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Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine.
Fears of a 'counter-revolution' in Egypt
Activist says he is one of many beaten and tortured by police one month after Mubarak's ousting.
Last Modified: 20 Mar 2011 14:17
"It is the old guard who is trying to force trouble between Copts and Muslims like they have always tried to, but Copts have been smarter than that, and we have become more united with them" Ramy Essam [Reuters]

As Egypt prepared to vote on a constitutional referendum on Saturday, I caught up with two activists who were at the centre of the revolution for much of the time protests gripped Meidan Tahrir in Cairo.

Ramy Essam is a singer-songwriter, originally from Mansoura, whose song "Irhal", borrowing chants from the protests, became the unofficial anthem of the revolution, with over 500,000 Youtube views. Last Wednesday when troops and armed thugs cleared Tahrir Square, Ramy was seized, brought to the antiquities museum (which in an indication of the reality of Egypt's situation, is still being used by security forces as a detention facility one month after the removal of Mubarak) and severely beaten and tortured.

Amor Eletrebi is a medical student turned poet, who had just returned from Germany when the revolution began, heading from his hometown of Mansourara to Meidan Tahrir, becoming active in one of the facebook groups that became a symbol of the revolution after the New York Times did a profile about the group and the "facebook flat" in which they were based, directly above the roundabout.

ML: How do you both feel about the "revolution" one month later?

Ramy: My feelings are full of worries and fear that we might just lose all what we have achieved. People started to feel cosy at home once again, laying back and forgetting that they still have got a message to go on with, forgetting that the revolution is still not over, and that there are many corrupt old guard who are still out there and a potential for a massive counter revolution that we should watch out for and face.

Amor: Even with the constitutional referendum, there is no way for me not to be alarmed, concerned and watching the scene in great worry. I can see that we, Egyptians are having to confront the fact that democracy is not such a piece of cake, of how long and hard a process it is to obtain and possess. Frankly, things are moving so fast right now and it is very hard to keep our eye on the prize, so to speak, and yet keeping focused on our larger goals is perhaps the most important thing at this moment.

ML: When you got back to Mansoura how was the experience of the revolution there different than what you experienced in Tahrir?

Ramy: When I left Tahrir, it felt like I had just left my home, even though it was just a tent.

Amor: I felt precisely the same way, although I was a bit luckier to be staying at the "Facebook flat" part of the time.

ML: What has changed in the last month? In general, is the country moving forward in the right direction? Who is really in charge of Egypt right now?

Army in charge

Essam worries the army is using the same tactical violence under Mubarak's regime to gain power.

Ramy: The army is the one in charge of Egypt at the moment, and what has changed is that a lot of corruption inside the army institution has come out into the open; there has `been a lot of torture cases and terrorizing as well from the side of the army, a lot of questioning and doubts started to arise from the side of the people in return.

Amor: We got hit in the face by horrifying facts of how corrupt the regime has been, there has been a lot of confusion within the army in how it is handling this process. Forces have been building up into a bubble of confusion, with no one being able to tell the right from the wrong, what to do and what not to, and how the process should be processed, so to speak. The army is in charge, and that is our most basic dilemma moving forward after the referendum.

ML: Ramy, you were at the square when thugs, and the army, attacked. can you tell me precisely what happened to you and why you think the army would attack the remaining protesters now?

Ramy: What most people who have heard of what happened to me do not realise is that I was not there protesting that day. I was actually on my way to a concert downtown, but while I was on my way, I heard sounds and attacks coming from Tahrir, so I rushed there to see what is going on. I saw the army attacking the people on one hand, and on the other hand there was that group of thugs, pointing out certain people to the army officers so they would arrest them, and they pointed me out too, so I got arrested.

I decided to stay calm and not react in any violent way and see what happens when I meet the higher rank officers and talk to them to see what is going on. But as soon as we entered the museum, for 4 hours they kept beating us constantly, stripped us, shocked us with teaser guns, and even cut my pony tail. They were beating me so hard; at one point they held me on the floor and one of the officers jumped up in the air and then landed with his both feet right on my face.

ML: What role are activists from the 'Facebook generation' playing right now in trying to solidify the gains of the revolution?

Facebook: 'A double-edged sword'

Ramy: Facebook has become a double-edged sword. We are still using it as activists and spreading information and so on. But the counter revolution has also started using facebook as well, in order to face our revolution, spread false information and try to calm down our uprising and get it to lay low.

Amor: Facebook right now is bringing us to a big paralyzed state, as there is such a massive flow of information that in some way holds us still and keeps us focused on just trying to keep up with things more than actually taking part in moving forward. The Facebook community as well has become in some sense an isolated community and a number of isolated circles in that community itself, has become more of a chat room than a center of command we are there chatting, discussing what is best for the next step.

Indeed, what I have noticed is that most of these circles actually do not interact with each other. For example, discussing the referendum, groups which are calling for the vote for a yes are totally separate from the others that are calling for the vote for a no; each in their circles. Yet at the same time there is no denying that facebook and social media more broadly has become a hugely important educating tool that spreads awareness among people.

