In Egypt, Trying to Reaffirm Faith in a Revolution

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

As Tahrir Square was beginning to erupt this past Sunday, I was talking with a parliamentary candidate affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood’s new political party. For nearly two hours, in a cafe in the posh Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek, we discussed the elections slated for this Monday, Egypt’s first since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February. He explained the Muslim Brotherhood’s get-out-the-vote strategy and his own campaign activities. Tahrir did not come up once.

Just a few days later, Egypt was transformed.

The renewed unrest started last Saturday, when the military, for reasons that remain unclear, decided to forcefully disperse a small group of peaceful protesters encamped in the square. For a growing number of politicized Egyptians, the ruling military council, initially lauded for forcing Mubarak out, has become the reviled symbol of a revolution gone awry. It had woefully mismanaged the transition, falling back on the autocratic ways of the past. The appointment Friday of 78-year-old Kamal el-Ganzouri as prime minister did little to change that view.

As the protests intensified, Cairo seemed to contain two distinct worlds operating in parallel: the world of Western-style campaigning, with microtargeting, door-to-door meet-and-greets and mass rallies, and the world of adamant, angry street protests. They had similar goals — the end of military rule, for example — but very different ideas of how to achieve them.

These protests, with fierce street battles and more than 40 killed, felt different from the “first revolution” earlier this year. They didn’t seem to be political, in the normal sense of the word. At first there weren’t clear political demands. Many of the protesters went to the square in large part to defend it against the brutality of the security forces. In this respect, the demonstrations were about solidarity as much as a desire to oust the ruling military council. Other protesters, meanwhile, were there for spiritual reasons, to recapture something, a feeling perhaps, that had been lost since those euphoric days in January and February.

A year ago, the nation witnessed its most fraudulent elections in history, with the ruling National Democratic Party winning 209 out of 211 seats in the first round. Less than two months later, Egypt had its revolt. Ordinary Egyptians no longer felt like waiting. They had lost faith in what was left of a discredited political process.

Nine months later, this same loss of faith is evident among the crowds in Tahrir. They do not trust the political parties — in fact, they have prevented numerous politicians from entering the square, shouting them down when they tried. Many simply don’t believe that the revolution’s goals can be achieved through the ballot box. In the elections scheduled for Monday, “revolutionary” candidates are likely to win only a small percentage of the vote, if they even manage to clear the parliamentary threshold.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, after more than 80 years, remains Egypt’s largest and most powerful political movement. It is almost certain to win a sizable plurality in the elections. For all the talk of its violent past and ideological rigidity, the Brotherhood is thoroughly — and, for many of its younger members, disappointingly — pragmatic. Its gospel is patience and discipline, something it learned the hard way in the prisons of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Brotherhood refers to this period as the mihna, or inquisition. It actively supported Nasser’s 1952 “revolution” — really just a military coup — but he quickly turned against the Brotherhood, banning the organization, and imprisoning and even executing many of its leaders.

From 2006 until the eve of Egypt’s revolution, Islamists were being crushed by the Mubarak regime, bringing back memories of the mihna. Yet, oddly, they didn’t seem angry. Muslim Brotherhood leaders would often tell me in calm, confident tones: “We aren’t in a rush. It’s a matter of time.”

The Brotherhood, along with nearly all of the country’s political elites, believed for decades that change was possible through the political process, however flawed. Sure, Egypt had an authoritarian regime, but the repression was never total. Through influential professional associations and the parliament, the Brotherhood, along with various liberal and leftist parties, hoped to effect gradual but meaningful change.

This model, however, failed. Revolution, something that no one had really thought possible, somehow came to Cairo, fueled by Tunisia’s spontaneous uprising the month before.

It is ironic that in the new Egypt, the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party are the ones who speak the language of politics. Driven by the fading but still-powerful memories of the Jan. 25 revolution, it is the masses of Tahrir who speak the language of faith — faith in an ideal that may be well out of reach.

This contrast raises the question: What was Egypt’s revolution actually about? For some, it was about freedom and democracy. Once there was a democratic process, Egyptians could work through elected representatives to bring about social and economic change. This change, by its very nature, would be slow and uneven.

For others, probably the majority, Egypt’s revolution was also about a word — “dignity” — that is even more powerful in Arabic. When Egyptians use the word “karama,” there is something almost mystical about it. All the humiliation they’ve suffered, and all the hopes they manage to hold on to, fall under karama. In a revolution about dignity, though, tangible results are hard to come by and even harder to measure.

Through their actions in Tahrir Square this past week — in the pitched battles with security forces, in facing down tear gas and live ammunition — the protesters have defended their dignity and, in the process, reaffirmed the ideals of the revolution. The legitimacy of their ongoing uprising, which is far from complete, doesn’t come from an elected parliament of notables and politicians, but from the street. In this respect, the Egyptian and Arab revolutions of the past year have more in common with the Occupy Wall Street movement and like-minded protests in Greece and Italy than they do with, for example, the revolutions that spread through Eastern Europe nearly a decade ago.

On Tuesday morning, before the Tahrir crowds swelled into the tens of thousands, I sat down with Dina Zakaria, a leading member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. I immediately brought up Tahrir; as many as 30 people had died by then. She had a pained look on her face, and I could tell she was struggling with the Brotherhood’s decision not to join the protesters. “I thought to myself, how can we abandon the people in the square?” she said. “I can’t bear to see people still being killed.”

She continued: “But at the same time, does this movement stay in the street, or should it be expressed through institutions? I think the right choice is through institutions.”

For decades, Egypt’s Islamists tried to work within the confines of the old regime. Patience and pragmatism might make for good politics, but, on the eve of Egypt’s landmark elections, it is an open question whether they’re good for the country’s stillborn democracy.

After a week of polarization, unrest and bloodshed, that question is even more difficult to answer. I had come to Egypt to write about the country’s first elections after the revolution. On Friday, while protesters were gathering peacefully in Tahrir, I visited a pro-military rally in the district of Abbassiya. I tried to engage the demonstrators in conversation, but several participants, suspicious of my American-accented Arabic, wondered aloud if I might be a spy. I was soon shouted down and ushered out of the area.

The cabdriver who picked me up was of the same mind. As we talked politics, he asked me where I was from and seemed suspicious. Suddenly, as we passed the Zamalek police station, he stopped the car, grabbed me and told the guards that I was up to no good. My cabdriver was attempting a citizen’s arrest. Fortunately, it failed. But the driver had wanted to take things into his own hands. He, too, had little patience for institutions. The street, it appears, has its own logic.