The view from the ground.

Revolution, Interrupted

There's a reason Egyptians keep taking to the streets: The Muslim Brotherhood has proved to be little more than the old Mubarak clique with beards.

Ed Giles/Getty Images
Ed Giles/Getty Images
Ed Giles/Getty Images

CAIRO — There is no denying that Egypt's revolution has turned more violent and grimmer since its ecstatic early days. For all its nobility of purpose, it has proved unequal to the enormous tasks history had placed on its shoulders. It was stalled and hijacked -- first by the military in uneasy collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood, and then by the Brotherhood in uneasy collaboration with the military.

CAIRO — There is no denying that Egypt’s revolution has turned more violent and grimmer since its ecstatic early days. For all its nobility of purpose, it has proved unequal to the enormous tasks history had placed on its shoulders. It was stalled and hijacked — first by the military in uneasy collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood, and then by the Brotherhood in uneasy collaboration with the military.

What can look like mere chaos is actually the natural product of a revolution whose signature demands remain unfulfilled. And there’s no wishing it away anymore: Hosni Mubarak’s regime is alive and well, in all but name. The only difference is that its representatives sport the trim beard preferred by Brotherhood leaders, if not the grizzly, flowing beards of their Salafi allies.

Yet again, a single political party seeks to exercise uncontested hegemony over Egypt’s state and society. Not only has it kept in place a legal code laden with repressive legislation, but it has maintained the structures of authoritarian rule erected by its predecessors.

Two years after the revolution against Mubarak’s police state, not a single step has been taken to reform Egypt’s hated police force, which ran riot during 30 years of uninterrupted state of emergency. Today, it continues to function as a lawless militia feeding on torture, murder, fabrication, and detentions without trial.

Egyptians received another reminder of this fact last Friday, Feb. 1, when a citizen captured on video a horrific scene of roughly a dozen police officers — dressed in full anti-riot gear — beating and stripping naked a middle-aged protester, Hamada Saber. Possibly more disturbing was the televised "confession" Saber was later made to give, in which the battered, clearly terrified man claimed that he’d been stripped and beaten by the protesters and that the police were actually helping him. Saber later reversed his initial account, admitting that the police were to blame and that his confession was coerced.

The "confession" was even more revealing than the incident itself: Two years after the revolution, Mubarak’s police remain as willing to use threats and torture to fabricate evidence and extract the most ludicrous of testimonies — and the Muslim Brotherhood remains unwilling to demand change.

The abuses of Egypt’s police under President Mohamed Morsy’s administration are increasingly attracting international attention. In the course of a single week of protests marking the second anniversary of the revolution, some 50 people were killed and hundreds more injured in street battles between the police and Egyptian citizens. In a statement on the violence, Amnesty International noted that eyewitness accounts "point to the unnecessary use of lethal force by security forces during a weekend of clashes with demonstrators."

And as for the new constitution drawn up exclusively by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi-jihadi allies, it has proved to be potentially even more authoritarian than the 1971 constitution under which Mubarak consolidated his rule. Maintaining the previous constitution’s bizarre penchant for rendering basic rights and civil liberties subject to the stipulations of a profoundly anti-democratic legal code, the new constitution subjects them as well to the unstated "principles of Islamic law," as elaborated by the collectivity of acknowledged Sunni jurists — most of whom lived and delivered their rulings during the Middle Ages.

Two additional twists to the new, "democratic" constitution potentially establish an Iran-style, if Sunni, theocracy. Prominent Salafi leaders have interpreted the constitution as allowing judges to refer directly to Islamic law in passing sentences — cutting the hands of thieves, stoning adulterers, and the like — without having recourse to specific penalties stipulated by the legal code.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s use of torture and street thugs is also hauntingly evocative of standard Mubarak regime practice. Following the Dec. 5 attack on protesters demonstrating before the presidential palace — employing guns, knives, swords, and tear gas — Morsy delivered a televised national address in which he claimed he had solid evidence, including confessions, that some 80 detained protesters were paid agents of Mubarak regime "remnants."

