Egypt’s New Dawn Chorus

Following President Mubarak's resignation, is the Muslim Brotherhood the next threat to Egyptian democracy?

Shiraz Maher

Above the law: Egyptian police demonstrate outside the Interior Ministry, in an attempt to absolve themselves of blame for the deaths of protesters killed in their initial crackdown 

After 18 long and sometimes bitter days, the Egyptian revolution finally succeeded in ousting President Hosni Mubarak from office. The protest movement had started on January 25 but really came to life three days later after Friday prayers when a groundswell of public anger led to intense battles with police around the country. The scale and ferocity of what transpired on this “day of rage” caught Egypt’s ailing president off-guard. Demonstrators demanding his removal stormed police stations, prisons and government buildings, including Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters, and set them ablaze. The already heavy Cairo air soon filled with dark clouds of dank, viscous smoke. In the chaos that followed, Mubarak’s headquarters would be allowed to burn for three days, before partially collapsing in ruins. 

This was the first time unrest in Egypt had been coordinated on a national scale. After a day of defiance in which the most brutal element of Mubarak’s state apparatus, the police force, came under unprecedented attack, the army was called in to restore some order to the streets. Since then tanks have become ubiquitous in central Cairo, parked across its vertiginous boulevards and along its usually bustling intersections. 

Suddenly ordinary Egyptians could express themselves as never before, and everyone wanted to be heard. Across Tahrir Square wherever a journalist was spotted, large crowds gathered, all insisting on an interview. “Thank you for coming,” they said, “tell everyone our story.” No one would abide silence any more. Saad Rais, aged 18, ran over to me draped in an Egyptian flag. “They killed my brother,” he said, holding bullet shells and tear-gas canisters in his hands. “This is what Mubarak’s police did. This is why we’re here. We want our rights back and we won’t leave without them.” 

The army’s presence emboldened the protesters. If Mubarak had hoped his troops might crush them, this was his greatest miscalculation. Army regiments are not like police units — they are not used to fighting their own. Before the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, local military regiments in Beijing were replaced with battalions from Inner Mongolia. The thinking was that they would be less reluctant to act than local soldiers. In Cairo, the regiments were all local and it was clear where their sympathies lay. The army consequently declined to take an active role in dispersing the crowds and later declared the protests legitimate, effectively jettisoning any hopes Mubarak might have had of military intervention in his favour. 

The limits of their patience have nevertheless been frequently tested. One morning in Tahrir Square I saw a Western journalist attempting to photograph a small demonstration of about 200 men. A soldier walked over and told her not to take pictures, threatening to confiscate her camera if she did. Two protesters hurried over. “She will take our picture,” they told him, dragging her into their scrum. More protesters streamed over and argued gently with the soldier before he eventually apologised to the photographer. That the balance of power should have shifted so decisively in favour of the protesters within a matter of days illuminates just how dramatically the contours of power have been recast by this popular uprising. 

The Tunisian revolution in January is often cited as an inspiration for Egypt’s uprising and certainly played a role in galvanising popular sentiments. But the antecedents of the current groundswell in popular anger against Mubarak first emerged after the death of Khaled Said last June. In many ways Said’s murder is a metaphor for the entire crisis. 

Said visited an internet café near his flat in the coastal city of Alexandria where local policemen were sharing a video among themselves which showed them illegally taking seized drugs and money. The file was accidently transferred to Said’s computer over a wireless network and he was detained after forwarding it to friends. Witnesses subsequently reported seeing policemen kick and smash his head against marble tables and into staircases in broad daylight. 

An official government report said his death was caused by a drugs overdose. Said’s unconvinced relatives bribed a mortuary worker to take photos of his corpse which revealed all the indelible horrors of state- sanctioned torture: a cracked skull and twisted, rigor mortis features. 

Wael Ghonim, Google’s Middle East marketing manager, ensured the pictures went viral after creating the page “We are all Khaled Said” on the social networking site Facebook. Egypt’s savvy internet generation finally found an emblem to rally their anger, just as the dying images of Neda Soltan had galvanised Iranians during the Green movement protests in 2009. 

