Amira has had a busy year.
One day she is in Downtown Cairo, choking as everything around her is suddenly washed away into a haze of teargas. She ducks away from flying rocks and yells anti-regime slogans until her throat is raw. Her long, ebony locks whip behind her as she crouches away from an onslaught of bullets.
Another day her nose is buried in a politics textbook, her dark eyes seeping it all in. She tries to keep herself focused on graduating in a few months from the American University in Cairo.
Weeks later she is again in Downtown Cairo. Not scrambling for her life this time but holding helium balloons. She organized a rally to bring attention to an issue that breaks her heart. Street children are being killed in protests, an alarming fate to an alarmingly high number of children living homeless in the country’s streets.
In many ways Amira is like many young Egyptian women today. She protests, being physically present in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egyptian protesting. She continually posts updates online as reflections from her Twitter and Facebook news-feeds dance in her eyes.
The 20 year old is ready to fight tooth and nail for a less corrupt regime, one where the rule of law is based on equality and dignity. She is politically oriented to the Left, is Western educated, is fluently bilingual and is an excellent communicator. She distrusts the military rulers and is ready to put herself at risk for a new system.
Amira seems to be another example of the Egyptians we hear mainly from in Western media: the liberal, revolutionary youth who are fighting for democracy.
Yet, in many ways she’s also different. Amira rejects the concept of Western democracy and the belief that it should prevail in Egypt. She despises capitalism; she is disgusted by the American Administration’s policies and furious at what she sees as Egypt’s neighbor, Israel’s horrendous atrocities and violations.
Amira is also a hardcore Communist.
With the Egyptian revolution at the heart of the so-called Arab Spring, international media’s coverage has soared. Media has divided the population into two main groups: the liberal revolutionaries and the threatening Islamists. The true diversity of a nation in political transition is embarrassingly missing from Western sources. Yet again, coverage painted an Arab people with general strokes and failed to acknowledge them as more than a group of stereotypes.
Yet, Amira is anything but general. Her opinions are strong, her beliefs firm. She represents one part of a diverse and active political-Left. They agree the system must change, but their perspectives, reasons, approaches and beliefs aren’t as aligned as it’s made to seem.
A System That Fails its People
When I talked to Amira over a combination of Facebook chat and a Skype call, the frustration in her voice is almost tangible.
The problem is a global one, and not just one that is unique to Egypt, she said.
“The way I see it is that this is a small part in a worldwide revolt against a system that enslaves us through creating classes and widening the gaps between them,” she said, “one that enslaves us through creating gender differences and convincing us that this is how we are created. Also through religion and institutionalizing it,” she said.
The real struggle is misunderstood, it is not between an Islamic or civilian state, rather, she believes the real problem has a class struggle at the heart of it.
“I’m not only fighting a regime that’s corrupt but (I’m fighting) any form of fascism and exploitation,” she said. “My struggle now is against the social class that takes advantage of the others. This class consists of fascists: whether from the army or Islamists. They are both different sides of the same coin.”
The demands of the revolutionaries are still the same. The people who are protesting and those who are dying are not doing so in the name of personal freedoms, as it is frequently interpreted, but rather for personal rights that are political, social and economic in nature. There is a big difference she says.
“I won’t go down to protest and die because I want to wear what I want,” she says.
“They (the West) have the luxury to talk about personal freedoms. But this reduces what we’re talking about to something very, very demeaning,” she says.
What the people really need is basic necessities and rights, including the right to proper health care, to a strong affordable education, to freedom of religion, to an adequate minimum wage, and a maximum wage that caps the absurdly disproportionate salary senior officials receive, she said.
She is down there in the street protesting for the foundations of a society, she said. “Any political entity, whatever their ideology is, knows that the basic function of the state consists of: infrastructure, security and law and order.”
The laws in place, even the ones that guarantee a plethora of rights, are never implemented. The infrastructure is nonexistent or crumbling. She sites Egypt’s notorious transportation system as an example. The security situation is even more abysmal, she tells me as I hear a repeated click of a lighter.
