Last call for Egypt's activists?

What Egypt’s revolutionary activists lack is a coherent organisational base. Only the Muslim Brotherhood manages to reach out to the electorate and by doing so easily grabs the levers of power.

Egypt is in turmoil, with almost daily clashes between the authorities and a variety of protesters that according to some threaten the very foundations of the state. The army and the ostensible new rulers, the Muslim Brotherhood, try to impose stability while their opponents cry foul and allege that their Arab Spring revolution has been stolen from them.

How are outsiders supposed to know what’s going on if one of the most influential street art interpreters of Egypt’s revolution now sighs: “I need some time to think of what to do next. I’m not sure what to do with the situation.” But one thing is clear: the story is not yet finished and activists are not giving up. The only question is whether they’ll be able to regroup effectively.

The contradictions in Cairo were all too apparent one Friday at the beginning of February. Two girls in headscarves sat at their laptops, intently staring at their screens and deftly moving their fingers over touchpads to produce a series of screeching sounds and thumping rhythms in a dimly lit new experimental music space in downtown Talat Harb Street.

Through an open window the chants of protesters on Tahrir Square, literally a stone’s throw away, drifted in and meshed with the performance, at times making it unclear which was which. Protest and new artistic vigour, headscarves, computers and hipsters, they all exist side by side in Egypt. As do despair, frustration, hope and idealism.

Many of the secular activists who drove the revolution and who laid the foundations for it by exposing the brutality of the Mubarak regime and the police are dejected about the way things have turned out. They place almost equal blame on the Muslim Brothers, whom they accuse of pernicious lies and manipulation, and on the raft of vainglorious opposition leaders who failed to unite and offer a viable alternative.

Some have concluded that violence is the only answer, as it will keep the Muslim Brothers aware of the depth of the resistance against their vision for the country and will keep what’s left of the opposition mobilized. The opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood keep telling themselves that the population is increasingly disillusioned in the movement because it is not delivering on stability, reforms and most importantly, the economy.

How this will play out during the parliamentary elections that are to be held soon is anybody’s guess. But based on past performance, the Muslim Brotherhood is the only organized political entity with a natural following that can get out the vote. It’s a safe bet that this will again hold true and that many Egyptians, weary of the on-going power struggle, will empower the Brotherhood to form a government in the name of stability.

The secular activists are right when they say that the Brothers have broken almost every promise they made when they joined the revolution after an initial hesitation. They fielded more candidates for the first parliamentary elections than they had promised, conquered the presidency even though they had said they would not and rammed through a flawed constitution. Worse, they deploy thugs to disrupt opposition demonstrations just as the old regime used to. Nobody doubts that the Brothers have cut a deal with the army, in which they almost seamlessly replace the old regime in the power equation.

Yet, it would be a mistake to write off the Muslim Brotherhood and with it Egypt’s revolution. The Brotherhood cannot be blamed solely for finding itself now in a position of dominance. Not only was the political opposition disorganized, so were the activists who sparked the revolution. They do not form a coherent whole, rather a disparate collection of individuals, each with their own expertise and agenda.

What the post-revolutionary period in Egypt shows, as if that was really necessary, is that the media, social and otherwise, are no replacement for good old-fashioned boots on the ground organization building. Several months after the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak, many of the young activists from Tahrir square were doing amazing things, organizing in collectives... to produce films and documentaries. My question was then as it is now: all fine and well but who goes into the neighbourhoods to set up a grassroots opposition movement, who reaches out to the unions and the farmers?

The Muslim Brothers, not the young activists, are present in the poor neighbourhoods of Cairo and in the farming villages and the industrial towns of the Nile river delta. It is the Brotherhood that is handing out food and sometimes money when it is electorally expeditious, that is providing services that the government is not and that the opposition and the activists seem uninterested in.

When it’s so easy to grab almost all the levers of power, it is hard to blame the Brotherhood for doing so. A counterweight is badly needed but violence is a dead end that will only alienate the population and turn it away from politics or drive it further into the arms of the Brotherhood.

The international community can help, not only by imposing conditionality for aid on the Muslim Brotherhood dominated government, as it is doing, but also by imposing conditionality for aid on the opposition and the activists. If they do not unite, organize and reach out to all layers of society, they will become even less relevant than they are already in danger of becoming.

About the author

Ferry Biedermann is a former Middle East correspondent for among others the Financial Times and is now a freelancer, still contributing to the FT and also to The National and Jane’s.