With the level of anticipation so intense before 30 June, the day of mass protests planned against Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi, it seemed inevitable that expectations were to be dashed. But that day an estimated fourteen million Egyptians kept their date with their fellow citizens, and reminded many of the heady early days of the 25 January spark.
The following day jolted Egyptians from joy to deep tension. A totally different echo of 2011 was in the air. Egypt’s armed forces issued a statement. They claimed to endorse popular demands, and gave all political forces forty-eight hours to come to a solution. The day ended with provisional celebrations, but also with a sense of foreboding.
On 2 July, Egyptians flooded back into their squares. That night, they responded with their characteristic satirical humour to yet another echo from 2011, the president’s midnight speech. Protesters now await the inevitable standoff between the president and his army; most have situated themselves tactically with the latter, for the time being.
30 June 2013: Happy Echoes of 2011
Heading for Tahrir Square on Sunday, I joined the march beginning outside the Ministry of Culture. For over a week, a sit-in of artists have been there protesting the restrictive regulations introduced by Morsi’s new Minister of Culture. Organized citizens were handing out the placards and props that would colour this particular march. In our case, these were red cards for Morsi, a “go home” sign with US Ambassador Anne Patterson’s face on it, and clogs. In our demonstrations, the vuvuzela made way for the ub’ab. One woman wished to ensure that only female protesters could carry the clogs: “no, the men can’t have any!” Her comrades were then expected to beat them together in time with the chant Irhal! Irhal! (“Leave! Leave!”), as loudly as possible so that Morsi could hear.
The mood was jubilant as demonstrators realized the strength of their numbers. Seeking more still, they would stop periodically to encourage residents in their balconies to come down and join in. Every now and then I would walk along faster than the crowd, playing myself a sort of revolutionary soundtrack as one chant melted into the next. The most enthusiastically chanted slogans were those heard first in 2011: al-sha‘b yurid isqat al-nizam (“The People Want the Fall of the Regime”) and irfa‘ rasak fuq, inta masri (“Raise Your Head High, You Are Egyptian”). Other chants were new, specific to Egyptians’ experience of one year of Muslim Brotherhood rule. One of these referred warmly to former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, champion of secular pan-Arabism and hated by the Brotherhood. It was repeated throughout the day: ‘abd al-nasir alha zaman, il-ikhwan malhumsh aman! (“Abdel Nasser Said It Before, You Can’t Trust the Brotherhood!”.
In the march, solidarities threw out social conventions and hierarchies. For example, the celebrities somehow did not stand out as such to their fellow demonstrators. I marched next to renowned actresses Lubna Abd al-Aziz, Yosra and Mona Zaki, comedian Ahmad Helmi, heartthrob Karim Abd al-Aziz, popular singer Ali al-Haggar, and poet Zein al-Abideen Fuad. But there was no performance: they were attending this march as rebellious citizens, content to dissolve into the crowds. Television cameras were of course on hand to film the march, but this time they were using the media to send a political message of national import.
It had been a leisurely walk with plenty of stops. The drummers, the generations of families marching, and the employees cheering outside their shops, were all savouring their reclamation of the streets. When we arrived at the statue of Saad Zaghlul, figurehead of Egypt’s popular, anticolonial revolution of 1919, the scene was deeply symbolic. Zaghlul pointed the way forward, while scores of Egyptians were gathered at his feet, and hundreds moved in the direction of Tahrir. As I searched in vain for friends I had arranged to meet, our mobile networks long collapsed, I found myself welcoming strangers instead, as wave upon wave of demonstrators arrived from Cairo’s different districts.
Many of us spent the next three hours amidst the sea of Egyptians on Qasr al-Nil Bridge, trying to get to Tahrir Square, in vain. The reason could not have been better.
1 July 2013: The Ugly Face of 2011?
Waking up on 1 July, the mood was one of determination to continue. But if we had enjoyed reliving the spirit of 2011 the day before, then that afternoon, its dark side returned. The armed forces’ statement brought Cairo to a hushed standstill. This was promptly followed by excited cheers in the packed squares of Egypt’s main cities, united on the television channels’ split-screens. Immediately, people began speculating on the scenarios that might play out. Were we about to return to 11 February, swapping an authoritarian president for an authoritarian junta, and celebrating naively as we went? Two opinions quickly surfaced in social media and on television, both of which asserted a rupture with 2011.
A first group of concerned observers warned that the military could not be trusted. Remember the massacres SCAF committed against Copts in Maspero, they said, remember the US military aid, remember that the SCAF helped empower the Islamists in the first place! For these writers and activists, the cheering crowds were making a huge mistake. They lamented the Egyptian people’s short memories, and how quickly they claimed victories when there was a long struggle ahead yet. These were not the protesters of 25 January, they implied.
