EX NIHIL NIHIL FIT *: REAL REVOLUTION IN CAIRO, OR NIHILISM ON THE NILE? (* “NOTHING CAN COME FROM NOTHING.”)

FIVE MONTHS OF WAITING
Sharif Abdel Kouddous
Foreign Policy, July 15, 2011

 

Five months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Tahrir Square has, once again, been transformed into a mass protest encampment and the epicenter of the struggle for change in Egypt. Thousands of protesters are entering the second week of a sit-in reminiscent of the one that captured the world’s attention during the 18-day uprising that began on Jan. 25.

At the heart of the matter is the feeling of many that the basic demands of the revolution have gone unfulfilled, with little indication that a path for real change lies ahead; that the calls for justice and accountability for members of the former regime and security forces accused of killing protesters have gone unanswered; and that the revolutionary demands of “bread, freedom, social justice” have all but been abandoned.…

In Tahrir, protesters have dug in for the long haul. The middle of the square has been converted into a tent city, complete with winding pathways, food stocking centers, and a hairdresser. Electricity has been routed from street lamps to power fans and recharge cell phones. Wi-Fi Internet connections and satellite TV have been set up. Protesters have organized popular committees to protect the entrances, sweep the streets, and make collective decisions about living in the square.…

The sit-in began after issues that have been simmering for the past five months boiled over in the last few weeks, culminating in massive demonstrations across the country on July 8—the biggest protests since the Supreme Council came to power.

The anger and frustration began to escalate on June 26, when the trial of the much-reviled former interior minister, Habib Al-Adly, and six of his aides was postponed for a second time. The victims’ outraged family members gathered outside the courthouse and pelted police vehicles with rocks as they drove away. Two days later, clashes broke out between police and relatives of those killed in the uprising at an event honoring martyrs of the revolution. The clashes quickly spread to the Interior Ministry and Tahrir Square, where thousands of demonstrators had rushed in solidarity, and escalated into the largest street battles between security forces and protesters since Mubarak’s fall. Security forces used rubber bullets, birdshot, tear-gas canisters, as well as reportedly live ammunition, in some cases, against the demonstrators and taunted them, some while brandishing swords. Protesters fought back with rocks and Molotov cocktails, and more than 1,000 people were injured. The fierce clashes convinced many that the security apparatus remains unreformed.…

Less than a week later, clashes erupted at a Cairo courthouse after a judge ordered the release on bail of seven police officers accused of killing 17 protesters and wounding 300 others in the canal city of Suez—widely viewed as the symbolic heart of the revolution. The ruling touched off two days of rioting in Suez, with hundreds of people torching police cars and trying to storm government buildings.… Over the past five months, only one policeman has been convicted—in absentia—for the killing of protesters during the revolution, in which nearly 1,000 people were killed. Over the same time period, more than 10,000 civilians have been tried in military courts, where they are routinely denied access to lawyers and family and receive sentences ranging from a few months to five years.…

Despite the scale of the July 8 protests and the open sit-in, there was no immediate reaction from the Supreme Council. Instead, in what activists saw as another provocation, the military announced that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi had sworn in a new minister of information, the Wafd Party’s Osama Heikal. The Information Ministry has long been viewed as an integral part of the state propaganda apparatus, and many believed the position, which had not been filled for five months, would remain vacant.…

On July 9, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf vowed to suspend police officers accused of killing protesters and said a panel would be created to speed up court cases against them and those accused of corruption. However, that same evening, the interior minister, Maj. Gen. Mansour Essawi, publicly contradicted Sharaf’s statement and refused to suspend accused policemen.…

A July 12 televised address by the council’s Gen. Mohsen el Fangari…warned that Egypt was “facing a planned and organized attempt to disrupt the country’s domestic stability” and that the Supreme Council “will take any and every action to confront and stop the threats surrounding the country.” In a gesture much-derided by the protesters, Fangari repeatedly wagged his finger at the camera and insisted the military “will not give up its role in administering the country in such a critical time in the history of Egypt.”

