Taking stock: What comes after the elections for activists?

Towards the end of the presidential elections, Egypt Independent met with a group of nine young activists to take stock of the revolution. Recent developments have been less than kind to them and those who have for the past 17 months demanded revolutionary change to the state and its institutions. But when asked if they thought the 25 January revolution’s chances of success were lost, only two of the nine replied affirmatively. The rest were sanguine, with their eyes fixed on the long term. What is happening now is the normal course for a revolution negotiating with the past, they said. And there is still much work ahead in the future.

A runoff between a pro-military Ahmed Shafiq and the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy has confirmed how the revolution is cornered between two of the most deeply entrenched institutions in Egypt, or, as some revolutionaries have more vehemently put it, between the plague and cholera. Even with the latter’s win in the presidential election, power sharing is a question that is controlled nowadays by only the SCAF and the Brotherhood. The former has appropriated the legislature after the dissolution of Parliament. The latter is rejoicing over its newly acquired executive powers. And the constitution writing remains a battle between the two.

“This is the normal development of a vanguard revolution. It will have to spend its time dealing with the forces of the past,” said Mohamed Qamhawy, a student in the Faculty of Engineering and an activist with the Social Democratic Party. “They are the past. We are the future.”

The grassroots

Asmaa Nour, a young activist from the working-class neighborhood of Matareya, is one of the two activists who believed the revolution has failed. “It’s great that we’re a vanguardist lot, but we failed to reach the street. We have to face it. The street is against us.”

Nour’s opinion is not just based on theory. She is also a member of the Social Democratic Party, which formed after the uprising and attracted hundreds of young members, many of whom were brand new to politics.

Through her late father, a Salafi sheikh, Nour learned how Islamist groups worked at a grassroots level, conducting charity work and targeting recruits. “Once you’re targeted, you’re totally absorbed and isolated from society in a military fashion,” she said.

Nour has helped her party gain access to her conservative, working-class neighborhood by organizing caravans providing medical treatment.

For Nour and other activists, the purpose of the medical caravans is to help with healthcare, while also talking about the right to it that has been neglected. “It’s about politicizing development, understanding that the political process is about bringing about one’s needs,” says Suzy Balaban, a publisher who takes part in the medical caravans.

But this battle takes place over time. Balaban, Nour and others don’t feel that they have yet made a difference through the medical caravan project, which they have been running for a year.

Islam Amin, a film director, did feel a difference. “I realized that we’re the ones who are in need of these caravans,” he said. The experience helped him break a lot of stereotypes and pre-conceived classifications of people. “It’s through this kind of work that I started understanding our differences and the need to uphold them, as opposed to falling into the empty rhetoric of unity.”

Mohamed Qasim, one of the administrators of the We Are All Khaled Saeed Facebook page, famous for its mobilizing power before and during the revolution, says that there’s something interesting in the political lucidity displayed by people nowadays. “When I was praying at the mosque [in Matareya] a few days ago, the sheikh started promoting Morsy. People rose angrily and asked him to stop mixing religion with politics. I was pleasantly surprised. These are important details.”

Similarly, Akram Ismail, an engineer and member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, revels in talking about how revolutionaries need to be attentive to the voices of the people, whose discourse, electoral choices and overall ambitions are evolving simultaneously with the political elites’.

Accordingly for Ismail, the 800,000 people who voted for revolutionary parties in Parliament and the 9.4 million people who voted for presidential candidates close to the revolution need to be understood as an electoral bloc and capitalized upon.

“We have to think of horizontal models of organizing, think of Tahrir as a philosophy, an inspiration for human organizing, beyond its immediate political function, and take it from there,” said Mohamed Saif, a member of the Social Democratic Party, thinking of the need to create successful models, from economic cooperatives to political parties. Amin bets on municipal elections, as a way for the revolution to inhabit the state and move from the “national” to the “local” in politics.

Saif sees the imminent death of top-down models of governance for Egyptians. “The state has no rent to buy people’s allegiance,” he says, adding, “The populist opposition model is not responding to actual needs either.”

The military’s main opponent, the Brotherhood, is “doomed to fail,” said Ismail. “They are fighting with the military with the same tools and on the same grounds of the 1952 military regime,” said Ismail.

Many talk about Egypt’s revolution as one that seeks to upturn the post-colonial military regime that has traded people’s freedoms for the security of the state since 1952.

The elites

Many consider self-critique the key to moving out of the current impasse.

The most powerful political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, claim they are willing to critique themselves when necessary. “The movement has been historically conducting self-critique,” said Ali Khafagy, a youth leader in the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

Though Khafagy doesn’t like to talk publicly about where the party went wrong, the Brotherhood “has the right to protect itself by having these conversations internally.”

“What is for sure the case is that all voices are heard and democracy is our practice,” he said.

Kharfagy admitted that the Brotherhood has made mistakes over the past year, including the first formation of the Constituent Assembly, which was dissolved through a court ruling after being criticized for its Islamist control. He also said that the Brotherhood’s earlier decision not to contest the presidential elections, which it later reversed, was a mistake. Morsy gave the same two examples in a recent television interview.

As for the secular forces, the few political elites who are conducting self-critique talk about how frantic they were about undoing the past without having a clear vision for the future.

“Our first mistake was to pressure for the abrogation of the 1971 Constitution, without having a real alternative,” said Amr al-Shobaki, a political scientist and a former independent liberal MP in the dissolved Parliament. The replacement of the 1971 Constitution was a Constitutional Declaration issued by SCAF, which has paved the way for the current transition, dubbed troubled and bumpy by everyone.

“Every time civil forces called for the dismantling of the institutions and mechanisms of the old regime, they offered no alternatives. It’s in this void that the Islamist forces thrived,” he said. “It is not a matter of antagonizing state institutions or exacting vengeance from them. It’s a matter of reforming them in order to salvage the state.”

Salvaging the state means different things for different people across the spectrum, from Islamists to leftists, reformists to revolutionaries, and others. But as much as the current moment is perceived as an impasse for many, it is also a moment for reflection, regrouping and revision.

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