Calling time on the January Revolution?

The forces of 25 January will have to take a long-term view on completing the Egyptian revolution, as both the military and Islamist groups seem keen to consolidate gains
Ewan Stein
3 June 2011

On Friday 27 May protesters took to the streets in their tens of thousands once again in Cairo, Alexandria and across Egypt. The groups involved—including the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, April 6 Youth Movement and other liberal and leftist forces—advance a number of demands, but most generally call for reviving, completing or launching a ‘second’ Revolution.

Lining up against the protest—dubbed a million-man march—were much the same forces as initially opposed or were slow to join the Revolution in its early days, and who campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote in March’s referendum on amending the constitution. All the major Islamist forces came out against it. Although members of the Brotherhood’s youth cohort demonstrated, a day later the leadership announced its withdrawal from the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, thus formally disassociating itself from the Revolution as an ongoing process.

The Muslim Brotherhood opposed the march as a ‘revolution against the people’; Salafists judged the process un-Islamic (in much the same way as they said voting ‘no’ in the referendum was equal to unbelief), while other Islamist groups like the Wasat Party and the resurgent Gama’a Islamiyya (Islamic Group or GI) asked their members to stay at home.

The Islamists, like the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), chastise and mock those incorrigible secularists that don’t seem to know when to stop protesting. In language reminiscent of that of the old regime, they deride what they see as demonstrating for its own sake, making incoherent and unreasonable demands, and refusing to appreciate the gains the Revolution has realised. They want, so they say, to protect Egypt’s economic recovery and prevent further ‘fitna’ (discord or sedition), which represents for Islamists and military men alike the sum of all fears. Perhaps most stingingly for those behind January 25, they chide the protesters for ignoring the wishes of the majority and riding roughshod over the long-suffering Egyptians’ desires for peace and stability.

Islamism and the military regime

Three months into the Revolution political Islam is enjoying something of a heyday. The Brotherhood’s political experience, combined with renewed vigour and self-confidence, is helping it to consolidate its influence over what has always been its primary base—the urban middle classes. But, more importantly, the Brotherhood now shares the political stage with a proliferation of other Islamist groups and movements. Most consequential, now as in the latter half of Mubarak’s rule, are Salafists. Previously ‘apolitical’ under Mubarak, who cultivated them as a safer alternative to the Brotherhood, Salafists now have political vehicles like the newly formed Fadila (Virtue) and Nur (Light) parties, as well as unprecedented access to the mosque pulpit and freedom to hold mass meetings and rallies.

Also Salafist in outlook , the previously ‘jihadist’ Gama’a Islamiyya, essentially dormant since its ceasefire in 1997, has exploded back onto the scene as both a proselytising and a political force. Aboud Zomr, mastermind of President Sadat’s assassination, has been released from prison and become a regular fixture on the media circuit. Zomr and other former militants, who—it must be stressed—remain sworn off violence, paint the January Revolution as a culmination of the GI’s own uprising against the Mubarak regime in the 1990s. The Revolution, they argue, vindicates the GI’s own decision to renounce armed struggle.

The revolutionary coalition of 25 January faces a military regime and an increasingly entrenched Islamist opposition, each enjoying robust external support and cordial mutual relations. Saudi Arabia has just promised Egypt a generous package of aid, and Qatar committed investment of up to $10 billion. The US, for its part, has pledged not to alter its own aid package to the regime.                                          

The strength of political Islam in Egypt relates not only to grassroots popularity, but also to economic power supported by regional networks. The Brotherhood has, since the 1970s, had strong links to capital, and now benefits from the end of the repeated Mubarak-era seizures of its assets. Salafists continue, as they did under the old regime, to have access to substantial revenues, mostly from Wahhabi soul mates across the Red Sea. And there are strong pro-Salafist forces within the Muslim Brotherhood, a political direction that offers financial as much as transcendental payoffs. If its plush new Maqattam offices are anything to go by, Muslim Brotherhood Inc. is feeling no pain.

There are thus strong incentives for Islamists and the SCAF not to ‘complete’ the Revolution, something those expecting dramatic change in Egypt’s pro-Western foreign policy anytime soon should bear in mind. The demonstrations on Friday received scant coverage in the global media, meaning international interest in the Revolution will also be on the wane. The lifeline the forces of January 25 desperately need is continued, or increased, support from ‘ordinary’ Egyptians. The turnout on Friday was clearly nowhere near that of the first Friday of Anger on January 28. And while such comparisons are unfair—these were still mass protests—their opponents will spin them as sideshows, harmlessly playing out while grownup politics continues elsewhere.

Predictably enough, not unlike in other parts of the world, the powers that be in Egypt have decided—at least on core demands—not to change course. Parliamentary elections will still take place in September, with presidential ones shortly thereafter. By the end of the year, with a constitution in place, the SCAF will hand over to a civilian government. Not before.

Connecting with the people

Even once the new constitution has been written and a president and legislature elected via ‘free and fair’ elections, Egypt will remain an imperfect democracy. Still largely a peasant society, votes—particularly in rural areas—will no doubt be collected on community rather than individual levels. The political party of the provincial candidates will, to a large extent, remain arbitrary and irrelevant to the electorate. Local leaders will not readily support radical or leftwing political agendas, and will likely find more natural homes in Islamist parties.

