The euphoria has evaporated. While today's raucous political climate is very different than the years before Hosni Mubarak's ouster, when an enforced silence and stillness prevailed, it has also changed markedly since the period immediately preceding and following his 11 February forced resignation. Now, among the millions who participated in or supported that revolt and more broadly, there is a feeling that the situation is becoming increasingly complex, unsettled and dangerous. Marches, strikes, sit-ins and other protests happen every day, but many ordinary people are becoming more passive. There is a chill in the air that comes from more than the approaching winter.
This discouragement is largely the product of the unfolding of events since then, both what has happened and what has not. While many activists express the hope that the political awakening of the Egyptian people may lead to basic social change some time in the future, right now their foremost concern is that the situation may become more difficult and even disastrous, both in terms of political repression and a closing of minds among a large part of the people.
No one chants "The people and the army are one hand" any more, as they did when the army's refusal to fire on protesters helped make Mubarak's dismissal possible. The illusion that the army would be at least neutral toward basic change began to fade after only a few months, even if people still try to cling to it. Driven by distinct class interests and ideologies, the highly heterogeneous social forces whose convergence brought down Mubarak are now pulling the country in different directions. Everyone knows that the army is going to play a key role, even if the generals, their American paymasters and the unpredictable unfolding of events have not decided exactly what that role will be.
The armed forces in Egypt have a monopoly on organized violence, as they do in every state, and economic holdings unparalleled in most other countries, along with the support of the US and other imperialist powers. Here they also benefit from whatever legitimacy the state organs still hold in the eyes of the people. Not a few people would like to see a difference between the Mubarak-era generals in the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the army as an institution they consider patriotic. This is because of its leadership of the 1952 revolution that finally expelled the British occupiers and its role in defending the country against subsequent invasions by Britain, France and Israel.
Many hoped that Mubarak's downfall would be followed by the adoption of a new constitution that would set the framework for bringing about some sort of social change. But the idea that the "rule of law" could reflect anything but which classes and organizations dominate society received a hard blow in March, when the army, working with the Muslim Brotherhood, old regime forces and state-owned and other reactionary media, successfully pushed through a referendum approving the continuation of the old constitution with a few changes for the worse. Unexpectedly, the voter turnout was extremely high, and more than 70 percent of the ballots approved the proposal. This emboldened the armed forces to publicly discuss scenarios such as the promulgation of articles for a new constitution by its own decree, or its own selection of the bulk of the members of the committee to write a new constitution that would give the military the last say on all major questions and continue to shield it from civilian oversight.
The process of parliamentary elections is scheduled to begin in late November and last through January. At first the military promised it would govern for only six months. Now it says it will turn over power to a civilian president in 2013. Most people once saw the election of a parliament and its selection of a committee to write a new constitution as a possible peaceful pathway to change. Now a few have concluded that the real purpose of this process is to re-legitimize the state and disperse the flames that still flair up in the street, both aspects meant to make revolutionary change more difficult, without changing anything basic in society. But even those who still hold out hope for parliamentary democracy in a general way have decided that at this point, the only open question is whether the new parliament will be a circus of disparate forces unwilling and unable to change anything, or one dominated by Islamists seeking to move society backward.
Already, even those forces that identify with the revolt who are most focused on electoral activity are pessimistic about the outcome. The only ones who seem to be looking forward to the polling are the Islamists, above all the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposed the revolt in the beginning, and the Salafists, fundamentalists who hold that Egyptians should live more like Muslims in Mohammed's day, a society of women in burkas and men in beards and robes, though everyone would still have a mobile (cell phone).
An increasingly aggressive army
For many people, hopes for something positive from the army's "hand" vanished by April, when, instead of leaving it to the police, the armed forces themselves assaulted demonstrators challenging their rule, killing two protesters. But far worse occurred on 9 October, when Christians and secularists protesting the armed forces' failure to react to a wave of arson attacks on Coptic churches were themselves attacked, leaving 28 dead and hundreds of wounded and injured.
