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Middle East

Jan 25, 2016

'Everyone is talking about a coming storm': 5 years on from Egypt's revolution

Five years after Mubarak was ousted, has anything really changed in Egypt? Cairo-based journalist Walt Curnow reports.

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During the 18 days of protesting in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in 2011 that it took for millions of Egyptians to unseat the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Taymor lost his right eye to a rubber bullet.

Having worked for two years after 2011 with the Ministry of Tourism as an inspector of tourist companies in South Sinai on the Red Sea, he is now unemployed.

When another round of mass protests against the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi took place in 2013, the tourism company inspector left his work to join in — he says his initial reasons for protesting in 2011 remain.

Five months later, when a military-backed interim government passed a new constitution, Taymor was arrested for protesting outside the country’s parliament.

He was kept in a cell in Cairo’s infamous Tora prison, which he said was eight metres long and six metres wide, with 30 other inmates (he has since been released).

They would be fed twice in the day — once in the morning and once in the evening. They were allowed one-hour outside their cell a day. During religious holidays, they were not allowed outside their cell at all.

Mubarak’s downfall was monumental. Millions of Egyptians who had become fed up with police abuse and unaccountability, high unemployment and the expense of basic goods had had enough.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the uprising — but has anything really changed?

Revolutionaries who led and participated in the initial uprising are being rounded up in the thousands, and accounts of police torture are still frequent.

In 2010, pictures of a young man named Khaled Said from Alexandria were spread widely on social media. The images showed a face beaten brutally to the point that it was not recognisable.

Egyptian Google marketing director Wael Ghonim, based in Dubai at the time, and revolutionary Abdul Rahman Mansour started a Facebook page named “We are all Khaled Said,” which was liked by hundreds of thousands of people.

His death, and its ensuing publicity, was cited as a spark that led to the mass protests that began early the next year.

Egyptian-Australian Amro Ali, a Middle East analyst and doctoral researcher at the University of Sydney, grew up in the same neighbourhood as Said — Cleopatra — and carried out an in-depth investigation of his death.

“Police brutality was usually limited to the slums or the prisons or the Islamist strongholds, but rarely did we see this — not just the middle class being targeted but also the brutality and the graphic imagery,” Ali explained to Crikey.

Said was beaten by two police officers after being dragged out of an internet cafe. Police said that he was wanted for theft and the possession of weapons, but it was more likely that Said was set up in a drug deal and ended up suffering the severest of consequences.

Soon after, everything changed forever.

While the revolutionaries were united in ridding themselves of the ageing Hosni Mubarak, the protesters disintegrated into competing and clashing factions, mostly between predominantly middle-class secularists and Islamists.

After Mubarak stepped down, a military council took power for over a year until mid-2012, when the country’s first free and fair presidential elections were held.

After secular and liberal candidates did not receive enough votes to make it past the first round of elections, two anti-revolutionary candidates were pitted against one another.

On June 24, Egypt’s electoral commission announced that Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, with 51.7% of the vote, to former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq’s 48.3%, had won.

He became not only Egypt’s first ever freely elected president, but also the Arab world’s first Islamist president.

During Mubarak’s reign, when the state’s social infrastructure was lacking, the Brotherhood stepped in and provided social services such as healthcare and education.

The divide between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and secular revolutionaries was exacerbated in November 2012, when clashes between the two groups broke out next to the presidential palace in Heliopolis, leaving seven dead.

On June 30, after a group of revolutionaries calling themselves Tamarod (which translates to “Rebel” in English) had been printing flyers and distributing them for weeks calling for Morsi to step down, tens of thousands again went to the streets to in opposition to what they saw as another unjust ruler.

The then-defence minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi gave Morsi an ultimatum to step down, which he refused.

Sisi, who was relatively unknown before the military-backed interim government took power on July 3, 2013, soon became astronomically popular — posters of him appeared all over the country, and the media fell into line very quickly, almost immediately calling the Muslim Brotherhood, which held the presidency days earlier, terrorists.

