In the spring of 2011, I reported from Egypt on the aftermath of the Arab Spring for The European and Byliner, and tried to capture some of the excitement, hope, and uncertainty that permeated Cairo’s activist and journalistic circles. Five years later, it’s terribly saddening to witness the country’s political trajectory. The ancien regime once again survived a revolution.
Fridays are always important. At least they are in Tahrir, that infamous square, now a cornerstone in the vocabulary of Egyptian patriotism and a household name throughout the world. On January 28, tens of thousands gathered for the “Day of Rage” after the noon prayers. Now, on the square’s Eastern edge, maybe a hundred people mingle in front of a set of speakers, undisturbed by the traffic (and not disturbing it either). A few teenagers test the sound system on their scooters, a lone policeman attracts a small crowd that dissipates as quickly as it appeared. Vendors with revolutionary memorabilia – flags, pins, shirts, buttons and face paint – have occupied the surrounding area. An elderly woman sits on the ground, a selection of postcards spread out in front of her, adorned with executioners of human suffering: Idi Amin, Stalin, Milosevic, Mao, Mubarak. It costs less than a dollar to send your favorite dictator to friends and loved ones: “Greetings from post-revolutionary Egypt! The weather is hot and the people are liberated.”
Maybe revolution manifests itself in the details. Every edition of the EgyptAir in-flight magazine includes a section entitled “Pioneers from Egypt”. This month’s pioneer is Laila Rostom, “the first woman to appear on Egyptian television in 1960”. She hosted a popular talk show, attracting female guests such as Indira Gandhi or Taha Hussein. But there’s a catch: For much of her career, Mrs. Rostom worked from Lebanon. As the magazine explains: “A great advocate of political freedom in Egypt, where she was censured a great deal, Rostom was known for her sophistication and bold opinions.” An empty line follows, as if to emphasize the gravity of the concluding words. “Rostom is now back in Egypt, where she resides.”
It’s hard to miss the message. So, as I step off the plane, I am curious to see the building of democracy and civil society in action.
Some of the first people I meet are organizers for the April 6 Movement. It dates back to 2008, when young activists began to organize in support of industrial workers who had threatened to go on strike. The movement now claims over ten thousands adherents in Cairo alone, its networks and tactics formed much of the backbone of the January 25 protests. Amal, the group’s spokesperson, has invited me to join them for one of the nightly get-togethers that happen frequently at one of the group’s four apartments in Cairo or in one of the city’s cafés. We crowd into a back alley next to a coffee shop; the TV is tuned in to a soccer game. Amal’s little daughter showcases her English skills and otherwise sits consumed with her cell phone. People drift in and out of the gathering while the core group trades news, plots strategies and tries to explain the burdensome task of managing a revolution to me. For all the familiarity, this is a serious endeavor. “I didn’t sleep for eighteen days during the revolution. I didn’t enter my house for eighteen days”, Amal says. Her list of media contacts – managed from a laptop and a cell phone – has reached the quadruple digits. Her eyes are tired, with dark rings under them. Over the course of our meeting, she races through half a pack of cigarettes. Revolution is a stressful business.
Yet somehow, Amal and her fellow organizers have pushed on. Many of them are veterans of political dissent, having joined the ranks of April 6 long before the ouster of Mubarak. They have sacrificed time and careers to build a better Egypt. To them, January must have been a time of immense liberation and validation. “What about the optimism”, I ask, “is it still there?” Amal looks straight at me. “You cannot be revolutionary without being optimistic”, she tells. “You have to be able to keep going. We want this country to be better. We want to put an end to dictatorship.”
Nawal El-Saadawi agrees. She is one of Egypt’s first and most well-known women’s rights activists and – aged 80 – she did what so many Egyptians did in January: She went to Tahrir and refused to leave. If you have looked at photographs from that time and seen an old woman, the face wrinkled by decades of relentless activism, prison stints and exile, standing defiantly on top of the makeshift barricades, you have probably seen Nawal. Her daughter had arranged a call, and Nawal was eager to talk. “I have dreamed of this for 70 years”, she said. “No political power can stop change when it is so deeply embedded into the consciousness of a people.” The people had dared to dream, they had dared to act, and – Nawal was convinced – they still wanted more. “We are not satisfied… The members of the old guard must stand for their actions,” she said with unwavering conviction. Her Egypt was dazed with enthusiasm, swept along by the great momentum that unfolded in the streets and squares.
