It was very close. The threat of armed violence on the streets of Cairo, particularly from supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) presidential candidate, Mohammed Mursi, was on everyone’s mind. Nevertheless, the military government stood their ground, and backed one of their own: on the 24th of June 2012, Ahmad Shafiq was declared as victor in the first free elections of Egypt.
The MB called foul, as did the young revolutionaries affiliated to groups like April 6 and others. Sensing, however, that the military and the Interior Ministry would completely back President Shafiq, the MB urged its followers to abstain from any confrontations, preferring to wait and see what would happen to the revolutionaries that went to the streets. Some of the MB refused the orders, and they, as well as revolutionaries went to the streets in protest, and the response of the military government and President Shafiq was decisive, and brutal. The Interior Ministry had feared that a Mursi government would bring in MB figures into positions of authority, which it would then have to struggle against from within – such a fear was absent under President Shafiq. Under Shafiq, the police force knew precisely how to respond – they had much practice under Hosni Mubarak, and the democratic legitimacy that Shafiq had, made them even more emboldened.
Once they saw the free hand that the Interior Ministry had in dealing with the revolutionaries, the MB made a choice – they stood down, held back, and the revolutionaries were left to engage alone against Shafiq’s government. With little opposition standing in his way, Shafiq restructured the constitutional assembly from being Islamist dominated to being one that was appointed entirely by Shafiq’s cabinet. The revolutionaries and non-Islamist opposition were incensed, but after the clashes following Shafiq’s installment and the withdrawal of the Islamists form the political scene, they had no allies to count on. The Salafis were nowhere to be found either – they had reverted to their earlier doctrine of political quietism, after seeing that the state would come after them after the MB.
The ‘January Troubles’: the new Police Day
When the constitution was passed in a vote that enjoyed little turnout, President Shafiq inaugurated the occasion by declaring that the “brave police forces” had guarded this country from ruin, and that he regretted the “misunderstandings” that took place over the “January troubles” that led to the killing of so many “honorable martyrs of the police and the country.” On the day that the constitution was brought into force, Police Day (January 25th) 2013, the Interior Ministry arranged a police march to “commemorate” the martyrs of the police during the “January troubles,” and demand a special compensation package for their families. That was the spark that led to the revolutionary activists descending on the street in a counter demonstration.
Somewhere in downtown Cairo, in a small square whose name had been forgotten, a few middle aged men and women gathered. They had been out of the country, but had secretly re-entered under foreign passports. They were the remnants of the revolutionary opposition, and they vowed that the revolution, one way or the other, would returnH.A. Hellyer
It was a decisive blow to the revolution. The revolutionary activists were accused of trying to sow public disorder and dissent, with the “hidden hand” of the Muslim Brotherhood behind them. It wasn’t true, as the MB had decided that it was best for them to stay in the shadows – but some of their top leaders were arrested anyway, to let them know that dissent against the elected president would never be tolerated. The message was received – and they obeyed, while the revolutionaries, including non-Islamist civil society activists as well as a smattering of Islamists who had long left the MB, made their last stand at the presidential palace. Or, at least, they tried to get close to it. The police surrounded the crowd, and in the space of a day and a night, several dozen were killed. The state media propagandized it as a brave attempt of the police forces to defend the presidency against an armed takeover, and just as the Maspero massacre had been caricatured into oblivion, so was the Ittihadiya catastrophe. In its aftermath, most opposition political figures were arrested, some in military trials, and civil society activists found their wings clipped as a desperately restrictive new NGO law came into effect.
The beginning of the end, and regrouping
President Shafiq directed his attention into addressing the economy, by receiving huge investment from outside of Egypt – his opposition was routed, and the state’s tools were completely at his disposal. It paid off, but only for a while. By 2014, the revolution had not died – it had moved underground, and overseas. Many revolutionaries left the country, engaged with sympathizers of the MB abroad, and by 2016, had succeed in creating a lobby which led to Western governments and some Arab countries placing civil rights measures upon aid. Shafiq’s money line was not cut – but it was stretched, and the economic situation began to suffer as a result.
The constitution had given President Shafiq the ability to run again in 2016, and he won, but by a smaller margin than could be expected. The MB did not run a candidate, but stayed, again, in the shadows. The economic situation continued to falter, and to reintroduce more foreign investment. Shafiq was forced to accept that foreign observers, particularly from Tunisia, Libya and Qatar, would participate. The Libyans were promoting the revolutionaries abroad, secretly – and the Qataris were supporting the MB. In 2020, Shafiq had to call for elections again, and the foreign opposition, as well as the MB, saw this as their chance. The MB threw their weight behind a little known former minister of irrigation, Dr. Hisham Kandil – someone who could not be linked to the MB, but was close to its leadership.
The MB strikes back
Kandil won by a landslide, on a platform of economic stability, order, and respect for Egyptian values, which he posited had been hurt by the country’s reliance on foreign aid. The opposition forces expected Kandil to adhere to the revolution – but such hopes were dashed. The opposition hadn’t put him in place – and many of their leaders were now in jail. Kandil released some of the older ones, but generally speaking, the non-Islamist, revolutionary opposition was left out in the cold.
The MB came out from behind the shadows, and subjected parliament to a massive public relations offensive. With Shafiq out of power, and having fled to Europe, and the non-Islamist opposition having exhausted their resources almost completely during Shafiq’s reign, the Muslim Brotherhood had a monopoly that was hard to break. The parliament, overseen by numerous foreign observers, came back with a staggering 70% MB majority. When the speaker of the parliament, Mohammad Mursi, took office, he took the opportunity to thank not the revolution, nor the non-Islamist opposition that had helped change the fortunes of Ahmad Shafiq – instead, he paid homage to the ministry of the interior who had battled against the forces of the hidden hands.
The revolution continues
Somewhere in downtown Cairo, in a small square whose name had been forgotten, a few middle aged men and women gathered. They had been out of the country, but had secretly re-entered under foreign passports. They were the remnants of the revolutionary opposition, and they vowed that the revolution, one way or the other, would return. Their names included Yousri Salama, the pro-Baradei Salafi, Gaber Salah (Gika), a member of the 6th of April youth, Mohammed el-Guindi, a journalist, Mohammad Saad (known to his friends as ‘Christi’), as well as other men and women who knew that one way, or another, the revolution of the 25th of January had yet to be accomplished, and could not be allowed to fail.
As they laid out their strategies for reigniting the revolution, one of them stood up and declared, “we were right. If Mursi had won in 2012, then we would be in the same position as we are today, but more of our comrades would still be with us to fight and hold him to account. The state would have fought the MB from inside, as they will do so now, but without providing the MB with the ability to say that the alternative, Shafiq, has done so much irreparable damage to the country. Rather than wait for 8 years to come to this point, where we take the revolution forward by revealing the inadequacy of the Islamist project, we would probably have come to it in a year.”
Someone else stood up, and said, “we will never know. But now is the time not to point fingers – now is the time to build this country, and start anew. The revolution continues – and now we have to figure out what that means beyond a slogan.”
The square they were in was called Tahrir Square. They called their new group, #Jan25Continues.
Please note; this is all fiction, an alternative reality. The author salutes the deceased revolutionaries who are mentioned in this piece, and their families.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.