The demonstrators had marched across central Cairo to Maspero, the headquarters of the state-owned television services. Videos posted online show army armoured vehicles barrelling through the crowd, running over or crushing to death a dozen people. But the fighting was complicated, involving demonstrators, soldiers and a horde of unidentified civilians who charged the crowd and may have fought against soldiers too.
The difficulty in determining exactly what happened reflects the variety of forces at work. It also feeds the widespread feeling that mysterious dark forces are manipulating the situation and seizing the political initiative, a sentiment that leaves many former participants in the revolt paralysed and fearful.
Who were the men in civilian clothing who rampaged against the demonstrators under cover of night? Some believe that they were people from nearby slums organized by Muslim fundamentalists. Ridding Egypt of its Christian minority is a pillar of their programme, along with the institutionalization of the subjugation of women to men and the harsh punishments prescribed by sharia (Islamic law), such as cutting off the right hand of thieves. Others believe that these men were members of the former state security service and the militia run by Mubarak's National Democratic Party, aiming to derail the people's movement by fomenting divisions between Muslims and Christians. It is sometimes pointed out that the leadership of the Coptic Church supported the old regime and continues to play a conservative political and social role. Some people argue that Israeli agents were also at work amid all this. While Israeli agents cannot possibly be a main factor in such events, as a few people would like to think, they are certainly present and active. (One was recently caught and expelled.)
A similar fog of confusion hovers around the September protests at the Israeli embassy after the SCAF failed to respond to a cross-border Israeli attack. Israeli soldiers, allegedly pursuing Palestinian fighters, killed six Egyptian policemen. Most people say that the protest was legitimate but the actual penetration into the embassy was a provocation meant to discredit the movement. Others believe that action, which forced the Israeli ambassador to flee the country, saved Egypt's honour. The feeling that there is no reliable information – even some people who were at these events say they aren't sure exactly who did what – is related, although not identical to, the question as to whether or not the movement should target the SCAF, instead of giving the military the benefit of a doubt.
But the armed forces government has made its attitude clear in regard to the Maspero incident in a way that sheds light much more broadly. During that protest, state television broadcasters called on "honest Egyptians" to come to Maspero to fight in defence of soldiers they said were being massacred by Christians. Actually, most of the dead were Copts; no soldiers were killed. In the following weeks the armed forces investigated the charges that it had murdered protesters and found itself innocent. There was not the slightest effort to identify the civilian assailants. While the armed forces' relations with the Coptic Church remain strained, the only named targets of the investigation so far have been secular youth who had spearheaded the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and had come to demonstrate against the repression of the Copts.
Plainly, whoever organized the assaults, the army is at the very least protecting them. Further, especially given these facts, there is no reason to simply accept the army's claim that its soldiers had not been issued live rounds and could not have done the shooting. Two well-known young secular activists were brought in for formal interrogation. Both refused to cooperate. One was released. The other, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a well-known blogger and leading activist previously jailed in 2009, declared that he would refuse to answer questions because the army could not impartially investigate itself, and because the military had no right to try civilians. He was accused of stealing army weapons and destroying state property. Most people who don't support the army consider the idea that he attacked and trashed an armoured vehicle nothing but an action-film fantasy. Even more ominously, he was charged with the content of his blog itself, criticism of the armed forces which, the SCAF said, had fomented the violence. The young man was remanded to prison for two weeks, pending a decision about what to do with him. Late on the night of 31 October, several thousand people – mostly bloggers and their readers and others mobilized at the last minute on the Net, and thus by definition mainly