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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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war