Egyptian revolution, Part 2: Now, to build a nation

It’s Thursday night and the Egyptian revolution has come to Minya al-Qamh, a small agricultural city on the Nile River Delta. Gay party lights crisscross a downtown street where local youths have quickly erected a colorful tent around a stage. One organizer cranks up the public-address system to warm up the crowd, chanting anti-Mubarak lyrics over the rap song “Gangsta’s Paradise.” “Hosni and Gamal Mubarak/ too much grief/ 30 years/ no relief.”

The slow-arriving local burghers and workers pay little attention. They’re waiting for the star of the show: Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. Dr. Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who recently broke from the Islamist group, is one of the most prominent candidates to declare he’s running for Egypt’s presidency. He’s the first national-level politician to visit this town 100 miles north of Cairo since Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February. Several hundred locals, as a result, have turned out to hear him.

Avuncular and energetic, Aboul Fotouh laces his speech with many of the bromides universal to almost any campaign: the need to improve education, the importance of available health care, a vow to stamp out corruption. But he also throws in a few tart comments, derisively referring to Mr. Mubarak’s crippling rule of Egypt and calling for a tougher stance toward the “Zionist criminals” to the north.

Such rhetoric, even the presence of someone publicly vying for the presidency, would have likely ended in a beating or worse for Aboul Fotouh and his followers just two years ago. But today the tableau of him stumping on a stage stands as a sign of how tangible freedom is in the new Egypt – and in some ways a reminder of how fragile it remains, too.

Nine months after the fall of a Middle Eastern autocrat that transfixed the world, Egypt is transitioning from a revolution to the messy process of birthing a nation in a way that is unleashing new voices, new ideas, new parties – and old dangers.

As Aboul Fotouh and other candidates jockey for position and political parties gear up for historic parliamentary elections, the secretive military that has been the power behind the Egyptian throne since the 1950s remains firmly in control. By its recent actions, the country’s military junta – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – has shown it is seeking to insulate itself from political change. It has jailed journalists and bloggers, shot and killed protesters – including 17 Coptic Christians last month who were complaining about unfair treatment by the state – and used secret trials against civilians. It has grabbed the megaphone of state media to darkly warn of “foreign hands” in Egyptian affairs and repeatedly revised Egypt’s transition plan and the military’s role in it.

This, of course, is how the military has behaved in Egypt stretching back to the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser a half century ago. But now, with the first round of elections looming on Nov. 28, questions about the military’s true intentions, the popularity of Islam, whether democracy can actually take root in Egypt, are poised to be answered. And those answers will reverberate well beyond Cairo and the dusty streets of Minya al-Qamh.

The Arab Spring may have started in Tunisia, which passed its first post-dictator test with fairly clean elections in October. But Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, the ideological home for both Arab nationalism and modern Islamist political movements, remains the ultimate trophy for democracy proponents in the region.

A triumphant end to Egypt’s revolution could show what’s possible for other restive countries across the Middle East. If Egypt creates a government accountable to its people, it will likely embolden those standing up to autocrats like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad or Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. If it fails – if the military manages to maintain control of vast portions of Egyptian life – then the Syrias, the Bahrains, the Jordans, and other regimes will find it easier to preserve their old ways of doing things.

Tiny Tunisia in the far Arab west may be easy to ignore. Oil-rich and fairly homogenous Libya, if all goes well in its transition, could be dismissed as a solitary example of a country aided by its vast wealth. But what happens in Egypt – where popular aspirations are matched by vast economic problems, where Islamist and secular visions of the future are competing to determine the notion of modern “Egyptianness” – will shape the direction and geopolitics of the region more than what happens in any other country.

“People paid attention to Tunisia, but Bahrainis and Syrians and even Libyans didn’t take to the streets until Mubarak was gone, or it looked like he’d be gone,” says Toby Craig Jones, a Middle East historian at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “That was the moment people believed. Egypt’s longstanding position of influencing regional culture and language and politics – the legacy of Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood – mean that what happens in Egypt will matter.”

* * *

Up close, it’s boisterously clear that Egypt is a country in the grip of trying to form a new nation. Endless political debates reverberate about what the nation needs and how to fix it. On talk shows, in cafes, in sports clubs and offices, political alliances form and then, under the strain of personalities and competing ideologies, break apart within weeks. Everywhere you can see Egyptians excitedly discussing the new world of possibilities.

