Egypt’s Revolutionary Narrative Breaks Down

With Hosni Mubarak long gone, a heavily Islamist parliament in place, and the military in uneasy command of the country, who speaks for the revolution?

CAIRO — On the first anniversary of Egypt's revolution, the Semiramis InterContinental, a five-star luxury hotel overlooking Cairo's central Tahrir Square, offered an espresso-stained postcard of the deep political and social divides that have emerged since Hosni Mubarak's downfall.

As hundreds of thousands Egyptians converged on the square on Jan. 25, the hotel's café became the locus for discordant symposiums among Egyptians of diverse political and social backgrounds. Protesters, clad with stickers and signs that urged Egyptians to press forward with the revolution, shuffled in for a coffee (and, for some, an alcohol) break. In another part of the café, Egyptian businessmen discussed the construction of new resort hotels on Egypt's glimmering Red Sea with their colleagues from the Gulf. Still, others sought refuge from what one 38-year-old Egyptian restaurant owner described as "the never-ending noise of the revolution."

On that last point, at least, the patrons would get their wish. The noisy chants of "Invalid!" (a reference to the sustained de facto leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) over the country) and "Freedom!" were eventually drowned out by the iconic, moody tunes of famous Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.

But not even Umm Kulthum could sing over the urgent political questions of the day. In the back of the café, workers watched footage of the packed square on a miniature television propped against the hotel's boarded windows, fretting over "when the clashes will start." One poked fun of all the "beards" (Islamists) present. Another lamented that things were better under Mubarak, only to be promptly reproached by his colleagues. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a famous pro-democracy activist who was sentenced to seven years of prison under Mubarak, sat at the head of one table with a gaggle of people, discussing the foggy state of affairs. "Don't ask me what will happen next," he said. "I don't know."

With some protesters establishing a new tent camp in Tahrir Square and another demonstration planned for Jan. 27, nobody does. While much of the coverage has painted the day as a competition between Islamist movements, which wanted to celebrate the revolution's accomplishments, and liberal groups, which protested the continued absence of civilian rule, Egypt consistently frustrates such easy narratives. The revolution has scrambled traditional allegiances, leaving Egyptians struggling to figure out what they stand for -- and all equally confounded at what comes next.

If any group feels assured, it is the Muslim Brotherhood, which won just under half of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections and endorsed the military's timetable for a handover to an elected president by the end of June.

The Brotherhood sent thousands of its members to Tahrir on Jan. 25 to ensure, the group said, that a spirit of "celebration" prevailed -- a concept that has incensed some Egyptians, who feel that a virtual military coup has taken them back to square one. For these discontented activists, Jan. 25 was a day to push the revolution's demands forward.

Sondos Assem, 24, a young Muslim Brotherhood activist, glided into the hotel's café in sunglasses and a trenchcoat, armed with her omnipresent smartphone. Just a few months ago, Assem didn't want her real name published in a Foreign Policy article -- but now, the Brotherhood's electoral success seems to have given her a boost of confidence. She has emerged as an unofficial spokesperson of sorts, helping to run the Brotherhood's English-language Twitter feed, @Ikhwanweb. She's visibly exasperated from meetings and interview requests, and said she just had a fight with a close friend, a "hardcore revolutionary" who heavily criticized the Brotherhood for "selling the blood of martyrs to politics."

"How can people say that?" she asked, almost shaking with anger. The Brotherhood continues to push for the demands of the revolution, she argued, and wouldn't necessarily oppose early presidential elections. "We're not in the square to celebrate ... We won't celebrate until the military leaves, but we can't just depend on protests. We have to the build the country and we're doing that through parliament."

One senior Muslim Brotherhood member, who said that he cannot give his name because he hasn't been "authorized to talk to the public," argued that the Brotherhood's presence in the square was a method of "flexing their muscles" before Egypt's military rulers. "Our masses commemorating the day can easily turn the other direction if demands of handing full power over to civilian parliament, or swift trial of former regime figures, isn't met," he explained. "We're sending authorities a reminder."

But Egypt's new political landscape is more complicated than a competition between "liberals" and "Islamists." The Islamist forces that have emerged since Mubarak's fall are competing with each other as much as with their secular rivals, and disagree passionately over not only how to best push the revolution forward -- but what "revolution" even means.

