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Democracy is our revenge

The leaders of this revolt were tortured alongside me.

The uprising in Egypt is unprecedented, fascinating, even scary - but it is also more than that. For me, it's personal. I was "Number 42" in the dungeons of Hosni Mubarak's torture facilities. Before me were 41 poor souls, taken one by one and electrocuted. Behind me were hundreds more. Wives were stripped and tortured in front of their husbands, children electrocuted in front of their parents. Few returned from the darkness of Cairo's al-Gihaz and Lazoughly cells.

Between 2002 and 2006, I was swallowed up by this system. I was held in the Mazra Tora Prison for my role as leader of the pan-Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir in Alexandria. I have since left that group and now campaign for democratic activism in Muslim-majority countries. That is why I see this people's uprising as my revenge.

Once taken in, most detainees were interned indefinitely. I shared cells with prisoners who had been languishing for more than 20 years without so much as being charged. At one point, the prison population peaked at over 25,000. Some faced 15-year sentences but, on completing their term, they would be reprocessed. Hardly any were released.

I was imprisoned in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, when Egypt's state security was rounding people up in unprecedented numbers. I shared cells and broke bread with the Who's Who of the current uprising in Egypt, from former jihadists and serving Islamists to liberal reformers and those convicted for homosexuality. Muslims who had converted to Christianity, Christians who had converted to Islam - all were detained for daring to express a desire to break with the status quo.

I would take daily walks around the prison courtyard with Ayman Nour, leader of the liberal opposition Hizb el-Ghad. He ran against Mubarak in the 2005 elections and was rewarded with a seven-year sentence. Nour was also from a Hizb ut-Tahrir background; he helped me think beyond Islamism and conceive of a life campaigning for an inclusive politics. As the January protests began, I called him to pass on my good wishes; he has played an important role in the uprising.

I remember, too, discussing jumlukiyya, or monocracy, with Saad el-Din Ibrahim, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. He had been detained for writing that Mubarak's son Gamal should not be allowed to succeed his father. In overcrowded cells, I debated the intricacies of Islamist political theory and history with Muhammad al-Badi, the present Murshid al-'Am, or leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Other prominent figures from the Brotherhood were also there: the then spokesman Essam el-Erian and the key reformer Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh.

Another man worthy of mention is Ahmed Seif el-Islam Hamad. This veteran activist and leader of the Kifaya ("enough is enough") movement was my lawyer. Kifaya pioneered the anti-Mubarak protests five years ago. In those days, they could not muster more than 20 or so demonstrators and those who did stand up were the object of sneering from onlookers. Now over 60, Seif is happy to step back and let the youth lead their own people's revolution.

But still, the old guard repeats its tired, fear-mongering arguments that either Egypt is accepted by the west as a police state or the country will fall into the hands of Islamist extremists. In a recent radio debate, I challenged the former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali on this point. He argued that Mubarak was the only obstacle keeping Egypt from a takeover by the Brotherhood. Yet the sheer range of people I met in prison and events of the past few weeks convince me that this is a false choice. Take the secular and democratic April 6 Youth Movement, led by Ahmed Salah, which was instrumental in galvanising the masses. Significantly, the Brotherhood was not involved in sparking this uprising. Rather, it has played catch-up.

This was a spontaneous uprising. The best revolutions are unplanned and the most democratic are leaderless. Egypt has fast become the case study for the phenomenon - it is nothing short of a democratic cyclone that will rip through the entire Arab world. The Arab awakening has begun.

There are legitimate concerns that the Brotherhood, Egypt's most organised political opposition, could eventually hijack the uprising. The Brotherhood is an evolving organisation, but it has yet to ditch some of its more archaic principles, such as the view that only a Muslim male may become head of state. Its most recent internal elections led to defeat for reformers such as Abul-Fotouh.

Yet a takeover by the Brotherhood is not only undesirable but also unlikely. Its leadership will know how unpopular a takeover attempt would make them. The Brotherhood also lacks a unifying figurehead to compete with the likes of Mohamed ElBaradei, Ayman Nour or Amr Moussa, the former leader of the Arab League. What we are witnessing is a new kind of uprising. The young people driving this revolution have no time for old Egypt, steeped in colonial dichotomies and run by octogenarian leaders such as Mubarak and the Brotherhood's Badi.

Future elections could throw up any one of many leaders-in-waiting. It may just be that the Egypt we see in a month's time will be unrecognisable from the one of the past 30 years.

Mubarak's Egypt perfected the art of torture without leaving a mark. His rule terrorised an entire population into silence. His government basked in the lavish attention of western leaders while Egyptian Islamists, communists and democrats all lived in fear. Now it's game over for him and his regime.

Maajid Nawaz is co-founder of the anti-extremist group Quilliam

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt

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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.