Ideological Warfare in Egypt and the Fight over January 25

Mohamed Mahmoud St 1, near Tahrir square.
Hossam el-Hamalawy, 27 February, 2011.

On January 28 2011, the day Egyptians remember as “The Day of Rage,” I made my way from work in downtown Cairo and headed towards Tahrir Square. My cousin had called me at work from his house half an hour earlier and suggested we meet each other there by the KFC branch to see for ourselves what was happening. On my way, walking, every few minutes I would take out my mobile phone and see whether it was working after the Mubarak government had blocked all mobile and internet connections earlier that morning. It wasn’t. Three days earlier, on January 25, there was minimal coverage on the protests that took place on Egypt’s National Police Day— and so my expectations were not high. I was not expecting to find many people there. I was wrong.

We all know what happened next. The people kept on coming to Tahrir Square and gathering points across the country. The Egyptian diaspora protested outside Egyptian embassies and cultural bureaus across the globe. Mubarak made some speeches that only incited more fury and frustration among the crowds. Attempts were made by state media, on the directives from the Mubarak government, to try and discredit the protests as the product of foreign agendas that sought to weaken Egypt. It worked to some degree but the people kept on coming. Finally, on February 12, Mubarak resigned and the crowds across the country erupted in victory.

That was then. Since February 12, Egypt has been blown in various different political and ideological directions that has left many to suggest the country is on the brink of civil war — a far cry from the exemplary unity that was displayed once upon a time in Tahrir. Yet, despite tumultuous changes in its ever complicated political paradigm, the date of January 25 2011 seemed forever enshrined and immune to whatever was happening in the present. It was the undisputed start date of Egypt’s glorious, peaceful revolution that outlined the principles and demands of the Egyptian people. Until now. The ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi on July 3 has sent events in Egypt into overdrive, and for the first time, the narrative of the January 25 Revolution finds itself under suspicion. The revolution was revered, both domestically and internationally, as a demographically inclusive movement against tyranny and corruption — against continued nepotism and social injustice — and a refusal to allow Egypt to continue to be governed as if it were one man’s personal fiefdom.

Yet, for the first time, under the auspices of General Abdel Fattah El Sissi, the head of Egypt’s military and the most powerful man in Egypt, the narrative on January 25 has begun to be mixed in with the restrictive and bias binaries that currently plague Egyptian politics and households alike.

Since July 3, clear battle lines have been drawn between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, with every Egyptian seemingly picking a side. Pro-Morsi/Muslim Brotherhood protests and sit-ins have been attacked leaving hundreds dead and thousands injured, while in the Sinai, police and army personnel have been murdered by “Islamic militants.” Amidst the brutal violence, an ideological battle rages on for the soul of Egypt. State and private TV channels tell Egyptians daily that the military is “fighting terrorism” — now a synonym for the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Muslim Brotherhood, with the TV channels favourable to their cause being shut down since Morsi’s ouster, resort to YouTube videos and internet statements that condemn the military who they see as wanting to return Egypt to its pre- January 25 revolutionary state. In retort, el-Sissi and the interim government have posed the Muslim Brotherhood as a counter-revolutionary force that seeks to impose its own religiously fascist agenda on Egypt. Tragically, and ironically, both sides are probably right, and Egypt is struggling to find any third options.

This has meant that both sides have inevitably dragged the January 25 2011 into their armoury. All of a sudden, the eighteen day revolution that was less about politics and more about social justice and equality, is being used for political gains as an end of itself. The Muslim Brotherhood claim this is the return of the “deep state” of Mubarak and to undo all the achievements of January 25, while el-Sissi and his army, as well as many TV channels, now propagate that January 25 was not an uprising against Mubarak and tyranny, but rather the rebirth of a different tyranny in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. While the death toll has risen, Egypt has seen the return of the Emergency law, one of the most despised aspects of Mubarak’s regime — yet in the fight against “terrorism” that is now being narrated in every military and government statement, not to mention almost every TV channel, it comes as no surprise that there have been no protests against the return of the Emergency Law. Moreover, there have been no protests over the implementation of the evening curfew, acting as further proof that Egyptians have placed their trust and security in the hands of the army, and most worryingly, accepted the military’s narrative of events as facts.