“I want security but there is none,” she says before stopping to take a drag of her cigarette. She sighs. “In fact the police is torturing me and taking from my taxes to actually protect the people in power by beating me and torturing me if I stand up against them,” she said.
Destroy and Rebuild?
There has been debate recently in the political sphere about whether the events in Egypt can truly be called a revolution. Has enough really changed?
Amira thinks that it hasn’t and that the process is still at its very beginning.
“Revolutions mean you have to destroy something radically and build again. If you don’t destroy, then this is a reform movement and not a revolution.” The true foundation of the corrupt regime is still firmly in place, she asserts.
Others disagree. Dina, an instructor at the American University in Cairo and a member of the Al Adl (Justice) Party, thinks that what Egypt experienced is definitely a revolution.
“It is a dramatic and sudden change in Egypt definitely, and I think this is what a revolution is,” she said. “I don’t believe we need another one, we need to fine tune things now and fight for things. This the first next step.”
The problem isn’t what has changed and what hasn’t but what will come next, Dina said. “We need to act and mobilize especially regarding constitutional changes, I think the possibilities are there now, I think there is a way round it yet it is very challenging and exhausting.”
Dina does acknowledge though that remnants of the regime still exist. “You have to careful still because the SCAF is still there and they rule,” she said. “One should question what did the revolution do: maybe we can now see what was hidden behind Hosni Mubarak all along.”
This is a sentiment which it seems many Egyptians share.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is still in power since Mubarak’s ouster. In fact, Egypt has been under military rule since 1952 with every president in the republic’s history coming from the military.
The Egyptian military is an institution within itself with vast economic interests in the country. Among other things it owns properties, tourist resorts, factories and production companies. Many Egyptians believe that the military would never allow its affluent place in the country and their interests to be compromised.
The main call from protestors now is against military rule and the SCAF. In return the state-owned media and the SCAF have started a smear-campaign against protestors trying to frame them as foreign agents or thugs looking to sow chaos in the nation.
Amira was actually a part of around forty students at the American University in Cairo who along with a professor were planning and promoting to be a part of a general strike that some groups were calling for to protest the oppressive military regime. The response was for the Admin of the military’s Facebook page to post accusations of the students being spies and foreign agents working for the American government to destabilize Egypt.
Amira believes that this proves they are scared of the revolutionaries and what they can achieve.
Some protestors have fought back with a campaign entitled Kazeboon (the Arabic word for liars) that aims to show the violations caused by the military. The military still continued to step up its attacks on protestors. But the more the violence increases, the more completely they start to lose their legitimacy in the eyes of the people, Amira believes.
“Every time you increase the violence, the circle of death becomes bigger and the closer to more people it gets,” Amira explains. For example a friend’s friend would die, then your friend would die and then you yourself would be next. “The bigger and bigger the circle become the more people understand what’s really going on.”
As the violence grows, there will also be more casualties from different segments of the population, she predicts. Usually the military attacks or imprisons people from a certain class in the country- that is the class without the capital. The military needs the financial support of these people to maintain its massive economic interest.
However, during the Port Said massacre, which many people blame the military directly for or hold them accountable for not preventing it, two people from the elite class were killed. Their death galvanized students from their universities, one student was from AUC for example, and became a rallying cry for anti-military protests from people at his university. When people in this class or their friends start getting killed, the people with the money in the country would be hesitant to support SCAF or their violent tactics, even indirectly.
However, the military will still have the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is the majority of the parliament and in fact whose leaders are quite wealthy, she theorizes.
A System in Transition
Many people on the Left of the political scale are deeply suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood accusing them of being extremely power-hungry after decades of being forced underground by Mubarak’s government.
Dina, the instructor at the American University in Cairo feels that other parties need to be careful about the Muslim Brotherhood. “The challenge is that they aren’t always clear about what exactly they’re saying,” she said. “You have to be careful and read behind the lines. It’s best to have people who were in politics previously and who can try to understand any hidden messages.”
Additionally the Muslim Brotherhood is led by wealthy businessmen who support the free-market, privatization and foreign investment. Amira opposes the fact that their agenda seems to support the economic policies of Mubarak and blame individual corruption rather than the system for any failure.