This is evident on a long subway ride across Cairo. From the recently renamed Martyrs’ (formerly Mubarak) Metro Station downtown, a packed car slithers through subterranean Cairo and eventually climbs above ground. Outside, as the train moves closer to the edge of the city, the revolutionary graffiti on walls gives way to the profane scrawls of schoolboys, and smoldering piles of garbage in abandoned lots grow larger as the red-brick apartment buildings shrink.

Finally, at one stop, a heavily bearded man in plastic sandals steps aboard. Passengers sigh and smirk as he launches into what everyone takes to be a standard Salafi sermon – about hell, wickedness, obeying God. The Salafis are members of a rigid Muslim sect that generally opposes most forms of modern government. The Islamic Jihad, an Egyptian terrorist group founded by current Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and now mostly disbanded, drew from their ranks.

But now in Egypt, a number of Salafi groups – previously demonized and driven underground by Mubarak – have surprisingly mobilized to run in the elections. The metro car preacher is canvassing for one of these hard-core Islamist parties. In many respects, he personifies what for the United States and the Egyptian military have been one of their greatest fears since the ouster of Mubarak: the possibility of Islamic radicals making significant inroads in any postrevolution government.

Yet his presence may also be a sign of how unfounded that fear really is. Salafis are engaging in the democratic political process – at least for now – not rejecting it. The sect doesn’t appear to have enough broad support to capture many votes in the parliamentary elections.

This is even visible on the train. Interlaced with his tirades about Mubarak, corruption, and “Zionist scum” – all of which brought murmurs of assent – the ragged-looking man insists that Egypt should be an Islamic state, that “the sharia should be our constitution.”

One frazzled commuter interjects, “Like the Saudis? No way. Religion is a private thing.”

Others are less critical. “We need more religion, more morality in government,” says a third man. “Look at where we are now.”

By the end, the Salafi member has lost his audience. Passengers go back to debating parties and political figures. His pitch becomes subsumed in the democratic din, like the clack of the train wheels below.

If Egypt seems unlikely to put many Muslim extremists in power, this is not to say that more moderate Islamic groups won’t have a significant voice in the new government. The Muslim Brotherhood and similar religious groups enjoy broad support. The Brothers, banned but semi-tolerated under Mubarak, have built a network of mosques, charity health clinics, and social services across the country. They’re well financed by the membership.

A June survey by Gallup, the American polling firm, found the Muslim Brotherhood to be the most popular political group in the country, with 15 percent backing. (Brotherhood candidates are running under the banner of the newly formed Freedom and Justice Party.)

Yet none of this means the group will dominate at the ballot box. For one thing, more than 50 political parties are now fielding candidates. Egyptians, many of whom clearly embrace Islam, also seem to prefer at least some separation of politics and piety. In the same Gallup poll, 69 percent of Egyptians said that they wanted religious leaders to “advise those in authority,” but only 14 percent supported them actually writing the laws.

And even the Brotherhood has been dealing with dissent and disagreement within its ranks. Aboul Fotouh, for instance, broke with the group over its insistence – wary of frightening Egypt’s current military rulers and secularists in the electorate – that it wouldn’t run a candidate for president, only ones for parliament. Aboul Fotouh also favors a less overtly Islamist approach to politics than many in the Brotherhood. He wants people to live more Islamic lives but suggests they accomplish that through outreach, not legislation.

Other young members of the Brotherhood, who joined hands with secular liberals and socialists at Tahrir Square in January, have broken out on their own as well. Mohammed al-Kasaas, a 30-something film editor who joined the Brotherhood while in college, exemplifies many Egyptians looking for a middle way. Mr. Kasaas was on the ground floor of the Egyptian revolution. In the early years of the last decade, he joined nascent protests against presumed plans to make Mubarak’s son Gamal Egypt’s next leader. He participated in the anti-Mubarak “Enough” demonstrations in 2005. In 2008, he joined the April 6 Youth Coalition, a free speech and democracy group that started in support of labor action in Mahallah and evolved into a major organizer of the Tahrir Square protests.

He spent years switching cellphones and sleeping on friends’ floors to avoid state surveillance. He and a number of other young Brothers took part in the early days of the Tahrir protests against the wishes of the Brotherhood leadership, which feared inciting a government crackdown and seemed leery of joining hands with a largely secular protest movement. Shaped by these experiences, he drifted away from the group, becoming a critic of its top-down style and willingness to make accommodations with the military.

