Between a rock and a hard place

The poor turnout in the constitutional referendum last week shows that the democratic spirit that fuelled the popular uprising in Egypt in 2011 is now flagging. Writer and journalist Mansoura Ez-Eldin describes the current mood

By Mansura Eseddin

If we want to describe what is currently happening in Egypt, the word "madness" is not a bad place to start. After all, as we know, in times of madness, anything is possible. In Egypt, for example, it is in all seriousness possible for a hand puppet to be suspected of espionage – as is the case with button-eyed Abla Fahita, a puppet featured in advertisements for the mobile phone company Vodafone that has been denounced by a conspiracy theorist as a bearer of secret messages to the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also possible for a television channel to broadcast recordings of the private telephone conversations of political activists in order to denigrate them before the public – without a thought for the obligation to protect personal privacy.

It fits the current mood that writers and intellectuals are engaging in depressing and petty attacks against their peers, accusing them of working for the state as a "fifth column". And in general, people are blind to the violence with which the security apparatus is ensuring that no voice is raised above the one proclaiming the "war on terror" – the common formula used to describe the actions taken against the Muslim Brotherhood.

The power of the masses

In short, many are now girding themselves for battle, ready to pounce on anyone who thinks differently. They are caught up in the dream of an "ideal state", which would be nothing more than a homogeneous block whose inner harmony would not be disrupted by a single dissenting voice that dared to contradict the – alleged – "national consensus".

The "Egyptian street" is heaving and ranting, and it is ultimately the force that dictates the agenda, because parts of the elite identify with the masses, bend to its will and are evidently incapable of developing alternative visions. And even if they succeeded in doing so, they would still be unable to unite more people behind their cause than those who already share their views anyway.

That obscure, nebulous creature we call "the masses" has become the compass on which Egypt relies for orientation, the decisive weight in the scales determining the fate of political players. In the early days of the revolt, this creature bowed to the protesters and turned their demonstrations into a mass movement supported by large sections of the population. Then, in the parliamentary elections, it shifted its favour to the candidates standing for the Muslim Brotherhood and allowed them to reach for the power they had so long desired. Then it suddenly turned on the brotherhood, showing its teeth, once it became clear that the new rulers were putting their own interests before the well-being of the nation.

Opponents of the military during riots in the Cairo district of Gizeh (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
A new kind of violence: according to government sources, 49 people were killed and several hundred injured during street battles and protests in Cairo and Alexandria on the third anniversary of the popular uprising in Egypt. Following bloody clashes on Saturday, 25 January, the Interior Ministry also reported the arrest of 1,079 "hooligans"

In addition to the madness of the masses, there is a kind of obsession with the masses. Wherever you turn, you will find someone flattering or hailing the "people" – a strategy that harbours considerable dangers, as history only too clearly shows.

For the masses, which were in a great hurry to turn the page on the inglorious chapter of Muslim Brotherhood rule, the constitutional referendum was reason to celebrate. At first, the women and men dancing outside the polling stations made it look like a merry festival was taking place and not a ballot in a crisis-ridden country. But as such scenes were repeated, they became emblematic for this referendum, embodying a turning point in which joyful dancing and bloodshed are closely related.

The dance of the electorate

The voters' dancing was their challenge to the forces that had spread fear and terror with their bomb attacks in the run-up to the referendum, and their expression of confidence in being better patriots than those who ticked "no" on the ballot or failed to show up at all.

In any case, the referendum was less a vote on the new constitution than a fundamental pronouncement on the future path of the nation. There were voters who chose "yes" with great reservations, because the new constitution grants the military considerable privileges and allows for the conviction of civilians by military courts. Such votes may have been intended as a lesson for the Muslim Brotherhood or as being born of the feeling that the new constitution is at any rate the lesser of two evils compared to the one from 2012.

The arrests that accompanied the voting, harassment by the security forces of anyone who spoke out against the constitution, the propaganda that incessantly proclaimed that only those in favour of the constitution were true citizens – all of this cast dark shadows over the referendum, which can deservedly be called a ballot without a choice.

Nevertheless, its outcome can probably still be read as a sign of the devastating loss of popularity experienced by the Muslim Brotherhood, even more so as the brotherhood has also lost a tremendous amount of ground with the professional associations, which during the Mubarak era acted as a kind of shelter for the continuance of what was at the time a banned organisation.

At the same time, the vote was also a warning signal directed at the military apparatus, which was unpleasantly surprised when turnout failed to meet its expectations. At 38.6 per cent, it was only slightly better than in 2012, when the Muslim Brotherhood's draft constitution was adopted.

