Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

A new beginning in 2014?

Three years after the 25 January Revolution, the revolutionary changes that have come to Egypt are still unfolding, novelist Mekkawi Said tells Dina Ezzat

interv
interv
Al-Ahram Weekly

“It is only an attempt to recollect the images, the bits and pieces, and the memories of the 18 days in Tahrir Square during the revolution, but it would certainly take no less than 50 years for the history of the 25 January Revolution to be properly compiled. Indeed, the revolution would have to complete its course first,” said novelist and columnist Mekkawi Said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
Speaking on the eve of 2014, Said shared the message of his recently published books, Tahrir Notes, Stories and Places and The People’s State of Affairs: Irregular Writings, with the paper, saying that these aimed to offer an alternative perspective to that found in the dozens of books that have thus far appeared on the 25 January Revolution.
Said’s volumes go way beyond the reflections of a literary figure, and instead are those of a careful observer of social developments and a daily attendant on the 18 days of the 25 January Revolution. He is certainly someone who had carefully monitored the political developments that prompted the start of the revolution and that have been unfolding since in what he says has been “an inevitable build up to a new wave of protests that might come towards the end of 2014.”
“Things do not just happen overnight, but of course there is a certain political and revolutionary energy within society that was not there before; it is this energy that forced the fall of [Islamist former president] Mohamed Morsi in just one year,” Said stated. He added that this energy had taken a while to pick up in the years leading to the end of the three-decade rule of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak who had had to step down on 11 February 2011.
“It was very intense. It led to the 18 days that it took to remove a president who had a vicious security apparatus and a network of corrupt business people on his side and to whom the army owed its loyalty. But not everything can be done in 18 days. A revolution takes longer,” he argued.
The fall of Mubarak, like that of Morsi, according to the argument that Said offers his readers in The People’s State of Affairs, came about as a result of the common failing of not listening to society and choosing to ignore those segments that are not easily reigned in. Mubarak, Said wrote, “dwarfed Egypt to make it fit his rule, but pressured as it was, Egypt still threw him out.” Then there was Morsi, “who carried the title of the first elected president but whose approach towards the nation was one of the leader of a particular group or a particular tribe” and who gradually lost control until he also fell.
Said said that both Mubarak and Morsi could fit the protagonist in one of the stories he includes in The People’s State of Affairs, where the 19th-century Ottoman Sultan Abdel-Hamid II fails to see the striking signs of malaise in society and aims to defy the political developments around him through tough censorship that denies people’s right to resist dictatorship. This kind of censorship meant that the Ottoman press described the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 as “fighting in Russia” and completely failed to see its true significance.
“It is a disturbing mentality of denial and self-isolation. It was the choice of Mubarak and Morsi to live in denial and to think that they were immune from what was going on around them. Whether this will be true of the next president is too early to tell,” Said said.  
The signs that Mubarak’s fall was coming were not negligible, “but he just chose to ignore the overwhelming poverty and the suffocating frustration” in the country.
In an article entitled “People and Cartoons” in The People’s State of Affairs, the novelist captures one shocking scene that actually appeared in a cinema production. People were made to sit in a restaurant, and so that they would not eat the food out of hunger, spoiling the film, the director ordered that the food be sprayed with pesticide to make sure that it remained intact so that he would not need to retake the scene.
“This is just one sign of the level of hunger on the road to the revolution,” Said lamented, adding that such hunger still exists in Egypt.
Also present is the anger that comes from the frustration prompted by hunger, unemployment and desperation with the failure of the state to observe the basic rights of its citizens. “We saw this frustration manifesting itself a few weeks before the revolution with the silent demonstrations of young men and women who stood next to each other carrying posters to protest the killing of Khaled Said,” a young man killed by the security forces in Alexandria, he said.
Prior to that, Said said, the protests had been against the unjust arrests of Muslim Brotherhood figures, as demonstrators, including leftists and liberals, had shouted in solidarity with the Brotherhood number two Khairat Al-Shater. “Khairat, Khairat, our brother; how are you doing in the darkness of the prisoner’s cell,” they shouted.
Today, there is no sympathy, or “almost none”, with the arrests of the Muslim Brotherhood members who “seem to have forgotten the days before they ascended to power,” Said said. However, there is still frustration at the frequent violations of people’s rights.
This does not mean that Said does not acknowledge the Brotherhood’s participation in the 18 days of the revolution, along with the youth, the so-called “Ultras” made up of football fans, and even the street children who found a role for themselves in and through the revolution.
