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Cairo’s Revolutionaries Change Tactics
The hard-core activists who led the protests that ousted Hosni Mubarak are looking for other ways to make an impact. But with elections looming, are they losing the plot?
CAIRO — For Egyptian activists, Tahrir Square these days feels more like an area under military occupation than the epicenter of a revolution. Armored personnel carriers, topped with machine gunners, guard the entrances. The massive vans used to transport riot police and prisoners line the surrounding streets. High-ranking police officers in crisp white uniforms and aviator sunglasses keep watch over the traffic as helmeted riot police holding shields and batons surround the patch of grass in the square’s center. Any sign of the sit-in that was in place for more than three weeks before it was violently dispersed on Aug. 1 has vanished. Even the street vendors who for the last six months have been selling Egyptian flags and commemorative revolution T-shirts have disappeared.
The message from the ruling military junta is clear: That phase of the revolution is over.
For the most hard-core Egyptian activists, those who as much as any other can claim to be in the vanguard of the revolution that began on Jan. 25, losing the symbolic heart of their revolution is unacceptable. Some are vowing to break the military’s hold on the square, even if that means being violently chased out.
But for many, losing Tahrir, while a setback, may not be the worst thing that could happen to the revolution. There seems to be a growing consensus among Egypt’s revolutionaries that the road to change will be neither swift nor simple. And it will have to pass outside of Tahrir.
"The revolution has been isolated from the people’s demands," says Abdallah Helmy, a 34-year-old pharmacist who is the secretary-general of the Revolutionary Youth Union, a decentralized umbrella organization that includes more than 25 other groups from across the political spectrum. "That’s why two months ago we decided to stop protesting. So we can listen to the people."
Many activists are looking to push for change not just through demonstrations and sit-ins, but also by building civic education programs, providing legal counsel to nascent labor unions and those arrested by the military, and establishing a democratic political culture that wasn’t allowed under President Hosni Mubarak. Although parliamentary elections are looming, many think that for now, transforming the political culture needs to be a priority.
Activists have faced a series of setbacks in recent weeks, as public opinion has largely turned against protesters, driven in part by smears from the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) accusing them of being foreign-backed provocateurs. When military police forcibly dispersed the sit-in on Aug. 1, shop owners from the neighborhood around Tahrir Square joined in, cheering and helping to tear down tents. Nine days earlier, on July 23, residents of the Abbasseya neighborhood attacked a march heading to the SCAF’s headquarters. The clashes left hundreds injured and put Mohamed Mohsen, a 23-year-old Aswan native, in a coma, from which he died last week.
None of which is to say that the three-week sit-in was a total failure. It began with a massive rally on July 8 and was followed by a week of reforms that were ostensibly in response to the protests, without directly addressing the main demands (among them reparations for families of those killed in the revolution). The prime minister reshuffled his cabinet, promised to reshuffle provincial governors, and ordered a massive round of layoffs at the reviled Interior Ministry, which was responsible for torture and internal surveillance under Mubarak.
But over the next two weeks, the sit-in was either ignored or resented by much of the rest of Cairo. Even some of the pro-change activists believed that it was a futile endeavor. "The activists are idiots. The whole thing is ridiculous," one activist told me of those who insist on keeping the protest movement focused on Tahrir Square.
Even those who kept the sit-in going questioned its efficacy after a certain point, though in less harsh language. "If you use this tool for a long period, every day, the people will start to hate you. It becomes a joke," says Mohamed Adel, a 23-year-old member of the political office of the well-organized and well-known April 6 Youth Movement. Protests in the square should be just one tactic among many, say numerous activists.
Mahmoud Salem, a hulking, amicable activist who can often be seen at demonstrations sporting a Boston Red Sox baseball cap, is looking to a distinctly political model. He hopes to help establish interest lobbies.
"The label of the revolution has been hurt," says Salem, a self-declared pro-market liberal who is unaffiliated with any movement or party but enjoys influence as a blogger and Twitter user under the moniker Sandmonkey. "It’s much easier to talk about the issues. People agree with the issues. If you turn it into causes and each group works with a cause and promotes it in their own way, it can get traction."
Some groups are taking things in that direction, zeroing in on single issues.
Since Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11, more than 10,000 Egyptians, both protesters and others, have been subject to military trials and in some cases torture at the military’s hands, according to local and international human rights organizations. The continuation of extrajudicial trials, a favorite tactic of the Mubarak regime, is seen as a slap in the face to the revolution. One very vocal, loosely organized group that calls itself No Military Trials for Civilians (NMTC) has been taking this issue head-on, bringing media attention to the cases of detainees, putting them in touch with human rights lawyers, and, at times, staging demonstrations against military trials.
