Michael Totten

7,000 Years of Oppression

Egypt’s revolution is nowhere near finished. Hosni Mubarak may have been overthrown, but the military regime founded by Gamal Abdel Nasser and his cadre of Arab nationalist officers in 1952 is still firmly in place.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, rules Egypt as a military junta, though you’d hardly know it as a casual visitor. The men with guns who were everywhere on the streets of Cairo when I visited a couple of years ago were somewhere else throughout most of July, in their barracks, I suppose. Egypt is bereft of any portraits of a strong man in charge. It’s not even clear who the head of state even is, which is a highly unusual state of affairs for an Arab country. If you pressed me I’d say the head of state is Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the current head of SCAF, but many Egyptians think he’s just a front man, that someone else on the junta is the real man in charge. No one I asked is sure one way or the other, not even my official American sources.

The junta promised free and fair elections in September, but that is most unlikely to happen. And tens of thousands of citizens snatched from the street during the revolution in January and February still languish in jail under snap collective sentences. The millions who took to the streets and forced the army to oust Mubarak feel their work is incomplete, and on the second Friday of July they staged another mass demonstration in Tahrir Square downtown.

Tahrir Square, Cairo

The police and the army retreated from the capital’s center around Tahrir. It was anarchy down there, though it was civilized and controlled. Activists from every group in the country—from the liberals and the socialists on the left to the Muslim Brotherhood—teamed up and provided their own security in case anyone from the plainclothes police or the Baltageya—thugs from the fellah class who will beat people up for a few bucks or a pack of smokes—decided to stir up trouble.

Yasmin El-Rifae, an Egyptian journalist I was working with, said the men from internal security are identified as such on their ID cards, so everyone who wanted entrance to the square had to show identification. When I flashed my American passport and said I was journalist got a very warm welcome, sometimes including high-fives and solidarity handshakes, every time.

I can’t accurately count the number of people in crowds, but tens of thousands of people, and perhaps even more, filled that square. And I couldn’t help but compare Egypt’s revolutionaries with Lebanon’s. The massive demonstrations in Beirut in 2005 against Syria’s occupying military dictatorship looked and felt strikingly different. Far more women joined the Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution and fewer of them wore Islamic headscarves, partly because almost half of Beirut’s demonstrators were Christians, but also because Lebanon is a much more secular place.

Egypt’s revolution is significantly more masculine.

And most of the women at the square wore the headscarf. My Egyptian colleague Yasmin dressed like a Western woman, and I saw other uncovered women there, too, but most dressed conservatively, even those affiliated with the liberal and socialist parties. One of the iconic images of Egypt’s revolution shows a victorious young woman wearing the hijab flashing the v-for-victory sign.

Don’t assume the headscarf means she’s with the Muslim Brotherhood or was demonstrating for an Islamic state. She probably isn’t and wasn’t. The headscarf is the standard dress code for women in Egypt regardless of politics.

The crowd at Tahrir was also a lot poorer than its Lebanese counterpart. No one would describe this movement as a “Gucci Revolution,” as a handful of Occidentalist Westerners rudely dubbed Lebanon’s.

Almost all the slogans I heard and saw painted on signs and walls were about freedom from state oppression, but there was a darker current there, too. Some in that crowd were merely reacting, and they wanted vengeance. I saw a number of nooses on banners, and even found one bearded man—who was probably with the Brotherhood—carrying an actual noose.

Graffiti near Tahrir Square, Cairo

An Islamist brings a noose to Tahrir

Anti-Americanism and its anti-Zionist twin were not a strong theme, but those sentiments were bubbling just under the surface. A random man in an orange hat saw my camera, figured that I was a journalist, and decided that was the time to yell about Israel. “We will go to Israel next!” he said. “Israel is next!”

A random Egyptian guy rants about Israel

He ranted a bit incoherently. I didn’t catch everything he said, but his tone wasn’t good.

Yasmin grimaced as she listened to him banging on. She was clearly embarrassed and wished he hadn’t barged his way into our day. She’s Egyptian and not exactly a fan of Israel either, but she’s able to discuss it in a rational manner without getting hysterical or wallowing in paranoia and hatred. This guy, though, was clearly one of the crazies.

“Okay, okay,” Yasmin said to him and brushed him away. “That’s enough.”

An Egyptian man standing next to me also cringed when he heard his less ruffled fellow yelling about the Jewish state to the north.

This Egyptian man apparently doesn't hate Israel or the United States

“That’s just his opinion,” he said. “There are many opinions in Egypt. Why must Israel always be our enemy? Why? Why must the U.S. be our enemy?”

