The captivating ambiguities of Egypt’s ‘rebellion’
by Abdallah Schleifer
A blue haze seems to have enveloped the Egyptian opposition – both the informal, fed-up, sporadically but never ending angry popular opposition to Mursi that seems to keep growing but lacks an alternative aside from a widespread nostalgia for revisiting military rule This nostalgia horrifies rather than empowers the relatively small and once highly vocal True Believers of Tahrir Square, and the organized or formal opposition that ranges from the once highly publicized alliance of two failed Presidential candidates, the redeemed Nasserist Hamdin Sabahi who did far better than conventional exception, and former super diplomat Amr Musa who did far worse, with the would-be failed candidate Mohammed ElBaradei but for his forte of withdrawing as much as possible from whatever contest he initially commits to.
Add this National Salvation Front team (and a bevy of parties beyond their own three parties that mill about in and out of the almost tiresome NSF), and the more vital, but perhaps even more socially irrelevant groupings that range from the Revolutionary Socialists to the April 6th Movement and its leader, Ahmed Maher. Maher is the most sincere and thus tragic of all opposition figures. He choreographed the first act of the Tahrir Uprising, defied liberal political correctness to choose Mursi rather than Shafiq out of anti-Mubarkist principle and stayed on longer than any of the other significant non-Islamist participants in the drafting of the Constitution. For me, and this will sound very esoteric— that the Muslim Brotherhood could not find it in their conscience or if not there, in any sense of correct tactics ,to have carved a significant niche within their cabinet line-up for Ahmed Maher and let us say one or two other professionally qualified young leaders among the secular youth groups in Tahrir is the least excusable of the many mistakes the MB has made over the past two years.
What I have taken so much space to suggest is that the blue haze that settled down and around all aspects of The Opposition – formal but lacking force or informal and formidable in number but lacking coherence or mission—has suddenly and quite rapidly begun to lift since the beginning of May by a political manoeuvre gaining momentum with each passing day that would, objectivity-speaking, be hard to take seriously.
I allude to the Tamarod initiative—which gets translated as the “Rebel” Campaign or the “Rebellion” Campaign.” I am told Rebellion is a more proper translation of “Tamarod” but if you don’t think of the word “Rebel” as meaning an individual – a rebel with or without a cause, and instead the differently pronounced call to action “Rebel!” that that would be a viable as well as more dramatic translation., and that is the direction that the Egyptian English language press seems to be taking. .
Curiously the word “Rebel” appears in English at the heading of the application form along with the Arabic word “Tamarod” for a massive petition campaign trying to enrol millions of whom only a small percentage will know how to read English, and that suggests a certain cultural marginalization on the part of the organizers.
The original organizers, were largely from the pre-Tahrir Kafahya movement and rapidly joined by activists from Aprl 6th, Hamdeen Sabahi’s Popular Current youth and an assortment of others. Supporters of a campaign are not just registering opposition to President Mursi and his government but are demanding in effect that Mursi steps down for early elections in light of the massive disapproval of his rule rather than hold on for the designated three more years of his four year term.
On the surface of things and my own sensibility the campaign would seem to be absurd. First of all there is no such thing as Legitimacy by Petition displacing the democratic legitimacy of elections –several elections in which Mursi and his FJP/MB have consistently won if by diminishing shares of the vote. There are in a few states in America with a recall referendum mechanism but it is rarely successful and above engrained in the constitutions of those few states where it is practiced. There is no constitutional basis for this Initiative which as the structure of the petition that would be presented to whom? The very man it would unseat? The commander of the armed forces who insists the army will take no initiatives. But Rebel/Tamarod has inspired an almost mystic conviction griping much of the middle class population at least here in Cairo, that on June 30th the day in which the organizers say they will present to the nation 15 million signatures calling upon Mursi to step down, something is fated to happen, and the often unexpressed content of that sense of impending miracle (which is not what one hears from the organizers and their cadre, but rather from their growing legion of by and large passive supporters) vibrates with to that implied, unspoken phrase – coup d’etat.
How could, I thought, a few thousand activists gather two million signatures in just under two weeks and then five days later another million, especially a cadre that with the endorsement of all of the various failed parties in or around the NSF, having called for a million man march to Tahrir in support of the campaign to culminate in a massive harvest day of signatures. But at most five thousand supporters showed up.
And yet – here are my second thoughts – the regime’s response has given the initiative more credibility. Last Monday the influential FJP/MB leader Muhammed el-Beltagy was quoted as saying that “even if the news that the campaign had collected two million signatures is true, Mursi was elected as president with 12 million votes.” Beltagy’s remarks were reported by the state-run (and FJP/MB influenced) MENA news agency, so this incredible remark cannot be dismissed as an example of the quite frequently scandalous misreporting by opposition newspapers. So what will Beltagy and the government say if on June 30th the Tamarod Campaign produces 15 million signatures?
