During the two weeks spent in Tahrir Square in 2011 that culminated in ousting former president Hosni Mubarak, there was a young man who held a placard that read, “down with the next president”.
It did not make sense to many who deemed it a witty play on words in Arabic, while others viewed it as a young anarchist’s juvenile attempt to draw attention.
Few knew that he was probably the wisest person in the square.
The concept of his astute phrase is the breaking of taboos which are quite common in a country like Egypt.
Mubarak was viewed by many as the safer choice. Throughout his 30-year rule, Mubarak allowed extremist to spread their ideas which resulted in a clear message that it was either his regime or the extremists. In one of his last speeches during the 2011 revolution, he warned the Egyptian people, “it is either me, or chaos.”
I remember this day clearly because of the fights which ensued in almost every household.
One of my elderly relatives called me screaming; “What the hell do you want? Why don’t you leave the square? Mubarak said he only wants six more months.” Taking an angry breath in, he asked me, “Do you want the country to fall apart?” to which I answered calmly, “Yes.” The generational difference in this country is quite clearly defined for me by this very moment. My answer, while it did not make sense, was the sentiment that I commonly found with the majority of protesters in Tahrir; a collective message of defiance, “let the dice roll.” We had no idea whether Mubarak would step down or not, whether SCAF would side with the ousted president or open fire on us Tiananmen square-style, or if “chaos” will truly prevail. This uncertainty was something new to people used to being controlled by a dictatorial regime, where lines about “the country’s stability” have been regaled by one generation to the next since the 1960s.
Mubarak stepped down after the SCAF decided that they had had enough with him. People spent a week celebrating the ousting of a dictator. Chaos did not prevail.
Taboo number one was broken.
The transitional phase run by the SCAF from 2011-2012 was another defining moment for many Egyptians. Following the 1952 revolution and the Nasserist dictatorial rule, the Egyptian army and the SCAF were put on an untouchable pedestal. No one dared criticise the military institution, for it “worked solely for the benefit of the country”. Questions about SCAF members, the military budget and the wealth of high-ranked generals were a taboo. SCAF’s transitional period-following the 2011 revolution changed this perspective following a series of incredibly idiotic decisions. It seemed that Tantawi’s SCAF did not fully grasp the changes sweeping Egypt and the desire of a very youthful nation to have a real democracy. Egyptians were treated in the same manner as the Mubarak regime, with one main difference: the young Egyptians comprising the majority of the population no longer accepted being patronised. The image of “Mubarak the father” touted by his regime, media and even, ironically, the Muslim Brotherhood, was no longer accepted. Prolonging the transitional period uncovered how inept the SCAF really was. Following a mess of political decisions, tension cumulated in October 2011 when a Coptic demonstration was attacked on its way to Maspero and videos of security and army personnel attacking the protesters shocked people to the core. Twenty eight people died and the media dubbed it the Maspero Massacre. Conspiracy theorist enthusiasts touted that it was a set-up for the army and to this the answer was simple; if you can be conspired against that easily, then you are not fit to handle the transitional period.
In November, with no certain date set for parliamentary elections – considered the first stepping stone to democracy – angry young protesters took to Tahrir Square only to be met by a vicious response from the Ministry of Interior, leading to several deaths on the first day 19 November 2011. People flooded to the square and the clashes lasted for nearly a week, leading to 47 deaths and several hundred injuries. Mohamed Mahmoud streets were dubbed in Arabic the “Eyes of Freedom Street” because of the mass amount of people who lost their eyesight to birdshots fired by the police. Analysts criticised the SCAF for leaving the Ministry of Interior intact and not complying with one of the revolution’s first demands to restructure the ministry.
After a truce for a couple of weeks, clashes resumed by the cabinet building and the shocking images of the blue-bra girl went viral; a veiled young woman was brutally attacked by the military police and disrobed and her blue bra became an iconic symbol of military brutality.
By that time, the military had lost almost all respect among Egyptians who had idolised it for decades. Licking its wounds, the SCAF retreated and a date for parliamentary elections was set.
