January 26, 2012

Egypt’s School of Revolution

What has changed since protesters first massed in Cairo’s streets demanding the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime? Everything or nothing remains the same, depending on the respondent. Wednesday’s scene in Tahrir Square unfolded as if hurled through a parallel dimension, with cautious peace replacing anxious violence and Egypt’s political parties joining the youth-induced civil movement.

Most noticeable of all, the revolution’s main opponent has reversed polarity from the weaker Mubarak to his mighty Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).

Wednesday's calm was a product of this strength, a “goodwill gesture” designed to cast Egypt’s military council as the revolution’s eternal guardian (security forces lurked on Tahrir’s outskirts). Egypt’s SCAF launched a variety of counter-revolutionary initiatives after Mubarak collapsed in February, but few more pivotal than its information warfare against pro-democracy protesters. Exploiting its media powers to spin the revolutionaries as Egypt’s new enemy, the SCAF has manipulated all aspects of society by oscillating between condemnation and praise. State media “repeatedly warned the public of a foreign-financed plot to undermine Egypt on Wednesday.”

The previous week, during a setup speech for January 25th, Field Marshall Hassan Tantawi declared, "Egypt is facing grave dangers it has not seen before. The armed forces is the backbone that protects Egypt. These schemes are aimed at targeting that backbone. We will not allow it and will carry out our task perfectly to hand over the nation to an elected civilian administration."

Tantawi would build on these statements in another nationally-televised address by “partially” lifting Egypt’s emergency law, arguing “we've never deviated from the aims of the revolution.” He also deployed the blanket label of “thuggery” to defend future crackdowns against pro-democracy protesters; Mohamed Attiya, a member of the Jan. 25 Youth Coalition, said that “thuggery” has become Egypt’s equivalent of “terrorism.” Shaping negative public opinion around the revolutionaries facilitates the SCAF’s political hegemony and cushioned its heavy-handed crackdown.

Yasser Ramadan of the April 6 Youth Movement explained, "People began to hate the revolution and thought it only made the economic situation bad. It's been hard to make the people believe in the revolution again."

Armed with this impression, the SCAF took preemptive action to solidify its authority after a new constitution is drafted, and subsequently leveraged political parties to keep these powers when a civilian government is sworn in. The SCAF’s totalitarian tendencies - Tantawi and his generals obeyed Mubarak for decades - eventually alienated Mohamed ElBaradei, one of Egypt’s liberal presidential candidates. Although ElBaradei lacks widespread popularity inside Egypt, he is viewed as a relatively honest and capable leader.

He recently warned that the SCAF "has insisted on going down the same old path, as if no revolution took place and no regime has fallen.”

The SCAF, on the other hand, isn’t overly concerned with ElBaradei’s decision (even though he was reportedly urged to delay his announcement). Tantawi immediately perceived the division between Tahrir and Egypt’s political opposition, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, and has capitalized on their parliamentary gains to widen this gap. Either unwilling to confront the SCAF or awaiting a later opportunity, the Brotherhood is playing along by mirroring the council’s double-sided rhetoric. Days ago the group’s secretary-general, Mohammed Badie, told a televised audience that parliament “will scrutinize the military's budget and hold the army accountable for mistakes made during the transition.”

"We respect and appreciate the army but the military council must be held accountable for any mistakes," he promised. "No one is above accountability."

Other officials, such as spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan, then apply a counter-spin: “The army is the army of the people. Some of its activities must be surrounded with secrecy and we respect that.”

Parts of the Brotherhood’s behavior can be rationalized in a beneficial way; no group possesses as much leverage to check the SCAF, leaving some protesters comfortable with the dual track of political and street pressure. This is all they can reasonably hope for in a pluralistic Egypt. However the SCAF expects much from the Brotherhood in return for political favoritism in a post-Mubarak world, a dangerous prospect for the revolutionaries. The Brotherhood regularly abstained from demonstrations against the SCAF and flooded national protests, and its Freedom and Justice Party now holds a near-majority when the 100-member drafting committee meets on a new constitution.

The SCAF will attempt to dominate this process directly and indirectly, as control over Egypt’s parliament and constitution will shield investigations into its commercial assets. Already expecting immunity for crimes committed by the military and police since Mubarak’s fall, Tantawi’s ultimate goal is finding a suitable President before June 30th.

The SCAF has further streamlined its operations by maintaining the support of Western powers, notably America. With Gulf states keeping their relations intact - the Saudi-bankrolled Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sent Bahrain’s King to reel in Tantawi - Washington completes the international community’s buffer around Egypt’s generals, allowing them to act with minimal consequences. The SCAF is viewed as the key to every door: preserving Israel’s treaty, controlling the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Nour Party, inking economic deals and sidelining the youth movement. Days of violence often passed before Washington expressed “concern,” even holding the military and protesters equally responsible. Raids on NGOs, a tactic specifically designed to test Washington’s limits and manipulate Egyptians, generated private discussions and eventual praise from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Unconcerned with his image in Egypt’s streets, “President Obama called Egyptian Field Marshal Tantawi today [Jan. 20th] to reaffirm the close partnership between the United States and Egypt and to underscore the United States’ support for Egypt’s transition to democracy.” When Tantawi announced a partial end to Egypt’s emergency law, the State Department’s Victoria Nuland welcomed these “good steps” before taking a question on Tantawi’s use of the word “thuggery.”

“Well, there was a little footnote on this, as I understand it, that it would continue to be applied in the case of thuggery and other small cases... We are seeking some clarification from the Egyptian Government what they mean by that. But the fact that they are finally, after these many, many months of demands, taking the major step is very important for Egypt and for its future.”

As if Tantawi’s constant use of “thuggery” requires clarification.

Facing overwhelming forces, Egypt’s revolutionaries have persevered beyond any expectations outside of themselves and their supporters. The energy of youth can only accomplish so much in the face of overwhelming historic and financial powers. These groups inevitably lack experience in the political arena, contrasting the savvy veterans within the SCAF and organized parties, and need years to equalize the playing field. This inexperience is why revolution still affords the ultimate school to Egypt’s youth, strengthening them through education and by forcing them to engage on the national level. These groups will mature through a trial of fire and gradually expand their role in a new Egypt.

Wael Ghomen, one of Egypt’s high-profile revolutionaries, was recently asked by The New York Times, “As there was no clear alternative to Mubarak, was it unwise to encourage revolution?

“I’m fully aware of a lot of opinions that this was a very big downside of the revolution — that it had no leadership to take over after Mubarak stepped down. Only history will judge. Regardless, a lot of Egyptians are now empowered.”

Consequently, revolutionaries mobilized to check anti-democratic forces throughout 2011 and will continue for as long as necessary. Many outsiders perceive their actions as a failure, but their absence would allow the SCAF to delay and manipulate Egypt’s democratic transition with relative impunity. Some revolutionaries admit to temporary defeat, or else concede a return to square one, before affirming their determination to continue organizing. Others believe that their revolution isn’t back in square one, never went away, and isn’t starting anew.

They will tell you that 2012 marks the second year of Egypt’s democratic revolution.

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