Immediately after the revolution, Egyptians were full of hope. From now on, democracy was sure to reign in this country oppressed by sixty years of military rule. The people had managed to topple the regime – at least they thought they had.
After all, Mubarak had stepped down and the SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces) that had taken over had promised to hand over power to a civilian government within six months.
With their new found enthusiasm, the Egyptians started to found new parties. They had to wait for the new party law to be issued by the SCAF for a long time though. When it was finally published, it presented a lot of hurdles that made establishing a party without large financial backing a very difficult feat. After their successful revolutionary experience, the people also felt empowered to make demands and exercised their right to demonstrate. They took to the streets for different causes – better work conditions, better salaries, political change – whatever needed to be addressed.
Nevertheless, these activities were not welcomed by the “interim” government. It didn’t take long and demonstrations, strikes and protests were forbidden by a new law, issued by the SCAF.
People continued to demonstrate. They asked for the prosecution of representatives of the old regime. They demanded a new constitution. They expected an immediate change in government and demanded that corrupt ministers leave their place and the prime minister be changed.
Much of this had been promised by the SCAF upon taking power. Nevertheless, the SCAF seemed to implement promised political reforms only with public pressure.
Meanwhile, demonstrators were slandered in the state media in a way that turned public opinion against them. After the traumatic weeks of the revolution and the ensuing stall in the economy, people yearned to return to “normal life”, and they easily bought into the SCAF’s argument that the demonstrators were the root cause of any delay in development. A split occurred in society which had been formerly united by the revolution.
A few months after the revolution, some demonstrations turned into clashes with the police. With public opinion turned against the demonstrators, the SCAF seemed to feel safe enough to show a hard hand to those who dared to resist. Some examples:
Riot police and civilian thugs employed by the Ministry of the Interior as well as military police took part in these clashes. The initial shock of the army participating in strikes against the population wore off quickly. After all, the people were used to state brutality from former times. Somehow, things had returned to “normal”.
Normal, in Mubarak’s time, was the state versus the people. Now it was the state versus the demonstrators.
Although the SCAF’s brutal force shocked quite a lot of people (who again went to Tahrir to show solidarity), not all the people were on the side of the demonstrators. Some had been turned against them by the state media’s propaganda. Some were just not interested in more “revolution”; they preferred peace and quiet at the cost of political repression. Some were suffering from the plummeting economy. People who had to worry about bread on the table didn’t care about political reform anymore.
And some had been happy under the old regime and wanted their rights reinstated.
The regime had not just been Mubarak and his clan. The regime had consisted of a whole network of power positions. And these still made up the fabric of politics in this country, even if some elements had been removed from their functions or some of them just had to lay low for a while. Over all, the structures and functions were still active.
The SCAF, for instance, is made up of a circle of Mubarak’s cronies; they all had served dutifully in the army leadership under the old president.
The political decision-makers in the ministries are still in power, the gaps left by those who had to leave quickly filled by other veterans.
The Prime Minister El Ghanzouri, chosen by the SCAF, had served as Minister of Planning and as Prime Minister before, under Mubarak’s rule.
The Minister for International Cooperation, Fayza Abo Naga, has remained in the cabinet from Mubarak’s time.
Naturally, some positions have been filled by newcomers with a real interest in democracy and in fair governance. Nevertheless, some of them have already given up, such as the new Minister for Culture, who resigned from his post during the bloody clashes between demonstrators and SCAF in October, not wanting to serve under an unfair regime.
The presidential candidate El Baradei had given a similar reason for his resignation, not seeing any chance for real democratic structures in the future, as long as the future role of the SCAF was not defined clearly.
The SCAF tried to show its intention to guide Egypt towards democracy by holding parliamentary elections at the end of 2011.
Naturally, the party law and the reorganisation of the constituencies as well as the short preparation time excluded a lot of new parties from the election process, notably those representing the interest of the poor.
Lots of political groups had existed underground and this had led to a strong differentiation of the various political viewpoints after the revolution and, therefore, to a puzzling fragmentation in the political scene. Parties had popped up from the ultra-left to the ultra-right, but only the already established and rich managed to legalise their organisations in time for the elections.
