Lots of comparisons are being made between the current mood and goings on in Egypt, and the country as it was before the revolution. Everything is generally shit, the Interior Ministry’s viciousness is on the ascendant, and the space for public dissent is shrinking before our very eyes — the Wicked Witch of the West melting into a pool of water.
These are strange and maudlin days, but a major difference between now and then is that the general public has a better idea of who they are, and the myth — drilled into them in schools, by state media and occasionally by corporate marketing campaigns — that they are one monolithic people, united, culturally and politically has been exposed. The sensation is similar to that of a group of ostensibly harmonious but drunken relatives at a family meal, one of whom blurts out a remark about respected Uncle So-and-So actually being a right bastard, setting off a landslide of bitter acrimony and suppressed invective. Everyone leaves the meal with the feeling firstly, that they know the others better, and secondly, that they are no richer for this knowledge.
This journey of self-discovery began almost immediately. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist political parties roundly beat their secular, liberal opponents in the parliamentary elections of 2011, and for the first time it was possible to get an accurate sense of the scale of public support for these groups, so long kept out of politics under the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. Polarization began here.
It intensified with the presidential elections, the final round of which was an unsatisfying race between the unfortunate Mohamed Morsi — an avuncular character chosen to replace Brotherhood heavyweight Khairat al-Shater after the latter was declared ineligible to run — and the bumbling Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak lackey with a penchant for expensive wristwatches who stood on little boxes during press conferences to make him taller. The central selling point of his campaign was: I am not Muslim Brotherhood, vote for me.
It was a closely run battle of the mediocre. Shafiq left the country almost immediately after losing, leaving in his wake various allegations of corruption and jubilant members of the Muslim Brotherhood who took to the streets celebrating their man’s victory.
Morsi began the strange days of his rule by going to Tahrir Square and opening his suit jacket to prove that he is “One of Us” and not scared of death while surrounded by a team of 658 bodyguards. He upheld the noble tradition of Egyptian presidents by making grand promises which he then failed to keep. His took the form of an ambitious “100 day” project which he told us would address Egypt’s most pressing problems, numerous and chronic. This project was almost universally viewed as a work of fantasy.
Barring a miracle, it would have been impossible for any president, whatever his political stripes, to succeed in anything. The country was still raw from the tumult of the revolution, the death and the violence — which then was still a novelty. There was a perceptible rise in street crime and a general sense that the country was coming apart at the seams. For decades, and for generations, Egypt’s institutions — the Interior Ministry, the military, the judiciary — had been perceived as its mainstays, the pegs in the ground that kept the winds of uncertainty, of threats named and unnamed, from blowing the tent away. The revolution demanded that this thinking be turned on its head, that these institutions be seen as a barrier to progress, that prolonged uncertainty be viewed as the path to an eventual good.
Morsi and his men waded into all this with their brand of clumsy, spiritual popularism. Perceived as something between a closed group and a cult, the Muslim Brotherhood never made any serious efforts to refute this, and instead spent their time lurching between public relations disasters, attempts at power grabs and courting the very institutions they needed to challenge in order to guarantee their survival.
The end really began after November 22, 2012, when Morsi passed a constitutional declaration granting himself absurd, Pharaonic powers. People responded by setting up a protest camp outside the presidential palace. The camp was attacked by groups of plain clothed men, and the situation descended into running street battles between Morsi’s opponents and another group who identified themselves as defending his rule. Nightmares about Egypt cleaving in two were made real on that long night as the two camps surged back and forth, watched by the police, who for hours did nothing to stop them.
The military and the Interior Ministry were sitting back and watching throughout this period, biding their time as public resentment festered. Opposition group Tamarod (Rebel) climbed onto the back of this anger and organized a petition campaign calling for Morsi to hold early presidential elections. The momentum of this campaign was directly proportionate to the sense of chaos in the days leading up to June 30: Mystery six-hour-long petrol queues, a terrifying public lynching of four Shia men, persistent rumors that the Brotherhood was going to take over the military and the police, that Egypt would turn into Iran.
Egypt is chaotic generally, but within established and accepted boundaries. The sense of impending doom was amplified by the hysterical Facebook rumor mill and a media as polarized as the rest of the country, presenting their versions of reality while underneath all this were the rumblings of something coming.
Morsi ignored those rumblings and gave a two-hour speech shortly before he was deposed in which he variously belittled and threatened his detractors. It was the stuff of established, seasoned dictators, not a jumped-up little amateur with military and Interior Ministry vultures swooping above his head, and who is unlikely even to be able to frighten his kids into going to bed on time.
Today, there is an advertising campaign on the streets of Cairo encouraging citizens to take part in the upcoming referendum on the draft constitution. Giant billboards declare that taking part means saying yes to the January 25 and June 30 revolutions. “Yes” jumps out in huge lettering on a green background, pausing only to knock those reading it over the head repeatedly before bellowing, “YES YES YES.”
