Hesham Zakai: Have we just witnessed a massacre in Cairo and where does the blame for the enormous bloodshed lie?
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HE: There are three things to note here. Firstly, the idea that 50%, even 30%, of Egypt’s population was last year conscious or adamant enough of their opposition to the military is just not true. Complete opposition to military rule or military “oversight” was never even attained within the revolution’s ranks, but it was a sentiment that was certainly spreading by the day until the handover. In a sense noting this is reassuring because we shouldn’t be too pessimistic about how everyone has “forgotten” the military or “shifted”.
Equally unrealistic is the idea that of that 48% of voting Egyptians that voted for Shafik, there isn’t several million that already firmly supported military rule. Many may be toning down or shifting their anti-military sentiments in the face of what they perceive as the greater “Islamist” threat, but many more that took to the streets specifically two weeks ago to “Fawed” [mandate] El Sisi saw this as vindication of their opinions vis-à-vis the military’s role, Shafik’s election or even Mubarak’s ousting.
Finally, the notion that there are further millions that were yet to be involved in any mass movement or revolutionary/counterrevolutionary discourse until a few weeks ago, or even until today, is important to stress. There are many who just a month ago saw reason to go to a protest for the first time because the year under the MB saw them go without electricity or water, and others who may have taken to their first protest when El Sisi called for it two weeks ago, because that meant some form of “legitimate” protest or more likely because they felt sure it would be a “safe and protected” protest.
HZ: What are the similarities between the ousters of Mubarak and Morsi?
HE: There seems to be a certain amnesia plaguing the West. The ouster of Mubarak was procedurally similar to Morsi’s. In Mubarak’s case, we saw mass popular protest, followed by strategic military political and ground intervention. And in Morsi’s case, we saw mass popular protest, followed by immediate military political and later ground intervention. In the former, the protesters gave the military flowers and naively chanted “the people and the military are one hand”. Two years later, half the protesters flinched a bit and thought “this isn’t the time to chant against the military” and other half chanted for the military’s help or military rule. It was a mixed picture.
That’s not so unrealistic a development and it scarcely calls for surprised cries of “coup d’etat!” – my maths still says the military today has less support than then.
HZ: The presidency has now imposed a state of emergency across Egypt for a month, reminiscent of Mubarak’s response following the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. That state of emergency lasted 30 years. Do you think there is a danger that this state of emergency will be extended too? What purpose does the state of emergency serve?
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HE: Where next for the revolution and the revolutionaries is a complex affair. Things moving so quickly and there is often no time to stop and reflect for a prolonged period. We can only really look to our mistakes so as to avoid repeating them. In this respect, there are three key points:
Firstly, the amnesia: I think the organised left in its entirety contributed to the unfortunate situation we found ourselves in on the 30th of June and since – so emphasised was our rhetoric and slogans on the MB’s government and members in both social struggles against sexual harassment or workers’ pay or electricity shortage that criticism of the military was drowned out. People for the most part couldn’t remember why we were chanting against the military or at least hadn’t heard the chant as often and that disparity has since come back to haunt us.
Secondly, the bitter polarisation, or binary: Egypt’s recent history has essentially been stuck in a circle between military rule and “Islamic” rule, in a game of alternating peak/trough in terms of popular support. So long as our rhetoric, our slogans, our concrete alternatives and practical conduits for resistance cannot take on and overcome both dogmas, popular consciousness will remain stuck in a bitter binary choice between the two political forces.
Finally, marhaleya – or tiered transitions: we need to be uncompromising. The only thing that ensures my safety in Downtown Cairo today as I mourn the MB’s dead and lambast the military is those who remember my stance against them. And the only way we will be able to justify a revival of anti-military agitation in the next phase, is if the popular consciousness remembers a layer of the revolution that took to the streets against the MB last month and loudly denounced the army’s massacres today.
This notion of “but Morsi is better than Shafik and then we can deal with him later”, which some of the left put forward in last year’s elections, is in my opinion the mistake many of us made that paved the way for today’s “let the army get rid of them then we will deal with the army”. This transitional thinking is what keeps compromising the revolution and causes the revolutionary movement to stutter. We need to be confident and coherent and rid ourselves of the amnesia, divisive and disingenuous polarisations, and transitional circles that have blighted us hitherto in order to learn from mistakes and move forward.
Hesham Zakai is a writer who has previously worked at the Financial Times and the European Parliament. He is the former editor of Europe’s largest student newspaper, London Student, and currently blogs on his personal website, Permission to Narrate. His twitter is @ZakaiPal
Hannah Elsisi is a UK-based Egyptian activist and postgraduate History student at the University of Oxford. She has previously written for The Guardian and International Socialist Network. Her twitter is @HannahElsisi