Nahlah Ayed: Rethinking Egypt's revolution

Despite the calming intentions of Egypt's new Islamist government, it will be protestors, not celebrants, marking the Tahrir Square anniversary in Cairo today, Nahlah Ayed reports. For many, the revolution has not gone as planned.

Protest, not celebration, marking Tahrir Square anniversary

Egyptians' reluctant return

10 years ago
Duration 2:50
Two years after violence erupted in Egypt, protesters returned to Tahrir Square in Cairo to voice many of the same concerns as before, only with another government in power

It isn't immediately clear who is behind the highly produced, richly coloured ad on Egypt's state-owned television, but the message is.

"Be safe, Egypt," it concludes.

The phrase is borrowed from the Egyptian anthem, which plays softly in the background over a pensive montage of proud-looking Egyptians variously working, marching and waving flags — all of it a seemingly nostalgic echo of the revolution that erupted here in Tahrir Square two years ago today.

The network's version of a public service announcement seems an attempt to will into existence an Egypt that is very different from the current one — a country where Egyptians might celebrate, instead of protest, on the anniversary of the unplanned revolution that deposed the long-entrenched regime of Hosni Mubarak in a mere 18 days.

But thousands have gathered early to protest anyway, and few of them were in any mood to celebrate.

"It was the best 18 days of my life," says Mostafa abou Gamrah, a self-described activist and digital space guru.

CBC in Cairo

The CBC's Nahlah Ayed is in Cairo for three months to report in depth on a region she knows well and a country that was at the heart of the Arab Spring two years ago.

You can follow her on Twitter @NahlahAyed

But now, he says, those who took part feel they have been robbed. "We had been working together, and all of a sudden one member of the team threw the revolution out, and ran away."

The team member that abou Gamrah is referring to are Egypt's Islamists; the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, the once-banned group that spawned Egypt's now dominant political party.  Back in January 2011, the Brotherhood's members were notably late in joining the mostly secular revolution. Today they are its top beneficiaries, with one of their long-time members, Mohammed Morsi, now the country's president.

"During those 18 days they were our friends and brothers, and we saw no differences," says abou Gamrah. "Today they are our problem."

More bread, please

Many of those in Tahrir Square today have come to decry what they see as a ruling regime with little regard for people, one that has instead focused on consolidating power in a series of contentious moves — including pushing through a controversial, Islamist-influenced constitution last month.

Those critics say this is a regime that is also unresponsive, considering the serious problems challenges facing the country — from serious economic turbulence to the sharp political division that is so apparent.

"Egypt is not in a good shape, and we need, we want, we have to deal with that problem," said Amr Moussa, the former Arab league secretary general, now the presidential hopeful for the Egyptian Conference Party, in an interview.

In the anxious lead-up to the anniversary, opposition groups had vowed, as they did last year, to return to Tahrir Square, the revolution's birthplace, to revive or, as some say, "correct," what many believe is an unfinished revolution.

"The revolution continues," is a favourite slogan.

Increasingly, though, talk has given way to something altogether more pragmatic — turning the country away from the brink.

Under Mubarak, Egypt's problems were multitude. Now, after two years of relative disorder, they have multiplied even more.

Of the revolution's initial demands of "bread, freedom and justice," none have been entirely fulfilled, and bread is taking on an even more urgent priority.

As well, on top of the poverty, corruption and economic woes that preceded the revolution, there is now also political disharmony, insecurity and a currency that's in deep trouble.

Square one

All of these things have dampened enthusiasm for the revolution, and led to a pronounced disenchantment among Egypt's youth, the revolution's most ardent supporters.

"I can't believe it's been two years since #Jan25 and we're still at square one," said Farah Saafan on Twitter. "So much for the hope I had right after Mubarak stepped down!"

As Amnesty International pointed out this week, no police or government officials have yet to pay the price for the killing and injury of protesters back in 2011. (Mubarak and his interior minister were given life sentences for the killings, but they recently won the right to a new trial, which further angered his opponents.)

Much of the blame here is being put on President Morsi, who was elected last summer.

Former Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa, a presidential opponent of Mohammed Morsi. (CBC)

"We expected that as the first president of the second republic, he would immediately start dealing with the ills of our society," said Moussa, who was adamant he wasn't trying to depose Morsi, just oppose his policies.

"He should have addressed the people in a very transparent way, telling them of the real situation in the country … telling them that this cannot be done or undone in a period of one month of two."

Notably, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Nour party have said they would not participate in today's protests.

Instead the Brotherhood announced it was using the anniversary to launch a one-month, charitable campaign called "Building Egypt Together," aimed at helping the poor access housing and other services.

And in a speech on the eve of the anniversary, Morsi called Friday a great occasion, worthy of celebration.

Countering the opposition's claims, he said "we achieved many of the goals of this revolution."

Under his leadership, he said, Egyptians can now enjoy "unlimited" freedom, and have witnessed the end to the long-time state of emergency as well as a proliferation of political parties and media.

(Later in the speech, he also called on all parties to put women at the top of the list of candidates in coming legislative elections, seemingly to silence critics who say women's rights will be rolled back under an Islamist regime).

Day and night

Morsi added his government was working "day and night" to solve problems such as the intolerable traffic, rampant unemployment, wobbly economy and worrying insecurity.

Leading up to Friday, there has been much speculation and anxiety here about how these anniversary events would unfold, especially given some violent outbursts in recent weeks (and the promised, separate protests planned for Saturday by die-hard soccer fans over a deadly post-game riot last year).

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has been pleading for calm in advance of Friday's anniversary. (Associated Press)

Despite the clashes between police and protesters, which began near Tahrir Square late Thursday, opposition groups maintain they are planning a non-violent protest today.

They say their aim now, if not a change in government, is to keep the Brotherhood and doctrinaire Salafi Muslims in check.

"It's our role to keep talking and pushing them back, so they don't have the monopoly on power," says activist abou Gamrah.

In a seemingly conciliatory gesture, the interior ministry promised to protect peaceful protesters while ensuring the safety of public property.

Meanwhile, another television ad, showed a series of images of Egyptians at work — farming, fishing, welcoming tourists — seemingly trying to will peace to prevail.

"Life must return," it said, "for the sake of Egypt."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.