Revolutionizing Egypt by the Day: An Eyewitness Report

By Bob Wing and Hany Khalil

Veteran analyst Bob Wing and Egyptian-American activist Hany Khalil recently met with a dozen key revolutionaries and spoke with numerous people on Cairo’s streets, in the cafes and taxis, and in their homes.

Jan. 25: Cairo &#151 The political situation in Egypt is volatile, as all Egyptians and their organizations scramble to find their bearings following the unexpected but historic ousting of former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Excitement and trepidation abound and colorful revolutionary graffiti fills the public space. New parties, alliances and campaigns are announced one day, only to disband the next. Strenuous debate about the order, rules and content of elections and a new constitution is at the forefront.

Suddenly everyone is a revolutionary and a democrat. But the “leaderless revolution” is still leaderless and thinly organized while the military, the temporary government and the Muslim Brotherhood retain great strength.

The Tunisian Revolution has the workers’ movement as a backbone; the Egyptian Revolution is still searching for an anchor.

18 Days That Shook the World

In the last few years, protests were growing in frequency, especially strikes. But the January 25 actions were called by new, loosely organized youth groups. The actions were unexpectedly transformed into a revolutionary movement by a spontaneous and massive rebellion of an aggrieved population.

The turning point came on Jan. 28 when “millions of demonstrators overwhelmed the stunned internal police security forces throughout the country and, shockingly, this long feared and well armed apparatus literally vanished overnight,” reports journalist and activist Ahmad Shokr.

The Muslim Brotherhood took up the call of the revolutionary youth, adding organized strength to the street actions, followed later by some unions and key professional groups. When the U.S. called for Mubarak to step down and the Egyptian military opted not to attack the demonstrators, the regime collapsed.

In eighteen days Egyptians dispatched from the stage of history one of the most longstanding regimes in the world, one backed to the hilt by the U.S. until its death throes. Unbeknownst to itself or anyone else, the Mubarak government had rotted to its core. One brief but powerful people’s hurricane blew it away.

ABOVE: from an entire wall of revolutionary art in the Tahrir Square subway station

Revolutionary Street Power

There was astonishingly little organization or political definition to the revolution other than calling for the ouster of Mubarak and his closest cronies. Slogans such as “Freedom, Justice, Dignity” ruled the day, but social and economic demands were very low profile. Ruefully we are told, “Everyone now claims to have been in Tahrir Square.”

At first it is baffling to hear many of the revolutionaries describe themselves as liberals. But we soon learned that liberal democracy is a revolutionary demand in a country that has been ruled by foreigners for two millennia and by military regimes for decades.

Still, a mad scramble to organize and develop further political coherence is now afoot. The Egyptian revolutionaries are struggling to retain their unity and expand amidst emerging new divisions over the future of the revolution.

“The strength of the revolution is its massive street presence: its political definition and organization lag far behind. However, no one knows how long the population will remain mobilized, so this is a very fragile situation,” says Sherif Alaa of the newly formed Free Egypt Party.

Youth as Vanguard

The key street mobilizers still appear to be the middle class youth groups, especially the April 6 Movement, We are All Khaled Said and the Revolutionary Youth Coalition.

The most recent huge action was held on May 27 in protest of continued political repression by the military and the temporary government. Half a million or more Egyptians thronged Tahrir Square despite the expressed opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military.

The youth groups, like everyone else, are in a state of change and flux. Although they are the vanguard of revolutionary action, they are not necessarily radical in their socio-economic vision and have scant organized base.

Mohammed Adel of the April 6 Movement claims his group has an organized and active national membership of 7,000. It has launched a nationwide survey to clarify the people’s opinion about what should be in the new Constitution. April 6 is also trying to unite all the parties and groups behind the presumed presidential candidacy of Mohammed El-Baradei.

Adel believes “the key is to defeat the remnants of the old regime and to establish a transparent liberal political system.” April 6 and others project the remnants of the old regime, including the military, will tacitly back the expected presidential candidacy of Amr Moussa, the longtime foreign minister and Arab League president under Mubarak.

