The Revolution Will Be Politicised
By Jess HillJune 7, 2012
Is the Egyptian revolution dead? Hardly. After months of quiet planning, Egypt’s April 6 revolutionaries are ready to reveal their next big move: politics.
Things look pretty bad in Egypt right now.
After living for more than a year in a semi-anarchic state abandoned by its police, and fighting the military council for every political concession, Egyptians now are forced to choose between two old foes: the former regime and the Muslim Brotherhood.
As if to salt the wound, Egypt's courts have acquitted the flagrantly corrupt Mubarak sons, Gamal and Alaa, together with top-level Interior Ministry officials who oversaw the killing of hundreds of Egyptians during the revolution. Hundreds of thousands have again taken to the streets in anger, and protesters have revived the call to disqualify former regime man and presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq. Millions more say Tahrir Square doesn't represent them, that protesters are just destabilising Egypt. And so it goes around, and again.
A tempting narrative now lurks in every journalist's keyboard: the idealism of 2011 has been smothered by the realpolitik of 2012. No matter how many times they return to the streets, Egypt's secular revolutionaries have been politically sidelined; the movement has failed.
Tempting, but shortsighted. The revolutionary movement hasn't failed — it's morphing. Quietly, behind the scenes, one of Egypt's most powerful activist groups is playing the long game. As the nation boils over with frustration, some activists are planning the next phase of their revolution: politics.
LIKE SO MANY OF CAIRO'S SUBURBS, MOKATTAM is a maze of twisted streets, greyed by soot and dust. The Muslim Brotherhood opened its new headquarters here last year; just a short walk away, two of Egypt's most influential activists are working to break the Brotherhood's grip on politics.
"I hate the Muslim Brotherhood and the [ultra-conservative Muslim] Salafis — they have abused religion. Egyptians are in the process of understanding that just because they say they are Muslims, it doesn't mean they are good," says 30-year-old Dalia Ziada, the executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. "We need to give Egyptians an alternative to the country's two forces: the Brotherhood and the old regime. We want to see an Egyptian Obama emerge."
Ziada says political society in Egypt needs to be built from the ground up. That's why she and the famed Egyptian democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim have embarked on an ambitious project: to train Egypt's young revolutionaries to be politicians.
"We are making an academy," says Ziada, "and it will be free for everyone."
The academy is built on an idea Ibrahim calls "40 under 40"; that 40 per cent of the parliament should be reserved for politicians younger than 40 years of age. Demographically, this makes sense: two in three Egyptians are under 30. But this is the generation that grew up under Mubarak. Until last year, politics minus patronage was a pointless, often dangerous, exercise. Now, as the country hammers out a new political system, young Egyptians suddenly attracted to politics are mostly unqualified. And that's what Ibrahim and Ziada hope to change.
They have designed a program in four stages. It begins with a crash course in politics and democracy and moves into specialised training modules that offer instruction in how to form a political party, how to campaign and how to manage the media. Courses will be taught by university professors and civil-society activists, they will run for six weeks each, and will each be followed by exams. Students can study free of charge — as long as they agree to mentor the next round of political aspirants.
"Saad started by mentoring individuals," says Ziada, "but I've tried to make it more organisational, because he cannot train everybody himself," she laughs, sounding more like a daughter than a colleague.
ZIADA HERSELF HAS QUITE a pedigree. A human rights activist and a poet, she has for the past two years been chosen by Newsweek as one of the world's 150 most fearless and influential women. She was one of the few young activists who did run for the parliament, but her candidacy was derailed by an Islamist smear campaign. "They got a photo of me with a tour guide — he's a good friend of mine, 30 years older than me. I had my hands around his shoulders. They portrayed this photo like it was the biggest scandal," she laughs, incredulously.
Although few on the street took this seriously, people in her own party — the new revolutionary group, El Adl ('Justice') — did. "I was at the top of the [party] list. They lobbied to remove me entirely, saying 'You are a woman, and now you have a bad reputation,'" she says. "So I stood up and said, in front of 100 people, 'I will not leave this list. Kill me, but you can't take me off the list.'" Ziada stayed on the list. But she still lost.
Her colleague and mentor, 73-year-old Saad Eddin Ibrahim, founded the Ibn Khaldun Center in 1988, and he is a legend in Egypt's civil society. As an activist, he's been fighting for democratic reform in Egypt for decades. As a sociology professor, he taught the former first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, and her two sons, Gamal and Alaa. As a commentator, he was the first to publicly suggest that Gamal could inherit the Egyptian presidency.
"It was the day of [former Syrian president] Hafez al-Assad's funeral," he remembers, as aides bustle in and out of his palatial office with papers for him to sign. That day in 2000, as Hafez's motorcade crawled through the grieving Syrian populace, Ibrahim was commentating on Al-Jazeera's six-hour telecast. After he predicted that Bashar al-Assad would most likely inherit the presidency, a viewer called in to ask if this kind of hereditary politics might eventuate in Egypt. "It could", Ibrahim replied, and coined the ironic term jumlukiya, a conjunction of the Arabic words for republic (jumhuriya) and monarchy (malikiya).
