Those of us Eastern Europeans, who did not witness the 1989 revolutions, are nevertheless the children of a revolution. If we were too young to discern for ourselves the communist fall, we grew up during the making of the narratives of the revolution, in which innumerable stories and actors fought hard in the streets, in the media and inside the newly crafted institutions to convince us of their truth.
This was painfully true for Romanians, who shot at and were shot by other Romanians, but talks with Hungarian and Polish colleagues and friends along the years have made me think they had their own little wars about the “truth of the revolution”, the real victims and the guilty ones, rival chronologies and competing explanations for ‘what went wrong’ and who is to be blamed for it. Somehow, in all this irreducible mess that is our present always without exception, we were made to think that the absolute Truth is somewhere out there, covered by piles of dishonest plotting and only time will figure everything out. Some of us are still in the trenches of this war.
This long introduction for a look at what we are witnessing today as the Arab revolutions is one of the thoughts I had while talking to a friend who has truly witnessed the ongoing Egyptian revolution. This is also a warning for those readers who might be in search for the truth of the revolution, admittedly an irrepressible temptation, to listen to any witness as the living proof that truth, not exactly inaccessible, is not what we should be really after if we want to understand how history is made.
This is the first part of a talk I had on November 5, 2011 with my friend Rania Salah Seddik and her husband Mohamed Saleh. The Western media reports of an increasing number of arrests of civilians, mostly young men and women protesting since February against the decades long bureaucratic-military rule presided by Mubarak and a general state of arbitrary rule and naked violence of the military forces (SCAF-Supreme Council of Armed Forces). Officially, this wave of state violence was triggered by the September 9 storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, but the looming possibility of a military regime in the post-Mubarak days has been in the public discourse for some time before this incident.
After the Tunisian elections for a Constituent Assembly last week, Egyptians are preparing for their own parliamentary elections and they still have to would agree upon a new Constitutional Act. The choice between a presidential or a parliamentary form of the new regime, the role of the military in the new polity and the role of Sharia as a source of legislation are major points in a heated and sometimes dangerous public debate which has already led to more than 5000 arrests, all civilians waiting for their trials in military tribunals, accused of such crimes as “offenses against Islam and the army”.
The main question in this context is the future role of the Army in Egyptian politics and how the civil-military relations will be institutionalized, given the decades-long institutionalization of the army as the veto player in Mubarak’s era military-bureaucratic regime in a region prisoner to a long-term security dilemma. In this sense, consider the following paradox.
Step 1: the SCAF representatives in the ongoing negotiations for the constitutional and supra-constitutional changes in the founding act actively promote the image of a military force similar with the Turkish model. In plain words, this means a strict control of secularist politics and thus the regular intervention of the army whenever Islamic forces endanger this pact. The paradox resides not in the fact that the Turkish military-civilian pact is presently dismantled by the AKP ruling party and that this process, embodied in the Ergenekon Affair seems to show rather how dangerous such an ambition would be for any general now to play the role of a guardian of the Constitution.
Step 2 is rather the apparently ambiguous move the Army has made in the direction of the protection of Islam against alleged insults and defamations proffered by young protesters on their blogs or in the media recently. The institutionalized arm of this tendency is the Moral Affairs Department of SCAF and a recent sentence to three years imprisonment against a blogger for allegedly having insulted Islam is telling of this strange twist in SCAF’s post-Mubarak concerns. As the court’s verdict sanctions:
…the defendant, through his Facebook page, has deliberately offended the dignity of Islam and subjected it to ridicule and mockery, in addition to insult, scorn and contempt; noting that the words said by the accused, all focused on the Quran and the religion of Islam and the Prophet of Islam and Muslims and members of his household, is outrageous and scurrilous, and that the defendant [used the words] at will.
Moreover, the army is accused by a heterogeneous chorus of voices of secretly fomenting conflicts between Christians and Muslims, such as the recent Maspero bloodshed. Accusations come from both domestic actors and international observers like Human Rights Watch and the subsequent crackdown against vocal activists seems to confirm desperate conclusion of many Egyptians: the revolution was stolen by the very pillars of Mubarak’s regime. And maybe it is worth reflecting now on other transitions from bureaucratic-military regimes in Latin America or East Asia – to convince the army to return to the barracks was rarely an affair of civilian talks on the elusive benefits of democracy.
We lost our dignity, so we lost our humanity. You cannot imagine.
Most political parties, activists and even a State Council Judge accuse SCAF of trying to install a military regime via a supra-constitutional Charter. Why is everyone fighting over these principles?
Rania Salah Seddik (RSS): Before the revolution, the military controlled 25% of the economy. Not only the armed force, but investment in agriculture, industry, construction, real estate all over the country. The second recipient of US aid after Israel and they still get this money. What they are asking is unacceptable for anyone. They try to imitate Turkey. What they are proposing actually – to keep their budget secret – well this has always been the case, we just never knew anything about it in the Mubarak era. They want to keep their privileges as if we didn’t do anything. We are preparing for a big march, over a million people on November 18th. It’s generally now our way of saying “No” these days. At least this reunited the whole country against the army again.
These supra-constitutional principles are the working of the SCAF. But this was initially a demand coming from the liberals that basically will constrain the power of the state by guaranteeing some individual rights and freedoms beyond any state control. What SCAF did was to suggest these two controversial principles which are making SCAF a state above the state. Firstly, it legitimates SCAF’s right to protect the constitutional legitimacy, sort of an imitation of the Turkish constitution, allowing the SCAF to overthrow any civilian government. Secondly, the Parliament would have no saying in the military budget and, moreover, any law concerning this institution would have to be first approved by SCAF.
On the other side, the Islamists are totally against these supra-constitutional principles for very different reasons. What they are hoping for, basically, is that through a democratic vote they will be able one day to change the very Constitution, so it is normal for them to reject any principles protected from the possibility of revision. One of the supra-constitutional principles, for instance, should protect the secular character of the state. Now these very different groups both reject the supra-constitutional principles, which in a way bring them closer. But there is also the camp of strict Islamofobia, who accept this proposition because they prefer a military dictatorship to a religious one.
This constitutional draft was initiated by the Deputy Prime Minister Ali el-Selmi, but afterwards, after the public outcry against these points, the army today said they actually don’t like this draft, as if they didn’t ask this guy to draft it. Maybe this is just a strategy to calm the people for a while. They are in politics for a long time now and it’s not easy for us because they are also backed by other governments, with money and logistics.
The army plays now the role of the guardian of the revolution. How credible are they still?
RSS: The army forces eventually decided to side with the people, but I wouldn’t say they did this because they appreciated our cause. It was a strategic move. In February they organized the referendum for constitutional revision (I’ll add) which was actually a very smart thing, not for our cause but for theirs. We didn’t want this referendum, but it was still held. Nevertheless, it was the first opportunity for the people to go out and vote for something and many were excited to have this chance. But this referendum divided the country in two. Basically, on one side people were made to think a good Muslim should definitively vote “yes” if one wants stability and to reach Heaven. The other camp, where most intellectuals and the young activists found themselves in, proved to be a minority, something like 20%. This was the start of a divide that continues to this day, the people learned to see themselves either on the side of Islam or not. What the Army truly succeeded in doing was to create this divide in the minds of the people. Every time they target a sector of the people, insisting that they support your cause against that other part that is your enemy, they simply play out this strategy of permanent division and fear.
The army officially says it is a secularist force and praises the Turkish model. This is why many Coptic voices support them, mainly as a means to secure for themselves protection from the Islamists. But there are exceptions, when other groups are targeted to attract their support for the armed forces. Before the revolution the army was hidden in a thick shadow, you never knew anything about it, the media was banned from reporting anything about this institution. I remember once a report went through, about bad labor conditions in the army and those who dared such a leak were tried in a military court. We never knew anything about the army. They are finally out, we now talk about them, but we have no history with them at least since our last war, since 1973.
Actually, I would say for most of us there is a distinction between the Egyptian army and the SCAF. Our army is composed of our own people, I mean my brother, my cousin, my class-mate and for now you can’t do anything about the obligatory conscription. So most of us are skeptical when we hear that the army was in favor of the revolution and sided with the people for the sake of the people. The army didn’t respond to Mubarak’s order to shoot at us not that much because they like us, the high ranks I mean, but because they knew the soldiers would refuse to use bullets against their families and a coup d’Etat might occur against those high ranking generals. And seriously now, the military high ranks could not support us, they are all over 70 years old, they were always loyal to Mubarak, they are his guys. So SCAF didn’t protect the revolution, they just protected themselves.
They actually realized their legitimacy can only be in the other camp.