Khaled Saiid, one of the unofficial leaders of Egypt's hard-line Salafi movement who works closely with the Islamist presidential candidate Hazem Abu Saleh Ismail, calls himself a "true revolutionary." A cheerful and rotund man in his forties with gold-rimmed glasses, he traveled from the Nile Delta city of Mansoura not to celebrate, but protest the SCAF's handling of the transition. He is the leader of the newly formed "Gabha" movement, which argues that the leading Salafi party al-Nour is not only unrepresentative of the vast Salafi community in Egypt, but "unpatriotic" and "inflexible to the point of damage."

"They have not criticized SCAF simply because, like under Mubarak, they're scared of questioning authority," he finally said, after multiple stop-and-go's at the question ("It's important to say things delicately in these times," he explained). "The Nour Party isn't sacrificing for the good of the revolution. They just wait and wait, and make us look rigid and unpatriotic ... And when they fail politically, it will reflect on the whole current of Salafism in Egypt."

The Nour Party captured a quarter of seats in the new parliament, and its success has made it tolerant of such criticism from its own ranks. Ehab Mohammed, a 25-year-old assistant to one of the party's spokesmen, shuffled into the dim Groppi café -- once one of Cairo's most celebrated patisseries, and now a relic of earlier golden years -- in the mid-afternoon. He responded to Saiid's criticism calmly. "The country has spoken through the elections, so we're in the square to celebrate that achievement and all our hard work and sacrifices this year," he said, ardently denying that the masses in the square reflect widespread discontent with the revolution's course. "Seculars still act like they own the square. When will people realize no one owns the square? It's all our revolution to defend."

Who owns Tahrir Square -- and how all this will end -- is the talk of the hotel's chic clientele. By dusk back at the InterContinental hotel, the women's bathroom had transformed into a rest-stop and impromptu talk-show where women frantically charge their phones and quibble over where this round of demonstrations is heading.

Aliaa Sherif, a cleaner who's worked at the hotel for 8 years, picked up stickers scattered on the floor -- anniversary mementos that call for an end to military trials and the downfall of SCAF. "They keep going, they don't stop. We just had free elections, what more do they want? Today will be the end of it, god willing," she said.

Sohar Ahmed, a 34-year-old graphic designer whose leather bomber-jacket is covered with black-and-white faces of the revolution's martyrs, said that Jan. 25 is not the real litmus test for where Egypt is heading. "We'll see how far we've come tomorrow and Friday, when we see what happens to the people who are still frustrated and refuse to leave the square," she said.

If they stay, the joyous celebrations of Jan. 25 could easily give way to a familiar cycle of violent clashes and political turmoil as security forces move to clear the protesters from the square. The "revolutionaries," of course, know this all too well -- and have no intention of backing down.

"Here's the thing," offered Ayman Moussa, a 24-year-old Cairo University student protesting outside what he called "the center of lies," Egypt's state television headquarters. "We have no idea what's going on or what's next." But he defiantly proclaims he won't leave until "real change," which he defines as Egypt's military immediately returning to its barracks, occurs.

His friend interrupted, arguing that won't happen. "Being practical isn't what revolutions are about," Moussa responded, and continued to chant for the fall of the military council. Hundreds raised their voices to join him.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images


Soldiers of Conscience

The Egyptian military insists it supports the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. So why are these men still in prison?

When Maj. Ahmed Shuman made his way to Tahrir Square one evening last February, his face was soon beamed across the world. The first member of the Egyptian Army to join the 18-day protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, Shuman was hailed as a national hero -- a walking embodiment of the chant that echoed through downtown Cairo: "The people and the Army are one hand."

Today, Shuman is locked in a 3-foot by 5-foot prison cell, accused of deserting his unit and helping to incite the unrest that killed hundreds and wounded thousands of civilians during the past year. With protests calling for an end to military rule continuing to shake the country, he awaits trial at the hands of an army that has lost much of the popular acclaim it enjoyed in those heady days early last year. As Egypt prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of its Jan. 25 revolution, he is only one of dozens of army officers jailed after laying down their arms and joining the people of Tahrir Square.

