Egypt’s Fractured Revolution Two Years On

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Two years ago, FRONTLINE and GlobalPost‘s Charles M. Sennott teamed up to investigate the Muslim Brotherhood’s behind-the-scenes role in the Egyptian revolution. Watch our February 2011 report Revolution in Cairo online. This piece has been co-published with GlobalPost’s GroundTruth.

CAIRO — Two years ago today, with history on the line and revolution in the air, a group of 15 idealistic young Egyptians came together under what became known as “the green tent.”

It was a Coleman “Montana” tent and its emerald color stood out against the ragtag maze of clear plastic sheeting and drab canvas tarps where hundreds of thousands of protesters set up a sprawling tent city that occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The 15 people using this eight-person tent as their base dubbed themselves the Revolutionary Youth Coalition. Through the heady 18 days of protests calling for then President Hosni Mubarak to step down after 30 years of brutal and corrupt rule, these young leaders were sought after by the world’s media and spoke for an array of voices in the square.

They were true believers in the idea of revolution, and they made history on February 11th, the night that Mubarak stepped down. They were united under that tent. Or, at least they thought they were.

They had no idea how bitterly divided they would become. As the revolution now splinters along religious and secular lines, it is increasingly pitting the Islamist majority of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties against the smaller, more fractured opposition of the National Salvation Front of socialists, labor activists and other factions supporting a more secular democracy.

I revisited these young people over the last week to discuss where the ‘revolution’ stood two years on and whether their hope for a new Egypt had materialized. We found them not just politically divided, but barely on speaking terms.

Frustration replaced idealism as it became clear that the vision of a new democracy under an Islamist government was incompatible with many of those who once believed they were transforming the country into a representative democracy with equal rights for all. Violence in the streets now features these two sides – religious and secular – confronting each other.

By most accounts, the revolution has collapsed into fractured political parties, splintered ideologies and a sullen expression of regrets among these youth as to how they failed to seize an historic moment for their country.

Violent street clashes are a confusing scene of secular protesters lobbing Molotov cocktails at the Presidential Palace while insulted Islamists physically confront them using rocks and sticks. Meanwhile, government security forces either stand idly by or overreact with yet another brutal crackdown. The two weeks marking the anniversary of what became known as the ‘January 25 Revolution’ have claimed more than 50 lives.

This violence has transformed post-Mubarak Egypt, according to Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a Cairo think tank.

“The street has changed. The demonstrations now are not what we knew in 2011. There is an organized, violent core at the heart of these demonstrations. And then there are the Islamists who are taking to the streets to defend the government. The fact is that religion has come to the fore. Egypt has always been conservative about religion, but never has there been such a public display of – and a real fight over – the role of religion in public life. We are going somewhere we have just not gone before,” said Akl.

So what happened to ‘the green tent’ and the spirit of unity it represented?

* * *

Two years ago, on February 11, 2011, the members of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition couldn’t see any of the dark clouds from inside ‘the green tent’ as they were swept up in the emotion of the massive street demonstrations that riveted the world.

They were from all corners of Cairo. Young men of the Muslim Brotherhood with prayer mats and a Coptic Christian woman who wore a pendant of a fused cross and crescent. They were from wealthy enclaves and poor neighborhoods. They were college-educated lawyers and poorly schooled laborers. Some had political aspirations and others had socialist ideals. They were all completely focused on a single goal: toppling the American-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

And on that night, I was with them in ‘the green tent’ when Mubarak announced he was stepping down after 30 years of brutality and corruption. I was with them as they hugged each other and literally wept with joy as celebratory fireworks burst in the night sky and you could see the flashes of light through the translucent green canvas of the tent.

That night, a constellation of these young people were huddled together using the thin light from their cell phones to hash out a communiqué that they called The Birth Certificate of a Free Egypt. It was written on a scrap of cardboard — a beautiful and idealistic, even poetic, document calling for a new day in Egypt. They all signed it.

They boasted that someday the crudely penned but beautifully phrased document would be in a museum celebrating the revolution. And ‘the green tent’ would have its place at the museum, too. For some of the Brotherhood, its color green was a great symbol of Islam and coming together as a democratic nation under God and within the laws of Sharia. The more secular youth and the Christian woman in the coalition would never see it that way, but were perhaps too overwhelmed by the moment to kill it by disagreeing with the Muslim Brotherhood youth.

They all tried to focus on how ‘the tent represented religious and secular, rich and poor, Christian and Muslim had all come together quite literally under one tent to topple Mubarak. They had made history. And that’s what mattered.

What they didn’t know was that February night of unity and celebration over Mubarak stepping down was actually the starting point where all the differences between them would begin to emerge, like stress cracks in a collapsing foundation. What they didn’t know then was that the divisions – particularly between the religious and the secular movements – were ultimately irreconcilable and would cause post-revolutionary Egypt to collapse in on itself.

That is, if you could even call what had happened a revolution. For many it would ultimately feel more like a military coup in the first year followed by a popular election that then replaced a rigid and ruthless autocracy with a clumsy and claustrophobic theocracy.

