Thursday, 17 March 2011

Among the left wing, or the dark side of military rule

(This note is from Wednesday 16 March but it was posted after midnight)

This was a day which I spent almost entirely with people from the intellectual left wing scene of downtown Cairo, heavily involved in the revolution, and much more worried about its success than most Egyptians.

Today was the birthday party of Aly Subhy who had been detained on Tahrir Square on 9 March and released four days later thanks to a campaign for him on the internet and by human rights lawyers. This evening his friends threw him a party in the roof terrace of a small hotel in downtown Cairo, a regular meeting place of left wing activists. He received a hero’s welcome, and everybody was very happy to see him, and yet the party was a little subdued in mood. Too many people are still detained, more were detained today, and the discussions circled around that, and the problematic role of the army. Aly himself was marked by the experience. There was a kind of sadness to him that I hadn’t seen in him before. He told that when he was arrested he was heavily beaten in a haphazard fashion - not in order to press a confession, but just as an act of brutality. It was so bad that he started to recite the Muslim creed, expecting to die in that very moment. But he lived, and he says that the experience did not break either him or any of the others who were with him. “Everybody who got out, got out stronger in heart and commitment.” Here is his full account in English translation:

In the afternoon., before I went to Aly’s party I met E., an outspoken feminist and human rights activist. She was in a worried and pessimistic mood, especially because of the number of people who have been arrested since 9 March. Some have been released, others remain detained, and there are new detainments. Most recently today: After a press conference about the role of the military in arresting and torturing demonstrators, a small number of people went to demonstrate in front of the Egyptian Museum that not only houses Egypt’s Pharaonic antiquities, but also a detainment centre in the basements. Most people who were detained in Tahrir Square were first held there. Predictably, a number of the people demonstrating in front of this place were arrested. This development makes E. very anxious these days. A feminist activist, she has put an enormous effort into the revolution. After Mubarak was ousted, she was collecting names of women who were killed in the revolution. But she says: This time I felt that I shouldn’t care only about women, but everybody who was killed, women and men. for several weeks after 11 February, she and a group of others ran a call centre for people injured in the revolution. While doing this, they also received information about people killed, and she says that the real number of people killed is much higher than the official figure of 365. In Cairo alone - the are where they were working - they got a list of more than 600 names. Then, two weeks ago, the database was stolen. She has been unable to retrieve it, and she says that she has also encountered quite some fear among some of the people who were working with her. Also with the new age of freedom, lots of people are afraid, and not entirely without reason, as the recent wave of detainments shows. At the moment, E. is busy with two things: Running a campaign in Ismailiya where she studies to vote “No” in the referendum on constitutional amendments, and collecting information on the people detained and trying to reach people within the army. The problem with the army, she says, that it is split within. There are very respectable people in the army who support her work, and there are others who would rather like to see the Mubarak era continue, only without Mubarak. This creates strange and terrible contradictions, she says. On the one hand, military police is arresting and torturing demonstrators apparently quite randomly. On the other hand, she has met with high-ranking generals supporting her cause, to hand them documents about the detained people.

Among the human rights activists and the intellectual left, the new Egypt appears as a rather sinister place at the moment, and the grave human rights violations involved in mass arrests and military trials are the most striking case in point. Today, a press conference was held at the Press Syndicate in Cairo to discuss the human rights violations by the army. It was mostly attended by foreign press and human rights activists - the Arabic language press remains silent on the issue for contradictory reasons. (There is a strong sense among many that the alliance of the revolution with the army is a necessary and tactical one, and that the dark side of the military rule needs to remain uncovered for a while because revealing it would create a fear and distrust towards the army that would be destructive and counterproductive.) The demand of the activists at the press conference was not just that demonstrators detained by the army should be released, but that there should be an end to military tribunals on civilians altogether. Also thugs deserve a fair process in a civilian court.

My friend. is now beginning a campaign for Muhammad Ezzat Abdallah Khalifa, also known as Muhammad Israili, a street kid in his teens who was detained at the same time with Aly and whom Aly met in the prison. He has been participating in artistic activities organised by Aly and J., and everybody considers him an extraordinary person of great potential. But with his background as a street kid, he has a difficult stance. He is not a known artist or activist for whom it is easy to run a campaign, and he doesn’t come from a good family that could help him. People from poor backgrounds have the toughest time in military courts, and need most help. Right now J. is trying to trace Muhammad’s birth certificate because if he is under 18 he has the good chance of getting away with a suspended one-year sentence. But if he is over 18, things will be very difficult for him. Here is more information:

There is much talk in downtown Cairo now about Muslim Brothers, who many in the left feel have betrayed the revolution by their “Yes” campaign. The old fear of the Islamists among the secular end of the political spectrum is emerging again, and not without a reason. Some people like E. are more worried about it, and others, like Sh., a teacher and part-time actor from a poor background, less so. He says that there is too much distrust towards the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, no matter how well organised they are. My bet is that in the coming elections, Islamic parties and candidates will dominate, not because Egyptians would necessarily have strong Islamist sympathies, but because they want an honest and God-fearing government, and the Muslim Brotherhood is most capable of offering that promise to a wide audience at the moment - unless, of course, the nationalist and leftist groups manage to mobilise enough people to vote for a God-fearing and honest government more focussed on issues of economical and social justice and less on a religious agenda. A programme focussing on economical equality and social justice has the potential of gaining a lot of support in Egypt, but it requires successful mobilisation. We shall see. But whatever the outcome will be, I think about the key demand of the demonstrators before 11 February: We don’t care who governs us, but how we are governed. My concern about the Muslim Brotherhood is not that they are fundamentalist conservatives. If the people of Egypt want a fundamentalist conservative government, it is their right in a democratic system. My concern is that the Muslim Brothers have become deeply entrenched in the system in the past years, and that they will not solve the problem of corruption and economical exploitation that originally took the people in the streets. Then the issue that matters is that Egypt will have a robust democratic system that will allow for electing a different government four years later. After all, that’s what a democracy is for: circulation of power.

