Next Generation vs. the Generals

Egyptians are divided between a pro-democracy generation who are still taking it to the streets, and the generals who claim to be keeping the country from collapsing into chaos.

Egypitan army 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Egypitan army 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Anwar Hamdi was in no mood to talk about the weekly protests shaking Egypt. “These people are making trouble,” he says, referring to the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding that the military cede power to an elected government. “Every day they destabilize the country, weaken our economy, and scare the tourists away,” remarks the 36-year-old computer repair technician.
On the other side of town in the Cairo neighborhood of al-Zaytun, Magdi Halun wants to complain about the military. “They are just as bad as [former president Hosni] Mubarak,” says the 28-year-old cell phone store owner. “They are beating the protesters, muzzling dissent, and just want to stay in power.”
Eleven months after a popular revolution ended Mubarak’s 29 years in power, Egypt is divided against itself. The protesters who sparked the revolution complain that the revolution has changed little. The security services still act with impunity, freedoms are still restricted, and the ruling cliques still control the media. But unlike last January, when almost the whole country applauded protesters, large numbers of Egyptians have now turned on them. They say that they are undermining the state and provoking a collapse.
Kamal el-Ganzouri, Egypt’s new military-appointed prime minister, voiced these concerns over the past few weeks. On December 11 he broke down in tears during a press conference as he described the fragile state of the Egyptian economy. Nine billion dollars in investments has been withdrawn because of the unrest. Economic growth has fallen from 5.1 percent in 2010 to 1.2 percent in 2011, not even keeping pace with Egypt’s population growth rate of about 1.96 percent. “Solidarity is needed to face the economic crisis,” he noted, referring to the divisions in Egyptian society preventing economic growth.
But unity is far from Muhammad Zubi’s thoughts. “We need to show the military that we are not afraid,” remarks the 24-yearold law student. “We will stand up to them just like we stood before Mubarak.” Zubi and his friends have been coming to Cairo’s Tahrir Square since last summer, when the protesters returned to the central traffic artery that was the symbol of the revolution.
Some have been detained. Others beaten. But their resolve to secure the freedoms that sparked the revolution has never waned. Zubi and his friends are angry that the military has announced that it will not turn over power to a civilian elected government.
Egyptians in rural area s voted in early January in the third and final phase of parliamentary elections, as the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood looked to possibly win an outright majority.
Following the first round of voting in parliamentary elections that began in late November, Gen. Mukhtar al-Mulla of the ruling council said the elections “certainly don’t represent all sectors of society.” He went on to say that the skewed results had persuaded the generals, who rule the country through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), to play a role in appointing a number of members to the 100-person constitutional assembly that will be tasked with writing a new constitution.
The political parties that stood for the elections believed that the parliament would choose this body. The military’s decision to step into the fray will give the non-elected body a tremendous say in determining what a future Egypt will look like.
Such announcements have enraged many in the country, who have grown tired of the military’s tactics and its blatant attempts to cling to power. “It’s time for SCAF to join Mubarak in retirement,” notes 29-year-old Mahmud Gabri at an eatery off of Tahrir Square. “They just want to hold onto power using these sophisticated political tricks and intimidating protesters.”
One demonstrator who was on the receiving end of more than mere intimidation was the so-called “blue bra girl.” Amateur video caught security personnel beating the girl and stomping on her stomach in mid-December. The revealing pictures which captured her bare stomach and bright blue bra shocked conservative Egyptians, angered that the security services could casually humiliate a woman, who also happened to be dressed in hijab, with such relish.
But the images did not enrage Umar Fandi. He blamed foreigners for paying protesters to pour into the street, echoing a report by Egyptian state television. “These protests are being supported by foreign powers who want to destroy Egypt,” gripes the 48-yearold furniture salesman. “All these kids want to do is make trouble. They have nothing to do but protest.” But when pressed to name which foreign countries were funding the demonstrators, Fandi drew a blank and hurriedly excused himself, explaining that he needed to contact a supplier about a sofa consignment.
Fandi’s comments are a popular refrain in Cairo. Many have grown tired with the protesters’ tactics, arguing that they are mere rabble rousers bent on fomenting chaos. “They need to go home and find work instead of making problems for Egypt,” says 53-year-old shoe repairman Abd al-Munim Tantawi.
On December 23, pro-military demonstrators organized a demonstration of their own in Abbasiyya Square, which rivaled that in Tahrir Square just a mile away. About 5,000 showed up to pledge support for the generals. Foreign journalists were expelled and even local Egyptian journalists were harassed. “May Allah keep atheists and secularists away from us and protect our army and women,” said prayer leader Hisham Hassanin, who gave the Friday sermon.
In Tahrir Square, protesters organized a rally dubbed “Friday of Regaining Honor,” to commemorate the attack on the “blue bra girl” on December 17. Thousands of women showed up to express their anger with the military’s heavy-handed tactics. “These military men don’t know what it means to be Egyptian,” Samiyya Jabar, a participant in the rally, told a journalist days later. “We want freedom and respect, not more oppression.”
The conflict between the two camps does not bode well for the country, says a local political science professor. “The economy is in shambles. We have no strong leader. There are protests every day with rock throwing and tear gas. This is not the revolution people expected. This is chaos.”
But with both sides nearing the brink, neither is willing to step back from the precipice. Emboldened by their unimaginable toppling of Mubarak, the protesters feel invincible. Yet their hubris is stoking an anti-revolutionary backlash that yearns for a return to stability.