Breathless in Egypt

The long-term effects of revolution highlight influences from Lenin to Serbian activism amid a new globalist approach.

Egypt Sectarian Violence
Sectarian violence once again tears Egypt apart, dampening hopes of a strong united front comprising both Muslims and Coptic Christians following the country’s revolution [REUTERS]

What’s the biggest difference between pre-revolutionary Cairo and the situation eleven weeks after Hosni Mubarak was forced from office?

No one answers their phone anymore.

During my past four days in Cairo, the ratio of attempted calls or text messages to successful connections hovered around 15 or 20 to one. I thought it was just me, as a foreign friend or, worse, journalist, who was getting the cold shoulder from activists inside the various arms of the pro-democracy movement. But it turns out that my Egyptian friends and colleagues are having just as much trouble reaching each other.
Everyone is so busy running from meeting to meeting, interview to interview, that they have “almost no time to breathe”, as one activist put it.

The breathlessness felt by so many activists is ultimately one of the most positive aspects of the change that has enveloped Egypt since February 11. “I used to have a nice life, but now I’m working 20 hours every day,”
one of the founders of the April 6 movement explained – with a mix of pride and exasperation. Activists and ordinary Egyptians are not merely expressing their opinions publicly, but participating in civil society in unprecedented numbers. Two million people might have joined Facebook since Mubarak left office, but far more have joined the real world conversations and gathering, without which the revolution would have never occurred.

Chaos and counter-revolution

“It’s chaos,” explained one of Egypt’s most perceptive sociologists. “But of course it’s a good thing in and of itself that people are getting involved. To see young bourgeoise college girls waking up early in the morning to go to working class and poor neighbourhoods and distribute money and aid to families of the killed or detainees is so heartening.”

Of course, the continuing murderous attacks on Coptic Christians, and the sectarian violence that rocked Egypt over the weekend reveal a much darker side to the chaos. It could easily derail the messy process of political change by giving the army an excuse to crack down hard on all forms of dissent and protest, not just violence perpetrated by armed groups. This is one reason why the lack of organisational and ideological coherence among these forces worries the more secular and progressive activists who were the backbone of the eighteen days of protest.

The effect of such weakness was illustrated by the drubbing they suffered at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative and regime-aligned forces in the March 19 constitutional referendum.

With the latest violence fresh in mind, it’s not surprising that activists feel that, as one of the leading figures of the youth movement explained, “we’re moving towards Algeria”. The army will let the Brotherhood gain power, and use this as an excuse to crush democracy, he explained, recounting in his mind the events that led to the Algerian civil war in 1992.

Ahmed Ezzat, a human rights lawyer and founder of the recently established Workers’ Democratic Party, most eloquently summed up the frustration these activists feel towards the Brotherhood. “They switched from revolutionaries to counter-revolutionaries in the space of 24 hours.” Almost as soon as the protests ended, the movement began to play a role increasingly at odds with the goals of the youth and workers’ movements.

I saw this with my own eyes in Tahrir, when, during a victory concert on February 12, a group of several dozen conservative religious men and women pushed their way to the front of the audience – the men creating a cordon around the hijab-wearing women so they could have the best view without having to stand next to men – hijacked the stage, and spent the better part of the next hour haranguing the audience about their lack of Islamic behaviour, despite incessant shouts to stop.

But, however culturally and politically at odds the Brotherhood leadership remains from the youth movement that led the protests, the fear of a religious takeover of Egyptian politics and society are most likely exaggerated. The religious tendency is far from unified, ranging from hardcore conservatives to progressives. The Brotherhood’s newly created Freedom and Justice Party is putting up a moderate front, while hardcore Salafis are intensely disliked by everyone from moderate Islamists to secular forces and, crucially, the majority of Egypt’s peasantry, whom they have long tormented for their supposedly improperly Islamic behaviour.

The split in the religious tendency cuts through the Brotherhood as well. Older leaders might have a middle class conservatism and willingness to make a deal with the military to increase their power. But as Ezzat pointed out, the increasingly important younger cadre of Brotherhood activists “are like most other young guys: they have educations and can’t find jobs”.

If forced to choose between articulating a religious identity with their politics, and supporting a party that actually focuses on empowering workers against a still unequal and oppressive economic system, Ezzat is betting they will choose the latter, especially if the workers’ movement does its job at educating people. This process in fact began before the uprising, as several leading young Brotherhood members moved away from the movement in the period before the recent unrest. From this perspective, the most important thing the Brotherhood can do to demonstrate its democratic credentials would be to stand firmly and publicly against the violence against Christians, which many in Egypt blame at least partly on the religious-political ideology rooted in the Brotherhood’s past. Dispensing platitudes about standing together and starting football teams to burnish its moderate credentials are not going to do the trick.

