North Africa, West Asia

Sisi’s Egypt

In this follow-up interview with leading member of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt, Sameh Naguib, we talk about Al-Sisi's Egypt, the new alliance around the general, what challenges face opposition parties and movements and the future of Tahrir Square ( long interview, October 24, 2013)

Sameh Naguib Rana Magdy
8 November 2013

RB: Well a lot has happened since the last time we met, Sameh. How have you been and what is life like for the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt?

SN: It is more difficult than any of us can ever remember, and one of the most difficult aspects is the fact that the majority of left wing and liberal intellectuals are completely in support of Egypt’s military leadership, 100 percent.

RB: This is a rather strange definition of left liberals, isn’t it?

SN: It’s a very strange definition. People who claim to be on the left… and I am not only talking about organized groups like the communist party - I am talking about writers and novelists, like Sonallah Ibrahim – intellectuals, major poets, well-known figures with a long history of democratic struggle, and standing up for people’s rights and so forth. Across the spectrum, they are all singing for the General on the same song sheet.

RB: A shift that has occurred practically overnight would you say?

SN: Overnight.

RB: We need to talk about the role of the media campaign in this shift in the political climate. We are not just talking about intellectuals are we - this campaign has won over large sections of the Egyptian people?

SN: They’ve persuaded a large part, but it is a very complicated picture. It is not that everybody is on board. However if today we tried to organise a demonstration, we would soon be attacked by organised thugs who take only five or ten minutes to show up, wherever we try.

RB: Do ordinary people also react against protests?

SN: There’s a kind of varied reaction among ordinary people. There is fear, “We don’t want any more of this: this is too dangerous.” Others say, “Enough, stop doing this. Let the military sort this out. We’ve had enough of all this”. There is a reluctant kind of support on the part of some bystanders. But today, outside the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is only seasoned activists who actually venture out to protest.

RB: So what about your relations with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood?

SN: Again, this is very complicated. We don’t go on their demonstrations: we can’t do that. Not only because of the extreme repression but also because of the sectarian nature of many of the Brotherhood slogans and the fact that they continue to call for the return of Morsi as president, which we are against.

RB: As it is, the regime are peeling off the first and second ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood and taking them all into custody?

SN: The Muslim Brotherhood can survive that; they are huge enough and have enough depth to take these kinds of attacks. But we are not. If what survives of the organised left were hit in this fashion, we would be gone for years to come. So, the positions we take are popular enough with the Muslim Brotherhood youth. You can see that from their Facebook comments and so on. But as you might imagine, they always ask us, “why aren’t you with us on the streets?” And at the same time, on the other side, all the people who support the military accuse us of being part of ‘the Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy’. So, ours is a very isolating, indeed lonely kind of experience. We’re attacked on all sides. The Muslim Brotherhood youth want us to be on the streets with them while others are accusing us of being Muslim Brotherhood supporters. And it is extremely difficult to maintain an independent line and to keep people active in the struggle.

RB: Does this also apply to the independent trade union movement? Are they similarly divided between those two constituencies?

SN: Of course. Their main leader is a Minister now, and one of the staunchest supporters of the military regime. And that’s a huge blow to any independent trade union organization.

RB: Again, it’s a very odd reflection on ‘independent trade union organization’.

SN: Well, that’s the really sad thing. This was a serious, independent trade union movement born out of strike committees in mass strikes, in which Abou Eita was one of the foremost leaders of the struggle. And that really shows you the measure of the enormity of the betrayal that has taken place in Egypt.

RB: So, are there any constituencies out there with which to rebuild some kind of coalition?

