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Revolution, Elections, and Betrayal: Hard Lessons from Egypt

As the new Morsi government negotiates with the IMF, it’s clear that – as in the US – elections in Egypt have not responded to citizens’ revolutionary demands for economic and social justice, alleviation of poverty and democratic decisionmaking.

As the new Morsi government negotiates with the IMF, it’s clear that – as in the United States – elections in Egypt have not responded to citizens’ revolutionary demands for economic and social justice, alleviation of poverty and democratic decisionmaking.

Stenciled faces stare out from almost every wall as one walks through Cairo. Some faces are accompanied by names and dates, others by political slogans. Some wear eye patches; some depict blood and pain. Others are determined, brave and proud. They are just some of the up to 1,000 people who lost their lives in the streets here in Egypt between January and December of 2011.

The wall along Mohamed Mahmoud Street is perhaps the most powerful memorial to the martyrs. Stretching nearly three blocks, the massive mural, once painted over by the military but quickly re-claimed, stands as a reminder of the tragic price that was paid for revolution here. Large full-color portraits of both the martyrs and some of the heroes of the resistance stand interspersed by the stenciled faces and slogans. Occasional picture frames are scattered, most containing faces of the dead, but some have been left blank as a reminder that there are more to come.

Around the corner, large concrete-block barriers, only recently opened, and huge bundles of barbed wire still span the streets. For almost a year, these barricades lined the areas south of Tahrir Square, preventing the public from reaching the Interior Ministry and others buildings inside.

It was here that, in November of 2011, with elections just one week away, tens of thousands gathered after police attacked a Tahrir Square sit-in led by some of those injured during the revolution. News of the attack, which killed two of the injured as well as several others, spread fast through this city of 18 million. Within hours, thousands responded with their bodies, and the fighting went on, day and night, for almost a week.

After the fights, there was a push to rename the street – originally named after a former minister of the interior – El-Shohadaa, or Martyrs’ Street. Revolutionaries hung banners at the ends of the street with the new name and wrote it on the emerging mural wall.

Standing back, you see that the mural has one unifying message: “You left us here and went to the elections.” This is directed not only at the people who called those who fought here “criminals,” but also at the Muslim Brotherhood, which, many say, left the revolution unfinished to gain political power and turned on its former comrades, who continued fighting in the streets for the larger demands of the revolution.

Today, not even two years since the revolution that shook the world, the security state remains unchanged and the economic policies that have long pushed Egyptians to the edges of poverty have continued. And Sami Sidhom, the man considered ultimately responsible for the November attack on Tahrir and the subsequent repression along Mohamed Mahmoud that killed 40 and left hundreds with massive injuries including missing eyes, is still the assistant minister of the interior for security, the position he held under the Mubarak regime.

In September, to the background of street protests and public criticism, the new government of Mohamed Morsi is negotiating a $4.8 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which it had spoken out against during the elections.

Similar agreements with the IMF recently brought highly opposed austerity measures to Southern Europe, specifically to Greece and Spain, and throughout the 70s and 80s, IMF policies left much of the Global South further in debt.

I walked along Mohamed Mahmoud street with a number of young Egyptians recently and talked with them about the revolution, the elections, the economic situation and their perspectives on the last year and a half of their lives.

The story of Mohamed Mahmoud can be read as a metaphor for the whole stifled revolutionary period: popular protests were met with repression, which led to fierce resistance. Then, the established parties rolled out political maneuvers to convince people to leave the streets to “restore order” once the dictatorship had been dislodged. The type of “order” restored in February 2011 led to over a year of Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) military rule and the continued imprisonment of thousands of people. The “order” restored in late November led to the eventual election of Morsi and the continuation of Mubarak-era police, military and neoliberal economic policies.

Two of the young men, Ahmed and Omar, explain that the battle on this street was about fighting the police and was very much seen as an unfinished part of a revolution that began as a demonstration against them and the political role they had played under the dictatorship. “We all came down to fight when we heard about the attack,” Omar, who also fought in November, tells me. “Our friend was run over and killed by a police truck during the initial push into Tahrir, along with others. We came to fight back.”

Then the elections came, and, convinced by both the military regime and the new political powers, crowds dispersed. “The media convinced the country that we were thugs and criminals,” Omar says bitterly.