Yasmin called a famous socialist activist she knew named Hossam El-Hamalawi, and he agreed to meet us for a few minutes in front of the local KFC franchise. Beneath the KFC sign was a banner showing a Muslim crescent and a Christian cross fused together, a symbol of tolerant anti-sectarianism that I first saw at liberal rallies in Lebanon, one that was notably absent from any of Hezbollah’s rallies.

A symbol of anti-sectarianism, Tahrir Square, Cairo

“This won’t just be a one-day event,” El-Hamalawi said when we found him. “It will turn into a sit-in.” He was certainly right about that, and that sit-in dragged on for weeks. “I have no idea how long it will last, but at the end of the day, the battle is not necessarily going to be settled here in Tahrir. What brought down Mubarak was not Tahrir, and it was not the army. It was the mass strikes that broke out all over the country that forced the military junta to ask Mubarak to step down or else the system would collapse. The main battle for us, the people on the left, is to take the battle to the factories, to take Tahrir to the universities, to take Tahrir to the workplaces. In every single institution in Egypt we have a mini Mubarak waiting to be overthrown.”

Socialist activist Hossam El-Hamalawi

The working class labor strikes, he said, have been ongoing ever since Mubarak stepped down. “The middle class activists were happy to suspend protests here in Tahrir,” he said, “and go back to their well-paying jobs. They were happy to establish a dialogue with the ruling military junta. But the working class in general has been continuing with its mass strikes.”

There have been strikes all over the country, it’s true, but at the same time most Egyptians are tiring of all this revolutionary activity. They yearn for normalcy more than anything else at the moment, and an end to the upheaval that has brought the economy—which was an emergency-room case to begin with—to its knees.

A poster under an overpass, Zamalek, Cairo

“I used to work as an editor before the revolution,” he said. “I could go back to my job at any time and still get paid thousands of Egyptian pounds, but the public transport worker—whose strike brought this country to a halt—cannot go back to his starving family and say it’s okay for him to get 189 Egyptian pounds after 20 years of service and just wait for the military to solve his problems. So the strikes are ongoing.”

Not everyone down at the square was a socialist. Many preferred a free market economy, and my American colleague Armin Rosen asked El-Hamalawi if he thought the revolutionary consensus, such as it was, might eventually be torn apart by economics.

“There’s hardly any consensus to start with,” El-Hamalawi said. “There have been divisions at every twist and turn of the Egyptian revolution, and that’s normal. Even before Mubarak stepped down, after he gave his first speech, some people said we should give him a chance, that we should wait until September, but there were also people like me who said we can’t trust him, that we should continue with the protests. And after he stepped down, some said we should suspend the protests and give the provisional government a chance and have a dialogue. But people like me were pushing for the continuation of the labor strikes. We see this as phase two of the Egyptian revolution. There are always class polarizations and political polarizations during revolutions. I don’t necessarily regard that as a bad thing. It’s inevitable.”

Activists are by their nature optimists, especially in police states. Few are willing to risk a beating or worse if they know they’re going to lose. So El-Hamalawi, like every other activist I spoke to, thought he would win.

“People said we were crazy when we were chanting against Mubarak in 1998,” he said. “As student activists, people thought we were crazy when we started advocating general strikes before the outbreak of the strike wave. People thought toppling Mubarak, an American-backed dictatorship, could never happen.”

And yet it did happen.

“We’ve had 7,000 years of civilization,” he said, “and 7,000 years of oppression. And I’m optimistic that for the first time in our lives, for the first time in 7,000 years, we will be able to achieve a real democracy.”

A young girl joins her family at a demonstration against Egypt's military regime, Tahrir Square, Cairo

If Egyptians do manage to forge a real democracy for themselves, El-Hamalawi won’t only have to contend with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood. His movement will also have to beat the country’s powerful free market capitalists.

The Free Egypt Party is the socialists’ biggest competitor after the Brotherhood and the army. It’s one of the most popular of the new liberal parties, one that’s taken seriously as a contender down at the square. I was able to meet Ramy Yacoub, one of its highest-ranking officials, in a conference room at his office building in one of Cairo’s high-rises. Several young women from the party joined us—public relations employees in training, I presume—and took their own notes. Some wore Islamic headscarves, an important visual reminder that not everyone who dresses like a conservative Muslim supports the Islamists.

“We’re a secular party,” Yacoub said, “and we’re inclusive of all ethnicities, religions, and demographics in Egypt. This is the defining line for the party. Economically we’re for free markets, but we’re socially responsible, as well. We also favor better health care and education. In Western terms you might say we’re socially responsible capitalists.”