Hostility to Mursi and his government,—even if exaggerated in nationwide terms by the extraordinary extent it has grown in Cairo (which Mursi failed to carry even when he won the election back in June 2012) which is the home for nearly all Egyptian media and nearly all foreign press representatives working in Egypt – continues to grow. In part that hostility is unfair – many supporters asked by TV reporters why they were quite easily signing on said that Mursi had done nothing to improve the economy. But we know, as most recently was confirmed by the head of HSBC operations in Cairo that the economy had actually stabilized and showed signs of improvement early last Fall only to fall apart when a re-energized opposition organized massive demonstrations that quickly turned violent in opposition to Mursi’s declaration in late November of extra constitutional authority in the face of what could be described as an imminent judicial coup d’état. As the HSBC director pointed out – investors really aren’t motivated by their own personal political attitudes. They do shy away from political turmoil, street demonstrations generating violence since instability threatens profits. The furious street campaign against the government that began in late November and raged on for a few more months eventually petered out but not without undermining economic recovery. But this analysis does not cut any slack for Mursi in the eyes of increasing numbers of Egyptians. He is held responsible.
Nor has the recent flap over how the government initially responded to the kidnapping of seven Egyptian security officers in the Sinai, by gunmen that all authoritative reporting from security sources as sad to be salafi-jihadists trying to secure the release of their comrades jailed for deadly attacks on a tourist hotel; and a police station. Some are still on trail and others already have been sentenced to death or long prison terms. On the day of the kidnapping Presidential Office declared that Mursi would be “vigilant in protecting the souls of all , be they the kidnapped or the kidnappers.” This moral equivalence between security forces and a band already responsible for the death of 17 Egyptian soldiers deeply offended the Egyptian public—particularly in the middle classes - and further inflamed the widespread fear of an Islamist regime. The government quickly backed away from such solicitude for salifi-jihadi souls.
Media celebrities sign up
Along with the array of opposition parties and their leaders rallying to the campaign, there is a growing list of literary and journalistic figures as well as film and stage personalities signing up. Mohammed Mustafa Shurdy, the deputy editor of AlWafd newspaper and a TV talk show host us on board as it the editor of Alfajar newspaper Adel Hammouda. Alfajar has published the detailed “application” that must be filed in by those signing up for the initiative as well as the phone numbers of campaign coordinators. Egypt’s best known novelist Alaa Aswany has signed as has Dr. Galal Amin whose books critical of contemporary Egyptian society have acquired a vast readership in both Arabic and English. The outspoken intellectual turned politician Amr Hamzay and the respected writer and physician Muhammed Aboughar are on board and a coordinator for Tamarod told me that a number of well-known journalists who are also activists like Ibrahim Issa have signed on. So the disappearance of the distinction between journalist and activist is reaffirmed in the Rebel campaign.
But the biggest publicity for the campaign is probably coming from the support of well-known television and film actors such as Khalid AlSawey, Ahmed Helmy, Khaled El Nabay, Khaled Aby Elnafa, Nabeel Elhalafawy, muhammed Desouky and actresses Basma, Athar Ell-Hakim, Jehan Fadel and Tayseer Fahmy, They are joined by the film direcot Khalid Toussef ( considered the artistic heir of the late Youssef Shaheen),the poet and writer Ayman Bahgat Kamar and composer Waleed Saad and other artists.
As for the improbable sounding numbers – the “application “is online and sufficiently detailed in its request for identification to be submitted as a valid signature: There are six boxes to be filled in – Name, the national ID (bataka) number; name of one’s governorate, address of the nearest police station, and email address. Finally the Applicant clicks on the word “Agree.” Bearing in mind that by now there are nearly 25 million users of internet in Egypt with an very high percentage of the users catagorized as “youth” the possibility of millions of “signatures” being acquired before June 30th becomes more viable.
There is also a domino effect/. Mai Shsidin, who is covering the campaign for the electronic journal Monocle checked in by phone with her father, a pharmacist in upper Egypt. Not only had he signed up but he was photocopying the Rebel declaration/application for friends and customers who in turn were signing people up, and providing his friends with the names and address of the Rebel coordinators in the city to who will gather the petitions from this spontaneous volunteer cadre far, far beyond the limited number of activists.
Mai thinks the reason this could snowball is because there are millions of Egyptians upset with Mursi and the regime but turned off by the past year of opposition politics which they see as personally dangerous to pursue, and as disruptive and harmful to the economy. But the Rebel Campaign is neither violent nor capable of danger and thus it can set in motion massive numbers of Egyptians otherwise alienated by the NSF and other opposition movements.
If the leaders of the Opposition could overcome the Leader Complex and politically suicidal tendencies of boycotting political structures, and instead undertake to form a single united party that can transform millions of the signed up supporters into grass roots cadre to run against FJP/MB, then the Rebel Campaign could be a game-changer.
Originally published on Al Arabiya and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author. Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.
Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for just over a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza…and Jerusalem.”