RSS: Yes, they realized they have to find legitimacy. They won a new legitimacy because they didn’t shoot. For a while they were the real heroes. Everywhere you went there was this chant: “The people and the army are hand in hand”. But this was short lived. They lose support bit by bit every day. But still, the army is a very important thing for Egyptians, they are the ones to go to war for us, to die for us, at least for the older generations. You simply cannot talk bad about the army.
This reminds me of one recent article published by Mona Eltahawy in The Guardian. She writes about the so-called virginity tests in Tahrir Square. Let me quote this part I really liked: “The revolution is not only taking place in Tahrir, it is taking place in every Egyptian house. It is the revolution of fighting the patriarchs”.
RSS: That’s so true and so humiliating. And indeed, the excuse was so stupid: if the girl is not a virgin, they argued, they will not be able to go to the media after their release and accuse the army of rape. This was an attempt to drive them away from the public space but these girls did the exact opposite, they raised their voice against this act and continued the protest, which was surprising for everyone.
Now concerning the patriarchal society, I can say that I agree with one recent result of a WVS (World Values Survey) report, in which it appears that the highest value for the Egyptians is obedience. Obedience of the young to the old, of children to their parents. These are religious values deeply rooted in the political imaginary of everyone here, highly instrumented by political elites. The obedience to your father is the model of your relationship with the ruler, which is himself sort of a father, and this obligatory obedience is actually an acceptance on your part to leave your life in his hands, as if you are owned but also taken care of. So listen to your parents. Mona is right about the patriarchism of our society. Not even injustice legitimates disobedience, a value highly praised by the Muslim Brotherhood followers and the Salafis. This is so big everywhere, for most Egyptians, but the young protesters refuse to be owned by the parents or anyone else.
After the Tunisian elections, everyone congratulated them for a democratic, peaceful electoral process. Do you expect something similar in Egypt? Are there debates focusing on various institutional arrangements?
RSS: For now there is no major political movement to gather a large majority for its cause, no dominant public figure. The army is the strongest public, political figure, then comes the Muslim Brotherhood (the Freedom and Justice Party), followed by the Islamist movements (Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya, Al-Nour, and others).
Another problem we know from the past is that the corruption is everywhere on the elections day. The Islamist groups don’t bribe people with money that much, but they either promise Heaven for those who vote for them, or offer various services and cheaper goods. The problem is that we never had free elections and we cannot expect this now. What we know from previous elections is that the National Party (National Democratic Party, founded by Anwar Sadat in 1978) candidates used to win because they used the big families controlling the rural areas. Besides the tribes in the Sinai and in the oases, the people in the rural area will vote for the only people they know, the candidates backed by a big family. It was always like this, the winning candidates were voted not necessarily because they represented the National party. So we expect to see in the new parliament many of the corrupt people of the old regime, it’s natural, because they have no competition in these areas.
But the biggest problem is that we don’t even talk about something like a choice between a parliamentary and a presidential regime. Some intellectuals ask for such debates, but most actors argue that Egyptians still have to discover what it means to have the right to vote and how to reject electoral bribes and that we still have a long road ahead before such fine distinctions.
See a list of Egyptian political parties.
Now about the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). How big is this actor in the preparations for the general elections and afterwards? Is it important to talk about a division between moderates and radicals inside MB? And here I am referring also to what some Western analysts refer to as the danger of mixing politics and religion. In last week’s Tunisian elections for a Constituent Assembly the Islamist party Ennahda (the Renaissance Party) won the biggest share of the vote and announced that Sharia will be a very important source of legislation. At the same time, the Ennahda leaders put forward many women candidates, promised to improve women’s participation in politics and the public space and, at one time, its founder found himself in a rather difficult position, having to answer a question about whether women will be allowed to wear bikinis on the beach. He assured his party will have no problems with this. Beyond this entertaining aspect of Tunisian elections, is Sharia an obstacle for politics? Are we talking about the same thing when we talk about Sharia in Tunisia, in Libya after Gaddafi and maybe in Egypt tomorrow?
RSS: The Muslim Brotherhood is a very important actor that has to be taken into account especially because they played politics in the recent years. One of the biggest problems is that a big part of the public discourse is occupied by the Salafi rhetoric dealing with non-political issues, ridiculous issues like the women’s dress code and working women, while the MB is more politicized, accusing the corruption of the old regime and debating the meaning of the revolution. We don’t refer to the division inside MB as one between moderates and radicals, but it is true that there is a young movement inside MB, they are more open, more respectful towards others. The youth were the first to join the revolution and that issue I mentioned before, about the ingrained value of obedience was extremely important in creating this division. But otherwise, the MB is a highly politicized group, also a very corrupt one; they use religion as a political weapon for their strict interest. As for the Salafis and other Islamist groups, they are stricter, maybe because they are new in politics.
