Interview

Egyptians Frustrated Over Direction of Revolution

Signs that many doubt the protest movement will achieve its demands of sweeping reforms.
  • Are hopes of Tahrir Square protesters fading? (Photo: Ammar Al Shahbander/IWPR)

Tens of thousands gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last week frustrated with the direction of the revolution. Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, assess the public's mood and expectations.

With Hosni Mubarak long gone, what is motivating people to carry on protesting?

Friday July 8 saw one of the largest rallies in Tahrir Square since Mubarak stepped down, with large protests in other cities across northern Egypt, notably in Suez, which was the site of some of the fiercest fighting in late January and remains a focal point of tension and protest. In Tahrir last Friday, the atmosphere was very good, despite the blazing sun and heat. It was 45 degrees. One of the best chants I heard was some people shouting “The people want a revolution in January!”

People there are frustrated with the direction the country is taking in general, and in particular regarding the ongoing trials of police officers charged with crimes committed during the uprising.

There was a lot of bad news in the last week or so; there were confrontations between the families of some of those murdered in the revolution and the police, which escalated into almost 24 hours of clashes in central Cairo.

A number of police officers charged with offences were bailed in Suez, which disturbed a lot of people.

Then there is the perceived slow pace of efforts to try Mubarak and the fact that four ministers were acquitted of some of the corruption charges against them. So this series of events has alarmed a lot of people.

Have people lost faith that real change is possible?

There is a general sentiment, which has been very common in conversations I have had in Cairo and around the country, where people ask sarcastically, “Was there a revolution? I haven’t felt any change. I haven't seen my rights.”

Many people have told me this. Some do realise that this is a very long process and that patience is needed - it’s not possible to change a country overnight. There are those who even say that if it doesn’t happen in their lifetime, then their children will live to see it.

Others are far more impatient. But I think what the clashes of the last week and the numbers on the streets recently shows is that people will still come out if they feel things are not moving in the right direction. This underlines the importance of stable, functioning state institutions, of boosting the economy and improving people’s daily lives, while still carrying out the kind of deep and far-reaching reforms people say they want.

It is a delicate balance of maintaining stability while making changes many long for and fought for. My personal view is that the situation will remain volatile, and public opinion will continue to oscillate, until people can feel positive change in their daily lives.

Has a coherent post-revolution protest movement emerged in recent months?

No. No single group can claim to speak for the protesters or indeed for the public at large. If anything, the trend has been in the other direction - toward fragmentation. The various "revolutionary coalitions" that claimed to speak for the protesters have split into a bewildering array of groups. No one can claim to speak for the crowds. None of the new political parties that have sprung up can at present convincingly claim to speak for a majority of the people who protested during the original 18 days, or since, let alone the millions who did not.

Some in the crowds say this is a good thing - that they are speaking for themselves, and that they will continue to pressure the politicians, even if they themselves don't join political parties or get involved in formal politics. But it does make taking the energy of the protests into the corridors of power and politics more difficult. Nonetheless, depending on what is going on, at various times there are enough people in the country who are dissatisfied enough to come into the streets to protest.

The generals who now run the country have publicly expressed their frustration with the apparent “mission creep” of the revolution, with the seemingly unending demands. People have all kinds of grievances: political, legal, economic, all the way down to the removal of their manager at a state-owned company. 

But if the generals' original calculation was that they could simply remove the president, strike a few articles from the constitution and sack a few unpopular ministers, then by now they have realised they are in for a much bumpier ride. The longer they remain in power, the harder it is going to be for them to emerge unscathed as heroes of the revolution, honoured by the history books.

Where is the protest movement headed in the coming months?

There are still people in Tahrir Square. But now, many people who were active in the first flush of the revolution are focusing on the rest of Egypt. Egypt is not just Cairo, and they realise that because the regime ruled so many aspects of life in this country, they have to bring the revolution to the local institutions – to factories, universities, and local government.

People in the countryside have their own grievances and demands. And they are far more politically engaged than the elite in the capital give them credit for. I am always impressed in my conversations with farmers and workers with how aware they are of the issues and how well-informed they are, compared to many of those in proper democracies with money to spare for education.

And I think there's a growing realisation among activists that what is needed is more than for them to go and lecture people about citizenship or the importance of a civil state; that they also need to listen to their demands and find out what issues they want solved. Politics will have to become much more of a two-way exchange of information, and voters, including those outside the big cities, want to know how these new political alliances are going to help them.

Daniella Peled is the editor of IWPR's Arab Spring project. 


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