“There was a Tahrir Square in most towns”, says Ahmed, another activist I meet in Cairo. He is now running an initiative that offers democracy education and networking opportunities for activists. “Wherever you went in February, people would be talking about politics.” And again, I ask my question: “What has happened to that optimism?” Ahmed laughs. “Politics is not just about ideas”, he says. “It is about power and about the ability to implement your ideas. Many activists were really energized by the ideas themselves. And when the revolution happened, they said: ‘Well, that’s it.’ But the truth is: A revolution is a process.” It took eighteen days to oust Mubarak. But when can the revolution be counted as a success?
To this day, there is no unified agenda of the various oppositional groups; activists energetically disagree about the merits of holding elections (scheduled for late September) before drafting a constitution, about economic policy or the prospects of collaborating closely with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its civilian representatives. What will it take to pursue trials of former government officials and police officers? How can entrenched loyalties and rivalries be softened to allow for the reshaping of institutions and constructive dialogue about Egypt’s future? For all the avenues that the revolution has opened up, it has often remained short on concrete answers.
“I don’t mind if it takes a lot of time”, Ahmed continues. “But we have to make sure that we are moving forward, not backwards like Iran. We have lived without rights for thirty years. So obviously there will be fights.” The urgency of now has started to be replaced by the realization that much of the ultimate legacy of the January protests will be determined not by ideas, but by the passage of time – and by the persistence with which the ideals of the revolution are articulated over and over again.
That sentiment is echoed by many activists I meet. Ibrahim is one of Cairo’s district organizers with the April 6 movement. Amal introduces us, and Ibrahim draws his chair closer for a chat. He is young, tall, with a calm eye and broad shoulders – the kind of guy whom you would want by your side when the going gets tough. Yet his voice is calm and introspective. “January wasn’t the revolution”, he says. “It was just the first step towards a revolution.” Ibrahim seems to cling to that idea – the revolution is still happening, the doors of change are still wide open. It is as if any notion of finality would imply that the job of the revolutionaries is over, that their achievements will be tallied and their power will have to be handed back to the guardians of stability and the caretakers of normalcy. As long as there’s still a revolution, there is still a purpose. There is a reason to carry on and keep fighting.
And Ibrahim is in dire need of that dose of optimism. “The end of Mubarak does not mean the beginning of democracy. In January everybody was out in the streets. Not anymore. That is the big struggle now. People need to live their lives”, he says. Many have settled back into normal life, and not everybody has returned when the revolution kept calling on them. For the organizers of the April 6 movement, the real work has only just begun. I turn to Dina, a member of the Women’s Coalition who was swept into the arena of activism by the revolution. She shrugs her shoulders: “In March, people would ask us: ‘When are we meeting? We must organize!’ Now we call a meeting and invite 50 people, and only ten show up.” While the core group of activists has stayed around – and quite significantly, it includes a mix of political veterans and those who joined in January or February –, the rank and file have significantly decreased in numbers. That comes as no surprise to anyone involved. The thrill of revolution has in many cases been replaced by the more tedious work of training a generation of democrats that will be able to build a different Egypt. The country has been under military rule since 1952, and even though the early years of Nasser’s reign are generally seen as a period of cultural liberalism, few Egyptians can remember what it means to live in a society where the people are sovereign and where votes matter.
Education, it thus turns out, is key to the future of the revolution. “Many people think that democracy means the domination of a minority by a majority. But that’s not democracy”, says Ahmed, the activist who runs educational classes. Under Mubarak, he says, political participation became habituated to the extent that people regarded voting as an act of civil obedience without significance. You knew whom you had to vote for, and you knew that the ultimate outcome would not be determined by your votes anyways. “A soviet mindset”, he calls it. “Revolution is no magic potion. We cannot solve the underlying problems just by demonstrating.” And so the work starts from the ground up: “What is a constitution, how does democracy work, what do these basic terms mean?” That’s what Ahmed wants to teach his fellow Egyptians. “The idea that normal people are stupid is false. But we need to talk about the gains from democracy, not about the system itself.” He is convinced: “In this election people will vote for whomever they are used to. It will take one parliamentary cycle for them to realize that votes now matter. That’s what happened in Palestine: People voted for Hamas once, but never twice.” The revolution will continue for another four years at least.