E., and like her many of the left wing intellectual scene who frequent downtown Cairo, is very aware and worried about the current power of the Muslim Brotherhood and elements of the National Democratic Party to reach a wide audience in a way the downtown intellectuals who played an important role in the initial stages of the revolution do not. “When we were on Tahrir Square and we were attacked by the thugs, the people on the front line defending us were Muslim Brothers. They worked in shifts and were very organised and experienced in a way we are not.” She is hardly in downtown Cairo these days, precisely because she sees that there is much more to be done in Ismailiya. But she is aware of the unequal power of different political movements when it comes to reaching a wide audience. This shows very clearly now that the Muslim Brotherhood have declared their support for a “Yes” vote in the referendum. The Muslim Brotherhood has the activists, the money and the experience to run a big public campaign around the country, and at the moment they are campaigning big time for a “Yes” vote in an unholy alliance with the National Democratic Party which campaigns for a “Yes” as well, however with leaflets that do not reveal who stands behind them - the NDP does not have a particularly good reputation these days. This is a move by the Muslim Brothers clearly aimed at proving that they are a reliable coalition partner - a move which stands in a decades old tradition of the Muslim Brothers trying to gain power indirectly rather than directly. Among the left wing and other revolutionaries, this raises the concern that after the elections we may see a coalition of the National Democratic Party and the Brotherhood ruling the country, which would certainly be a highly problematic scenario. But probably it is also because the Brotherhood would profit from early elections as long as its competitors do not yet have the same outreach across the country.

And this is indeed a key problem which E. and many other people from the leftist intellectual scene whom I met today: Influential as it has been in the early stage of the revolution, and influential as it remains in the media, the intellectual left has little outreach in the popular districts and in the countryside, and also much less money. And there is the problem that much of the supporters of the revolution spread their views on Facebook, which is only accessible to a small percentage of Egyptians. There are way more “Yes” leaflets than there are “No” leaflets being distributed in the streets these days, and leaflets reach a lot more people than the Internet. My gut feeling is that the heavy leaflet and media campaign for a “Yes” these days from different directions is likely to make the referendum end with a majority vote for a “Yes”. But the result is still open, and my gut feeling may still turn out to be wrong. No matter what the outcome of the constitutional referendum, it is already now a lesson to the activists of a Facebook revolution: Revolutions may be mobilised partly over social media, but referendums and elections are won and lost in the popular districts, the provincial towns, and the countryside. If Egyptians will vote “No” they will do it not because of Facebook but because they simply think that a new Egypt needs a new constitution now.

E. continues to work hard for the sake of political mobilisation and for the sake of the people detained. She has decided to delay a planned trip abroad in the spring because she thinks that her place is here. But anxiety and worry are her strongest feelings at the moment. And this is the atmosphere among many of the left wing activists (most of them weren’t activists before, but they have become so in the course of the revolution), who are much more pessimistic about the situation than most Egyptians. Unlike the majority of the population, they face and know the dark side of the military government. And after the revolutionary coalition to bring down Mubarak has ended and different groups now run their own programmes, their comparable weakness becomes evident. Some are drawing the consequences and starting to work to spread their version of political consciousness across the country. It is a difficult task, but those who are seriously about pursuing it, are also the ones spreading most optimism to me (no way I could be an impartial observer these days - I certainly hope that the intellectual left’s vision of new Egypt will play a significant role in the coming months and years). The most optimistic was Sh.. He is less worried because of the positive energy he sees among the ordinary Egyptians. At the school where he works, glossy leaflets were spread for the sake of a “Yes” vote, and at first people agreed, then one female teacher started arguing against it, and eventually convinced the teachers about a “No” vote. People change their minds easily, Sh. says, but what is important that they all talk about politics, and that in itself creates an enormous political consciousness.

As so often, I end this day with this contradictory note. On the one hand, there is a serious campaign against a part of the revolutionary movement by the military government or parts of it, causing among them a serious sense of crisis and fear. On the other hand, there is an enormous degree of political consciousness and debate. In a shop to buy food, I witnessed a discussion between a customer and an owner. The customer was concerned that there was a rumour that some questionable figure of the NDP was going to run for presidency. The owner: “Why not? If there are respectable and clean elections, it doesn’t matter if whoever runs. It’s not like in the old elections for Mubarak when the dead would rise from the grave, vote for the president and go back to the grave again (the lists of people eligible to vote were full of names of people long time dead). If we have really free and respectable election, a belly dancer can run for presidency, but you can vote for the one you want and it matters. And when we get a respectable president, then we will also take care of the army, because now nobody is talking about how many millions they have been earning, and what they have been doing under Mubarak. But their time will come, too.”

Greetings from the Egyptian revolution!


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