Egypt’s Revolutionary Narrative Breaks Down

With Hosni Mubarak long gone, a heavily Islamist parliament in place, and the military in uneasy command of the country, who speaks for the revolution?

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

CAIRO — On the first anniversary of Egypt’s revolution, the Semiramis InterContinental, a five-star luxury hotel overlooking Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, offered an espresso-stained postcard of the deep political and social divides that have emerged since Hosni Mubarak’s downfall.

As hundreds of thousands Egyptians converged on the square on Jan. 25, the hotel’s café became the locus for discordant symposiums among Egyptians of diverse political and social backgrounds. Protesters, clad with stickers and signs that urged Egyptians to press forward with the revolution, shuffled in for a coffee (and, for some, an alcohol) break. In another part of the café, Egyptian businessmen discussed the construction of new resort hotels on Egypt’s glimmering Red Sea with their colleagues from the Gulf. Still, others sought refuge from what one 38-year-old Egyptian restaurant owner described as "the never-ending noise of the revolution."

On that last point, at least, the patrons would get their wish. The noisy chants of "Invalid!" (a reference to the sustained de facto leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) over the country) and "Freedom!" were eventually drowned out by the iconic, moody tunes of famous Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.

But not even Umm Kulthum could sing over the urgent political questions of the day. In the back of the café, workers watched footage of the packed square on a miniature television propped against the hotel’s boarded windows, fretting over "when the clashes will start." One poked fun of all the "beards" (Islamists) present. Another lamented that things were better under Mubarak, only to be promptly reproached by his colleagues. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a famous pro-democracy activist who was sentenced to seven years of prison under Mubarak, sat at the head of one table with a gaggle of people, discussing the foggy state of affairs. "Don’t ask me what will happen next," he said. "I don’t know."

With some protesters establishing a new tent camp in Tahrir Square and another demonstration planned for Jan. 27, nobody does. While much of the coverage has painted the day as a competition between Islamist movements, which wanted to celebrate the revolution’s accomplishments, and liberal groups, which protested the continued absence of civilian rule, Egypt consistently frustrates such easy narratives. The revolution has scrambled traditional allegiances, leaving Egyptians struggling to figure out what they stand for — and all equally confounded at what comes next.

If any group feels assured, it is the Muslim Brotherhood, which won just under half of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections and endorsed the military’s timetable for a handover to an elected president by the end of June.

The Brotherhood sent thousands of its members to Tahrir on Jan. 25 to ensure, the group said, that a spirit of "celebration" prevailed — a concept that has incensed some Egyptians, who feel that a virtual military coup has taken them back to square one. For these discontented activists, Jan. 25 was a day to push the revolution’s demands forward.

Sondos Assem, 24, a young Muslim Brotherhood activist, glided into the hotel’s café in sunglasses and a trenchcoat, armed with her omnipresent smartphone. Just a few months ago, Assem didn’t want her real name published in a Foreign Policy article — but now, the Brotherhood’s electoral success seems to have given her a boost of confidence. She has emerged as an unofficial spokesperson of sorts, helping to run the Brotherhood’s English-language Twitter feed, @Ikhwanweb. She’s visibly exasperated from meetings and interview requests, and said she just had a fight with a close friend, a "hardcore revolutionary" who heavily criticized the Brotherhood for "selling the blood of martyrs to politics."

"How can people say that?" she asked, almost shaking with anger. The Brotherhood continues to push for the demands of the revolution, she argued, and wouldn’t necessarily oppose early presidential elections. "We’re not in the square to celebrate … We won’t celebrate until the military leaves, but we can’t just depend on protests. We have to the build the country and we’re doing that through parliament."

One senior Muslim Brotherhood member, who said that he cannot give his name because he hasn’t been "authorized to talk to the public," argued that the Brotherhood’s presence in the square was a method of "flexing their muscles" before Egypt’s military rulers. "Our masses commemorating the day can easily turn the other direction if demands of handing full power over to civilian parliament, or swift trial of former regime figures, isn’t met," he explained. "We’re sending authorities a reminder."

But Egypt’s new political landscape is more complicated than a competition between "liberals" and "Islamists." The Islamist forces that have emerged since Mubarak’s fall are competing with each other as much as with their secular rivals, and disagree passionately over not only how to best push the revolution forward — but what "revolution" even means.

Khaled Saiid, one of the unofficial leaders of Egypt’s hard-line Salafi movement who works closely with the Islamist presidential candidate Hazem Abu Saleh Ismail, calls himself a "true revolutionary." A cheerful and rotund man in his forties with gold-rimmed glasses, he traveled from the Nile Delta city of Mansoura not to celebrate, but protest the SCAF’s handling of the transition. He is the leader of the newly formed "Gabha" movement, which argues that the leading Salafi party al-Nour is not only unrepresentative of the vast Salafi community in Egypt, but "unpatriotic" and "inflexible to the point of damage."

"They have not criticized SCAF simply because, like under Mubarak, they’re scared of questioning authority," he finally said, after multiple stop-and-go’s at the question ("It’s important to say things delicately in these times," he explained). "The Nour Party isn’t sacrificing for the good of the revolution. They just wait and wait, and make us look rigid and unpatriotic … And when they fail politically, it will reflect on the whole current of Salafism in Egypt."

The Nour Party captured a quarter of seats in the new parliament, and its success has made it tolerant of such criticism from its own ranks. Ehab Mohammed, a 25-year-old assistant to one of the party’s spokesmen, shuffled into the dim Groppi café — once one of Cairo’s most celebrated patisseries, and now a relic of earlier golden years — in the mid-afternoon. He responded to Saiid’s criticism calmly. "The country has spoken through the elections, so we’re in the square to celebrate that achievement and all our hard work and sacrifices this year," he said, ardently denying that the masses in the square reflect widespread discontent with the revolution’s course. "Seculars still act like they own the square. When will people realize no one owns the square? It’s all our revolution to defend."

Who owns Tahrir Square — and how all this will end — is the talk of the hotel’s chic clientele. By dusk back at the InterContinental hotel, the women’s bathroom had transformed into a rest-stop and impromptu talk-show where women frantically charge their phones and quibble over where this round of demonstrations is heading.

Aliaa Sherif, a cleaner who’s worked at the hotel for 8 years, picked up stickers scattered on the floor — anniversary mementos that call for an end to military trials and the downfall of SCAF. "They keep going, they don’t stop. We just had free elections, what more do they want? Today will be the end of it, god willing," she said.

Sohar Ahmed, a 34-year-old graphic designer whose leather bomber-jacket is covered with black-and-white faces of the revolution’s martyrs, said that Jan. 25 is not the real litmus test for where Egypt is heading. "We’ll see how far we’ve come tomorrow and Friday, when we see what happens to the people who are still frustrated and refuse to leave the square," she said.

If they stay, the joyous celebrations of Jan. 25 could easily give way to a familiar cycle of violent clashes and political turmoil as security forces move to clear the protesters from the square. The "revolutionaries," of course, know this all too well — and have no intention of backing down.

"Here’s the thing," offered Ayman Moussa, a 24-year-old Cairo University student protesting outside what he called "the center of lies," Egypt’s state television headquarters. "We have no idea what’s going on or what’s next." But he defiantly proclaims he won’t leave until "real change," which he defines as Egypt’s military immediately returning to its barracks, occurs.

His friend interrupted, arguing that won’t happen. "Being practical isn’t what revolutions are about," Moussa responded, and continued to chant for the fall of the military council. Hundreds raised their voices to join him.

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