There is so much loathing between some members of the now-dissolved coalition – specifically the Islamists and the secularists – that they refused to get together at a café for a reunion. A few are no longer on speaking terms, as I would learn in an attempt to pull the coalition back together to discuss where Egypt is now.

Instead of a reunion, I ended up shuttling between small caucuses of like-minded people, a mirror of how the group has splintered politically. At the core of the debate in these conversations was what these young people believe the revolution needs to accomplish, whether it is an ascendancy of Islamist belief ushered forward by democracy or a failed secular movement that was hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood.

One of the few things they share now are regrets. Most of those regrets are centered around how they mishandled a moment in history, how they lost control of the revolution that they had so much to do with starting.

“I think we are in the same place we were before the revolution. We are back at square one with a brutal police force and a new dictatorship that is just as bad as the old one,” said Sally Moore, who came to the Revolutionary Youth Coalition as a supporter of opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei.

She is a psychologist by training and a member of the Egyptian Christian minority known as Copts. And of all the members of the now disbanded coalition, she seemed the most depressed about the future, about a constitution that is flawed and fails to protect her as a woman and as a religious minority.

“We blew it. We should have fought to have a strong constitution first and then used that as the basis for elections. But we did the opposite and it turned out to be disastrous for all of us. Just look around you,” she said, waving her hand at a newspaper on the table of a Cairo café that carried bold headlines and big photos of the funeral of one of the 50 protesters killed in clashes throughout Egypt in the last week.

Moore was dressed in all black and had just come from the Presidential Palace, where demonstrations were still simmering. She was on crutches after injuring her ankle while filming a documentary on the ongoing protests. She didn’t want to join an earlier meeting with her former colleagues because it included some members of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth, about whom she says, “I can’t see without yelling at them and wanting to punch them in the face.”

She said she feels the Muslim Brotherhood stole the revolution and that women and members of the Christian minority and “anyone who believes in the ideals of democracy” has lost out. But she did agree to join me for coffee with Bassem Kamel, a slightly balding member of the former coalition who came dressed in a sharp gray suit and a crisp white shirt with French cuffs and cufflinks.

Two years ago, he was a leader of the youth wing of the ElBaradei campaign, which went nowhere in the presidential election. He ultimately broke away from the campaign and joined the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. He ran for the lower house of parliament last year and won a seat. But Egypt’s high court found that about one third of the lower house seats had been contested unfairly and so the entire lower house of parliament was dissolved by the ruling generals.

That left Kamel and others feeling bitter and waiting for a recall election which would take place in April at the earliest, depending on when Morsi’s government decides to call for it.

“I disagree with Sally. I think we are in a better place now. But when I say that, I also want to quickly say I think Morsi is worse than Mubarak. Really. I do! But my point is that people are more free now and can express their opinion. We have the hope for change even if right now we have Morsi who I believe is a fascist. He is cheating us of our future and doing so with religious words. He is trying to close the doors we opened,” said Kamel.

* * *

Back when they called themselves the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, these 15 people formed the executive committee from a group of five disparate political movements. There was the Muslim Brotherhood Youth, the ‘April 6’ Movement which emerged out of a fight for labor rights, the Democratic Front Party which was secular but not resistant to working with Islamists, the campaign to support Nobel laureate and presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, and the liberal, socialist Youth for Justice and Freedom Movement.

At a separate gathering at a restaurant in Cairo, I met with three former members of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth. Mohamed Abbas, Islam Lotfy and Mohamed Qassas were all on the Executive Committee of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition. They are widely held responsible for bringing the conservative, old guard of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had originally not participated in the street protests, to join the demonstrators.

It was a pivotal moment for the revolution. There are few observers and political analysts who disagree that without the Muslim Brotherhood’s clout after leading opposition to Mubarak from the shadows as an outlawed party for decades, its ability to organize and its sheer numbers the revolution would not have toppled Mubarak.

But for Abbas, Lotfy and Qassas, the Muslim Brotherhood veered from its original goals of supporting the revolution and became an overtly political force. They quit, or were forced out, depending on who you ask. But these three youth leaders are widely seen as a unique voice that was tempered by the experience of working within the Revolutionary Youth Coalition and of the time they spent in ‘the green tent’ with secular colleagues. They worked together to form a new party, known as The Current Party, which treads a fine line as an Islamist party that believes in working with secular movements.

None of them won a seat to the lower house, as their nuanced point of view was swamped by the Muslim Brotherhood’s ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist parties which together won some 60 percent of all seats in parliament. Morsi, who was elected president, emerged form the Brotherhood and is a leader of the FJP.

“The fact that we are kicked out, or left, the Muslim Brotherhood gives us credibility with other members of the opposition,” said Abbas, who showed up at the restaurant wearing a conservative grey suit and a striped shirt.

His attire was a far cry from the jeans and sweatshirts he used to wear at the height of the street protests. And his shined black shoes were not the old sneakers with a cracked sole that he held up on stage on February 10, 2011, leading nearly one million protesters to raise their shoes, a deep insult in Islamic tradition, to protest Mubarak’s speech on the night in which it was expected he would step down.

