The roots of Egypt's rage

CAIRO – In the autumn of the Arab Spring, Egyptians fear they’re losing their revolution.

That is, if it ever really was a revolution.

As the country braces for next week’s scheduled election, people from the urban sprawl of Cairo to the rural reaches of Upper Egypt are left wondering if the so-called “January 25 Revolution” wasn’t actually a popularly supported military coup.

The events of the last four days have proven how difficult it will be for the ruling military council to relinquish its power and permit what Egyptians hope will be the first free and fair elections in Egypt in more than 60 years of military-backed autocratic rule.

Since Friday, thousands of demonstrators, from both religious and secular parties, have converged on Tahrir Square to protest the military’s attempts to put forward a constitution that would shield the armed forces from oversight and in effect shape the powerful military establishment as a state within a state.

Amid running street battles to control Tahrir Square, which reportedly have left more than 20 people dead and hundreds wounded, there is some question as to whether the Nov. 28 parliamentary election will go forward as planned. But there is no question that this first election since deposed President Hosni Mubarak was toppled nine months ago presents a fateful moment for Egypt’s 80 million people who represent the heart of the Arab world.

For 10 days in October, GlobalPost pulled together a team of 17 talented, young journalists — eight Egyptian reporters, eight Americans, and one Egyptian editor who helped lead the project — to fan out across Egypt and report on where the country stands in the run up to the election. They set out to find the human stories that provide context amid the spikes of violence that keep occurring as Egypt tries to find its way forward to a new democracy.

These journalists were part of a GlobalPost reporting fellowship titled “Covering a Revolution,” which was sponsored by the Open Hands Initiative, a New York-based non-profit dedicated to “people to people understanding around the world,” as OHI Chairman Jay T. Snyder describes its mission.

Working together in teams, these Egyptian and American correspondents found compelling human narratives about the big questions of the day in Egypt:

*What is the role of the military in a new Egypt and will it allow for a peaceful transition of power?

*What role will religion play in politics and in defining the new constitution?

*What role – if any – has art played in the spirit of the revolution?

*With a slow return of tourists seemingly underway, is the economy as bad as it seems?

*And a question that looms imminently, and perhaps precariously: Will the elections be peaceful or marred by corruption and violence as they have so often in the past?

The Nov. 28 election marks the beginning of what seems to be a chaotic and clumsy series of elections and runoffs over the next two months that will ultimately give shape to a new parliament.

That newly elected parliamentary body — both the upper and lower houses — will be part of a process that will adopt a constitution next year in advance of a still unscheduled presidential election.

During the last nine months since Mubarak was toppled, the military has remained in charge through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

The weekend protests opposed attempts by SCAF to try to control the process of shaping a new constitution and specifically to shield the military’s budget from civilian review.

The military, which was widely seen as heroic during the revolution, has turned heavy handed in recent months, and political candidates and analysts say they fear the military is showing signs that it will thwart a transition to civilian rule, a promise it has made publicly to the Egyptian people.

Our GlobalPost reporting fellows documented how the military has brutally put down demonstrations and how it has forced some 12,000 civilian protesters to face military tribunals, a violation of the military’s judicial authority which has outraged human rights activists, such as Human Rights Watch’s Heba Morayef.

Many analysts who came to speak to our fellowship, including Brookings’ Shadi Hamid and Cairo University’s Amr Hamzawy, said they fear that the military will be reluctant to give up power and risk losing the financial grip it has over the national economy. Egypt receives more than $1 billion in US aid annually, which largely goes to the military.

“These parliamentary elections are in many ways more important than the presidential election,” said Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian Ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2008 who now heads up the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Cairo.

“This parliament will shape the future of Egypt,” said Fahmy, explaining that the new constitution the parliament will adopt will provide a framework for what role religion and the military will play in Egypt where the idea of democracy is still a hope, not yet a reality.

Behind the import of this election are of course the human stories of Egyptians who are changed by the historic events shaping their country and their lives. And this was the strength of our team of young reporters, to unearth stories that provide insight and enlightenment on where Egypt is on the edge of these elections.

One group of reporters told the story of Samira Ibrahim, a 25-year-old protester who was arrested in Tahrir Square and detained by the Egyptian military where she and other women were forced to undergo what is called a “virginity test.” Ibrahim has taken the courageous step of coming forward with a case against the military in which she claims she was raped by the armed officers who administered the test. The case is pending, and as human rights organizations in Egypt and around the world support her claim, the military is facing unprecedented scrutiny.

