It has been almost three years since January 2011, when protesters in Egypt took to the streets, chanting anti-government slogans and ushering in the beginning of a revolt which resonated from Tahrir Square and would see Egypt’s autocratic ruler of three decades-Hosni Mubarak-step down.The phoenix of hope emerged from the ashes of despair as Egyptians adopted an optimism about their future. More than a year later, Mohammad Morsi, a man with strong links to the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, was sworn in as the first democratically elected president in the nation’s history and that phoenix of hope seemingly reached a promising adolescence. Like the bird of legend, however, it was soon to undergo a process of incendiary self-destruction and burst into spectacular flames-leaving us once again with the ashes that bear witness to the hope that once was.
Within the first year of his presidency, Morsi received growing criticism of his transgression of democratic values, from undermining the independence of the judiciary to suppressing criticism of the new political establishment. Left-leaning liberals, myself included, became increasingly concerned with the rule of the Islamist president, which was exacerbated by the passing of a constitution which undermined the separation of Church and State. These concerns, coupled with the struggling economy, gave birth to enormous popular protests against Morsi’s rule-protests initially backed by many leftists. However, the dynamic rapidly changed and the Egyptian Military subsequently intervened-deposing Morsi in a coup in July of this year. I immediately found myself in the camp of those liberals who were well aware of the possibility of democracy’s demise at the hands of the military, supported by the testimony of history and hence denounced the power grab by General Abdel-Fatah Al-Sisi. Unfortunately, the prevailing sentiment swung in the other direction, driven by the momentum of naivety from those who believed the army had arrived to protect Egyptian democracy. Under Sisi,who remains the most powerful man in Egypt today, violence and despotism has risen, while-as predicted-democracy has been desecrated and discarded.
Morsi, along with prominent Muslim Brotherhood leaders now stand trial, for charges ranging from murder to new indictments today for escaping prison during the uprising against Mubarak-and empowering “terrorism” by breaking out thousands of others. To many, these charges are politically motivated and US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed concern today to General Sisi regarding them. Moreover, the trial of Morsi is telling of the wider crackdown by the new military-backed government on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. Since the ouster in July, hundreds of pro-Morsi protesters have been brutally killed and thousands more injured by the security forces. A two-tier justice system has emerged, disproportionately harsh upon Islamists and exemplified by the sentencing of the notorious ‘eye sniper’-who deliberately aimed at the eyes of protesters-to just three years in prison, while 21 women (seven of whom are under 18) were swiftly sentenced to 11 years in prison for participating in a pro-Morsi protest. Charges have ventured further into the realm of the outrageous and absurd, with Khaled Abdulghani Bakara, a 15 year old boy, being arrested and detained. His crime: possessing a ruler which bore an image of the “R4BIA sign”-the four fingered symbol associated with the Brotherhood. Additionally, his father and two of his teachers now also face charges for “inducing” him to possess the ruler.
Sisi, in a bold move earlier this year, appealed to the Egyptian masses to take to the streets once again and grant him “a mandate to fight terrorism”. The brutality which followed at the hands of the armed forces has, ironically, resulted in precisely the opposite. By discrediting the idea of democracy in the eyes of Islamist radicals as one which can be manipulated and selectively applied by the military, Sisi’s iron fisted-approach has empowered terrorists at the expense of the moderate Islamist centre. Sisi, whose face appears on t-shirts and chocolate bars and has garnered a cult following, as well as frequent comparison to Gamal Nasser, has reinvigorated Islamist interest in the teachings of Sayyid Qutb-who was executed by the Nasser government and is seen as an inspiration for Al-Qaeda. Disillusioned Islamist youth regard the crackdown as a vindication of the warnings of fundamentalist clerics that democracy is incompatible with Islamic principles and they have subsequently swapped ballots for bullets-which culminated in the cowardly burning of churches and attacks upon the Egyptian Christian minority. The crackdown however, recently expanded beyond the borders of just Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In an act of incredible hypocrisy, the military-backed government-which cited popular protest as justification for their coup-passed a law which greatly restricts popular protest and requires groups to acquire permission from the Interior Ministry for gatherings of more than 10 people. Penalties for breaking the law are harsh and since its inception, dispersion of protests which are regarded as “illegal” by the government, has not been uncommon.The groups who have daringly defied the new restrictive law were not limited to Morsi supporters and some liberal and secular factions also expressed dismay at the infringement upon a fundamental democratic right. Two prominent liberal activists,Ahmed Maher and Alaa Abdel Fatah, were arrested due to their opposition to the legislation. Maher co-founded the April 6 Movement and Fatah is an award winning blogger and both were integral to the deposition of Mubarak. Furthermore,the satirist Dr Bassem Youssef, who was arrested for criticising the Morsi administration on his weekly show Al Bernameg (and who I refuse to refer to by the cliched title of ‘Egypt’s Jon Stewart’) was taken off the air after subjecting the military government to the same scrutiny. However, outrage from the left remains relatively muted.
There is seemingly a flawed perception among some so-called ‘liberals’ in Egypt that liberalism and democracy are mutually exclusive ideals. The continued support for the repressive military regime,even through the brutality of the crackdown upon Islamists, espouses a tendency to abandon not just liberal, but human values of non-violence, free speech and peaceful protest, simply because the repression of those values appears to be in one’s favour. By allowing the military to become the false vanguard of leftist ideals, they have endangered their own goals by allowing their achievement to be stained by the blood of those who disagreed. The Egyptian revolution remains a revolution in only a geometric context, for after 360 degrees of turmoil and unrest, they have arrived where they began three years ago-under the repression of military rule. It seems the Egyptian people have no choice but to once again unite across the ideological divide and demand a democratic framework wherein they can negotiate a better future for their country. Failure to do so risks deepening the divide and turning the already polarized country into a hotbed of violent conflict between extremists and lionized military rulers. Those people of Egypt, who demanded from the platform of Tahrir Square a future free from this cycle of violence and autocracy, I can only hope, will reignite that flame of optimism and reclaim that idealistic dream of a peaceful people’s government.They deserve nothing less.