Probably no one in Egypt would have believed four months ago a peaceful protest in Tahrir Square would start something that would end 18 days later with the promise of fair elections.
In fact, back on January 25th, the protest began with something much more modest: vague calls for justice, dignity, freedom and a small increase in the minimum wage, as well as an end to Mubarak’s 30 years of emergency law, which by suspending judicial authority over police actions gave him near autocratic power. No one was calling for his ouster, yet.
But that was before he began to murder his own people. And then, as things escalated, he made one error after another. As pundits here say, one of Mubarak’s chronic problems has been that he was always a week late. His concessions were always too little too late. This time his loss was decisive.
So today the country is preparing for parliamentary elections in September. It’s exhilarating as well as confusing and politically busy. In the old days, the lines were clear; there was the corrupt regime, the banned Brotherhood and the subversive agitators. Repression made things simple. Today, with political activism legal, the lid is off and the lack of pressure makes it hard for allies to stay united.
The squabbling is just about enough to make one nostalgic for Tahrir Square when one common enemy brought together young, old, rich, poor, conservative and liberal.
The wonderful thing though is that that everyone wants to own this business of nation building. Everyone has an opinion and everyone has a favorite utopia, even if they argue endlessly over the details.
First there was Cairo University Political Science Professor Amr Hamzawy, who joined with like-minded intellectuals to form the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which they based on a platform of liberal social policy and a regulated, semi-socialized state economy. Weeks later, after disagreements with his co-founders, he announced his departure. He now is in the process of announcing his work in forming yet another new party.
Then there was Ahmed Maher, one of the brilliant co-founders of the April 6th Youth Movement, who has been criticized for making executive decisions in a group that prided itself on leading a “leaderless” protest.
We went to the group’s anniversary celebration April 6th in the Press Syndicate building to hear some of the country’s leading political activists take stock of their role in post-revolution and pre-election Egypt. There were many calls for unity even as others used the stage to criticize Maher’s decision to decline to form a political party.
After a poignant moment of silence for the nearly 1,000 killed in the revolution that ended with, “Oh martyrs, rest in peace. We will finish what you started,” Maher told those in the packed auditorium this was the political action group’s first public gathering without threat of arrest.
He said that creating a new political and social culture in the post-revolution period was much more difficult than planning a revolution. People, he said, “thought our movement was over, but after discussion we realized our work is not over until we have succeeded in transitioning to a free democratic government that includes all our citizens, with fair distribution of income and social justice. We need to act as if Egypt has no leaders and continue to work on guaranteeing the establishment of a just political system,” he said.
The April 6th Movement, he said, “has worked hard at learning how to proceed as we progressed,” noting that now rebuilding the country should be everyone’s first priority; and that the group, whose first and most important guiding principal has always been peaceful activism, was in transition.
He talked about the challenge of educating a public about something they no experience with: true democracy. Maher’s insistence on non-violent protest as well as his effective exploitation of social media for publicizing causes has made him prominent among the region’s brilliant new political activists.
Maher noted it was important to understand where Egypt stood politically and where it could go. “There is much to try to understand including how and why laws could ever have been written without the participation of the political process,” he said.
“We have always focused on how to think, and plan,” to achieve an Egypt “free of corruption, based on respect for human rights, freedom of religion and a civil state.”
Maher has asked foreign governments meanwhile to refrain from meddling in Egyptian affairs: “Most of all we ask the U.S. to be silent,” he said during a recent visit to the United States. Despite this, his trip to New York with co-founder Waleed Rashed, was to intended as a way to drum up support for the April 6th group.
In New York, they were quoted by Wall Street Journal reporter Tamer el-Ghobashy as saying they were concentrating on creating “a new political life in Egypt.” Conceding that changing the culture of a corrupt political past is “very hard,” they said the country’s biggest need was a change in the constitution to allow political activism. Current legislation limits those wishing to engage in political advocacy, requiring them to register first with the government as formal parties or non-governmental organizations.
Since the revolution, such legally sanctioned groups have become the new home of many of the revolution’s original youthful activists, who have dispersed in multiple directions—forming political parties, joining NGOs promoting civic education, and lobbying on behalf of presidential candidates.
By contrast, the new April 6th group intends to, or rather hopes to function in these same ways—as a watchdog against corruption, working to create a new political literacy and form social programs to foster civic participation—without needing such formal authority.
Many activists in Cairo today have expressed concern about the political might of the religiously conservative Muslim Brotherhood. Maher, by contrast, said it was important to recognize the support the Muslim Brotherhood showed for the revolution–even if they came late to the protests–and important to acknowledge they had what he called a “legitimate and positive political role in Egypt. “
As he told The Wall Street Journal: “We must give a chance to the Muslim Brotherhood, they have power in the street.”
This now brings us to the third group struggling to reinvent itself in the new Egyptian order: the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is also not immune from the sudden problem of self-government in a world where part of their identity was structured around repression. Today the group is begining to fraction between elderly leaders and a young guard that has been kept without power.
Despite quotes in the press that some of their youthful members were considering forming their own party, Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Essam El Erian told us in a phone call last week that such internal strife was a “fiction made up by the media.” In a new world order, where the Brotherhood is finding it difficult to transition from secrecy to transparency, he repeated the reassurances they have made to the public that the brotherhood would seek no more than 30 to 35 percent of the seats in parliament. Days later that number was kicked up to 50 percent when the group held a formal press conference to announce the Brotherhood was establishing a formal political party, to be called: “Freedom and Justice.”
The Muslim Brotherhood is powerful in the country’s rural areas where they have worked hard over the past 30 years to win the hearts and minds of the poor. They run a disciplined social service operation distributing food, health care and educational programs in areas neglected by the government.
They very well could end up with a plurality of seats in parliament, which distresses the country’s more educated classes since it will be the job of the new parliament to rewrite the Egyptian constitution. With a majority of seats or by even just becoming the largest voting block, the Muslim Brotherhood will run the table.
Many of the activists who fought hard for the country’s new-found freedoms fear such freedoms will disappear under the government of these religious conservatives, whose first priority will be limit some of such social and political freedoms by imposing their ideology on the country. Essam has been quoted as saying that he believes it is in the heart of every Egyptian Muslim to be devout.