The next day, an Arabic magazine editor asked Ibrahim to put his opinion about the Egyptian jumlukiya in writing. "My wife says I am colourblind — I can't see the red lines," he says, with boyish pride. "The magazine was released on Cairo's streets in the morning. By midday, the issues had disappeared from the newsstands. By midnight, I was in prison," charged with, among other things, defaming Egypt.
When Ibrahim was released from prison three years later, he came out on a stretcher. "Three out of four members of that [Mubarak] family were my students. That's why they were furious that I blew the whistle on the hereditary scheme to pass power from father to son," he says.
"For the first 45 days I was in prison, there were no visitors, so I got the harsh treatment — water dropping on my head and sleep deprivation. They [the torturers] are all trained in Eastern Europe," he says. He'd be sent back to prison twice more before being acquitted by the high court. The torturers had done tidy work: despite four operations, Ibrahim has permanent nerve damage in his right leg. The cane he now relies on to walk lies across his desk.
When he was threatened with another jail sentence in 2008, Ibrahim fled to the United States, where he stayed until protests broke out across Egypt last January. Before returning to Cairo, Ibrahim spent several days at the White House imploring the Obama administration to back the protesters. "[Hillary] Clinton was very much for keeping the status quo," he remembers. "But I think the argument that got her, on the third or fourth day, was, 'The people demonstrating in Tahrir are exactly the same people who brought you to the White House: young college kids, middle-class, who want change and democracy.'"
When Ibrahim landed in Cairo, Mubarak had just stepped down. Ibrahim went straight to Tahrir Square and urged the revolutionaries to get politically organised — quickly. But they refused. "The words 'organisation', 'political parties', anything establishment-like, sounded like pollution to them, taking away from their revolutionary purity," he says.
So they lingered — and lost the moment. "My heart was breaking. I love them — they were idealistic, they were self- denying, they had no leaders," Ibrahim says. "But I am also a student of social movements and revolutions. I knew somebody would move in to take over. And who are the opportunists who took advantage of the vacuum? The Muslim Brothers and, to some extent, the remnants of the old regime."
But the political sands are still shifting in Egypt, and the electorate is fickle. Virtually nobody predicted the success of Hamdeen Sabbahi, the leftist presidential candidate endorsed by many in the revolutionary movement. Sabbahi polled third, just behind Ahmed Shafiq, who will vie for the presidency against the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, in mid-June. This strong result for Sabbahi came in spite of the revolutionaries splitting their votes among three candidates. Speaking to Foreign Policy, Mahmoud Salem, the prominent Egyptian analyst who blogs as "Sandmonkey" said, "After 80 years, the Muslim Brotherhood got 5 million votes. After 30 years of ruling Mubarak got 5 million votes. Us, after a year and half of dying, our candidates combined had 11 million votes. It's actually amazing that people who don't have their stuff together get this many votes." It's clear there is ample room in Egyptian politics to galvanise this vote with a new secular force — one with a distinctly revolutionary face.
Dalia Ziada is bursting with excitement when she talks about the activists who will be training at the Center. "I wish I could tell you who they are!" she exclaims. "They're a very well-known youth movement. There are thousands of them, from all over Egypt."
Ziada explains that the group has been keeping the plans a secret, for fear of receiving unwanted attention from Egypt's security forces.
But now, for the first time, they have decided to go public with their plans to enter politics. Already they have changed the course of Egyptian history once. Can they do it again?
IT TAKES AHMED MAHER FIVE MINUTES to shake hands with everyone in the Belady café, where I've come to meet him. In this venue on the edge of Tahrir Square, opened last year by revolutionaries, everybody knows his name.
Maher is the founder and general coordinator of the April 6 Youth Movement, one of Egypt's leading — and best organised — activist groups. April 6 was one of the key groups to call Egyptians into Tahrir Square on January 25 last year; when Mubarak resigned the presidency 18 days later, the April 6 organisers became national heroes. But now, more than a year later, with the economy on its knees, many Egyptians believe they are destroying the country.
Maher says that until now, April 6 has been keeping its political plans quiet. "When I talked to Dalia, I told her, 'We need the training, but in secret.' April 6 is a noisy name, it makes people nervous — the military, security, intelligence, the media also." Now, however, Maher says he's ready to reveal April 6's political agenda.
For the past four months, he says, April 6 has been preparing for Egypt's upcoming municipal council elections, which are due to take place in July or August. Already the group has selected 5,000 candidates, and its members hope to choose another 15,000. Maher believes that for now, a strong presence at the local council level is more important than the parliament. "Local council members are involved with services and people in the street — they can build a grassroots movement. This will increase membership, and change the image of April 6. Then, maybe in the next election, we will establish a political party."
