Interview | Live from Cairo: Hannah Elsisi on the Egyptian crisis

Egyptian revolutionary socialist Hannah Elsisi, currently in Cairo, talks to Hesham Zakai about the sources and repercussions of Egypt's unfolding tragedy.

Interviews, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, August 15, 2013 16:05 - 5 Comments

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An Egyptian woman stands between a bulldozer and an injured protester bleeding on the ground - Photo - Mohammed Abdel Moneim - AFP - Getty Images

(Photo: Mohammed Abdel Moneim /AFP/Getty Images)

Hesham Zakai: Have we just witnessed a massacre in Cairo and where does the blame for the enormous bloodshed lie?

Hannah Elsisi: We haven’t just witnessed a massacre. We’ve just witnessed another massacre.

The blame begins on the 18th/19th of November 2011, when the army massacred hundreds of youths on Mohammed Mahmoud Street just as the parliamentary voting polls were opening their doors. The Muslim Brotherhood’s members chose to support the military then; its leadership – unlike many on the “revolution continues” list – chose not to withdraw from the SCAF-orchestrated elections.

Subsequently, for the past year and half that saw the MB in power, the revolutionary street was met with nothing but a complicit, counter-revolutionary force which aided SCAF’s massacres and ordered its own officers in the interior ministry to kill, maim and torture protesters.

Now we are dealing with an army hell-bent on sending the MB members home – a popular voice that is increasingly okay with the notion of just killing a lot of MB members. Alongside this, there is a large section of MB protesters who would just like to go home but are too scared to do so, seeking strength in numbers, and a smaller section of their members which is armed and ready to die, either in “self-defence”, for “Islam”, or for Morsi’s “shariya” [legitimacy].

It’s a fragmented picture but the blame lies squarely with both SCAF and the MB’s Ershad office (leadership).

HZ: How have the events been portrayed in Egypt?

HE: State TV announced 525 dead – apparently 43 of which were security forces. The telling aspect here is that whereas previously civilian deaths would be referred to in the mainstream media as “shaheed” (Arabic for “martyrs”) and security deaths would be referred to as just that, today deaths on the side of the security forces are referred to as “shaheed” or “mowaten” (citizen) and deaths on the Muslim Brotherhood side are referred to as “3anaser al ikhwan” (MB elements) – the same way that members of Mubarak’s regime would be referred to.

It’s a language play, but a very critical one because it lays the basis for the branding of MB members as unpatriotic or traitors – people whose deaths are therefore inconsequential. It also serves to further drive the violent dispersal of their gatherings through the promotion of a discourse which says that “traitors” = “threat to Egyptian civilians”.

HZ: You’ve touched on this powerful rhetoric against ‘Islamism’. How has the interim government managed to – so successfully – brand the MB so negatively, and only 12 months after Morsi’s victory at the ballot box?

HE: They haven’t.  The state rhetoric is decades old. In fact, it could be traced back word-for-word to at least 1954 – when [former President Gamel Abdel] Nasser led his own MB-killing/imprisonment spree.

The rhetoric never went away and it was actually key for many hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who voted for Ahmed Shafik [in the presidential run-off against Morsi] not out of spite against the revolution, but out of fear that the MB would win the elections and “take over”. The Arabic word for this is “yekawesho”.

HZ: Head of the armed forces Abdel Fattah El Sisi asked for a mandate from the Egyptian people to combat terrorism and Tahrir responded. Does this represent a shift in opinion from the ouster of Mubarak and chants against SCAF that accompanied it?

HE: There are three things to note here. Firstly, the idea that 50%, even 30%, of Egypt’s population was last year conscious or adamant enough of their opposition to the military is just not true. Complete opposition to military rule or military “oversight” was never even attained within the revolution’s ranks, but it was a sentiment that was certainly spreading by the day until the handover. In a sense noting this is reassuring because we shouldn’t be too pessimistic about how everyone has “forgotten” the military or “shifted”.

Equally unrealistic is the idea that of that 48% of voting Egyptians that voted for Shafik, there isn’t several million that already firmly supported military rule. Many may be toning down or shifting their anti-military sentiments in the face of what they perceive as the greater “Islamist” threat, but many more that took to the streets specifically two weeks ago to “Fawed” [mandate] El Sisi saw this as vindication of their opinions vis-à-vis the military’s role, Shafik’s election or even Mubarak’s ousting.

Finally, the notion that there are further millions that were yet to be involved in any mass movement or revolutionary/counterrevolutionary discourse until a few weeks ago, or even until today, is important to stress. There are many who just a month ago saw reason to go to a protest for the first time because the year under the MB saw them go without electricity or water, and others who may have taken to their first protest when El Sisi called for it two weeks ago, because that meant some form of “legitimate” protest or more likely because they felt sure it would be a “safe and protected” protest.

HZ: What are the similarities between the ousters of Mubarak and Morsi?

HE: There seems to be a certain amnesia plaguing the West. The ouster of Mubarak was procedurally similar to Morsi’s. In Mubarak’s case, we saw mass popular protest, followed by strategic military political and ground intervention. And in Morsi’s case, we saw mass popular protest, followed by immediate military political and later ground intervention. In the former, the protesters gave the military flowers and naively chanted “the people and the military are one hand”. Two years later, half the protesters flinched a bit and thought “this isn’t the time to chant against the military” and other half chanted for the military’s help or military rule. It was a mixed picture.

That’s not so unrealistic a development and it scarcely calls for surprised cries of “coup d’etat!” – my maths still says the military today has less support than then.

