After the Revolution Tough Realities

Cairo still has a post-revolutionary buzz, but difficult challenges lie ahead. Many Egyptians question relations with Israel and see Egypt's success as ushering in a new pan-Arabism.

Tahrir Square (photo credit: Sam Kestenbaum)
Tahrir Square
(photo credit: Sam Kestenbaum)
AT NIGHT, AS CAIRO cools off, Tahrir Square comes alive. Families picnic, newlyweds shoot wedding photos and students sit in the grass, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. People wave flags, play soccer and chant songs.
Tahrir Square is a multi-lane roundabout in the crowded, polluted heart of Cairo. Traffic piles up here and exhaust is thick in the air. Cars, buses, motorcycles and trucks circle and honk their horns. Pedestrians weave in between the lanes, darting their way from one side to another. Traffic controllers blow whistles and wave their hands, frantically trying to maintain order.
In the middle of the square, there’s a small splash of well-maintained grass and shrubs. Every morning, before the midday desert heat, city workers water the plants. Street hawkers sell popcorn, juice and tea. Revolutionary souvenirs – T-shirts, hats, pins, bumper stickers and flags – are splayed out for sale on the sidewalk.
Crowds had gathered in Tahrir Square in other times – Egypt’s 1977 bread riots took over the square and in 2003 demonstrations were held here against the US-led Iraq invasion. But this year’s revolution was unprecedented, in size and achievement.
There had been unrest leading up to this winter’s revolution, but the protests really started in earnest on Tuesday, January 25, when thousands of Egyptians gathered in the streets. They were protesting unemployment, poverty, the lack of free elections and free speech, widespread corruption and the despotic, 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. The protests raged for weeks, in Cairo as well as in Suez and Alexandria. Hoping to quell the public demonstrations, the government shut down the Internet and blocked cell-phone signals, and arrested activist and journalists. But the protests continued – and mushroomed. Protesters stopped going to work, set up tents in Tahrir Square and stayed there for days. By February 9, huge sections of the Egyptian workforce were on strike. The estimated one million demonstrators in Tahrir Square had brought the country to a standstill.
Mubarak was finally forced to resign, along with much of his despised regime. Wild celebrations followed. Over the course of 18 days, the revolution had succeeded. Thousands had been wounded and 840 people had died in clashes with Mubarak supporters or at the hands of Mubarak’s police, but change had come.
Yet all this was only a first step.
Now, more than three months later, there is still no clear Egyptian leadership or cohesive sense of direction. Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists vie for power. It is unclear whether the new Egypt will remain secular, and long-standing tensions between the Coptic and Muslim communities have also erupted in violence. As the international community watches closely, Egyptians remain elated but have also become anxious. No one knows for sure what will come next.
“Things will change, of course,” Muhammad, 30, who works in a book store in downtown Cairo, tells The Jerusalem Report. “But not right away. Maybe in one or two years. But Egypt will be a better place. I really believe that.”
Muhammad was one of the more than two million protesters who had gathered in Tahrir Square. He’s soft spoken and his English is good. Most nights, he works in the store. He says that his life has gone back to normal now, but he often thinks of the revolution. “It was like a dream,” he says. “We got rid of the corrupt officials, peacefully,” he says. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”
TAHRIR SQUARE was built in the late 1800s, as part of a larger sweeping redesign of Cairo. It wasn’t called Midan Tahrir, or Liberation Square, then. It was called Midan Ismailia, named after the Egyptian Khedive (Viceroy) Ismail Pasha, one of the European-educated ruling elite of Cairo.
Ismail had wanted to remake the Egyptian capital into a refined, European “Paris of the Nile.” European architects and designers were called in, plans were drawn up, and the city was transformed. Midan Ismailia was one of the additions.
Ismailia Square became Tahrir Square following the 1952 Revolution, when the old monarchy was ousted in a military coup led by Gamal Abdul Nasser. Nasser was only a general then, but afterwards took control as president.
Today, on the eastern edge of Tahrir Square you’ll find a McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and a fried chicken restaurant. The Omar Makram Mosque is to the south, across the street from the headquarters of the Arab League. The Egyptian Museum is to the North. And to the east, just a few blocks away, is the Nile. The ancient, fabled river is dark blue, undrinkable and lined with rickety riverboats and tall, lavish hotels. Egypt’s social, economic inequalities are still here – and starkly visible.
