Last Saturday, the first day of the second round of Egypt’s presidential elections and one night after the Supreme Court decision dissolving parliament, I met Ahmad Seif in the rooftop café of the Carlton Hotel in downtown Cairo. The highly respected veteran human rights lawyer who had endured years of prison and torture under Mubarak, head of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and father of celebrated youth activists A’la Abdel Fattah and Mona Seif sat at a table at the far end of the dimly lit café. Although when I had spoken to him a year earlier his outlook was highly optimistic, I did not anticipate an optimistic conversation on a night when a widespread dread that the revolution’s aspirations were quickly slipping away was so palpable in Cairo. Yet when I asked Seif if he was as positive as he had been a year earlier, his response was an emphatic “yes”.
“Look, this is a very simple equation for me. I could not have dreamed of what has happened in Egypt. What has happened until now is outside of my dreams. So it is fine. Regardless of the zigzags, the ups and downs of our revolution, still what has happened is beyond my dreams. Maybe for my daughters or son, it is a starting point for them. It is the level of my expectation. It is a simple equation of…”
“You wouldn’t expect them to give up without a fight?” I offered. “Yes” he replied, explaining that what he would have envisioned when he contemplated a large-scale challenge to the Mubarak regime was a scenario closer to what is happening in Syria.
The next night I attended the Hisham Mubarak Law Center’s monthly planning meeting in which young lawyers and staff discussed their cases and strategized with Seif. As the discussion progressed, guided by Seif, a contemplative young lawyer and an energetic young programme manager named Maha who seemed to have great managerial instincts, the mood was hardly one of a group of activists defeated or cornered by a repressive state. Instead, the group had a task in hand - defending protestors detained, facing charges or otherwise targeted by the SCAF - and they exuded confidence in their ability to methodically take on the military’s repression.
At Ahmad Seif’s invitation, I returned to HMLC on Wednesday night to present the group with some of my current research on human rights trends in the Middle East. Most of the young lawyers listened politely but did not seem particularly engaged. However, Ahmad Seif nodded his head in agreement as he listened to my discussion of shifting societal norms around rights and repression and the greater lengths Arab governments felt they must now go to to respond. After some questions, Seif began making an extended argument for the SCAF’s behaviour being positively impacted by the uprising. I could not follow the rapid Arabic, but Maha translated bits and pieces. “The people have become part of the equation” he is saying. The center’s young team seemed to have a hard time buying the dose of optimism being put forth at a time like this.
Ahmad Seif invited me back to the rooftop Café of the Carlton Hotel for another drink and a full translation.
“What I was saying to my colleagues is that the whole scene has changed in Egypt”. He saw that the SCAF had on several occasions responded when faced with serious pressure. It had moved up the presidential elections by a year in response to the Mohammad Mahmoud Street protests last November. It had prosecuted Mubarak as a result of public pressure. It had responded to pressure to change the previous laws governing parliamentary elections and it had responded to challenges to its use of military trials, for example by allowing appeals that resulted in the scrapping of various charges. “Mubarak did not respond to this kind of pressure,” Seif maintained.
He also saw the SCAF anticipating and trying to avoid protests and public resistance, something that he argued limited their actions. He offered me a few examples. First, the SCAF has made very limited use of the Emergency Law for its arrests. Second, its recent steps demonstrated a need to give legal cover to its actions. They do not want to use raw power and coercion:
‘It is as if the SCAF is saying, “We want to control you or pressure you through the law. We don’t want to arrest you and send you to jail without trial for a long time. We want to arrest you and send you to court where the there will be a judicial decision. We will build a legal case against you.” This is one of the positive developments.’
He pointed to a recent press conference where a SCAF representative was asked why the decree on presidential powers was announced at 10PM during the elections. As Seif recounted, the SCAF representative responded, “if we released the decree before the elections, we would have been accused of trying to influence the election results and if we announced it after, we would have been accused of trying to change the results”. For Seif, this was significant because it demonstrated how much the SCAF was thinking about and tailoring its behaviour around public opinion. “They are now thinking this way. So, we are a part of the equation”.
He then tried to put his argument in a broader context. “If you read between the lines”, he continued, “what has happened the last few days also indicates that the SCAF is saying that we accept a civilian in the position of president, so we will prepare ourselves and society to guarantee our basic interests as a military institution. The decision of war is not for the president alone. We must participate in this decision…even the decision of who will be the Minister of Defence and the SCAF must be made by the President and the SCAF”.
One could see this either as a coup or as the military adapting itself to a new set of circumstances, namely civilian rule, Seif argued. He conceded that people aspire for much more than this, but maintained that the fact that the SCAF is willing to see someone from outside the military serve as president is in itself a concession. This, to him, is the way political gains can be incrementally achieved in Egypt.
The reality is that the revolutionaries did not succeed in taking full power, Seif elaborated. As a result there are multiple actors wielding power including the SCAF and the popular forces pushing for change. Whatever policies emerge will have to be a product of pressure, compromise, mistakes etc. “It is a very complicated setup, but it is not new. It has happened with other revolutions. We are not unique in this.”
Seif’s argument may be somewhat overstated: few governments can survive on coercion alone. Although Seif could not recall any significant cases of Mubarak responding to popular pressure, they did happen. Just one example is the initiation of a (sham) prosecution of those responsible for the killing of Khaled Said after popular mobilizations and outrage. Similarly, using the law to further authoritarian agendas or execute repression is nothing new in Egypt, the Middle East or any other country.
Yet over the last year and a half, popular demands have pushed the SCAF to make greater concessions and act more tentatively as it contemplates means of repression. This is because it feels it needs popular legitimacy more than the Mubarak regime.
Further, as Seif implies and other activists I have interviewed reiterate, Egypt’s military coup is not taking place now. Rather, it took place in February 2011. It could accordingly be argued that since Egypt experienced a coup rather than a revolution (or at least some kind of a hybrid of the two), there was never a real transition to democratic rule either. But the mere fact that the SCAF is calling February 2011 “a revolution”, the time since “a transition” and claiming to want to further the revolution’s aspirations for democracy, rights and social justice is in itself is a relative victory. Through their uprising, Egyptians have won new, more promising paths of struggle on a more favourable terrain in which their power relative to the state has increased.
Not surprisingly, as much of Egypt holds its breath to see what the official announcement of the presidential results will be, other people I am interviewing are not brimming with the same “glass half full” scenarios as Ahmad Seif. They are right to be worried as they see the SCAF’s attempts to encroach on what they thought were the revolution’s gains. In the end Mubarak and the SCAF have similar authoritarian designs. But in an era in which the youth have taken the lead in fostering political change, this may be a time for them to take comfort in the calm and cautious optimism of a seasoned veteran of the fight against repression in Egypt. The argument is not that they should be content with what are clearly marginal gains but that they should see these gains as holding promise for moving them closer and closer to the political order they envision if they continue to fight.