Ghonim would come to epitomise the spirit of the uprising. He left the safety of Dubai, where he worked, to join the protests in Cairo and was arrested on January 27. During 12 days in police custody, he was blindfolded, kept in solitary confinement and threatened with torture. Ghonim was released on February 7,  and quickly became the public face of what had otherwise been a leaderless revolt.

Facebook may have spurred Egypt’s affluent youth into action, but the protesters occupying Tahrir Square represented all walks of life: the rural poor, the elderly, the upwardly-mobile middle classes, Christians and Muslims. The real strength of new media has been its ability to provide a platform for previously disparate groups to come together and decide on coordinated action. The people involved were not necessarily new, but groups like Ghonim’s were suddenly in touch with members of the “April 6 Youth Movement” founded in 2008 in response to industrial disputes in El-Mahalla El-Kubra, a large industrial town nestled on the Nile Delta. Yet it is easy to overstate the role of social networking sites. When the government suspended mobile phone and internet access following the Friday “day of rage”, thereby smothering the role of Facebook and Twitter, protesters responded by mobilising more than a million people across Egypt the following Tuesday. 

In this way, the protesters proved themselves to be resilient and capable of evolving in response to Mubarak’s intransigence. Their ability to assemble a broad cross-section of society despite government clampdowns made the movement almost impossible to understand. When I asked protesters in the square about it, they simply replied, “No one has organised this, the people have done it.” It is hard to be sure who drove the revolution forward, or how mass rallies could be repeatedly staged without some kind of obvious leadership. Even Egypt’s political leaders seemed bemused. 

In downtown Cairo, I met Mahmoud Abaza, the charismatic former chairman of the Wafd party. “This was totally a movement of the youth. No party and nobody can claim they organised it,” he told me. “Now the next step is to ask these young men and women to express themselves and build a new regime. If the current regime wants to negotiate then it should be with the youth and not with the [established] parties.”

In Tahrir Square, Dr Osama al-Ghazali Harb, President of the Democratic Front Party and an erstwhile member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, was equally keen to distance the established parties from the uprising. “This is not a product of the political parties, we failed to do this,” he said. “The traditional parties are not here.” 

This was the most remarkable feature of the protests. No political party had tried to impose itself on the movement or claim it as their own. In many senses, that is where its strength came from. The uprising was immune to partisan fissures or cults of personality precisely because political parties were not involved. Protesters were instead organised around symbols of national unity, including the flag and national anthem. The extent of nationalist sentiment was evident during the so-called “million-man march” on February 1, when I encountered a Spanish national residing in Cairo who came to express her solidarity. She was not alone in this regard; I had already met Canadians, Germans and a Frenchman doing the same. When the lady unveiled her banner — a Spanish and Egyptian flag crudely tied together by safety pins — she was politely asked by an Egyptian protester to take it down. “But I’m here to support you,” she said. “And we thank you for it,” the protester replied. “But today is about Egypt, and there should only be one flag flying.” Her Egyptian flag, emblazoned with the words “Viva Egipto” was allowed to remain.

Anti-Mubarak protesters had already occupied Tahrir Square for a week before Mubarak  did eventually try to reassert his authority. Until then the situation in Cairo had been calm and relatively safe. Even the violence that ensued during the Friday “day of rage” was only focused against government buildings and the police. 

The atmosphere remained light-hearted in downtown Cairo. A sprawling tent city sprang up in Tahrir Square with field medical centres, pharmacies, charging points for mobile phones, recreational facilities for children, and sound stages for music concerts at night. One evening a football tournament was even held.

At times, the carnival atmosphere made it easy to forget the brutality of the regime whose orders these men and women were so brazenly defying. Following the “million-man march”, I walked through Tahrir Square and saw how food was distributed communally as bread rolls, dates, and bottled water were thrust into my hands. On the grass verges old men brewed pots of qahwa, a thick Arabian coffee sometimes called “the wine of Islam”, in bruised copper kettles over crackling log fires. A young boy ran over and offered me a miniature cup of the heady brew. Around him, almost everyone huddled under threadbare rugs to shield them from Cairo’s plunging winter temperatures. 

