Critical Moment got in touch with Atef Said, who returned to his native Egypt on February 6 to organize with human rights groups during the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak. Said practiced human rights law in Egypt from 1995 to 2004. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at University of Michigan—Ann Arbor working on his dissertation about the Egyptian revolution. He has also written two books about torture in Egypt.
Q: How has life changed since Mubarak’s fall?
I have been in Egypt since February 6, five days before Hosni Mubarak stepped down. Many want to hear me saying we are enjoying freedom. Yes, but revolution has not finished. There have been several stages of this change. In the days before Mubarak stepped down, things were very intense on the ground, in Cairo streets. There had been a curfew between 10 pm and 7 am (it has since been moved to between 2 am and 5 am). The mainstream media agitated the public against demonstrators. It was difficult to move around.
I cannot describe the night Mubarak stepped down. People celebrated until early morning, despite the curfew. Millions of cars were honking in streets. In downtown Cairo and in Tahrir Square tens of thousands were singing and dancing. I saw friends and activists in the streets I have not seen in ages. People you didn’t know were hugging you and smiling at you, congratulating you—the dictator is gone.
The main slogan of our revolution was: People Want the Downfall of the Regime. The revolution has nine major demands, and getting rid of Mubarak was only one. After the celebration, we all realized that we only got rid of the head of the regime. We succeeded in pressuring the Supreme Council of the Army, which now administers Egypt, to dissolve the Parliament and the Senate Council—both were based on forged elections. The army has been slow to recognize the rest of the demands.
On March 8 revolutionaries attacked the State Security Intelligence headquarters when they knew officers were burning and shredding documents with information gathered from illegal surveillance. The army with the new cabinet had to recognize the demands of the revolutionaries and dissolve the SSI, whose main job had been to spy on people for Mubarak. It was personal for me because this apparatus had harassed me and many activists.
Daily life has lots of political discussion everywhere, about a new constitution, about new parties, and corruption of the old regime. Daily life is lots of politics, fun, but lots of work to make sure the revolution’s demands are met. The army and old ruling elites are saying “let’s go back to work,” and the revolutionaries continue to protest.
Q: How do you feel about the word “spontaneous” to describe the Middle East uprisings?
I would not use the term spontaneous to describe the protests that started January 25. I have done human rights work in Egypt for 10 years and I have been connected with the pro-democracy and anti-war movements in Egypt. These protests are part of long waves of protest that started in 2000. I use the term “unexpected” to describe the scale of the protests and the developments that led to getting rid of Mubarak. Everybody knew about choosing January 25 to protest against police brutality. The regime was ready to suppress them as usual. Some older activists mocked this saying, “Yes, we support this and we will be there, but we cannot talk about revolution.”
Unexpectedness has become the rule. Until Mubarak left, some activists were worried that the millions would not come the next day. But millions more came. We were so fascinated by the creativity of protesters, who invented shields using kitchen stuff and buckets to fight off police and pro-government thugs.
Also, it was amazing how quickly activists organized themselves to have check-points to protect themselves in Tahrir, and how quickly doctors made field hospitals. It is not only an Egyptian thing, perhaps, but the atmosphere of solidarity and protest that empowers people. After the security apparatus brutality that led to killing of hundreds from January 25 to 28, demonstrations got bigger in most cities in Egypt. After many protesters and ordinary Egyptians saw their friends and fellow protesters killed in front of their eyes, they became more and more determined.
I would like to warn readers about three myths of the Egyptian revolution. The first myth is that the Egyptian revolution is a youth revolution. No youth have started this, but millions have joined. The second is that this is a Facebook and Twitter revolution. These technological forces played a big role in mobilization (especially in light of the suppression of Mubarak). But then people took to the streets in millions. Yes, one cannot deny the amazing role of Egyptian bloggers and virtual activists who called for the protest, but this has to be met with masses in streets.
Revolutions are not made virtually, they do need people in streets. One Egyptian commentator said, this started as a Facebook revolution but became a nass-book revolution (nass in Arabic means people—literally “people’s book”). The third myth is that this is a revolution about democracy only. The main motto was: democracy, human dignity and social justice. Now when both businessmen and the transitional government ask workers to stop strikes, they are standing against the demand for social justice. By social justice, revolutionaries mean raising the minimum wage, fixing the tax system, and expanding government spending on health and education for the poor. They want to overcome all the negative impacts of the rigid free market and neoliberal policies that were applied under Mubarak.
Q: How do you characterize the “leadership” of this movement?
The Egyptian revolution has no leaders in the traditional or charismatic sense, and it has many leaders at the same time. Many analysts complained at first that they did not see charismatic figures in the revolution. Others responded that this particular feature helped the revolution dramatically, because this meant practically spreading the work and the protest without enabling authorities to attack the leaders as they used to do. They said the brilliance of this revolution is its democracy on the ground.
Artists made tents and exhibitions and singers wrote songs for the revolution. Journalists organized street corners to help media in Tahrir. And many other initiatives were made. I saw a corner made by the main coalition of youth with a banner: “Give us suggestions for the success of the revolution.” There was no one limited group of leaders but many, and this enabled the continuation of the work on the ground.
