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."

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.