The country is torn between an entrenched security state, politically savvy Islamists and anxious revolutionaries
‘So let’s talk about bread,” the local member of parliament, Gamal al-Ashri, tells a room packed with his constituents. It’s late evening. Outside the shabby apartment block where the meeting takes place, a woman sifts through a vast pile of stinking rubbish at the side of a dusty, potholed road. She seizes something and stuffs it quickly into a plastic bag. Horse-drawn carts, battered old white Volkswagen minibuses and tiny black-painted three-wheelers (known as “tuk-tuks”) compete with pedestrians in the honking mayhem that is an Egyptian street. We are in a poor neighbourhood of Giza – just a few miles from the pyramids, but not on any tourist itinerary.
The point about bread is that there’s not enough of the cheap, state-subsidised kind. Next to this apartment block there’s a brightly lit private bakery selling fragrant fresh loaves and pastries – but the poor can’t afford them. The MP explains the folly of a corrupt state that has reduced Egypt to dependence on imported wheat. Questions follow about issues like the rubbish on the streets, crime and local transport.
A middle-aged man, smartly dressed in jacket, shirt and tie, gets up and asks: “But why do we have women in parliament?” And, as translated to me, he adds: “The Muslim Brotherhood are interested in women. I’m not. I want women back in the house.”
The MP comes from the Freedom and Justice party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the biggest winner from the country’s relatively free parliamentary elections and will almost certainly dominate the next government. I await his answer with interest. (So far as I can judge, he’s not aware that there’s a foreigner at the back of the room.) “No,” he says. “We want freedom for everyone. Egypt can only be rebuilt by all the people. Women can help us address a lot of problems, such as drugs and education.”
Then, in a room largely filled with men, an angry woman stands up and asks not about the position of women but about another MP who has denounced the might-have-been presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei as a foreign agent.
Welcome to Egypt in the raw. There are two sharply contrasting western cliched images attached to the Egyptian revolution, and more broadly to the Arab spring. One is beautiful, young Facebook and Twitter-using women revolutionaries, explaining in perfect English their immaculate secular, liberal goals. Hurray, hurray. The other is swarthy, hatchet-bearded Islamist men, exploiting a brief moment of semi-democracy to impose their violent, theocratic, misogynist oppression. Boo, boo. Arab spring, Arab fall.
As so often, there is a grain of truth in each cliche. There are fantastic, brave, bright young women and men here, who have faced down extreme intimidation of many kinds (from police bullets to sexual harassment) and deserve our total, unstinting solidarity, and support. And there are indeed some Islamist monsters. But the cliched images miss two larger and more important truths.
First, the biggest, most immediate obstacle to freedom in Egypt today, the force that is actively trying to roll back the revolution, is not the Muslim Brotherhood but the military-dominated security state that has run Egypt for 60 years and is now identified with the acronym Scaf, for Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. It is they who recently had built two hideous makeshift walls of giant concrete blocks – reminding me irresistibly of photos of the Berlin Wall in its early days – to block access to Tahrir Square and nearby government offices.
They have commanded the legions of spies, goons and torturers who for decades have terrorised secularists, Salafists, Coptic Christians and ordinary people. More recently, they have locked up bloggers just for daring to criticise them. They control large parts of the economy – estimates vary from 10% to 40%. So much, anyway, that when the central bank’s reserves get depleted they can casually pass it $1bn, “as if they’d found it down the back of the sofa”, one observer commented.
It is Scaf that is wrangling with the elected parliament to keep control of the interior as well as the defence ministry and the defence budget beyond any scrutiny. Despite receiving some $1.3bn in military aid from Washington, they have cocked the most amazing snook at the US by putting on trial 43 NGO activists, among them the son of the current US transportation secretary. In short, it is they who are still the biggest blockade on Egypt’s long road to freedom.
Second, insofar as Egypt had partly free and partly fair elections, Islamists won. The FJP and Salafist al-Nour blocs between them have a large majority in both houses of parliament. Like them or loathe them, they – not the urban, educated youth who spearheaded the revolution in Tahrir Square – have, for now, won politically. That is not surprising in a conservative, majority-Muslim society, where the Muslim Brotherhood had a formidable underground organisation. The FJP compromises and makes deals with the military-security state, but will also try to clip its wings.
These people we lump together as Islamists come in many shapes and sizes: fat and skinny, hard and soft, dogmatic and pragmatic. Some prioritise free market economics, others social welfare, others again cultural and religious conservatism. Across the lands of the Arab spring, it matters enormously which kinds of Islamist gain the upper hand, in what context, under which internal and external constraints. For now, the FJP’s priorities in Egypt seem clear: to show some improvements in the economy, welfare and personal security. Otherwise, they know they will lose popularity, and therefore votes.
A year on from the fall of Hosni Mubarak, this is not what the young revolutionaries of Tahrir dreamed of. It’s not what we western secular liberals dreamed of. It’s not, in its consequences, another 1989. But nor is it 1979 in Iran, a rainbow revolution rapidly degenerating into an oppressive Islamic theocracy. It’s Egypt 2012. Even secular liberal and Coptic friends say that a pragmatic Islamist government, wrangling a gradual reduction of the hypertrophied military, security and bureaucratic state, may be the best they can expect in the near future.
If those of us who live in more prosperous and free countries want to help Egypt’s transition – and realistically, that help will only be at the margins – we need to start by understanding what is happening on the ground, in all its dusty, pot-holed complexity. We have nothing to lose but our cliches.
from Timothy Garton Ash