SN: When you look at it from outside, at first sight it looks as if all there is is a sea of Sisi supporters. And that’s it. But among those who are supporters of Sisi, a closer look shows you people who have very contradictory consciousness and reasons, let alone all the expectations. And the first thing to say is that these expectations are not being met. We are four months into this coup, and there is no revival of tourism in Egypt. The railway network has been shut down for the first time in its 150-year history since the British built the network, so that this year on the feast holidays – like Christmas holidays – there were no trains to take people home. This has caused a huge amount of suffering and chaos for ordinary people. You have over three million people commuting every day by rail to Cairo for their jobs from Banha or Tanta and all the small delta towns, as you have in any major city. These people have to pay triple, maybe four times the amount of the normal fares and it takes at least twice as long using microbuses and other private means of transportation to get to their jobs. So you can imagine, this will eventually erode the high level of support people once gave to their new ‘saviours’.

RB: But maybe what is interesting about this is that had this happened under Morsi’s presidency, there would have been an absolute outcry against the Muslim Brotherhood. But under Sisi, people actually don’t respond in exactly the same way? 

SN: No, they’ve given the military the benefit of the doubt. And this is where we must come back to the military and their media outlets, who have launched the most massive campaign, comparing El Sisi to Nasser, talking incessantly about the nationalist role of the army; the modernizing role of the army, the centrality of the army.

RB: Is this true of all the media outlets, public and private?

SN: All of them. Because they shut down all the Islamic media outlets and there is no independent press.

RB: Again that is an extraordinary feat - I mean the military manoeuvre in politics that has got everyone 'singing from one sheet'.

SN: It is an extraordinary feat, but I don’t think it’s sustainable. 

RB: Before we discuss the future, could we take a step back and a slightly longer view of the way that the army has been able to come back into power in Egypt with a huge degree of control and a massive amount of support. Viewed from that perspective, they have simply got rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, an old ally some would say, who served a purpose for a certain time but not any longer.  By this account, we are not dealing with a secular army representing an ongoing Nasserite revolution for whom political Islam is the enemy, but simply with removing the obstacles to military power. Or is that too schematic?

SN: It’s schematic, slightly conspiratorial and too neat. For example, there has always been a problem, not between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, but between the army and the police and intelligence forces.  Since Nasser’s time, the army had the problem that once Nasser became president, he was outside the direct control of the army. Field marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, the head of the army, had enormous powers at that time, and so the president had to create a parallel state apparatus to counterbalance the power of the army. Nasser in the 1960s created the central and state security forces (Amn Markazy & Amn El Dawla). There are in fact two layers to these forces; there is a special riot police - paramilitary forces that were previously part of the army and that now came directly under the presidency and the Ministry of Interior. And there is a parallel internal intelligence service, that’s again separated from the military and directly linked to the police.

Now, during Mubarak’s time that side of the state machine became extremely powerful in fighting the Islamic movement, especially the armed Islamist groups. With their continued increase in power, the army began to fade into the political background.  And as a matter of fact, this is where the real fight is happening right now, between the army, on the one hand, trying to resurrect its former predominance, and the police forces, these interior ministries and intelligence services. When it comes to the latter, if you are talking in terms of armed men, these forces are as big as the army. You’re talking about at least half a million armed police forces as well as half a million in the army.

RB: Under the Muslim Brotherhood, when the people had got rid of Mubarak, the police were forced into a significant retreat, weren’t they – at least as a visible presence? 

SN: Yes. And the army relished that. When the revolutionary youth went into the state security offices you will remember and emptied out all the files, the tanks were standing outside. They could have stopped that quite easily. They let people rush into those vacated buildings and extract the secret files. Then after a while they came in and stopped people. This was a calculated humiliation of the police with the military watching on.

RB: But now the police are back in full force?

SN: Yes, well that’s the complexity of the situation. The army need the police. They cannot continue to face down demonstrations all the time. It is very dangerous for their standing in Egypt, so they need to rebuild the police. But the police are regaining their power with all the contradictions still in place with what the army stands for. Hence the stream of different contradictory statements coming from different figures in the state and in the media, for example on the question: should El Sisi be president or not? That is what you are seeing now.

