By Paloma Haschke
Traveling to the Middle East and precisely to Egypt has been a tremendous opportunity for us to get a sense of what was going on in this part of the world at a time when history is unfolding.
Through our journey in Egypt, the same remark keeps dominating our speakers’ first reaction: no one could have predicted the revolution. Think-tanks, journalists, intellectuals, even those who have been working in Egypt for decades, for all of them the uprising was a complete surprise. Gamal Zaida, managing editor and columnist at Al Ahram told us “When Tunisia started its revolution, people in Egypt were very sarcastic about their own situation, saying that they would never be able to do such thing.” The reason of such a surprise according to him is that the youth has been ignored for so long that no one was ready for the way they would use new technologies and social media. “They are now ready to build a new country.” Zaida said.
The revolution then spread from Egypt to the rest of the Arab world. Everyone went down in the street and the Arab spring was not the revolution of the hungry. “It’s the first real revolution in Egypt’s history that is lead by people’s anger and need of dignity” emphasized Iman Bibars, Vice-President of Ashoka Global, an Egyptian association of leading social entrepreneurs on a global level. “There was no distinction of age, gender, social class, or religion. People went to Tahrir because they couldn’t stand anymore to see their offspring killed by the regime.” Women were protesting with their children, side by side with men, and no one has been sent home as it would have been the case before the revolution. “Even the children couldn’t believe that we would one day get rid of Mubarak. But they were already aware of the need of a regime change.” Having spent herself most of the events on the square, she also described how protesters would ban any religious chants from the movement. “When groups of people were trying to spread Islamic messages it was never repeated by the crowd.”
What made the success of the revolution have been its unprecedented popular roots. It’s the first true revolution in the country’s 7000 years history. The 1952 revolution was lead by the army but on January 25th, the entire population went to Tahrir Square to express its voice. “People now have a voice, this is why it sounds like a cacophony right now. Everyone wants to be heard and there is no coordination. We will learn. It’s going to be hell but it is worth it.” Bibars said.
For Mohammed Soffar, teacher at the Center for Civilizational Studies and Dialogue of Cultures at Cairo University, the dignity of the state has been smashed and it has now become possible for protesters to preserve the revolution and its assets without fearing being arrested. “Egyptians will never return back because they have broken the barriers of fear. No dictator will ever be able to control them from now on” concluded Zaida.
The question now is how to transfer the power from the army to a new government. Even if Tunisia inspired the uprising, the solution for political changes will have to be national and build from within the each country. Tunisia has a civilian political system whereas Egypt has been under a military regime for more than fifty years. “Now that Mubarak is out, it doesn’t mean that the system has been shut down. The system will wake up very cleverly and it’s already reproducing itself. So the problem is not the Mubarak family but the political system established in 1952” analyzed Soffar. The ruling elite of the military is thus still in power in Egypt and this is what needs to change. The country needs to push its revolution forward until a complete renewal of the ruling elite. For months Egypt is now stuck between the absence of a new regime and an old regime that no one wants anymore. “We have changed the president and the president’s men but the regime is still here and its connections with important businessmen are also still in effect as they continue to transfer the country’s money –billions of dollars – outside Egypt. They have the financial tool. Such networks of interests are still very powerful and are preventing the country from changing its governing values and improving its political and economic situation” added Zaida.
Beside a spineless government, Bibars underlined another main issue that needs to be resolved soon if the revolutionary movement doesn’t want to lose any more momentum than it already has. “Instead of fixing our boat together, everybody wants a piece of it for its own survival. Well, the boat will sink for a moment. We, Egyptians, are responsible for such chaos. We need to learn to listen to each other instead of fighting.” The danger according to her is the way the army is going to use the Islamist threat to divert people from issues that are going to matter for the country’s future. “The army is going to present the Salafists as the bad guys to have people debate about useless question such as the veil for women in order protect their own financial and political assets.” The hardcore Salafists that can be seen protesting today in Cairo’s streets have been freed from jails by the revolutionaries after they’ve spent 20 to 30 years behind bars under the emergency law. The only thing that helped them to fight insanity has been radical Islam. “They were tied like dogs and now they are very angry and very loud.” Bibars described.
But, in a country where 60% of the population are illiterate, it is very difficult to fight fundamentalism. For Mansour Kelada, chief operating officer for the National Bank of Egypt, if the poverty has increased in the country it’s not only on an economic level. “Our country has encountered a real break down in its education system. The national job market is cloaked and people who graduate have nowhere to work. Neither are they qualified enough to join the global market. They are actually a burden for the country. They don’t generate any income.”
For this economist, the crucial lack of education is not only an accident. There has been a desire to keep the nation in the dark. It is easier for the ruling class to subdue ignorant and illiterate people than to have to face a nation’s challenges or to respond to its desires. “Real wealth for a nation is not money but education and skilled people. Mubarak’s real crime is against it’s own people, against their education. The stealing, the corruption, this is not at the end the issue we should focus its trial on.”
Soffar agrees. “What has to be changed first is the police, in order to bring back somewhat of order in the country. But second comes the university. Teachers and deans belong to the old regime and are still spying on students and colleagues to prevent them from being politicized.”
Related to education is the media. When turning the TV on in our hotel in Cairo, it was amazing to see that almost all the stations were now news channels. A year ago the media landscape was dominated by video clips and TV series and such evolution would have difficult believe. But when asked about it our interlocutors shared the same pessimistic point of view. They all denounced media as irresponsible agents in a period of change. “They foster sensationalism. They don’t act responsively in a country where the lack of education is critical and in a period of transition where people should not be fed with hatred against each other.” Bibars said. The other concern about this brutal opening of the Egyptian news scene to freer media is to assess the source of funding. It appears that the majority of the new Egyptian channels are actually financed by tycoons closely linked to the old regime.
During a visit to the Daily News Egypt, the editorial team shared the same concerned. “Yes, since the uprising you can say whatever you want about Mubarak. But even if he is not in power anymore, the system is going back to the way it was under its rule. Unpredictable red lines, censorship about the current rulers, government controlled media spreading false information…” The only thing that may have changed they say, is the increasing degree of irresponsibility in national media. Nowadays, everyone wants to be heard and therefore be the first one on the scoop. Those sensationalist practices inevitably imply a lack of verification of information.
It is then important to note as a conclusion that the term “Arab Spring” has been first used by Foreign Policy Magazine and then adopted by journalists and activists in the US as a way to brand the revolution that has been transforming the MENA region for almost a year now. On the ground though, protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and so on, never used this term to define their rage against dictators and their fight for political change. Even if it has now become the common appellation when speaking about those events, it important to remember that it was above everything the revolution of peoples and nations fed up with tyranny and humiliation.