“When President Morsi becomes a dictator we will take the streets” is a popular response by many Egyptians to Morsi’s new constitutional amendments. After President Morsi claimed cross-the-board powers, he must be all-powerful. But does this mean he is a dictator? For many Egyptians, dictatorship depends on what he does about detentions, suppressing freedom of speech, and a police state. If that is not the case, then, well, Morsi is not a dictator. And if he becomes one, “then the Egyptians will simply take to the streets again”. So goes the logic. But have they forgotten how hard it was to organize and demonstrate on January 25, 2011? With the rather fast fall of the Mubarak regime, public discourse has been strongly focused on simply calling for demands and toppling regimes, while forgetting how much fear one had to overcome; not only fear of death, but of torture and sudden disappearance into prisons.
Many others do not forget this and are still determined to see fulfilled their demands for, “change, freedom, and social justice”. So Tahrir Square is almost as ‘alive’ as it used to be during the 18 days of the uprising; with the difference of mainly attracting liberals, seculars, and socialists, while Islamists are neither welcomed nor do they want to join in. This is an important change, not so much because the Muslim Brothers and Islamists in general are not joining the protests, but mainly because the power dynamics and political game has changed. While the call for “change, freedom, and social justice” still prevails, the meaning has changed and in opposing the ruling actors now, also the discourse has to change.
On Monday, November 26, 2012, a new event-sharing slogan “Kefaya A’ak” meaning “Enough with the Mess” was spread through facebook calling for a million to protest on Tuesday against the constitutional amendments that gave President Morsi all powers.
The slogan was brilliant as it was new, simple, to the point, and with its vagueness, included the discontent many Egyptians now feel. The slogan roughly summed up the claims of freedom while opposing the idea of a “Pharaoh”, a powerful hint at Morsi’s intentions. Additionally, “Kefaya A’ak” is Egyptian slang. It carried a new message that Egyptians from different social classes, backgrounds, ages, and religions could relate to.
Yet almost two years after the fall of the Mubarak regime, Egypt faces a new political dilemma between the Islamists and the liberals/seculars. At Tahrir Square on Tuesday and Friday, the chanting had nothing new about it - slogans were again dominated by the old, “Al Sha’ab youreed Isqat Al Nezam”, the people demand the fall of the regime, and “Erhal”, Leave, while the main concerns now relate to the constitutional amendments Morsi has imposed on the Egyptian population. It is, of course, remarkable how many tents have been build in Tahrir Square and the number of people gathering there with their demands; but the discourse and talk has changed little. Hearing some of the speeches of famous politicians and activists in the square, they mainly use emotional rhetoric addressed to the same bunch of old problems. Government officials, ofcourse, have nothing new to say on these problems. They stress the importance of economic stability and accuse protestors of causing instability. But the opposition is really disappointing.
Activists need to make different use of the opportunities and challenges that are at hand now. First, it is important for them to realize that there are important differences between the Muslim Brotherhood, who are the most important political actors and who are in power now, and the dissolved National Democratic Party, Mubarak’s ruling party. The main difference is that while Mubarak protected the ruling elite and a few people who have economic interests with the police force, the Muslim Brotherhood are the strongest group mobilizing ordinary people on the ground. Helping many of the poor and using the religious framework in their mobilization strategies, the Muslim Brotherhood have believers and not only interest-seekers among their followers as was the case with the NDP. While it is a challenge to the opposition to find new strategies for dealing with the Islamists who use similar means as the NDP of claiming power, in addition to their popular support, they also have some new opportunities they can draw on to “revive the Revolution”, precisely with their presence at Tahrir; a mobilization privilege that was not there during the years of brutal suppression of the Mubarak regime.
The opposition, the liberals and seculars at Tahrir need to avail themselves of the new spaces that they could use to mobilize people, through demands and slogans better suited to the historical moment in which we live and better calculated to have a broad appeal. Chanting “Erhal” or “Leave”, does not for one minute adequately reflect the complexity of the current political game. The assumption that eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood is not much more difficult than ousting the NDP, is surely a myopic miscalculation, as they remain important political actors who have a tremendous outreach to the Egyptian people.
Protestors at Tahrir should not fantasise about removing the current ruling regime. They should be focusing on the triple demands of “freedom, change, and social justice” and getting on with building independent institutions to guarantee that. The focus should be on “Benaa’ el Nezam” or “Building the regime”, with the main demand calling for a constitution that assures freedom and social justice to all Egyptians. Instead of trying to remove Morsi, the opposition needs to enforce an enabling context of dialogue and inclusion of all ideological and political opinions, one that will constrain Morsi and all the other leading players.