Beyond the excitement of the square, however, life for ordinary Egyptians became harder. The disintegration of the police force meant locals were responsible for maintaining order in their neighbourhoods. Every night, shortly after the curfew started, gangs of youths patrolled their areas guarding against outsiders. Constructing crude roadblocks from planks of wood and rock, they were armed with anything from baseball bats to meat cleavers. 

I met the organiser of a street patrol from Maadi, a district of south Cairo. He explained how everyone attempting to leave or enter was forced to show their identity card which lists their address and profession. If they were a convict, not from the area, or were linked to the police, then the vigilantes detained them and turned them over to the army. These roadblocks were so pervasive they were impossible to avoid. Even the shortest journey became torture.  

At night the rattle of distant gunfire could be heard as looters stormed shopping centres. I inspected the devastation at the Arcadia shopping centre just north of central Cairo the morning after it was attacked by looters. Nothing was spared. Whatever could be picked up and carried away had disappeared. When they were done, the building was set alight.

Beyond the escalation of serious crime, society as a whole ground to a halt. Within days of the unrest starting shops ran out of essential supplies like bread, milk and cooking oil. Long lines formed outside petrol stations as drivers waited to fill their tanks. Elsewhere, banks failed to open while cash machines ran out of notes, creating a cash crisis for many ordinary families. These impositions on everyday life coupled with a wider breakdown in law and order drove many to despair. 

Just as anarchy began to spread, Mubarak delivered his masterstroke. It is hard for outsiders to appreciate just how effective his speech to the nation was following the “million-man march.” I must confess to having sneered through it, regarding him as detached and defiant. But that is not what most Egyptians saw. “You have to understand we are a patriarchal society,” explained an affluent university sociologist who asked not to be named. “He’s the father of our nation. And even though he’s been corrupt and bad, he’s still a father, you can’t just throw him away. He’s an old man, it wasn’t nice to see him looking so broken.”

That sentiment was not untypical. Away from Tahrir Square it was amazing to see how quickly the momentum switched following Mubarak’s speech. The perception was that the protesters had won. Mubarak promised to leave. Now what people craved was a return to normality, and for that to happen they needed the protesters to go home. 

But the old mountebank was not done yet. Determined to reclaim Tahrir Square and reassert control, the following day Mubarak unleashed his own version of the Gestapo, the most vicious of Mubarak loyalists. 

They had orders to attack the protesters in the square. Minor initial skirmishes quickly gave way to a full-scale battle which raged for almost 24 hours. The violence was breathtaking. Rival sets of protesters initially hurled stones at one another but Mubarak’s supporters had come well-armed. They lobbed Molotov cocktails into the square, many carrying guns which they fired indiscriminately into the crowd. Later, ambulances arrived apparently to carry away the injured. Instead, Mubarak loyalists emerged and fired tear-gas canisters before fleeing in the same ambulances. Despite the extreme violence used against them, the protesters refused to move. Like the Greek sailors enchanted by the Sirens, they had long passed the point of no return. Instead, thousands more rallied to their cause and the following day a new surge of supporters arrived in the square to join its tent city. 

For those who had committed themselves to overthrowing the regime, they knew that if they ceded the square then arrests, torture and even death would follow. Almost all of the young protesters who led the uprising told me they would sooner die in Tahrir Square than leave with Mubarak still in power.

The foreign press also became a target for supposedly fuelling the uprising with sympathetic coverage. Scores of journalists came under attack. Often they were just kicked and punched and had their cameras destroyed. Others were less fortunate and were hit with sticks, poles or, in some cases, with knives. 

The army was slow to intervene during these incidents, if at all. When it did, soldiers would disperse the crowd but then turned over journalists to the much-feared secret police. From my hotel balcony I watched as two journalists desperately tried to sprint back but were unable to make it. The mob beat them and then the army arrested them. They were marched away out of sight. Panic set in by that stage among journalists trying to cover these events. Who was going to protect us? The mob was out to kill us and the police wanted to arrest us. It was a small taste of what ordinary Egyptians have had to endure for the last 30 years.