About Sharia now. What is Sharia in the end? In the 1970s Sadat introduced in the Egyptian Constitution this controversial article defining Islam as the main source of legislation. Before that, the text mentioned Islam as just a source of legislation. This was a contextual compromise between Islamists and Sadat’s own plans for the presidential function. Now, liberal critics demand its removal, but the majority is against such a move. I would say that even the Muslim Brotherhood would be more willing to make compromises towards Christians and women’s rights, but inside society, religious fanaticism and ignorance are sometimes obstructing these openings. No one knows what Sharia is. By this I mean no one knows what they mean when they say Sharia. During Mubarak era, in a secular country, Sharia was still the main source of legislation.
See here a Council on Foreign Relations background report on Sharia and politics.
Do you see problems ahead in the relationship of the majority towards minorities, like the Christians?
RSS: I wouldn’t expect any intolerance against Christians in the Constitution, not even coming from religious fanatics, but I think it would be mainly against women’s rights. I remember that two days ago a popular presidential candidate was asked if women tourists will be free to wear bikinis on the beach. He said: What? Are you crazy? No, they will be arrested. Watching this I said myself: what? Are you crazy? When asked about the veil, he admitted that for a long time women were used not to wear it, so there will be some time for them to prepare until they will enforce the veil. They are talking only about ridiculous stuff, the Islamists, all women-related. Until now, they didn’t really dare talk against the Christians.
During the Mubarak era he always tried to direct attention away from his government by initiating conflict between Christians and Muslims. It was crazy when we found out…it’s actually there that I knew there is nothing worst that could happen, when on the New Year’s Eve of 2011 a Christian Church was bombed in Alexandria and more than 20 people were killed. This was a limit we could not have crossed…Later we found out that it was the minister of Interior himself who was leading a group behind those attacks. Imagine the Minister of Interior himself is doing this. But right when this happened Muslim people started to wake up. We have our Christmas on January 7 and this campaign was organized for Muslims to attend the Mass with the Christians. The government and the Police tried to stop us; they said they will check the IDs at the entrance, because we have the religion on our IDs and Muslims will be banned from getting into the Churches. So people said Ok, we’re going to protect the Churches from outside, we’re going to have human shields around the Churches to protect them. This brought the people together and it was something the regime really didn’t expect. It was really nice finding all our Christian friends on facebook thanking their Muslim friends waiting with flowers after coming out of their Churches. And there was afterwards another big incident, during which some attacked another Church and wanted to make of this a sectarian violence, and attract Muslims in the street to throw stones at the Christians. Then too people figured out on their own this is something they want them to do and refused to fight.
Hopefully diversity will no longer be a problem in a democratic Egypt. It’s quite funny how most Muslims continue to think they are better than Christians while they all have Christian friends and live in a truly mixed environment.
Western powers and Democracy Promotion in the region. What do Egyptian democrats got and hope still to get from this international project?
RSS: A major issue for the Egyptians is that for 30 years they knew they count for the US only because of Israel. All that mattered was whether Egypt will be at peace with Israel or not. Moreover, the support for Mubarak in exchange for stability in the region was the major cause for the way in which people were treated or rather ignored, the poverty, the ignorance imposed on them. So we don’t expect anything from them now. Maybe they should expect a few things from us, they should respect us because we have a voice now and they have to hear it. Their policies should shift towards more respect for what people want, apart from that we do not expect much from the West.
Is this an Arab Spring? Is Palestine part of it for you, Egyptians?
RSS: I really believe this. There is no such thing as an Arab identity. I don’t consider myself an Arab, Mainly, what makes the Arab identity is Palestine, the only thing that brings us together. An Egyptian doesn’t understand the Moroccan or the Iraqi dialect. Palestine is big in Egypt. Our story about Palestine is simply that Palestinians were living together, Muslims, Christians and Jews and one day they found that the Zionist gangs are coming to kick them out of their houses and chasing them with weapons, so they escaped thinking they would return very soon. But the Israelis took their land. Like living in a building with four floors and someone is coming to kick out your neighbor and then, because everyone in the building hates you, you have to make everyone else weak, to be the strongest. So this is Egyptians’ understanding about Israel. They don’t want to go at war with Israel, they want to keep the peace treaty, we have all our land, so we have no interest to go at war, at all, but we need to amend that peace treaty. It wasn’t fair at all. Just as Israel’s and US’ support for a guy like Mubarak all this time.