The statement did not have the desired effect. That afternoon, in an impressive display of force, thousands marched out of Tahrir Square to the parliament building and the headquarters of the Cabinet of Ministers, which were being guarded by the military a few blocks away. Chanting loudly, they called for Tantawi to step down and blasted the Interior Ministry as thugs. In the evening, Tahrir had its most crowded night since the July 8 sit-in began, with thousands of people crowding the square until the early morning hours in defiance of the Supreme Council.…

The next day, Essawi announced the early retirement of 669 senior police officers in what he called “the biggest shake-up in the history of the police.” While it did not release their names, the Interior Ministry said 18 police generals and nine other senior officers were let go because they were accused of killing protesters in the uprising. In Tahrir, the move was largely viewed as a cosmetic change that did not properly address issues of accountability or a restructuring of the security forces.…

The Supreme Council also announced that parliamentary elections originally planned for September would be postponed until October or November. Many political groups had wanted to delay the poll to give them more time to prepare, and welcomed the move.…

Yet as the days go by, more tents are being set up in the square—numbering between 150 and 200—with no end in sight. Many point to a list of demands put forward by a large number of groups taking part in the sit-in. They include: banning the use of military trials again civilians and the immediate release of all those sentenced in such trials; establishing a special court to try those implicated in the killing of protesters and the immediate suspension all implicated police officers; replacing the interior minister with a civilian appointee and the declaration of a plan and timetable for the full restructuring of the Interior Ministry; replacing the prosecutor general; holding public trials for members of the ousted regime; and replacing the current budget with one that better responds to the basic demands of the poor.

During the 18-day uprising, a common chant that rang out in Tahrir was “The army and the people are one hand.” Five months later, a more frequent chant you hear is for Tantawi to step down and for military rule to end. Egypt’s revolution, it seems, is far from over.

 

EGYPT: BOUND TO EXPLODE?
Mordechai Kedar

Independent Media Review & Analysis, July 22, 2011

 

…Six months [after the Jan. 25 revolution began] the situation in Egypt has only worsened, not improved. Unemployment, which stood at 25% during Mubarak’s rule, has risen dramatically. It is now estimated at 50% or higher, i.e. one of every two wage earners does not have a steady job. The rise in unemployment stems primarily from the disappearance of the tourism industry. Millions of tourists had arrived each year and provided good income for hotel, restaurant and nightclub workers; for taxi and bus drivers; for souvenir and clothing manufacturers; for operators of Nile cruises.… Since the outbreak of the revolution, there are hardly any tourists and those millions of Egyptians who directly and indirectly benefited from such visitors have been without income for six months. Since the unemployed consume less food, clothing and services, many other branches of the economy have suffered from the domino effect of the downturn in tourism. Only a very few of the tens of thousands of Egyptians who are now completing their academic studies will find work.…

Hopes that the new government would clean up the corruption in the public sector have been dashed. Police officers suspected of fatally shooting protestors in January and February have not been suspended, interrogated or put on trial for their crimes. Even Mubarak, allegedly responsible for the shooting of demonstrators, is spending the last few months awaiting trial in a Sharm al-Sheikh hotel rather than in prison.…

The question that has occupied Egyptians this past month is what should come first: should constitutional change precede elections, or should such change be the responsibility of the parliament to be chosen in the next elections. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces resolved the question by deciding to hold elections first; however, they continue to be postponed and are now tentatively scheduled for November. The dozens of new parties will not have sufficient time to organize, giving an advantage to the established parties including the Muslim Brotherhood; the split in that movement, however, has already given birth to five parties and it is unclear if all of them will ultimately run separately.…

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is playing a critically important role. On the one hand, the army took a sympathetic approach towards the revolutionary youth and ousted Mubarak from power. On the other hand, the military undertook the difficult task of running the country during the transition; of restoring the public’s faith in the government corrupt bureaucracy, which has remained largely intact; of stabilizing the economy and of conducting democratic elections in which a president and two parliamentary houses—the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council—would be chosen to jointly establish a government. The public, primarily the young people of the revolution, have well understood this difficult task and have generally accepted the decisions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces over the last few months.

