“There is nothing left to say. Next time, it will be savage. And we will all be sorry.” -Omar Robert Hamilton, Egyptian-English filmmaker and pro-#Jan25 political activist
Saturday was something of an ominous, if symbolic, day in Egypt. A criminal court in Cairo dismissed a number of charges against Hosni Mubarak, including the killing of protesters during the 18 days of the 2011 revolutionary uprisings. For many, it was the sign of the end of the 25th of January revolution, and for many still, the end of Arab Spring in general. But while it is tempting to jump to that sort of conclusion, the reality is somewhat more complex – and not necessarily very good news for anyone.
For the first time in quite a long whole, a protest of several thousand was taking place in a large, open space – not down narrow streetsH.A. Hellyer
The judge cited procedural and technical errors by the prosecutors as reasons to dismiss the charges– and indeed, that denunciation has been laid at the door of the prosecutor’s office for several years now. More than once after that, criticisms of the judicial system in general and the weakness of the specifics of the prosecution’s case in particular, were made. Tarek Masoud at Harvard University’s School of Government noted afterwards, poignantly (if seemingly with a subtext of sadness), that a guilty verdict, given the specifics of the case actually made, would also have been unjust. It bears remembering, as Michael Hanna of the Century Foundation aptly points out, the original adding of Mubarak to the case came after a huge amount of public pressure against then head of state, Field Marshal Tantawi. It was perceived at the time as a way to deflate public pressure for far more wide-ranging reforms, called for by the pro-#Jan25 revolutionary camp.
Three years later, Mubarak may have been detained but accountability for the many hundreds of deaths of revolutionary activists in 2011 has been denied. As for the restructuring of the security sector and reform of the judiciary – none of that has been attempted either since Mubarak’s removal.
That lack of reform comes at a price. Many have followed in the wake of those who lost their lives in Egypt during the 18 day revolutionary uprising wake, as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Human Rights Watch and many others have noted – whether during Tantawi’s era, Mursi’s, or since. There has been no accountability for those lost lives either and that’s not likely to change any time soon.
There were, of course, opportunities for that kind of restructuring and reform – but while the small revolutionary camp that sparked the uprising in 2011 were keen on that, few listened. Field Marshal Tantawi bowed to popular pressure on certain court cases – but reform of the judiciary nor the security sector was not forthcoming. Mohammed Mursi became president in 2012, and his administration was likewise uninterested in engaging in security sector reform, as reports and research by specialists as Karim Ennarah, are apt to point out. On the contrary, Mursi and the Brotherhood lauded the security sector publicly, and held back from reforming it privately. When it came to judicial reform, as I wrote at the time, Mursi focused on replacing Mubarak stalwarts with those who would become his own stalwarts – but reform of the system itself wasn’t remotely on the table.
Working the system
That was the case with the Brotherhood and Tantawi – the latter left the system alone and intact, while the former tried to simply make it work for them. The latest incarnations of the Egyptian top brass in government have not been any more concerned with judicial or security sector reform. On the contrary, in the past 15 months, there has been more, not less, criticism from human rights groups in and outside of Egypt, when it comes to the excesses of both sectors.
Until someone in authority in Egypt recognises that any future development of the country partially depends on a fully restructured system for both the security services and the judiciary, declaring Mubarak innocent will be the least of Egypt’s worries. The prevalent culture of impunity will not end simply by words – nor, indeed, by numerous cooperation projects between the Egyptian authorities and the international community. The latter does little else than become opportunities for general training sessions and opportunities to travel – in the absence of true reform, those that receive even that training are unable to utilise what little they have learned.
Yet, there was something else that was particularly ominous about Saturday’s verdict – and that was the reaction. Few expected there to be much of a reaction, assuming that fatigue over the past few years, combined with the highly restrictive protest law (which is currently under consideration by the supreme court for being unconstitutional), and a widespread crackdown on dissent in the midst of Egypt’s “war on terror” would mean little would happen beyond the usual. Of course, pro-Mursi protests happen every week, calling for Mursi’s reinstatement and justice for the violent dispersal of the pro-Mursi sit-ins last summer – but these generally take place in areas outside of the big cities, or in very narrow places to avoid confrontations with the security forces.
Winds of change
Saturday evening, however, something changed. A few anti-Mubarak protesters decided to protest near Tahrir Square against the verdict. By around 5pm, there were dozens, perhaps a hundred or so – and then, elements of the pro-revolutionary, non-Islamist opposition umbrella, the Revolutionary Path Front, declared their members were protesting and more would come. By 8pm, there were several thousand, a minority of which were pro-Islamist protesters who had also decided to join in support.
That was interesting. For the first time in quite a long whole, a protest of several thousand was taking place in a large, open space – not down narrow streets, avoiding the police – and that space was on the edge of Tahrir Square. The protesters were anti-Mubarak – but they were also anti-army, pro-revolutionary, and mostly either non or anti-Islamist. The Islamist protesters who attended, also, unlikely most other protesters, refrained from raising Mursi banners or Raba’a signs, which are generally rejected by Egyptian revolutionary activists for a variety of reasons, although they also reject the violent dispersal of the pro-Mursi sit-ins by the security services last summer.
It lasted for a few hours – and then the security services broke up the protest. According the eyewitnesses who were there, water cannons, tear gas and live fire was utilised – and in a short period of time, the gathering had ended. Something happened that evening. Something that ought to be quite worrying for the authorities of the Egyptian Republic.
The average age of the Egyptian population is 24.5 – and it is dropping. The majority of the population is quite young – as were those protesters – while those who they were protesting are of an older generation. Is the Egyptian state able to answer their calls for change – swiftly enough, effectively enough, and comprehensively enough? Or not?
If the answer is no – and one fears it may be – then while there is hope in the spirit of the young, there ought also to be trepidation when considering their anger. Egypt remains a country where people have high expectations, particularly after the revolutionary uprising in 2011 – but where few believe those expectations will be met. What happens when a critical mass decides that actually, those bare minimum expectations will not be met? What will they then do?
The answer to that question ought to inspire all of us to pause, reflect – and change. Now. Before it is too late to avoid the repercussions, as Omar sombrely notes at the beginning of this article.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.