Behind veneer of stasis, agents of change are making strides


ANALYSIS:The military has major muscle, but progressive revolutionaries are forging a way forward, writes MICHAEL JANSEN

‘BACK TO square one” and “Egypt has come full circle” are the most common comments on the latest developments in the Arab world’s most populous and most influential country. The references to “square one” and “full circle” are intended to mean that Egypt is back to where it was before the popular uprising of early 2011, the most spectacular development of the Arab Spring.

At that time president Hosni Mubarak and his clique reigned virtually unopposed.

Egypt has not returned to “square one” or “come full circle.” Nothing could be further from the truth. While the 18-day uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak has not led to a smooth transition to the multiparty democracy demanded by the revolutionary youths and the millions who staged the uprising, Egypt has made dramatic political changes since Mubarak’s fall.

As commentator Mona Anis remarked, he is in prison serving a life sentence for failing to prevent the killing and wounding of demonstrators during the uprising. He is the first Arab president to be personally put in the dock and imprisoned for crimes committed during his watch. Furthermore, many of his closest business associates have been stripped of ill-gotten wealth and sentenced to jail terms.

Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, are awaiting trial on serious charges.

However, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – which assumed both presidential and legislative powers after being compelled to remove Mubarak by people power – is not immune from criticism. Indeed, the SCAF’s latest antics have been so roundly castigated that its spokesmen have tried to mollify public opinion by arguing that the military does not constitute a “state within a state” as some commentators have charged, and by reiterating its pledge to hand over to the new president some executive power by the end of this month.

Gone are the days when Egypt’s revolutionaries asserted confidently they were “hand-in-hand” with the armed forces. Instead it has become clear to the revolutionaries that the military are adversaries. Many months ago, the revolutionaries realised that the military had its own agenda and its own interests to protect and that it intended to stay in power for as long as it takes to achieve this objective. Perhaps longer.

This is a lesson learnt the hard way by long-prosecuted and imprisoned secular liberals as well as Muslim fundamentalists.

The largely liberal, left-oriented revolutionaries have also come to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organised of the country’s political movements, has a faith-based conservative agenda rather than a progressive programme. The Brotherhood seeks to transform Egypt in very different ways than the revolutionaries. Its ultimate goal is an “Islamic state” while the revolutionaries aim to create a “civil state” in which there is a clear separation between mosque and state.

The revolutionaries who insisted that they “managed” but did not “lead” the largely spontaneous mass uprising are coming to the realisation that they must unite, organise and designate leadership roles.

Veterans of the long struggle for a democratic Egypt, who are sharply critical of the revolutionaries for refusing to take advice from their elders, believe the revolutionaries may now be prepared to listen. Furthermore, they could have a second chance at entering the legislature since the dissolution of the lower house of parliament last week may give them the opportunity to win seats, denying domination of the people’s assembly to the Brotherhood and the ultra-orthodox Salafis who won 70 per cent of the seats in last year’s election.

Several well-established and newly formed political parties are currently trying to foster the creation of a “third way”, a political grouping that could represent secular liberals and challenge both fundamentalists and soldiers.

Before this can happen, both veteran democrats and young revolutionaries must come up with serious strategies for taking on the generals and the fundamentalists. The public has become weary of staging mass rallies in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, birthplace of the uprising. This method of challenging the authorities seems to have run its course. As several Egyptians have remarked, “People are tired and need some rest.” But, once they have recouped, recharged, and regrouped, commentators argue they will be prepared to carry on with the struggle for a democratic Egypt many believe remains within reach. Under Mubarak, they had – almost – given up.