However, this past month has seen a turning point: the army increasingly operates as a ruling body and less as an organization assisting the people in achieving their goals. The public is growing less and less enamored of the Council of Armed Forces and is already waving signs in al-Tahrir Square along the lines of: “Down With the Council of the Armed Forces”; “Council of Armed Forces—Your Credit Has Run Out; “The Revolution Continues”; “Stop Military Trials for Civilians Now”. The names assigned to recent Fridays express the public’s rage at the situation—“Friday of Rage” and “Friday of Warning”—with everyone understanding at whom the rage and warnings are directed.

The above developments have been clearly reflected in the behavior of one of the members of the Council of Armed Forces, General Mohsen Fangary. From the beginning of the revolution on January 25th, he supported the rights of citizens to express their opinions peacefully, and has been very popular among the masses. Two weeks ago, on July 12th, he appeared on local and international media and, in a frightening and intimidating tone, read a statement issued by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces while waving his finger threateningly: “…The council will not relinquish its role during this critical period in Egypt’s history.… Freedom of expression is guaranteed to all, but only within the boundaries of the law. Elections will be the first step, after which the constitution will be drafted. The special courts (i.e. military courts) will not be abolished. The army will not allow violent protests or the obstruction of economic activity; it will not permit the spreading of rumors and misinformation which could lead to disunity, disobedience and the dismantling of the homeland; it will give precedence to the interests of the public over those of individuals. The council will not allow anyone to seize power and will take the necessary measures against threats to the homeland.”

Millions of Egyptians listened with great concern to this threatening announcement, which made it clear to them—from no less than the thundering voice of the popular General Fangary—that the period of hugs and flowers had ended.…

In the next few weeks or months, the [Egyptian] Spring is liable to turn into the Egyptian Summer—hot, steamy, violent and repulsive—in which the cat will be let out of the bag and the youth of Al Tahrir Square will realize that they have replaced one group of officers with another, that instead of Mubarak, they have Tantawi or Fangary, all cut from the same cloth. If conflict erupts, Heaven forefend, it will take place between the revolutionary youth and the army, which, this time, might fire massively at them.

The army may in the interim throw protesters some bones, such as a show trial for Mubarak (if he lives), his wife and sons, and the public might even get to see them swinging from a rope in al-Tahrir Square; aside from momentary joy, however, this will not calm the street. The standing of the Israeli embassy and the peace agreement with Israel might also be impacted, because the army may employ such a stratagem to douse the flames.

In the event of major clashes between the army and the population, many Egyptians are liable to try and reach Israel via Sinai and the open border. Israel must prepare for such a scenario so that it is not caught by surprise when thousands of Egyptians arrive daily, fleeing the cruelty of their army.

 

EGYPT’S FUNDAMENTALIST SUMMER
Sarah A. Topol
Slate, July 14, 2011

 

The lease on the gleaming new headquarters of the Nour Party in Mansoura, a large city in the fertile Nile delta 90 miles north of Cairo, was signed just last week, and chairs still in their plastic factory wrapping are stacked against the lime green walls. Seated in the conference room, Sherif Taha Hassan, the spokesman for the local branch of this ultraconservative Islamist party, is beaming as we discuss its chances for success in Egypt’s first parliamentary election since the revolution, tentatively scheduled for the fall. “There is a large Salafi base in Egyptian society. Once people figure out the goals of the party and its [Islamic] reference, they will come to join,” Hassan says, grinning.

Before this spring’s Egyptian revolution, Salafis—adherents to a fundamentalist approach to Islam influenced by Saudi Arabia—eschewed politics.…

Today, Nour is printing shiny blue fliers, hand-painting placards, organizing community outreach meetings, and setting up volunteer medical teams to go into villages to treat the impoverished, as well as offering reduced-price prescription drugs bearing the party’s logo at participating pharmacies, subsidized by Nour. The first Salafis in Egypt officially to register as a political party, Nour has already set up offices in 15 of the country’s 27 governorates, more than can be said for most of the fledgling liberal parties, who remain worried about organizing effective nationwide campaigns before the vote.…

Salafism is not a singular ideology with one leader; instead, it is a broad conservative movement that includes some extreme views. Salafis aspire to emulate the ways of the Prophet Muhammad’s seventh-century companions, known as the saluf. In Egypt, most Salafi schools of thought are influential in particular geographic areas—Nour in Alexandria, Al-Fadila (Virtue) in Cairo, for example—and the possibility of alliances of different sheiks across the country bringing supporters to each other’s campaigns may help all the Salafis at the ballot box.

