Army, Islamists, revolution – whose power will endure?
Tahrir was not about ushering in a US-style political campaign, and Egypt’s parliament is not a touchstone of the future
Khalid Abdalla, Comment is Free, guardian.co.uk,
Since the very beginning, the Egyptian revolution has been misread. At its dawn, people said it could never happen. Within days it had become the flame to Tunisia’s spark. The euphoria brought with it successive uprisings in the region, and an international movement that re-appropriated the word “occupy”.
But only two weeks after Hosni Mubarak’s fall, Egypt’s army – feted for helping to oust him – was violently clearing the square. Torture and thousands of military trials followed, protest was criminalised in law, and finally protesters were crushed to death by armoured personnel carriers that the army astonishingly claimed through state media were stolen by revolutionaries.
The word “revolution” became a battle cry and not a description; it choked in experts’ throats.
Ten months later, the world’s media poured back into Egypt to cover the spectacle of elections. But, barely settled into their hotel rooms, they found themselves covering major street battles yet again. The thousands of protesters had reappeared, fighting to the death against live ammunition and fatal levels of teargas, while Tahrir turned into the biggest field hospital on earth.
The revolution seemed once again to have found its voice. It called not for elections, but for the military to step down.
Nevertheless elections came, following days of predictions that they would be postponed. Tahrir emptied almost as quickly as it had filled up. The Islamists were upon us, and all observers could talk about was how the Salafis had blindsided everyone. A milestone in democracy and “progress” had turned the future Islamic green. An article in the Guardian talked of the revolution’s “secular liberal fantasy”.
On 23 January parliament will hold its first session. The 99% who enter its doors will be men. The 1% will be women. So beware anyone who wants to read Egypt’s parliament as a touchstone of the future. If ever there was a sign ripe for misreading it would be this one. The country’s representative body is ideologically skewed, incoherent at best, and overwhelmingly gendered.
Only a month ago the army was hurling everything from rocks and old crockery, to satellite dishes and office cabinets on protesters from the roof of the parliament building.
There are three main poles of power in Egypt: the army, the Islamists and the revolution. No single event is powerful enough to obliterate the influence of any one of them. Only time can. The real question is: whose ideology is most resilient?
In interpreting the last year, too many people have read events as if, following massive social upheaval, everything turns into an American-style political campaign. They talk as if the most important question facing Egypt is who will be clever enough to make the right moves to replace Mubarak and take control of parliament.
If that’s how you read social change, then yes, the revolution has failed, quite wilfully. Indeed, it never had a chance. The dice were heavily loaded even before the first person looked around them and thought: “Is this really happening?”
But what began on 25 January last year was not a political campaign, it was a country awakening. Over the last year, the streets have had the power to inspire generations, to topple cabinets, prime ministers and a president, to move political roadmaps, to force a cultural shift in the police state and deeply threaten the army. Time and again battles have been fought by citizens of conscience willing to die for their principles, or go to prison. For the first time since 1919 thousands of women have appeared on Egypt’s streets, marching as a bloc.
As people take their seats in parliament on 23 January, deep down they will know that it is blood that got them there. You can be sure that every person who has died will have chanted the words: “Bread. Freedom. Social justice.” Those who have lost their eyes, been tortured, or wounded, continue to do so. So until the country feels those words can rest in balance, expect Egypt to remain turbulent.
If the Islamists can bring that future in one choppy parliament, expect the future to be theirs, deservedly. But presuming they can’t; it will be civil society that writes the future, as the street finds ways to organise itself and build its vision