“I didn’t quit. I was fired,” he says in an interview at a cafe of his ouster from the Brotherhood in July. He publicly criticized the group as too close to SCAF (the Brotherhood has often echoed the military’s warnings about “foreign hands” in Egyptian affairs), and as unaccountable to its membership.

“I don’t want the Brotherhood to be a political party. It should be a civil group whose members can join whatever party they like,” he says. “If we try to legislate religion, we’re going to divide Egypt.”

Now, he’s one of the founders of the Egyptian Current Party, led largely by former Brothers. It’s Islamic in character, but Kasaas insists there’s nothing religious in its agenda.

“Is alcohol forbidden in Islam? Of course,” he says. “But Muslims shouldn’t drink because they’re Muslims, not because of what the government does or doesn’t do.”

Whether his party will get any electoral traction is hard to say. A group of activists declaring a party is one thing; organizing across a country of 80 million people, where government-controlled media remain how most people get their news, is something else. He, like more than a dozen political activists interviewed from across the Egyptian political spectrum, is worried about the parliamentary elections being marred by violence, vote buying, and military meddling.

“In the Mubarak days, the NDP people could just buy their way into parliament,” he says, referring to Mubarak’s since-banned National Democratic Party. “Those habits, those people, remain all around us, and it’s very dangerous.

* * *

Transitions from authoritarianism to democracy are never easy, even under the best of circumstances. Some post-Soviet states, particularly in Central Asia, descended quickly into new forms of despotism after the fall of the Soviet Union. Indonesia, which dumped its last dictator, Suharto, in 1998, witnessed almost a decade of sectarian upheaval and economic uncertainty until finally becoming, for now, a fairly stable democracy.

Egypt, too, faces challenges both common and unique. Its economy is beset by some of the biggest problems in the region outside of Yemen. It is trying to surmount an authoritarian culture that has been in place in some form since the Pharaohs. The military, the fist that has been the guarantor of that authority in modern times, is particularly reluctant to loosen its grip.

In some ways, this is understandable. For almost 60 years, the military has been a virtual law unto itself. Egypt’s 1952 revolution that overthrew the monarchy was led by the “Free Officers Movement,” and the country’s first president was a general. Its second, Nasser, was a colonel. His successor, Anwar Sadat, was a military academy graduate, and Mubarak bore the equivalent rank of general in the Air Force.

To this day, senior officers have their own clubs, their own residential subdivisions, their own holiday resorts, and by and large live apart from society. The military runs a vast array of businesses that produce everything from bottled water to refrigerators. Members of Egypt’s conscript Army are sometimes used as labor in these factories, and civilian workers are subject to military law – handy for dealing with strikes.

Most analysts in Cairo believe that while the military doesn’t want to rule directly (and be blamed for anything that goes wrong), it is looking to protect its interests with whatever civilian government emerges – notably by controlling its own budget. For this reason, many Egyptian political figures believe that SCAF will exert influence over the election results.

The voting process itself could reinforce the military’s ability to do so and prolong elements of the Mubarak era. The parliamentary election is scheduled to be held in three phases over at least two months, something that makes vote-rigging easier. Local NDP power brokers are expected to run for the 40 percent of seats in parliament that have been reserved for independents (as opposed to candidates running on party lists), and, with their vast experience of vote-buying and mobilizing the electorate, analysts see them doing well.

Even when the voting is over, a parliament will be formed that will still have the military acting as Egypt’s executive power. The parliament’s job will be to write a new constitution, ratify it, and follow up with a presidential election sometime in 2013.

“We already know the results of the election,” charges Hossam al-Hamalawy, a prominent socialist activist and journalist. He sees the election rigged in favor of politicians who won’t undermine SCAF’s authority by seeking to limit the military’s vast private enterprises or bring its budget under civilian control. “Why give the exercise a shred of legitimacy?” he asks. “Keeping the [labor] strike wave going is the way to get results.”

Those calling for a boycott are of a minority, even on Egypt’s left. But the country’s budding labor movement, with new independent unions surfacing across the landscape and strikes starting every day, symbolizes a rising populism in a time of economic crisis.

Tourism has plummeted since the revolution, investment has stalled, and prices are rising as the interim government struggles to maintain fuel and food subsidies that millions of Egyptians rely on for their survival. The new parliament is unlikely to address any of this in a meaningful way, even though the economy is the No. 1 priority for virtually all Egyptians.