youth and others from the upper middle classes – marched across Cairo to a prison to support Fattah and another blogger, Maikel Nabil, who has been on hunger strike to protest his two-year sentence for having written, "The army and the people were never one hand." The military sent Nabil to a mental hospital, but the doctors, decrying this repressive manoeuvre, refused to admit him. Fattah, from the cell he shared with many common prisoners, wrote a searing and widely reprinted blog about once again finding himself in Mubarak's dungeons even after the fall of Mubarak. On 13 November the military renewed his imprisonment for at least another two weeks. There was a second, smaller march led by No to Military Trials, a human rights group that is one of the organisations most active in the streets now. (en.nomiltrials.com)
In another late October demonstration, a similar crowd, along with a small Islamist party, had marched from Tahrir Square to Maspero and back to protest the prison death of a young man serving a short sentence on minor criminal charges. The authorities claimed he poisoned himself by swallowing drugs to keep them from being discovered. The protesters, remembering similar justifications for deaths in custody under Mubarak, were inclined to believe the victim's family and a doctor at the hospital where his corpse was taken, who said that the police had forced soapy water down his throat and up his anus until it killed him. While unlike the bloggers, Essam Attah was not a political prisoner but seems to have been a victim of police repression of lower-class youth in general, these events underlined the fact that the police and armed forces are continuing and even stepping up the kind of atrocities that led people to revolt against and drive out Mubarak – and that the police and armed forces are one hand. Military tribunals have tried bout 12,000 people for political and criminal offences since the armed forces took over. After its televised opening session, Mubarak's trial for murder and other crimes has been indefinitely postponed. The civilian courts have been discredited as utterly corrupt and part of the Mubarak '"system"and are often not able to function. During a rowdy October confrontation between lawyers and judges about proposed court procedures, the magistrates pulled their pistols and began shooting into the air to clear the room. The Mubarak-appointed judges are reviled as pirates licensed to rob the poor, middle class and even the unconnected rich.
This illustrates the broader circumstances in a society where for a half-century the regime openly or effectively appointed officials in all institutions. The authorities from top to bottom are despised as repressive, arbitrary and usually corrupt. For instance, even at the University of Cairo, surprisingly not a political hotbed, there have been important struggles to bring in independent department and faculty heads. The same almost total control that made the Mubarak regime seen invincible has produced a vacuum of legitimacy and moral authority that the generals have had great difficulty filling once people lost their fear and inertia.
A relative ebb Yet the recent protests have been relatively small and narrowly based compared to January and February. Back then factory workers and other poor people were the first Egyptians to confront the regime's security forces, in the city of Suez. Hundreds of thousands of people of all social classes – Muslims, Copts and non-believers alike – picked up stones and sticks to fight the police and Mubarak thugs and occupy Tahrir Square in Cairo and another public space in Alexandria, Egypt's second biggest city. Now Cairo and Alexandria witness walkouts, occupations, street blockades and other protests by scores or hundreds of people every day, but they haven't sparked the larger-scale outpouring hoped for. The biggest actions lately have been in small cities.
In Damietta, a Nile river port city north of Cairo, tens of thousands of residents blocked traffic during the first two weeks of November, demanding the relocation of a Canadian-Egyptian fertilizer plant that is poisoning the water and killing people. The army tried and failed to end the port blockade. Police opened fire 13 November, killing two demonstrators. In a concession that is not infrequent in this kind of situation, especially when faced with what are formulated as non-political issues, the government then agreed to shut the plant down, but people would not believe the authorities' promises and some stayed in the streets.
In Aswan, far to the south of Cairo on the Nile, hundreds of Nubians (a marginalized minority) marched that same day to protest the police shooting of a boatman, the third such killing in recent months. Here, too, the unrest is continuing.
