Egypt Struggle for Democracy: Report From Cairo

October 07, 2011
Joshua Hoyt

The ride from the Cairo airport beyond the center of the city to Zamalek straddling the historic Nile River tells a lot about the recent history of Egypt. Along this prime real estate, for block after block after block, the highway is hemmed in on both sides by tall, beautiful, and graffiti-free stone fences. Nothing of what is on the other side of the fence can be seen. The fence on the right hides the Military Academy. The fence on the left hides Air Force facilities. Further along lies the empty palace of fallen dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak now sits in prison, being tried while sitting in a cage. Even on a Saturday evening, the traffic is bustling and chaotic. Egypt presses forward, with the same energy and passion as their traffic, constantly pushing forward under the watchful eyes of the Military and the ghosts of their long dictatorship.

The Mubarak regime lasted 30 years, and no element of life was untouched. A physical therapist talks of how she was considered insane for fighting back in the courts when a government minister moved in to take over the sports medicine business she had built up for the military. A mother of two recounts how she and other environmental advocates had “basically given up” in their hopes of preserving an internationally renowned fragile piece of pristine desert, because government ministers wanted the land for a tourism development. Now, the unlikely activists say, “Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.”

Cairo proper is a giant city of some 8 million people. It throbs with energy. On a Sunday the stores are open and the streets are packed. Monday, we are told, will be three times worse. I am in Cairo as a member of a delegation of community, immigrant, and labor leaders visiting to learn how communities and workers in other places organize to make “democracy” real. This year’s trip was planned well before the January 25th Revolution, little guessing that an uprising of historic proportions was to explode shortly.

It takes little time to understand that there is no question that the Egyptian Revolution was profoundly “democratic”. The question is how “democratic” the ultimate results will be. Participants in the uprising of January 25 and the massive anti-government street battles of January 28th describe the exhilaration of when the dictator’s police were finally overwhelmed and withdrew from the streets. They describe a massive popular uprising where Coptic Christians protected Muslim demonstrators in prayer, and where Christians were then invited to pray at an Islamic prayer service. They describe the bonding of communities during the days when their phones and Internet were turned off, and how they organized neighborhood defense leagues where armed residents protected their communities after the police were withdrawn.

Tahir Square is filled with traffic today, resembling more of a giant traffic circle than the ground zero of an 18-day vigil defended by pro-democracy demonstrators. But towering above the Square is the massive burnt out shell of the former headquarters of the National Democratic Party, the official party of the Mubarak dictatorship. A tree carries the stenciled portrait of a young woman martyr of the Revolution with the saying, “Now you must carry my rights.” The police killed an estimated 846 people during these 3 weeks.

Making a Democracy is a messy business. The struggle between the pro-democracy movement and Mubarak’s police ended when the Egyptian military finally came down on the side of the demonstrators. Unlike in Libya there was no revolutionary defeat of the military. The military – the same military that supported Mubarak and profited from the dictatorship – emerged from the Revolution with its wealth, power, and legitimacy as the arbiter of boundaries in Egyptian society intact.

Three main political currents vie for post-revolutionary electoral power: the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, the secular pro-democracy youth activists, and the socialist political parties, all under the eyes of the military. Strange political alliances rise and fall. The military and the Muslim Brotherhood together successfully supported a referendum calling for the early Presidential election on November 21, before a new constitution has been written. The “pro-democracy” forces urged a “no” vote because it would benefit the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood. Then, as soon as the referendum passed, the military began to cool off to the Muslim Brotherhood’s activists. There are reportedly 17 viable political parties, and 35 parties set up to benefit a handful of people! So goes the messy business of building a democracy.

The viaducts are painted with the stenciled portraits of martyrs of the Revolution, with statements supporting democracy. A popular graffiti is a Muslim crescent moon next to a Christian cross, symbolizing unity. At a traffic circle a Muslim group has hung banners calling for freedom for Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian Sheikh in prison for the first World Trade Center bombing. A nation where in the past the police crushed any demonstration now sees daily demonstrations.

Today hundreds of radiologists and x-ray technicians demonstrated in front of a government ministry to demand recognition of their professional education and thereby win a wage increase. Riot police clad in black, with shields, four-foot rods, and “Star Wars” type helmets stood watchfully at one end of the street, but did not interfere. The ministry buildings were guarded by the military, with automatic weapons and armored vehicles. A small group of soldiers marched into the demonstration, but mainly to keep traffic moving and ensure there was no clash between the medical technicians, and a small group of anti-labor Muslim activists who arrived to speak out against strikes as “anti-Muslim”.

There is a part of Egypt that is tired of the uncertainty, concerned about lack of security and poor economy, and frustrated that change is slow. Yet activists like Gehad Saif and Ahmed Saad, who emerged as leaders of the Tahrir Square sit-in and are leading voices among the youth pro-democracy forces are optimistic. “We have faith in democracy”, says Gehad, “We will not give up on democracy.”