Another group told the story of the Coptic Christian minority community of Shoubra and an unsettling feeling that has descended over their neighborhood amid the specter of sectarian violence in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. There have been church burnings and individual attacks in regions of Upper Egypt, including Minya, where a group of reporters traveled to see first hand what was happening in these gritty, industrial backwater towns. But most of all they focused on the brutal military crackdown on a Christian protest in front of the state television center, known as Maspero. Twenty-seven Coptic Christian demonstrators were killed in the violence and scores were wounded.

In a compelling video, the team told the story of two Coptic women whose lives intersected in what has become known by Copts as ‘the Maspero massacre.’

Another team of reporters set out to tell the story of the enormous economic impact of the revolution. They went to tourist attractions like the pyramids and documented a slight return to business. They explored factories struggling with strikes and the process of renationalization and captured a mood of uncertainty and anxiety. They provided context, as well, pointing out that a climate of economic uncertainty is a global phenomenon, not just a result of Egypt’s popular uprising against a dictator.

For 30 years America backed Mubarak and his autocratic regime in the name of regional security even as that support stood in sharp contrast to American rhetoric on democracy and more recently undercut the idealism and hope that President Barack Obama brought to Egypt when he addressed the country and the Muslim world in Cairo in June of 2009 titled, “A New Beginning.”

Now as Egypt sets out on its own "new beginning," there are many who are anxious to see the country move from a model of state-sponsored news organizations to a more independent press. What role a free press might play in the new Egypt is a question that looms over this election and the historic moment in which Egypt finds itself.

US Ambassador Anne W. Patterson delivered an address to the GlobalPost reporting fellows at a Cairo dinner attended by politicians, publishers, diplomats and dignitaries, saying, “The government must guarantee the press its freedom and in exchange the press must report the truth.”

On one day in October when a few of our reporting fellows were out pursuing truths in Tahrir Square, some members of the editing team accompanied them. We saw GlobalPost photographer Ben Brody, who was selected to be one of the reporting fellows, trying to capture the feel of Tahrir on a typical Friday in the aftermath of the revolution and on the eve of the election.

Tahrir Square was filling up with men, young and old, pouring out of the nearby mosque after the noon prayer.

They clustered in groups on the sidewalks of Tahrir Square, the now historic urban center where Egyptians gathered for a wave of protests that toppled Mubarak on Feb. 11. And these Egyptians traded conversation, told jokes and argued relentlessly. They bought newspapers which on this day were filled with garish photos of the downfall and death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Families gathered and went about shopping and stopping for tea.

On this day, it was clear the square continues to be the place where the country’s conversation of revolution and what it means unfolds on a daily basis.

Amid the crowd, Sheikh Gamil Alan, a dean emeritus of the law school at al-Azhar, the Muslim world’s premiere theological institute with more than 1,000 years of tradition, climbed the few steps to take a rickety stage. He was aging with gray hair and a long gray beard and the traditional scholarly robes and red-felt fez of an al-Azhar scholar. A younger man helped him up to the podium and turned on the microphone, which whined and then screeched with feedback.

We had spent some time with Sheikh Alan before he took the stage and he told us he wanted to address the crowd about where Egypt was at that moment in time and about the fateful, pending election of a new parliament and the historic opportunity that body will have to write a new constitution. It was time to really talk about the issues, he said.

Up on stage, he spoke into the microphone to what seemed a lingering and listless crowd, saying, “We need a road map to rescue Egypt.”

But as he tried to speak, the loud speakers were distorting and there was more screeching feedback. Across the road a few dozen protesters, some of them waving Syrian flags, chanted for the downfall of Bashar Assad in Syria. They were shouting, “We are staying, Assad is going!” It was a variation of a popular chant — “We are staying, Mubarak is going” — during the days of January and February when Tahrir Square was packed with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in 18 heady days that toppled the regime.

Amid the shouting and the distortion and the cacophony of sound there was not much of a chance for a hearing on the big issues on that day in Tahrir Square. Slowly, the crowd turned away as the sound of the feedback grew more and more difficult. And the knowledgeable sheikh with his reasoned arguments and desire to help his countrymen focus on the issues descended the stage, disappointed but not disheartened.

“The revolution is one very, long conversation, it will continue,” he told us.

“We don’t know where this is going,” he added. “But we will find our way.”

This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.