Dispatch

Revolution's End

On the eve of a pivotal constitutional referendum, Egypt's young activists are struggling for direction.

CAIRO — On a late evening in early March, down a side street off downtown Cairo, Egypt's revolution is kept alight by a single bare incandescent bulb dangling from an extension cord. Despite being one of the main forces behind the popular overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's April 6 Youth Movement has yet to line up an office to call its own. So on this night, the eve of another protest in Tahrir Square, the young revolutionaries are meeting on the top floor of a gutted, condemned Cairene villa, shrouded in plastic builders tarp.

After having helped draw hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to the streets in January and February to rout the leadership of the Arab world's most populous country, Egypt's youth activists are coming under tremendous pressure to leave the streets. Older activists tell them it is time to grow up and join political parties, while the Egyptian public warns them that they are harming the country's economic recovery. And the Army, which was previously regarded by many Egyptians as the savior of their revolution, now is accused of employing brutal beatings to force Egypt's youth to abandon their protests in Tahrir Square.

On Saturday, March 19, Egyptians will head to the polls to vote in a national referendum on a set of constitutional amendments meant to lay the groundwork for Egypt's post-revolution political order. The referendum, which is backed by the military junta that has temporarily replaced Mubarak, will be a critical moment in showing whether Egypt supports the generals' road map for the future -- or whether the country supports the young activists' desire to keep pushing for broad reforms.

But even the young activists themselves are still finding their way ahead. At the meeting, held before the worst of the Army attacks on the remaining Tahrir protesters started last week, Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old leader of the April 6 movement, threw the floor of the meeting open to suggestions. Egyptian men and women in their 20s and 30s, a couple of them still limping from attacks during the height of the protests in January and February, tossed out opinions, the sole light bulb casting stark shadows along the walls as they spoke.

Demand two cabinet seats for youth ministers, one activist said. We should become a political party, a second said. I think we need to stay a movement; it's stronger than having a political party, a third offered.

Maher closed the meeting soon after -- Cairo remains under nighttime military curfew. He urged everyone to turn out early for the next day's protest in Tahrir. "We need to keep moving forward," he reminded them. "The revolution is still going on."

Shortly after the meeting concluded, however, the revolution entered an entirely new phase. The Egyptian Army, which at times protected activists during the country's 18 days of history-making protests, is seemingly losing patience with Maher's group and others that continue to protest. On March 9, soldiers and thugs destroyed the tent city in the city center, and then took dozens of activists and passers-by across the square to the Egyptian Museum and beat them, according to Human Rights Watch and other advocates. More army attacks have helped quell what had been daily rallies in Tahrir, though the army still seems to tolerate the weekly mass gatherings in Tahrir after Friday prayers.

"Same shit, different uniform," Cairo-based journalist and activist Sarah Carr wrote tartly in response to the March 9 attack. The Egyptian people turned a blind eye to the beatings, she wrote, due to "a popular reluctance to accept that the revered army is capable of impropriety of any kind against citizens."

And in fact, as Egypt struggles to lure back tourists and investors, there is no shortage of older Egyptians telling the young people to pack up their signs and go home.

Hisham Kassem, a newspaper publisher and longtime democracy advocate, acknowledges admiringly that he followed the lead of "the kids" in the 18 days of protests that toppled Mubarak's regime. But now even he's skeptical of their plan to continue taking to the street. "What are they going to do? They'll get 5,000 people out in the street to rally every time they want to change Article A, Article B of the Constitution?" he scoffs.

As it turns out, they won't have to: March 19's referendum will be a straight up or down vote on the constitutional amendments, which were proposed by a military-appointed panel. Just over half the country's 80 million people are eligible to vote, according to the election overseers. For the 60 percent of Egypt's population who are under 30, Saturday will be the first free election of their lifetime.

There are some important steps in the proposed amendments, such as limiting the president to two terms in office and restricting use of the emergency laws by which Mubarak suspended many civil liberties. Supporters, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak's former ruling party, argue that it is important to accept the changes and move on to restoring Egypt's post-revolution stability. Opponents say the amendments were written without public consultation and, like the Constitution itself, remain deeply flawed. Egypt's youth movements and many other liberal voices are urging Egyptians to reject Saturday's referendum and push for a transparent, consultative rewriting of the entire Constitution. Their election emblem is a sprightly red and white script reading "la" -- Arabic for no.

For Egypt's young revolutionaries, the fear is that Egyptians are so anxious to return to normal that they will give up the revolution before realizing the freedoms it could bring. "We have achieved so much, that it would be a sin to stop now," wrote Mahmoud Salem, an activist who blogs under the name Sandmonkey, in an impassioned appeal for continuing the rallies.

Egyptians have many freedoms still to win, Salem wrote. For starters: a constitution that limits the power of the executive branch and guarantees equal rights; enforcement of a $200 monthly minimum wage; and freeing of political prisoners.

A poll on the "We are all Khaled Said" Facebook group, one of the most important sites for organizing online opposition to Mubarak, while admittedly unscientific, found that 49 percent of respondents opposed the referendum, 36 percent supported it, and 13 percent were undecided.

But at late-night sessions held in some of Cairo's seedier shisha cafes, Maher and others in the April 6 movement worry that Egypt's military is strengthening its grip on power. They worry that Army officials are blowing off meetings with the young activists and that the more-polished generals are trouncing the less-experienced young activists in the battle for public opinion on Egypt's late-night talk shows.