Q: Various movements joined to overthrow Mubarak. How has that coalition evolved?
Many coalitions existed before the revolution: The Egyptian Movement For Change, or Kefayya, which means “Enough” was formed in 2005. This coalition included groups from the right to the left—Islamists, Nasserites/Arab nationalists and Marxists; The National Association for Change was formed in 2010 after the arrival and the entrance of Mohamed El-Baradei the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Both Kefayya and the National Association For Change called for radical reform for democracy in Egypt and an end to the emergency status in Egypt that had been in effect since 1981.
There have been many youth groups—liberal ones such as the 6 April group, and left ones like Freedom and Justice. Right before the revolution, a coalition of leftist, Islamist, and liberal youth groups formed, and played a key role in the revolution.
After the revolution, the Youth Coalition for the Revolution has continued its work. But no major coalition has been formed after the revolution. There has been coordination but many groups are busy forming new parties. The four main camps are: leftist/socialist, Arab nationalist/Nasserites, liberal and Islamist. Both the old constitution and the transitional constitution ban forming new parties on religious grounds. Hence, Muslim Brotherhood (one of the main Islamic groups in Egypt) announced that it is committed to a civilian party and civilian state, similar to Turkey.
Q: What is your perspective on the “transition” happening in Egypt?
If we agree that the revolution has not ended, this will change our perception of the transition. The main dilemma is that it is not the revolutionaries who lead the change, but the Army, which is a conservative body connected with the previous regime (its leaders are close to the U.S.). The army and the transition government are saying, “Just trust us and go back to your work.” This is bad because there have been many attacks against demonstrators by the army since Mubarak left.
Emergency status has not ended yet. Also, those remaining in the ruling party, which still exists, and the old security forces still instigate sectarian violence. The creation of insecurity and the calls for going back to work aim to stop the rest of the revolution’s demands: genuinely restructuring the police apparatus, putting those who killed demonstrators on trial, and dissolving the ruling party or limiting its role in the upcoming election.
The army is not democratic, even if it appears to be protecting people’s revolution. This is blocking deeper changes. In the ideal world, revolutionaries would lead the change ourselves, a civilian government chosen by the people after the election. But as a result of the fact that there was no strong traditional leadership, the army came to be the solution regardless of whether the people chose this or not. This may be imposed by Mubarak, though the army appears to be with the people against Mubarak. The army is still theoretically on a mandate to apply the people’s will.
Q: How are the struggles in the Middle East related to recent struggles in the Midwest?
There are many connections between Middle East struggles and unions and collective bargaining struggles in the U.S. and the world. First, the amazing part about the Egyptian revolution is that the power of the people worked. This is an amazing inspiration. (Regime change can exist without tanks and without spending billions of dollars on war and spilling blood).
In London and in Wisconsin, we can see people who believe in change. All those who believe in people’s organizing and civil disobedience and peaceful protesting have hope now. Second, Arab revolutions had social justice demands. Labor played a significant role in the Egyptian revolution and mainstream media ignored this. The social justice demand and collective bargaining is a basic human rights demand. Both Egyptians and Wisconsin workers protested against the brutality of neo-liberal policies. By the way, there is an activist who had a sign in Tahrir that said, “In Tahrir and in Wisconsin, One world and One Pain.” This image was circulated widely on the web. In Wisconsin (as well as London) many activists had banners saying, “We are in Tahrir Square.”
A social justice demand in Egypt does exist and is still being ignored. Corporate elites and conservative thinkers are pushing to limit the revolution to only a free election. Egyptians made revolution not only for free election with unjust social order and inequality. The inspiration is still on as long as people resist.
Q: Do you have general comments for the American public and intellectuals?
I spent the first 10 days of the revolution in the U.S. Most colleagues understood what was going on. Others kept asking: ‘What about Israel?’ and ‘What if islamists rise after the revolution?’ I kept answering their questions, but soon got the impression that many ordinary Americans are victims to the Islamic bogeyman.
The debate about America’s dilemma over being committed to promoting democracy and also maintaining stability reflect this thinking. In other words, we do care about democracy as long as this does not hurt our interests. I am not talking about the level of government, but also ordinary Americans: do we accept being imperial citizens, do we care just about the price of gas regardless how this is determined? Do we care about what is going on in our name in this region? There were two sentences circulated widely amongst Egyptian activists on Twitter and Facebook in the first days of the protest: “America, we do not hate you because of your freedom, but we hate you because you hate our freedom,” and “America, you cannot be imperial and claim to be promoting democracy at the same time.”
My fellow Americans, we need to rethink many issues: 1) Why we described dictators as moderate regimes? Why our tax dollars (by the way I am a dual national) are used to support those dictators? I spend a significant part of my life studying and writing about torture in Egypt. It is sad to realize that our tax dollars in the U.S. have been used to support repressive and security apparatuses. If Americans are shocked about Arab revolutions, we need to rethink many issues.
Read another article by Atef on Egypt at the Immanent Frame blog.