Importantly, some prominent intellectuals and activists, including We Are All Khaled Said just recently launched a “Poor First” campaign, marking the first major entry of class issues into the public debate. In a powerful post entitled “The Poor First, You Bastards,” Mohammed Abul Gheit argues that “the Egyptian revolution cannot be complete without social justice.”

Over the last three years more than 1.5 million workers have struck their employers. Perhaps they, along with the peasants and urban poor, may rise to the fore in the coming period.

Ferment in the Brotherhood

Meanwhile there is frenetic activity to form new political parties that can contest elections. According to veteran leftist and famed journalist Amina Shafik, “Mubarak successfully coopted, tamed or repressed all organized opposition during his reign. Parties that existed prior to the revolution were compromised to the point of now having no future, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

ABOVE: Legendary journalist and activist, Amina Shafik

The Brotherhood is the only party that has wide name recognition let alone organization or mass support. It is a complex and diverse political coalition founded in 1928. Our interviewees estimate that if elections were held today, the Brotherhood would carry between 20 and 30 percent of the electorate.

However, the program and unity of the Brotherhood are increasingly strained by the new forces and ideas unleashed by the revolution. To address the new situation, the Brotherhood has set up the supposedly ecumenical Justice and Freedom Party with a Christian as Vice President.

Still, one of the Brotherhood’s well known leaders, Abdel-Moneim Abul Fotouh, and a significant section of its youth members have split off to form a more liberal, civic-based movement called the Egyptian Current.

Fotouh plans a presidential run while the Brotherhood has promised only to run parliamentary candidates.

The Brotherhood also lost credibility when it refused to back the massive May 27 demonstration. Since then it has been feverishly maneuvering to find its bearings and preserve its unity in the fast changing environment.

Two, Three, Many Parties

Mozn Hassan of Nazra for Feminist Studies told us, “The strongest new political trend appears to be the formation of liberal parties”&#151parties whose central demand is a transparent, liberal democratic political system but who do not advocate major social or economic change. She describes them as being in “fragile, incipient stages of development,” often largely confined to middle class intellectuals in Cairo.

Our interviewees estimate that the current combined electoral strength of all the parties to the left of the Brotherhood is considerably less than ten percent. Their most ardent partisans hope to gain one-third of the new parliament so that they could block any two-thirds votes by more conservative forces.

Perhaps the party with the most potential strength is the Free Egyptians Party. It was founded by Naguib Sawiris, a Coptic Christian who is one of the wealthiest people in Egypt. His vast empire includes a major newspaper and a leading television station. Sawiris reportedly has no presidential aspirations of his own, but he is rumored to have committed $10 million to build the new party.

ABOVE: Sign for unity of Muslims and Coptic Christians

Free Egyptians is noteworthy for its strong secularist position, which has won it the ire of the Brotherhood and especially the Salafists, the most radical Islamists. So far it has not advocated for any significant economic or social changes, other than ridding the current system of cronyism and corruption.

The Justice Party is another liberal party backed by some big businessmen. It also eschews major economic change and is considered conciliatory towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

The third main party is the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. It is trying to forge a center-left alternative that is similar to the European socialist parties but is apparently struggling to get off the ground.

In response to what some view as organizational weakness and a lack of internal democracy, a split recently occurred in the Social Democratic Party leading to attempts to build the Free Egypt Party led by Amr Hamzawi, a well known public intellectual.

There are two overtly left parties in formation, but both are considered much weaker than the center-left Social Democratic Party: the Laborer’s Party which is based in a few independent trade unions and has a significant Trotskyist component and the Popular Alliance Party, a new left unity electoral and organizing effort.

Constitution First?

Perhaps the biggest issue currently being debated is the order and relationship of drafting a new Constitution, electing a new Parliament and voting for a new President.

The Brotherhood and, tacitly, the military and temporary government backed a March 19 referendum calling for the parliament to be elected in September, for the parliament to then choose a constitutional drafting committee for popular approval, to be followed by a presidential election.

Despite virtually universal opposition from the principal secular revolutionary organizations and the Coptic Christian community (which constitutes about ten percent of the population), the apparently fair and free referendum carried more than sixty percent of the electorate. Some interpreted this as a vote for restabilization.

