Egypt's military rulers are celebrating last week's vote to approve a new constitution as validation of the government's savage repression of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters since the military removed then-President Mohamed Morsi from power last July.
According to Egyptian officials, 98.1 percent of ballots cast were in favor of the constitution, with voter turnout at 38.6 percent. The turnout was lower than some government officials had hoped or predicted, but it still exceeded the roughly one-third who turned out to vote in a referendum on the previous constitution, held in the midst of Morsi's presidency in December 2012.
Secretary of State John Kerry issued some mild criticisms about the fairness of the vote, noting that there was practically no public debate on the draft constitution and those who sought to campaign for a "no" vote faced the prospect of arrest or worse. Nevertheless, according to the New York Times, "amid reports that Congress is clearing the way for the continued flow of about $1.3 billion a year in military aid to Cairo, there is little sign that his admonition means a reduction in Washington's support."
The vote in Egypt was carried out amid a massive show of force, with 160,000 soldiers and more than 200,000 police on the streets, and helicopters hovering overhead during the voting. Isolated clashes with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood claimed the lives of at least 11 people. Given the relentless campaign of repression against its members, the Brotherhood called for a boycott of the vote.
An Associated Press report illustrated the risks of speaking out against the constitution or the military regime headed by Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who is now expected to use the election results to advance his own campaign for the presidency:
"Sisi is a killer, and his constitution is void," shouted a woman, who left the scene just before a security team arrived to look for her. At a nearby outdoor market, Hany Abdel-Hakeem was arguing with a vendor. "I will not participate in anything I am not convinced of. And if I say anything against it, I will be arrested. Keeping silent is better."
The ouster of Morsi by the Egyptian military on July 3 followed months of growing revulsion toward the Brotherhood's and Morsi's self-serving grasp for power.
Elected just one year earlier, Morsi ignored calls for greater accountability and reform of the state's hated security forces and did nothing to address the economic demands that underlay the 2011 uprising against the dictator Hosni Mubarak. Morsi's presidential campaign itself was another example of the Brotherhood betraying its promises–it had pledged not to run a candidate for the presidency since it already dominated the parliament and the assembly drafting a new constitution.
With suspicion growing that the Brotherhood was seeking to lock in a stranglehold on political power, the Tamarod (Rebellion) movement gained strength. A petition drive calling on Morsi to resign the presidency gained millions of signatures. The movement culminated in millions of Egyptians taking to the streets on June 30. Four days later, the military ousted Morsi.
Months of vicious repression against members and supporters of the Brotherhood followed, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,300 people. On December 25, the government made its crackdown on the Brotherhood official by designating it a terrorist organization and declaring it illegal. Morsi currently faces three separate trials and a possible death sentence.
But the military-run government is re-imposing a sweeping criminalization against protests of all sorts–and punishing those who refuse to abide by Mubarak-era restrictions on dissent, including some of the most prominent leaders of the revolutionary upsurge that drove Mubarak from power.
Three leading activists associated with the April 6 Youth Movement–Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Douma–defied the military's new laws by organizing a protest without police permission. Last month, they were sentenced to three years in prison and fined more than $7,000 each.
Well-known revolutionary activists from Alexandria have become the latest to face harsh jail terms and large fines for defying the anti-protest laws. Lu'ay Al-Qahwagi, Amr Hafez, Nasir Abu-al-Hamd and Islam Muhamadein were sentenced to two years hard labor in prison and ordered to pay a [$7,000] fine on January 2. Mahienour el-Masry and Hassan Moustafa, both leading activists with the Revolutionary Socialists movement, received the same sentence, but were not present in court. Their "crime" was to organize a demonstration without police permission in violation of the new anti-protest laws which came into force late in 2013.
Two developments illustrate the major challenges facing those who look to the promise of the revolutionary upsurge that shook Egypt in 2011.
One, many of the same liberal and left forces that were part of the massive demonstrations that brought down Mubarak are today praising the military regime's savage offensive against the Brotherhood.
Nearly every political party outside of the Brotherhood–from the Salafist Nour Party among hardline Islamists, to many of the liberal and left parties associated the Tamarod movement–campaigned for a "yes" vote on the constitution. Ahmed Abdel-Hadi, leader of the Youth Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Egyptian people "put an end to their battle with terrorism practiced by the fascist group the Muslim Brotherhood." He continued: "Low-income citizens joined the battle in defense of the country's stability and also in support of Al-Sisi's candidacy for the presidential elections."
This has left the activists who refuse to fall in line–as well as independent journalists–even more vulnerable to repression. They are portrayed by the regime as "Brotherhood supporters" and dealt with harshly.
National Public Radio, for example, reported that Egypt is now one of the world's most dangerous places to be a reporter. Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian journalist who has worked for CNN and the BBC, has spent the last three weeks in a prison cell in Cairo for the "crime" of speaking to members of the Brotherhood as sources for a story published by Al Jazeera English.
Second, and perhaps even more ominous, is the return of Mubarak-era officials and political figures who had practically vanished from view until recent weeks.
In an article titled "Ancien regime comeback sparks fear," Al-Ahram Weekly reports:
Fathi Sorour, the Mubarak-era parliamentary speaker and one-time strongman of the now defunct National Democratic Party (NDP), appeared on January 1 pontificating about the constitution and on revolution–on June 30–during a conference that was aired on TV. The last time he was seen in public was in April 2011, when he was arrested and charged with inciting the killing of protesters in Tahrir Square during the January Revolution that toppled his boss.
Like dozens of Mubarak-era officials incarcerated on the basis of legally porous–and occasionally trumped-up–charges to placate the revolutionary mood of 2011, Sorour was released from prison in October 2012 only to keep a low profile. Mubarak himself was released from prison pending trial less than two months after the military deposed Mohamed Morsi on July 3.
No one who cares about the revolution in Egypt can deny the grim conditions that exist today. But we must remember that repression–and especially not the return of Mubarak's cronies to positions of power–will not address the many grievances that have repeatedly driven millions of Egyptians to demonstrate for democracy, justice and their dignity. The simmering discontent that gave rise to the 2011 uprising will not disappear.
The key point to understand is that what started in 2011 is a long-term revolutionary process, rooted in decades of economic blockage due to the nature of the prevailing social order. We are actually in the early stages of this revolutionary process. It will drag on for many years, if not decades.
So there is definitely still room for hope–as long as the determination of the mass movement persists to achieve the main social goals that initially inspired the majority of the people who took part in the uprisings. But this hope should be a realistic hope, combined with a real understanding of the difficulty of the task.
First published at SocialistWorker.org.