Activists Find No Place on Egypt's Streets

By Abdalla F. Hassan

Photo by Wail Gozly
 
In the heat of a Cairo summer, the battle lines have been drawn. In the tense standoff, Abdelazim Fahmy, better known as Zizo Abdo, finds no room on the street for revolutionaries like himself. I met with Zizo at a downtown Cairo café called Hikayitna—Arabic for “our stories.” We’re a stone’s throw away from Tahrir Square, which has been cordoned off by the military with barbed wire, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. Soldiers man checkpoints into the square, searching bags and requesting identification. 
 
The arena is divided into two camps: those behind the army in its war on terrorism and those behind the Muslim Brotherhood who are calling for the restoration of electoral legitimacy. The revolutionaries, Zizo tells me, have found themselves crowded out of a political sphere that knows no shades of gray. While he supports the army to stamp out terror, he fears the army will take away any gains the revolutionaries have made.
 
“The death of unarmed civilians cannot be a justification for confronting terrorism,” says the 30-year-old. He finds just as much danger in the rhetoric of division: “The language prevalent in society cannot be the language of blood and violence; either I convince you or I kill you.”
 
But if the army doesn’t stamp out terrorism, the country will dig itself further into turmoil, leaving little room for the idealistic vision of revolutionaries. 
 
College was Zizo’s initiation into politics—a student activist and socialist who believed in the Palestinian cause, a solidarity that united the student body’s leftists and Islamists. At 17, he was arrested and detained for two days for shouting slogans against the former president, Hosni Mubarak.   
 
He was one of the first who rallied against the long-serving autocrat, and watched as those protests grew in size, frequency, and significance to challenge the status quo. He felt a palpable simmering on the street on the eve of revolution. It was then that he heard the slogan made famous by Tunisia’s revolution: the people want the downfall of the regime. 
 
On January 25, 2011, he was among those leading a march from the poor and working-class neighborhood of Bulak al-Dakrour to Tahrir Square. The decisive day of revolution came three days later, during the Friday of Rage, when Egyptians took to the streets, and security forces, vastly outnumbered in confrontations with protesters, were summarily withdrawn. 
 
Following Mubarak’s downfall, Zizo joined the April 6 Youth Movement, a group that gathered activists of sundry political trends. The movement helped ignite revolution in coordination with the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page, named after a young man senselessly beaten to death by police in Alexandria months earlier. 
 
Since the revolution, Zizo has led rallies against the ruling order, first the military council then against ousted president Mohamed Morsi. He was then detained for the second time for a few days for leading a protest outside the Syrian Embassy in Cairo against Bashar al-Assad. Zizo’s longest stretch behind bars came under Morsi’s rule. The April 6 Movement organized a protest rally outside the home of the interior minister, Mohammad Ibrahim, waving women’s underwear, suggesting that the top security official was the administration’s whore. Zizo was in custody for 33 days, 27 of them spent in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison, inside a sunless nine-by-six foot cell.
 
Zizo championed the mass-petition campaign calling for Morsi to step down, demanding early presidential elections. He was one of the 78 revolutionaries who comprised the June 30 Front, a group that planned nationwide protests and marches to begin on the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration as president. When massive street protests got started, he was not surprised when the army intervened on July 3, laying down a roadmap that expelled Morsi and the Brotherhood from power and set a new course for the country that included constitutional revisions, followed by elections. 
 
But when Defense Minister Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi asked for a mandate on July 24 to confront violence and acts of terrorism by calling on citizens to take to the streets, Zizo refused to be involved. Yet millions of other Egyptians came out, raising posters of the lionized general and new pharaoh. That night, security forces killed 80 Morsi supporters by the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in after an attempt to block a nearby transportation artery. Zizo describes the authorities’ carte blanche as, “You gave me a mandate to kill, I’ll kill as much as I want.”
 