How did the Egyptian feel about the storming of the Israeli embassy a month ago?
RSS: A largely shared scenario is that, given the large public criticism against the army back then, the army needed a foreign enemy, so that the people would gather again against some common evil and we have to support our army now, because Egyptian soldiers were killed in an incident at the border. So we have to care first about the unity of the country, no divisions now…Some even think that it was a scenario planned by the intelligence services of both countries (Egypt and Israel) to divert attention from the real problems with the army. Another discourse about this incident is that for the first time people regained their dignity vis-à-vis Israel. Their voices had been finally heard. The people asked to recall the Egyptian ambassador in Israel and the removal of the Israeli one until we get official apologies for the killing of the soldiers. Nothing happened, but the fact that the ambassador left the country meant that the voices of the people were heard. When this man climbed the very high building the people attacked a few days after and replaced the Israeli flag with an Egyptian one. This was indeed a historic day. But when things escalated in a week or so, people started to worry, saying that we never wanted this. Many criticized this move because the revolution had to be peaceful. Anyway, there is this question, because the police didn’t intervene when these people attacked the building, they let them do their thing. We actually don’t know anything, there is no transparency. It actually led to the actual curfew and the loss of some rights.
See more on this in the Israeli media here.
Why are activists like Maikel Nabil or Alaa Abd El Fattah arrested and have to appear in military courts? Actually, they both refuse to accept the legitimacy of these courts. What is so radical in what they are promoting?
RSS: Nabil is crazy. I’m with him, of course, he has the right to free speech and I totally support his case, the military has no right to arrest him for what he said, but no one ever talked about what he talked about. He is very controversial and he doesn’t have the support of the public. He talked of friendship with the Israelis, which the rest of the population doesn’t really support. He also talked about something I totally agree with and support, but not now, against the obligatory conscription of the army; he was the first to talk about that.
Alaa Abd El Fattah comes from an amazing family, I believe in him and in his family. He comes from a family deeply involved in the revolution, his mother, and his sisters too. He is not a radical, he is just too liberal for the public. There is no case against him, no real charges, he didn’t do anything. He criticized the army after an incident where 25 Copts and Muslims were killed. Now what they are investigating is not how the army killed those people, some after tanks ran over them, but how the conflict started. Initially the national TV said that the Copts killed three soldiers and policemen and called on Egyptians to protect their army. After that I found out that actually the army killed the people, although this was not on TV. The army still denies it, but there were videos showing army vehicles running over bodies. This was the scariest day for me. Some Muslims took to the streets after watching the TV and wanted to fight the Christians. Most people believed that Christians were killing soldiers until all these videos appeared on YouTube. But no confrontations were reported.
See Alaa Abd el Fattah’s first letter from prison.
Do people still trust what they see on TV?
RSS: Yes. After the revolution we thought it’s not as bad as it used to be. Even I believed what they said about Copts. And then I went on facebook and found a friend of mine saying that there are already 17 bodies in the morgue. Everyone on facebook already talked about it, about so many Christians in the morgue. But this was not on TV. I was one of them for like half an hour, when you have only this media outlet, why wouldn’t you believe it, right? It can happen. So I believe that people who don’t have access to internet and facebook or twitter they believe it, when there are no other sources of information.
Rania Salah Seddik: “You cannot imagine how bad it was. For a long time we didn’t realize this. Ignorance, poverty, lack of humanity, lack of dignity… We lost our dignity, so we lost our humanity. What happened was that you really lose your humanity…You know, in order to feed your kids, you have to kiss asses to every boss you have…so you go home and you humiliate your kid so that you feel powerful, so the kid will go in the streets and attack women for example…So we really lost our dignity…people felt good, superior, powerful by saying that yes, Muslims are better than Christians, men are better than women, the rich are better than the poor. Everyone tried to find something to make them feel good. Religion was mainly for the poor, they didn’t have anything except the idea that we are going to go to Heaven, we are better than other people”.
I’m very grateful to Rania Salah Seddik for many hours of talk, for patience and generosity.
I want to thank Venera Nikolaeva for invaluable help and advice.