Shuman, a 38-year-old officer from the Cairo suburb of Giza who has served in the military for 15 years, was arrested in February and charged with several counts of defection and subversion. It was only the high-profile nature of his case that saw him receive a pardon from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the country's military rulers.

Shuman returned to his unit throughout the summer, but once again joined demonstrators during the November clashes with security forces that left 45 people dead. He then handed himself in to military investigators -- and this time, there was no pardon in the offing.

"I don't understand why they are preparing for an anniversary of the revolution when the first officer who joined the rebellion is still in jail," says Mona Salah, Shuman's wife. "My husband did not incite conflict between the people and the Army. Him entering the square was a reinforcement that the army is with the people and it is not right that he is being treated like this."

Following a series of delays -- during which Shuman fell severely ill -- his case and those of two fellow officers, Majors Amr Muttawaly and Tamer Badr, were due to be heard earlier this month at a military court in Nasr City, a sprawling suburb to the east of Cairo. A small clutch of protesters gathered outside the compound. Although the demonstration was advertised on social media, organizers said that activists were worried about coming to a part of town known for its staunch support of the military.

Nevertheless, demonstrators chanted "Where are the honorable people of the Army?" and "Arrest me! Arrest me! You will never see fear in my eyes!" as the soldiers manning the compound's entrance looked on impassively.

Salah eventually brought news from inside the courtroom that the hearing had been postponed for another month. That meant all three men would spend the anniversary of Mubarak's fall in prison.

Supporters of the officers claim they are being mistreated while in custody.

"[Shuman] kept it very together," says Salah, who managed to catch a glimpse of her husband as he entered the courtroom in shackles. "That is his way. He just kept saying, ‘Whatever happens to me is in God's hands.' But he looked tired. The only time he even sees the sun is when he's going into the court."

The three majors' story of delayed trials and constant harassment is similar to that of other members of the Egyptian Army's forgotten group of military dissidents. On April 8, 22 officers who took to Tahrir Square to participate in a mass demonstration calling for SCAF to hand power over to civilian rule were arrested. They were sentenced to 10 years in prison on similar charges to those faced by the three majors. Their terms were eventually reduced to three years' incarceration.

While the exact number of deserting officers detained by the army is hard to verify, activists fear dozens have been taken from their homes. SCAF's only overt reference to the group of soldiers came during a press conference in the days following their detention. An Army spokesperson claimed the men had "wanted to cause a chasm between Egyptians and their Army," promising an investigation. The results have never surfaced.

Several of the officers' family members have been subject to intimidation and are fearful of addressing the issue in public, according to those close to them. The case of Tamer Badr, who served in the Army for 17 years before November violence against protesters caused him to join the demonstrators, has been particularly contentious.

"[Badr's wife] does not have the courage or the nerve [to talk about the case] because they are always causing her terror," Shirine, a close friend of Badr, says. "They call her constantly to ask her about who called her that day, or to tell her not to let his friends rally for him, or instructing her to stay where she is."

Ali Taha, Shuman's lawyer, believes that officers who laid down their weapons to join in the protest movement are falling victim to the military's double standards.

"If we are going to abide by the law, we must take all of it and not what suits us," he says. "What of the men who dragged the women in the street? What about the officers that ruined the image of the Army in the eyes of the people and changed it into that of an Army that breaks the bones of protesters? What are the actions being taken against them? Those officers stepped into the square to attack protesters and Manjor Shuman stepped in to [express solidarity]. Major Shuman is behind bars today and the others have been rewarded."

The jailed officers' supporters see their actions as no different than those of Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the SCAF leader who eventually defied Mubarak during the last days of his regime. "At the moment when Mubarak ordered the Army to use weapons against us, Ahmed followed his conscience. I don't see the difference between them and him," Salah says. "I am proud to be the wife of such a courageous man."

But Egypt's military rulers, focused on protecting their privileges, have little use for such courage these days. SCAF announced last week that Army officers will be given medals for their efforts to protect civilians during the 2011 uprising. As Shuman and his compatriots know only too well, however, those who championed the protesters' ideals are only awarded prison sentences.

John Moore/Getty Images