And there are problems that might take even longer to solve. For a revolution that was at least partially fuelled by economic discontent and sense of stagnation, few of the underlying causes have been addressed or fixed. Youth unemployment still hovers around 25 percent. When the military council created several thousand jobs in April and May to tackle the issue, tens of thousands showed up at government offices to sign up.
The revolution hasn’t helped. In 2010, tourism contributed around six percent to the country’s GDP, bringing in an estimated 12.9 billion dollars. Yet numbers have plummeted since January, and still hover far below last year. In April, food prices were up 48 percent while the average Egyptians continues to live on just over 700 pounds a month, equivalent to about 120 US dollars. The transitional authorities have already indicated to subsidize essential foodstuffs to prevent starvation and food riots. The International Monetary Fund estimates that inflation will reach 12 percent by 2012, with unemployment persistently high and national debt levels climbing up to 63 percent of the country’s GDP. And after thirty years of nepotism, mismanagement and corruption, there is still no plan for a balanced state budget and long-term debt reduction. In other words: Egypt is headed for financial trouble.
Driving out of Cairo towards Giza, the evidence is clearly visible. The two-lane highway is blocked by piles of trash that have been growing since the state’s infrastructure collapsed during the revolution. Some of them are smoldering. Because Egyptians have to pay property taxes only on buildings that have been finished, many houses are left in a state of perpetual construction. Families crowd into unfurnished rooms without window glass. Communally used power lines tap the official grid and save money. In a sharp contrast to downtown, there are no revolutionary murals and Egyptian flags painted on walls and buildings.
“How do you reach the people who live here”, I ask. Almost thirty percent of Egyptians are illiterate, so the leaflets and websites of the activists won’t do much good. According to a World Bank study, youth illiteracy rates are somewhat lower – around fifteen percent – but still present a major obstacle in the path of political and economic progress, especially if one considers how minimalist the definition of literacy is: The ability to “read and write a short, simple statement on… everyday life”. And while the educational policies of Mubarak’s regime are often blamed for creating an uneducated underclass, the gaps that divide different parts of society have not magically closed with his resignation. Tahrir Square in February was not just a fertile ground for revolutionary ideas, it was also a melting pot that brought together people paths were unlikely to cross otherwise. The activists I talk to are well aware of these divides. “We are canvassing the poor neighborhoods”, Amal says. “But it is obviously a struggle to reach them. We must focus on building a network first.” She does not sound especially optimistic. Dina, from the Women’s Coalition, is more frank: “”We are not reaching the illiterates”, she declares matter-of-factly. “We try, but we only reach a small percentage.”
Indeed, for all their egalitarian rhetoric, the activist crowd is a relatively privileged bunch. Ahmed suggests that we meet at café Groppi in downtown Cairo. Founded in 1908 by the Swiss chocolate manufacturer Giacomo Groppi, the café soon became a favorite hangout for the see-and-be-seen crowd, who would sit under fans in the large art déco tea room for a chat, a drink and some pastries. Those days are long gone now; the paint is peeling from the ceiling and the tables have been spaced out to hide the emptiness of the room. Still, two teas come out to 29 Egyptian pounds, several times the price you would expect to pay just two blocks down the road, away from Talaat Harb Square.