In the ‘developed’ quarters of the cities people will vote according to political conviction, and here the Muslim Brotherhood is in the strongest position. But of no small significance will be the sprawling urban ‘ashwa’iyyat, the informal neighbourhoods whose inhabitants may not be beholden to the local sheikh, but neither are they members of the politically engaged intelligentsia. Over sixty percent of Cairenes live in neighbourhoods such as Imbaba, which have been neglected by the central government for decades, and often considered more-or-less outside the body politic.

In previous elections Mubarak’s National Democratic Party could rely on local heavies (baltagiyya) in such areas to corral people into polling stations and make sure they voted the right way. Such local brokers have tended to be ideologically flexible—respecting power and money—and also served as muscle for the Gama’a Islamiyya, which, in the late 1980s and early 1990s administered the effectively autonomous ‘Republic of Imbaba.’

It is groups like the GI and the Salafist movement in general that now stand the best chance of making inroads in these areas. Both the SCAF and the Brotherhood realise this. The former quickly turned to Salafist preachers as intermediaries in its, rather lame, attempts to calm sectarian tensions in Imbaba at the beginning of May. Whether or not Salafist leaders instigated the violence in the first place, they had the ability to stop it. They speak an intelligible language and can offer material, as well as spiritual, palliatives. This, after all, was why Mubarak tolerated the Gama’a Islamiyya in the same area for years, even when the group had colluded in his predecessor’s murder. And now they are back, not unreasonably hoping to receive the same largesse.

The Brotherhood, like the military, appears to have decided not to expend too many resources penetrating the ‘ashwa’iyyat directly. It has pledged not to contest more than 50 percent of seats in the elections, but it has also announced that it will form a unified list with Salafists (neither party fielding candidates in areas in which the other is running), thus allowing Salafists to pick up seats in those poorer areas in which they enjoy a clear advantage. Unless something changes it seems certain there will be an Islamist majority in parliament for the foreseeable future, albeit potentially one in which no single party dominates.

So where does this leave the forces of January 25? One of their biggest challenges has been to resonate with Egyptians in the countryside and poorer areas. In a recent interview, Khalid Za’farani, the leader of the Egyptian Justice and Development Party, formerly of the Brotherhood, remarked that liberal and socialist parties had no popular base, and that the ‘simple pious Egyptians’ rejected their ideas and would not vote for them. Za’farani is undoubtedly correct, and a substantial part of the shared Islamist agenda is to ensure, through education and proselytising, that those ‘simple’ folk never do accept secular ideas.

Urban menace?

Many who seek a better future for Egypt blame the malevolent political culture sustained by the previous regime for sectarianism and other social ills. The old system generated, for Rashid Khalidi, ‘pervasive self-loathing and an ulcerous social malaise... [which] manifested itself among other things in sectarian tensions, frequent sexual harassment of women, criminality, drug use, and a corrosive incivility and lack of public spirit.’ But now that Mubarak has gone, and these problems have clearly not gone away, many of those marching on Friday were, somewhat ironically, demanding increased policing to protect citizens.

Perhaps, in addition to confronting a mobilised Islamist social movement, and a military regime with substantial foreign support, some that want to see the Revolution ‘completed’ must also overcome a measure of class prejudice and denial. Hatred of Mubarak and his clique united Egypt, and with that unity came the feeling of common purpose that drove the Revolution forward. But many middle class Egyptians—Islamist and secularist alike—have tended to view the poor and the lower classes (tabaqat al-dinya) with a mixture of derision and fear. Popular language and customs are often sneeringly dismissed as biy’a, meaning base, course or low-brow. A recent intervention by Hazem Kandil about the role of Cairo’s slum dwellers in the Revolution provides a good example. In blatantly derogatory terms, Kandil remarks that ‘fortunately, this menacing human mass was entirely absent from the revolt, which probably contributed to its civilized and peaceful character.’ He concludes that to be successful ‘a revolutionary politics has to take the existing fears and anxieties of a class society into account.’

The political circus surrounding sectarian violence in Imbaba in early May likewise saw many a prejudice bubble to the surface. A Christian woman, Abeer Fakhri, was alleged to have been held against her will by the Coptic church for converting to Islam. For Qutb al-Arabi, writing on the Muslim Brotherhood’s website, Fakhri and other (generally Upper Egyptian) Copts who convert to Islam just to get divorced are little more than ‘ne’er do wells’ running away from their Christian husbands to shack up with equally lamentable Muslim miscreants (sayi’in), ‘many of them Microbus and tuk-tuk drivers.’ They are no use to either Christianity or Islam, al-Arabi suggests.

The Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t have to worry about the tabaqat al-dinya as it has its new Salafist allies to rely on. But who do the left and liberals have? There have been Islamist-secularist alliances in Egypt in the past, but surely uniting with Salafists would be a step too far? Clearly the forces of January 25 will have to take a long-term view on completing this Revolution, as both the military and Islamist groups seem keen to consolidate gains. Friday’s million-man march in Cairo may not have quite lived up to its name. But this is not the point. What will matter in the long run is how, as counterrevolution takes hold, Egyptians can convert their protests into a social movement that moves beyond, rather than takes into account, society’s class ‘anxieties’.

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