There’s a lot more to the party than this. The written platform is 38 pages in Arabic—which means it’s even longer in English—but neither he nor I wanted to get bogged down in every detail.

There were quite a few socialists demonstrating downtown, but Nasser’s Free Officer’s regime was what brought socialism to Egypt. It did so in the Russian-style and brought an extraordinary amount of destruction and pain down on the country. My hotel was on the island of Zamalek, supposedly one of the nicest places in Cairo, but even that area looks like the dreariest parts of outer Bucharest.

Zamalek, Cairo

I felt as though I was in an asteroid belt of hideous communist tower blocks that ring every post-Soviet city in Europe. I didn’t realize just how crushingly communist Cairo appears when I first visited, but now I do because in the meantime I’ve visited cities in more than a dozen post-communist countries.

Downtown is in even worse shape. Architecturally it’s a marvel under the decades of accumulated decay and pollution. The buildings were erected during Egypt’s relatively liberal belle epoch when the country was oriented toward the West, before Nasser’s Arab Nationalist “revolution” and Egypt’s temporary alignment with the Soviet bloc, but they’re in awful condition today. Turn-of-the-century Cairo looks much like the centers of Budapest and Prague must have looked before the 1989 revolutions put an end to communist rule.

Cairo, Egypt

Egyptian socialism was emphatically not like Sweden’s. It was a devastating wrecking ball, and huge numbers of Egyptians across the political spectrum rightly blame Nasser for the catastrophe of the last fifty years.

These socialist-era apartments look much drearier in person than they do in this photo

“Is socialism still a popular idea here,” I asked Yacoub, “or has that been discredited?” Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat partially dismantled the socialist state during his term in power, but the state-capitalist system that followed is rife with grotesque corruption. It resembles the Chinese system more than anything in the free market West.

“I can’t speak for the entire Egyptian population,” Yacoub said, “but we believe that free markets are the best way to grow the economy. We don’t believe we need to selectively redistribute the wealth. We need to increase the amount of wealth collectively.”

That message all by itself is unlikely to resonate with Egypt’s peasants and vast urban underclass, and the Free Egyptians know it.

Cairo, Egypt, from the Citadel

“We’re for free markets,” he said, “but 40 percent of the population lives on under two dollars a day. These people need services to survive, and they need education, and that has to be provided by the government. There’s no way around it at the moment. The same goes for health care. If you’re making less than two dollars a day, you can’t afford health care, period, whether it’s quality health care or not.”

There’s another powerful force in Tahrir that seems to exist somewhere in between the socialists and the free market capitalists, and that’s the April 6 movement, a group of labor activists independent of any political party that comes off as a bit less ideological than the socialists. These guys represent the working class, but they don’t sound like they’ve wandered out of the 1930s the way the socialists do.

When I met Mohammad Adel the following Monday he had been living in a tent in the middle of Tahrir Square for three days, ever since the mass demonstration on Friday. Several young men sat with him on the ground eating tuna and cheese in pita bread.

Mohamed Adel (left) and his comrades in the April 6 movement, Tahrir Square, Cairo

They offered me something to eat, but the cheese smelled like ripe feet in the North African heat and there were flies buzzing around in it, so I didn’t want any. Egyptian food is hazardous enough even in five-star restaurants, as I discovered when something I ate knocked me out of commission for a week and sent me to the hospital. Someone offered me a miniature and perfectly safe-looking banana, though, and it was delicious.

The April 6 tent provided a bit of relief from the blazing sunshine, but it was only a tiny bit cooler inside than outside. Blankets and sleeping bags covered the floor. Somebody delivered a thunderous speech outside the tent over a loudspeaker.

“We are planning an open-ended sit-in,” Adel said. “We want the prime minister to remove the seven ministers who are still in power that are former NDP members, but the prime minister doesn’t have the power to do that. The constitution is sort of null at this point. There’s no parliament in place, so he needs the army to give him that power.”

The Ministry of Bureaucracy, Tahrir Square, Cairo

The army arrested Mubarak, but Adel said some of the old ministers have always been close to the military so there was no need to be rid of them.

Two young men brought large blocks of ice inside the tent. Adel abruptly stood up and helped them carry it to a cooler, then took out a hammer and started breaking it into pieces. They had no electricity in the tent, and the ice kept food and liquids cool.

When he sat down again he said around 1,000 people from the April 6 movement slept in the square every night, and around 3,000 from all the parties combined were camped out there. The square’s numbers mushroomed during the day. Every political party in the country—and there are dozens—had at least some permanent representation there, except one. The Muslim Brothers were nowhere to be seen. They showed up for a few token hours the previous Friday, but they had nothing whatsoever to do with the ongoing sit-in.