The stirring speech that Abbas gave on the stage that night was part of a turning of the tide of the revolution in the street, an intensifying of the opposition, and Mubarak stepped down the next day. Abbas is one of many youth leaders who played a critical role, but he believes it is time to move from street protests to building a government, and that is where he is different from those who are continuing violent clashes with police in the streets, which have now shifted from Tahrir Square to the Presidential Palace.

“We part company on the election. We accept the results of the election and we believe we have to accept the leadership that was elected and work with them,” added Abbas.

That said, Abbas was quick to describe how disappointed he is where Egypt is today. He feels the Revolutionary Youth Coalition squandered an opportunity to form a united block and instead its members all invested their energy in disparate political parties which are increasingly fractious and on many levels openly hostile.

“The mistake was to dissolve the Revolutionary Youth Coalition. We should have kept it together as a united bloc and tried to assert more influence together. We would have been stronger. It was a mistake,” said Abbas.

Another mistake, according to Abbas and Lotfy, was the way the coalition handled, or mishandled, an overture by the Egyptian military to take part in leadership talks during the transition to democracy. Abbas and Lotfy both said they believed that the Revolutionary Youth Coalition should have at least talked with the Supreme Council of Allied Forces (SCAF), a council of generals who stepped in to run the country after Mubarak stepped down.

Abbas believes adamantly that the Revolutionary Youth Coalition should not have compromised its principles for the military, but that it should have been more street smart about engaging them in dialogue.

That was a significant point of contention within the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, and to this day Moore, Bassem and virtually all of the other members of the Executive Committee disagree with Abbas and Lotfy on this point. They believe the military was not to be trusted and that it was intent on imposing a new regime that would not be much different from the old regime. In the end, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party seem to have filled that role. Critics maintain they have not challenged the military’s secretive budget and the culture of entitlement, some would say corruption, that allows the military tocontrol approximately 30 percent of Egypt’s economy.

The idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is working hand in hand with the military, and even the loathed police, forms the most bitter dividing line between the secular opposition and the Islamists. From the secular point of view, the Islamists have sold out. From the Islamists’ point of view, the secular opposition has refused to accept the results of the first free elections in the country’s history.

Lotfy is particularly adamant on the point of view that the opposition demonstrations have become more anarchy than protest. In clashes across Egypt surrounding the second anniversary of the revolution, more than 50 protesters have been killed. In response, Lotfy organized a group of opposition leaders to sign what became known as the ‘Al-Ahzar agreement.’ It is a pledge to renounce the use of violence by opposition leaders and witnessed by the leaders of the legendary Al-Ahzar theological institute in Cairo.

This move infuriated members of the opposition such as Sally Moore who believe that the revolution is not yet finished and that demonstrators have to continue to fight for their rights if they are going to win them.

“Who was he (Islam Lotfy) to sign that document in the name of the opposition? He had no right to do it. And that is why I can not speak to him. If you are going to condemn violence you have to condemn those who are carrying it out, the ones responsible. Instead this blames the protesters who are resisting tyranny and being killed for it,” said Moore.

Moore, who said her faith as a Christian is a big part of her life, was asked how a Christian could be against a declaration against the use of violence in protests and whether she believed violent demonstrations were morally defensible.

She responded, “Yes, I believe we have the right to directly confront a government and security forces that are unjust and brutal. It is not un-Christian to stand up for your rights. … It is part of a path to justice.”

It all seemed a far cry from the idealism that held sway in ‘the green tent’ the night that Moore read the document, Birth Certificate for a Free Egypt, and spoke of “being on the brink of the Egypt we have always dreamt of.”

None of the former members of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition knew the whereabouts of the cardboard on which the ‘Birth Certificate’ was written. Islam Lotfy said he believed it was thrown out by his wife who may have mistaken it for trash.

The famous ‘green tent’ was missing as well. Moore explained it was believed to have been swept up months after the toppling of Mubarak in a raid on the square by security forces intent on shutting down the lingering demonstrators and the ragtag tent city they had constructed.

Moore said, “What a shame that we have lost these! What a shame.”

She reflected, smiling, and saying, “The tent was a unique, beautiful color and it had a very unique shape. I remember buying it for 1600 Egyptian Pounds ($228) at a department store. And to me it represented all of us coming together.”

“But now, honestly, I wonder about why we ever let the Muslim Brotherhood into that tent. That is honestly how I feel,” she added.

Lotfy said he regretted that these two symbols, the tent and the Birth Certificate, had been lost, but he said it was not productive to put too much faith in metaphors and that there was “much work to be done in the real world” in which Egypt needs to build its democracy.

Mohammed Abbas agreed, but still gave a grimace when he heard the news that the Birth Certificate was nowhere to be found and that the tent was swept up as trash in Tahrir. He said it “would have been good” to have those to share with the next generation, to remember all that was accomplished in those 18 days of protests that led to the toppling of a tyrant.

“It’s a shame they’re gone,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we are going to forget what they meant.”

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