Egypt’s revolution hasn’t been officially named yet. It’s too fresh. Some T-shirts call it the White Revolution, the Egyptian Revolution or the Facebook Revolution. Others call it the Freedom Revolution. But the name that seems to be sticking is a practical one: the January 25 Revolution. The date is painted everywhere on the street.
“Now is time for Egypt to take on a more active role in the Arab world,” says Eslam Muhammad, a student in his mid-twenties and an activist member of the United Arab Nations for the Third Intifada of Palestine. “We’ve been quiet too long.”
Flags from countries throughout the Arab world flutter behind him. Egypt’s newly energized pan-Arabism is palpable. Among the revolutionary pins and posters for sale, once can find nostalgic pictures of Nasser – a reminder of the role Egypt once held in the region. Though the concept of pan-Arabism is older – dating back to the early 1900s – it was most popular in the years right after World War II, around the same time as the creation of the State of Israel, and when the charismatic Nasser adopted an ambitious and explicitly pan-Arab foreign policy.
Nasser had a vision: He wanted to unify the region, to advocate for Arab interests and Arab causes. He tried to form two pan- Arab states, first joining Syria and Egypt, and then Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Ultimately, both attempts failed. Jordan, Syria and Egypt’s collective loss in 1967 to Israel in the Six Day War further deflated regional hopes for pan-Arab unity.
Central to Nasser’s vision of pan-Arab unity was the liberation of Palestine. But as the region was splintered so, too, did pan- Arab unity. Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, signed the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel in 1978. In response, the Arab League expelled Egypt.
The revolution this January may have thus jump-started a long-latent hope that the country might take on a more active foreign policy role. But this new pan-Arabism may look different than Nasserism. “Pan- Arabism has taken on a new meaning,” Dr. James Curiel, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the American University Cairo, reflects. “Egypt symbolizes the new pan- Arabism” in which “homegrown democracy is the new focus.”
ON MAY 6, AFTER JUA’UMAH, the Friday prayer for Muslims, a group of protesters gathers again in Tahrir Square. First there are a dozen, then 30. In half an hour, a crowd of over 200 is chanting and waving Egyptian and Palestinian flags. They’re gathering here and planning on marching to the Israeli embassy. One keffiyeh-wrapped-demonstrator holds a sign that reads, “The Palestinian Intifada is the Beginning of Arab Freedom.”
Egypt’s relationship with Israel, which heightened Egypt’s isolation, had been one of the many grievances that the protesters had had with Mubarak’s regime. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in Egypt between March 24 and April 7 this year, 54 percent of respondents thought the peace treaty with Israel should be broken off.
And Egyptians empathize with the Palestinians. Though most of the Egyptian demonstrators have never been to Israel or Palestine, the Palestinians’ attempts at liberation resonate with Egyptians’ sense of suffocation under Mubarak’s rule.
Indeed, Cairo has already taken on a more active role in Palestinian politics. On May 4, Egypt hosted the reconciliation talks between rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas that led to the signing of the agreement between Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. The Rafah Crossing into Gaza, open only sporadically under former president Hosni Mubarak, will be open again, this time permanently, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi announced in early May.
But for some this isn’t enough.
It’s early afternoon and the sun is hot. “From Tahrir Square to Palestine!” the crowd of over 200 shouts, slowly making their way to the Israeli embassy. Traffic halts as they cross the street. Some cars honk and shout out their windows in approval, other drivers just look annoyed.
Faces are painted with green, black, and white, the Palestinian national colors, and one man holds an Egyptian flag sewn together with a Palestinian flag. A boy plays a drum, punctuating each new chant. “We’ll march to Jerusalem!” the crowd calls, “Egypt and Palestine together!”
The demonstration is made up of over 20 loosely affiliated organizations. They might not all share the same goals, but they agree on one thing: “We want to see a free Palestine,” Muhammad, a young, bearded demonstration organizer says. Muhammad wears thickrimmed glasses and speaks English perfectly. “We need to cut ties with Israel, completely,” he says. “No more trade. Nothing. If they don’t want peace, we don’t either.”
