Determination and optimism mingle in Tahrir Square

Looking ahead to the first anniversary of the Arab Spring, Egyptians hope to finish in 2012 what the

"2011 ended honestly," says Khalid Abdalla, a 31 year-old British-Egyptian filmmaker and activist, about the New Year's Eve celebrations on Tahrir Square. "It felt balanced: an appreciation of what we have achieved over the year and what there is still to fight for, a sense of mourning over the cost."

The price Egyptians paid for the last year of revolution is astonishing. 2011 saw almost 2,000 protesters killed and 12,000 face illegal military trials, as well as a loss of 32 per cent of Egypt's tourist trade and an estimated $10 billion dollars of the country's money.

The revolutionaries are still pushing for the changes they demanded back in January. The government is no rush. Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri even said in a press conference last week, "for a country that was silent for 60 years, why are we pressing ourselves over five or six months?"

As Egypt moves into 2012, emergency law is still in place, there is no president, no constitution and the military, led by Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), is in power. There has been no reform of the police force, whose brutal behaviour towards civilians sparked the revolution. Little legislation has changed.

The ongoing elections, which saw violence, vote-buying, stolen ballot papers and illegal campaigning, will produce a parliament with no legislative powers that is overseen by the SCAF. Judging by the electoral results so far, this will also be a predominantly Islamist People's Assembly, even though no party was allowed to have a religious basis.

The military continue to authorise increasingly violent crackdowns. During the closing months of 2011 they used live ammunition, brutal beatings, sexual assault, tear gas and rocks against civilians in battles which stretched over five days. In November they resorted to walling protesters into Tahrir using concrete blocks to build barricades on its surrounding streets.

Even though Mubarak and a handful of his cronies are facing trial, the financial and political infrastructure of the regime is still very much in place. But yet they feel hope, people said during the New Year's Eve celebrations on Tahrir Square.

"I believe it's a duty to be optimistic," says Khalid, who has been documenting the revolution since January.

"It was very uplifting," adds Ghada Shahbender, from the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights who was also on the square that night. She likened the gathering to the initial 18 days of revolution: "It was the first fully festive assembly in Tahrir since 18th February, a week after Mubarak stepped down."

The square was lit up with candles and fireworks. Christians and Muslims gathered around protest tents on the central roundabout wearing homemade party hats. Families held posters of their loved ones lost in the year's numerous battles. Balloons in the Egyptian flag colours were released into the night sky.

Revolutionary singers such as Ramy Essam, who was imprisoned and tortured in March 2011, sang against the military, Coptic hymns came from a nearby church and a Sufi singer performed for the crowds.

Muddled with these messages of hope was the quiet acknowledgement that this year is sure to be harder.

"We will have a bigger fight than last year. We have a long way to go, " admits Amani, 54, a Christian researcher who also celebrated New Year on the square. She talked about the 9 October Copt-led demonstration at Maspero where the army killed 27 Christian and Muslim protesters. "The religious 'differences' are all politics. The government wants us to be divided. We will win."

"The military are not backing down," agrees Omar, 42, a musician and producer, "They have regularly escalated events and have repeatedly antagonized otherwise peaceful demonstrators."

It is clear when you talk to protesters they are mentally preparing to lose their lives in 2012. There will be more blood, many say.

"They will attack us but we will keep fighting," explains Ramy Essam, who has been nicknamed the singer of the revolution, "What I hope is people will go to the streets in January, stay and make a sit-in in every square in Egypt until change happens."

Although the international media focuses on these squares, last week's riot-police raids on nongovernmental organisations illustrated there are many frontlines of this revolution.

"The authorities try to stop our work because these organisations have succeeded in winning in court against the ruling military council," explains Khalid Ali, a prominent lawyer and director of Egyptian Centre for Economical and Social Rights, who fears further attacks.

"We speak about their crimes so they want to shut us up" adds Ghada.

The Internet has been another battleground this year. Bloggers like Maikel Nabil and Alaa Abd el Fattah have been imprisoned for the blog posts they write. Even the aged military council got involved by issuing communiqués via its Facebook page.

"Citizen journalism is also going to be increasingly vital as people recognise it as a tool of civil engagement," explains Khalid who is part of a media collective Mosireen. Mosireen collects and compiles footage from protests and disseminates the short clips via the Internet, which often end up in the traditional media.

Their YouTube Channel became the second most watched channel in the whole of Egypt following their continual stream of new videos documenting human rights abuses by the security forces.

This sparked a decentralised movement called Kazeboon. Meaning 'liars' in Arabic, in the last few weeks, it has seen groups spontaneously erect screens in streets and on squares and play these clips, all over Egypt. Kazeboon has become so popular it spread internationally; people are organizing screenings in New York, Paris and London.

The protesters face a lot of criticism that they are marginalised, divided and leaderless. Omar disagrees, adding the movement's strength is because "it's always been led, not by a person but by very basic, very simple precepts... Freedom, Liberty, Social Justice."

"We never had the 'majority' nor, and I say this with some ambivalence, have we needed them," he continues, "one per cent of Cairo would give you 200,000 people in Tahrir. If even 5% of Egyptians come down on the 25th of January the SCAF would realise their clock is ticking."

The anniversary is looming on the horizon and everyone is gearing up for it. Despite frustratingly slow change, when you look back to pre-revolution Egypt the people are bolder. If you look at the 18 days, you see maturity, especially on Tahrir. The last year seems to have been a process of self-education about what it means to go through a period of social change.

"What is crucial for me is my sense of time has shifted - no one really knows whether you will inherit what you are fighting for or whether you're fighting for a future generation. Everything is uncertain," explains Khalid, "But we all know the 25th of January is coming. That is really the New Year."

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change