Islamist extremists, jihadists, and criminal gangs that thrive on havoc and disorder became ostensibly allied with Morsi supporters. Armed individuals have been spotted at pro-Morsi marches. The Muslim Brotherhood’s rallies and sit-ins to restore the former president to power coincided with church burnings, sectarianism, and acts of terror. Deadly strikes have rocked Sinai. “Killing an armed individual doesn’t concern me,” declares Zizo. “He is the one who cheapened his own blood.” 
 
Days after Moris’s ouster on July 3, Mohammad al-Beltagy, a prominent Brotherhood leader told a television reporter, “What is happening in Sinai is a response to the military coup. It will stop the second that Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi announces that he has went back on this coup.” Two Wednesdays ago, as the military cleared out Rabaa, they shot the Brotherhood leader’s 17-year-old daughter, Asmaa. He remains in hiding. 
 
Zizo struggles with conflicting sentiments: balancing national security versus safeguarding human rights. He loves his country and wants to see it secure. He would fight terrorism with his “heart and soul,” but as a revolutionary he wants to see a respect for human rights and political freedoms. He wonders if the brutal breakup of the pro-Morsi sit-ins was part of a master plan: to ignite a crisis that would result in a violent backlash. The ensuing mayhem would have citizens calling for a reconstituted police state. He told me how a fake sense of security was packaged with stability under Mubarak: killings, theft, torture, and random police searches of citizens were common. This could be an attempt to reconstruct security in a more macabre form, since the interior minister came out with a statement promising a return to the security and safety of pre-January 25. 
 
“Or they could have wanted to clear the sit-ins, but they are a ministry of dumbasses and did not have a true plan, or their plan failed in clearing the sit-ins and so they fell back on chaotic and excessive force.”
 
The revolution succeeded in toppling Mubarak because activist youth succeeded in rallying the population behind them, but now Egyptians desire stability—all what Mubarak had promised—and are willing to trade certain rights for it. The rally cry of revolution was for bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity. “That slogan won’t be heard as long as there are no revolutionaries are on the street,” says Zizo. Would the right to protest go along with it, too? “When I choose to take to the streets asking for my rights, or to participate in a demonstration, or call for the downfall of a minister I see has erred,” says Zizo, “I could be faced with the same cruelty, killing, and violence under a term synonymous with terrorism.”
 
Since January 25, 2011, attempts have been made to tar the revolutionaries as traitors receiving foreign funding and carrying out destructive agendas. The Muslim Brotherhood participated in these rumors when it served their interests under Morsi’s rule, says Zizo. Now they are shouting slogans associated with the revolutionaries. “When they come out and say, ‘Down with military rule’ and ‘The Interior Ministry are thugs,’ where were they from the start?” he asks. “They were standing behind the Interior Ministry, protecting it and being protected by it.” 
 
Zizo knows the Interior Ministry to be full of thugs, but he wholeheartedly endorses the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood, the security state’s number-one enemy under Mubarak. “After what is happening in the country, after acts of violence and the use of the language of arms and strength, I am completely with the dissolution with the Muslim Brotherhood and with disbanding any illegal group, any group that manages its affairs secretly,” he says as he lights a cigarette, adding that it’s not about vindication. 
 
More than two and a half years after the revolution, Egypt has not made progress toward transformative change. Martial law and the daily 7 PM to 6 AM curfew could be extended and elections delayed. The country will be under the military’s rule with the excuse of fighting terrorism. Despite all of this, Zizo is hopeful. The revolutionaries face upcoming battles over the hammering of the constitution, organizing for elections, and remaking state institutions. 
 
Zizo sees drafting the constitution as the decisive battle, one that needs to include all Egyptians and reflect revolutionary ideals. He wants to see the ranks of the often-divergent revolutionaries unified behind campaigns to politically isolate Mubarak regime remnants and Brotherhood loyalists from regaining power, sponsor revolutionary candidates for parliament, and urge a greater role for a young generation in government decision-making. Having learned from their mistakes, activists are endorsing a single candidate for president to avoid splintering the prorevolution vote. “If we have to, we will return to square one in turning an oppressive police state to a proper democracy.”
 
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