Indeed, the United Nations estimated that more than 300 people died in protest-related violence since the uprising first began. Thousands more were injured. This was Mubarak’s final revenge. As his ship sank, the curmudgeonly dictator was determined to make one last brutal attempt to  stay in power. 

When his supporters unleashed such extreme violence, crowds responded by swarming the square on February 4 after Friday prayers. More people than ever now bedded down, realising the importance of retaining control of Tahrir Square for the protest movement. Again, it seemed as though the movement might stagnate, only to find itself buoyed by the release of Wael Ghonim from police custody the following Monday. 

This last surge in support is what proved fatal to Mubarak. Ghonim not only represented the spirit of Egypt’s youth who essentially led the movement by displaying remarkable bravery, but also appealed to the elderly who saw him as standing up for the rights of Khaled Said’s parents. When Ghonim met Said’s mother for the first time in Tahrir Square the day after his release from prison, the protesters rallied with renewed vigour. The head of steam that built up would prove unstoppable now and four days after Ghonim’s release, both Hosni Mubarak and his Vice-President Omar Suleiman announced they would stand down. 

Egypt is now ruled by the Higher Military Council, led by Field Marshal Mohamad Hussain Tantawi, and has committed itself to free elections within six months. Outsiders are sceptical about what this will mean for Egypt and the region, given the difficulties other Arab states, including Algeria, Gaza and Lebanon have experienced with building meaningful democracies. 

The protesters are also unsure of what will come next but they are alive to Western fears that this is an Islamist revolt. Five minutes on the ground belied that suggestion. This was not an attempt to turn Cairo into Kabul, nor was it a rerun of the Iranian revolution of 1979. The language of the protesters was framed in the Western idiom of freedom, liberty and human rights. The festive atmosphere inside Tahrir Square where men and women mixed freely to the sound of nocturnal music, was a far cry from anything Islamist hardliners would tolerate. Islamic symbols or slogans were also conspicuous by their absence in these protests. 

I asked Saad Rais, the young man whose brother was killed by police, whether Islamists might take over. A heavyset man behind him sporting a thick beard burst into life: “Don’t call us terrorists. We are no threat. We don’t want war with you, with America, or Israel. We just need our rights for all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian. We will defend the churches like we defend the mosques.”

Christian participation in this movement has sometimes been overlooked. The way these protests worked was that people would gather in their local area and then march to Tahrir Square, collecting bystanders along the way. Whenever new arrivals reached the square, the protesters already inside would rush over to welcome them, chanting anti-government slogans. On more than one occasion I saw protesters arrive in the square being jointly led by imams and priests holding hands. 

One protester from Tahrir Square, who went by the name of “Shamoussa”, tweeted her feelings once the internet was restored: “We’re Christian and we’re out on the streets protesting! Stop bullsh***ing about Islamists!” 

There are legitimate concerns, of course, about the Muslim Brotherhood (sometimes called the Ikhwan). Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna — and officially banned in Egypt since 1954 — it is the oldest contemporary Islamist movement. Suggestions that the Brotherhood can be tempered and that it is learning the value of pragmatic compromise after years of participation in Egypt’s electoral process were not borne of the facts. Institutionally it remains as reactionary and extreme as it has always been.

The day before the “million-man march” I travelled to Shubra, an impoverished area just north of downtown Cairo, to follow a Brotherhood procession as it marched to Tahrir Square. It was the first time since being in Cairo that I had seen an even vaguely anti-Semitic poster (though I would see more later). The protest was relatively small although it gathered momentum as it proceeded through the city. 

A spokesman for the Brotherhood, Khaled Tantawy, admitted in Tahrir Square: “The Muslim Brotherhood did not start [the protest movement]. The idea came from the Egyptian youth and all categories [of society] decided to participate”. 

The Brotherhood is undoubtedly a part of Egyptian political life, but it is not on the brink of power. It is not even the most popular party among ordinary Egyptians. When the protest movement first emerged, the Ikhwan was slow to react, only mobilising four days after it first began. In Tahrir Square itself, their numbers were always negligible. 