In fact, the detainees, who had been captured and tortured by Brotherhood thugs, were all cleared and released the next day by the district prosecutor. At that point, the Morsy-appointed prosecutor general punished the prosecutor by transferring him to a remote province — triggering open rebellion in the prosecution service and forcing the prosecutor general to retract his decision. For his part, Morsy has yet to offer an apology or explanation for his wild accusations, which under the Egyptian legal code renders him liable for prosecution and a prison term for slander.

Freedom of expression and freedom to peacefully protest have also been under concerted attack by the new regime. The Brotherhood, rather than acting to guarantee the independence of the state-owned media, has sought to bring these outlets under its sway — maintaining and even increasing their obsequiousness to the ruler of the moment and their nearly unmitigated lack of professionalism. The Brotherhood did so even as it acted to intimidate and strangle privately owned media: Its Salafi allies laid siege to Greater Cairo’s Media City, home to most private TV stations, and called for the "purging" of the media, while the government launched a record number of cases against the president’s critics in the media, most prominently liberal satirist Bassem Youssef — Egypt’s Jon Stewart.

Even the Brotherhood’s single claim to democratic governance — allowing free elections — is now being subjected to increasing challenge. The constitutional referendum, the single poll held under Brotherhood rule, was tarnished by various recorded incidents of electoral rigging, including the barring of potential "no" voters from gaining access to polling stations.

The new parliamentary electoral law has also been tailored to perpetuate the Islamists’ dominance of the legislative branch. The Brotherhood has gerrymandered Egypt’s electoral system so that it is very far from one man, one vote: Under the new law, Qalyubia governorate, effectively a working-class suburb of Greater Cairo, has been allocated 18 parliamentary seats, while the Brotherhood-dominated Upper Egypt governorate of Sohag is allocated 30. The number of voters in Qalyubia exceeds the number in Sohag by 300,000.

There is no little irony in the fact that the only relatively free polls Egypt has known in decades might prove to have been those held under military rule.

And two years after a revolution whose equivalent of the French Revolution’s liberté, égalité, fraternité was "bread, freedom, social justice," Egyptians find themselves governed by a regime deeply rooted in class privilege and pursuing the very same social and economic policies that favor the rich at the expense of the poor. Muslim Brotherhood leaders, not least the president, have continued to ignore demands for progressive taxation, a fair minimum wage, and the need for sweeping reform of the bloated, inefficient, and corruption-ridden bureaucracy.

The new-old regime’s social intentions were made even starker by the one significant piece of economic legislation put forth by Morsy: An increase of the sales tax, which would have hit the poor and middle class the hardest, was stealthily passed in December and then announced a week later at 9 p.m. — practically on the eve of the second round of voting on the constitutional referendum. It was then comically retracted a few hours later, around 2 a.m., after Morsy said he had "felt the pulse" of the masses, most of whose members were presumably asleep.

Meanwhile, basic public services are in a state of general collapse. The most recent evidence of this is the recurring railway disasters, which in the course of Morsy’s presidency have claimed the lives of nearly 80 people, including more than 50 children, and caused the injury of hundreds. Public hospitals are nearly everywhere bare of the most basic medicines and equipment, including beds — critical patients are made to lie on dirty, littered floors. Public education, ostensibly free, has in fact become almost prohibitively expensive for most Egyptian families, even as standards have hit rock bottom.

The revolution continues, but…

For all these reasons, "normalcy" has not returned to Egypt. Protesters will continue to take to the streets en masse until the demands of the revolution are met.

The second anniversary of the revolution provided yet another illustration of this fact. Egypt once again witnessed demonstrations in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square and all major Egyptian cities, a state of emergency in the three Suez Canal cities, lethal police violence and attacks by unidentified armed thugs, and the icing on the cake — a late-night presidential statement issuing threats while calling for dialogue. It was like déjà vu all over again.

