Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 February - 2 March 2011
Issue No. 1036
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Down but not out

Fears of a counterrevolution gained momentum this week. Amira Howeidy asks how serious the threat is

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Two weeks after the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak and the uncertainty looming in Egypt now includes fears of a "counterrevolution", with remnants of the previous regime still clinging to their posts or exercising influence to thwart the 25 January Revolution.

While there is little proof of an orchestrated attempt to subvert the revolution there is enough evidence of its "hijacking" and "sabotage" from within, among others, the state-run media and the infamous security apparatus, to justify the concerns that are increasingly being voiced.

The loudest warning against the counterrevolution yet was made by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Egypt and the Arab world's most respected commentator, on 19 February in a lengthy interview on the state-run media. Heikal took issue with Mubarak's current residency in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, arguing that it has become a focus for the counterrevolution. Phone calls between the ex-president and Cairo haven't stopped, he said. Egyptians would be wrong, warned Heikal, to think that the revolution ended after Mubarak stepped down. "A revolution is successful when it changes entrenched systems."

The ex-confident of late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and by far the most famous Arab journalist of his generation, Heikal suggested that Mubarak leave Sharm El-Sheikh. It's far from populated areas, "it'ss next to Israel and the US military forces in both Sinai and Sharm El-Sheikh. It's also close to the airport."

"It's a beautiful place but it now has an enormous shadow over it," he said.

Heikal's interview, viewed by millions, seemed to press a button among many viewers. Counterrevolution became a buzzword and then an obsession as events unravelled to support Heikal's thesis.

Ayman El-Sayyad, editor of the cultural monthly Weghat Nazar (Points of View), describes the counterrevolution as the "continuation" of entities or groups that thrived under the previous regime to promote their interests and exercise leverage. In order to do so they must ultimately "tamper" with the new reality -- in other words, sabotage the revolution.

The process can be traced back to Friday 28 January, the day police opened fire on protesters killing 800 and injuring at least 5,000, according to independent estimates, across Egypt. It was at 5:30pm on Friday that the security forces disappeared from their posts across the country, unleashing a state of chaos and terror. Thousands of criminals were reported to have escaped from prisons and blamed for looting and burning shops, banks and other buildings. Investigations are underway as to how this happened. The consensus, outside the prosecutor's office at least, is that Interior Minister Habib El-Adli played a role in orchestrating a strategy that was intended to convince the public that without Mubarak at the helm chaos would rule.

The scenario was repeated on Wednesday 2 February when plainclothes policemen and hired thugs armed with knives, guns, swords and Molotov cocktails attacked tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in central Cairo's Tahrir Square. They were joined by more thugs on camels, horses and donkeys who managed to enter the square -- all access points were sealed by military tanks that simply drew back -- to attack the protesters. The demonstrators succeeded in retaining the square and fending off the attacks, but exactly who was behind the "battle of the camels" is a question that has yet to be answered. Many fingers have been pointed at influential businessmen, members of Gamal Mubarak's National Democratic Party Policies Committee.

Rumours that escaped convicts were storming apartment buildings to loot, kill and rape spread like wild fire, instilling fear among the public. Activist Wael Khalil believes that the state-owned media actively exaggerated the extent of attacks what were really orchestrated by elements within the security forces with the aim of frightening away public support for the revolution.

Khalil posted a small entry on his blog on 20 February titled "the counterrevolution operates from Sharm El-Sheikh" in which he connected several developments damaging to the revolution. He argued, for example, that the debate on Article 2 of the constitution, which stipulates that Islam is the principle source of legislation, and demands to amend or cancel it, are "not completely innocent".

The Higher Council of the Armed Forces (HCAF) which has run the country since Mubarak stepped down appointed a committee to review the constitution. It was charged with amending articles to remove any constraints placed on free and fair legislative and presidential elections. Article 2 was not included in the mandate. Opening a debate about it now, argues Khalil, as the daily Arabic Al-Ahram -- whose pro- Mubarak leadership is still in place -- did on its website this week, only serves to divide Egyptians over an issue that is not a priority at such a critical stage of the revolution.

Khalil has demanded that Mubarak leave Sharm El-Sheikh, that all political detainees (some of whom have been in prison for more than 18 years) are released, that editors of the state-run media and TV symbols of the outgoing regime be dismissed and the notorious State Security Investigation (SSI) department be abolished.

"They are all contributing to the counterrevolution simply by remaining," he said.

In a four hour long appearance on the popular evening talk show "10 O'Clock" on Monday, three members of the HCAF said they hoped editors of the state-run media would "resign".

The counterrevolution was also the topic of a lengthy talk by award winning novelist Alaa El-Aswani on Tuesday evening at Al-Sawy Culture Wheel Centre.

El-Aswani accused the SSI of inciting Copts to demonstrate and oppose Article 2 of the constitution "to fuel sectarian tension". He also attacked the continuation of Mubarak- appointed premier Ahmed Shafik and editors of the state-run press remaining in their posts.

As he was speaking, it was reported that a priest had been found dead in Assiut, south Egypt, where there is a high security presence. The crime -- still vague -- was interpreted by activists as another attempt to distract and divide.

As Al-Ahram Weekly was going to press on Wednesday one of the Interior Ministry's three buildings in downtown Cairo was set on fire after brief clashes with the military police, according to witnesses. Again, the event is being viewed as a counterrevolutionary act, as well as an attempt to destroy evidence of violations and corruption at the Interior Ministry.

"In any revolution, the new reality and the new regime draws a thick curtain on the outgoing regime," says El-Sayyad, "but this hasn't happened in Egypt yet."

Questions remain, he added, on the fate of Mubarak loyalists such as former Shura Council speaker Safwat El-Sherif (in power since 1978), former People's Assembly speaker Fathi Sorour and former presidential chief of staff Zakaria Azmi. Their friends in the media and elsewhere, says El-Sayyad, remain active. "Telling," he points out, "how journalists who filed corruption complaints to the prosecutor- general have avoided implicating El-Sherif."

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