The world turns quickly. In the course of time, changing regimes, eras and revolutions, there was never a time when the Egyptian people—described in the past as “great” and “ingenious”—did not protest or rebel.
Amazingly, though, criticism of the Egyptian people invariably comes along, usually after an intense interlude where the “will of the people”—a term carrying with it considerable force but which is ambiguous and lacks the legal and constitutional precision of the provision that “the people are the source of all authority”—is vociferously praised. In all events, the lofty descriptions and praise are all tossed out of the nearest window when it emerges that these people have another opinion, or that they do not see eye-to-eye with a certain group in society.
I learned this first-hand from some of the members of the Hosni Mubarak regime, who were taken by surprise by the January 25 revolution in 2011 and the masses calling for the former president to resign. How could this happen to a man who had protected the country and its security, built cities and factories, reclaimed thousands of acres of land, and achieved economic growth and a rise in the country’s national reserves? There had to be something wrong with the people who took to the streets by the hundreds and thousands—indeed millions—in order to overthrow one era and usher in another.
But Mubarak eventually stepped down and soon even appeared behind bars. He no longer had “the people” behind him—that is, aside from those who hoisted the banner, “We are sorry, Mr. President.”
Not long after this, I asked a friend of mine who was close to the government in the interim period that followed the revolution about his experience in power. He answered that he had not known the Egyptian people were so “ungrateful.” At the time, groups of protesters were parading through the streets of our major cities, shouting “Liars!” and “Down with military rule!” He was amazed and baffled. Those in power at the time had spared Egypt the fate of Libya, Syria, Iraq and the other countries in turmoil around us. How could the people now deny this and turn against their saviors?
I had no direct experience with the Muslim Brotherhood movement when it was in power. But there was that one occasion when I was contacted by an intermediary on behalf of a person close to then-president Mohamed Mursi. The date was June 19, 2013. He wanted to know how I assessed the situation at the time and the scenario I expected for the impending events of June 30, 2013.
Sometime before that, I had written an article for Al-Masry Al-Youm entitled ‘The Day of Judgment.’ It had been ridiculed by some Muslim Brotherhood commentators, so I did not hesitate to be totally frank. I told him the millions in the Tamarod (Rebellion) movement were a reality and that they would take to the streets on June 30 because Muslim Brotherhood rule was no longer acceptable. My interlocutor then asked my opinion regarding a solution to the problem. I said that the “golden solution” here would be for the president to agree to the demands of Tamarod and hold early presidential elections. The man scoffed at my suggestion. He said the Egyptian people would never let the Muslim Brotherhood down, because they were a religious people.
I do not know what Muslim Brotherhood leaders were saying in various corridors and in their jail cells after they fell from power or after they left the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in, but I can imagine it. They undoubtedly said words to the effect that the problem was not with them—the Muslim Brotherhood—but with the Egyptian people, who were not sufficiently true believers (according to the Brotherhood definition, of course).
These days, you are unlikely to have an opportunity to speak with anyone from the youth who took part in the January 25 revolution without hearing two things: first, that the Egyptian people have a chronic moral and political problem; second, that as long as this is the case, the only choice is to move abroad to countries that know how to value revolutionary youth who have sacrificed so much—their lives and even, in the face of the weapons of the security forces, their limbs and eyes. The youth of the revolution had never imagined a time when “the people” would not rally around them to bring down the protest law, to protest certain constitutional articles, to oppose military rule, and to keep the revolution alive until it achieved its goals, which are hard to define but noble nonetheless.
What happened after June 30 was amazing and agonizing to all those who had taken part in the struggles at Tahrir Square, Maspero, the Ittihadiya Palace, the Mohamed Mahmoud and Qasr El-Aini streets, and the Cabinet Office and Shura Council (which would eventually be dissolved). Of course, it would never have occurred to these youth that the people might feel shocked that they would take to Mohamed Mahmoud Street with such alarming persistence in order to attack the Ministry of Interior. They had not asked themselves whether the people could sustain years of continual loss to the national income, perpetual insecurity and instability, and constant fear.
In brief, the revolutionary youth wanted a blank check of ongoing support in exchange for “the revolution,” their “innocence,” and their sacrificing their status, education, and wealth abroad in order to stay in Egypt, where all the people understand is dictatorship—the iron fist of a pharaoh who knows how to keep the country in line. But what the youth of the revolution never considered was their own fragmentation into hundreds of groups and organizations that were tailored to specific individuals and that seemed to have an unwritten agreement between them not to produce a single practical idea. Eventually, innocence was lost when the squares became storehouses of Molotov cocktails and violent sexual harassment.
Thus the world turned in Egypt. At all times the Egyptian people were divided, as has been the case with other peoples at crucial turning points in their histories. At first the people wanted change; they were impressed with the flags and colors in Tahrir Square. But there was also, simultaneously, some gnawing doubt. What if we emerged from a disaster only to plunge into another? When it came time for the March 19, 2011 referendum on some constitutional amendments—billed as the first truly free poll in Egypt post-Mubarak—41 percent of the people voted in what was described as a “wedding ceremony” for democracy in the country.
This would repeat itself time and again. The turnout for the Shura Council elections was only 8 percent, for the People’s Assembly—the lower house of parliament—it did not exceed 50 percent, and it was not much higher for the runoff between Mohamed Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq in the presidential elections. Turnout for the last presidential elections, between Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabahy, barely exceeded 47 percent. The so-called “couch party”—middle- to upper-class Egyptians, generally politically unmotivated and favoring stability above all else—were there all the while, waiting for someone to champion their cause and offer some convincing evidence of a drive to move away from that state of insecurity that was rife with chaos.
The situation has not changed significantly since then. But there is now a not insignificant degree of optimism and a readiness to wait until things change for the better. This is fed by a reasonable level of confidence in the approach outlined by the new president and in the form of government presented in the 2014 Constitution. In short, Egypt and the Egyptian people have a historic opportunity for their country to shift from hardship, paralysis and fear to a brighter future.
“The people” never gave anyone a blank check. They could not make any exception for the youth, because those young people no longer trusted the people and threatened to leave and join the 8 million other Egyptians who had already left at previous times in history. What the people know is that those who work and build for the sake of the people and their own sake are the ones who must search for the way out of the backwardness, poverty and weakness. However, this will not happen without building the political center in a country that is plagued by intense splintering and infighting.
The Muslim Brotherhood would never have achieved the gains they had made were it not for the weakness and fragmentation of the civil political center, inclusive of its extensions to the left and right of the spectrum. The youth, with all their vitality, knowledge and energy, were unable to translate any of these assets into anything but demonstrations, sit-ins, anger and mockery at the past and the present, and at Mubarak and Mohamed El-Baradei. They never empowered a coalition, created a party, or gained the backing of any political group. In short, they never succeeded in elections.
The “politics of the street” is not what the Egyptian people want today. Those who insist that Egypt will live or die on the basis of the protest law—on which I have registered serious criticisms and continue to maintain should be reviewed by the next parliament—should, perhaps, search for another “people”—one prepared to dedicate itself full-time to demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, anger and hatred.