It is no surprise, then, that one of the questions on everyone’s lips in Egypt is: now what? The question may appear straight forward, but it is covered in layers that make it far more complicated when considered carefully. And furthermore, the question itself is intrinsically linked to another question: what do Egyptians actually want? The obvious answer to that question is democracy, social justice, equality and political freedom — what citizens of the world would want for nation states. Yet, the problem Egypt is currently facing is not just the potential return of the pre-January 25 political state, but the return of a political compromise that sees Egyptians settle for an undemocratic government in favour of the death, chaos and fear that is currently found on Egypt’s streets. That is the offer that el-Sissi appears to have presented Egyptians — an offer they appear to be accepting, and one cannot help but remember and realise how similar this offer is to the one Hosni Mubarak offered in his final speech as president: “It’s either me, or chaos.”

When this offer was presented by Mubarak, it was vehemently rejected. Egyptians had had enough of the compromise of security over freedom — stability over revolution. And this exercise in history brings us back to the original question: now what? If the spirit of January 25 lives on, then there is still the possibility that Egypt will not fall back into the old-age compromise that el-Sissi is currently offering. There remains the possibility that once the initial anger towards the Muslim Brotherhood subsides, Egyptians will realise and remember that the military and its commander are not offering a much better choice to the Muslim Brotherhood. Religious fascism and military fascism are both fascism, and for a country that braved Mubarak’s bullets, Field Marshall Tantawi’s tanks and Morsi’s ridicule of the democratic process, Egypt deserves a lot better than fascism of any kind.

However, the situation on the ground is of such intensity that the origins and principles of January 25 are being lost. Not only are Egyptian citizens divided, but so too are households. Older generations who were raised on the military propaganda machine during the Arab-Israeli wars see the Egyptian army the way the army would like to be seen: as protectors of Egypt and a symbol of national pride. Younger generations of Egyptians, like myself, were not alive when the army last fought against Israel, in 1973, and our only experience with the military was the horrific eighteen month tenure of Tantawi and the SCAF after Mubarak’s resignation — a legacy defined by civilians being tried in military courts and female protestors being subjected to virginity tests by military doctors.

Eighteen months of rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces very quickly wiped out what older generations of Egyptians had told me. While they viewed the army through the prism of 1973 and victory, I saw the army put my friends in coffins or try them in military courts. I never met the Egyptian army of the 1960s and 1970s, but I met the 2011 version, and as I stood in Tahrir Square throughout the course of 2011 and 2012 chanting “down with military rule” I promised myself I would never trust the institution again. Older generations, however, appear to be intrinsically distrustful of the Muslim Brotherhood after decades of government oppression and propaganda against them, and as a result, are happy for the military to continue this status quo. With news of Hosni Mubarak’s release from prison, one cannot help but feel that January 25 2011 seems a lot longer than two and a half years ago. The spirit of the revolution, that was once a source of pride for Egyptians, appears to at least be temporarily lost as agendas and institutions manipulate events and facts for their own cause. Restrictive binaries are weighing down the nation as people pick a side of the argument, and the sensible voices of the middle-ground are drowned out. On January 28, as I stood in Tahrir Square, the crowd chanted for Mubarak’s resignation. What I did not realise was that beyond this commonality, divisions were waiting to be exposed, and they have been exposed mercilessly for almost three years. Today, even Mubarak’s release is not met by a united voice, with many seeing it as irrelevant compared to other pressing issues. This would have been an unthinkable thought on January 28.

Today, Tahrir Square is empty, perhaps patiently waiting for its people to remember why this all started in the first place. But for that to happen, TV’s need to be turned off and Egyptians only need to look outside onto the street to remember that there is a country worth fighting for, and that fight begun at the end of January, 2011.