Our guest author is Danya Greenfield, a program officer with the Middle East and North Africa division at the Center for International Private Enterprise. She lived in Egypt in 2000 and 2002-3, and is currently on leave in Cairo studying Arabic. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent CIPE.
The image of the deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak behind bars was a compelling sight that provided an important moral victory for the youth revolution and will certainly live on in the memory of all Egyptians. When his trial began last week, he was placed in a cage in the courtroom, standard procedure for criminal trials, along with his two sons Ala’a and Gamal, the former Minister of Justice, and six others accused in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Egyptians during the January revolution.
The trial is remarkable for its historical significance. It shows that no one is above the law, even those at the top echelon of a repressive regime that controlled every aspect of civil, political, economic, and religious life. While some Egyptians with whom I’ve spoken express sympathy for an old man lying on a hospital bed — and this is surely the intent of such a scene on the first day of his trial — most feel little remorse, and are hungry for justice. The specific judgments are less important than the acknowledgment and assurance that those accused will indeed be held accountable for their abuses. The trial has the potential to function as a kind of national catharsis that will grant Egyptians a collective opportunity to assign blame, seek retribution, mourn those who have been lost, and begin a healing process.
The fact that the trial is taking place at all is a major achievement for the groups protesting in Tahrir Square, and for political forces that support the demands of the revolutionaries. Most average Egyptians that I’ve spoken to are satisfied with the start of the trial, and in fact, they are taking pride in this chapter of their nation’s history. I’ve heard many people echo the sentiment that this is a lesson not only for Egypt, but for repressive regimes around the world. As they say in the local dialect, "khali balik" or "watch out," which is meant as a warning to future leaders: respect the will of the people or this might happen to you.
There is, however, still a great deal of skepticism among Egyptians across the political and social spectrum. Many are withholding judgment to see if the trial will be more than just a symbolic gesture, and if the judiciary is able to stand against the former regime. What happens next could restore confidence in the military and the judicial establishment and allow the country to move forward, or it could sow further divisions and tension.
The next phase in the court proceedings has been delayed until mid-August, but this does not seem to be a major concern. If ordinary Egyptians stay home to enjoy Ramadan celebrations with family, glued to their televisions watching episodes of the musalsilaat soap operas and sluggish from overindulging in syrupy sweets like katayif and kunefa, then the next several weeks period may proceed in relative calm. It is hard to imagine that this Ramadan will pass like all others, but it is impossible to predict the mood from one day to the next. Last week Tahrir Square was aggressively cleared of the remaining tents and protesters with little fanfare or public outcry, and the streets around the area have now been reopened, much to the delight of taxi drivers. Despite the relatively positive response to the opening of the trial, this week the Egyptian stock market hit its lowest mark in the past ten years, indicating continuing uncertainty regarding the stability of the country.
At this moment, the desire for justice is the pervading sentiment that unites all Egyptians. Yet at the same time, beyond the demand for justice to be served, there is little agreement among the various political trajectories. The political dynamics are fluid, with various coalitions and groupings emerging and disappearing overnight. The current polarization has created a dichotomy, with most of the Islamist movements on one side and the liberals on the other, both digging in their heels and getting ready for battle. Neither side is a monolith, and there are moderates seeking partnership across the aisle, but the space for agreement seems to be narrowing. The “million man march” organized last week by the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Gama’a Al Islamiyya, the Salafist party Al Da’awa, and other religious movements demonstrated a major show of strength at their first dedicated rally in Tahrir Square, with an estimated two million supporters bused in from around the country. Though the Brotherhood and others joined with liberals in the July 8th demonstration that renewed the revolutionaries’ call for change and pressured the military council to take quicker action, the Islamist groups subsequently cut their support for them. In advance of last week’s rally, a coalition of liberal groups and political parties tried to reach an agreement with the Islamist movements to avoid violent provocations, focus on unifying themes, and refrain from raising religious slogans and banners. While confrontations between the groups were very limited, liberal groups felt the agreement had been violated with calls for a religious, not civil, state and much of what remained of the good will between them has vanished.
While there was little violence between the two sides that day — which is a notable achievement and should be acknowledged — the event highlighted bitter divisions. Initially, the split emerged over the timing of elections and the question of whether electing a new parliament or writing a new constitution should come first. Those advocating for “elections first” argue that only an elected body would have the legitimacy and authority, granted by the voters, to select the committee tasked with drafting the constitution. Those pressing to write the constitution first, and therefore delay elections from an anticipated November date, are worried that Islamist candidates will win a majority of seats and therefore have the ability to dominate the constitution drafting process. Ultimately, their fear is that the character of Egypt as a civil state will be compromised, and that the constitution would not provide sufficient guarantees for full equality under the law irrespective of religious, ethnicity and, gender. The governing military council has tried to please both sides with an initiative to create a set of binding guiding principles for the constitution drafting process that would ensure civil liberties and democratic rights, while still moving forward with elections as planned. As one might expect, that move has satisfied neither side.