“We need a government that puts most of its budget in investing in human capital and this sort of government will not be under Islamist rule,” Amira states.
She believes that if the average Egyptian was more politically aware and understood what the economic policies of the MB are, that they would know that it is not in the general population’s interest.
“There was no thought into economic growth,” she said. “None of them (the MB) talked about building factories, about decreasing unemployment, about debts, about the state budget…no one talked about anything in the right ways,” she said.
She believes that the election of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) by such a vast majority in parliament doesn’t mean they are necessarily supported by the population at large. The fact that their Freedom and Justice Party has strong financial resources has put them at a major advantage, she argues.
“I am not accusing them of forging any election results, but they have enough money to bribe people,” she said. People who are struggling to make ends meet would vote for the party that is giving them food. “There should be ethics to any proper campaigns and budget limitations as well,” Amira added.
The money, combined with the fact that the MB has been organized, albeit underground, for far longer than any of the groups that came out of the revolution put the Leftist groups at a disadvantage.
That is the reason many of these new groups were trying to get a draft constitution created before parliamentary elections. Written by respected lawyers and judges, it could have put laws to regulate campaign budgets. But that didn’t happen and the result was a very big gap in budget.
This created the atmosphere for a parliament that is far away from representative. Some groups even boycotted the elections in protest-including the Communist Egyptian Party which Amira is a part of- this added to the numbers of Islamists in parliament.
The rise in Islamists in parliament has also alarmed other and specific segments of the population. This for example includes minorities that range from the biggest one in the country: the Coptic Christian community at about 10% of the population to the hidden and shunned LGBT community.
The Christian community in Egypt has been complaining about discrimination for years. But some believe the situation has gotten worse after Mubarak’s ouster. Violent attacks such as bombings of churches have made some in the community panic.
Many Copts who can manage it have fled the country especially after the domination of political scene by the Islamists. Father Bisenty Gerges, parish priest and president of the board at St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Vancouver, said that a new family arrives from Egypt almost every other week, fleeing the country and moving to Canada.
“Many people who leave Egypt are either highly educated and can work here or are businessmen who have money,” he said.
“In both cases this is a big loss for Egypt and I’m not happy the church here is growing,” he said, “I want to see the doctors, the engineers, the businessmen, the rich people with capital so stay there. The country is being shaken very hard.”
One of those people considering leaving Egypt is Christine, a marketing coordinator at a local bank. Hearing some of the rhetoric from the Islamists has been intolerable, she says.
“When the protests originally started I was against it because I was thinking that the protestors don’t have a long term plan,” she said.
“My biggest fear was that the Islamists rise to power, especially since they were somewhat controlled under Mubarak.”
After she started to support the protests and Islamists came to power she was convinced it was time to leave. Her family is working on a plan to emigrate together.
She acknowledges though that her financial background can help her leave.
“Its unfair for Christians with lower incomes, they have always had problems with being marginalized than we do in terms of getting jobs,” she said. “Now it could get worse and I hope they can find a way to get out.”
After she immigrates, Christine would only return if things settle down, the parliament is more representative and when people unite with one vision.
The way the society is now is completely fractured and it shows how people’s thinking has changed. “It’s very shocking now how people think, it’s really changed. I think it’s an impact of our educational system,” she said.
For some LGBT people the revolution initially brought hope. A page was created in Facebook by a group identifying as gay Egyptian youth, trying to encourage a Gay Pride Day on the past 1st of January in Tahrir Square.
“We are a group of gay Egyptian youth. We were in Tahrir and we took part in the revolution. We see that each of us has the right to have a life of respect in public. We are part of Egypt’s revolution and we won’t allow anyone to question our loyalty.”
It is unclear whether the event actually took place. There were also reports of a Facebook page entitled Gay Pride March for Egypt in 2020 being created. However the page is no longer accessible.
Amira put me in touch with a gay friend of hers called Mohammed who was a part of the youth protesting during the revolution. To protect his safety I promised that I would only use his first name. He explained to me the struggles of living as a gay man in Egypt and how deep the homophobia runs.
