From Bread Lines to the Front Lines

 /  Nov. 5, 2013, 7:30 a.m.


Egypt flag and crowd

Musician Ramy Essam stood on a small platform in Tahrir Square on January 1, 2011 strumming his guitar. The man next to him held up the microphone and Essam began to sing a tune he had made up on the spot: “Irhal [leave], irhal, irhal!” Fellow protestors on the ground sang along, moving their arms in unison. Their words were directed at President Hosni Mubarak. Essam stated to a journalist in the crowd, “We want to choose our own president.”

Even after being attacked by Mubarak supporters later that night, Essam vowed: “I will not stop singing until Hosni Mubarak goes.”

Forty-one days later, Mubarak resigned.

Speaking about this movement, inspired by similar events in Tunisia, President Obama stated, “The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same…. The entire world has taken note.”

This spirit, unity, and organized cooperation was something most Egyptians, including University of Chicago Lecturer of Arabic Languages, Noha Forster, had never before witnessed in their country.

“The unique and breathtaking thing about [the January 25 revolution in 2011] was the sense that all Egypt was represented, that all Egypt was swept up in the same wave, that people who never got together for anything else came together to Tahrir to demand the ouster of Mubarak,” Forster recalls. “The social and economic injustices of Egyptian society seemed not to sit well with both the poor and the rich.”

But now things are different. These economic injustices have worsened in the months since the Egyptian people ousted Mubarak and narrowly elected Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, as President. Once again, only one year after Morsi’s election, the people are rising up.

Like throwing away old butter

Morsi now finds himself, along with at least thirty-eight senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, removed from power by the Egyptian military. He has called the act “a complete military coup which is categorically rejected by all the free people of the country who have struggled so that Egypt turns into a civil democratic society.”

General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, who led the military to Morsi’s ousting, rejects this view, telling Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth: “I expected if we didn’t intervene, it would have turned into a civil war. Four months before he left, I told Morsi the same thing.” Al-Sisi claims to be fighting with those same “free people” against the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, people such as forty-nine-year-old Cairo resident Mohammed Gad, who explained his reason for supporting Morsi’s fall in terms of necessity: “If you bought a packet of butter and found it expired, what would you do? You would throw it away.”

Many who have taken to the streets and to Tahrir Square to fight the Muslim Brotherhood are concerned about more than their political freedom, they are concerned about their survival.

As Hafez Ghanem, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and leader of the Arab Economies Project, explains, “More young people are unemployed now than when [Morsi] took office. Prices of necessities are higher. Bread lines are longer. Gasoline is scarcer. Power outages are more frequent. Corruption is on the rise. Insecurity is greater.” Over the course of one year, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to strengthen Islam’s influence in the government through the implementation of “sharia,” or religious law. As former interim Vice President Mohamed El-Baradei noted, “People cannot eat sharia.”

Now Egypt finds itself divided between supporters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of Al-Sisi’s military. Such a situation was eerily forewarned by journalist Robin Wright in her 2008 book, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East: “Unity in opposition to tyranny almost never translates into unity once in power.”

The result in Egypt is hundreds dead, with no room for middle ground.

“Egyptians are turning on each other”

NBC reporter Richard Engel described his first-hand experience in Cairo: “Egyptians are turning on each other.” Before Morsi’s ouster, Sunni extremists, encouraged by Morsi’s association with radical Sunni leaders, reportedly lynched four Egyptian Shia Muslims, an atrocity that had never before occurred in Egypt’s modern history. Just recently, former minister of interior Mohamed Ibrahim survived an assassination attempt that killed two people.

Egyptians protesting Morsi’s removal at sit-ins around Cairo have been violently and forcibly dispersed by the military. Egyptian state television, controlled by the Egyptian military, has now labeled the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists working against democracy for Egypt. Checkpoints have been set up all over the city, staffed with soldiers demanding identification of political party affiliation and even killing one suspected member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Additionally, the military has imposed a curfew of 7:00 p.m..

Such actions taken by Al-Sisi’s military seem to have almost immediately undermined the legitimacy of the interim Egyptian government. US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the military’s decision to clear out Morsi supporters, calling it “deplorable” and “counter to Egyptian aspirations for peace, inclusion, and genuine democracy.” On August 14, El-Baradei resigned from working with the dangerously politicized military with this statement: “It has become difficult for me to continue to bear the responsibility for decisions I do not agree with and whose consequences I fear.”