Why the political movement has dwindled and even retreated overall, at least for now, despite countercurrents, is a question as complex and difficult to answer as it is important. Two reasons are obvious. One is that nine months ago there was a convergence of young bloggers and similar activists (the Facebook page of one of the main organizations had hundreds of thousands of "friends"), the urban lower middle class, workers and other urban poor, veteran leftists, a whole section of capitalists not admitted to Mubarak's inner circle, and at a certain point the US and its Egyptian generals, all convinced that Mubarak must go and that his son Gamal must not be allowed to perpetuate the regime. There is no similar consensus today about the rule of the army and especially about what kind of regime should be established instead. Another, related reason, is that developments since Mubarak's downfall have served to drive many ordinary people, especially the most downtrodden, into passivity. Whereas for a short time they believed, correctly, that their actions could change history, now they find themselves spectators to almost all the traditional left and liberal parties' obsession with the electoral process. Deliberately or not, these forces have turned their back on the conscious actions of the broadest masses.
The self-defence committees formed in poorer neighbourhoods during the revolt to protect people and their homes from criminals freed and encouraged by the police seem to have become inactive. At the same time, the police have responded to the almost universal (and now freely expressed) hatred of them by refusing to deal with crime and even to organize traffic. Policemen can be seen idly chatting at the almost permanently gridlocked intersections and roundabouts that make driving a car in this city of 20 million both a privilege and a bit like owning a portable tomb. In the face of a daily life that feels increasingly chaotic and often scary, there is a widespread longing for some sort of order, security and stability. If daily life cannot fundamentally change, at least it could become less exhausting.
In this situation, the Islamists are considered likely to win far more votes than any other party, including leftists who try to attract the lower masses with platforms calling for a minimum wage and so on. With their combination of religious proselytizing and supplying basic social services the government fails to provide, such as health clinics and subsidized food on religious holidays, the Islamists are usually the only organized forces visible in poor neighbourhoods. They are asserting dominance among the educated classes as well. It must be left to other occasions to more deeply examine the variety of Islamist forces and the question of Islam, the ineffectual traditional left and the fundamental questions about society that, to the dismay of the left and liberals, the Islamists have insisted on loudly raising, such as whether the patriarchal rule of men over women that characterizes every dimension of Egyptian daily life should be given the dignity of law. For now, it is enough to say that the non-revolutionary parties that call themselves socialist or communist, and the openly pro-capitalist forces like Mohammed ElBaradei (the former International Atomic Energy Agency head seen by nearly every non-Islamic party and most secularists as the only presidential candidate who could challenge the Muslim Brotherhood and former Mubarak collaborators), all basically agree on the impossibility, at least for now, of a radical change in Egyptian society. They also agree, explicitly in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, that there is no alternative to the kind of IMF-approved and globalisation-dependent economic policies Mubarak pledged to carry out. Tellingly, although the Brotherhood is very active in Damietta, it has ignored the mass movement against the fertilizer plant.
It is ironic that many, although far from all, of the young activists who provided the spark for the 25 January revolt and are still persisting in the streets call themselves "liberals". What's meant is not exactly the European definition, believers in unfettered markets, nor an analogy to the American Democratic Party, but that the achievement of "human rights" – the political liberties so cruelly denied by the Mubarak regime – would constitute a revolution sufficient to transform Egypt. This illusion is made all the stronger by the military regime's efforts to block the establishment of the kind of parliamentary political system and formal rights that characterize most of the imperialist countries. However, even if this goal could be achieved – which is still an unanswered question – it could not offer the possibility of radical economic, political, social and ideological transformation without which daily life and Egypt's fate would remain pretty much the same, whether wrapped in "democratic" or Islamic trappings or some combination. Contradictory factors This is a difficult situation for the Egyptian people, but also a very difficult one for their enemies, the Western powers that have subordinated the country's economy and politics to their interests and the native exploiters and would-be exploiters governing in junior partnership with the imperialists.
First of all, there has been the kind of political awakening among the people that comes only at special moments in history. Certainly nothing like the majority of Egypt's 80 million people, but certainly millions, have, literally, taken history into their own hands. This includes many of the dispossessed who are ordinarily forbidden, by force of custom, culture and sometimes arms, to have anything to say about who rules, how and for what. During the Mubarak years, no one dared discuss politics in public. Even friends held their conversations as far from other ears as possible. These days the clash of opinions takes place in many neighbourhoods and is often deafening.