The Salafis trying to form political parties have thus far stayed mostly neutral when it comes to controversial issues, but individual Salafi sheiks have made harsh statements to the Egyptian media denouncing the possibility of a Christian president and the right of women to assume positions of power.…

Whatever their numbers, the presence of vocal fundamentalist parties in the next parliament, which will be tasked with selecting the 100-member council that will be drafting Egypt’s new constitution, may well affect policy discussions in this already conservative country. “The Salafis could drag the parliamentary debate further to the right by setting the standard for ‘Islamic authenticity,’ saying that they represent the true voice of Islam,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.…

Eventually, Hammad concedes, the Nour Party will attempt to apply the whole of its fundamentalist understanding of Islam, which includes archaic punishments, like stoning adulterers and cutting off thieves’ hands. “But this is according to steps. This is not in one morning, that if I am the president of Egypt, I will come and cut off your hand,” Hammad tells me. First, the Nour Party plans to fix the problems of economic disparity in the country, to reduce the factors behind such crimes, then, yes, it will move on to punishment.…

It seems that a popular uprising started in large part by young, liberal, Facebook-savvy activists has brought new opportunities for Egypt’s ultraconservatives.

 

CAIRO’S CONSPIRACY PASTIME
Editorial

Jerusalem Report, July 22, 2011

 

“We know the Israelis have spies here,” says Ahmad Sleiman as he carefully places his oranges in crates outside his fruit stand in the impoverished Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba. “So it’s logical to believe that Ilan Grapel was working for the Mossad,” he continues, as several of his customers nod in approval.

Across town in the equally rundown Shobra district, Muhammad Mustafa, a 51- year-old clothing retailer, echoes their fears. “The foreigners know we are weak now and the chance for destabilizing the country is high,” he says. “So we need to be extra careful these days after the revolution.…”

[Ilan] Grapel, 27, immigrated to Israel from the US in 2005 and was arrested at his hotel in Egypt on June 8, accused of inciting sectarian strife and gathering intelligence. The Emory University law school student came to Egypt to work with a non-governmental organization focused on helping African refugees, arriving before the February revolution that deposed Mubarak. He attended many of the rallies in Tahrir Square.…

Photos plucked from Grapel’s Facebook page show him dressed in olive fatigues, and were prominently featured on the front page of many Egyptian dailies, along with articles detailing his military service as a paratrooper in the Israeli Defense Forces’ 101st Battalion and his participation in the 2006 war in Lebanon against Hizballah. The media has listed the charges against Grapel, including claims that his mission was to deliberately foment tension between the protesters and the military during the 18-day revolution.

Al-Ahram, the leading daily under the Mubarak regime, alleged in an article that “Grapel is an integral part of the Mossad. He has experience and advanced training in the Mossad.…” Grapel’s family has denied the charges against him, with his mother Irene calling them “complete fabrications,” according to media reports. Despite the lack of substantive evidence, many in Egypt were quick to declare Grapel guilty. “The Israelis are always trying to pick up information in Egypt,” says Muhammad Asfour, a 42-year-old state employee. “Being a student provides a perfect cover to learn about the country.…”

The Grapel affair illustrates that Egypt’s transition to democracy is unlikely to reduce hostility toward Israel or to dispel beliefs that the Jewish state is responsible for many of Egypt’s woes. Furthermore, with an unbridled press publishing sensational accounts and new publications competing for readers, episodes such as the Grapel affair are likely to proliferate.

“Egyptians have been taught that Israel is the enemy. That won’t change,” explains a local journalist. “With no censor to moderate views, the media can say whatever they want. And that means writing the most outrageous things against Israel.”