However, supporters of the Islamist ex-president were also holding mass protests, numbering into the tens of thousands in the east of the city demanding the reinstatement of Morsi.

On August 14, 2013, police raided the protest camp being held in Rabaa Square, as well as a smaller one outside Cairo University in the west of the city.

The US-based Human Rights Watch estimated in a 2014 report that at least 817 people were killed, but likely over a thousand, including women and children, over the period of a single day during the massacre.

“The indiscriminate and deliberate use of lethal force resulted in one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history,” the report stated.

Although widely believed to be calling the shots before elections in May 2014, Sisi was voted in as president with 96.1% of the vote, running against socialist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi. At this point there was little legitimate opposition and voting turnout was less than 50%.

It felt like a crushing defeat for all of those who had protested for a more just future, for those who had been jailed and for those, numbering in the thousands, had been killed.

But it also begged the question as to why it seemed as if there was little alternative besides Islamists and the military.

Amro Ali argued that it was because people had never been given a chance.

“It’s been difficult from the outset, Egypt’s political public sphere has been disavowed, the political culture has been run to the ground and it has been gutted, so when the revolution happened no one had organised an effective way for political mobilisation,” Ali said.

“That’s why the revolutionaries and the secular groups, the liberals and the socialists, are disadvantaged. So if you form a party you’ll be playing by the rules of the state.”

In the month leading up to the anniversary, with the government fearing further protests, police have arrested suspected revolutionaries, and in the last week, police and security forces have been conducting mass raids of apartments in downtown Cairo — the centre of the revolution — a move that is largely unprecedented.

In December, a popular art gallery in downtown was raided by police and has been closed since, and a publishing house was also raided. Approximately 5000 apartments have been raided over the last week.

Egypt’s first parliament since 2012 began sitting on January 10 this year, predominately made up of ex-security forces, business and media moguls.

As a case in point that the parliament is unlikely to be representative, Mortada Mansour, the chairman of one of Egypt’s biggest and most successful football clubs, is to head the human rights council.

When at least 20 hardcore supporters of his football club Zamalek were killed in February 2015 in a stampede after police tear-gassed them before a match, Mortada blamed the fans for the deaths, an attitude that reflects his broader aim to criminalise protest.

Voting in the elections hardly exceeded 25%.

Ali said signs that the parliament would play a constructive role are not forthcoming.

“The parliament hasn’t been impressive in any way for the week that they’ve been around. There’s a collection of people who are completely unqualified and in positions that they should never have been in in the first place.

“People feel that it will be a rubber stamp for the president,” he said.

The police are still largely unaccountable, unemployment is high, the economy is staggering, tourism revenues are lacking and Islamist militants in North Sinai who declared allegiance to Islamic State continue to carry out deadly attacks.

“They [the government] have not fulfilled any of the goals of the revolution. Whether it is ‘bread, freedom or social justice and dignity’ — none of that has been fulfilled,” Ali said.

“The regimes only currency is to brutalise, arrest or kill.”

“They can’t offer any benefits for the poor or for the country, or for the youth that are aspiring for a greater meaning in their lives. It is sheer incompetence.”

Ali says the only thing going in favour of the regime at the moment is public exhaustion.

However, he said: “The anniversary has never passed by peacefully. Last year there was the death of Shaimma El-Sabbagh on the eve of the revolution, which I think shocked Egypt and the world.

“If you’re talking about a revolution coming, it’s hard to predict these things … but the government is pushing towards a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Ali concludes: “Everyone is talking about a coming storm. You can sense that but you can’t put a date on it.”

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10 comments

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10 thoughts on “‘Everyone is talking about a coming storm’: 5 years on from Egypt’s revolution

  1. Norman Hanscombe

    The “coming storm” began long ago in Australia, and we can but hope the Crikey Commissariat won’t take too much longer to understand this.