Taboo number two was broken.
It is vital to note that during all the clashes that led to the historical parliamentary elections in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis – who stood to gain the most from such elections – were adamantly against all demonstrations against the SCAF, calling protesters “thugs” and “whores” and blaming blue-bra girl.
Many were scared out of their wits because of what happened in 2012: the rise of the Islamists to power. It was expected that once the Mubarak regime is no longer in the picture, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis were going to fill their place for two simple reasons: they are quite organised, unlike the new liberal groups and parties, and the fact that they used charity to manipulate the poor in Egypt, which comprise a large section of society. Mubarak had successfully allowed them to spread in the Egyptian society so it was either him or “chaos”.
A lot of Egyptians voted for the Islamists in the parliamentary elections for one simple reason: “they are God-fearing men who would treat us justly.” The image the Islamists sold through their charity work and their Gulf-funded TV channels was the above. Manipulation of religion was and still is their forte. Following the fiasco of the 2012 parliament that mainly focused on laws that prohibit women’s freedoms, lack of organisation and the increasing poverty, Egyptians were beginning to feel scepticism towards the Islamists, but the pull of religion in this country is quite strong. It took Mohamed Morsi’s rise to power for Egyptians to break the third and most important taboo of all; men of the cloth.
Morsi’s one year rule drove more Egyptians to poverty while retaining the full power of a vicious ministry of interior. His dictatorial decrees in December 2012 made his decisions irrefutable, as well as those of the Shura Council, the country’s legislative body at the time. This coupled with his unstable foreign policy, weak government and still-to-be-deciphered speeches drove Egyptians to the end of their tether.
In a country that revered men of the cloth – putting them on a pedestal – the Muslim Brotherhood one-year rule single-handedly succeeded in alienating many from religious TV channels. In country where people may not pray all week, but habitually attend the Friday prayer, the sermons by Wahabi Sheikhs have made mosques arenas for fist-fights as attendees could no longer tolerate the hypocrisy of not practicing what is being preached. The duplicity of the men of the cloth could not be tolerated by people who were barely making ends meet because of the floundering “pious” men they voted to power. The once untouchable renowned Sheiks became material for satirists and caricaturists. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis who monopolised religion were no longer the authority on what is right and wrong. Men of the cloth were finally deemed regular men.
The third taboo was broken.
The breaking of taboos in a country like Egypt is essential for its learning process. Following the ousting of Morsi by the people and the army on 2 July, media outlets as well as Mubarak-era businessmen poured money into campaigns idolising the army and filed complaints against anyone who criticised the military institution. The difference this time was the outcry of NGOs, activists and even people on the streets against these attempts. In the Constituent Assembly, for the first time there is real and avid debate over the military articles in the constitution.
Amid the euphoria of nationalism, voices breaking the taboos are surviving.
Mubarak enthusiasts tried their best to remind people of how his rule was much better than the Muslim Brotherhood, cornering people between the two usual two choices. While some succumbed, many are fighting back – in particular, those who have suffered poverty and degradation under both rulers, for humiliation cannot be forgotten. Those who stand to gain the most from the return of a pseudo Mubarak regime are the few deep pockets in this country. The poor know – first-hand – the degradation of his regime under the guise of stability.
Religion is still important in Egypt, but many are now focusing on the scripture itself rather than the person, which is a start. Most manipulators of religion personalise religion in a single sheikh to give them better power over their devotees. But illiteracy and poverty are the playground for these extremists. For this taboo to remain broken, the state has to step up and guarantee a decent living to its citizens so poverty does not become the weapon wielded against them yet again.
Egypt still has a long way to go to form its own vision of a democratic country. Breaking the taboos of instability, political patronage, men of the cloth and the military rule are just the beginning.
As for the coming president, his path will be a difficult one and the most intelligent decision he could ever make is to restructure the Ministry of Interior which is still intact from the Mubarak regime, or he may well find placards of “down with the president” in Tahrir yet again.