Ideologically, Maher has described April 6 as "social democratic", and he says the group is concerned with freedom of speech, equality, transparency, social justice and national services. Crucially, one of the group's key areas of concern is labour laws — a galvanising issue in Egypt, where worker exploitation is virtually standard practice. This goes back to April 6's roots: it was a notorious labour strike in 2008, at the enormous textile factory in Mahalla el Kubra, that inspired the group to form in the first place. (For more information on Egypt's working class, read 'Will Egypt's Workers Rise Up Again?').
Why has it taken this long for April 6 to go into politics? Maher pauses, and takes a deep breath. He's softly spoken and careful with his words. "After the revolution, in March and April, we got a lot of help from NGOs and trainers. They told the revolutionary movements, 'You must make a coalition or political party to lead this revolution, like what happened in Poland and many other countries.' And we said, 'No, not now.'"
When it came to hard political power, the revolutionaries had to face reality, he says. "Real power belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, because they had organisational power. But the liberal or social parties didn't, and they didn't have enough time, money, experience or grassroots."
A few months ago, another reality started settling in: April 6 was losing cred with mainstream Egyptians. "I used to warn them," says Hisham Kassem, a longtime activist and founder of the independent Egyptian newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm, "that if they insisted on making a permanent revolution, they would end up on the pavement. And it looked like they were heading there.
"But are they discredited or handicapped beyond the ability to be accepted politically? No. There's still a good name there."
Kassem applauds the group's decision to enter politics at the ground level, but he says they'll succeed or fail based on how useful they can make themselves to average Egyptian citizens. "That will determine whether they take off politically or just taxi up and down the runway."
Maher agrees. Four months ago, April 6 launched a new branch called Social Development, which provides community services such as clearing rubbish off the streets and supplying cheap clothes and medical support. About 40 per cent of Egyptians live on less than two US dollars a day. These services are desperately needed; traditionally they have been provided by religious groups.
Sounds like a secular version of the Muslim Brotherhood, I suggest. Maher blanches, before laughing. "We want to be the balance — the Muslim Brotherhood on one side, and April 6 on the other, 20 years from now," he says.
Although just entering politics, April 6 is already is structured like a political party, albeit a highly selective one. Before new members are granted voting rights, they must go through five months of interviews and evaluations. "Many people want to join," says Maher. Why so strict? "If they are an anarchist, a Salafi or a communist, they will cause trouble. We have faced this in the past."
It's not just urban Egyptians joining April 6. The movement has sub-groups in every governorate in Egypt, each represented by an elected coordinator, and with special coordinators covering media, advocacy, training and so on. Dalia Ziada says the Center will train these senior coordinators first, then the next level down, and so on.
Since the revolution, April 6 has been dogged by rumours of foreign funding, a very serious allegation here in Egypt. In November last year, however, the Ministry of Justice reported that these allegations were false. April 6 is clearly not flush with cash — Maher, a civil engineer by trade, hasn't been able to give up his day job. So how are they funding these projects? "We have membership fees, and there are many supporters from the business community. Not too much, but it's good," he says. Technically, the group is still illegal — like many groups operating in Egypt. Maher says the movement needs a licence, but if it can't get one, it will keep operating regardless.
As the movement advances into politics, Maher says it is still focused on putting pressure on the parliament and on whoever becomes Egypt's next president. If Shafiq is elected, however, that may become a more dangerous enterprise: one of his key campaign platforms is that if elected, he would crack down on anti-regime protesters. This leaves April 6 in an awkward position — if the run-offs continue as planned, they may be forced to endorse the seemingly lesser evil, Mohammed Morsi — the 'anyone but Shafiq' approach. For its part, the Morsi campaign is already claiming the revolutionary vote: this week, Morsi's spokesman said, "We're no longer presenting Morsi as the candidate of the Islamic current, but the candidate of the revolution."
In Egypt right now, there are a lot of unlikely bedfellows, and no shortage of political game-playing. "We consider this parliament to be temporary — this president is also temporary," Maher told me, prior to this current round of protests. "They'll serve out the term, but they will face many troubles. And we can cause these troubles," he said, a twinkle in his eye.
But Hisham Kassem urges caution. He says that to become a truly legitimate political force, the April 6 Youth Movement will have to prove to many Egyptians — including him — that they can operate within the body politic. "Over the past year or so they've acted like they command the whole country politically, and that has annoyed a lot of people," he says. "They need to recognise that there are other political forces and rules in politics."
Nonetheless, he says they still have a shot. "They took us by surprise in 2008, and we found them very impressive," says Kassem. "But they have lost popularity over the last year. It's time to work on that."
But Maher is in no rush. He says April 6 will focus on building a grassroots following before taking on big political fish. "Then maybe I will be a candidate in the next election — 2016 or 2020," he says.
"Hopefully, in five years, there will be more qualified young people in parliament," says Ziada. "This is our goal." She has a little longer to achieve her own political ambition. "When I am 40, I would like to run for president. I have 10 years, and I'm working on it."