Yet as long as a fairly democratic electoral process is established, one could argue that a strong Brotherhood showing in the parliamentary elections could work to the advantage of progressive forces. It is hard to imagine the first post-Mubarak parliament and leadership being able to address the serious and endemic structural problems with the economy and social and political life more broadly. If the Brotherhood – or any other party which takes power – can’t create a lot of jobs quickly and address other concerns of the majority of Egyptians, they will lose popularity, and then power – as long as the military ensures that elections remain free and fair.

Counter-revolution will quickly produce its own antithesis if it can’t deliver the goods.

Women and freedom

There are several other areas where perceptions and reality remain at odds in the emerging narrative of the 2011 Egyptian uprising. The first surrounds the position of women in the wake of the revolution. Much was made of how, in a country known for the routine harassment of women, such activities were all but non-existent inside the Tahrir protest zone, until the rape of CBS News reporter Lara Logan on February 11. The reality is that detained women were routinely abused during the uprising, and since then the situation has arguably become worse, as evidenced by the now well-known case of virginity testing of female activists.

More broadly, many young and seemingly secular women are angry, not merely at their marginalisation in the emerging political system, but at the even greater harassment they are suffering at the hands – sometimes literally – of their conservative countrymen. One young and unveiled singer, who fought at the front lines against Mubarak’s thugs in the violent early days of the uprising, explained that in the weeks since Mubarak’s departure “it suddenly occurred to me, I am protesting on the wrong side. Mubarak never did anything to me. It’s the people who are the enemy”.

She has been cursed at, had her boyfriend and bandmate physically attacked merely for being in the same taxi together. “I just want the freedom to walk around my country without being harassed, to be able to breathe. When can I have that?”

Indeed, women activists at a March 8 protest at Tahrir were verbally and physically attacked by armed men, clearly members of various conservative religious forces.

Yet not all secular female activists are as dispirited or surprised at this situation as she. “The revolution was never about women’s rights,” two women human rights monitors responded when I told them my friend’s story. “What did she expect? The struggle is still not on the agenda, and has yet to begin.”

Even for many female activists, women’s issues shouldn’t be separated from democracy and human rights more broadly, which is precisely what happened under Mubarak when his wife Suzanne became a “champion” of women on such issues as female genital mutilation or children’s health, which they consider “soft” because they could be addressed – at least on the surface – without challenging the larger power system in the country.

Rather, the goal must be to channel Tahrir into a broader new political reality, to institutionalise it across the board in civil and political societies. “The issue isn’t women’s rights, it’s human rights,” adds Bassem Fathy. “If we had one, the other would come more naturally.”

But what happens if women are seen merely as “mothers” of a still male-dominated nation, at best shaming men into taking to the streets, as Asmaa Mahfouz did with her now famous video declaring her intention to go to Tahrir on January 25 and daring others to join her? Or if the “dignity” for which they’ve struggled remains the preserve of men to “protect”?

It’s hard to see how either women’s or human rights will be achieved any time soon in such a scenario. Far from being an effect of a successful human rights discourse, a focus on women’s rights could be seen as the sine qua non for the spread of human rights and democracy more broadly.

Claiming undue credit

One of the most contentious issues in the narrative of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts has been how significant a role was played by US government-funded organisations such as the National Democratic and Republican institutes, the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House, in “training” the young activists who spearheaded the uprising. Similarly debatable is how influential the now celebrated writings of the University of Massachusetts non-violence theorist Gene Sharp on non-violence, or the strategies employed by the Serbian pro-democracy movement Otpor, were in the successful tactics and strategies employed by Egyptian protesters.

Not surprisingly, more hardcore left and religious activists dismiss such claims of a substantial US role as baseless. “It’s the most ludicrous claim I’ve ever heard,” exclaimed prominent blogger and labour activist Hossam El Hamalawy, as we stood in the midst of an increasingly agitated anti-Assad protest at the Syrian embassy in Dokki. A constant presence at Tahrir who has spent years organising Egyptian workers, El Hamalawy was equally dismissive of the notion that the uprising was essentially non-violent, a la Gene Sharp’s work.

“When the police attacked us we fought back, with rocks and molotov cocktails. Protesters burned down the NDP headquarters and police stations and in the case of northern Sinai, even blew up State Security facilities using RPGs. This is not a non-violent revolution.”

He certainly has a point. A certain type of violence played a pivotal role early on in establishing the control of protesters over Tahrir, scaring off the police, and letting the army know that people were ready to fight to the death to take down Mubarak. But it’s also true that the overall strategy was one of mass protest and strike actions to break down the regime, not armed rebellion.

Indeed, as we discussed this issue a squad of Egyptian riot police in full body armour showed up, ready to pounce on the increasingly rowdy demonstrators, who were shaking the gates of the Syrian embassy and beginning to throw things over the wall.

