Perhaps the only time in his 30-year reign that Hosni Mubarak made people happy was when he stepped down, after 18 days of mass protests against his regime. The demonstrators toppled him; and the army removed him. But the euphoria at his departure underlined the people’s role more than the army’s. The army in turn claimed to have acted on behalf of the people, and soldiers and protestors smiled and exchanged kisses. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was appointed to rule the country until parliamentary elections would usher in a civilian government.
Since 11 February, the day Mubarak resigned and the SCAF took over, Egyptians have been hoping against hope that it will not abuse its power.
The events of 9 October are the worst Egyptians have lived through since their revolution. A simple and peaceful march by mostly, but not exclusively, Coptic protestors against the burning of a church in Upper Egypt (and the local government’s refusal to give a permit to rebuild it) ended up with army personnel-carriers charging into crowds and running people over. Soldiers fired into the crowds, plainclothes thugs beat people up, 26 people were killed and hundreds injured. This “handling” of a peaceful protest (however angry the protestors) is particularly bad because it stoked sectarian anger and brought it to levels that Egypt has rarely seen. It tried to delegitimize basic demands by Copts by portraying them as people who use violence.
Almost everyone is pointing to the army and its plainclothes helpers for inciting the excessive violence that would not have taken place without them. The SCAF denies responsibility and points at the stones that were thrown at them.
So is it better if an army steps in to help a revolutionary movement? Or is it safer to play it straight and stick with the old regime? When the shah was deposed in Iran in 1979 after months of demonstrations, the army didn’t help the protesters. But there was a price to pay in this case as well.
I was in Tehran when the demonstrations began in Egypt. Friends gathered to watch the news most evenings. We flipped through satellite channels to catch every bit of news about what was happening. To say Iranians were elated watching Egyptians march in the streets is an understatement: The whole world seemed to be in a state of disbelief. Was it really, finally, happening? As the days went by and Tahrir Square became a fixture of television news, we watched with joy and envy, and fear.
There wasn’t a single discussion about the situation in Egypt that did not draw comparisons with Iran. We noted that, as in Iran, what united Egyptians was the demand for the leader to step down, or better still, leave. Egyptians found many ways to say it: There was the plain, polite “Leave Mr President!” and there were humorous variations: “My wife is about to give birth and the baby is not going to want to see you. Hurry up and leave!” or “It’s already been a week, Mr President, and not even one phone call?” (referring to the fact that Mubarak made no statements for a whole week after the demonstrations started). The regime accused Iran, Israel and the United States of being behind the protests. A boy held a placard with his answer: “I am the Iranian with the secret agenda and I also say, Leave you jerk!”
We related to the anger, we feared the outcome, we loved and admired the humour. So much fresh air was wafting our way -- but also dread that we were watching the chronicle of a revolution foretold. Iranians began asking each other if it was still possible to win a revolution. Then the even more unthinkable happened: Mubarak stepped down and left for Sharm al-Sheikh. Now, Iranians couldn’t say enough good things about the army: “Look at how much more civilized the Egyptians are than us. In Iran at the time of the shah, the army was never on the side of the people; imagine what would have happened if it had been.”
In Iran, the shah had stayed on with the army behind him, regardless of how many roses people placed in the soldiers’ guns. The demonstrations began in September 1978 and the shah left on 16 January 1979 – almost 140 days. There is still speculation about why he finally left and who pushed him out. Many Iranians blame Jimmy Carter and the BBC. Millions of people coming to the streets did not count. And whatever the army did or told him to do, it did not actually remove him from power. In the months leading up to his departure, the shah tried to bring in leaders who were more or less independent. But it was too late; the people refused to accept them. They repeated over and over: “The shah must go.” And finally he left.
But the months of mounting anger and radicalisation, the brutality, the deaths, the prisons full of political prisoners, a hugely repressive army and police, corruption, stark economic disparities, all led to a level of violence after the shah’s departure that cast a dark shadow over the entire revolution and what was to come. Many of those who had come out on the streets were stunned, suddenly left with no language with which to express their confusion. Were executions of members of the former regime a sign of the success of the revolution or its failure? They didn’t know. The leadership seemed to have flown out of the hands of the very people who had come out on the streets and made the revolution a reality.
This July, I spent two weeks in Egypt. On the day I arrived, there had been a large demonstration, a march from Tahrir Square to the defence ministry in Abbasiya to protest the army’s delays in implementing many of the people’s demands. The army was particularly brutal that day and estimates of those injured went from the official 55 to about 2,000. This demonstration marked the first full-scale, openly expressed fear that the army was really just on its own side. The slogan “The people want the downfall of the regime” had changed to “The people want the downfall of the Field Marshal.” One woman demonstrator told a reporter: “First the army said it will protect the revolution, then it said it was part of the revolution, but now it’s clear that it’s against the revolution.” That day the army called the demonstrators “traitors.”
In late July, there was endless debate about whether Tahrir Square should be evacuated voluntarily and the daily traffic restored. Some argued that the people were losing popularity and Ramadan was around the corner: There would be frenetic shopping and outings after the iftar. The occupation of Tahrir Square would make all of this even more difficult and people would resent us. Anyway, some asked, what are people doing there anymore?
But for many, Tahrir Square provided a stance, a kind of leadership. There were plenty of more traditional kinds of politics, in parties, meetings, press conferences or sit-ins. But perhaps with the exception of religious groups, almost regardless of political inclination, people were not quite sure about the form of government they wanted to build towards. So the counter argument was that Tahrir Square should remain occupied, not only until the army met our demands, but until we figured out what kind of politics we wanted.
While these debates were going on, the square continued to be occupied, with tents, food sellers, painters and street vendors. During the cooler evening hours, people drifted in to catch up with what was happening. Children ran around. Outside the tents, there was conversation and sharing of cigarettes and tea. There was singing and clapping. Tahrir Square, in its multiplicity and contained chaos, was the space where the revolution’s most important achievements were played out. Its occupation by people from all walks of life showed that, for the first time in many people’s lives, they felt Egypt belongs to them too. It is their country.
Still, it was unclear to many where Egypt stood with regard to its revolution. Had there really been a revolution? Were they in the middle of it? Or was it more or less finished now that Mubarak had left? Iranians were surprised that what was happening in Egypt was immediately called a “revolution” -- that seemed, from their own experience, perhaps too optimistic.
Egyptians wondered what they should be doing. Had the time arrived to leave revolutionary work and move to party politics? Leave Tahrir and set up campaign headquarters?
There is no shortage of thinkers and activists in Egypt. But, as in the rest of the world, there is uncertainty. Liberal democracies, socialisms of various kinds and many types of Islamisms all seem to have reached their limits. Perhaps this is why political analysts opt quickly for the prefix “post” to capture, however inadequately, what is happening -- post Islamist, post pan-Arab, post militancy, etc. But like the rest of the world, Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, and one hopes soon Syrians, need time to acknowledge what they have achieved, and they need time to leave the old political categories behind and think anew. We all need to do that.
Today in Egypt, almost eight months since the demonstrations began, the army continues to rule. All along, many have feared it will not leave power any time soon. But now it is not just a question of how to apply pressure to force the army out. It is a question of how fragmented and insecure the army wants to make Egyptian society become in order to justify its continued rule. Many Muslim Egyptians believe in equality and justice for Copts. One hopes that their voices will become louder and stronger.
Niloofar Haeri is professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University; she specialises on Egypt and Iran and has written extensively on the politics of language in the Arab world.