As the street empties into the busy traffic of Tahrir Square, a huge mural depicts Sambo, who rose to infamy during the revolution after fighting a soldier, taking his gun and turning it on the police. Then the wall turns, continuing its story of revolution, betrayal and the stifled dreams of another Egypt.

“This is what we have left now,” Ahmed says bitterly as we walk Mohamed Mahmoud, “words and slogans.”

Between Myths and Lies

Western perceptions of this revolution and of the many protests that followed it distort several key aspects of it, like the concept that somehow, the staging of elections has led to some new period of improvements in Egypt. The story we hear is that with nonviolent resistance, the Egyptian people won a revolution that has now brought democracy to the country.

Election time is perhaps when political mythology moves fastest through any society. In the United States, one can see this in the bumper stickers with Martin Luther King Jr.’s image next to Barack Obama’s, with the words “Fulfilling the Dream” over top, simplistically implying that the entirety of the civil rights movement had culminated in this moment. One can also see it in the deceptive “Occupy the Vote” signs that adorn front yards in my city, Baltimore, printed by local Obama Democrat campaigners.

To deconstruct the first myth, it goes without saying to most Egyptians, especially the young and poor, that the revolution here was no more about voting rights than the civil rights movement was about having a black president. In both cases, these movements were very much about economic, as well as social, justice, and they were movements against the poverty that far too many in this world experience. That elections would magically answer these demands is not a myth, but rather, historically, an all-out lie. And it seems to be exactly how politicians, both in Egypt and in the United States, would like to tell the story of last year’s revolution.

The other myth is that the revolution was nonviolent, which is a lie, as well. No one with any understanding of the Egyptian revolution could honestly misunderstand it as being nonviolent. On just the fourth day of the revolution, the January 28 “Day of Rage,” almost every police station in Cairo was burned or firebombed, and the massive headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party was completely burned. Throughout the revolt, police were attacked with thousands of molotov cocktails, rocks, fireworks and, occasionally, with live rounds. Hundreds were killed fighting in the streets, including a number of police and soldiers, and many hundreds were brutally injured.

In November, the fighting was brutal and the casualties high. To support those in the streets, volunteers walked amongst the thousands gathered in Tahrir Square, collecting money to buy bottles for Molotov cocktails. “Everyone gave what they could,” Ahmed tells me.

“To support the fighters,” he said, “at one point, we had this gas station, and we just kept refueling and throwing molotov cocktails.”

The Egyptian state and security forces were also taking up collections for the fighting, only they were dealing with much bigger players. Three times in 2011, including in January under Mubarak and in November under the SCAF, US-based Combined Systems Incorporated (CSI) shipped 21 tons of tear gas to the Interior Ministry to support its crackdowns on the revolution.

In November, Egyptian dock workers at the Port of Suez refused to sign for and unload the shipments, while coordinated solidarity protests were held at both the gates of CSI’s Jamestown, Pennsylvania, factory and at the Manhattan headquarters of their parent company, Point Lookout Capital. Those fighting along Mohamed Mahmoud heard rumors but say no media outlets covered the controversial story of the November CSI shipment.

The combination of those rumors and the obvious maneuvers of the political parties away from revolutionary action led many young people to the streets in an attempt to revive the spirit of January and February. They left defeated, depressed and isolated. “Mohamed Mahmoud Street taught us that while people where fighting for their dignity, the political parties ran to the elections,” Ahmed tells me. “They no longer cared about why we were dying.”

Ahmed was among one of many young people who traveled to Mahalla in April of 2008 to participate in a general strike there led by the powerful textile workers union, and he fought alongside them as almost a dozen were murdered by police. He then helped organize solidarity demonstrations in Cairo in the years after.

“Mahalla felt betrayed by the rest of Egypt,” he says of 2008. “They felt as though the country failed to support them when they rose up. When the revolution started, they waited to see if we were for real, if we were talking about the economic issues and if we were willing to fight. Then they rebelled, too.”

It was neoliberal policies pushed by the IMF, particularly privatization initiatives, as well as brewing tension with police and government officials, that pushed workers to the streets of Mahalla. Many reference the strike as being an entry point into oppositional activism in the underground organizations of Egypt. The strike also resulted in the formation of the April 6 Movement, which played a key role in the revolution.