RB: Tell us more

SN: Well, there’s a problem for them here. If Sisi becomes president, then like Nasser, he will not be part of the military establishment. There will be another general in control of the army. That’s very dangerous if you’ve already had a military coup. You could have a second coup. But once you start that, there is no reason to assume that the army or the head of the army, if he doesn’t like something, wouldn’t just remove him. If Sisi stays in the military and there’s another president, how do you control the other president? How do you ensure that the other president doesn’t take Sisi off the job and send him to jail? So, what you need, if he’s going to stay in the army, is a weak president. Hence the big battles currently under way about the constitution, and whether you think you need a presidential system or a parliamentary system. This is a not a matter of how democratic or undemocratic either might be. It boils down to what happens to El Sisi. That’s really what’s behind all this fuss.

Sisi wants to keep power but he wants it to be constitutional. He wants it to be set in stone: above all he doesn’t want to be challenged. He’s just carried out the worst massacres in modern Egyptian history and he wants to make sure that he doesn’t pay for that.

RB: On that subject, how much information has got out about the massacres in the sit-ins? Is it now widely known?

SN: Yes, it’s widely known now, but for some time the police and the army kept up the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood set fire to their own people and that they were heavily armed. That, with time, turns out not to be true. Clearly not true. Even the health ministry says that over a thousand died that day on August 14. The Muslim Brotherhood are claiming over six thousand. It’s probably somewhere in between.

RB: Have the human rights organizations been very involved in this?

SN: Very involved; especially trying to create lists of the names and ages of the people. According to the main human rights organizations, there are still four hundred people missing from that day. They don’t know where they are. There are lots of burnt, unidentifiable bodies. And the independent human rights organizations that have nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood also claim much higher numbers of deaths than those maintained by the health ministry.

But certainly in terms of the media, the whole episode was played down, and the release of information has been very controlled. On Egyptian television, whether on the private or the public networks, what you get are these pictures of them finding weapons in huge boxes and so on in Rabaa El Adawiya. The obvious question is, so why weren’t they using them? I mean they have the weapons and they are being mass slaughtered… But that is not the question that gets asked.

RB: Why wouldn’t they defend themselves?

SN: Yes. Why would you find the weapons in a box somewhere? And the numbers also tell the same story. I mean, forty something police officers in both major attacks were killed, but there were over one thousand dead on the other side. That’s not a confrontation between two armies or armed groups.

RB: So where does the current interim government, for example the members of the constitutional committee, where do they fit into this battle of power? 

SN: First of all, they were all handpicked by El Sisi. He approached actors, actresses, people who have no political background at all for this committee of 50 members. But even within that handpicked group, there are tensions now. There are people who are clearly, directly representing El Sisi. But for example, there was a big argument about the clause stating that Egypt is a secular state. There was a majority for this kind of clause. But it was sent back by El Sisi: he doesn’t want to have anything to do with secularism. If he’s in a battle with the Islamists for hearts and minds, he wants to show himself to be as good a Muslim as the Muslim Brotherhood.

RB: So that really returns us to my opening question: what does it mean for leftists, liberals, pluralists of any kind to support this coup? Aren’t they simply calling for a return of a certain kind of Nasserist or Kemalist notion of the nation as one monocultural, “National Us”? Doesn’t this suggest that the majority, even the intellectuals, can’t finally think beyond that tradition?

SN: No, that is a kind of Orientalist reaction to recent events. There’s no ingrained stance against pluralism. But there is, and this is in the west to the same extent, Islamophobia amongst secular intellectuals. So, for them the idea that anything is close to an Islamic State or an Islamic system, is something they’re prepared to ally themselves with the devil to get rid of. And you have this in Turkey as well, of course, where a segment of the secular opposition, including the so-called leftists, will always stand with the military against the Islamic forces. It doesn’t make any difference to them how democratic the means were that brought the Islamists to power. 

RB: And the same in Tunisia, you think?