ML: What role has art and music played in the revolution for you?

Ramy: With every new thing that comes up on the stage, I try to write songs about, keep up, and spread awareness to people through my songs using simple vocabulary and humble tunes. I have actually just written a new song talking about my torture event, the song's title is:"Beat (hit) me!", and in that song I say it out loud that torture will not break us, and that all the beating does not really hurt us like it seems to. It actually makes us more resistant and insisting on our bigger dream, it pushes us more to believe more and more in our dream and go for it.

Amor: Egyptians, through art and music, have given the term revolution a new meaning and a new taste, zooming on Tahrir through the revolution, especially the last 10 days in which there been almost no attacks. You would have seen how much it actually turned into a big festival of art and music, with poets reading poetry to people around each corner of the square, performers and actors who would perform, some of them even had their fixed sites that people would know about and a certain kind of act, acts that some of them has turned through the revolution from solo acts to dual acts and even group acts, some even to whole theatrical plays.

Songs, acts and performances that have taken the duty to spread awareness and put a smile on the faces of the people. Art and music have for sure acted a tool of documentation for the flow of moods of people through the revolution and their ongoing sensations.

ML: What does it mean that thugs and the army are working together? Do you think this was an official policy of the junta? If so, why would they do this? Is it because pressure has let up?

Ramy: Well, I believe that the army is facing such a problem when it comes to dealing with civilians, so it just went ahead and started using thugs dressed in civilian outfits, that is all.

Amor: It is a mechanism that has been there, the government and the police have used it, so there is no wonder that the army is using the same tactics. They are just "trying to get the job done," but of course, as before the revolution, it can not work in the end.

ML: Is this violence against protesters related in any way to violence against Egypt's Coptic Christian minority? It turns out Mubarak apparently encouraged the violence against Copts to sew division in the country. Do you think this is the same thing?

Ramy: Not at all, it is the old guard who is trying to force trouble between Copts and Muslims like they have always tried to, but Copts have been smarter than that, and we have become more united with them.

Counter-revolution fears

Amor: I do not think there is a direct relation between both kinds of violence. But I would say that the only connection would be one word: counter revolution. It's not surprising if the army used the same tactics as Mubarak to frustrate the protests on on the street!

ML: Are you both fearful or hopeful for the future, or both?

Ramy: Hopeful, but hope that is full of worries, that it might all go away, that we are not as united as we were during the revolution, and this is largely because the counter revolution has been working so hard to regain ground against the revolution.

Amor: I keep switching between both fear and hope,what keeps me swinging is my knowledge of how much one single wrong move would turn us towards a bad direction. That really worries me a lot. Yet what gives me hope is realising all that the people who were protesting have been through, and the belief in that this just can not have been in vein. There is a moment when I feel both emotion, and other moments when I feel that we might have at some point to go through another face-off, but with whom? It is just too hard to figure it out yet.

ML: One month into the revolution, what do you think will be necessary to ensure that the revolution succeeds?

Ramy: We should get more united in our thoughts and we also should get more aware of how Egyptian state television is doing its job just as it did under Mubarak, supporting the corruption and the lies. But what's surprising and frustrating is that so many of the same people who figured this out before, are buying their propaganda now and not being more cautious.

Amor: I would be lying if I said I know what to do, and it is hard to imagine anyone really having the full picture even if they think they do. At least for me, I think what the youth movement, to the extent we can even talk about such a generalisation, can do is move from one square to the next, taking it one game at a time. It does feel, however, like we are reacting rather than shaping events, but it is hard not to do that right now given the uncertainty and how fast things are moving. It would be better, however, if the protest movement could take the lead and add a twist to the show. After all, what was the revolution about in the end if we are not taking the lead in shaping the future?

ML: How are you going to vote in the referendum and why?

Ramy: When they detained me, they took away all my IDs, so sadly i will not be able to take a part tomorrow. But if I had them, I would have voted with a big NO. I want us to write our own constitution, I want us to choose the people and the committee writing our new constitution, neither of which has been the case.

Amor: I would vote "no". At first, the main reason was my worry that if the parliamentary elections took place, the Brotherhood would take over, along with the old guard of Mubarak. If the Brotherhood got too much power they would be the ones selecting the committee which will write the new constitution, and such a constitution I probably could not live with. But now the main reason is basically just to put the army where they do not want to be, get to push them into the corner and then, and only then, when their true colours come out, can we have a better picture of where they exactly stand on the crucial issue of democracy in Egypt.

ML: What precisely do you mean by 'counter-revolution'?

Amor: The counter revolution is a mix of the old guard of the NDP, Mubarak's party, and the the old security establishment against whom the Revolution was directed, along with the army's position which could be described as confusing and suspicious. We could also include the rusty old politicians who have always been there as nothing but decoration and now, ironically, they are trying to hop in and claim to be a part of the youth revolution. It would be funny if it wasn't so potentially dangerous for democracy.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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