In Tahrir and in squares throughout the nation, Egyptians once again filled public space. In fact, by appearances they did so in greater numbers than at the height of the January 25 revolution which deposed President Mubarak. What is not clear altogether is why they were there, or who they represent.
Tomorrow may tell.
Some Egyptians, the revolutionaries, are very clear. They demand the fall of the regime, just as they did a year ago. Mubarak, they say, was only the public face of a military regime that still stands. For Egypt to be truly free, the army must return to its barracks, guard the borders, and yield to a civilian president.
There are different variations on this theme. Some want power immediately transferred to the parliament, with its speaker as head of government as an interim measure. Others desire the formation of a civilian presidential council to guide through the writing of a constitution and election of a president proper. Nearly all, however, find the military council to be leading the counter-revolution seeking to preserve the status quo under a new guise, and many find the Muslim Brotherhood to be complicit in a power sharing agreement.
The Muslim Brotherhood is also in the square. Their presence is less clear. They have taken the lion’s share of responsibility to secure entrances to Tahrir, to prevent unruly factions or clandestine weapons to enter. They stop short of proclaiming today as a day of celebration, but they are pleased. One of their leading figures declared revolutionary legitimacy is in the hands of parliament, and no longer in Tahrir. Yet they still speak of an unfinished revolution, though they rarely speak ill of the military council. Another leader has proposed the idea of a ‘safe exit’ for the military, implying they have committed crimes while in power. Yet they firmly stick to the announced military timetable to hand over power, after presidential elections in June.
Salafis are also in the square, but their voices are diverse. Some are very anti-military council, others less so, equally pleased with their gains in parliament. Yet Salafism is not a united movement, even having banded together under a political party. While committed throughout their ranks to a state which enforces sharia law – however gradually – some see military rule as an obstacle while others see it as a fight not worth waging, as long as they have room to transform Egypt socially. Salafi presence is not a dominant makeup of today’s protest, but they are there.
Then there is the average citizen, who is impossible to qualify. The military council has been heavily lauding the January 25 revolution, billing today’s anniversary as a great celebration. They praise the heroism and bravery of the youth. They also praise the armed forces, as guardians of the revolution. Revolutionaries claim they have brainwashed the people through state media; equally likely is that the average citizen has always trusted the army, as most men have served within its ranks. Is the average citizen there to celebrate with them?
Or has the average citizen, at least in Tahrir, come to see the military council as the problem? Following the most recent clashes on Qasr al-Aini Street outside the Cabinet building, a female volunteer at a field hospital in Tahrir was beaten by military personnel and in the attack stripped of her full length niqab, revealing a provocative blue bra. This image was widely circulated, and a newspaper the next day posted it on its front page, with the title – Kazeboon (Liars). The military denied using force to dismiss the sit-in, and this paper was outraged.
In the weeks following this incident activists have created a Kazeboon movement, taking a projector through the lower class streets of Cairo and showing footage of the clashes in public spaces. They have often been resisted forcefully by military sympathetic residents, or, according to some accusations, paid thugs.
Has this campaign affected the average citizen? Is this why the numbers in Tahrir have swelled?
What is clear is that the numbers came from everywhere. Previous demonstrations used Tahrir as a gathering point; this effort recalled January 28, 2011 when marches set off from around the city to converge there. Most of these marches today appear to have been of revolutionary sentiment, and found Tahrir Square filled before they even arrived. As such they encamped in the side streets and on bridges crossing the Nile, while the mixed groups described above gathered around their various stages – Islamist, liberal, socialist, and families of the martyrs.
The differences are immense, one year to the next. In 2011 the demonstrators were met by security forces who confronted them with batons, water cannons, and tear gas. From a different angle, once the demonstrators secured the square after the withdrawal of security, there were no stages in Tahrir; all the people were one. Now, the paths to Tahrir were open to all, but divided once they arrived.
This description illustrates why tomorrow may be indicative. Revolutionary groups have announced efforts to conduct an open sit-in. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood has announced they are leaving the square. The average citizen will go back to his home and sleep. What will he do tomorrow? Today, the numbers were immense; what will they look like tomorrow?
