The Revolution that Wasn't

“I am not a hero. I was only using the keyboard, Mona, on the internet, I never put my life in danger, the real heroes are the ones on the ground. … This revolution belonged to the internet youth, then the revolution belonged to the Egyptian youth, then the revolution belonged to all of Egypt. It has no hero, no one should steal its thunder, we are all heroes.”

—Wael Ghonim, Google executive and an architect of Egypt’s January 25 revolution; interview (in Arabic) on Dream TV, February 7, after release from imprisonment

November 20, 2011

They were doing it for dignity, they were doing it for Egypt, they did it for their sons and daughters and the wives they didn’t have yet, they did it for the hell of it, they did it because Fuck the Police, they did it just to do it in the street where everybody else was doing it: These mostly young men, wrapped in dark jackets and keffiyehs, breaking up sidewalks with poles and small boulders to create more ammunition to throw at the state security forces with frightening, insane confidence. They did it because it was now November and no longer January, they did it because they wanted their revolution back, they did it because they’d gotten used to doing it and had sworn they’d do it again.

They’d been throwing rocks since afternoon after setting a police truck afire and had gotten quite organized by the time I arrived at Tahrir Square after midnight. Self-appointed watchmen banged on the metal railings to warn where there was imminent danger, which seemed like it was almost everywhere, and volunteers lined up with vinegar and solution to purge the tear gas from stinging eyes and lungs as medical staff organized field hospitals to handle the wounded, whose numbers had already reached the hundreds. They’d seen this all before, after all. They were men of the square, there to fight and perhaps to die, and if they were to die, they already knew how they would go about it.

What happened to that dream of a revolution in January, the one that had Wael Ghonim weeping democratic poetry on Egyptian television? Thousands were injured in November. At least 40 perished, some by live fire. Ten months after a historic revolution, the liberal activists’ most effective weapon against authoritarianism weren’t ballots but “Ultras,” the fanatical and usually apolitical soccer hooligans with longstanding grudges against the police. They were some of the earliest young men to come fight, often joining each other in choreographed chants and shooting fireworks at security forces. Yet, just as in the old days, the brutality remained characteristically lopsided, and the old state-to-citizen violence, which returned a few days ago, remains the perfect expression of a resilient military machine still confounding the darling revolutionaries who thought they’d already overthrown it.

When I was in Tahrir Square and Mohammed Mahmoud Street in November there were no roving death squads methodically mowing down activists with Kalashnikovs, nor did police summarily execute the insurrectionists they captured. That’s not how Egyptian authoritarianism works. Instead, the state used its self-image as a moderate power as the baseline from which it applied a brute maximum of force: maiming activists and journalists with the incoherent use of nonlethal weaponry in occasionally lethal quantities.

I examined some U.S.-made CS gas tear-gas canisters used by the security forces that week. They were expired. They were designed to be used on targets 150 meters away, yet I saw the Egyptian security forces shoot them horizontally into crowds at less than half that distance. On the first night of the fighting, a field doctor named Shady El-Naggar told me the canisters had already broken a few jaws and skulls. Another doctor told me the buckshot rubber bullets some dubbed “cartouche,” with which the security forces often aimed high and blinded dozens of protesters, were worse. Yet the tear gas exacted its own brand of damage, sickening and asphyxiating uncounted protesters into unconsciousness, into wretched spasming, and — at least once near Mohammed Mahmoud Street — into death, as I watched a doctor flick the gleam of a flashlight over a young man’s corpse in a blackened alleyway filled with trash and moaning Egyptians. They carried his body away slumped sideways on a motorcycle like a limp piece of driftwood, another martyr for Tahrir Square and a little more fuel for its discontent.

Look first at the body of violence in Cairo and then at the clumsy and defensive government press conferences that follow, and you’ll see the organizational contradiction of killing without quite meaning to kill, but also without quite being too sorry about it. It was on display in January, in October, in November, and now, in December. There’s no particular reason to believe it will stop. The ruling military still clings to proposed supraconstitutional powers that would still trump any elected parliament, and the youth still cling to the streets in outrage. The junta has not shown that it will become less violent toward them over time. This is nothing new. It’s the continuation of a regime without coherence since 1952 with a million excuses for its own existence: First a force for Pan-Arabism and then a client state for America; first an administrator of socialism, then an administrator of the free market; first a transitional government paving a path to democracy, but ultimately, headed toward nepotism. The military now prides itself as the guardian of the January 25 revolution, once more carrying the torch toward liberty while aggravating the authoritarian circumstances that made revolution necessary in the first place.

