Last weekend marked the third anniversary of the Tahrir Square revolt in Egypt.
It’s hard to recall the incredible exhilaration of those days, which I witnessed firsthand: Facebook-savvy activists rallied millions to the square with calls to end police brutality and oust a military-backed dictator.
In 36 months, the counterrevolution has come full circle. Several key leaders of the January 25, 2011, protest, including the April 6 movement co-founder Ahmed Maher, have been sentenced to three years in jail – at hard labour. Police brutality is back, but government-controlled media and TV label anyone who criticises the police or military as traitors.
How did such a hopeful moment turn so sour? Here are some observations from a trip to Cairo last month, and conversations since.
First, Facebook alone does not make a revolution. Liberal Facebook activists such as Maher were able to rally urban, educated crowds. But they were unable, or unwilling, to organise among the poor and less educated in rural Egypt, where shoe leather was needed. Nor were they able to organise strong political parties to counter well-organised Islamists. As the 25-year-old liberal activist Mohebi Doss told me over coffee in the legendary intellectuals’ Cafe Riche in Cairo: “The Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in reaching power because of liberals’ mistakes.”
Second, after the Muslim Brotherhood had frightened many Egyptians by seeking to monopolise power and Islamicise society, young activists again tried to unseat a government with street protests. Doss was one of five founders of the group Tamarod (Rebel), which campaigned to gather 15 million signatures calling for the resignation of elected president Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood member. “We had to do it this way,” says Doss, “because we couldn’t defeat the Brotherhood in elections.”
Military officials, sensing the public’s dissatisfaction with Morsi, helped organise and publicise the Tamarod campaign, which included a massive anti-Morsi demonstration. Tamarod provided the generals with the cover to oust the president last summer and reinvent themselves as the heroes of the Egyptian revolt.
Third, most – but not all – liberals welcomed the army’s soft coup despite its brutal crackdown on the Brotherhood, in which hundreds were killed and thousands arrested. Conscious of their political weakness, liberals hope the army will move the country back toward democracy in coming elections. However, a new constitution strengthens the power of security services. And public adulation for General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who removed Morsi, may ensure he is elected as the next president.
Fourth, the military and police seem bent on ensuring that the Egyptian street – so powerfully mobilised by the Tahrir revolt – will not unseat another government.
As a result, liberal activists who have dared to raise human-rights objections to military behaviour or new curbs on street protests have found themselves in the crosshairs. Maher, who has met with prominent leaders in Europe, America and Asia, and been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, is now locked up in a freezing cell in solitary confinement.
This month legal charges were also brought against prominent liberal political scientist and ex-parliamentarian Amr Hamzawy, and the well-known scholar Emad Shahin, who were among the few public critics of the bloody crackdown on the Brotherhood. Those who know the men well – and I am familiar with both – call the charges laughable, if not absurd.
Meanwhile, state media continue to defame onetime rebel icons, claiming that the Tahrir Square revolt was really organised by “foreign hands” and Maher and colleagues were foreign agents. (They also accuse the Brotherhood of terrorism; regardless of the group’s mistakes, these charges have little or no basis in fact, according to top terrorism experts.) In a country where many have no access to the Internet, state TV is a powerful tool for selling the new narrative. In addition, pesky foreign journalists are being jailed.
Even Khalid Saeed, the young man whose brutal death at police hands in Alexandria sparked the original Tahrir revolt, is no longer sacrosanct. I was told by one military source in Cairo, “Don’t be fooled into believing Saeed was a good guy.”
“Our own history is being rewritten by an alternative reality,” says Hossam Baghat, one of the most courageous human-rights advocates in Cairo. “And this rewriting of history is relentless.”
However, as Baghat points out, public opinion is very fluid. If Egyptians elect Sisi as president, they will eventually judge him not on his current hero status but on whether the economy gets better.
If he fails to deliver, we will see whether the spirit of Tahrir lives on and people dare to return to the streets to demand a different leader. Or, even more important, whether the heirs of Tahrir have been able to organise an independent political party, and whether such a party can – or is permitted to – win.