitivities of revolutionaries and ordinary Egyptians, as well as vast swathes of Mubarak loyalists and disillusioned Morsi voters, producing a curious alliance of political all-sorts on the streets in opposition to the president.

While there is force in numbers, some fear that the fresh wave of political upheaval may yet come back to haunt Egypt's pro-democracy campaigners. Again.   

"Justice still hasn't been served and people are anti-Brotherhood to the bone,” says Nihal, one of Egypt's most prominent young rights-activists. “The only future is the Brotherhood, so they will do anything to get them out of power, but I can't believe how naïve people are being.”

Despite having been on the front line of demonstrations in Tahrir Square and Mohamed Mahmoud Street last year, Nihal is staying home this week. Like others from the revolutionary camp, she is concerned that former regime powers like Shafiq will capitalise on the momentum of current demonstrations and widespread hostility to Islamism in order to stage a political return.

“What kills me is that people are now joining forces with the old regime in protests, collaborating with those same people who killed us last year. They don't see that as soon as they have power back they'll just kick our arses. I feel like the revolution is losing its principles.”

So long as anti-Morsi protests continue with no clear or binding programme of demands beyond rescinding the presidential decree, doubts about their outcome may not be unfounded. As one skeptical voice on Twitter demanded this week at #Tahrir, “Has anyone asked themselves what are we really doing? What can we realistically win? What is it we expect?”

Such sober questions may prove a timely reminder to those swept up in the spirit of revolutionary upheaval to be vigilant about their direction and cause. More troubling, perhaps, are the clashes between Islamist and anti-government protesters that have erupted in recent days. Unlike Mubarak's dwindling allegiances during last year's revolution, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood support-base remains widespread, fervent and pliable – as has become clear in the riotous confrontations at the presidential palace in recent days that surpass anything witnessed during the revolution and could yet see Egypt's army out on the streets again.

Equally, however, it may be too easy for onlookers in the West to buy into the trap of viewing Egypt's struggle through the lens of absolutes – either blindly hailing its revolutionary romanticism or disparaging its future with a doom-and-gloom prognosis. On the road away from convulsing Tahrir Square last week, the taxi driver laughed jovially about the chaos and tear-gas erupting in downtown Cairo through a mouthful of falafel, as if referring to a ticker-tape parade.

“My son was imprisoned for five years under Mubarak”, he said suddenly, severely, eyes flashing in the rear view mirror. “Tortured all that time”. Egypt's capital seems charged with something incendiary – revolutionary, reactionary or violent – which could play out in a number of ways. But amid all this, it seems unfathomable that Egyptians would ever go back to taking it lying down – be it from autocrats, military dictators or Islamists. What is clear is that no side in the struggle can be easily, unqualifiedly glorified or condemned or branded, despite the best efforts of the likes of Richard Branson to this week associate himself with the Tahrir struggle. Egypt's revolution is not black or white, green or even red. And it is certainly not finished.

Follow Zoe (@zaholman) and Amanda (@mustardphoto) on Twitter.

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