Whatever happened to the revolution in Egypt?

The military leadership is trying to extinguish protest from both Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the liberals who helped overthrow President Mubarak. Will they succeed?

All summer, Cairo’s morgues overflowed. Over a thousand people were killed in clashes between Egypt’s top generals and the Islamist supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president overthrown in July. Now, as winter descends on Egypt, the military-backed government has shifted its attention to secular activists.

Since November liberal protesters have returned to the streets. Many of them had been in the vanguard of the January 2011 revolution to depose the country’s long-standing dictator Hosni Mubarak. Having been crowded out by Egypt’s two main political actors, the Brotherhood and the military, they wanted to reclaim their own political space. But by early December dozens had been jailed under a new law banning rallies that have not received permission from the interior ministry.

The crackdown on secular protesters has not been as far-reaching or as violent as the attack on Morsi loyalists, but the shift of focus is telling. The military justified crushing the Muslim Brotherhood by arguing that it was necessary in a war against Islamic extremism. “The possibility of a non-Islamist opposition delegitimises the claim of the current interim government that it is facing a wave of terrorism,” Amr Abdel Rahman, a lecturer in law at the American University in Cairo, tells me. For many Egyptians, this marks a return to the Mubarak era.

“Everything is déjà vu,” says the activist and psychiatrist Sally Toma, whose arm is in a sling after police fractured her shoulder at an “illegal” Cairo protest a fortnight ago. Fourteen of her female friends were detained that day, beaten, sexually assaulted and dumped in the desert at midnight – a favoured practice of Mubarak’s security services.

Toma’s street cinema project once worked with the “Rebel” campaign, which called the June protests that toppled Morsi and ushered in the junta. Before the rallies they screened footage of abuses under Morsi’s administration. Now he and much of the Brotherhood’s leadership are on trial, but the judicial proceedings are heavily politicised: Morsi was kept in secret detention for months and five members of his presidential team are still missing.

“Is protesting the only way to go? For three years we have just been chasing each other. You chase your friends in jail, in hospital, then the morgue to find those who died,” Toma says. “But nothing has changed.”

Over 25 prominent secular political activists are facing prison, including the blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah. In late November, 21 women, seven of them teenage schoolgirls, were handed 11-year sentences for protesting in support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Under mounting pressure, the government reduced this to one-year suspended sentences for the 14 young women and a three-month probation for each of the seven minors.

Meanwhile, the government is encouraging the population to focus on the referendum on the new national constitution, due on 14 and 15 January. The document has divided opinion.

“I believe this constitution is more advanced than any other in the history of Egypt,” Mohamed Abul-Ghar, the leader of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and one of the authors of the document, told me. “The very heavy religious tint in the 2012 [charter] is not there any more.”

Some of the religious articles drafted under Morsi have been removed or toned down, but for Toma the new code replaces “one fascism with another”. The constitution will bolster the power of Egypt’s generals by preserving important military privileges, such as keeping the armed forces’ budget secret and permitting military courts to try civilians. It also stipulates that, for the next two presidential terms, the military must approve the appointment of Egypt’s defence minister. This safeguards the job of Egypt’s de facto leader, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

A successful referendum will be a stamp of approval for el-Sisi. A personality cult has grown around the general. His image has appeared on posters, chocolates, cupcakes, pyjamas and jewellery. One campaign group called Complete Your Favour says it has gathered seven million signatures calling for him to run for president. El-Sisi has yet to give a definitive answer as to whether he’ll stand in the elections, but with few viable alternatives three years on from the overthrow of Mubarak, Egypt may once again have an army officer as its leader.

The activists are not yet disheartened. Much of the protesting has moved into the universities, with secular and Islamist campaigners holding separate rallies daily. “If we don’t use this wave to make the changes we wanted three years ago, then this is going to eat us all,” Toma says. “They say the revolution eats its children.”

A man stands outside a faculty building at Cairo's Al-Azhar University after student supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood stormed it on December 28, 2013. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt