By Maurice Chammah
For a brief moment on May 28th, when the results of the first round of the Egyptian presidential election were announced and the run-off was just two weeks away, anything seemed possible. More than a thousand protesters were marching and shouting in Tahrir Square. A smaller set had stormed the campaign headquarters of one of the remaining candidates, Ahmed Shafik, who was Mubarak’s last prime minister and had built his platform on restoring security and order. They returned to Tahrir triumphant, tossing hundreds of Shafik’s campaign stickers into the air, letting them float down to be trampled by the traffic.
A young girl in a bright pink dress sat on the curb, swinging her arm and shouting, “The people and the army are one hand!” It was the exact opposite of the sentiment everyone else was expressing; the others called for the end of military rule. But she was so excited and so cute that nobody stopped to correct her.
A moment later, the crowd started running. Shafik’s supporters were attacking with sticks. For a few minutes we were reliving November, when security forces volleyed tear gas in high arcs over the square, sending thousands scurrying into side streets. I felt the same surge of adrenaline, a visceral memory of the mental command run! I ducked into a storefront and watched as the tension dissipated, the attackers retreated, and the protesters returned to the square, now chanting with a little less gusto. An hour later, few remained. The afternoon was like a highlight reel of the last year and a half: a moment of glamorous jubilation followed by skittish violence.
Over the course of the year, the news from Egypt had stopped coming from the streets. A few hundred chanting in Tahrir didn’t even merit a story in the local news. You had to do what political journalists and dinner party conversationalists do in most places: interpret shrouded speeches and sudden decisions, watch for shifts in rhetoric and buried implications in the fight between big, dry institutions. The Brotherhood and the military council stopped cooperating and began to attack one another in the press and it started looking a lot like the Mubarak days. By the year’s end, many young activists wondered if anything had really changed, if the eighteen days of running from camels and coughing and spitting out tear gas had merely been a dream.
“But aren’t the two of them farthest from the ideals of the revolution?” I asked. He tried to answer without making me feel naive.
In December, writer Alaa Al Aswany told journalist Robert Fisk, “The biggest mistake of the revolution was that overthrowing Mubarak was too good to be true.” Indeed, Egyptians under the age of forty had never seen national politics without pervasive and nauseating corruption. They had taken to the streets, and it had worked. But then, after everyone else went home, they started debating what to do next. Some attended Revolutionary Socialist meetings. Others became minor celebrities in the U.S. and Europe and started writing their memoirs.
Every Friday, hundreds would return to Tahrir Square with bold titles for the day: Friday of Dignity, Friday of the Martyrs’ Dream, Friday of Self-Determination. It looked like an effort to remount the performance that brought down Mubarak, but it also looked like self-parody. The fighting deteriorated into games of chicken, with young kids throwing stones and waiting for security forces to respond with tear gas. “This is stupid,” a friend chastised as we walked around pools of urine and discarded gas masks in December. “Someone should stop them.”
Egyptians were losing interest. I drank coffee on the eve of the elections with Mohsen Arishie, a veteran journalist I’d met in the course of my research. He looks strikingly like former President Anwar Sadat, with dark skin and a perfectly trimmed mustache. He writes commentary for The Egyptian Gazette, which almost no Americans or revolutionary youth in Egypt read because it’s owned, printed, and run the government. Mohsen predicted that the run-offs would be between Ahmed Shafik—who he supported—and the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi.
“But aren’t the two of them farthest from the ideals of the revolution?” I asked. He tried to answer without making me feel naive. “Many Egyptian people, after the violent demonstrations over the past fifteen months, believe that they were deceived by the revolutionaries,” he told me. “Ordinary citizens fear that those revolutionary guys were not sincere in giving them promises.”
Less than a week later, Mohsen was proven right. The two front-runners, who had so confidently sparred on national television and accused one another of being beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mubarak regime had come in fourth and fifth place. Who defeated them? The candidates who were actually aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mubarak regime. The opposition activist candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi, came in third.
Many of the officials tried with Mubarak were acquitted, signaling that the security establishment will likely continue to thrive.
One good friend of mine didn’t know who to vote for at first. She had initially supported Mohamed El Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but he pulled out of the race. She liked Sabbahi, but didn’t think he stood much of a chance, so she went with Abuel Fotoh, one of the more famous front-runners. There was plenty she didn’t like about him, but he wasn’t in the Brotherhood or the regime and it seemed that he had a shot at winning.
When Sabbahi beat Fotoh, she was shocked and sullen. She had played the game wrong and thrown away her vote. Many young revolutionaries felt the same way. They had split their vote between the activist they wanted and the anti-regime figure they thought most likely to win.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s military establishment had training and political sophistication on their side, and now the two winners, Morsi and Shafik, are scrambling to collect votes, the scraps of what many young, liberal Egyptians see as an imploded revolution.
But the disaffection obscures the optimism so many else felt as they dipped their fingers in blue ink and checked one of twelve little boxes (or, like one old woman, wrote the word “yes” next to her candidate’s name). After all, there had been campaigns. There had been President-Carter-approved polling and counting. And if Mubarak’s minister became his successor, he would do so because more Egyptians had picked him than any other candidate, even if other Egyptians were horrified.
The run-off between Morsi and Shafik is slated for June 16th and 17th, with June 21st as the official date for the inauguration of a new president. Revolutionary groups are calling for protests. They might find more of an audience than usual, because Egyptians who feel strongly about the deaths at Tahrir Square last year are disappointed that Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison, and did not receive the death penalty. Many of the officials tried with him were acquitted, signaling that the security establishment will likely continue to thrive unless Morsi wins and challenges it. His own party swept the parliamentary elections last November and has so far stayed away from doing so. With Shafik, few are holding their breath for reform as he tries to evoke nostalgia for the beatings-behind-the-scenes calm of the old days.
Looking back at Monday night, I realize that much of the uprisings last year, though they had really kicked out a real tyrant, had also been a performance. They had been an intoxicating spectacle of crowds and banners and electrifying urban battles, a source of inspiration for nascent street movements around the world from Greece to Wall Street. Like everyone else, I imbibed the narrative because it was emotionally riveting and confirmed the leftist politics I had always believed in but seldom seen acted on in real life. I was born long after the 1960’s, long after the tumult and the mass plea for normalcy that elected Nixon. Taking to the streets is still a romantic notion and occasionally an effective tactic. I’m learning that, no matter the country, it looks a lot like chaos.
Maurice Chammah is a writer from Austin, Texas. He is currently a Fulbright fellow studying 1950’s Egyptian journalism. He writes essays on history, travel, the press in Egypt, and Texas, and plays in the band Mother Falcon. More of his writing can be found at mauricechammah.com