Meanwhile, the young activists themselves have their own internal concerns to worry about, primarily the question of whether to continue working outside the system or enter it. Maher's instincts tell him to keep April 6 outside the political system, "like a pressure movement," he said. Among his cohort of activists, "the majority are saying they don't want a political party," he said.

Many young people across the Arab world -- having grown up under dictators who made the political system look weak, corrupt, or both -- have little innate confidence in political parties. Maher and his generation already have a younger generation of activists watching them closely, alert for any signs that the older activists are about to sell out the movement and transform it into a compromised political party like any other.

Roaa Ebrahim, a 23-year-old protester who wears a headscarf, illustrated this broad concern about younger Egyptians when she recounted an early post-revolution meeting of Egypt's youth groups. When discussion among the leaders became heated, the activists abruptly kicked out news cameras and closed the doors. Not good, Ebrahim says.

"They're being dragged into dialogue with bigger political parties and forgetting about what they have to do in the streets right now," she worries. "It's a big danger."

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Is This the End for Muhammad Yunus?

In today's Bangladesh, even a Nobel Prize can't protect you from persecution.

The last hope for Muhammad Yunus, Bangladesh's Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the path breaking microcredit institution Grameen Bank, rests with a hearing in the appellate division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh that on Tuesday was postponed for two weeks.

Last week, after three days of argument, a lower court, the High Court upheld the legality of an order given the previous week by the country's central bank that required him to leave his post of managing director because he was over 60 years of age. Yunus is now 70, and the High Court held that Grameen Bank's own staff regulations required employees to retire at 60, including him.

Yunus's own lawyers reject that interpretation of the law and hope now to persuade the appellate division that the High Court decision was "entirely perverse," "a total departure from all ordinary norms of practice," and "a total denial of justice," as they write in their appeal filing.

If the High Court decision stands, not only will Yunus be out of a job, it will also mean that at the time he received his Nobel prize in October 2006, he was illegally holding the position of managing director at the bank. Who knows what would be the legal status of decisions and agreements that Yunus made since 1990?

The charge that Yunus unlawfully stayed in his post is just one of the government's many allegations.

Last week, Sajeeb Wazed, the prime minister's son, who has also been appointed as her advisor, sent out an email setting out a series of allegations against the bank including  "fraud," "theft," "tax evasion," "draconian" methods of loan recovery and "embezzlement." He admitted that the source of these allegations -- which are forcefully denied by Grameen Bank -- are government legal papers.

The government and its supporters portray the government's action against Yunus as simply part of its commitment to "rule of law." 

The law is clear, they say: Yunus simply should not have been managing director of the bank since he turned 60. The government's current action is only directed at correcting that illegality, they claim. If he committed crimes he should be brought to account.

There is certainly some support for this position. As one High Court reporter told me, "Our sentiment is that Yunus's Nobel prize has nothing to do with his professional conduct and this prize does not give him any immunity from the music of law."

Nayeemul Islam Khan, the editor of the influential Bengali language newspaper Amader Shomoy argues that the government's action not only reflects a principled decision on the part of the government but should be applauded by the international community.

"By taking actions against the illegal activities/irregularities/unauthorized actions by Dr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank board, the government in fact is enhancing the image of the country by giving out the strong message that there is zero tolerance from [the] present government on corruption and irregularities," he wrote recently.

Others say the attack on Yunus is politically motivated.

There are few people more critical of microfinance's contribution towards alleviating poverty than Nurul Kabir, the editor of the English language newspaper New Age, and one might well have expected him to support the government in its attack on Grameen.

However in his view, the government's action against Yunus has nothing to do with principle or the rule of law -- it's a vendetta.

"Hundreds of Awami League party men are committing innumerable illegal actions across the country with absolute impunity from the government," he says, referring to the ruling party of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. "The first thing that the government did after coming into government was to withdraw corruption charges against the ruling party leaders. So, we have no reason to believe that the government is serious about fighting allegations of corruption."

Those who share Kabir's view point to two key events to explain the government's move against Yunus.

Since 1997, when, during her first term, Hasina signed the Chittagong Hill Tracts peace treaty bringing an end to a decade-long internal military conflict, the prime minister thought that she should get the prize. She even sent senior foreign office officials around the world in search of nominations. Hasina is therefore said to have been none too pleased that Yunus received all the international acclaim.

This may not have mattered much, were it not that six months after wining the award, in March 2007, Yunus announced that that he would set up a new political party, called Nagorik Shakti (Citizens Power). He wanted, he said at the time, a "complete emasculation of the established political parties" in order to "cleanse the polity of massive corruption."

It happened during a controversial two-year period when the country was in a state of emergency, with the interim government, supported by the army, advocating a new kind of politics without the leaders of the two main political parties.

Though it was a short-lived effort on Yunus's part, some claim that Hasina saw his intervention as a direct personal attack on her and the Awami League. "She thought that he was involved with the army in trying to remove her and [opposition party leader] Khaleda Zia from politics. That the army's plan to remove her was also his plan," a former bureaucrat said.

Now, however, all eyes will be on Yunus's appeal -- which looks to many like a foregone conclusion. In the two years that the current Awami League government has been in power, the government has yet to lose an important political case in the courts. Though the independence of the judiciary is enshrined in Bangladesh's constitution, governments of all types may have significant leverage over judges -- particularly if they require confirmation of their permanent judicial status, want promotion to the appellate division, or are seeking appointment as chief justice. Lawyers here commonly talk about this leverage being used on occasion -- though there is no direct evidence.

So unless the appellate division looks kindly on Yunus's legal arguments, and more significantly feels able to take a position that will set them in opposition to the government, Grameen Bank will soon be looking for a new managing director.

MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images