CAIRO – Mohamed Zarea spent years under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak helping to win the freedom of members of the Muslim Brotherhood jailed for their political beliefs.
A year ago, he was among those who cheered when Islamic activists joined with pro-democracy demonstrators in Tahrir Square and cities across the country to bring Mubarak’s 30-year tyranny to an end.
Zarea is no longer cheering.
The newly politically empowered Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic organization that supports religious law and opposes Western influence, has supported a crackdown on those who disagree with them, including the very activists who helped bring about the free elections that the Brotherhood dominated.
“We thought they would support the other parties emerging from the womb of the revolution, but they didn’t,” says Zarea, director of the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners, sitting in his small office adorned with a tapestry depicting a medieval Moorish castle.
A year after the revolution, many Egyptians — already suffering under the weight of a wretched economy — see an undemocratic society where the military and Islamic ideologues are hoarding power while changing nothing. Though some are pleased that a form of law shaped by the Quran is coming to Egypt, others wonder whether they have swapped one corrupt and suppressing dictatorship for another.
The hated laws enforced by Mubarak that permitted police to imprison people without trial remain in effect. (Incidentally, Mubarak is now facing his own form of Egyptian justice — and possibly the death penalty — in an ongoing trial over the killing of demonstrators during last year’s uprising. His two sons also face trial on corruptions charges.)
The military still controls major portions of the nation’s industrial sector for the benefit of its own ranks and has given up almost none of the power it amassed under Mubarak. Jobs remain scarce. Protests continue, and tourists, the lifeline of millions of poor people, have stayed away because of the instability.
Tahrir Square today is a scene of desolation pocked by filthy tents, broken tree planters and garbage. Security forces have piled huge concrete blocks to impede demonstrators’ access to government buildings nearby. Police in black armor holding plastic shields and batons stand shoulder to shoulder guarding the approaches to parliament.
Mohamed Atiy, 36, drinks tea with a neighbor outside his Silver Bazaar gift shop a few blocks from Tahrir Square. His shelves are lined with pyramid paper weights, silver cups, water pipes and toy camels. But no one is buying, he says.
The people on the square “do not represent Egypt,” Atiy says of the ubiquitous protesters who are trying to remain part of the country’s political future. They talk “and don’t do anything. They should leave completely.”
Most Egyptians are simply trying to find a way to put food on the table. Unemployment has risen by a third, from 9% to 12.2% in the past year, and revenue from tourism has dropped by 80%. In Cairo, shopkeepers and taxi drivers complain that the promise of the revolution has given way to a feeling of helplessness.
To make matters worse, Egypt has seen almost no foreign investment in the past year, says Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The country’s foreign currency reserves dropped from $36 billion before the revolution to $16.35 billion at the end of January, according to the Egyptian central bank. “There’s a lot of uncertainty. The world is taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude,” Ottaway says.
Though there’s no panacea to all that ails Egypt, international experts say the government must stop subsidizing so many basic goods and needs to end corruption of the legal system and state control of industries that prevent business start-ups and foreign investment.
To modernize and compete in a global economy, Egypt needs to end the era of special benefits enjoyed by the military’s “mega-companies.” These handpicked winners often have access to state-owned land for business developments, favorable financing as well as tax-free status, says Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Indeed, the political instability and dysfunctional business climate on the macro scale create pain and uncertainty for everyday Egyptians such as Said Adel Gayid, whose tiny juice shop in downtown Cairo is stocked with bananas, oranges, melons and apples. The 55-year-old’s business depended on tourists who have yet to return. Young activists called on Egyptians to mark a year since Mubarak’s overthrow with a general strike, but Gayid says the protests should end. “We want the country to get back to work because the economy is weak,” he says.
‘We are still lacking’
Redah Mohamed Abdella, a father of four, contemplated the transition from an autocracy to a fledgling democracy as he sipped coffee between cab fares while cars and buses careened past, horns honking.
“President Mubarak was very bad. There was no work, no education in Egypt, and we are still lacking,” Abdella, 47, says. However, “ordinary people like myself have not felt the achievements of the revolution yet. Instead we are suffering.”
“The revolution was calling for bread, dignity and social justice,” Abdella says as a fight breaks out between another cab driver and a pedestrian. “None of that was achieved.”
A year ago, Tahrir Square was filled with hundreds of thousands of people chanting, “The army and the people are one hand!” They waved banners and Egyptian flags and hoisted their children on top of military tanks in praise of an army that sided with them by letting Mubarak fall.
But today, many Egyptians see the military as an impediment to a better world.