“If two Israelis are killed, Israel can justify killing hundreds of Palestinians,” Muhammad goes on. “Why is that? Is that fair?” He shakes his head. “They call them terrorists and they can do anything!” As he speaks, his voice rises passionately, until he is almost shouting. He’s clearly upset.
Yusef, a 16-year-old student, has come here “to stand with Palestine.” Hamad, his classmate, adds “We’re against Israel.” Both Yusef and Hamad learned about the protest on Facebook. On the pavement where they are standing, someone had spray-painted “Go to hell, Israel” and on a wall nearby the slogan, “ No to Mubarak No to Israel” had been scrawled.
In retrospect, these events portend the larger, more violent anti-Israel demonstrations that take place in mid-May.
Israel’s response to Egypt’s revolution this spring was chilly. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced his concern that the revolution would cause chaos in Egypt, and “in a situation of chaos,” he said “an organized Islamist body can seize control of a country. It happened in Iran. It happened in other instances.”
But Abdel-Moneim Said, an analyst at Al- Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, believes that Israel is missing out by not vocally supporting the revolution. In an opinion piece that appeared in Cairo’s “Al- Ahram” newspaper, Said urged Israel to reevaluate its response to the Egyptian revolution. Israel, Said wrote, “could take advantage of the opportunity to prove that its democracy is capable of dealing with other free and democratic countries.”
THE CITY IS CROWDED, HOT AND busy. The class inequalities that Egypt’s revolutionaries protested are still here. Barefoot children shuffle around the square, caked in dust. Old men sleep on the sidewalk outside air-conditioned, plush restaurants offering foreign fare.
At night, the streets bustle with sheesha cafes where groups of men and women sit together. They drink cups of strong, sweet coffee and talk. Students huddle around laptops and young couples walk arm-in-arm. Stray cats dart underfoot.
The square continues to attract protesters for various causes – workers’ rights, women’s rights, or pan-Arab unity. As Egyptians wait to see how the final results of the revolution will shape up, it seems that they continue to come to Tahrir Square in an attempt to hold on to the revolutionary excitement, unity and pride. And one thing that Egyptians are proud of is the remarkable religious unity that they experienced during the revolution.
Egyptians put aside their religious differences. Muslims and Christians came together. Hussein Shakba, an adjunct professor of sociology at the American University of Cairo, remembers that feeling of unity. It was a “natural reflection of the values of those educated young men and women who sparked and led the revolution,” Shakba says. “Even the extremists, he says, “who were latecomers to the revolution, were carried by the tide of that unity – for a while.”
But religious unity didn’t last. On May 7, late on Saturday night, a group of armed Muslims marched on St. Mena’s Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the oldest churches in Egypt. Rumors had spread that a Muslim woman was being held against her will, forced to convert to Christianity.
Members of the Coptic community fired gunshots, Muslims retaliated and 13 people were killed. Over 100 were injured. Another church nearby, the Coptic Church of the Holy Virgin, was set on fire.
“The revolution is not over,” Curiel says. “It will be successful when Copts and Muslims can walk down the street together without fear or paranoia.”
“If the Christians and Muslims turn against each other now, we’ll fail,” says Amr, the son of an Egyptian diplomat. Amr was educated in Germany and has also lived in Benghazi, Libya, and Dubai. He says he is excited about what’s happened in his country, but he’s also a little anxious.
He points to some graffiti, painted on a brick wall. It’s a popular image on the streets today: a Christian crucifix and an Islamic crescent printed together in the colors of the Egyptian flag. Despite the hopeful image, Amr says that Egyptian society could easily splinter politically, socially and religiously. He says he is worried that Islamist groups could seize this opportunity to take hold of the Egyptian narrative.
“The extremists,” Shakba says, “are successful because they appeal to sentiment rather than reason.” But he doesn’t think they’re “likely to cause any real problems with Israel.” Islamists are a concern “because these extremists are trying to hijack the revolution.” But Shakba believes that it’s ultimately only a threat in “the short term.”
“Some Islamists say that Egypt has to attack Israel, once our country is back on its feet,” Amr says. Then he shrugs. “They say a lot of other violent things, too. They need to understand diplomacy. They don’t think before they talk.
“Egypt can’t divide,” he repeats. “We need to stand together.”