Fear is exactly the word to describe the atmosphere Egyptians face during the struggle between two polar groups -- supporters of Morsi and supporters of Al-Sisi -- who disagree on the path to democracy. It has led both groups to cling to their respective leader, willing to die for what they believe is right.

Noha Forster sees a contradiction in this second Egyptian revolution: “How could perfectly nice, well-educated, peace-loving people, many of whom participated in January 25, be calling for the extermination of a huge section of their own society? How could people who ousted the ‘Pharaoh’, Mubarak, be creating before our eyes two other pharaohs, Sisi and Morsi?”

“Then again, Morsi was worse”

Further violence is not what Ramy Essam had envisioned for his country two years ago when he sang of bread, freedom, and social justice. In fact, Essam was one of thousands of Egyptians who returned to Tahrir Square after Mubarak resigned to protest against the interim military council that controlled Egypt until June 2012. This council rushed elections and hastily drafted a new constitution. Egyptians had been forced to decide between Morsi, an inexperienced politician and devout Islamist, and Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last Prime Minister. The final call was anything but unanimous, as Morsi won only fifty-one percent of the popular vote.

Is Al-Sisi’s military making the same mistakes?. The question now is not so much who will emerge as Egypt’s next leader, but whether Egypt will become the next Syria under the wings of Al-Sisi’s army?

Some, such as former US Ambassador Frank Wisner—who served as U.S. Special Envoy during the 2011 revolution—do not even consider this a question. When asked about the possibility of a future civil war in Egypt, Wisner told The Gate, “I do not believe that is a likely outcome.

Willy Gu, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago who has been working in Cairo for over six months, views the situation through the eyes of his Egyptian friends, who fear that the military will be a dangerous obstacle to democracy. “No Egyptian civilian government will control the army in the near future, and that is a problem,” he warns.

A clear solution to this problem may not arise for some time. For a divided country to decide on a path forward will not be simple. Gu reflects, “My friends all acknowledge that the army is not a good option. Then again, Morsi was worse.”

Lost “between the killers”

There is an increasing number of people like Gu’s friends who make up what Dr. H. A. Hellyer, Fellow at the Brooking’s Institution, calls a “threatened minority,” people who support neither a militarized government nor Morsi’s Brotherhood and are constantly accused by both sides of secretly committing to the enemy. Forster says this group of people lacks a “safe discursive space” for the voicing of opinions.

In accordance with this sentiment, Ramy Essam voiced his frustrations on his social media sites only days after the June 30 protests. Having lost the unity of his followers, he noted the absence of a “space for the real protesters between the killers.”

This may be part of the reason why Essam’s “warm greetings from Cairo” to The Gate and initial eagerness to share his story were soon followed by silence.

 What now?

The US took almost twenty years to establish itself as a country with a ratified constitution. Since then, the Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times, proving that countries require time to develop and solidify. President Barack Obama’s reluctance to refer to Morsi’s ousting as a military coup may stem from a desire to allow Egypt such time, while allowing the US to continue sending aid to Egypt.

But does Egypt have twenty years to transition to a democracy? This seems questionable when most Egyptians could not wait three years for Morsi to complete his term. There is no doubt democracy will take some time, but a starving economy will try the patience of a people who two years ago so solidly believed in the possibility for a democratic Egypt.

As international human rights leader John Shattuck states, “Democracy can never be delivered through the barrel of a gun.”

Ramy Essam recently released a song called, simply, “Revolution.” In it, he recalls his old anthem of “bread, freedom, and social justice” and adds to it a new anthem, this time of the “martyr’s scream.” His attempt to honor those who have died fighting to survive reminds listeners that this is not a second revolution, but rather “Revolution 2.0,” an ongoing struggle to realize the epiphany that had rocked 85 million Egyptians on that chilly night in January 2011. Revolution 2.0 is missing the unity that gave the people such power. The democracy they sought can only be realized when Egyptians stop asking, “Whose side are you on?” and start acknowledging that the goal has not changed since Mubarak left power. They should start listening to something they themselves have told the world time and time again: “You cannot fight all the Egyptian people.”


Melissa Gatter


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