Yet this is not a mere replay. It is difficult to imagine this uprising ejecting Morsy from the presidency in the same way Mubarak was ousted from power two years ago. The major difference, of course, is electoral legitimacy. It can’t be denied that the Muslim Brotherhood and its hard-line allies do continue to enjoy a popular base and are in possession of a huge party apparatus with tens of thousands of indoctrinated, committed cadres.

True, winning an election is not all it’s made out to be. I would hazard that, had Mubarak been willing to run in a free and fair presidential ballot, he would still have won — simply on the strength of state patronage. An unrigged election is not the same as a free and fair election, which assumes a fairly even playing field. And there is also no denying the Brotherhood’s swift loss of popularity once it achieved power, which has been a sight to behold.

But still, this is not the extreme isolation of an ossified and decaying clique, like the last years of Mubarak’s rule. Nor can the Brotherhood and its Salafi friends be compared to the bloated, dilapidated network of state patronage that was Mubarak’s ruling party, nor even to what Mubarak loyalists liked to call the "Ahmed Ezz militia" — a reference to the mostly yuppie men and women assembled by the infamous steel magnate to rig elections and whip the tattered party apparatus into shape.

Meanwhile, the profound cleavage at the heart of the revolution remains in place. Egypt experienced an almost strictly urban revolution, with the countryside — which accounts for a little over 40 percent of the population — largely standing aside. This urban-rural divide is playing out again in Egypt’s current political struggle as the Brotherhood loses support in the country’s major cities. In the first round of the presidential election, the cities overwhelmingly voted for non-Islamist candidates, and in the constitutional referendum the cities also slipped away. This dynamic is further substantiated by the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have won nearly uncontested preeminence on the streets of major cities throughout the country.

But the Brotherhood and its allies’ support in rural and semirural Egypt remains strong. This support allows them to fall back on claims of "electoral legitimacy" through mobilizing their supporters in the countryside, especially in Upper Egypt. They are also further bolstered by the traditionally higher voter turnout in rural Egypt compared with urban voter turnout.

Whether the Brotherhood can maintain its electoral advantage, however, depends on the vision of its political leadership. Its odds aren’t good: The Islamist movement came to power in Egypt after having disposed of its most intelligent and politically sophisticated leaders. By 2008, such notable figures as former Deputy Supreme Guide Mohamed Habib and former Guidance Bureau member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh had been divested of any real influence within the group.

The leadership has subsequently fallen fully in the hands of what the group’s reformist members describe as "the organizational wing," which controls recruitment, indoctrination, and the internal hierarchy, as distinct from "the political wing," which was involved in day-to-day political activism, including collaboration with other non-Islamist political forces. This organizational wing is made up of Salafists and hard-line followers of Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb, and it is the movement’s most regressive, doctrinaire, and least politically savvy force.

Following the revolution, the reformist trend found itself outside the Brotherhood altogether. In fact, all the Brotherhood representatives in the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution — which provided field leadership in the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak — are now outside the group, divided among the ranks of Aboul Fotouh’s Strong Egypt party and the Egyptian Current. These figures are now moving even further away from the Brotherhood, toward a new and democratic Islamism — a potentially historic development for Egypt and the entire Muslim world.

In a Facebook posting a few months ago, I joked that of all world revolutions, Egyptians seem to have picked the French Revolution to emulate — that is, a struggle that raged, in various shapes and forms, for nearly a century. Hopefully, we’re not in for another 100 years of this tumult, but the path toward the realization of the revolution’s great aims remains long and tortuous.

Egypt’s polarized political and social forces continue to be too evenly matched, and the schism between the protagonists too deep, for any viable resolution in the short term. The Muslim Brotherhood may have won — for the moment — the reluctant backing of the military and the police, but they’re by no means its creatures. The country’s security services have minds and imperatives of their own that are by no means identical to, or even commensurate with, those of the Brotherhood leadership. The judiciary also continues to jealously defend its independence from repeated Brotherhood attacks.

And most important of all: The revolution continues.

Hani Shukrallah is editor of Ahram Online.

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