The activists I meet with don’t seem to mind. They often come from the educated middle class of Egyptian society, they are fluent in English (thanks to early bilingual education) and all under the age of thirty. Salma is a good example: I meet her and her friend Nourane at Cilantro, another upscale café. Her uncle is the president of one of Egypt’s parties, and she remembers dinner conversations about politics from an early age. She has attended private schools in Egypt and has taken trips abroad, including a summer camp at Yale to learn “how to run an election”. Salma is only 22 years old but already a veteran of Egyptian activism, having joined her first demonstration in 2007, when riots broke out over low wages and water shortages. She has, as one diplomat put it to me, “learned more about politics in five months than you and I have learned in twelve years of school.” Salma seems acutely aware of the importance of building a broad democratic consensus. “The poor people are the foundation. Without them, the building becomes instable”, she says. But she is equally at loss when asked to explain what progress is being made. “There are speeches”, she declares with enthusiasm. “Last week in Alexandria, two thousand people came. And we will canvass.” “How many people are doing that”, I ask. She looks at Nourane for help: “I don’t know. There are people. But it is clear that our outreach is not effective yet.”
It is this situation that helps to give credence to the religious movements that have begun to dominate Western news coverage of the revolution. “The average Egyptian is not very religious”, Ahmed says. “But sharia law and promises of heaven are the easy way out when unemployment looms large.” He is an interesting person to talk to about religion. Until 2004, he was a Salafist, one of Islam’s more fundamentalist groups of believers. But, he says now, “the Salafists don’t have a program. They always oppose this or that, they are never really for anything. In the long run, the religious parties are losing. Not many people will elect them.” Yet the revolution clearly hasn’t changed the fact that Egyptian life is almost always conservative, and often openly patriarchic and receptive to religiously infused rhetoric. Harassment of women continues in the streets and behind the closed doors of Egypt’s homes. Memories of a more liberal age are a thing of the past, even as the unveiled faces of women still stare at me from faded family photographs and old portraits. “My mother never wore a veil. Back in the 1950s, miniskirts were okay”, says Mohamed, who works at the German Goethe Institute in Cairo. Thirty years of Mubarak have changed that. “The country has become more conservative, even after the revolution”, says Mohamed. “Now the Salafists tell us that we cannot use certain religious words in colloquial context. I cannot say ‘haraam’ (which might roughly be translated as “forbidden” or “sacred”) to pity someone.”
The revolution might provide a window of opportunity to change those norms. But the red lines that existed don’t seem to have vanished. They have, Mohamed tells me, often been replaced by a more opaque set of customs. If might be okay to talk about sexuality or argue for the separation of church and state in one context. But those same words and thoughts could get you ostracized – or worse – elsewhere. In a country where much is in flux, speech and social norms are no exception.
The Muslim Brotherhood can serve as a case in point. Their secular branch has now entered an agreement with the secular Wafd party, one of their assistant chairmen is a Christian. Yet for all the liberal rhetoric around its edges, the core of the Muslim Brotherhood has remained staunchly conservative. “The Muslim Brotherhood has a different agenda every day. They are primarily interested in power, so they will bend and twist to get what they want”, says Amado, an artist who has met me for lunch. He clinches his hands and shakes his head. “They call that ‘flexibility’ these days.” Yet numbers and statements mean little when their half-life can be counted in days or hours, not months or years. Indeed, Amado’s assessment is mirrored by the results of now-frequent polls. Estimates of the Brotherhood’s electoral strength range from five to forty percent. Mohammed ElBaradei, one of the liberal contenders for the presidency, has scored almost forty percent in a recent poll conducted by the military council. A day after the numbers were announced, a rival responded with another poll that saw him near the bottom of the pack.
So, if anything is clear, it is that nothing is really clear at all. “If you are confused”, Amado assures me, “you are on the right track. Everyone in Egypt is confused.” In a testament to the fluidity of the situation, five thousand people clashed with police in Tahrir just a few days after I left the country. A week later, tens if thousands came to set up tents and raise banners without police interference. On a good day, democracy is in the air. On a bad day, the hospitals are once again filled with wounded and beaten men and women. This resembles not even a pendulum of mood swings, for the revolution lacks the predictability that comes with the monotone oscillation patterns of a pendulum. Rather, Egypt seems engaged in a large-scale experiment in chaos theory: Change can happen quickly, unexpectedly, and without a clear direction. The rules of the game might change overnight, taking people – including the military council – by surprise.