HZ: The presidency has now imposed a state of emergency across Egypt for a month, reminiscent of Mubarak’s response following the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. That state of emergency lasted 30 years. Do you think there is a danger that this state of emergency will be extended too? What purpose does the state of emergency serve?

HE: We have to remember that a state of emergency has been announced more recently than 1981: specifically the last one “ended” in May 2012 and before that it was announced another two times since the onset of the revolution.

There is a serious rift between what the “emergency law” might entail on paper or even pre-revolution and what it has entailed over the past few years.

For the most part it has been used either as an intimidation tactic that can be expected to temporarily clear the streets of bustling people. Other times, such as this, it also partially serves the purpose of completing the image that the army is painting for Egypt and concomitantly for itself, venerating the role it is playing in these “difficult times”.

HZ: Given the deaths and imprisonments, where does the MB go from here?

HE: I don’t think the MB needs three or four of its leaders out of jail to continue to operate business as usual. In fact, I think that’s probably just the kind of thing that the MB might need to stop the haemorrhaging of members and supporters it has seen in the past few years.

Certainly, (MB leader) Khairat Shater’s early arrest was intended as a show for the MB’s membership more than anything else. Shater could have easily avoided arrest then by staying with the others in Raba square, protected by his network. However it was a calculated and necessary move for the leadership to have to “sacrifice” something, if the membership was going to be asked to stay on the streets in the face of violent police dispersal.

Organisational questions aside, the thousands on the street right now will be conflicted between going home and “abandoning the cause”, or going home and getting beaten or killed by their neighbours. There will be those conflicted between defending the square by continuing to sit in peacefully or by pelting rocks, and those who will see defending the sit-in or their cause in taking up arms and fighting “the military” or “the counterrevolution” or “the Christians” (and it will vary).

How long this extends for and how much blood is shed is a function of two things: firstly, the willingness of MB members to go back to the way things were under Mubarak (and on this count the leadership’s experience is far nicer than the average member’s humiliation). And secondly, how far the popular street will support/push for their political and social exclusion – the extent to which they are made to feel like “hunted rats” by the media and society.

For their leadership, this is just the 50s or 70s all over again. They don’t dread the prospects, they’ll operate underground, keep turning assets and growing the organisation and they are perfectly content with offering up 1000s of their members lives in vain for that. They will tell their members that a return to the years of humiliation and 3am arrests with no crime to show for it is what they have to look forward to if they “abandon the sit-in”.

HZ: What hope is there for an anti-military alliance and what components would such an alliance include?

HE: Opposition to the military will come from those who can’t watch more of yesterday’s scenes – but the critical point is that the revolutionary street must clearly demonstrate that SCAF is responsible.

The opposition will come from those workers whose strikes and sit ins are still being stopped by force at the hands of the military and police; it will also come from those union and workplace activists who will be met with oppressive union and strike laws and also those whose working in the military’s factories.

It will come from the thousands of women that saw unprecedented sexual violence both at the hands of the police and military and under their rule. It will come from those large sections of slum dwellers who will eventually find the military responsible for water, electricity and gas shortages. And it will come from every layer of society that was touched by the military violence, arrests and trials of 2011/2012, and of course it will come from those who are meeting that same violence today.

The question that remains is whether the revolutionary street and the left can put forward and generalize the slogans and points of resistance that can forge a revolutionary alliance between these forces.

HZ: With these tasks ahead, what is the next step for the Egyptian revolution?

HE: Where next for the revolution and the revolutionaries is a complex affair. Things moving so quickly and there is often no time to stop and reflect for a prolonged period. We can only really look to our mistakes so as to avoid repeating them. In this respect, there are three key points:

Firstly, the amnesia: I think the organised left in its entirety contributed to the unfortunate situation we found ourselves in on the 30th of June and since – so emphasised was our rhetoric and slogans on the MB’s government and members in both social struggles against sexual harassment or workers’ pay or electricity shortage that criticism of the military was drowned out. People for the most part couldn’t remember why we were chanting against the military or at least hadn’t heard the chant as often and that disparity has since come back to haunt us.

Secondly, the bitter polarisation, or binary: Egypt’s recent history has essentially been stuck in a circle between military rule and “Islamic” rule, in a game of alternating peak/trough in terms of popular support. So long as our rhetoric, our slogans, our concrete alternatives and practical conduits for resistance cannot take on and overcome both dogmas, popular consciousness will remain stuck in a bitter binary choice between the two political forces.

Finally, marhaleya – or tiered transitions: we need to be uncompromising. The only thing that ensures my safety in Downtown Cairo today as I mourn the MB’s dead and lambast the military is those who remember my stance against them. And the only way we will be able to justify a revival of anti-military agitation in the next phase, is if the popular consciousness remembers a layer of the revolution that took to the streets against the MB last month and loudly denounced the army’s massacres today.

This notion of “but Morsi is better than Shafik and then we can deal with him later”, which some of the left put forward in last year’s elections, is in my opinion the mistake many of us made that paved the way for today’s “let the army get rid of them then we will deal with the army”. This transitional thinking is what keeps compromising the revolution and causes the revolutionary movement to stutter. We need to be confident and coherent and rid ourselves of the amnesia, divisive and disingenuous polarisations, and transitional circles that have blighted us hitherto in order to learn from mistakes and move forward.

Hesham Zakai is a writer who has previously worked at the Financial Times and the European Parliament. He is the former editor of Europe’s largest student newspaper, London Student, and currently blogs on his personal website, Permission to Narrate. His twitter is @ZakaiPal

Hannah Elsisi is a UK-based Egyptian activist and postgraduate History student at the University of Oxford. She has previously written for The Guardian and International Socialist Network. Her twitter is @HannahElsisi

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