SN: And the same in Tunisia. But the difference is this. At the time of Atatürk and the time of Nasser, there was a major reform programme under way with major concessions; major economic concessions and social concessions and concessions to women and so on… that made it possible for people to accept that mono-cultural or mono-political kind of structure. These were different times. Now there is no space at all for an Atatürk or Nasserite reforming project; El Sisi has nothing to offer. There are no land reforms or major nationalisations or major struggles against colonialist forces waiting in the wings; there’s nothing there to create enough popular support. And the thing is, in a country like Egypt, we don’t even have the political parties who could represent this kind of project.

RB: So, how do the secular intellectuals react to something like Sisi sending back the secular clause in the constitution?

SN: They say it’s wrong and some of them say El Sisi should not be president. Others say he has to be president. They’re divided on it and these divisions with time are becoming sharper and more visible. And this is creating a new kind of hope, a new space for manouevre, because particularly during the first weeks after the massacre, it was just anybody who opens his mouth against El Sisi or begins to question what was happening, was a traitor, and should be killed… If you spoke up in a coffee shop, you’d be beaten up quite severely. That has changed. Again, this is not the first time in this Egyptian revolutionary process. People just take a position: then they start to think. Now in coffee shops and on the streets there are arguments with one person supporting El Sisi and other people saying, “Now it’s too much. Till when will there be a curfew and the state of emergency?… We can’t get back to work. They haven’t done anything, the government is weak, they’re not providing us with anything.” It’s starting all over again; people even questioning their own choices, including questioning their early ready support for El Sisi.

RB: When we last spoke you anticipated this, saying that in the last analysis, the bottom line is that the revolutionary demands have not been met in any way. Are you still of that mind?

SN: Yes - because many people supported Sisi not because they were fascists or ultra secularists, but simply because they thought – “OK, the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t deliver on our demands. Maybe, maybe this military will.” There are, of course, sections of the middle class who support Sisi purely because they hate the revolution; they hate the chaos of the revolution. They hate the idea that everybody is suddenly demanding a life, and that the poor, whenever they have a demand, take it upon themselves to go out onto the streets and demonstrate. They hate this.  They might have wanted some change at the top, but without all this  - revolution. So you have that kind of solid support for El Sisi, but that’s mainly a middle and upper class support. Their criticism of El Sisi now, crazy as it might sound, is that he is not being hard enough. I mean over fifteen thousand in jail, tens of thousands - nobody knows the numbers – of people injured, at least two to three thousand killed and that’s not a hard enough clampdown for them. They want everything cleaned up and back to normal at whatever cost.

The new alliance around Sisi

Sisi Egypt

General Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Wikimedia commons.

RB: I want to come back to General El Sisi sending back the secular clause. What kind of mainstream does El Sisi hope to draw on here?

SN: A major player in the new kind of alliance around El Sisi is the Al Nour Party, which is an extreme Salafist Party, with Saudi Arabian backing. You have to remember that this coup is directly supported and financed by the Saudis and that they are not particularly secular! Their role is central for the other side to claim that they are not removing the Islamists from the picture completely. The Al Nour are Islamists and they are opportunist enough to play along. Again under Saudi pressure.

RB: And is this accepted by the secularist parties?

SN: Their demands are not accepted. But yes, they’re happy that there’s some bearded person on this committee.

RB: Are there divisions within the Al Nour Party?

SN: Yes. For example with the massacres, they removed themselves for a while from that committee and from the negotiations. Of course there are pressures: it is a Salafist movement. They can see the major Islamic cohort being crushed in front of them and it must be very difficult to stick to their plan. But this whole episode is not actually about secular states versus Islamic states, but about power. Even the massacres of the Muslim Brotherhood were not about destroying the Muslim Brotherhood. It is a message to the Egyptian revolutionaries, to the Egyptian people that,  ‘This is over. This is the price you’re going to pay if you continue’. And you can see, immediately afterwards, the level of labour protests went down very rapidly. Workers’ strikes went from over 900 a month to less than 100. And that is what Sisi is after; this is the project.