Supporters of General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi demonstrating in Cairo (photo: AP/picture-alliance)
"In addition to the madness of the masses, there is a kind of obsession with the masses. Wherever you turn, you will find someone flattering or hailing the 'people' – a strategy that harbours considerable dangers, as history only too clearly shows," writes Mansoura Ez-Eldin

The fathers outlive the sons

The Egyptian revolution continually betrays signs of being a war between the generations. In their slogans and statements, the young revolutionaries declared from the outset their desire to leave the past behind and to break out of the suffocating hierarchy of Egyptian society. From the unconditional authority granted to fathers in this country, it is only a small step to the image often invoked in authoritarian circles of the fatherly saviour dedicated to legitimizing the "just" dictatorship or the one "born of necessity".

Paradoxically, exactly the opposite has happened to what the young demonstrators had hoped for. Instead of the fathers passing away, we have witnessed over the past three years how the sons have been liquidated and their corpses mutilated, while the legend of the "fatherly saviour" was resurrected. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the passion with which millions of Egyptians idolise General Abdel Fatah as-Sisi and see him as the liberator who will save the nation from certain downfall.

The constitutional referendum also revived the idea of the "generational war" and clearly put it on the table. After all, it is no secret that many younger people waived the chance to vote. There were plenty of reasons for abstaining: scepticism about current developments, general disenchantment with politics or the fact that in the eyes of many, the heavyweights in the Egyptian power struggle – the military and the Muslim Brotherhood – do not represent very tempting alternatives.

Almost instantly, the propaganda apparatus of the new rulers began to launch attacks against the young people, speaking of an irresponsible and unpatriotic generation – until, that is, the directive was issued to change course and look for ways to somehow include this recalcitrant group in the complicated calculus of achieving national equilibrium. It remains to be seen whether the young revolutionaries, who were the driving force behind the resistance from the word go and paid a high price for it, will allow their dream of freedom to turn into a nightmare.

Whether or not this can be prevented depends not least on their ability to close ranks to the extent that they can take the stage as political players of any consequence. That could only happen if accompanied by unsparing self-criticism and an insight into the mistakes that made it impossible to amalgamate millions of demonstrators into a political force capable of turning the objectives of the revolution into reality, rather than expecting others to fulfil their aspirations for them.

Supporters of General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi demonstrating in Cairo (photo: Reuters)
Under the watchful eye of the army: on 25 January, the third anniversary of the revolution in Egypt, thousands of supporters of the military-backed transition government on Tahrir Square in Cairo celebrated the country's new strong man, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi

On the other side stands the Muslim Brotherhood – or what is left of the organisation after the wave of arrests in the last few months. It, too, would have to thoroughly go over its books, although the remorse felt to date seems limited to regretting that the organisation was unable to enforce its power more effectively when it had the chance.

The members of the brotherhood seem to oscillate between the self-assured assumption that their popularity has not been dented and angry denunciations of the "infidel population" that has turned against it. In this respect, the slogan that the demonstrating members of the Muslim Brotherhood have recently been hurling at the "people" speaks volumes: "We will liberate you, whether you like or not!" No wonder that those addressed by these slogans have often responded with physical anger.

However, the current persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood, the detention of leading figures in the organisation and its massive decline in popularity as a result of the brotherhood's miserable governance do not mean that it will disappear from the scene entirely.

Not only the Muslim Brotherhood itself, but also the current leaders have an interest in its continued existence, because, just as any repressive regime needs an opponent such as the Muslim Brotherhood in order to justify its power mechanisms, the Brotherhood also needs pressure from above in order to rise from the ashes after each scourge.

No room for the victims of the revolution

It is astounding how rarely the portraits or names of the over one thousand people who were killed in August when the Muslim Brotherhood's protest camp was cleared appear in their protest marches or graffiti. They are reduced to a mere number that is oddly hushed up by the organisation, while interest is focused solely on a single person: their imprisoned President Morsi. Or, rather, two people: General as-Sisi also preoccupies the Muslim Brotherhood, albeit in exactly the opposite way.

In their worldview, there is no room for any others between their beloved Morsi and his hated rival. Thus, their dead, like other victims of the political upheaval, have to wait for the hour when their fate will be dealt with before a fair court. The minister entrusted with such tasks in the new government has indicated that the present moment is not suitable for such undertakings, thereby tacitly admitting that it is generally not a particularly good time for justice.

There is little reason for hope – unless significant forces come together outside the current, polarised political field. What is needed are forces that no longer content themselves with shouting resounding, yet hollow slogans, but would instead dedicate themselves to reaching the original goals of the revolution by implementing a clear-cut, targeted political programme.

Mansoura Ez-Eldin

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung 2014

Mansoura Ez-Eldin, born in 1976 in the Nile Delta, is a writer and journalist. She works at the famous literary magazine "Akhbaral-Adab".

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/