Egypt’s Revolution Undone? The challenges post – Jan 25th
|Date:||July 07, 2011||Time:||3:00 PM – 5:00 PM|
|Speaker(s):||Dr H.A. Hellyer, Fellow at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick (UK)||Venue:||MEI Seminar Room
469 A Bukit Timah Road Tower Block Level 2 Singapore 259770
by Koh Choon Hwee
7 July 2011
7 months ago Dr. Hellyer felt he needed a break from work as a Fellow at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick (UK) and decided to take a sabbatical in Cairo. Little did he expect that his original vision of a peaceful holiday would be postponed indefinitely by the revolutionary uprisings that took place in Egypt.
Dr. Hellyer proffered a balanced mix of anecdotes and analysis of the events in Cairo that found its stage in Tahrir Square. During his time there, he actively participated in the protests and was heartened to observe the return of what he called ‘Egyptian values and culture’. Amongst these were the culture of hospitality and feeling of fraternity that cut across religious differences. Dr. Hellyer’s mother, who is Egyptian, used to tell him that Muslim children would attend Catholic schools alongside Jewish children and that sexual harrassment was unheard of. Unfortunately, this side of Egypt was rarely seen in the past few years.
The Tahrir Square protests resurrected this better side of Egyptian society. Dr. Hellyer noted that during Friday prayers, the Coptic Christians would surround and protect the Muslims from the police. Conversely, during mass, the Muslims would surround and protect the Christians from harm. He also drew an analogy to Moses and the parting of the Red Sea in describing the parting of the crowds to allow ladies to walk through unharrassed during the protests. Further, committees of men were formed autonomously in various Cairene neighbourhoods to build road blocks in order to protect the residents from the lack of law enforcement in the absence of the police.
Dr. Hellyer recreated the feeling of Tahrir Square in those 18 days by playing a video titled Sout al-Hurriya (Voice of Freedom) which came to be the anthem of the protest movement. Everything Mubarak did, Dr. Hellyer said, he did 10 days late. He pointed out wryly that the Egyptians had to give due credit to Mubarak, for if not for Mubarak, Tahrir Square and the revival of this forgotten face of Egyptian society could not have happened.
He remembered sitting at a café waiting for Mubarak to give a televised speech that was scheduled at 9pm (on 10 February 2011). The speech was eventually aired at 9.45pm, and those 45 minutes produced excruciating tensions for everyone in the café. Expectations kept mounting every minute that the speech was delayed, so much so that when Mubarak finally materialized on the TV screen in a pre-recorded clip, there was a huge wave of disappointment as Egyptians listened in horror to Mubarak’s refusal to resign. The concessions he made were 10 days late.
This crash in expectations then turned into confusion, then anger and then finally to resolute determination. Dr. Hellyer described the mentality of Egyptians at that time as –“ Tomorrow, we are ready to die. Not to kill, but to go and die [in order to bring about a regime change]”.
Shortly after, it was announced that the army would make a speech on television. This created a new wave of tension and a lot of people, fatigued by all the drama earlier, just gave up waiting. In the end, however, the army never made its televised speech.
Dr. Hellyer analysed from hindsight that the army had probably expected Mubarak to announce his resignation and were themselves taken by surprise by his refusal. He guessed that the army had most probably, at the time of their scheduled televised speech, headed directly to the Presidential Palace to force him out of power. The next day, Omar Suleiman (the Vice-President at the time) appeared on television in the afternoon to announce that Mubarak had stepped down. Nobody had expected this.
Dr. Hellyer engaged the audience extensively during his talk. When answering a question about those in Egypt who had not actively supported the uprisings before Mubarak’s fall, Dr. Hellyer explained that these individuals too had valid concerns. There was a long-standing tradition in Sunni Islam of tolerating repression to stave off civil strife; rather a tyrant than social upheaval. He qualified that this was in no way a moral virtue, but merely a safeguard from fitna (chaos, upheaval), which was viewed as the greater evil. Those who were hesitant to support the uprisings at the outset were afraid of a bloody crackdown, which did occur subsequently in Libya, Yemen and Syria. Some of these, of course, were beneficiaries of the regime.