At the same time, the often repeated phrase that "The Egyptian people have lost their fear", and therefore can be counted on to continue standing up no matter what, must be analysed scientifically to understand the contradictoriness of this phenomenon. If for 18 days so many people from diverse social strata were willing to risk death rather than go on living as before, that is related to the fact that they believed, and correctly so, that their actions could make a crucial difference. If today so many of these same people have adopted a "wait and see attitude", that is because this now seems like the most reasonable alternative to them – within the framework of the situation as it is presented to them. While there are disparate factors at work in making a revolutionary moment, surely the masses of people cannot be inspired to risk everything unless at least a core of people among them have been brought to a basic understanding of why their lives and the world are the way they are and how the people themselves can transform them. Hardly anyone expected Mubarak to be brought down the way he was. The first people who came to Tahrir Square on 25 January expected to go home a few hours later after just another, if much bigger, demonstration. Now that the people have shown what they are capable of, it would be criminal if those who consider themselves revolutionaries remain content with reducing the masses' activity to choosing the "least bad" in a list of uninspiring candidates for office, or anything else that does not build on and seek to take the revolt further, and to a decisive conclusion.
As for the least bad alternative, the imperialists and their Egyptian flunkies do not have what they consider good choices themselves.
A military government, or a civilian government whose decisions are openly subject to military approval, may not be acceptable even to many people who are not remotely revolutionary, including big capitalists and other inherently non-anti-imperialist forces, but the US and its local generals may decide that the domination of the Egyptian people requires that. The Muslim Brotherhood has repeatedly expressed its willingness to maintain Egypt's economic, political and military subordination to the US, but Washington may not have decided yet whether such a relationship is feasible and desirable. The question of Israel make this all the more complex. A fierce hatred of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians and aggression, threats and interference in Egypt is a central factor in the country's political life and people's thinking, including among the lower classes. Often (although not always), it is coupled with hatred for the US for sustaining Israel, the two wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., not to mention unstinting American support for Mubarak. While scratching off Mubarak's name from squares, train stations and maps, the Egyptian military is now using the TV stations and other media at its disposal to promote Mubarak's predecessor in more than a half century of military rule, Anwar Sadat, as the only Egyptian leader able to inflict a severe military blow on Israel (in the 1973 war). At the same time the military must be painfully aware that Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Islamists within the army itself after he capitulated to Israel.
While the SCAF may consider the Muslim Brotherhood a crucial ally, and while Islam is deeply and historically rooted in the Egyptian military (unlike Turkey, whose military was long associated with the secular Kemalist tradition), the Islamist forces may not be able to produce the kind of reliable and stable Israel-tolerant regime the US needs in Egypt. Israel itself may or may not be willing or able to carry out minor compromises (such as halting the expansion of settlements and the establishment of a flimsy Palestinian "mini-state") to make such a grand compromise possible.
This international situation sets the framework and interacts with the domestic situation, including the changing moods among the people themselves. The dynamic nature of this interaction can be seen in the way that the revolt in Egypt has already posed problems for the present world order in the region and beyond, and the way international developments have reverberated in Egypt. For instance, the toppling of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, in a positive way, and, negatively, the almost universal assumption (even in the Egyptian Communist Party and among other self-identified Marxists) that the experience of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of a revolutionary pole in the world with the capitalist coup following the death of Mao in China have "proven" that socialism has failed. Everyone refers to the 25 January "revolution", but people's concept of revolution is extremely limited in scope.
In short, there are real obstacles to the establishment of a durable reactionary regime in Egypt. The future can't be predicted, but there are substantial factors that might prolong the present political instability. That is all the more reason why those who really want to free the Egyptian people from all their chains should not throw away the possibility that the movement that brought down one of the world's most powerful and hated tyrants could go on to achieve the revolutionary political power that Egypt and the world needs to see emerge from this difficult, complicated but still unsettled and potentially favourable situation.