  2. Peter Hannigan

    If the author really is a journalist in Cairo and that is his real name then he is pretty game writing this. He may find himself the subject of some unwanted attention.

    In terms of the ‘coming storm’ much of the Middle East has been like this for decades. 2011 was not a surprise in terms of an upwelling of anger – what none of us could predict was the timing. Given the tolerance of difficult regiemes by Egyptians in the past, the unpleasant consequences of 2011 and the lack of engagement with the masses of those seeking change (except the Muslim Brotherhood – who are now severely handicapped) I suspect that it might be quite some time before there is another serious uprising.

  3. Norman Hanscombe

    Peter, we need to remember that there’s no semblance of the sorts of criteria which enabled Western democracies to evolve, and no matter how much the Chattering Classes fantasize about it, the Middle East will remain a source of increasing threats to Australian Citizens.

  4. AR

    I’m surprised that there is no mention of the status quo, an amerikan satrapy, has been restored.
    The Egyptian Army, since Sadat’s “PIECE” deal, has been a wholly ownded and funded subsidiary of the US, its officers trained there at what was once the infamous School of the Americas.
    Both US & UK praised Mubarak until it became obvious he was a goner.
    Morsi was trouble and allowed to run riot so that when the Benighted States resumed control with their typical, tried & true military coup, Israel could breathe mnore easily onmce again.
    After Israel’s $4B annual subsidy, Egypt is #2 with $3B, the vast majority of which goes to the military.
    The dumped mid western wheat is off-book and has allowed the population to more than double from just under 40M in 1979 to well over 80M today.

  5. ken svay

    I think Norman is being a little cryptic here, what on earth does he mean?
    So the Moslem Brotherhood guy was Egypt’s first democratically elected President, we obviously couldn’t stand for that.

  6. Norman Hanscombe

    I commented, Ken, in response to the article’s reference to a “coming storm” because of the one which is already developing in Australia, and which the Intellectual Dinosaurs running Crikey can’t see or understand.
    Nothing more, but I shall try to make matters clearer in future, not of course that the Crikey Commissariat would notice a herd of rampaging eleohants in a petunia patch unless they didn’t like the elephants.

  7. Elijah Stewart

    Everything is back to normal; a brutal military dictatorship supported by the west.

  8. Norman Hanscombe

    You’re partially correct, Elijah. brutal dictatorships are the Middle Eastern norm, but the worst of them aren’t usually supported by Estern Nations, are they.

  9. Peter Hannigan

    How about a little bit of fact in this discussion. Elites in the Middle East are not simple puppets and they have agency in finding international supporters that fit their needs. After 1990 there was only one game in town for a while, but Russia is now back playing some of the games the Soviets did. Smaller powers can play off great powers.

    The current government in Egypt gets more funding from the Saudis and the Gulf States than the USA. Given that the US flirted with the Morsi government presumably to see if it could become something like the AK government in Turkey (remember this was 2012) that had more popular support and might be sustainable, I think the Sisi government will be careful about relations with the US. They will of course still accept the military support, especially given their IS problem in Sinai.

    Norman – the coming storm in Australia! It is hard to think of a more complacent and safer country than Australia. Compared to other countries with really serious current problems we merely have some clouds on the horizon and some unpleasant long term weather forecasts. I will agree that we largely choose to ignore those forecasts, but the urgency is not there as it is for many others.

  10. Norman Hanscombe

    Peter, I couldn’t agree more with your statement that “It is hard to think of a more complacent” country than Australia, and it’s certainly relatively safe when compared with other countries; but my comments were directed at the P.C. Tooth Fairy Brigade types who turn a blind eye to the development of dangers being encouraged by our failures to acknowledge the need for Security Services to be ever watchful, including improving our Surveillance capabilities.
    Let’s hope the evr-vigilant Crikey Commissariat Censorship Collective doesn’t prevent you reading this Post for too long?

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