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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times