Perhaps tomorrow will not be deciding, in the same manner January 26 meant little last year. Yet still, the script is flipped. On January 25 the demonstrations were led by activists, with the Muslim Brotherhood wavering on the sidelines, and the Salafis largely maintaining political quietism. The 26th and 27th were met with smaller confrontations, but momentum was building in anticipation of Friday, the 28th, the Day of Rage. On the weekend, following Friday prayers, the nation was asked to validate the revolution. They, including the Muslim Brotherhood, did.
This time, religious groups have begun in participation, but at least in the case of the Brotherhood, now withdraw. Tomorrow, the 26th, will see a sit-in, but what will be of Friday, a day earlier this calendar year, on the 27th? Tomorrow and continuing there will be no conflation of Tahrir revolutionary celebrants; all who continue will be revolutionaries.
Without the Brotherhood and their vast skills of mobilization, can they succeed?
The question may not be that simple, as we still have a day in-between to change the equation. Since the fall of Mubarak sit-ins have ended violently. Often there has been an attempt at escalation, which eventually was met by force. Some say the escalators are infiltrators seeking conflict so as to mar the public opinion of continued revolution. Others say the escalations have been peaceful, and met with a security response that has been unwarranted and reminiscent of the Mubarak regime, or worse. What will happen with tonight’s sit-in, if anything?
Already some of the revolutionaries have moved the place of protest from Tahrir Square about three blocks to the north to the Maspero Radio and TV Building – the seat of state media. In occupying this site they wish to highlight what they believe to be media distortions, but they do so at a point of great state sensitivity. Will they be allowed to stay? Or, do some wish to storm it altogether? If so, are they infiltrators looking to spark a fight?
Also in the air are rumors the demonstration will move to the military hospital where Mubarak is residing, so as to bring him to the square for trial. Additionally a procession is foretold that will move to Tora Prison to bring his sons and other remnants of the regime yet to receive full trials. If these are more than rumor, they will certainly merit resistance. But who issues the rumor/plan – revolutionaries or infiltrators?
Engineered or otherwise, the spark that may change the equation is violence. A simple attempt by police to violently clear a small sit-in in November made immediate waves on Twitter. Within hours it brought a deluge of support, leading to five days of street fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud Street outside Tahrir. The square itself filled once more, leading to the sacking of the government when all was said and done.
Surely the military council will not use violence tomorrow, but who knows? Or, will someone use violence in effort to pin blame on them, or their supposed plain clothed thugs? If violence occurs, will it keep people away, or attract them in numbers? So much is unknown.
Equally unknown is the reaction if no violence occurs. How big will the sit-in be? Will it grow on Friday? Can it maintain itself until forcing the military council to hand over power somewhere? Will it maintain its presence until June, waiting for presidential elections? So much is unknown.
And, equally unknown is where the Muslim Brotherhood will be. By siding against Tahrir now do they reveal an understanding with the military council? Or, are they the best revolutionaries of all, seeking to undo the military state via an elected parliament with widely accepted legitimacy? Do they risk losing their own popular legitimacy among the people? Or, are they waiting in the wings – perhaps as before – to see where the winds blow? The Brotherhood has consistently denied any interest in securing the presidency since the first days of the revolution. Yet if the military council were to fall, might they claim this prize as well, maintaining public posture that they never sought it?
Of course, the next few days may pass entirely without incident. If it is true the majority sentiment from January 25 is against military rule, perhaps today is only a preview of June, in case of delayed presidential elections or the ascension of a military candidate. The Brotherhood, and the people, may not wish confrontation now – might the numbers padded through their mobilization have been a warning shot?
Such is Egypt during revolution, one year on. It is nearly impossible to read the tea leaves, as conventional wisdom is consistently turned on its head, and surprises await around every corner. Even today, no one expected these numbers.
Tomorrow may bring more clarity.
From a Year Ago:
- Police Day Palpitations, January 25, 2011
- Egyptian Protests, January 26, 2011
- Friday in Egypt: A Decisive Day, a Turn to Religion?, January 27, 2011
And then the internet went out.