Undeterred, revolutionary coalitions have launched a petition campaign, a survey and a mass education campaign in favor of drafting the constitution ahead of elections. Apparently they fear that the Brotherhood and remnants of the old regime are much better organized and could capitalize on early elections.

“We prefer to emblazon the revolution in a new constitution before elections,” says Ahmed Fawzy of the Social Democratic Party. This might also allow the new parties to get organized.

However, cracks in this alliance are now appearing, as some are concerned that conservatives could also dominate a constitution which would be much harder to change than a president or a parliament.

Still others feel that the debate over the order of these processes is overshadowing discussion of the direction and content of the revolution.

In this respect, the Poor First and similar campaigns may be a salutary development both to add substance to the public debate and to rally the popular sectors.

ABOVE: Area dedicated to martyrs of the Revolution in Alexandria, Egypt

Malcolm Gladwell is right about Egypt and Twitter, and here’s why that’s upsetting to some folks

If Malcolm Gladwell lacks nuance in his dismissal of the contributions of Twitter, Facebook and other new social media to deep social change, that is fully forgivable.  The title of the article that kicked off the controversy, Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted, is a lot pithier than the perhaps more accurate, “Sure, the Revolution may very well be Tweeted, and it may even benefit to an extent from this particular new communication form, but Twitter is not a replacement for the strong social ties that come from face-to-face human interaction.”  There can be good reason and value in kicking off a conversation with a slightly oversimplified assertion – because it is indeed more likely to incite a reaction and actually kick off a conversation.

I agreed with Gladwell then, and I agree with him again in his latest post, Does Egypt Need Twitter?, which applies his original assertion to the current situation in Egypt:

Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last fall in The New Yorker, “high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone-and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years-and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

Those critiquing Gladwell get it wrong, IMHO.  Take Ari Melber’s blog at The Nation.  First, Melber summarizes Gladwell’s position as “an apparent response to the idea that digitally networked activists are exceling in Egypt.”  But really Gladwell does not dispute that “digitally networked activists are excelling,” but rather that they are excelling primarily because they are digitally networked.  Melber continues:

No one is arguing that this is the first protest in world history. Very few people think the Internet is an essential prerequisite to revolution. Instead, they’re exploring whether the web and networked communications open up new and effective ways for citizens to converse and organize each other in repressive societies. (Access to mobile phones and text-messaging, for example, may have helped young people organize in Egypt and Tunisia in a different way than landlines or websites.) We can engage these issues without taking anything away from the French Revolution.

I concede something to Melber and others: it is interesting to explore how specific communications forms and tools might help progressive change agents (and revolutionaries, in the case of Egypt) in specific ways. I’m certainly interested in doing that in campaigns I work on.  Being up on the latest technology is important.

But Gladwell’s point is one of emphasis.  What are we emphasizing as the means to strong collective action?  The new media technique of the day?  Or building relationships, strong social ties, and strong social blocs that share meanings and commitment?

Melber says, “Gladwell assumes that asking ‘why’ people ‘were driven’ to these protests is somehow in competition with asking how they achieved such effective protests.”  I think this a false asessment of Gladwell.  He is clearly interested in the how, but he’s looking deeper than what is most obvious and most visible in his exploration of the how.  From outside of Egypt, it is difficult to see which group identities, social infrastructure, and organizations are playing what roles in encouraging and emboldening such a strong collective mobilization.  But it’s really easy to read tweets.  It’s easy to latch onto the mechanisms that are within our experience.  As the saying goes, if the only tool you have in your toolbox is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Today, if you spend all of your time online, you might be inclined to overvalue its worth.  You might be more likely to read an article that discusses how to improve your Twitter presence than an article that explores how to talk to your family about a difficult political issue.  Social media is low-hanging fruit.  Any savvy young person can learn to text message, tweet, and update their status – and that’s all fine.  But we need organizers who can pull the people around them into higher-risk action.

Social media is not a savior or a silver bullet solution.  Strong social ties, which do not come through social media, are still the core motivator of high-risk action.  Building such ties is a lot messier-and offers less instant gratification-than sharing the latest great article you read with online friends who already think like you.  That’s why Gladwell’s analysis can be upsetting, and that’s why we need to hear it.