It’s an unreal government, and like most authoritarian regimes, it’s upheld solely for the sake of having and keeping power. In philosophical terms, the continuation of means has, in practice, become the state’s only ends, no matter how incoherent. No act symbolizes this contradiction quite like the iconic footage of Egyptian soldiers beating, stripping, and stomping on a female demonstrator last week, forcefully exposing her naked torso and blue bra for the whole world to see — and then hastily covering her up. Egypt is a modest country, after all. And if you find anything about this contradictory and absurd, so have the revolutionaries now tumbling down the rabbit hole of contradiction themselves.

* * *

While most of the other young men were galloping terribly toward a thick blanket of tear gas and a hail of cartouche bearing their broken fistfuls of Tahrir, Mashhour Yassin carried his little yellow netbook to the front lines instead.

Fierce fighting had erupted on the corner abutting the American University in Cairo on that first night of the November uprising, but Yassin had his back to the action, smiling a little at the screen of his netbook as he made sure its camera was capturing the scene behind him. The gas clouds soon enveloped him when I tried to talk to him, and, dazed by inhalation, I had to help him off the front lines. His English was pretty shaky, and for some reason, I was holding his laptop and he was holding my notepad and pen as we stumbled toward safety. This is how friendships start in places and moments such as this. A few minutes later, after he got his bearings, he sat down on a crumbled sidewalk to post on Facebook. He supports the Muslim Brotherhood yet came to the square despite the organization’s controversial decision not to take part in the protests and he recently posted a proud photo on my wall of his son at the poll station on the day they went to vote.

In America, bloggers wear pajamas. In Egypt, the more fitting trope might be a set of hospital bandages or a pair of handcuffs. Journalist Mona Eltahawy was arrested, beaten, and sexually assaulted at a police station, and in the days after both her arms had been broken, she was appearing on world media to talk about it. During the first night of fighting, Twitter fixture Malek Mustafa had an eye shot out by security forces, and news of his injury appeared quickly in the Guardian. And almost everywhere around Tahrir Square, the protests took place in front of the graffitied image of Alaa Abd El-Fatah, who returned from a visit to Occupy Wall Street knowing he faced jail time in Egypt for refusing to participate in a military trial system that has prosecuted thousands of civilians since the January uprisings. He remains imprisoned for the cause.

This was the activists’ great gift: Capturing or experiencing the regime’s inexcusable brutality firsthand and then using technology and their facile grip of English to lower the barriers of entry for non-Egyptian, non-Arabic-speaking journalists (like me) to see what was happening and help blow the whistle. The fact that I am writing this to you is evidence of their value, and the January 25 revolution, instigated by the likes of the Google executive Wael Ghonim, was their greatest triumph.

Yet the mythology of a secular, liberal Arab Spring in Egypt, so helpfully forged by Western media, has proved deeply flawed and problematic. Where was the liberal answer to the Muslim Brotherhood? Why couldn’t the secularists agree on a political platform? Where were the retail politics and street campaigns to win over this new nation of first-time voters? As the first round of elections approached, it became clear the old hell of authoritarian contradictions that begat an opposition had begat an opposition incapable of deciding what it wanted: secularism or Islamism, capitalism or socialism, democracy wrought from the streets or democracy nominated from the polling booth. To oppose an incoherent regime had become an exercise in incoherency itself.

Among Egyptians, the tide of apolitical good feelings and brotherhood brought on by the revolution has now dissipated into finger-pointing and anomie as the military maintains its grip and Islamist groups cruise to one-sided victories. “There is a disconnect between the revolutionaries and the people, and that disconnect exists in regards of priorities,” wrote Mahmoud Salem, a blogger beaten by the police during the revolution who recently became a parliamentary candidate, in a recent blog post. “Our priorities are a civilian government, the end of corruption, the reform of the police, judiciary, state media and the military, while their priorities are living in peace and putting food on the table.” Salem lost his race.

Self-described young liberals Amr Bargisi and Samuel Tadros recently sapped the Tahrir myth in Tablet: “Other than the fact that a few dozen human-rights activists were present in Tahrir, there was nothing remotely liberal about the uprising. But that didn’t stop Western journalists from applying the term: Every Egyptian male without a beard was a John Stuart Mill, every female without a veil a Mary Wollstonecraft. Suddenly, Trotskyites were liberals, and hooligans nonviolent protesters.” Council on Foreign Relations analyst Steven A. Cook was far more blunt in a dispatch for Foreign Policy. “Tahrir Square smells like piss,” he wrote of the latest action, adding that “The instigators of Mubarak’s fall have seemed to be more focused on burnishing their revolutionary cred on Twitter and Facebook — which are not accessible to the vast majority of Egyptians — than doing the hard work of political organizing. For months, the revolutionaries have largely spurned the political process that began after Mubarak’s ouster.”