Compare this with Pinochet; he didn’t really have to kill 3000 people. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have just thrown them in jail. But they killed them to send a message to the Chilean people: ‘it’s over, you think you can go out on strike whenever you want? You think you can demand anything you want? No.’ And in Chile, it was over for a long time. Now in Egypt, it’s more complicated. I don’t think El Sisi is Pinochet. He doesn’t have the level of support. He might be as bloodthirsty, don’t misunderstand me. But he doesn’t have the same potential to crush the mass movement. Just 10 days ago, there was another strike in Mahalla El Kobra, again the main centre that started the whole process in 2006. They occupied the main square, despite the curfew and all that has happened, for two days and they got all their demands. The army did not come near them. If they had shot the Mahalla workers last week, I think that would have triggered a major wave of strikes that they could not control. And they have enough sense to understand these things and prevent them. 

RB: What role did Abou Eita play? 

SN: He negotiated the settlement. So there are still strikes, but you don’t have the surge of activity that was building before the coup. I think it has the potential to come back, however, and it is usually El Mahalla that gives the first signal.

RB: How about minorities and how they are being treated now? We run a regular blog review called ‘Egypt in the balance’, and the pattern is quite clear: there is an extraordinary upsurge in racism and xenophobia; in anti-Copts, anti-foreigners, anti-Palestinians and the treatment of Syrian refugees. Where does this come from?

SN: There’s a fear campaign; a media fear campaign saying that the Syrians and the Palestinians are all part of a plot to destabilize Egypt, to kill Egyptians and so on… It has happened in Europe too at certain moments in history...  to create enough paranoia in Egyptians so that they begin to feel that Syrians, or anybody who has paler skin and who might be a Syrian, might be planting a bomb somewhere. Yes, there’s this very powerful conspiracy theory being put forward. The Americans are involved, the Europeans are involved, the Israelis are involved, the Syrians are involved, the Palestinians are involved, the Qataris are involved… you know this big international plot to dismember Egypt, and to have a kind of Syrian scenario in Egypt, to dismantle the state and to tear it apart.

RB: Is the Iraqi scenario cited?

SN: Yes. And that’s been a central message from the army, "We’re the only army that is still united. That’s still standing on its feet. The Syrian army’s disintegrated; the Iraqi army’s disintegrated. Libya is in a mess.” And once again this message is directed to the Egyptian people in the first instance, “ Do you really want to be like Iraq or Syria? If you stand against the Egyptian state, the Egyptian army, the Egyptian security apparatus, then you are pushing the country in that direction.” That immediately instigates a kind of backlash within the middle classes against anybody demonstrating or going on strike… “You’re just helping the terrorists, the people that want to dismember this country.” So xenophobia is put to good use in that way.

RB: Then there is the Sinai operation, playing a similar role, maybe to the terrorist plot which has erupted in the Tunisian mountainous border region. This can all be grist to that mill?

SN: Of course, to have a war is the most convenient way to keep people silent. Over the years, they have created a very strong enmity in the people of Sinai against the Egyptian state. Now they’ve widened the base of popular resistance. The Egyptian state has always been terrible at Sinai people’s rights, and now they have nurtured this hatred tremendously by sending the tanks in and killing loads of civilians who had nothing to do with armed groups. So, they are sending more and more people into the armed groups who are actually doing the fighting. And the interesting thing is that after four months the army is unable to control the situation in Sinai. It’s not simply that they’re making a showcase out of the war: they are losing there. Their Army Personnel Carriers (APCs) are being attacked. But Israel has given the army all rights of passage in Sinai. And the army has given the Israelis the best present in return; they have destroyed 90% of the tunnels to Gaza, choking off Gaza and its economy nearly completely.

RB: And in Egypt – this has been met with equanimity? 

SN: With extreme anti-Palestinian fervour. And you can imagine the troubles the Palestinian refugees in Egypt are facing with this campaign. Syrian families being thrown in jails; dying all over the place, including children and women, just because they’re Syrians. There is no doubt about it. A counterrevolution is a miserable business for very many involved. And we are facing a counterrevolution.