For years Mubarak scared the West by suggesting that if he goes then the Brotherhood is next. That fear of the unknown led Western leaders to sacrifice freedom for stability in the Middle East without ever really achieving either. 

Yet there is no reason the balance cannot be tilted in favour of progressives in Egypt, particularly as the Brotherhood’s recent trajectory has set it against popular sentiment. Competing against the emerging sophistication of internet-based movements which appeal to the young such as the “April 6 Youth Movement”, the Brotherhood has been reverting its focus to cultural and moral conservatism in recent years. That much was confirmed by the appointment of the regressive Muhammad Badi as leader last year, whose austere message has failed to resonate with large sections of Egyptian society, including women, the young, and the burgeoning labour movement. 

Rather than capitalise on the Brotherhood’s current inertia, Obama’s light-touch diplomacy strengthened the Islamist movement. At best, the strongest words offered by the White House at the height of the protests were that Mubarak should prepare for a transition of power, a prospect deeply unacceptable to the protesters. 

Obama’s special envoy, Frank Wisner, further alienated the protesters. “I believe that President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical — it’s his chance to write his own legacy,” he said. Hillary Clinton and the White House distanced themselves from his comments, but their policies mean the prospect of an Islamist takeover risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Protesters are angry that they were not more vigorously supported. 

Ahmad Wajdi, a 29-year-old financial analyst, stopped me with an ominous message one morning as I entered the square. “It is commonly believed on the street now that America is propping [Mubarak] up. So long as he remains in power Egypt will remain benign. If America backs [Mubarak] in a way that is too obvious, these streets will burn!” 

Protesters believe Obama supported Mubarak until the last minute, thereby alienating the constituency in whose defence he claims to act: Egypt’s progressive and secular youth, women, and workers. During his Cairo speech in 2009 Obama only spoke of democracy with timid reference to the Iraq War, falling short of criticising Mubarak or the Middle East’s other autocracies. 

Contrast that with Condoleezza Rice’s 2005  address at the American University of Cairo: “Here in the Middle East, the long hopeful process of democratic change is now beginning to unfold. Millions of people are demanding freedom for themselves and democracy for their countries…We are all concerned for the future of Egypt’s reforms when peaceful supporters of democracy — men and women — are not free from violence. The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees — and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice. The Egyptian government must fulfil the promise it has made to its people, and to the entire world, by giving its citizens the freedom to choose.”

The White House lost its chance to send a clear and unambiguous message to the Egyptian youth who will now reshape their country’s future. While Mubarak clung to power, Abdul-Rahman Hussain, who is 23, told me in the square, “Don’t repeat the stupid crime that you did with Iran. Don’t oppose the people’s will. You will lose us, and we don’t want you to lose us.” 

As Obama’s Administration continued to dither, ever-increasing numbers of protesters were being lost and more placards expressing their frustration became evident. And the Egyptians have done it themselves. That was the perception, at least, among the protesters: they ousted Mubarak through a popular uprising, despite whatever negotiations may have taken place behind closed doors. Indeed, so dogged was their focus on removing Mubarak from office that little consideration was given to what should come next. “I’m here because I want to know what’s next,” Mariam Abuo-Ouf, a film director aged 31, told me. “The first day I was here, I came to say ‘Change the system, down with Mubarak.’ Now I want to make sure the right voice comes across to the people, not the strongest voice, not anything that’s militant or Islamist. Right now everyone’s just shouting, ‘Down with Mubarak’ but they’re not saying what they want.” 

Egypt’s next steps will certainly be difficult ones. These protests were always about a meaningful and secular reform. That said, events may still conspire to benefit the Islamists. Obama’s uneven approach to the crisis will let groups like the Muslim Brotherhood sell the lie that America failed to back them because it wants to undermine Islam, or indeed that the West only selectively applies its principles to Muslims. If the protest movement now unravels, a potentially brittle — but united — Islamist movement might yet find itself emboldened beyond even its own expectations.

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