Jonas Algers travelled to Egypt, Alexandria, to interview a series of young activist from varying political groups, including the now banned Muslim Brotherhood.
“One of my closest childhood friends died three days before you arrived. He was doing his military service and some people attacked the truck he was transported in. It makes me too sad to think about.
My friend tells me this after a glorious meal of Egyptian grilled food with a backdrop of the setting sun over the Mediterranean behind the Alexandrine skyline. This absurd scene sums up my trip to Egypt; everything seems peaceful and calm, the coffee shops are busy and evenings lively. But underneath the surface the political situation with its oppression and passive violence is undeniable for most Egyptians.
I arrive in Alexandria in early April, right between the two phases of the planned Egyptian parliamentary elections that did not happen. I planned to meet an old friend and meet young political activists she knows from different groups, including the now banned Muslim Brotherhood, to see what they have to say about the new dictatorship imposed by president Sisi.
On a rooftop coffee shop in Downtown, Alexandria I meet Mohammed Zaki, political activist for Egypt Freedom Party and one of the key organisers of the party’s branch in Alexandria.
“I became active in politics in 2011. In the atmosphere that existed in Egypt at the time many did the same. I found that what we need the most is democracy, that is why I decided to join a liberal-democratic party and therefore joined Egypt Freedom Party.”
The Egyptian revolution started January 25th 2011. In the west it has been portrayed as a sudden flare of demand for democracy, following the Tunisian uprising against a similar regime.
Q) What happened at the start of the revolution?
A) “The revolution did not just happen; it was the consequence of the previous year’s political stir in different forms. The labour organisation 6th of April movement had held several demonstrations. The name comes from the national strike that was held of 6th of April 2008 as a protest against Mubarak. Also ElBaradei (famous Egyptian diplomat and ex-director general of International Atomic Energy Agency) became more vocal in his critique of president Mubarak and on the bombings on New Year’s Eve 2010/2011, deadliest in the history of Egypt, were also part of the political build-up for the revolution.”
Q) What happened with the April 6 movement?
A)“They are not banned but under constant attack by the media which is loyal to president Sisi. They need to ask for permission for all of their demonstrations and their anniversary a few days ago was stopped. They are not at all as influential as they were before.”
This year there were celebrations of the start of the revolution four years ago. Political activist Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh from Alexandria went with other activists to Cairo for a March to lay a wreath of flowers at the famous Tahrir Square, epicentre of the Egyptian Revolution. As they came close to the square riot police appeared. They blasted the marchers with teargas and rubber bullets in an attempt to disperse them.
Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh was hit by multiple rubber bullets and drew her last breath in the arms of a fellow protester.
Killing of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh has made ripples throughout the Egyptian people. My friend tells me that people loyal to Sisi, including her parents, have now had doubts about the state of the country. Therefore president Sisi has declared that a full investigation of her killing will be made to find the person guilty of her death.
The police now claim they have found the guilty police officer and he will be charged with manslaughter. However, the surviving protestors will also be charged with breaking the law. The law passed as the military took over Egypt in 2013 banning protests. Both crimes can give a similar amount of years in prison. This leads me to ask;
Q) Zaki how it is to be a political activist today.
A)“It is difficult to get people involved in the democratic parties because they consider the dictatorship necessary. Many look at the years of the revolution and the chaos that existed. Sisi has created stability in Egypt and many, especially the older generations, welcome that.”
Q) We mainly hear about the Muslim Brotherhood in the West but you mention other democratic parties. Who are they?
A) “That is one of the problems we face in Egypt. All the media likes to portray the situation as a struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood while we do not like any of them! There is a large support for the democratic movements. The best thing you can do for Sisi is to say that the only alternative is the Muslim Brotherhood and no one wants them. We have many allies in other political parties.”
Zaki takes my notebook and draws a map on one of its pages. Left-right, and conservative-liberal are the axes. He makes a dot in the conservative/right corner, which is the Sisi government. Close to it another dot that is the Muslim Brotherhood and then another one, which represents a party called Nour. Nour is another Islamist party, even more hard-core than the Muslim Brotherhood. On the left and centre but on the liberal side he draws more dots and names them Social Coalition Party, Popular Current Party, Constitution Party, Socialist Popular Alliance Party and a few more. He tells me that Shaimaa was a member of Socialist Popular Alliance Party. He crosses a handful of the dots over:
“The crossed out ones are the banned groups.”
He tells me:
“Most of the democratic parties would have boycotted the elections had they gone through. The democratic standard is too low. Only a third of the seats in parliament would have been open for parties, the other two thirds would have been ‘independents’. Hopefully the new law will be adequate but we have low expectations.”
Q) Are you saying that elected representatives from the parties would have only constituted a third of the parliament?
A) “Yes naturally that is something we cannot accept. But right now the country has no parliament at all, which of course is convenient for Sisi.”
What is interesting with the map drawn in my notebook is that both the Sisi government and Muslim Brotherhood are very close to each other and far from them we have many different groups.
“This is why we do not endorse either Sisi or the Muslim Brotherhood. They are very similar in their political goals. We (he points at the cluster of dots in the other corner) all want a secular, democratic state, where the military is not controlling our future. If you wake up one morning and hear on the news that the government has decided to build a new administrative capital with a capacity for five million people, you know you are not living in a democracy.”
Zaki is talking about the planned new capital being built between Cairo and the Red Sea, a $300 billion investment to be paid for mainly by the Arab Gulf states, a figure to be compared to $262 billion – the total GDP of Egypt in 2013. The new capital will contain a building higher than the Eiffel Tower and a larger airport than Heathrow. It is a monumental project, but only one of the planned investments by president Sisi. Another project is a second ‘lane’ in the Suez Canal, so that ships can travel both ways simultaneously.