For the past year, a panel of Mubarak’s former generals has run the country, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, it oversaw parliamentary elections completed in January but said the election of a new president with actual powers would have to wait. Protests erupted, forcing the council to set an election date in June.
Meanwhile, an emergency law enforced under Mubarak that allowed him to jail political opponents for years without trial has yet to be fully revoked. Since Mubarak’s ouster, security forces have detained 12,000 people, injured an additional 10,000 and killed dozens of demonstrators, says Ahmed Naguib, 34, an activist and spokesman for the Trustees Council of the Revolution.
“In one year, they did what Mubarak did in 12 years,” says Naguib, who unsuccessfully ran for parliament.
Mahmoud Afifi, spokesman for the April 6th Movement that galvanized opposition to Mubarak, says today’s Egypt is not what they fought for. “We want the military council to step down as soon as possible,” he says, sipping tea and checking messages on his phone.
Afifi says he and those in his movement feel the elections they had hoped would lead to democratic reforms have in some ways done the opposite. Voters gave 75% of seats in the lower house of parliament to parties associated with the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Salafists. Both parties are described as Islamist, meaning they seek a government that abides by some form of law based on the teachings of the Quran. The Salafists are seen as harsher, demanding an Islamic theocracy like the one in Iran.
Egyptians complain that the Islamist parliament has yet to take steps to improve the country’s economy or reform a court system that the military still uses as a weapon against dissent.
“It’s anarchy,” says Abdella, the cab driver. Because the revolution was leaderless, he says, other countries still “have no one to deal with.”
To make matters worse, one of the fledgling government’s first moves on the world stage was the Feb. 7 announcement that it planned to prosecute 43 employees of American and German democracy groups accused of operating illegally in Egypt. The Americans, working for non-profits that have been in Egypt for years, are not being allowed to leave the country. Among them is Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The groups had been helping Egyptians, as well as people in most Middle East countries, strengthen democratic reforms.
The U.S. State Department has demanded the return of the Americans and said their continued detention could jeopardize about $1.6 billion in annual aid Egypt receives from the United States.
In a stunning rebuke that provides a window into what Egypt can expect under its new leadership, politicians here say foreign groups should not help Egyptians express views that differ from the government’s.
AbdulMawgoud Dardery, who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and is a member of the parliament’s foreign relations committee, says the American non-profit groups were working toward “a type of democracy that will not bring Islamists to power, and this is wrong.”
Mohamed Mohiey, chairman of the Human Development Association, was trained by the Freedom House. His group teaches Egyptian villagers about using democratic principles and new media in an Islamic setting. The government’s attack on civil society will continue, he predicts. “The second phase will be against Egyptian organizations.”
Already, his bank accounts are being monitored, he says, and he does not expect a parliament dominated by Islamists to come to the rescue. The Islamists, Mohiey says, “do not want people to understand that the mechanisms of democracy do not contradict Islam.”
Zarea, a devout Muslim who prays five times a day, agrees.
“They are not tolerant of any other movement that is against the trajectory of what they believe in,” the human rights activist says. “Differences of opinion start as a difference and end with being called a blasphemer.”
Freedom of expression, so visible and valued during the anti-Mubarak uprising a year ago, seems to be a quaint nuisance now, many of the activists say.
Jeffrey Ghannam, a media analyst and author of a forthcoming report on digital media in the Arab world, says mainstream Egyptian media switched swiftly, in a matter of weeks, from backing the Mubarak regime initially to supporting the Tahrir Square protesters. And, realizing the power of the Internet, the government has ramped up its monitoring and harassment of bloggers, online journalists and organizers, Ghannam says.
“You have to wonder if it was freer under these (previous) authoritarian regimes to some degree,” Ghannam says. “Authoritarian regimes didn’t create Internet-specific laws, so there was this open space where people could operate with some immunity.”
Egypt’s Islamists, long persecuted by the regime but now empowered, have been mostly silent about the continuing abuses. And they have joined military rulers rather than oppose them in calling for public order and security.
Sobhy Saleh, a member of the Freedom and Justice Party, greeted supporters as he walked through a cloud of tear gas outside the parliament building. His party plans to assert civilian control over the army and its budget according to the military’s schedule, he says.
Khaled Mohamed, 28, a bearded young lawyer, says he likes the changes and looks forward to an Egypt that follows sharia, or Islamic-centered law, “in everything.” He patrols the square with a friend looking for demonstrators, whom they will urge to go home. Civilian control “will happen over time,” he says.
Zarea, the activist, says not much has changed in the past year except the names of the autocrats that have repressed Egypt for decades.
“We are criticizing violations and human rights problems,” Zarea says. “And the Muslim Brotherhood, like any other rulers in Egypt, does not like to be criticized.”Top