There have been many moments in recent weeks that ought to have ended the debate over whether Egypt’s military staged a coup against the country’s struggling revolution, or somehow resuscitated it, when it deposed the elected President, Mohamed Morsi, in early July—so many that one can be forgiven for losing count. But if any doubt remained, it was removed conclusively on Monday, when a court formally banned the Muslim Brotherhood, which had stood behind Morsi, from public life.
The ruling was breathtaking in scope: it applied not only to the Brotherhood’s political wings but to its social-services activities, and even to any personal declarations of membership individuals might be brazen enough to make—all were declared illegal. The intent was clear: to cast out the Brotherhood from any future role, not just in politics but in Egyptian society altogether. “The plan is to drain the sources of funding, break the joints of the group, and dismantle the podiums from which they deliver their message,” an Egyptian official told the Associated Press.
But if the future of a democratic Egypt is bleak, it is not simply because of sweeping court rulings like Monday’s. Indeed, the question that consumed Egypt for much of July and August —was it a coup?— was always the wrong one. Of course it was a coup. The real question is whether any of the lofty aims of the revolution (the dreams of a popular, democratic government, with civilian control of the military, and a thriving free press), or even the more basic ones (an end to wanton police abuses and outright political corruption) still stand a chance amid the backlash.
In answering that question, the focus on the intentions and orders of Egypt’s generals and judges inevitably misses the point. Like the initial uprising itself, the survival of Egypt’s revolutionary goals ultimately depends not on decisions from the top but the endurance of those at the bottom. It was these people, the ones with nothing to lose from standing up to Hosni Mubarak’s police, who swelled the streets around Tahrir Square in early 2011, facing barrages of tear gas, rubber bullets, and the condemnation of everyone from politicians to their parents. They tended their wounds in field hospitals inside the square, and entertained themselves late into the night with concerts and speeches, grabbing sleep when they could on cheap blankets and under makeshift tents on the muddy ground. By the time the urban elite and moneyed classes joined in the revolution, bringing a critical mass and inescapable legitimacy to the uprising, the original legions had been squatting in the square for ten days.
The problem is that now these young and disenfranchised people have largely turned away from the revolution, too. Two and a half years of grueling politics left very few of them with the sense that anything had been accomplished, through all the tear gas and sleepless nights, other than perhaps the construction of new rhetoric from the elite and a crummier economy. The Brotherhood shares some of the blame for this. Ruling with majoritarian fervor, and without regard for popular dissent, its leaders spent much of their time in office transplanting the edifice of their organization into the halls of official power—bypassing the many who’d demanded a fresh start, and transparency, for Egypt’s government.
But then, there is plenty of fault to go around. The young political figures who arose from Tahrir’s revolutionary youth councils in the weeks and months after Mubarak’s fall devoted far too much energy to squabbling and petty infighting. Their failure to coalesce around one or even two political leaders meant that none of their candidates stood much of a chance in the parliamentary—let alone the presidential—elections. The vote that put the Brotherhood’s Morsi in power was a choice, in the end, between him and Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister in Mubarak’s government. In the two years after free elections arrived in Egypt, the voiceless majority still had no one in a position of real prominence to articulate its message.
When I travelled to Egypt in August, I visited a friend named Mohammed Magdy whom I first got to know during the early days in Tahrir Square. Magdy was in his mid-twenties when we met, an underemployed, secular Muslim from a middle-class household just around the corner from Tahrir. He’s made occasional appearances in my reporting over the years, offering a counterbalance to the detached rhetoric of Cairo’s absent elite or its urgently tweeting university-educated class.
At first, Magdy had been a source of buoyant optimism, and perpetual energy: by night, he’d join in the clashes against Mubarak’s thugs; by day, he spirited around Tahrir jotting down any jokes he heard. (It’s worth remembering how much humor there was at the start of Egypt’s uprising.) Later, as the uninspiring politics of the post-Mubarak era dragged on, I watched as Magdy soured on the process; he joined in the street clashes against the interim military government in the fall of 2011, but with lessening enthusiasm. When it came time to vote in the first parliamentary elections, I wasn’t surprised to hear, a few days beforehand, that he had no idea who he would vote for—or even who the candidates in his district were.
But I’d never seen him as disaffected as I did in August. We sat at a cafe in a narrow street behind Tahrir, one of the places of quiet reprieve we used to retreat to during the revolution, when the clamor or tear gas grew to be too much. As he sipped a glass of hot tea with milk and smoked a Cleopatra-brand cigarette (noxious, but cheap), he spoke energetically about his family and his new job constructing a restaurant with some friends from school. But he said nothing at all about politics, until I brought it up. Then he shrugged. “My two enemies are fighting each other,” he said finally, meaning the military and the Brotherhood. “There is nothing for me in this.” He went back to talking about the restaurant.
To keep the spirit of Tahrir Square alive, people like Magdy have to be willing to keep on fighting, even when the situation looks hopeless. When you’ve lost them, is the revolution over?
Source: The New Yorkers