No Military Trials for Civilians hasn’t stopped the practice completely, but it has made some headway. The group has successfully brought the issue to the forefront of discussion, not just among protesters but also on influential satellite TV stations like ONTV and Dream TV. In some cases, the legal counsel NMTC facilitated has helped detainees get commuted sentences. And the military’s violent attack on the sit-in on Aug. 1 may have been a victory of sorts.
"When the 113 people got arrested on Aug. 1, the first of Ramadan, they were passed on to civilian court. That for us was a huge gain," Noor Ayman Nour, a member of the group, told me. (It may not sound like a great success, but the bar is low in SCAF’s Egypt.)
Other groups also hope to take on lobbying roles, even if those will be centered less on specific issues. The April 6 Youth Movement, which began as a display of solidarity with striking workers in the Nile Delta in 2008, is one of Egypt’s best-organized activist organizations. April 6 enjoys widespread name recognition (enough that the SCAF has singled the group out for defamation), but hopes to increase its membership and influence in Cairo and throughout Egypt, which can then be turned into political capital to pressure future governments on issues of "democracy and social justice," according to Adel.
The widespread perception among analysts is that liberal and leftists groups are inept at old-fashioned organizing, ceding the grassroots to the Islamists. But some groups are working to address this shortcoming.
During Ramadan, April 6 members are distributing packages containing rice, sugar, cooking oil, and other staples in poor areas and villages throughout Cairo and the Nile Delta. (In Egypt, where around 40 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line, these kinds of charity packages are important for many families’ celebrations of the holy month.) They have already passed out more than 2,000 packages and plan to distribute more.
"It’s about saying to people, ‘We are here.’ You don’t have to join the movement and we don’t need you to follow us, but we want you to know who we are," says Adel, who hails from a village in the Nile Delta. April 6 intends to use this to build a base of support that can pressure future governments into fair elections, respect for human rights, and support for economic justice issues like a living minimum wage.
Helmy, of the Revolutionary Youth Union umbrella group, is also looking to establish a "pressure group" throughout Egypt. The Union is conducting listening tours throughout Egypt to collect complaints — about sanitation, education, water pollution — and bring them to the attention of the Cairo revolutionaries and, they hope, the government. "We go to communities to highlight their demands and try to link them to the national anti-corruption movement," Helmy says.
The Union is also working on what it believes is a crucial issue: civic education. Its activists are creating cartoons about issues like elections and the Constitution and distributing them throughout the country. Helmy has also been pushing in meetings with the military to include civic-education programming on state television. And, he says, the military has listened.
A handful of other groups are doing work throughout Egypt. The National Front for Justice and Democracy, a left-leaning group headed by the brothers Mohamed and Amr Waked, respectively an anthropology Ph.D. candidate and a famous actor, is bringing resources from Cairo to assist the formation of NGOs and independent labor unions throughout the country. Popular committees, formed for neighborhood protection during the 18-day uprising last winter, are working to provide services to neighborhoods around the country long neglected by the corrupt, Mubarak-era municipal governments. A group of prominent Twitter users, including Salem, have launched an initiative collecting more than $220,000 in donations for a development project in a large Cairo slum.
Egypt is expecting its first fair and free parliamentary elections in November, with a presidential election to be held shortly after. Many expect that the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, which has been developing a grassroots support network since the 1920s, is poised for a major victory, though the group insists that it will contest fewer than 40 percent of seats. Dozens of new political parties have sprouted since Mubarak’s resignation — many of them secular groups — and are trying to organize throughout the country. But with just a few months before elections, they face a steep uphill battle.
Some activist groups could become more involved in partisan politics. April 6, Adel tells me, is considering endorsing candidates. But for many activists who helped ignite the revolution, that is a side concern.
Helmy’s group, the Revolutionary Youth Union, is nonpartisan, though he is personally active with a small liberal party. But he still believes elections are only one step in the process of transforming Egypt into a democracy. "You cannot have a real democracy in one shot," he says. "It must be built gradually."
Nour, of No Military Trials for Civilians, agrees. Although he used to consider himself more of a political activist (his father was a presidential candidate who came in a distant second place in 2005), he believes that even after Mubarak’s ouster his work as a human rights activist is more important.
"If you don’t have the very basics, you cannot rebuild Egypt politically. We are working on providing people with their most basic rights so that in the long term they can start enjoying other, more luxurious rights," he told me, a jagged, forked scar still visible on his forehead from a clash with security forces in June. "You cannot have stability with weak foundations."