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Nostalgia, Hope, and Fear on the Path to 30 June

[Protestor in Tahrir Square, [Protestor in Tahrir Square, "mourning" the current situation in Egypt. Image originally posted to Flicker by Mohammed Hassan Aazab]

[This is the first in a series of dispatches that Mona Atia will be sending from Egypt to present some views from the ground about the lead up to 30 June protests and their aftermath. As part of her annual research trips, she has spent the last month researching poverty politics, and on the way collected narratives of the revolution from Cairo, Sinai and Assiut.]

The sentiment on the streets of Cairo has changed immensely over the course of the past year. Last year people could not help themselves from talking about the presidential election. This year, everyone is talking about the current situation of the country—most notably, the everyday experience of living in instability, the impending face-off between what is popularly characterized as Pro-Mohamed Morsi and Anti-Morsi camps, and the golden question of what next? One of the most striking differences that I have witnessed between June 2012 and June 2013 is the magnitude of people’s hopes, fears, and nostalgia for the past.

Nostalgia

The number and diversity of people vocalizing lament for the 2011 uprising and its aftermath is striking. Last year, it seemed that it was mostly wealthy “feloul” (Arabic for remnants) who took the visible lead in mourning Mubarak’s downfall. Here I speak of “feloul” in a broad sense as the supporters and beneficiaries of the old regime. They had benefited from Mubarak era cronyism in incalculable ways, their sense of superiority over the rest of the country was profound, and they therefore clung to a system that enabled them to have a remarkably high quality of life. Yet this year, those very same “feloul” removed their fixation from the past and clung onto a new hope. They were no longer talking about Mubarak. Instead “feloul”, who seek to bring down the Brotherhood, have become vehement supporters of the Tamarod campaign, while numerous politically ambivalent working people vociferously lament the fall of Mubarak. Last year, many working people were nostalgic towards Mubarak, but they maintained a trace of hope that with the presidential election things might improve. This year, that hope seems to be replaced with a feeling of despair. Frequently, I would heard people say “we were better off under Mubarak,” and that Mubarak really was not that bad in comparison to what they are living now. A taxi driver from al-Haram said, “The economy was growing, things were improving. Yes, there was corruption but at least they knew what they were doing.” The working poor, who are struggling more than ever to get by each day, lament the fall of Mubarak and shake their head at the political stalemate the country faces. As one cleaning lady from Shubra said “Yes Mubarak was a thief, but at least we had safety and security. Now, we have nothing.”

A large portion of Mubarak-era nostalgia stems from widespread disenchantment with the current situation. From Salafists to feloul and onwards, I was hard-pressed to find anyone who approves of the direction in which the country is going. As one Sinai shuttle bus driver from Suhag put it, “What are we going to be happy about? We are out of work, we are out of gas, and we are out of electricity. Tell me, what do we have to be happy about?” Not a single person I encountered had something positive to say about the Muslim Brotherhood. Some defended Morsi on the grounds that “we did not give him a chance.” Others suggested that since Morsi was democratically elected he should be allowed to complete his term: “It will never end. In Western democracies, many presidents face opposition. But people cannot just decide to remove the president. What is happening now is chaos.” Others voiced anguish at the lack of political progress “Is it even possible to have democracy in this country? We do not even know what we want.”

Hope

Alongside this strong sense of nostalgia, there is a whiff of hope. Over fifteen million people have signed onto the Tamarod campaign, removing their faith in President Morsi and calling for early elections. Hope was most palpably emanating from the thousands of volunteers deployed throughout the everyday spaces of the capital and expanding across the country in order to collect signatures and persuade people to go down on 30 June. On a visit to Upper Egypt, a factory worker told me that even though Assiut was generally “Muslim Brotherhood land” Tamarod had collected 650,000 signatures there and protests were planned for 30 June in the city square. On 26 June, the day of President Morsi’s epic two and a half-hour speech,Tahrir Square filled again with signs reminiscent of the eighteen days, people chanted “irhal” (leave) and many even referred to the speech as “speech #1,” in reference to the countdown of speeches leading up to Mubarak’s departure. In general there is merely a whiff of hope, but among the believers there is great confidence that when the time is right and should the people choose to do so, the populace is empowered to remove Morsi just as they removed Mubarak. As a boat captain from Qena told me, “We took Mubarak down in eighteen days. If we want to take down Morsi, we will take down Morsi.”

Tamarod also bears some semblance to the eighteen days in that it is able to create solidarity by campaigning against something rather than for something. The only affirmative declaration in the Tamarod campaign is for early elections. In seven bullet points, the rest of the platform is articulated in the negative: a removal of faith in Morsi based upon a lack of security in the country, the plight of the poor, a critique of begging for loans from abroad, disappointment at the lack of justice with regards to the martyrs, the lack of dignity among individuals and for the entire country, the collapse of the economy and persistent cowtailing to the US. The strength of the Tamarod campaign lies precisely in its ability to build consensus around what people do not want. The pledge, rather than offer a correction, highlights everything that is undeniably wrong in the country. “The average citizen still has the feeling that nothing has been achieved so far from the revolution[ary] goals which were life in dignity, freedom, social justice, and national independence,” reads Tamarod’s petition.  The question still remains, what does dignity, freedom and social justice actually look like and how will those goals be attained?