The atmosphere in Tahrir Square during the revolution was welcoming and respectful, and he remembers thinking to himself ‘if Egypt turns out like this then everything would be okay.’
Yet, he knew that the same people he rubbed shoulders with while fighting for the country and avoiding injuries and arrests, could just as well turn against him in a moment if they found out his sexual orientation.
“I knew that it wasn’t the time for gay rights…we’re still talking about basic human rights in the first place,” he told me over a Skype conversation from Europe where he was visiting. “I was expecting more freedoms to come around eventually and that slowly there would be a transformation and that this kind of environment (more tolerant) would be created,” Mohammed said, “but I wasn’t expecting it to be a direct result of the revolution at all.”
He hoped for a civilian authority as a start followed by a guarantee for the rights of people to basic things such as expecting to be protected not tortured by police, to be able to run a free press and the complete removal of the emergency law.
But the way things have turned out seem to have gotten worse, a sort of crippling hangover after Egypt’s celebratory fervor.
That, combined with the fact that he believes it is a long road until he could live with equal rights as heterosexuals made him decide it was probably best to emigrate.
“The people in the square weren’t thinking of this kind of equality. So in a nutshell it meant that I have to get out of the country if I want to be considered a normal person or to start a family,” he said.
Mohamed though hopes that this situation won’t last for the remainder of his life since wherever he goes Egypt will always remain his country.
“If the foundation is laid, maybe in 20 or 30 years a change can be felt. But not right now. This kind of system, what type of liberties people have, take takes time.”
Carving a Road to Political Awareness and Change
The future of Egypt is met by a mix of apprehension, hope, prayers for patience and doses of realism.
Dina understand that the her hope of seeing complete freedom for everyone no matter if they have a religious affiliation or not or what it is, for both genders and for people with diverse sexual orientations, is not realistic yet.
“The next realistic stage I would like to see is equal representation,” she said.
In terms of Islam in politics, Dina thinks that it will continue to have a role, especially now.
“I think Islam is something that is essential at this stage, or maybe no stage, as something not shelf away. I think that’s fine but I think it’s a matter of how we deal with it and how we use Islamic laws to constrain or not.”
Egypt is, after all, a conservative society based on religious belief and that doesn’t allow for change to happen suddenly, she said.
Amira’s ultimate dream would be to see the entire global political and economic order destroyed and rebuilt. However she acknowledges that a different goal might be a little more practical.
For now she would accept the destruction of the regime as it is currently in Egypt: “this military regime, the fascist corrupted one that doesn’t say no to America or to the American administration’s exploitation. It’s a regime that doesn’t’ say no the Zionists and that accept whatever will let it remain in power.”
She believes the first step would be to stop fighting for power. It isn’t the time for elections or big political steps. It is time to focus on increasing people’s awareness And trying to get rid of everything connected to the previous regime and stripping business men taking over the country as they did under Mubarak’s rule, she said.
For true change the entire regime must absolve immediately with a completely civilian cabinet. The state budget needs to be completely transparent, especially that of the military who tried to add a prohibition against sharing the budget in the new constitution.
One of the other most important steps would be to restructure and train the police force especially the way they view civilians. With the police force having military training this is a problem. “With military training of course they view us as enemies and not people from the country,” she said. “So is it surprising they hit us, torture us and rape us?”
The parliament needs to become a tool to serve the general population not the other way around. “They work for us, they see what we want and they implement it,” she said.
The reason they are in authority in the first place is due to the population, yet they completely disregard what the people are telling them, she said.
“I don’t want to watch another parliamentary session where they say there were no cartridges used against protesters. While meanwhile I am protesting outside the building holding up a cartridge used against me and saying ‘here it is!’”
What is certain, and agreed upon by everyone, is that the process of change will be a long-haul. This change might happen through strikes and civil disobedience like Amira calls for. Or perhaps through fine-tuning and molding current systems such as Dina aims to do. It might even require fleeing the country and helping from abroad.
Whatever the outcome is, the eyes on Egypt should acknowledge a nation giving birth to new political systems, ones that might not fit previous molds and ones that definitely require a closer look, rather than a sweeping glance.