“These two books are based on detailed notes that I jotted down in a notebook I used to carry every day. Everything is written down there: the ultras who at first hesitated but then hastened to join the revolution; the Muslim Brotherhood youth who took the lead in protecting Tahrir Square even though their leaders were trying to strike a deal with the Mubarak regime to secure political gains; and the street kids who are always looked down on but who saw the revolution as a path out of their misery and who made it into the first rows during the confrontations and who sacrificed their lives without hesitation,” Said stated.
The account of Sabrine, a street child, in Tahrir Notes is Said’s eloquent and heart-touching account of one little street girl whose loneliness and want of affection were so acute that she wanted to take a model of a little girl from the window of a store that was broken during the early clashes between the police and the demonstrators and use it as a substitute doll.
During the 18 days of the revolution, Sabrine found affection in the care of the young women demonstrators who took her along and invited her to sleep in their tents and to join them in their simple food “so that she forgot all about the mannequin”.
There are plenty of such humane accounts in The People’s State of Affairs and Tahrir Notes, published by the Noune Publishing House and the Egyptian Lebanese Publishing House, respectively.
There is the account of the identical twins who jointly own a shop in the downtown area, for example, and who spend their days listening to the radio in front of the store. They disappear after the Friday of Anger, only to reappear to the comfort of the neighbouring store owners after the revolution.
There is also the account of Umm Youssef, a Coptic woman in her late 30s who had been working hard to provide for her family after her husband had passed away and who died on the Friday of Anger, 28 January 2011, as a result of a bullet from the gun of one of the riot police.
The police brutality against the demonstrators and those who tried to provide them with food and medication is well described in the two books. However, there is also an account of one of the riot police who went out of his way to help a suffocating girl to the ground floor apartment of one of the downtown buildings and who asked the proprietor to “look after the girl as if she was your daughter because she nearly suffocated as a result of the tear gas”.
The owner of this apartment is none other than Ahmed Lutfi, formerly of Al-Ahram Hebdo, the French twin of the Weekly, who despite his advancing years chose to turn his apartment into a hub for the revolutionaries. The latter looked after him during his illness as if they were his own children.
Another story offered by Said is that of art designer Pierre Al-Sweifi who left his entire apartment on the tenth floor of a building on Tahrir Square open to the revolutionaries and took refuge in the seventh floor apartment of his mother instead. He was the first to hang a big piece of cloth from his balcony outlining the seven demands of the revolution that declined to accept anything other than the ouster of the Mubarak regime.
A contrast between Al-Sweifi and Lutfi is provided by Abdel-Tawab, a retired civil servant whose fears for his own security after the police had abandoned their responsibilities on 28 January prompts him to deceive potential thieves by playing a tape-recording of a Doberman barking. It is only when he joins the “public security groups” formed by the residents of various neighbourhoods to ensure security that he temporarily abandons his fear — at least until he buys a new dog.
“The 18 days that started on 25 January and that ended when Mubarak was forced to step down after the army, which at the beginning had sided with him and turned a blind eye to the police attacks against the demonstrators had realised that it was impossible for Mubarak to continue, constituted an exceptional moment. There was a certain magic there, but this spark was just the beginning of a story that is still to be continued today,” he said.
In his recollections of the 18 days, Said reminds his readers of the positions that were taken by many public figures during the early days of the revolution when few had anticipated that things would unfold in the way they did.
In an article “Quotable Quotes on the Eve of Change” from Tahrir Notes, Said reminds the reader of the position of the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar who considered the demonstrations in the early days to be “a sign of havoc and a religiously unacceptable violation of the authority of the ruler that should be punishable.” He also reminds readers of the similar position taken by both the Grand Mufti and the Pope of the Coptic Church and that of the Catholic Church, all of whom supported Mubarak before they announced their support for the revolution.
Among those whose positions changed, as Said reminds readers, was none other than Mohamed Morsi himself, who during the early days of the revolution declined to approve the association of the Muslim Brotherhood with the demonstrations and told those who solicited the support of the largest and longest-established political Islam group at the time that “we are not going to follow the actions of some kids.”
“But we came to learn that those so-called ‘kids’ were actually the spirit of the revolution and that it was their energy, their determination, that made it possible for Mubarak to step down, something that many people had thought was impossible. It was also they that made it possible for the unfortunate and misguided rule of the Muslim Brotherhood to end in just one year,” Said told the Weekly.
According to Said, it is the combination of the energy of this youth and the unfulfilled dreams of the revolution that will guarantee the continuation of the protests that “will eventually and sooner or later lead to real change.” “They might not necessarily be the same faces and names, but there will always be a youthful leadership at the helm,” the novelist said.
The demands of the revolution are unlikely to be honoured by the next president, whoever he turns out to be, Said argues. “This is basically impossible because these demands require structural change in the way the state is run and fundamental changes in the state-citizen relationship. This is not something that the next president will be able to do on his own, because whoever the next president is he will be there partly because of the support of the remnants of the previous Mubarak regime. It was their generous financial support that helped remove Morsi, and they have expectations about how things will go and these cannot be overlooked,” he added.
The next president, Said suggested, will try to balance the demands of both sides, but “this is a very hard thing to do and in fact is an impossible balance to make because the demands of one side simply exclude those of the other. This is precisely why I am not expecting any massive demonstrations on the anniversary of the revolution, although of course there will be some protests. I think the big demonstrations will start to happen around the end of the year after the new president has tried his hand and has aimed to accommodate these mutually exclusive groups.”
“But let’s face it: it was absolutely impossible for the youth and the people to remove the Muslim Brotherhood alone, since this was such a huge force. It needed the intervention of the army, and for this intervention to take place it was inevitable that the money of those formerly supporting the Mubarak regime would be generously offered either directly or through the media channels they own.”
Unlike other commentators who are confident that the next president will be Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Said said that “I am not so sure that this will be the case. I think he is anticipating continuing social unrest, and the fact that he has not made up his mind so far means that he is unlikely to join the presidential race in my view.”
Said is also convinced that for some time to come real power will lie with the Ministry of Defence. “Al-Sisi will be safest and most influential as minister of defence for a few years to come while the socio-political battles will inevitably continue in many old and maybe also new ways and between the remnants of the Mubarak regime, which may re-emerge but will not be seen again in full force, and the revolutionary groups who may have their ups and downs but will not run out of energy or a willingness to sacrifice.”
One key battle that Said expects throughout 2014 is that between the Islamists and non-Islamists for power and influence. “When all is said and done, I think that the best thing that has happened was for the Muslim Brotherhood to have been the first to ascend to power because this was a crucial moment in the history of the country and it allowed the entire society to see the group’s limited capacity and authoritarian style of rule,” he argued.
That said, Said added, the swift ouster of the Brotherhood will also take a long time to absorb. “As a result, the group will continue to resist and to express its anger.” However, the Brotherhood is also likely to be attacked further by a public that “has been widely incited against them. The state has managed to reduce the Brotherhood to an isolated minority, and this is unfortunate because it means that anti-Muslim Brotherhood anger could take a violent turn,” he argued.
Said agreed that 2014 would see many aspirations for stability “with the call to vote for the new constitution and to continue with the roadmap and elect a reconciliatory president who will not challenge the gains of the army and police but who will also try to introduce some reforms.” But he said that the new year could also see clashes between the remnants of the Mubarak regime and those who “started and will have to continue the revolution” and between the Islamists and those who turned so harshly against them even when they were not necessarily always in the camp of their adversaries.
Whether or not the battle against the remnants of the Mubarak regime will reunite those who oppose it from the Islamist and non-Islamist camps is not something that Said is sure about. “It will be very hard to overcome the sad experience of the year of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said, noting that a coalition of interests is not something that he excludes “one way or the other.”
“After all, and despite all the irrational and not thought through decisions, the Muslim Brotherhood will not disappear into thin air. They will be there one way or the other as they have been through the over 80 years of their existence. They will probably make their re-appearance in parliament as independents and will probably work with other forces, both those representing the revolution and those representing the deep state,” Said argued.
“When the new year starts, the remnants of the Mubarak regime will be readying themselves to celebrate what they call the “Setback of January” — which is the way they qualify the 25 January Revolution — while the revolutionary forces will be wanting to restart the revolution. It will be a battle that will reach its high point towards the end of the year.”

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