The extent of the labor activism is something that “has never been seen in Egypt’s history,” says Mustafa Basyouni, who covers the labor movement for Cairo’s new Tahrir newspaper. “Postal workers, transport, doctors, teachers, factories – these social demands aren’t going away.”

* * *

In Mahallah, the anger is everywhere. A teeming city of 450,000 some 60 miles north of Cairo, Mahallah is Egypt’s symbolic industrial center, a designation it has enjoyed ever since the first major textile factories were established here in the early 20th century.

At Nahdet Samanoud Weaving, a government-owned textile factory surrounded by rice fields and irrigation ditches outside the city, a few hundred strikers maintain a lonely vigil. The two-story building has been shut for weeks. Workers with 20 years on the job make about $120 a month. New employees start at half that.

Their central demand? Invest in the business and keep its 1,300 employees working. The government has been hoping to liquidate the factory for years under a privatization program championed by Mubarak’s son Gamal.

“We would all like more money, but the biggest thing is just to keep some kind of job,” says Doa Rizq, a mother of three in a purple head scarf who’s been on a hunger strike for three days. “This could be a good factory, a productive factory, but the government management has been lazy and corrupt. We’ve tried calling SCAF. We’ve tried calling politicians. No one is paying attention to us.”

Well, no one with formal power. Men like Sheikh Kamal Fayoumi are. Mr. Fayoumi, a fiery labor organizer and preacher who blends socialism and Islam in his sermons, has worked at another local factory, Misr Spinning and Weaving, the Middle East’s largest textile firm, since 1984.

The factory, with more than 10,000 workers, has been a flash point for unrest for years. On April 6, 2008, la-borers at the plant went on strike, which brought a massive police crackdown, including the jailing of Fayoumi. The town erupted in riots. “I’ve been struggling against the government of Mubarak and the gang of businessmen around him for years,” says Fayoumi, sitting in his family’s spare four-room apartment in Mahalla. “Our economic problems dragged me into politics without [my] even noticing it.”

Now, he’s trying to organize a powerful independent union in the area and seeking to influence politics. “The demands of the revolution stem from the Quran – justice, compassion, and mercy are the central tenets,” he says. “There isn’t any justice without economic justice.”

Strikers have won a string of victories this year, particularly at government factories, alarming Egypt’s military rulers who are worried about more unrest. But while dozens of labor stoppages have ended with promises of higher wages, it’s not clear where the money is going to come from to fulfill the pledges.

Egypt’s coffers are threadbare. Foreign exchange reserves have fallen 30 percent, to $24 billion, since the start of the year. Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat; and subsidies on bread, rice, sugar, and cooking fuel cost the government about $3 billion annually. Last year, the nation spent $11 billion on gasoline and fuel subsidies. Cutting government assistance now – particularly food subsidies – could undermine social stability. But they are getting increasingly difficult for Cairo to afford.

Back in Minya al-Qamh, the economy is on everyone’s mind, too. A general feeling prevails among a crowd sipping tea at rickety tables, outside the tent where presidential candidate Aboul Fotouh is speaking, that much of Egypt’s economic woes stem from corruption. Many are hopeful it will end soon.

As for Aboul Fotouh, he confines himself largely to platitudes, calling for better education and more social justice. He brushes aside concerns that Islamists are going to come to power and cancel future elections. “Anyone who doubts our intentions, watch us respect the people,” he says.

He appeals for patience on the economy. “There’s been so much damage done – it’s going to take us 20 years to rebuild this country.”

Then he is gone. After he leaves, just as after Mubarak left, the same corrupt cops appear on the streets of Minya al-Qamh, the same Mubarak apparatchiks – Egyptians call them the felool (“remnants”) – retain their positions on the beat.

Across the city, public services remain slipshod. Garbage still piles up in vacant lots and irrigation canals. The roads are still pitted with holes, if they’re paved at all. Hundreds of towns like Minya al-Qamh, with dun-colored apartment blocks crumbling from age, are scattered across Egypt. And they’ve been an afterthought to Egypt’s rulers in Cairo for generations.

Is change coming? Mubarak’s fall certainly unleashed political passions and a sense of optimism. But it hasn’t translated into concrete improvements. Not yet. If change doesn’t come soon, millions of Egyptians may be tempted to follow the warning of Ahmed Waheed, the rapper at the Aboul Fotouh rally, when he says: “We need results. We need our rights to be respected. If we don’t get all that, we know the way back to Tahrir Square.”

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