Meanwhile, other groups, some of whom have Islamist sympathies, alleged that the 30 June protests and their organizers were infiltrated by remnants of the Mubarak regime, and did not in any way represent the spirit of 2011. According to this camp, the army has been waiting in the wings all along, and the police officers who seemed to embrace the 30 June protests were in an alliance with the demonstrators.
That night, I finally made it to Tahrir. I found the atmosphere poised between that of a carnival and political protest. Fireworks regularly went off, and groups milled around, enjoying a pleasant summer breeze, and every now and then breaking into anti-Morsi chants. Young girls ran around in groups, giggling, all sporting bandanas reading irhal. Parents bought sweet corn for their children, wearing red cards printed with the 30 June logo. Then suddenly, military helicopters appeared and dropped Egyptian flags onto the square. The crowds greeted the gesture with cheers, lighting up the helicopters with their green laser sticks.
Both critical camps seized upon these scenes. From what I saw, however, many Egyptians’ celebrations of the army statement so far have been largely tactical. The demonstrators have displayed a resolve to unseat Morsi that reveals the number of lessons they have learned since 2011, the memories they do keep of the martyrs they have lost, and the promises their leadership has broken. The Tamarod (“Rebellion”) campaign has announced that 30 June 2013 is the completion of the work left undone on 11 February 2011: the day the SCAF took over. Demonstrators I spoke with explained that they are determined not to leave the square until a proper democratic process is established, and that they are moving one step at a time. For me, this is the rupture with 2011, that there can be no deja-vu.
2 July 2013: New Lessons since 2011
I returned to Tahrir Square on 2 July, and stood again under the fireworks and the military helicopters. Despite the heterogeneous crowds around me, many clearly at their first protests, none of the placards or slogans deviated from the core message against Morsi. In the absence of any direction from platforms or politicians, there was a remarkable self-imposed discipline on display. I thought to myself, how can activists who celebrate people’s struggles then distinguish between “genuine” or “original” revolutionaries and others? The diversity of these crowds surely makes them more representative of the Egyptian will, and their vocal criticism of US policy shows the sort of army they claim. Tamarod even called on the army to expel the US ambassador, challenging the army to raise its game. Meanwhile, the demonstrators’ delight in their ownership of public space has been very resonant with 2011, and is just one more symptom of their grievances against Morsi for continuing Mubarak’s socially alienating policies.
This is a gut feeling, but is also based on the record of a revolution continuing since 25 January 2011, with many setbacks and divisions, as well as mass mobilizations that have intervened to correct its course. Moving amidst these massive numbers of people over the past three days, one feels cautioned not to underestimate them. After a year and a day, millions of Egyptians have dealt a powerful blow, some say a death-blow, to a formidable, international Islamist organization, which originated in their country. A deeply religious people, they have recoiled from religious rule, because it did not deliver the revolutionary demands of “bread, freedom, human dignity.” This is a lesson in itself. Another is that if we are to jump from the frying pan into the fire, as some say we did in 2011, it will be down to the divisions and incompetence of those who claim to speak on behalf of the Egyptian people, and it is this fate that we must be wary of today.
A test of the demonstrators’ resolve came on 2 July at midnight, with Morsi’s sudden speech and the news of violence that followed. Morsi appeared by turns shaken, unhinged, and defiant. He refused to back down, and gave listeners a choice between his “legitimate” rule and a scenario of violence and civil strife. It was another replay of 2011, a Mubarak redux: the ousted president used to say ana aw al-fawda (“it’s either me or chaos”). I watched the speech in a café, and despite its terrible implications, that hour was the highlight of my day. I could barely concentrate for the wisecracking of a very sharp team of waiters, who would not let a single one of Morsi’s unfortunate turns of phrase pass unmarked. Laughter echoed into the café from the street, and we shared our reactions with passers-by. The same solidarity of common purpose dissolved boundaries again.
We decided to drive out to Itihadiyya Presidential Palace sit-in afterwards, which was full of demonstrators, and some revellers, at one in the morning. As the volunteers checked my ID at the entrance, I could hear one of Abd al-Halim Hafez’s many songs about Egypt, biladi, playing close by. Just like Tahrir, I saw tents hosting different collectives and organizations, people covered with red anti-Morsi paraphernalia, and Egyptian flags everywhere. At the makeshift screens, many were watched the instant analysis on television. Some posed for photographs with their shoes raised on sticks (exactly the same reaction given to Mubarak’s speeches in January 2011). Others stood on part of the fence around the palace, hitting its metal bars in time and chanting irhal! Meanwhile, as Egyptian lives were lost in clashes around Cairo which included unknown assailants, it became clear that the peaceful groupings would not be left unprovoked in the coming days. As day breaks on 3 July, I hope that the worst echoes of 2011 are not yet to come.