I refer to my time in Cairo during July and August as my ‘summer of enchantment and disenchantment’. I fell in love with Cairo, and then watched it fall apart. I was in Cairo to conduct my fieldwork on ‘revolutionary humour’ for my Masters degree. When I arrived, I’d hear fireworks, routinely set off during Ramadan and at protests, but they became increasingly hard to distinguish from gunshots. The soundtrack of Cairo—of incessant honking cars, of merriment as people celebrated the Muslim holy month—became replaced by the rumbling of tanks and APVs and screeching ambulances. State TV and international media began to sing different songs.
To most of the world, Egypt seemed to be one of the ‘success stories’ of the Arab Spring. While not everyone was enthused by the election of Mohammed Morsi, people generally conceded that Egypt was on a democratic road—if a bumpy one—while elsewhere, like in Syria’s ongoing and worsening civil conflict, the Arab Spring became a prolonged and grim winter. This perception has been profoundly thrown into doubt since Morsi was deposed.
After Morsi was deposed, there were sporadic bursts of violence before the events of 14 August 2013, when excessive force was used to clear a sit-in in Rabaa al-Adawiya, what Human Rights Watch has termed ‘the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history’. Initially I wondered if the short, violent outbursts were part of the army’s strategy to use force to compel the Brotherhood to join the negotiation table (though it was hard to envisage what a negotiated solution might look like). But after August 14, it became apparent that this wasn’t the case. Photos from Rabaa were apocalyptic, with protesters wearing gasmasks and swimming goggles as they faced down bulldozers and police.
It soon became apparent that the army and police were doing what they’ve always done—responding with brute force. But to me, that’s a strategic faux pas. This strategy will radicalise a political movement, and the body count will mount.
Many Egyptians were unhappy with what they saw as the ‘Brotherhoodisation’ of Egypt under Morsi, but now it seems like the opposite is happening—de-Brotherhoodisation: an attempt to excise the Brotherhood from all aspects of society in Egypt. A contact of mine said ‘the army cleaned at Rabaa al-Adawiya, perhaps I should tell them there’s Brotherhood at my house so they can come clean here, too’. This statement captures some of the extreme anti-brotherhood sentiment. Scrawled on a wall of downtown Cairo was another anti-Brotherhood declaration: ‘We don’t need beards, we need bread’!
Many citizens support the army. ‘I’m with Sisi, I’m with the army’, people would tell me. It’s hard to understand this fervent support for the military, but it holds a special place in many Egyptians’ hearts. Citizens have been quick to forget the mistakes of the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) period, it seems.
To me, it appears that there’s been a tacit exchange of the respect for human rights for ‘stability’. But it’s questionable whether this exchange has achieved anything like stability—it seems to be creating more instability if anything; September has seen two bomb blasts in Cairo, including one in Nasr City that injured 21 people.
The deep state
How has the revolution been derailed? Let me count the ways. A major failure of the Egyptian Revolution was that it failed to dismantle the ‘deep state’.
Author and Egyptian activist Omar Robert Hamilton charts the demise of the revolution in a beautifully written, yet tragic, article ‘Everything was possible‘. He writes of the earlier revolutionary period:
The un-fallen state, the deep state, the client state; once a month, every month, it attacks. It clears Tahrir in March, April, August and December… It envelops downtown Cairo in a November mist of Pennsylvanian tear gas. It rains down rocks and Molotov cocktails from the roof of the Cabinet building. It welds shut the doors of the Port Said stadium death trap. Every month, people die fighting it.
He laments that this insidious deep state still remains today and thwarts the goals of the revolution. The deaths of upwards of 500 protesters in the violence of August 14 and the introduction of Emergency Law reflect how little has really changed.
Things seem to have come somewhat full circle; the number of Mubarak elements, referred to as ‘feloul’, still active in Egyptian politics is significant. In my last days in Cairo I witnessed a strange Mubarak nostalgia; ‘Things were better under Mubarak’, older Egyptians would lecture me.
How will Cairo emerge from this period of bloodshed? There are a few possibilities. After some of the worst days of violence, an Egyptian friend of mine charted out the worst-case scenarios: an ‘Algeria situation’ and a ‘Syria situation’. The Algeria situation seems more probable to me, with the army waging a lengthy war against the Islamists. It’s also reasonable to predict that an army candidate will stand and be elected in the next election.
When I left, my friend drove me to the airport just after 6am, when curfew ended, but we still had to negotiate a few civilian and army checkpoints. Since the revolution there’s been a blatant disregard for road rules. We drove the wrong way down a major road. ‘I’m part of the chaos’ he declared. He seemed surprised at himself, the well-behaved architecture student, disobeying the rules. Yes, if there’s one thing that’s certain, the old system has been (partially) overthrown, and a new system is yet to appear; in the interim there is uncertainty, some chaos. ‘There is no system’ is an oft heard phrase, and this encompasses every aspect of life in Cairo: the roads (with people parking illegally, driving the wrong way up streets, and taking short cuts) and the political situation with its frequent upheavals. It’s a liminal period and the future’s murky. However, when the dust settles, it’s likely that there’ll be a strange sense of deja vu, of what John Esposito terms ‘Mubarak redux’— a return to military-backed authoritarian rule.
Kim Wilkinson is a former ASPI intern and is studying for a Masters in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University. She spent July and August in Cairo undertaking fieldwork for her thesis on ‘revolutionary humour’, and now writes from Jordan. She tweets @Kim_Wilkinson. Photograph by the author.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly gave a July date for the August 14 violence.