On 26 June, Tamarod attempted to articulate a transitional roadmap for what should follow if they succeed in removing Morsi. It launched the 30 June Front calling for the Head of the Supreme Constitutional Court to take on the duties of the president, and for the appointment of an independent prime minister “who represents the January 25 Revolution” to take on actual executive powers for a six-month transitional period. During this six-month period a new interim, technocratic cabinet would be formed to create an economic plan and policies oriented towards social justice. Presidential elections under judicial supervision would occur after six-months followed by parliamentary elections. The roadmap also calls for the current constitution to be suspended, the Shura Council to be dissolved, and a new committee to be formed to draft a new constitution.

In what seems to resemble a déjà vu, many questions that surfaced during the eighteen days are reappearing now, namely: Who represents the January 25 Revolution? Will more “temporary” governments prolong the instability period? How do you build consensus when the divides within the population become entrenched and are growing by the day? Furthermore, what exactly constitutes a social justice agenda? Getting out of the current economic quagmire will most certainly take more than six months. What happens to the hypothetically marginalized Brotherhood?

Thus, while the Tamarod campaign pushes forward this new “hope” agenda, many of those who participated in the first two years of the revolution are far more skeptical of the spaces of possibility the country now faces. They highlight the naivety and inexperience of the Tamarod campaign and dread what they see as the impending and inevitable violent confrontation on 30 June (with incidences already reported in Mansoura, Minoufaya, Fayoum, and Alexandria). Many of the “old” revolutionaries feel there is no possible positive outcome out of 30 June, and so they tentatively surge ahead into the darkness of the unknown future, in hope there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Meanwhile, members of a new brand of “feloul” are no longer longing for a return to the Mubarak era but rather see themselves as the “new” revolutionaries. These “feloul” seem to be the most hopeful of all. They enthusiastically embrace the instability as an opportunity and are confident in their ability to bring down the Brotherhood. Many of those who most resisted the fall of Mubarak have become the most vociferous supporters of the change narrative. They are calling on their neighbors, friends, colleagues, and everyone they know to go down on 30 June to bring the country onto a new path. I heard “feloul” declare in a Arnold Schwarzenegger kind of way “Egypt will be restored on June 30.” Of course it makes sense that “feloul” would be against the Brotherhood but this new revolutionary identity also marks a definitive break from the past, bringing new complications to our understanding of the political actors on the ground.

At first I read the changed tone of “old” revolutionaries and “feloul” as a sort of revolutionary role reversal. But as I spent more time with each side, I started to understand that what appeared to me as ambivalence was actually fear and what seemed like an evangelical revolutionary spirit in the feloul, was a new attempt to secure their own political-economic interests. For now perhaps we are witnessing a fragile unity between “old” and “new” revolutionaries who have bonded over their call for the end of Brotherhood rule. An important actor, however, holds the wildcard: the military. The anti-Morsi camp can be further divided by their prevailing attitude towards the military. Most of the feloul revolutionaries, if they can be called as such, favor military intervention, while the “old” revolutionaries sickeningly remember the days of SCAF rule, when they chanted “down, down with military rule.” There are reports that the former group has plans to resort to violence while the more seasoned revolutionaries continue to be dedicated to peaceful demonstrations while remaining fearful of Brotherhood retaliation.

Fear

In their analysis of continued protests after 2011, many commentators asserted that the “fear barrier has been broken.” While I certainly heard many people say that they have no fear and are prepared to die, I heard plenty of people say the opposite. In fact, the number one reason I heard from people not planning to protest on Sunday was fear—fear of violence and retaliation, fear of the lack of a viable leader, fear of civil war, fear of further instability, fear that “If we remove Morsi then we elect someone else, then the Brotherhood will protest and we will be back at square one…It could never end.” It seems that at least some of the hesitancy to remove Morsi stems from the newfound sense of empowerment among the people that their will is stronger than the circuits of power. And along with that a sense of empowerment comes a fear that removing Morsi could be the beginning of a never-ending cycle of instability in which no one will be able to rule the country.

So while at least fifteen million agree that Morsi’s rule has been incompetent, partisan and undemocratic, and that the country is most definitively worse off now than it was one year ago, fear of bloodshed as well as the uncertainty of the future is choking the nation. As one revolutionary told me “We are going down on 30 June to protest, they are coming down to kill us.” Many fear that the Brotherhood will attack peaceful protesters on Sunday while others simply fear clashes between the two groups will turn violent. In his 26 June speech, Morsi warned protestors that martial law would be deployed towards anyone threatening state institutions, further exacerbating the fear.

As 30 June approaches, and the Brotherhood clears its throat, flexes its muscles, and gasps for what might possibly be its last breath, the atmosphere is mixed with the intoxicating fumes of nostalgia, hope and fear. Even those willing to assume that Morsi can be successfully dethroned highlight a process ahead that is full of question marks and uncertainties: If the protests get large enough on 30 June, will anything change? If violence occurs, will the military intervene? If the military intervenes, will things be worse than they are now? The emotional storm brews as nearly everyone in the country is gripped with anticipation, exhausted from the past two years and quite literally running on empty. Nonetheless, it seems to me that protesting on 30 June has become a matter of national dignity. And as such the revolution continues.

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