The juxtaposition of January 25 and June 30 is an ambitious marketing trick seeking to draw in as many punters as possible. It is a continuation of the message vigorously shoved down our throats by the government that Morsi’s unseating by the Armed Forces was definitely NOT a coup, and that June 30 was either another installment of the revolution or a correction of the January 25 “path,” which experienced a blip when Morsi took power. Both interpretations are fantastical because if there is a link between January 25 2011 and June 30 2013, it is roughly equivalent to the relationship between chainsaws and trees, or jaws and lower limbs.
They also both ignore the fact that January 25 was not the explosion of unity and brotherly love that the wistful romantics present, and that the whispers about it being foreign-directed, or a plot by the Muslim Brotherhood to seize power, or both, began even before the 18 days had ended. These claims were initially limited to Egypt’s lunatic fringe media and a diehard group of Mubarak supporters who, when not kidnapping activists, recorded songs for “the general.”
They peddled a fierce brand of nationalism made up of raging xenophobia, unconditional love for the Armed Forces and vile character attacks on their enemies. They really came into their own when Morsi assumed power, and all the dark warnings about a plan to bring down Egypt were made real. As the Muslim Brotherhood’s intransigence and political brinkmanship continued and the economic situation deteriorated, the cracks appeared and these mutterings seeped into the mainstream, almost imperceptibly.
The mutterings vilified the Muslim Brotherhood (who were already doing a great job of ruining their image by themselves), and turned them into something sub-human. Morsi supporters taking part in a sit-in at Rabea al-Adaweya were described as sheep and accused of being infected with skin diseases. An intense media campaign was unleashed, and it prepared public opinion for what was to come: The massacre at Rabea on August 14, when hundreds were killed in a single day during the dispersal of the by security forces. Very few people objected, not even the liberals and human rights activists who had been so vocal in their criticism of violations under Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The narrative that Egypt had been saved from the brink and is now engaged in a war on terrorism was accepted virtually unquestionably by the general public, who ran out of patience with the revolution and who sought sanctuary from its turbulence in the familiar arms of the very state some of them rose up against three years before.
The problem with massive state action of the kind taken against Morsi and his supporters is that it is like a wrecking ball in motion — once it gains momentum it is impossible for it to strike just once. When the general public responded to the request by ladies’ favorite, Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, for people to take to the streets in order to “authorize” the Armed Forces to fight terrorism, the wrecking ball was set in motion.
At the end of November the interim president passed into law legislation that criminalizes protests. Activists reacted by holding a protest outside the Shura Council, during which over 60 people were arrested, including Mona Seif, one of the founders of a lobby group against military trials. Later that evening her brother, well-known activist Alaa Abd El Fatah, waited outside a police station in central Cairo, having heard word that she and other detainees would be brought there. He was spotted by a group of middle-aged ladies, one of whom immediately began screaming invectives at him, accusing him of being a faggot, an atheist, an agent for the West on America’s payroll.
A week later there was an abortive demonstration, again against the protest law. The 10 people who showed up were shooed away by the motley crew of undercover policemen and “honorable citizens” defending Egypt who now feature regularly at such occasions. As they withdrew, a man screamed despairingly at their retreating backs that people have had enough of demonstrations, they want to eat; “they’ve ruined the country,” he cried out.
A similar scene had played out the day before in Tahrir Square, where students protesting against Morsi’s dethroning were approached by a resolute man in his early 60s who marched around with a plastic bag in one hand and a picture of Sisi held above his head in the other. A lamentable scene then played out when a student stole the poster, and the man ran after him to retrieve it, both of them weaving through traffic.
A marginally bigger scuffle broke out between a couple of the students and a tiny group of men floating around the man with the Sisi poster, and there was a spectacular moment when a crutch was brought down on one gentleman’s head. The distant sound of riot police sirens ended the fracas, the familiar wail signaling that we should look above us. And there they were, the white arcs drawing a line in the sky and a close to the proceedings, the languid clouds of acridity seeping into the spaces left vacant by the retreating protesters.
Having almost obliterated the Muslim Brotherhood, the wrecking ball is on its next demolition path, targeting anyone who dares to question it.
One of the often unstated victories of the January 25 uprising was that it reclaimed public space for protest. That has all ended now, and not because the state recently banned unauthorized protests — protesting was illegal on January 25, too. Numbers are simply not large enough, and restricted to universities, Morsi supporters, the hardcore activists active before the revolution and workers’ strikes.
With the exception of the anti-coup protests (attended predominantly by Muslim Brotherhood members, motivated by a legitimate sense of injustice but ultimately driven by their own narrow interests) all of these movements are useful in keeping the state on its toes. But, and again with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood protests, they take place hidden on campuses, or in factories, again driven away to society’s margins, like the old days.
And the worst thing is that this is all happening with the consent of the public, divided and riven by hatred of itself, wary of being cheated again, happy to believe that their common enemy is one of them and not ruling them, prepared to turn a blind eye to a thousand quotidian iniquities and occasional spectacular outrages because there is comfort in the familiar, no matter how awful it is.