But then something fascinating happened. Organisers began shouting “Silmiyya, Silmiyya!” [“Peaceful”], a chant I first heard in Tahrir, and the local police officer trying to control the protest literally ran up to the riot police and implored them to back off, which they did, after which the protest continued without escalating. As several people commented to me, it’s hard to imagine this scene, or the success of the uprising more broadly, had non-violence not been a primary strategic and moral choice of the protesters.

What is clear is that the larger claim of US influence is clearly much exaggerated. As a Belgian journalist friend pointed out to me, “There was a story that photocopies of Gene Sharp’s books were being passed around in Tahrir. I certainly never saw it.” Neither did I, nor anyone else I’ve spoken too.

Lenin’s revenge

Bassem Fathy, now with the Egyptian Democracy Institute, is still angry at how the New York Times imposed this narrative over his words, which created a lot of anger among other activists. “Look, how can I say that Gene Sharp, or meeting Optur activists didn’t affect us at least somewhat? I read a lot, searching for a ‘magic stick’ that would help us succeed. And we’ve received support from the NED and NDI.

“But we didn’t need Americans to teach us how to use Facebook, and they’re not responsible for the revolution. It’s too big to be owned by anyone, especially an outside force. It was the ordinary people who came out en masse on January 25 through 27 who are the heroes.”

In previous articles, I have written about the influence of Lenin on the thinking and strategies of the organisers. Continued discussions with Revolutionary Socialist activists who played a crucial role organising Tahrir and now in the workers movement confirm this assessment. Certainly Lenin outdid the CIA in influencing young activists before, during, and since the uprising. The clarity of vision and organisational strategy provided by the Leninist model is one reason why, according to El Hamalawy, “the only social movement right now that is continuing the struggle is the labour movement [and not the Brotherhood]… There are strikes daily and they are over bread and butter and political issues”.

“Lenin’s ‘What is to be Done’ and ‘April Notes’ helped shape our strategy, as did Marx’s theories,” Ahmed Ezzat explained. Organising revolutionary committees, uniting labour leaders from various sectors of the economy, creating independent trade unions and launching strikes – despite regime violence against them, were all and remain among the most powerful tools in the ongoing struggle against the still military-dominated economic and political system.

Even the more mainstream wing of the democratic resistance, led by people like Google executive Wael Ghonem, understood intuitively that without the poor and working class, the pro-democracy movement would never succeed. And so they organised “test runs” of the protest tactics and slogans that would define Tahrir in the period leading up to January 25, and took the enthusiastic response to slogans focusing on economic issues by people in popular quarters as proof that the protests would have legs, once launched.

A new Egypt, and a new world?

A few days before Mubarak left, I spoke with a young activist who – merely by virtue of his being in Tahrir from the start of the protests – had found himself in a leadership position at the Square. “We were just sitting around late at night and thinking about it,” he told me, as the two of us sat around, similarly late at night, digesting the day’s events. “If the revolution could go global, or at least across the Middle East, we could tear down boundaries, and could make one people, a new planet, even. The ubiquitous chant ‘isqat an-nitham‘ means ‘down with the world system’ as much as in Egypt.”

This tendency to think globally even in the midst of a national uprising is telling. Many activists have cited the anti-globalisation movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s as crucial influences on their thinking, and it’s hard to separate the at least momentary unity and camaraderie of activists at the national level with the realisation that the Egyptian uprising was about more than just Egypt. It was, as so many people have explained, very much about a re-imagining of globalisation for a new generation, one that has moved beyond the dichotomy between a “human nationalism” and an “inhuman globalisation” that for many years defined Arab responses to globalisation and towards a globalisation that encourages democratic and sustainable development at the level of the nation-state.

As usual, Americans and other outsiders want to claim undue credit for events they neither inspired nor controlled. But this is nonsense. To the extent Egyptians made use of training or networking opportunities provided by Americans or Europeans, they did so with eyes wide open, and remain almost uniformly angry at continued US support for the army, despite its ongoing violence and rights violations against Egyptians, and Western support for Bahrain’s monarchy and the bombing campaign in Libya.

A sign at the protest at Syria’s embassy put it best: “Tahaya ath-thawra al-huriya wa al-karama,” or “Viva the revolution for freedom and dignity.” Not just in Egypt or even Syria, but across the Arab world.

If the US and outside world more broadly won’t intervene with consistency and in a principled manner, the least they can do is leave Egyptians and the rest of the Arab world to decide their own fate without foreign interference of any sort. All anyone I’ve met during the Arab world’s revolutionary winter and spring is asking for is a level playing field.

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.

[Editor’s note: An abridged version of this article was erroneously posted on May 9. We apologise for the mistake]