But now the issue has become broader, and the divisions run deeper. There are two major issues: First, the civil versus religious identity of the nation, and second, the role of the military council and broader military establishment.
For the latter, it comes down to who trusts the military council to follow through on its commitments and not to shield those associated with the former regime from accountability. From the perspective of the revolutionaries, they doubt that justice can be served for the nearly 1000 innocent people killed during the protests, and the millions of dollars stolen over the past 30 years if the same people that committed those crimes are still sitting in their comfortable offices making those judgments. To be sure, some key figures at the top of the power structure have been removed, but the body and the heart remain the same. The prevailing culture that operated under Mubarak is exactly the same one there today. Ultimately the question becomes, do you trust those currently holding power –- in the military, the ministries, and the judges — to relinquish control and institute real reform.
Every Egyptian I’ve met takes great pride in the January 25 revolution and rejoices in the end of the Mubarak era. Yet, feelings of disappointment and impatience have taken root regarding how little has changed and the lack of a clear path forward. Since the revolutionaries have amplified public pressure with ongoing demonstrations in governorates throughout Egypt over the past month, the military council has made some important concessions, including an agreement that trials of those accused in the killings of demonstrators will be publicly televised, referring civilians to regular rather than military courts, the removal or relocation of nearly 700 police officers, and implementing a minimum wage. But this is clearly not enough.
Most people just want to move on with their lives. I saw an Egyptian friend of mine, Reham, around the time when the demonstrators had taken over Tahrir Square. I asked what she thought, and after sipping her cappuccino she answered bluntly, “It’s stupid. Those hippies are ruining our country and economy.” I was shocked; I honestly would have expected her to embrace the youth-led movement. In her early 30’s, she comes from a very conservative, working-class family, and is extremely well-educated with two masters’ degrees (very rare for women in Egypt apparently). She recently started working for an international organization on refugee and migration issues and is deeply immersed in the human rights framework. When I probed a bit, she launched into a tirade about the dearth of leadership and how no one has any direction or vision or any idea about what to do. I couldn’t really disagree. We’ve all been lamenting the same thing, but what struck me was the cynicism that I heard from her and a desire to move on. Then she talked about the economic damage, the people in her family that have lost jobs, and listed off at least five people among her uncles, cousins, and neighbors. She would certainly acknowledge that Mubarak’s ouster was a good thing, but for her, the failings of the youth movement and the current leadership overshadow the symbolic value of his fall from grace.
On the other end of the spectrum is Yasmine, an Arabic teacher, who is also in her mid 30’s and a wears a hijab, yet with an entirely different perspective. She is enthusiastic to the point of being giddy about the revolution and wears a ribbon on her key ring necklace in the colors of the Egyptian flag. Her eyes light up when she refers to January 25th and the transformation in her country. She recounted that when thugs were roaming around wreaking havoc and neighborhood watch guards started in her area, she slept soundly for the first time in her life and it was the safest she had ever felt. That’s a pretty powerful statement, considering that people were fleeing the country at that time, vandalism and theft were a common fear, and the police had disappeared from the streets. But such is her faith in the movement and the power of the people. She joined a clean-up crew in those early days and worked her fingers to the bone beautifying her neighborhood.
To say Yasmine is proud and patriotic is an understatement. Yet when I asked if she participated in any of the demonstrations over the past month, she said, it’s not the time for protesting. She’s not apathetic, but thinks we should let the government do its job. She trusts the military and those in charge with little question. We spoke about the controversial trials of the officers accused in the deaths of demonstrators, and she cheered a speedy decision and 20 year sentence, raising her fist in the air. The notion that some of the accused might be innocent, that evidence should be presented, and that due process of law is an essential ingredient for building a strong democracy was completely absent.
Talking with these two women brought into clear focus how much work still needs to be done for Egypt to move forward to the next stage of its development. For the goals of the revolution to be realized, both Reham and Yasmine need to feel safe in their neighborhoods, attain a decent standard of living, send their children to quality public schools, have confidence that their voices will be heard, trust that public funds are being used well, and find justice when necessary. For this to happen, Egypt needs new, dynamic, visionary leaders that can take these lofty goals and actualize them. Those who will be elected in the new government must strengthen democratic institutions to deliver results in tangible ways, not only political rhetoric, but real solutions to unemployment, economic pressures, and the failing education system. If those holding power are not able to instill confidence and convince the street that they are acting in Egypt’s best interests, then it is only a question of time before the voice of the people will be heard again, and Tahrir Square, rather than the ballot box, will be where political battles are waged.