“This is typical for Sisi. We do not need a new capital to escape the traffic jams of Cairo; we need to sort out its infrastructure. All these new cities they are building are for the elite and not for the people; a new city will not make things better for the people of Cairo. Apparently there is money, but it never reaches the people. This only leads to accumulating anger with the poor and young, we who are middle-class can sustain the fall in living standards but the poor are increasingly desperate. Actually, everyone is becoming increasingly desperate. I think if Sisi cannot hold true to his promises, there will be bigger uprisings in the coming years than we saw in 2011.”
Q) Is that something your party is advocating, a new revolution?
A) “No it is not. But there is only a fine line between wanting a new revolution and expecting one.”
The day after I am supposed to meet another activist from another of the democratic parties
I therefore meet Hagar who works in an organisation to improve women’s situation in Egypt.
Q) How is it to be a political activist in Egypt today?
A) “It is very dangerous right now, it has become very difficult. The police are following members of my group and photograph us during protests at the university so that they know who we are and then they arrest us. Several of us have been taken by the police at some point, but right now all I know of are released.”
Q) Do you think the police are following you?
A)“I know they are. They recognized me during a protest last week so I was very close to getting arrested. And I have seen them. My organisation existed before Sisi took over but the police are following us even more since he came into power. I think it is because we are students, Sisi knows that the students are the ones who might rebel against him and he is therefore keeping an extra eye on us. Under Morsi we could at least say what we wanted, now Sisi has silenced us.”
Q) I thought the Muslim Brotherhood were his biggest fear?
A)“Yes, but the Muslim Brotherhood is very popular at the universities. Many students support them especially at the science faculties.”
Q) Is there any form of student cooperation between Muslim Brotherhood and the other groups?
A) “The Muslim Brotherhood is impossible to cooperate with. We have tried but they will do anything to achieve their goals. It does not matter to them if people are arrested or killed, they will only use them as martyrs. For us security of our members is important. I tried to start a branch of my party at the university, but at a demonstration several students were arrested and many got scared. The Muslim Brotherhood is more, erm, forceful.”
Q) I have understood that the older generation generally supports Sisi, do your parents know about your activism?
A)“No I could never tell them! Whenever there is a protest I am going to I tell my parents I am studying with a friend.”
Q) How can that be that your parents support a man you clearly despise?
A)“Well, he is doing a good job on the economy and giving stability for foreign investors to come to the country. But it is just the lack of freedom that is destroying us. We are getting angrier by the day, more and more desperate.”
The word desperate returns in the description of the Egyptian youth. It seems like president Sisi has put a lid on the boiling cauldron that is Egypt. Egypt appears to have calmed down but in reality desperation and anger is seething.
I meet another friend, Muntaser, who was active during the revolution but now has left his politically active life behind.
“I have become less involved with politics since the revolution and I think most people have been, mainly because of disappointment. I was there at the 25th of January and I took part in several of the following protests. We were hopeful about politics and thought that we could actually reach our goals. But then my interest diminished as I saw how things turned out for us. I stopped getting involved and I stopped reading the news. At the second revolution (against Morsi) I did not participate. We all knew the military would take over so there was no point.”
Q) So what do you think of Sisi?
A)“I don’t know really, and I don’t think he himself has got a clear view of what he wants to be. Mubarak had a very specific political class, but Sisi is supported various different factions whose different agendas are contradictory. I think they see Egypt as up for grabbing, that you can push Sisi towards different goals. Therefore it is very difficult to know where the country is going but I don’t think that Sisi is an extension of Mubarak, as many others seem to believe. He tries to appeal to the people, out of fear or love I do not care.”
Q) Zaki told me that if Sisi fails to live up to his promises there might be another uprising?
A)“He is betting on their frustration, but I don’t think they have enough political awareness to spark another revolution. What sparked the 25th of 2011 was the middle-classes who are more concerned with political freedom.”
Q) Are you hopeful for the future?
A)“Well, politically speaking the revolution has failed. The people who started it did not reach power. But in other ways it has brought about change. People feel that they can express their views and they discuss politics more. More and more women feel that they can take off their veils without being judged by society. People are more involved with the society they live in.”
Q) Where do you think Egypt will move now?
A) “To be honest I am not that interested. I have stopped being interested. But if we had freedom of speech we would get a pool of opinions out of which magically we would get a society most of us would like to live in. It is both the laws of government and the cultural and religious dogma that is stopping this from happening. Right now everyone is waiting. The labour movements are on hold to see how things turn out under this new government. Everything is very misty. I disagree with how the democratic parties were going to boycott the elections; the political street in Egypt is up for the taking. In the coming elections I think things will shape up.”
From the people I managed to talk at length with there are a few things that seem apparent. The first is that Egypt is very politically divided in classes and generations where the older generations seem to support the current government for its stability and economic program. The young middle-class formed around the universities has a tendency to support the democratic parties or the Muslim Brotherhood. But while the Egyptian people have started discussing politics more since the revolution many are becoming disappointment with what it can really do. Disappointment has led to anger, desperation or disillusion and the Egyptian sentiment can turn either way, to sedated disengagement or enraged resistance.
What left the biggest impression from Egypt was not any of these planned meetings but an informal chat with a new friend about the revolution. We had just been to the cinema and a scene in the film was shot in Abu Dhabi. My new friend told me he wanted to go there to find a job. I an attempt to be polite I said that I would much rather live somewhere in Egypt than Abu Dhabi. The previous, joking tone was completely gone when he replied:
“Don’t you understand how desperate we are? Can you imagine seeing people dying, the blood on the streets, and your friends thrown in jail? Today our lives are controlled by old men but one day I swear that we will make that change.”
The Egyptian revolution and its consequences are never more than an insensitive thought away.