But even if the canvassing progresses, even if the discussion between political parties does not degenerate into infighting, even if the influence of religion over the young state can be contained and the break with Mubarak’s confidantes proceeds, there’s an unanswered question: Whom should the people of Egypt vote for? Whom should they trust with the future of their revolution and their country? Taken together, the two chambers of the Egyptian parliament have 718 members, of whom 618 are elected by the people. But while there is no shortage of potential candidates for president, the situation with the rank-and-file is less clear. Many representatives are traditionally elected based on local allegiances, monetary prowess or family ties, especially outside the cities. For much of the past fifty years, their policy has been one of quiet collaboration with the central authorities, mixed with a dash of nepotism here and there. In the cities, the only way to make a career in politics was by knowing the right people, giving and accepting favors, and proudly wearing the colors of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. The job of the parliamentarian was to quell critical thought and to grant the air of legitimacy to decrees passed down from the president. If what Egypt needs is a creative re-imagination of its politics, these are the wrong people to talk to. But who else is there?
“We are no politicians, we are no political party”, Amal tells me. The April 6 Movement is trying to preserve its neutrality towards all political parties while campaigning for specific causes. And when she talks about “the politicians”, one cannot help but notice the faint tone of rejection in her voice. Thirty years of Mubarak have tainted the image of a politician. “Politicians tend to be close-minded. They know a lot about a subject but don’t have the ability to think outside the box”, says Salma, the 22-year-old. “I want to work in media, on women’s rights and human rights. I don’t want to be a politician.” “But who would do the job”, I ask. The young activists have learned more about politics since January than most of us will ever know. They have established organizational networks and have drafted documents to appeal to the military council and articulate a vision for a new Egypt. Aren’t they the ones who need to step up and step into the void that has arisen with the end of autocratic rule?
That problem illustrates the precarious state of Egyptian politics right now: The old guard is on its way out, the military council is regarded with suspicion – and after five months, their successors have yet to be found. Political posts will be filled, no doubt – there are always people who gravitate towards positions of power. But all the private political campaigns that have emerged since February have done little to address the void that is perhaps bigger and more significant than the lack of personnel: The lack of trust in politicians as true representatives of the people and as guardians of the emerging democracy. There is certainly no shortage of advice and advice-givers. But ultimately, it will be up to the people of Egypt to build a democratic system and – more importantly – fill it with life.
And so I am left with a group of admirable Egyptians who, at times, seem to share my genuine sense of confusion. “I am worried”, says Salma. “Worried but optimistic. We don’t know how to practice democracy, but we are learning.” Maybe that is the optimism you need to persist in this environment. As Ibrahim had already suggested to me, you need something to keep you going when change is ambiguous and progress slow. You need to stare the odds in the face with defiance, and keep pushing. For all the problems, this is still a window of opportunity for Egypt. And while it is vastly unclear where the road might take them, the people I spoke with were determined to embark on the journey. Ahmed sighs deeply. “What gives me hope is that I have even met a Salafist who said to me: ‘I have been in Tahrir Square for eighteen days. I am a religious man, but I want to collaborate with others about the future of the country.'”
As the plane lifts off from Cairo Airport, I revisit the in-flight magazine. One feature article is devoted to the carpet weavers in Haraneya. At the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Center, they handcraft carpets that depict scenes of an idealized rural life. One such carpet was once gifted by president Nasser to Nikita Khrushchev during an official state visit. They are all unique projects: The weavers follow no prescribed patterns and do not work from sketches. They simply weave, the image emerging and changing as they progress. “The only instructions we received as kids were about how to use the loom and fix the threads to it”, one weaver is quoted. “We were then left to see how the others moved their hands, created their own scenes and selected their own colors. We managed to watch and copy, then we learnt how to get inspired by the natural scenery and weaver out pieces without using a model or design.” That scene, in a way, describes the task that Egypt has cut out for itself: To build something new, without memories or clear patterns to rely on, and without second chances.
“My generation is one of the luckiest”, Ahmed tells me as we shake ends at the end of our meeting. “I have been jailed, and now we will be in power. We have no choice but to go into politics… Not twitter politics, but the hard work of running a country.” That makes sense to me. In a country with an abundance of choices and uncertain consequences, that might be the one choice that knows no alternatives.