The closer they got to functioning democracy, the more the activists’ relevance seemed to wane. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood looked powerfully at ease. It had spent decades disciplining itself by surviving harassment from Egypt’s authoritarian regimes, building a grassroots religious and charitable network that tended to the needs of Egypt’s poor. They provided a tangible alternative to the regime. The liberals and secularists, who had clung to Occupy Wall Street-style political noncommittal, could make no such claim. In the months leading up to the first round of parliamentary elections in November, the Brotherhood organized a highly professional and organized political campaign that would not have been out of place in the West, while resentment from liberals grew as they suspected their Islamic brethren of executing political maneuvers rather than taking principled stands. “Welcome to the infidel section,” activist Rania Rifaat shouted at Islamists who overwhelmed a secularist sit-in on July 29, telling Time, “they are like the Jews — they always break their promises.”

What will the Muslim Brotherhood do once in power? It’s hard to say, and conspiracy theories abound among their opponents. But if and when the regime survives the current accordion-spasms of violence and protest, the only force capable of disarming the junta will likely be the Brotherhood. While some hypothesize that the organization sold its soul to work within a crooked system, everyone knows that it can and will win parliament while everyone else toils in chaos; in the land of perpetual deception and suspicion, of hidden plots and hidden hands, you can at least believe this much to be true.

* * *

The concept of peaceful revolution in Egypt has always seemed problematic to me. Dozens of police died during the winter uprising, and the November insurrection on Tahrir Square was largely sustained by violence; the accumulating bodies of stone-hurling youths who kept the police and their tear gas away from the square made sure of it. The Ultras in particular were key for their organization and their experience at violently confronting the police during previous clashes at soccer games. Yet they were mostly disconnected from the politics of the square and will likely remain disenfranchised by whatever parliament eventually reaches office. What purpose did they serve to liberal activists other than to bring their narrow capacity for violence? It’s hard to imagine anything particularly democratic or liberal about the Ultras other than to inspire the kind of clueless spectacles of state brutality that drive ever more protesters into the streets — except, of course, if those spectacles finally don’t.

And that’s the troubling part. If you walked four blocks from Tahrir Square during the worst of the November violence, life continued in Cairo as normal, with men hovering over board games at busy outdoor cafes and shopping resuming where it was physically safe enough to do so. There was no universal revolt when the military very publicly ran down Christian protesters with armored vehicles in October, nor when it subjected 12,000 citizens to military trials, nor when its soldiers shockingly stripped and beat the blue-brassiered woman in images that instantly raced around the world. “In the days since the picture of the demonstrator in the blue bra have emerged some men here have questioned her presence in the square in the first place, wondering why her husband or father let her go,” the New York Times noted. “Others have argued that she must have wanted the exposure because she wore fancy lingerie, or that she should have worn more clothes under her abaya.”

In other words, she probably deserved it. There was a women’s march Tuesday to express outrage at the inhumanity of sentiments like this, and some think that this demonstration actually changes the story, but it can’t change the psychology of many Egyptians who have either become desensitized to violence or openly disdainful of it to the point of toleration; all this despite the fact that it has at times exceeded the abuses of Mubarak’s reign. Has the focus on violence, of always responding to and meeting it, undermined the protesters’ cause? Any answer may now be too late in coming. Look at the Egypt outside Tahrir. Liberals face living under secular authoritarianism or an illiberal Islamist democracy, depending on the motives and the effectiveness of the Muslim Brotherhood. They dare not imagine life under the ultraconservative Salafis, whose Al Nour party has won the second-most seats so far despite believing that democracy is forbidden under Islamic law.

In the best-case scenario, the country’s activists brace themselves for an apocalyptic showdown with the regime that may never come while a real democracy passes them by. In the worst case, they stand helplessly on the precipice of watching the Arab Spring’s greatest success wither into its greatest disappointment, victims of history and of their own disorganization. This is the aftermath of their beautiful revolution.

Late on the coldest November nights on Tahrir, where the idea that the square still promised revolution hung thickly in the air, protesters burned trash — partially to clean the square, maybe also as a home remedy to ward off the ever present wall of tear gas, but mostly to keep warm. I watched a young man in a red hoodie sitting by himself, burning emptied-out boxes for chemical masks, solution to treat tear gas, and construction goggles. There was nothing else to do in Tahrir other than to run to the front lines and fight; no new chants, no grand plots or negotiations, only bodies trying to stay warm and waiting for the next military raid to happen. I sometimes think about that moment as I worry about Egypt’s liberals turning to nihilism — losing interest in the democratic process because they’re worn down by meeting the regime’s violence or frustrated by the disinterest of the countrymen they’d never quite connected with. I worry about Ghonim’s heroes of the revolution becoming something like the young man sitting on the square by himself, who, when he had nothing left to burn, got up and wandered away.