RB: It seems extraordinary that the Copts are supporting Sisi…

SN: You must of course realise that the Islamic movement in general, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists, are sectarian when it comes to other religions. Their agenda is an Islamist agenda, and part of their programme is to make Copts into second-class citizens. I mean even the most moderate part of the Muslim Brotherhood would say that a Copt can’t become president, for example. And that’s the most moderate. You have a whole range of people at the other end of the spectrum who want to close down churches and basically want the Copts to leave the country. So, the myth of the nationalist army and state that is secular, that protects the unity of Muslims and Christians alike becomes a very useful one. And that is the kind of help that the Islamists gave directly to the military; simply by being so narrowly sectarian.

The thing is, the more the Muslim Brotherhood were under attack, the more they used an Islamist harder line to win the Salafists over to their side. But of course, that meant pushing the Copts in the other direction. Any alliance with the extreme Salafists, and I am talking about the Islamic Gama’a – extreme Salafists – means that churches are going to be attacked, Copts will be attacked in the streets and the Muslim Brotherhood understood very well that this would happen. What the army did was again very clever. In not protecting the churches, they let it happen, “Let the Copts come running to us.” And they have and you can understand their fears especially in the south; churches, shops and houses are being burnt down.

The future of Tahrir

Rana Nessim: Would it be best for we Egyptians to have General Sisi as president and hope that he will receive the same kind of exposure as Morsi? What do we have to lose, since he is going to be no more able to fulfil the demands of the revolution for ‘bread, freedom and social justice’?

SN: Ideally, you would at least have some candidate for the leadership who hasn’t sold out to the military but who is also not an Islamist. We don’t want to repeat that scenario again. Even if that candidate got a very small percentage of the votes, that must be the way to maintain an opposition movement in some kind of momentum.  That’s why we’ve been working with ’The Way of the Revolution Front’, which basically has the small minority position of trying to create an independent third voice in this situation. Ahdaf El Soueif and several other major figures are in this front. It includes organizations like the April 6th Movement, the Revolutionary Socialists, parts of Strong Egypt (Masr el Qaweya) which is partly and especially amongst some of its youth an ex-Islamist/leftist group and independent trade union youth activists, anarchists, all kinds of people as individuals. There are very few intellectuals; the remaining intellectuals who have not sold out to the military. 

The front is based on individuals not on organizations, and we are making a real attempt to ensure that the organised groups don’t dominate the front through any blocks – we want to make it as open as possible for people to join and influence and lots of people are joining. They will contest any military candidates and are already contesting the military trials of civilians, as well as the new draconian laws they want to put in governing protest in Egypt. These are amazing laws that make it nearly impossible to hold a demonstration and that give the police the right, at the end of the day, to shoot live ammunition at demonstrators. Ahdaf Soueif is taking a very courageous and strong stand on things and she’s being attacked like there’s no tomorrow. The front is being attacked for being a front for the Muslim Brotherhood, an attempt to dismantle the state and dismantle the military, a front of the Revolutionary Socialists who are a bunch of mad people who want to burn down the country. And this is an organised campaign by both public and private media.

So, it’s too early to tell what will happen in elections. We still don’t know what kind of system they’re going to come up with in the constitution. We have made a beginning by contesting them on the legality of this constitution; and the show that they’re putting on there. But yes, you’d have to contest these people every single step of the way. We need to be clear. The Egyptian revolution has received its worst blow since it began. This is very serious. The Muslim Brotherhood turned out to be a complete disaster. Many people voted in Morsi because they didn’t want Shafik, but you also had four million people, nearly five million people, who voted for Hamdeen Sabahi, who seemed to most people to be a secular, leftist alternative. He’s now turned out to be a pro-military fascist. That’s a demoralizing fact for all these millions who have no idea who they should support now. The so-called secular left that some people thought might be their Nasserists are all backing El Sisi, so it’s a very difficult situation. But this whole democratic movement from 2005 onwards started with a very small minority of people standing in front of the Journalists’ and Lawyers’ Syndicate and, were eventually able to win considerable support. So, we have to start again.