Although we don’t know who it was, it is certain that somebody in Hosni Mubarak’s government had ordered the army to open fire on the Egyptian people in Tahrir square, but the arrmy had said ‘no’ to this. Dr. Hellyer emphasized that the people would not forget this decision by the army to stand by the people and to move against Mubarak.
This explains the general positive image of the army in Egypt and of Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Yet, Tantawi has made it clear that he would not run for President, and the army has also indicated its wishes to retreat to the barracks as soon as possible.
At the moment, the most popular presidential candidate is Amr Moussa, not necessarily because of his competency or ability but because his name is well-known, having been the Secretary-General of the Arab League for 10 years and prior to that Foreign Minister. Dr. Hellyer has not yet seen a promising presidential candidate who has captured the Egyptians’ imagination, but he jocularly quoted a friend as saying that currently the average lifespan of an Egyptian politician is two weeks.
Looking forward, Dr. Hellyer said that he was optimistic but cautious; after all, around 40% of Egyptians are now around the poverty line. Indeed, Egypt faces real economic problems and the public’s patience was wearing thin. In response to a question on the partnership that has appeared to develop between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, Dr. Hellyer commented that this was due to a strategic confluence of interests – the army’s main interest is stability, and the Muslim Brotherhood, due to its sheer numbers and organization, is most able at present to provide that stability. Other than the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, other parties are very new and lack infrastructure, political strategy and experience.
It is unfortunate that Tunisia seldom gets credit for the wave of protests that swept across the Arab world. Without Tunisia, there would not have been Tahrir Square; but without Tahrir Square, nothing else would have happened elsewhere in the Arab world. Dr. Hellyer pointed out that many in Egypt see their country as the ‘mother of the world’. If Egypt is successful in creating a new type of public space, there will be dramatic consequences for the rest of the Middle East on a cultural and political level. Dr. Hellyer concluded by expressing his hope to be able to return to Singapore in the future to talk about the new Egyptian model.
The spark of freedom in the Arab world took place in Tunisia – the fire spread to Tahrir Square in Cairo. Over the past six months, the unrest in Egypt which began with an uprising against Hosni Mubarak has developed into a full-scale revolution. In the coming months, Egypt will have what observers hope will be the first free elections in this hugely important Arab country, where a quarter of all Arabs reside. The ramifications of the results will likely stretch far beyond Egypt, with obvious significance for the success of democracy in the region. Dr Hellyer has been in Cairo since last year, and has just arrived in Southeast Asia.
About the Speaker
Dr H.A. Hellyer is Fellow at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick (UK) and Director of the international research consortium at the Visionary Consultants Group. Formerly Ford Foundation Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution (USA), he is a United Nations ‘Global Expert’ and was nominated as Deputy Convenor of the UK Government’s Home Office working group on Muslim communities in the aftermath of the July 7th bombings in London.
A contributor to Oxford Analytica, he is regularly invited to give advice and evidence to the Department of Communities and Local Government, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Home Office, the House of Commons (UK), the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department (USA).
Dr Hellyer was also Economic and Social Research Council Placement Fellow at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where he was part of the ‘Islam Team’, and then the ‘Counter Terrorism Team’, focusing on Arab and Muslim diaspora communities in Europe. Dr H. A. Hellyer, specialist on political transition and civil society in the Arab world, and in the aftermath of the January 25th revolution in Egypt, is advising the new initiative ‘Tahrir Squared’, which, with the backing of civil society leaders in the Arab world and the West, is designed to promote civil society activity in the region.
Previously Dr H.A. Hellyer was a Member of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies of the University of Oxford, Professor of Law at the American University in Cairo and was also appointed as Senior Outreach Manager and Senior Academic Advisor at Soliya, a UN Alliance of Civilisations implementation organisation that seeks to improve West – Muslim world relations through new media and university education.
He is also Fellow of the Young Foundation (UK) and Member of the IISS (UK), He was Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS Malaysia), and is widely published on issues pertaining to the Arab region & the Muslim world and religious minorities. He is writing two books at present on Muslim communities of the West and security policy, and the Arab Spring.
*This article first appeared on the site for Middle East Institute on 7th July 2011 and reposted with permission.