By Khalil al-Anani
DURHAM: When I left Egypt two weeks before the revolution, Egyptians were not allowed to discuss three issues publicly: politics, religion and sex. However, after two weeks in post-Jan. 25 Cairo, I realized that these taboos have become obsolete. A sense of unfettered freedom is inescapable, albeit in a chaotic pattern.
Apart from sex, which became more politicized as in the case of Samira Ibrahim, one of seven female protesters who were subjected to a shameful “virginity test” by the military, depressed Egyptians are significantly overwhelmed by the other two issues: politics and religion.
From the taxi driver who drove me from the airport to the mosque imam who ironically advocated repeatedly for apathy and political subservience, all are now mired in everyday politics, but with no substance. It’s the same old wine in old bottles — not even new ones.
Over the past 14 months, the military has significantly succeeded in exhausting people in nothing but following an elusive and deceptive transition — a tactic that created a self-counter-revolution from within the original revolution.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has consolidated its grip not only on power, but also on people’s minds. It has become the common denominator in public discussion — in houses, buses, cafes, media and even mosques. And while many are irritated that SCAF turned from a “facilitator” of the transition into a “meddler,” they don’t dare challenge its power or force it to rein in its unruly political and economic ambitions.
“They are worse than their ex-boss,” the building sentry told me. However, despite their disenchantment and bitterness, many Egyptians believe that forcing SCAF to cede power may entail real risks. Hence, this sense of counter-revolution becomes necessary to avoid the “imagined” chaos.
I’ve heard a similar argument from many of those so-called ‘liberals’ or non-Islamists for the sake of honesty. They aren’t ashamed of endorsing the military to counter the “wild Islamists who are hungry to power,” as a prominent liberal figure put it. Ironically, when I challenged this argument by stating that liberals have done nothing to the revolution except crying and criticizing Islamists, the answer was, bluntly: “Offending Islamists is much easier [for us] than confronting them in the streets.” And that’s another aspect of the self-counter-revolution.
However, the main manifestation of the self-counter-revolution lies in the Islamist saga. Clearly, the uptrend of Islamists’ “rise,” which prevailed after the parliamentary elections, is significantly fading away. “The lure of power gripped them,” Mohamed, a 25-year dissident Islamist told me, “They don’t care anymore about people, Islam or even da’wa; they only focus on taking power.”
Power, the mantra that captivated Islamists’ minds and hearts for decades and now believed to be closer than ever, may be a mere mirage.
What Islamists don’t realize is that the revolution did not lead to a real diffusion of power; rather, it reshaped its center. Hence, instead of being dominated by a singular political party (Mubarak’s National Democratic Party) with a “group of gentlemen thieves,” Egyptian politics is now under the control of a singular force: the military. Not surprisingly, Islamists still act as opposition, albeit with a different flavor, not as a real power holder.
SCAF shrewdly bestowed Islamists a “theatrical” and powerless parliament which ironically has to face growing public resentment. SCAF purposely diverted the revolutionary rage from the generals to the parliamentarians. More ironically, Islamists have “dominated” a “trapped” parliament. The more they intensify their “domination,” the lesser they maintain their “glorious” public image.
“The military astutely tied Islamists in a useless game,” a non-political Salafi leader hinted. He pointed out, “Islamists are now divided, not only over taking power, but also on how to face the military.”
Apart from Islamist politics, which is significantly reshaping, religiosity has become a social obsession. Not only due to the growing demand of religious symbolism in the public sphere — e.g. beards, religious mobile ringtones, religious vocabulary, etc. — but also due to the religious interpretation of political events, which neutralizes and disregards human agency.
Something may explain the furor over the Salafi presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. The majority of his fans and supporters don’t accept the fact that his mother, as any other human being, can be an American citizen. “It’s a mere American plot,” a taxi driver asserted when I hinted at the possibility of excluding [the sheikh] from the presidential race.
“Abu Ismail is the only Islamic leader who can stop the West,” he added. When I asked him who he would vote for if Abu Ismail does not run, the answer was a big “no one.”
And that’s where Egypt’s counter-revolution lies, in people’s self-perception.
Khalil Al-Anani is a scholar of Middle East Politics at the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University and a former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute, Washington, D.C. He can be reached at: k.m.ibrahim[at]durham[dot]ac[dot]uk