The Grit of the Long Haul: Incremental Progress in Post-Mubarak Egypt

By Elizabeth Pond

Last year Egypt’s 20-somethings displayed courage in defying Hosni Mubarak’s camel-back thugs at Tahrir Square. Incredibly, they toppled the autocrat of 30 years in what they call simply "the revolution."

Today, after Egypt's military council reimposed martial law and Mubarak-appointed judges effectively dissolved the country's first freely elected parliament on June 14, the 20-somethings need a different kind of courage—the grit of the long haul.

Mohammed Alsayed Mohammed, one of the medical students who was politicized by last year's Arab Spring and rushed to Tahrir to minister to injured protesters, saw two of his classmates shot and killed by security forces. Lamah Anas Mostafa Kemal, a law graduate of the University of Cairo and the Sorbonne and a non-profit activist in health issues, took a bullet on her chin that still lodges there; her brother Mohamed took buckshot to his face. Dalia Ziada, under threats of court action and imprisonment by security agents of the interim military council that took over after Mubarak's ouster, gritted her teeth, disbanded the American-funded human-rights organization she had built up over several years, ran as a candidate in Egypt’s first free parliamentary election last January, and lost. American University graduate Ibrahim El-Houdaiby broke with his family's tradition by quitting—over "political differences"—the Muslim Brotherhood that his grandfather and great-grandfather had served in senior positions; he is now studying for an M.A. in sharia, but he advocates democratic reform in Egypt rather than a global Islamic community with sharia law.

Their sacrifices were painful for all of these participants in a quo vadis seminar sponsored by the Salzburg Seminar and the American University in Cairo on June 9-10. Their losses were bearable, however, because of what they achieved. The protesters blocked Mubarak's son from inheriting his father's power. They repeatedly filled Tahrir Square, as occasion demanded, to foil attempts by the Supreme Military Council to violate its promise to open up politics beyond the old clientelist elites.

What is not bearable for these Tahrir veterans following Thursday's judicial lightning bolt, though, is the threatened default back to hierarchical "pharaonic" rule, as some call it. Already, arbitrary decisions by the old judiciary and the military council that has governed Egypt in the 18 months since Mubarak was forced out have helped to reduce the presidential runoff this weekend to a dismal choice between Mubarak's last prime minister and the candidate of the perennial latent opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of the participants in the American University seminar leaned toward boycotting the runoff altogether or else crossing out both names on the ballot: the 71-year-old Ahmed Shafiq, one-time commander of the air force and unrepentant supporter of Mubarak, and the 60-year-old third-rank Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi.

The one passionate dissenter to rejection of both candidates at the American University brainstorming session was El-Houdaiby. He argued prophetically (in light of Thursday's judicial ruling and Shafiq's triumphant speech hailing it) that at this stage votes must go to Morsi. "We do not have the luxury of disappointment," he warned. If Shafiq wins, there will be no counterweigtht to the counterrevolution. By contrast, he contended, if Morsi wins, the Muslim Brotherhood will be held in check both by the still powerful military and by the chastisement of having lost five million popular votes in the half year since it won a plurality in the now disbanded parliament. This should open up space for younger reformers within the Brotherhood to adopt more modern policies fit for all citizens in Egypt's diverse society.

Most of the brainstorming by the Tahrir veterans at the American University campus had less to do with the immediate presidential election than with their own priorities in the next, more ambiguous stage of "the revolution." Most focused on such pragmatic actions as campaigning for a liberal post-Mubarak constitution with equality for all and procedural as well as substantive rights. They want to monitor elections, police violence, torture in jail, intimidation by targeted sexual harassment and rape of women protesters, and other instruments of control by what is still basically a one-party state. They further intend to support colleagues who have been indicted in the aggressive prosecution of Western-funded pro-democracy NGOs that the military rulers have branded treasonous. In the long term, they aim to build incubators of both business and political skills, bring literacy to the 28.6 percent of the population who cannot read, and improve Egypt's poor education. The stress at the seminar was on grass-roots micro more than on macro efforts for the new stage that began far sooner than they had expected, within days of the seminar's adjournment.

What was unusual about this session was not only the concentration of young Tahrir veterans, but also the bonding of the generations present. Several of the Tahrir generation recalled sneaking to the square in January of 2011 because they were more scared of their parents' anger at their lethal risk-taking than they were of police bullets and torture. And only one older participant complained about the lack of respect shown by young adults who reject the wisdom of their more cautious elders and have not internalized the fear of the Mubarak machine's savage repression. 

By contrast, the guru of many of the young activists, grandfatherly American University sociology professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim, has his own badge of time served in prison in the Mubarak era. His crime was making public Mubarak's then-secret plan to bequeath power to his son. Ibrahim is so convinced of the value of political participation by all citizens that on his release from jail he persuaded a Coptic businessman to give a million Egyptian pounds to some friends he had made among his fellow prisoners, ex-convicts who happened to be jihadists, to form a party of their own.

Lamah's mother, Randa Achmawi-Whitley—whatever her pangs about her children's instant march to Tahrir Square 18 months ago—was already a pioneer in taking the fight for women's rights to unreceptive villagers in patriarchal upper Egypt. Mohammed El Dahshan, professor of development economics at Cairo's Ain-Shams University with degrees from Cairo University, Harvard, and Sciences Po in Paris, conceded, "conditions are more difficult now." He advised the young at the seminar how to adapt to the post-heroic stage that would soon come. In the messy real word, El Dahshan advised pragmatically, take one step at a time into the unknown, reassess the situation, and then take the next step (or retract a false step).

The Tahrir generation goes away from this week's seminar—and this week's setback to their revolution—with few illusions about the enormity of the task they have set themselves. They show a palpable yearning to acquire the experience, fast, to enable them to make right on-the-spot judgments in the unknown terrain they are entering. They know how little they know, and that is perhaps the beginning of the courage of the long haul.



Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Endgame in the Balkans.

[Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera]

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