Jan. 25 marked the fifth anniversary of the Tahrir Square revolt – an uprising organized by young Facebook-savvy Egyptians that came to symbolize the Arab Spring.
At the time, I spent days in and around the square interviewing the revolt’s youthful leaders as well as ordinary Cairenes. Those conversations were inspiring, as housewives, cabbies, laborers, office workers and students debated how to transform an authoritarian regime into some form of democracy.
We know how those hopes crumbled. Many of the revolt’s organizers are languishing in prison or have fled abroad. In the runup to the fifth anniversary, thousands of police patrolled downtown Cairo, civil society activists were rounded up and blogs were shut down. Tahrir Square was bare of demonstrators, except for a few supporters of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.
“We are now living under a more brutal regime than that of Hosni Mubarak,” says Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a young, attractive doctor who was one of the uprising’s leaders. “The number of young people detained is enormous, in the thousands, and the crackdown is unbelievable. We never faced something like this, even in Mubarak’s time, or in our parents’ time under (Gamal Abdel) Nasser.”
So what went wrong?
I put that question to Harb, with whom I had spent hours talking in 2011. Why had their youthful revolt failed so badly, and what did it tell us about the future prospects for Egypt?
“We were caught in the middle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the institutions of the state (including the Egyptian army),” he told me by phone from Cairo. “We were always the weakest because we didn’t have an intact organization and we didn’t have time to form one. Both of them had the tools to use against us, and we couldn’t do much.”
For those who don’t know Egypt, let me elaborate. Most of the Tahrir Square organizers came from the educated middle class and represented a relatively small slice of Egyptian society. But their message – demanding that an autocratic regime give way to a less corrupt government that listens to the public – resonated with a wide swathe of Egyptians. It definitely appealed to young people; more than two-thirds of Egyptians are under 35, and their unemployment rate keeps climbing up.
But while they excelled at turning out crowds, the revolt’s leaders had no experience in organizing political parties or mobilizing voters. Back in those heady days, I met Harb at Groppi’s, a faded Belle Epoque teahouse that became the dissidents’ meeting spot; he complained that liberals had to unite in one party and find one leader to gather around. Instead they split, backing several parties, which ensured that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won the presidency in 2012.
The Brotherhood overreached, seeking to control too many levers of power while governing badly. That unnerved many youthful leaders (and other sectors of the public). This enabled the army to rally them behind a coup against Morsi, and a massive, brutal crackdown on the Brotherhood. A weary public, and a low turnout, ensured that el-Sissi, a former general, won a presidential ballot; once in power, he felt free to crush the young democrats who made the 2011 revolt, lest one day they should challenge him.
I asked Harb whether the failure of the revolt indicated that democracy was an impossible dream for Egypt. On the contrary, he said, “The lesson of the past five years is that the only way for us to survive is to build a democratic, secular state.”
His reasoning: Egyptians have had it with autocracy and theocracy.
The tumultuous year of Muslim Brotherhood rule disillusioned the Egyptian public with government by Islamists. “The Egyptian people won’t accept them,” he insists. Meantime, the return of an autocratic, military regime is too deja vu. “They are out of context, out of history; the younger generation won’t tolerate it.”
That argument has some holes. True, an Islamist government failed, but any future Egyptian democracy won’t be able to exclude Islamist parties that play by legal rules in a country with a strong religious base. Moreover, the torture and jailing of thousands of Muslim Brothers could boomerang, unless some way is found to reintegrate them back into society.
Yet Harb is correct in the long term.
Autocracy has failed, repeatedly, to meet Egyptians’ needs. The el-Sissi government’s economic performance has been dismal. It justifies its crackdown to the public by pointing to a growing Islamic State threat. But Egyptian youths have nothing to do with that threat. (Nor did it emerge from the Brotherhood.)
Only a more open system can galvanize the youthful energy that went into the Tahrir Square revolt and permit peaceful political parties to organize and develop. Only a more open system will enable Egypt’s economy to grow.
“The only way out is democracy,” Harb insists. But unless el-Sissi creates the space for peaceful political activism, that energy will falter or go underground. “If the government puts an end to peaceful protests,” he adds, “I can see the country going into chaos. If we, the sane, rational opposition, are not in the picture, then the irrational opposition, calling for violence, will prevail.”
In other words, the Tahrir Square revolution isn’t over. We just don’t know yet how it will end.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.