It was the early hours of a spring morning in 2009, and a cluster of activists were dozing on sofas in the reception of a lawyer’s office. It had been a long night of intense discussion; the lawyer was the leader of an opposition party, and was aware that a step too far into open criticism would mean being thrown back into jail. One of the activists, a bespectacled young journalist named Ahmed, was woken by two loud knocks. It was then then that the firebomb was thrown in through the window.
With the inhabitants of the building scrambling to escape, the policemen patrolling downtown Cairo stood with their backs turned, pretending to be directing the sparse traffic as the flames spilled from the windows behind them.
Several days later, in the fire-blackened ruins of the office, Ahmed would explain the bombing’s motive as simply: “we have a party. And President Hosni Mubarak has a party. So…” And then a shrug: this is how things work here.
Thirty years of Mubarak’s rule have left Egypt’s civil society hamstrung. Under the deposed regime opposition parties were tolerated so long as they didn’t actually oppose; the main labour union was no union at all, but an extension of state security; newspapers played a careful game of peppering criticism with praise and the main religious institution, al-Azhar, was closely monitored by the regime.
This is why it was perhaps inevitable that there was no personality cult or overt organisation at the heart of the Egyptian revolution.
There were politicians, bloggers, and coalitions which emerged from the crucible of Tahrir. There was the 6th April Movement, which did much to mobilise for and direct protests. But none of these have inspired a following comparable to the iconic leaders of other historical revolutions. There is no Lenin or Imam Khomeini to decide and enforce the nature of the new state; no one voice of the revolution has emerged to silence all the others. Thirty years of dictatorship has left Egypt as a country of protestors, not leaders.
Which has left an extraordinary situation: a revolutionary spirit in a vacuum, seeking a direction.
It is in this vacuum that real democratic demand can be born. A post-revolution society without a direction is a post-revolution society with a million different directions, with the potential for a pluralistic political culture to fall into place.
With elections now likely to be held in late autumn, now is the time when the multiple forces behind the revolution need to coalesce into political parties, newspapers and campaign groups. There has been a flowering of new organisations and networks in recent months. Islamists are completing to be the new face or party which can win the religious vote; youth activists complain about the increasing number of conflicting parties co-opting the terms ”youth”, “revolutionary” and “Jan 25”. Debate is raging about whether new institutions should be allowed to apply for foreign financial support. 56 political organisations have backed a “for the love of Egypt” demonstration against military and religious rule; it would have been hard to find half that number under Mubarak. It is difficult to imagine this flowering following the fall of the Shah or Tsar.
It is not, however, free from challenges. The military elite are playing a careful game to ensure they remain the power behind the new state, and matching every concession with a crackdown. Salafis and other Islamist groups are quick to attack any “un-Islamic” movements, hijacking protests in Tahrir and attacking a march for women’s rights. But the main enemy of the new civil society is deprivation, which is gradually draining enthusiasm for democracy and change.
The economy is lingering in the ruins of January’s upheavals, and unemployment, out of control even before the revolution, is soaring. Thousands of Egyptians who relied on tourism to survive are waiting in hunger for the foreigners to return. But they are returning too slowly. And the blame is falling on the young activists who continue to protest.
The “thugs” who dogged the revolution’s mass demonstrations are back, driven not by pay-offs but by frustration. In the Cairo neighbourhood of Abassiya, a march to demand the end of military rule was attacked with stones, clubs and Molotov cocktails, leaving one man young man dead. The refrain is the same everywhere among Egypt’s poor: try Mubarak, give us elections, but above all else give us back our stability. What use is a revolution if we can’t eat? When the military sent tanks in to close down Tahrir Square, many onlookers cheered. It was public opinion, not bullets, which emptied the revolution’s epicentre.
But the loss of Tahrir may be the loss of another limitation. With the crushing of any potential revolutionary leadership by the Mubarak regime, the cult of personality has been replaced by the cult of place. Tahrir has been the leader of the revolution. Without it, new groups and ideas, campaigns and conflicts may begin to take the spotlight – across Egypt, not just in a roundabout in central Cairo. Activists can consolidate and prepare for elections. Roots can be put down for a society that will be politically pluralistic – making the emergence of a new authoritarian regime much harder.
The impact of the Arab Spring on the face of the world is something that will take years, even decades, to take shape, but one development is clear: Egypt, Tunisia and the other uprisings in the region have reclaimed democracy and free expression as Arab and Muslim values.
The Egyptians do not yet have freedom. But thanks in part to Mubarak’s authoritarianism, neither do they have a charismatic revolutionary leadership which could develop into a new dictatorship. What they do have is a new democratic spirit and a historical chance to shape a new civil society, even if it is in the shadow of a capricious military and economic discontent. The opportunity to breathe a little more freely, and the desire to, in a country where opposition politics is no longer limited to late-night meetings and firebombs.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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