RN: Obviously the opposition is completely divided at the moment, a gap that the ‘Way of the Revolution Front’ is trying hard to bridge. But where do the Muslim Brotherhood fit into this? They’re continuing with all their demonstrations, while most of their leadership is behind bars. Obviously they avoid demonstrating in main squares for their own safety, but what’s their plan? What lessons have they learned? It’s clear they don’t want to go into negotiations and at the same time the opposition can’t stand with them, because as you said, it’s too dangerous. So what’s next for them? 

SN: First of all, it’s not only a question of the danger involved. It’s also about them having a sectarian, right wing agenda. You can’t just go and demonstrate with people under these slogans. What they are demanding is the return of Morsi. We were in the demonstrations against Morsi: we don’t want a return. For us, this is a coup against the revolution and its demands. For them it is just a coup against a legitimately elected Morsi, and there is a difference between these. There was a real mass movement against Morsi. It wasn’t just the demonstrations; it was also the strikes. But at the same time as you had this mass movement against Morsi, you also had generals conspiring to exploit the scene to get rid of Morsi and turn the clock back on the revolution.

As for the disenfranchised Morsi supporters, the severity of the oppression they have faced obviously unites people. You’re talking about a leadership in jail and thousands killed, so no, you won’t find much internal contestation. There are of course questions, all kinds of questions being put forward. For example the revolutionary socialists argued consistently that unless you dismantled the state, the revolution would be defeated, to which they answered that this was a betrayal of the State and that the military has to be united, ‘what are you talking about dismantling the State? We don’t want to dismantle the State.’ They were very critical of us and even tried to prosecute us for saying it. But now a lot of the younger MB voices are saying, ‘no, you’re right. The state has crushed us and we let them, because we didn’t attempt to dismantle it’. To what extent that is representative of a wider group of individuals, I don’t know. Will the question arise that the Muslim Brotherhood made a big mistake in allying itself with the military and with the police? I am sure. It’s just logical; that question must arise. They kept praising El Sisi, the Generals and the police who promptly crushed them. Something is definitely wrong with that plan. But right now, of course, no one is going to break ranks under these circumstances.

RN: What role, if any, will the Muslim Brotherhood play in the next elections?

SN: Right now what they’re trying to do is gain concessions from the military to get the leadership out of jail at least and to have some kind of space to move. Morsi is meant to be going on trial on November 4. But just one telephone call and it can be postponed for another few months. That’s just another part of the show, because everything depends on what happens with the negotiations. The Muslim Brotherhood knows that the country can’t continue without railway networks, and so forth - that’s unsustainable. What they are telling the membership is, ‘Patience. Lets keep the pressure on’ - knowing that this system can’t continue as it is, and that something is going to have to give. This is the kind of pressure that creates more differences amongst the Generals, ‘Maybe we should talk to them? Maybe we should get a few of them out of jail?’ 

They’ll have to give in eventually if the Muslim Brotherhood can maintain this day-in day-out pressure: they’ll eventually have to make concessions. Amongst the military there are two different strategies; one is to say, ‘We have to negotiate and reach some kind of settlement. Let’s see. Let’s experiment with talks’. There are two leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood who are not in jail and they’re openly speaking to the media and so on… They’ve left them as a kind of possible door to negotiation. All attempts to negotiations have failed till now, but I think eventually they will come to some kind of an arrangement.

As for banning the Muslim Brotherhood as a political entity, of course it was banned before. But they are part of Egyptian society. This is an organization that has over a million cadres, what are you going to do? Put them all in jail? What about the ten million that support them? They’ve been around for over eighty years and are not going to disappear. The idea of political Islam is not going to disappear. It didn’t work anywhere, not even in Turkey after all their attempts. You have this huge Atatürk project, and one hundred years later the Islamists are still around and the idea of Islam is still strong and is not going away.

