Over the past sixteen months, much has been written about Egypt’s leaderless revolution, with many blaming its seeming sluggishness on the absence of a single figure to unite and represent the now fragmented revolutionary forces. To me, and perhaps others, Essam Sharaf was—however briefly—a potential candidate for this task. On 4 March 2011, right after his appointment as Egypt’s first post-revolution prime minister, Sharaf took the oath in Tahrir Square and spoke to thousands of protesters gathered in the area. I remember this day vividly. Back then it seemed poignant proof that the will of the people can actually be contended with, as the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) appeared to be conceding, by replacing deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s last Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq with Sharaf, a university professor and former Minister of Transportation who (allegedly) left his post during the Mubarak years in protest against government corruption.
It was a blissfully naïve assumption that a civilian prime minister could battle a powerful and deeply embedded military regime—the very regime that appointed him—but I wanted to believe in him. And when he told the protesters in Tahrir “I derive my legitimacy from the square and if I fail you, I will join you in the square again,” there was an overwhelming sense of optimism that perhaps the will of the people could actually be contended with, and Sharaf would lead us towards realizing the goals of the January 25 uprising.
Yet he did not. Time proved that good intentions have no leverage against the SCAF, and Sharaf suffered blow after blow to his confidence as he failed to reform the security sector and became embroiled in a much publicized power struggle with the Interior Ministry, to the point that then-Minister of Interior Mansour el-Essawy rejected Sharaf’s authority in suspending from service police officers suspected of killing protesters during the 2011 eighteen-day uprising. Meanwhile, protesters in Tahrir and other parts of Cairo were repeatedly attacked, shot at, and killed. It is difficult to forgive Sharaf for the violent attacks by security forces against unarmed protesters in Maspero, and Mohamed Mahmoud, which resulted in the deaths of around a hundred people with—at the very least—the former prime minister’s knowledge. Sharaf failed to react appropriately or decisively to the loss of life, save for pleas for peace and calm ahead of the 2011/2012 parliamentary elections. In November 2011, following months of rumored attempts at resignation (ten attempts, according to the former prime minister), Sharaf and his cabinet resigned. That was the last we heard of him.
Today, Sharaf has resurfaced in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, as the head of the African Union mission to monitor Libya’s General National Congress elections. When I met Sharaf in Tripoli, I had the most peculiar gut reaction. I could not look him in the eye, and then I felt an overwhelming urge to cry. It is as if seeing this tall, stooping man, with kind eyes and a gentle voice, reminded me of how much faith thousands of Egyptians had placed in him, and how that faith had been lost.
It is not entirely his fault. After all, he is one of many individuals that partisans of the revolution have turned into heroes and then torn to shreds. In Sharaf’s case, his shoulders sagged a little when I asked him how –
as prime minister – he had tried and failed to resign eight times.
[Down with Essam Sharaf, the slave of the [Military] Council. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy.]
“Well, they were more than eight times,” he conceded with a smile. Was a gun pointed to his head, preventing him from leaving his post?
He denied any blatant threats and explained: “Whenever a decision was made that the cabinet did not approve of or they did not like a decision we wanted to take, I would say, ‘Here’s my resignation, take it or leave it.’” The fact that he had to issue an ultimatum shows just how little leverage he must have had back then.
“There was a lot going on behind the scenes,” he said, and then paused. “A lot of dirty maneuvering, and that [resignation] was the only card I could play.”
When asked about the violence against protesters that took place during his tenure, he responded with a combination of defiance and remorse, as if he was aware that my position as a young Egyptian questioning him is possibly accusatory. He said: “Mohamed Mahmoud was the last straw. The attacks on the protesters happened without my knowledge, and without the knowledge of the Minister of Interior, and we could not tolerate that. So we resigned.”
I asked him why he never went on record about what happened “behind the scenes.”
“I could have turned myself into a hero after my resignation,” he said. “I could have gone to Tahrir and riled the crowds, but enough blood had been shed. It was right before the elections, and I wanted the situation to become peaceful.”
Offering himself as a culprit seems noble. Taking the blame and remaining quiet all these months is also commendable. He chose to explain this to me, as one of the millions he had disappointed, and said his door was always open to anyone who had questions. To prove his point, he gave me his card and invited me to his office for tea and a talk. Later on, I found out that he had opened his doors to many other young Egyptians, perhaps as his own version of whatever reconciliation he can offer to his former supporters.
“But for now, I will not speak publicly,” he said. “Maybe in the future when it is time to write history.”
The time for truth and reconciliation between Sharaf and the people that supported him may soon be over, and history may forget him and pigeonhole him as yet another face of a revolution that, as many concede today, was quickly engulfed by a military coup.
As a once vigilant optimist, I remember Sharaf riding on the shoulders of protesters in Tahrir the day after he was sworn in. Then, I had hoped that Egyptians’ desire for self-determination would finally be realized and validated through him. Today, I confronted him—an opportunity for which I am very grateful.
Instead of a once glorified hero, I found myself talking to an intriguing, kind, and familiar man, which in itself was an exhilarating experience as I—and millions of Egyptians—have never had a direct communication channel with any authority figure, let alone the very prime minister who governed Egypt for nine contentious months.
I had hoped that he would tell me that his hands were tied, that he would give me facts and figures to prove everyone’s theory: that he was well out of his depth in facing the military regime. Perhaps one day he will.
In the meantime, Sharaf is back at his job as a professor at Cairo University—in fact, he introduces himself as professor first, and, with an embarrassed smile, as former prime minister second. While he has clearly suffered in his inability to defend his name publicly and explain his decisions (or lack thereof) as prime minister, I hope that one day we will find out the truth.