T-shirts for sale, Tahrir Square, Egypt

Another party, the Wafd Party, was there only in spirit. The Wafd is a creaky old party from the pre-Nasser days that was co-opted by the regime and has since become so hollowed out that it may as well no longer even exist. The party set up a banner and table near the KFC, but didn’t bother sending a human down there to staff it. A small stereo and speaker system played a taped speech, but nobody gathered around to listen to it. The Wafd appeared no more relevant than the Reform Party is now in the States. It’s probably just as well. Ahmed Ezz el-Arab, the party’s vice chairman, utterly disgraced himself recently, at least internationally, with idiotic comments denying the Holocaust.

“Are there any groups other than the Brothers who are notably absent?” Armin asked Adel.

“The Brothers are the only ones who are absent,” Adel said.

Rather than participating in the sit-in, the Islamists chose to have a dialogue with the army. Many activists said they felt like the Brothers are therefore against the revolution even though they pay it lip service. I couldn’t help but remember the rallies in downtown Beirut in 2005 against Syria’s military occupation when Hezbollah was absent and outside the country’s mainstream while almost every other party gathered downtown. There aren’t many parallels between the Egyptian and Lebanese revolutions, and I wouldn’t read too much into it, but the absence of radical Islamists from demonstrations against the regimes in both countries was hard to ignore, even if they were aloof for different reasons.

“Do you think you were successful in bringing down the regime?” Armin asked Adel.

“To an extent,” Adel said. “We removed the head and some of those below, but the government’s approach is still the same.”

“Do you expect to win?” I said. I knew he would say yes or he wouldn’t be there, but I wanted to hear what he had to say anyway.

“The entire world thought it was impossible to remove Mubarak,” he said, “but we did it in less than 18 days. To replace rule by violence will take a long time, though, because the mentality behind it has penetrated every corner of the state.”

His phone rang once every minute or so. Most of the time he didn’t answer, but once in a while he had to. He talked for a few minutes in Arabic, then returned to the interview.

“There seems to be a lot of differences between all you guys down here on the square,” Armin said. “Some are socialists and others are more free market-oriented. Are you worried about that?”

“There’s no conflict between us here,” he said. “We all work together.”

Egyptian truck driver, Tahrir Square, Cairo

“But the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t camping out with you guys,” Armin said.

“Anyone who leaves the square,” Adel said, “won’t be in the picture later on.”

The Muslim Brotherhood has been well-organized for the better part of a century, but April 6 is ramping up fast. They have 12,000 active members and another 10,000 who work closely with them.

“When we go into villages or even slum neighborhoods,” Adel said, “the response is often, ‘where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you.’”

Dr. Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan is an establishment reformist liberal and the director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He’s an intellectual, not an activist, and he does not go down to the square. He doesn’t have the temperament required of political activism and would rather sit in his office and read books and write articles.

He told me he feels guardedly optimistic about where the country is heading, as did most people I talked to, but at the same time he says he’s wise enough to know better. He knows most revolutions end in tears, and the Middle East is a great teacher of pessimism. I’ve already seen one revolution in the Arab world hit the rocks, and that was in Lebanon, a country that’s far more liberal and culturally democratic than Egypt. Tahrir Square was an intoxicating place in July, but it’s a bubble. It isn’t the country.

Graffiti near Tahrir Square, Cairo

Egypt’s liberals are out in large numbers, but they aren’t the strong horse. They’re third after the army and the Islamists. Events over the last week all but proved it.

Last Friday hundreds of thousands of activists from the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more radical totalitarian Salafist movement seized control of the square. They didn’t go down there just to yell at the army. They were there to intimidate liberals, and it worked. The Islamists “told their supporters to join in the demonstrations to fight against the liberal infidels,” a caller on the State TV show said. Thirty four different revolutionary groups—and that would be almost all of them—packed up and left for a while.

Then the army went in and cleared out those who remained. No one is at the square now. The soldiers tore down the tents and stepped aside as thugs from the Baltageya beat people up. Shop owners near the square cheered and applauded.

The liberals, the leftists, the Islamists, and even the army were unified, sort of, when Mubarak was the target of all. Egypt is now experiencing competing revolutions, competing demonstrations, and a popular government crackdown. If the junta is overthrown or beaten back into the shadows, the real battle for the heart and soul of Egypt will be on. The victor, if there is one, will determine the Arab world’s direction for decades.

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