Egypt’s Wounded Revolutionaries Defy Army a Year After Uprising

Mohammad Saad Al-Katatni
Newly elected speaker of the Egyptian parliament, Saad al-Katatni, of the Muslim Brotherhood. Photographer: Asmma Waguih/Pool/Getty Images

Residents of Heliopolis emerge onto their balconies, drawn by drumbeats and rhythmic clapping from a group of mostly young Egyptians marching to the chant: “The revolutionaries are coming back on Jan. 25.”

At street level, Mohamed Wasfy, a 24-year-old engineer, is among the activists, who are urging people in the upscale Cairo suburb to attend rallies against military rule planned for tomorrow’s anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. Wasfy is hobbling, leaning on a walking stick, and says he was shot in the leg during clashes between troops and protesters last month. “This is the only achievement of the last year of revolution,” he says. “We get fired at, and are not afraid to continue to protest. We’re ready to get shot again and again.”

The verdict reflects the frustrations and setbacks for Egypt’s youthful activists since their leaderless uprising ended Mubarak’s three-decade reign within 18 days. Since then, the transition to democracy in the Arab world’s most populous country, a key U.S. ally, has been punctuated by violence that has delayed economic recovery, as tourists and investors stayed away and currency reserves plunged.

Egypt’s secular activists suffered defeat at the ballot box, where the parties they backed trailed Islamist groups who took almost three-quarters of the seats in the parliament that held its first meeting yesterday. Protesters also came under fire in and around Tahrir Square, where dozens have been killed, mostly in the past three months. They accuse the generals who took over from Mubarak of using similar tactics to stifle dissent, and seeking to cling to power behind a drawn-out and vague timeline for the return to civilian rule.

Army’s ‘Upper Hand’

“Many in the military establishment and the security services want to maintain as much as possible of the status quo that people have rebelled against,” said Omar Ashour, a lecturer in Arab politics at the University of Exeter in the U.K. “In any democratic transition, the final outcome is when you have the elected civilians in control,” he said. “What we see in Egypt is not exactly that. We still have the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces having the upper hand.”

Army leaders deny using excessive force against demonstrators and have blamed a “third party” or “foreign hand” for fomenting unrest. The military has close ties with the U.S. and has received the bulk of tens of billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Egypt since 1979.

Egypt’s failure to negotiate a smooth transition has driven financial markets down, in contrast with Tunisia, the other north African country to revolt against a longtime leader a year ago. Egypt’s benchmark stock index fell 40 percent in the past year. More than half the loss occurred since June, when Tunisia’s key measure started recovering after the plunge that accompanied the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Currency Run

Yields on Egypt’s domestic bonds have jumped to record levels close to 16 percent. Yields on the benchmark dollar bond maturing in 2020 rose to a record 8.79 percent this month, before easing as the government announced plans to borrow $3.2 billion from the International Monetary Fund. The central bank spent half its foreign exchange reserves last year and raised interest rates in November for the first time in more than three years, as it seeks to avert a run on the pound.

“The process in Egypt was a fairly long one and the economic situation deteriorated a lot,” said Lutz Roehmeyer, who helps oversee about 11.5 billion euros ($15 billion) at Landesbank Berlin Investment, and said he initially took a “constructive view” of revolutions in North Africa. Roehmeyer said Landesbank sold Egyptian stocks worth more than 5 million euros in October. “We don’t expect huge reform, and that’s quite negative for the development of the country after the revolution,” he said.

‘Revolution Must Continue’

The economy grew 1.8 percent in the 12 months through June, the slowest in at least a decade. Hassan Omar, 60, who runs a juice store in central Cairo, says the persistence of activists is hurting business. “Every time there’s a protest, we’re forced to close the store,” said Omar, who supported the revolt against Mubarak and says he’s had to lay off two of his four employees. “People have been patient for 30 years, why can’t they wait for a few months?”

Passing near the store, which has “Down With Military Rule” scrawled on a wall next to it, 28-year-old doctor Asmaa Ismail says the generals can’t be trusted to make good on their promises to hand over power. “We thought they would realize our demands but nothing has happened,” she said. “Mubarak’s regime is still there. The revolution must continue.”

Films, Graffiti, Fliers

Wasfy and his fellow activists say they are drawing attention to abuses of power by the generals. They tour the Egyptian capital erecting projector screens to show film of what they say are violations by the military in the last year, and also paint revolutionary graffiti on walls and shove fliers into car windows calling for a handover to civilians. Protesters are divided on who should take over, with some arguing that parliament should inherit the army council’s powers until a president is elected.

The activists’ achievements since Mubarak’s overthrow include the ex-president’s trial, brought forward by the generals after protesters demanded it. Egyptians have watched the man who ruled them for three decades wheeled into a dock to stand trial for allegedly conspiring to kill some of the demonstrators who drove him out.

Prosecutors wrapped up their case earlier this month by demanding the death penalty. Many of Mubarak’s ministers, accused of helping promote crony capitalism, have been sentenced to prison or face trial for corruption.

Islamist Parliament

The army council’s pledge to hold presidential elections by June and then step down also should be chalked up as a win for demonstrators exerting pressure, Ashour said.

In the parliament vote that ended last week, the alliance headed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won 47 percent of seats. Its secretary-general, Mohammad Saad Al-Katatni, was chosen as parliament speaker at the opening session yesterday. A bloc led by Salafis, followers of an austere brand of Islam, came second with about 25 percent.

Parliament is due to choose a committee to write Egypt’s new constitution, a subject of much wrangling. In negotiations between the army council and parliamentary parties over the document, Ashour said key issues may include demands for immunity from prosecution for the generals, shielding the army’s budget from civilian scrutiny, “the independence of their economic empire, and a veto in high politics and national security issues.”

‘Army of the People’

The Brotherhood has shown more willingness than the protesters to compromise on military demands, and hasn’t joined calls for an immediate handover to civilian rule.

“God didn’t create the world in one day, he created it in six, we should be patient,” said Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesman for the group. “The army is the army of the people. Some of its activities must be surrounded with secrecy and we respect that.”

The gaps between the activists, the Brotherhood and the generals are highlighted by their preparations to mark Jan. 25. Events planned by the army, which last week ordered the release of almost 2,000 prisoners convicted in military courts since the uprising, include a soccer match, a concert and a jobs fair.

The Brotherhood sees the occasion as a day for “celebrations, not protests,” though that will include calls for “the rest of the revolution’s demands to be realized as soon as possible,” Ghozlan said.

The activists marching through Heliopolis plan to demonstrate against the army council’s rule, and they urge bystanders on the balconies to join them. “Why are you silent?” they shout up. “Have you won your rights already?”

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