The Islamists – the Muslim Brothers and Salafists – had managed to get constituted in time and to initiate their election campaign with candidates in most constituencies. Only two left parties managed to be constituted, (one a newly founded party, one an old established party more liberal than left,) but the left was not able to present many candidates for the elections.1
One third of the seats in parliament went to direct candidates, the other two-thirds to candidates from lists. The Muslim brothers, trying to get most of the votes, offered deals to all other parties to make joint lists, in order to get more votes. Only the old established left party agreed to the deal, thus losing credibility among the new left parties.
All other left parties decided to form an alliance for the elections, in order to place some candidates on the lists and get some seats in parliament.
The parliamentary elections brought many Egyptians to the polls. Not all of them came, because they were convinced of their democratic rights. The SCAF had issued a public statement, that non-participation would be heavily fined, and many came only because they were afraid of having to pay the fine. General interest in the democratic voting process had already dwindled. The election system in Egypt is very complicated. Although the different media had done their best to try and explain it in detail beforehand, most voters nevertheless did not really understand it.This was a good opportunity for the ever present Muslim brothers, who helped the voters find “their” candidates. The free elections were not that free after all. And not completely free of fraud either.
Nevertheless, after the elections, the new parliament launched its debates, and the people were hopeful that it might work in their interest. The parliamentary debates were broadcast live on television and were met with broad interest. People had developed a political conscience.Some tried to get the parliament’s attention by regularly organising marches from all over Cairo towards the parliament, promoting special causes, but they were not welcomed at all. Clashes here and there erupted between armed forces (sometimes supported by Muslim Brothers) and demonstrators.
In some incidents, the demonstrations and protests were shockingly violent, as the Armed Forces turned their weapons on the unarmed civilians. The picture of the woman in the blue bra beaten and kicked by soldiers went around the world.People had enough of the SCAF. On January 25, the first anniversary of the revolution, millions took to the streets again, marching towards Tahrir, and chanting “Down with SCAF”.
Three days later, the country was rocked by the football massacre in Port Said, where allegedly football ultras had attacked one another leading to over a hundred deaths. Shortly after, it was revealed that the riot had been fomented by the Ministry of the Interior, which had armed thugs infiltrate the crowd. The final straw had broken. The SCAF had forfeited its right to rule. Public outrage demanded that the SCAF leave.For some time, after every bloody event, the SCAF had been denying its involvement, always claiming that an unknown “third party” was responsible. However, no one could believe that the supreme power was that blind and powerless in all these cases.
It was clear that the SCAF was ready to use legal and illegal means to remain in power, using either democratic means or sheer oppression to reach its goal. In one way or the other everything is as it was before the revolution. The people are being ruled by a strong force and overruled by absolute power. The SCAF has not yet made its future role clear, once a president is elected (which might happen in May). Neither has the question of the new constitution been resolved yet.
There is much public debate about these issues, but in the end it will be SCAF that decides. The Muslim Brothers in parliament show a clear tendency to cooperate with SCAF on all major issues, as both sides profit from this cooperation.The reality of daily life has not changed much in Egypt. The poor continue to be poor and become poorer day by day, the rich continue to be rich, keeping their power and their wealth. The networks that guarantee this status quo are intact, and lots of old faces are being seen again in politics.
The first experiences of democracy, free elections, have not changed much for the people. The only thing that has changed fundamentally is that the people now believe they have a right to their say. They have a political conscience. And they will not allow complete repression. They might succumb to pressure, but in the end they will demand freedom and their democratic rights.
Another thing that has changed is the people’s belief in their united strength. This is seen in the attempts at implementing democracy on all levels of society.
There are examples of initiatives to reorganise companies or institutions with worker’s or employee’s representatives, there are dozens of newly founded unions now competing with the established ones, and there are grassroots movements, where mainly young idealistic people are trying to reform their society by establishing fair distribution procedures for bread or gas or by monitoring the processes in communal politics.
In this lies the opportunity and the task for the new left parties who are preparing for the next legislation period. Hopefully by then they should have united and established the left as a serious alternative in the political field.
For this legislative period, the people have chosen the Islamists. If the latter do not manage to integrate the disparate layers of society and to provide social justice, the left might provide the people with a clearer vision and offer them alternative socio-economic and political solutions.
The “revolution” happened because Egyptians had enough of repression, corruption and hopelessness. Nevertheless, the social positions of the people have not been revolutionised, and their political reality is nearly the same as before, under the guise of democracy.
“Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”, a slogan of the revolution, remains a still unfulfilled promise.
1) The left parties have become aware that they need to join forces. Currently (March 2012), two left parties are attempting to unite. Negotiations have started, but have not yet been concluded.