“What Happened Here Is Over”

While details of the pending IMF agreement have yet to be released by either party, Daily News Egypt wrote recently that “reports circulated that the IMF demanded of Egypt to lift food and fuel subsidies as a pre-condition for the loan,” and the International Herald Tribune reported that: “the State Department and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will take executives from nearly 50 American companies, like Caterpillar and Xerox, to Cairo beginning Saturday as part of one of the largest trade delegations ever. The officials and executives will urge the government to make changes in taxation, bankruptcy and labor laws to improve the investment climate.”

The dangers of such loans lurk primarily in these stipulations, such as those calling for “changes to labor laws.” It doesn’t take a political scientist to understand what this means: lower wages and attacks on organized labor.

Such measures are and have always been justified by citing a nation’s debt burden; in Egypt’s case, it owes up to $35 billion to international lenders, the majority of it to Europe and the United States. So, says IMF rhetoric, to service its debt to the West, a nation must cut government spending, namely from social programs and food and fuel subsidies, and shift that money into repaying loans from the IMF. The catch is that, after each loan, the debt usually just grows bigger.

But many in Egypt and around the world argue that Egypt’s debt is “odious,” a much-debated legal term for debts incurred under dictatorship or through corrupt political mechanisms. “Egypt’s external debt is a direct result of [the] Mubarak regime’s failed economic policies, which resorted to external borrowing as a quick fix for complex economic problems,” reads the campaign web site for Drop Egypt’s Debt, which campaigns for the unconditional dropping of Egypt’s Mubarak-era debt. “Although Egyptians did not have a say over the need for external borrowing nor the spending priorities for the loans’ proceeds, they continue to suffer from Mubarak’s debt burden even after his fall.”

If deemed odious, such debt should be unconditionally dropped, which would leave Egypt far from needing a $4.8 billion loan.

In this debate, the hypocrisy of the United States government shines through. When it comes to military support, it has given up to $1 billion a year for 30 years, including during the entirety of Mubarak’s reign, as well as another $1 billion dollars last year directly to the SCAF.

“U.S. assistance to Egypt has long played a central role in Egypt’s economic and military development,” the State Department says of its program to support Mubarak. Such “military development” left almost a thousand dead here, while, throughout the revolutionary period, including both January and November of 2011, American companies like CSI in Western Pennsylvania continued to arm Egyptian security forces with tear gas and other weapons.

For young, low-income people like Ahmed, the dream of a new Egypt is compromised not only by the trauma of lost friends and the political repression of the post-revolutionary period, but also by the continuation of Mubarak-era mandatory military service laws. Those who are not in university are banned from leaving the country until they have served one to three years in an institution that they hate, and it is up to the military to decide the length of service.

I ask Ahmed, who dreams of traveling, if he had considered dodging the draft, or if there has been a movement to resist it. “If you do, you go to military jail,” he says, “where you are tortured and beaten.”

“No one wants to go there,” he said.

While many of us in the West celebrate the revolution that, together with its counterpart in Tunisia, ushered in the Arab Spring and inspired the indignados protests in Spain and the Occupy movement in the United States, this is the Egypt that Egyptians live in. They walk daily past the stenciled memorials of those killed in the streets as they face the continuation of some of the worst aspects of the Mubarak regime. Only now, they enjoy the freedom to talk openly and bitterly about it.

“What happened here is over,” Omar tells me flatly as we smoke sheesha later in a downtown café, a “Boycott the Elections” sticker still fixed to the pipe. “We celebrated at first, and then we realized what was going on.”

“The situation here is very bad,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from the Egyptian revolution is that, to win real, substantive changes, you must stay in the streets and fight from there. As soon as you leave, your power is gone, and it is left in the hands of the few political players who have managed to push their way to the top.

“Never trust politicians,” Ahmed says bitterly. “They will never think outside of the ballot box.”

These are perspectives that we in the United States should take very seriously as election time approaches. Will we pull ourselves out of the streets to give “political space” to those in power, the way many from the antiwar movement did after Obama’s election? Or will we figure out ways to continue building, expanding and improving upon the massive social pressure unleashed in Zuccotti Park and Oscar Grant Plaza and from the anti-eviction camps of Minneapolis and Atlanta?

It’s a hard conversation, but there’s no better time to engage in it than now.

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