Picking Up the Pieces
Echoes of a Revolution in Tahrir Square
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2012
Updated: Thursday, July 5, 2012 09:07
CAIRO — As the crowds marched to Tahrir Square Wednesday, a sense of excitement coursed through the dusty air. Young boys sold Egyptian flags. Vendors smoked sweet potatoes in wheeled wood burning stoves, weaving their carts amid the throngs of people. The national colors of red, white and black bedecked both graffitied lampposts and painted faces.
The day was declared a national holiday to mark the first anniversary of the 18-day uprisings that brought down former president Hosni Mubarak on Jan. 25, 2011. Although many of the hundreds of thousands of protesters refused to call it a celebration, the overall mood in the streets of Cairo was that of proud defiance. For the youth who helped define the early stages of the revolution, it was a day of mixed feelings.
“We’ve been so close to danger,” Sarrah Abdelrahman, a 24-year-old youth activist and award-winning video blogger, said. “Normal 24-year-olds don’t talk about ways to prevent getting eyes poked out from rubber bullets.”
But the successes of the revolution, which allowed for the first freely-elected parliament since 1952, the freedom to form political parties and an opening up of the media, still haven’t convinced many protesters.
“But what are we celebrating? We’re still fighting for the same thing,” Deena Abdelmonem, a senior studying at The American University in Cairo said. Many Egyptians share Abdelmonem’s frustration, disillusioned by slow progress since the revolution began a year ago.
“The old regime has not gone away. It has regrouped,” Dina Shehata, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said. Shehata cites the continuation of the state of emergency law, military trials of civilians and human rights violations as still-unsolved issues. “The fundamental structure of the state remains unchanged,” she said.
This political plateau has alienated many young people who stood at the front lines of the revolution last year. According to Shehata, youth involvement has diminished in the past year because Egyptians now see parliament — not the protesters — as the legitimate representatives of the people.
“I think the role of the youth now is the voice of conscience, or a pressure group, that will edge whoever is in power to respect freedoms and so forth,” she said. “But they have failed to organize themselves as a political actor.”
From the parliament’s 498 seats, only eight members went to The Revolution Continues Alliance, a coalition dedicated to answering the demands of the protests. “They’re not government people,” Abdelmonem said. “They’re revolutionaries.”
Marwan Abdel-Moneim, also a senior at the AUC, explained that parties such as the 25 of January Youth Movement did not succeed at the polls because of poor funding and lack of political experience.
“Their campaigns were really bad. You wouldn’t see them in the streets,” he said.
According to Abdel-Moneim, rumors of electoral fraud cast a pall over the legitimacy of elections in the minds of the protesters. But, he admits, “This was the best election we’ve had. Other elections were even messier.”
Compared to the more established parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s decades-old Freedom and Justice Party, startup candidates don’t stand much of a chance. But the fundamental stumbling block for youth revolutionaries is the anarchic flavor of their movement.
“It’s not that the people who have been protesting want to be a part of the system or want to be a part of power,” Abdelrahman said. “It’s a revolution on the system itself. … We don’t want power to exist, because power corrupts.”
Abdelrahman said that parliamentary elections may placate the public, but problems remain with the ruling military junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. According to Amnesty International, the council has committed human rights abuses — from trying civilians in military courts to killing protesters — that in some cases exceed the brutality seen during Mubarak’s rule. Recently, the junta has come under fire for subjecting some female jailed protesters to “virginity tests” and torturing others.
“How can you be concerned about parliament when you still have people being killed in the street?” Abdelrahman said.
Calls for SCAF’s exit were loud and insistent at Wednesday’s gathering in Tahrir Square. A popular Arabic chant among anti-SCAF protesters translates to “Down, down with military rule!” Another group marching to the square brandished a larger-than-life effigy of the council’s leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and shouted for his removal. If their message wasn’t clear enough, signs emblazoned with the Twitter hashtag #f***SCAF emphasized the point.