Take the football supporters, the Ultras who not only participated in the uprisings, but who were at the forefront of the revolution and still are. Their movement is being crushed again. Just as the Ultras won't go away, and they shouldn't, the Muslim Brotherhood won't go away either. For example, if the secular leftists or the Ultras or any other group attempt to reclaim Tahrir Square, don't you think the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood would rush to join? Like the uprising in 2011, their leadership didn't participate from the beginning, but the youth were there. These demonstrations are vigorous and supported by thousands of men and women - people who belong to the debate about Egypt's future. 

RN: Now they’re going to release the draft of the new constitution and then there’ll be a referendum supposedly and elections will follow. Will everyone participate? Or will it be like before, when many people decided not to participate because they say the election is rigged and people don’t trust the process - the military is in charge and they won’t allow international monitoring?

SN: I think it’s too early to tell in terms of elections, whether boycotting would make any sense or not. I don’t think it will. In this particular situation, the opposition will have to take part because of all the disenfranchised people, because of the people who will be in a mess at that point; where are they going to go? If we don’t vote, “What are you saying? What are you telling us? It’s all over?” So, that’s dangerous and in that sense probably the opposition will have to participate. Again it depends on what happens. If it’s going to be tanks in front of every polling station and the thugs out in force, we might have to think again. It depends how bad it’s going to be.

RB: So, do you need the world’s eyes on Egypt during this process?

SN: Well, that is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, yes of course. There has to be as much international solidarity from supporters of the Egyptian revolutions as possible. But again, that is being used to make frenzied claims about foreign conspiracies and plots to destroy the state and so on. The most important thing to remember is that if we become demoralized, we’re helping them to win outright, and they haven’t won yet. But this is one of the main things that we have to overcome; the feeling that the revolution is over. And the symbolism of the whole thing has never been so clear. Tahrir Square has become a graveyard. It has become a garage for tanks basically. People, and this was worldwide, saw Tahrir as a symbol of revolution, change, of democracy. For that hope to turn into a huge garage with dozens and dozens of tanks, armoured vehicles, walls and barbed wire and completely empty of any people is to say the least, demoralizing.

But that only means that we have to retake Tahrir. We’re at that crossroads now, where there is nothing to be done except to retake Tahrir Square. The only way to revive the Egyptian revolution is to reclaim it. The coming battle will be all about reclaiming that Square and that’s why the Muslim Brotherhood tried to reclaim it on October 6. That is why the army shot to kill that day and they killed over 50 people just for trying peacefully to march towards Tahrir Square. The army knows that if they lose that Square, they’re in trouble again. And everybody in the Muslim Brotherhood and everybody on the left, knows that without regaining that Square… we’re in serious trouble.

So, there’s a battle over spaces and a battle over dates. In terms of spaces, obviously Tahrir Square and its symbolism, Rabaa El Adaweya with its symbolism, for the Islamists, has become a central motif, along with the whole idea of the number four and the yellow colour. Rabaa El Adawiya has become a major symbolic space. Then there is time, so days and dates: November 19 – the Mohamed Mahmoud massacre; this will be a major battle in front of the Ministry of Interior.  January 25, what’s that going to be like next year? Is this going to be a celebration of the police and military with jets flying above? What will the space of Tahrir look like on that date?

RB: Are the graffiti people at work? Is all that still going on? 

SN: Yes, there’s a huge battle over the graffiti; mainly between the Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-military forces who paint over it every day…every day… every day. They paint and repaint… battles and battles through the night and every morning. You can see all this: “Sisi is a murderer…. Sisi is a killer… Sisi out” and so on. Then it’s painted over, completely. Within hours, again it comes back.

So, in a sense the revolution is continuing. It’s taking this special form of a symbolic battle between the Islamists and the army, but it means that the revolutionary energy is still out there, fighting over the simplest things, like graffiti and 'who owns these walls?'.

Halim Elshaarani. Egypt graffiti

Halim Elshaarani/Demotix. All rights reserved.

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