Egypt is gearing up for yet another referendum on the latest draft constitution, scheduled for mid-January. This referendum will be less about articles and clauses and constitutional provisions, and more about whether Egyptians support the military-backed government and the ousting of President Mohamed Mursi on July 3. If the past six months have told us anything, it is that most Egyptians support the Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, and his affiliates. The vote on the constitution will likely be a reflection of the public’s attitude to the military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood. But it is not clear where the original revolutionaries of January 25 fit into this new order, and they now run the risk of fading into obscurity.
“It’s like 2011 all over again. The army and the police have no fear, and are using the courts to ratify their oppression. They’re even arresting the same activists they arrested two years ago,” an Egyptian colleague told me as we read the news that dozens of Egyptian activists had been rounded up and held in custody pending trial. In 2011, after Mubarak’s resignation, the military enjoyed a wave of popularity because it was believed to have sided with the revolution against Mubarak. We saw protesters hugging military personnel in Tahrir Square, and “the people and the army are one hand” reverberated in one chant across the country. But that early popularity did not last long after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) committed several atrocities, including virginity tests on female protesters, military trials of civilians, and the notorious Maspero massacre.
Today, the military-backed government appears to have no qualms about repeating the brutality and judicial manipulation of the SCAF. In this latest round of arrests, many of the activists’ families have not even been told by the authorities where they are being held, let alone allowed access to visit them. In one case involving activist Alaa Abdul Fattah, his wife took to Twitter to describe how the police forcefully entered their home in the middle of the night in late November and beat her before taking her husband away.
The situation for revolutionaries today is perhaps worse than in 2011. The activists who want to challenge the institutional power of the military now face an almost impossible task. Two years ago, the SCAF was inexperienced in its role as government figurehead. This time, the military’s popularity far exceeds the support it had in 2011. It was one thing to support the people in removing Hosni Mubarak, but by forcefully removing President Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood in July, the army has gained much respect in the eyes of many Egyptians.
How, then, are revolutionary activists going to be able to challenge the seemingly unshakable popularity and power that the military currently enjoys? Despite a new ban on protests, there is no doubt that on any given day a street protest might be arranged in Tahrir Square or elsewhere. But how do you turn a one-day protest by 10,000 people into a weeklong stand by 100,000 or more? These are difficult questions to answer when Sisi and the government enjoy a popular mandate.
This is the same military-backed government that dispersed the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda Square in August, which resulted in more than 1,000 casualties according to most estimates, without the greater population batting an eyelid. The revolutionaries cannot expect widespread outcry from Egyptians at the arrest or killing of a small number of their activists. Although the revolutionaries are not as reviled as Brotherhood supporters, the military-backed government enjoys the support of both private and state media, and so any narrative can be propagated to discredit activists in a similar fashion to the propaganda used against the Brotherhood. Moreover, the 2011 mass protests against Mubarak and the June 2013 protests against Mursi only conjured up mass protest numbers because both governments were hugely unpopular. The opposite is true for the military-backed government today, and so mass support appears very unlikely for revolutionary activists, barring any monumental errors by the government.
The revolutionary activists therefore stand the best chance if they focus on what comes after the referendum on the constitution. They need to organize themselves to compete in the democratic process that follows. Next year will likely see parliamentary and presidential elections—and it’s about time we, the original revolutionaries, won one. Without a victory in the near future, the goals of the 2011 revolution risk being permanently sidelined.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.