A year ago I was sitting in Cairo deeply concerned about how protests against the then president Mohamed Morsi, whom I harshly criticised during his rule, might turn out. When the military removed him days later, I worried how his followers might respond – and how the state might move against them.
Last week, two fine journalists I know, among others on trial, were jailed by a Cairo criminal court for endangering national security. The pair, from Al-Jazeera English, had previously sought my analysis, which was invariably critical of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as pretty much every political force in Egypt, so to see them being accused of being in cahoots with the Islamist group was astonishing.
That trial sent shockwaves through Egypt’s activists – another reminder of how the country’s transition had taken an unwanted turn. But, paradoxically, it seemed many in the revolutionary camp which had advocated an end to military rule in 2011 and 2012 so strongly were entirely on board with this new direction. The question so many people outside Egypt are now asking is: what happened to these liberal revolutionaries? Why did they become cheerleaders for the suspension of democracy and champion the post-Morsi crackdown on dissent?
I know a few of those cheerleaders. I cannot speak for their motivations, but their pseudo-liberalism relates far more to their personal lifestyles than it does to their political ideologies. Hence their ease with various human rights violations (as long as it isn’t against them or their friends). However, they were never representative of the core revolutionary movement. Members of that group now painfully recollect how they have been shunted to the sidelines. The editor of one of Egypt’s most reliable publications, Mada Masr, even wrote a piece entitled Back to the Margins in the run-up to 30 of June protests last year. I was reminded of that very article the night after the military removed Morsi last July, as I walked the streets of Cairo with a Revolutionary Socialist. He had been utterly floored by how a popular mobilisation had been so easily and effectively used by forces that were utterly opposed to popular enfranchisement.
Since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown on 11 February 2011, the revolutionaries have been caught between the state’s institutions, including the military, on one hand and the Islamist religious right of the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies on the other. Many had suggested a call for an early presidential election as a way out of the impasse over Morsi’s rule. One of them was Amr Hamzawy, one of the few genuinely liberal politicians in Egypt; he is now banned from travelling. Another was Abdel Moneim Abol-Fotouh, a left-leaning former Brotherhood leader.
Many who supported the protests of 30 June 2013 were adamant that the demonstrations could not allow for the return of Mubarak’s entourage or the military. They were a minority and, arguably, could be considered naive, but they can’t be described as enablers of a military intervention they had openly campaigned against. The revolutionary camp is small in number and influence, and didn’t have the power to determine the final outcome of the protests. Tragically, that incapacity remains today at a time when the nation desperately needs a positive alternative to both the religious right and the new authoritarianism. The crackdown against Morsi’s followers enveloped different sections of Egyptian society, and anything from 16,000 to 40,000 are reportedly being detained, along with many hundreds dead due to ensuing violence and human rights violations, according to Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations.
From the first days following Morsi’s overthrow, civil rights organisations such as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights published critical accounts of those violations. Media outlets such as Mada Masr and Daily News Egypt continue to promote a balanced narrative of events, reporting the violent excesses of the state and its political repression, yet also standing opposed to the sectarian rhetoric, incitement and violence of different Islamist groups. For that, the revolutionary camp has been described as akin to a fifth column by the authorities on the one hand, and pro-military by Morsi supporters on the other.
Many Egyptians have fallen for the false choice between the religious right and security through autocratic subjugation. However, three years on from the uprising, Egypt’s core revolutionaries remain resilient and aware that they have a long road ahead of them. The revolutionary camp hasn’t given up.
HA Hellyer is a non-resident fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, and the Royal United Services Institute in London.