As hundreds of people gathered Friday in central Cairo in the familiar tableau of chants and slogans demanding reform, dozens of others gathered indoors for the less exhilarating work of developing a media strategy for a new political party.
All agree on one thing: the revolution is not yet finished. But two months since the beginning of the revolution that toppled Egypt’s president, ideas are diverging on how to continue the fight. Some of the young people who played a key part in the movement see reason to continue taking their demands to the street, while others find the battle now lies in political organization and mobilization ahead of upcoming elections.
Whatever their strategy, the fight will be tough. Many of the protesters' demands have yet to be met, such as freeing all political prisoners and ending the emergency law that gives vast authority to Egypt’s rulers and severely curtails civil rights. And this week, the interim cabinet approved a draft law that criminalizes some protests and strikes, with punishment of prison sentences or a fine of up to a half a million Egyptian pounds (about $84,000). It remains unclear when the military council ruling Egypt might adopt the law.
Sherif Abdul Azim was in the streets alongside millions of other Egyptians throughout the heady days of the revolution. With his beret and shaggy hair, he looks the part of a leftist revolutionary. Yet Friday, he was working on media development for the new Egyptian Social Democratic Party. Founders are using their own cash to set up a headquarters, build a website, hold seminars around the country, and build a presence in the country’s 29 governorates.
The youngest member of the party’s steering committee, Mr. Abdul Azim says he supports the protests but his energy is better spent elsewhere. “The party is my priority,” he says. “If we brought 40 people to the protest, it wouldn’t make a difference. But 40 people working for hours for the party will make a big difference.”
'We have to be fighting on all levels'
Meanwhile, Salma Said was protesting on the streets of Cairo. The young blogger and activist, also one of the revolutionary protesters, has of late been a vocal critic of the Army’s detention and military trial of protesters. She helped organize Friday’s demonstration in Tahrir Square after news broke of the new law banning protests.
“People are saying that there are other things we need to concentrate on, the people are tired and bored of Tahrir,” says Ms. Said. “I completely disagree with them and I think going back to the streets is our priority right now."
She has been one of the voices highlighting the actions of the Army, which in the past month has detained and severely beaten and humiliated hundreds of protesters. Thousands have been tried in military courts without access to civilian lawyers and sentenced to years in prison after trials as short as five minutes. She says political organization is essential, but not at the expense of protesting.
“I personally think that we are still fighting the same fight that we were two months ago. We're still defending human dignity, and trying to defend our right to protest in the first place,” she says. “People are being arrested and tortured, and sit-ins are being ended by the Army using electric prods. … I think that we have to be fighting on all levels at the same time, but that we can't give up the streets.”
Yet the Army appears to have decided that the time for protests is over. Officers violently removed the remaining demonstrators from Tahrir Square on March 9, beating and humiliating many of them in the nearby Egyptian museum. Female protesters who were detained say they were subjected to forced “virginity checks” and threatened with being charged as prostitutes. Others have been detained since, and Wednesday soldiers forcibly dispersed a student sit-in at Cairo University, where communications students were demanding the ouster of the dean, who has ties to ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Flagging support for protests
While these actions felt like a slap in the face to the revolutionaries, they failed to rouse anger in some Egyptians who supported the revolution but now want to see a quick transition back to normalcy. On radio stations this week, callers supported the law criminalizing protests and strikes, speaking of a desire to allow Egypt’s economy to get back on its feet, and urging citizens to give the new government a chance to show results.
Flagging public support for protests is part of the reason why some say the revolutionary battlefield should be moved from Tahrir Square to parliamentary districts. “This is the part where we stop playing revolution, and start playing politics for the sake of the country,” Egyptian blogger Mahmoud Salem argued on his blog Rantings of a Sandmonkey this week. “This means caring more about perception and public support over righteous and legitimate demands.”
For the secular youth who played a key part in the uprising, the need to win public support was hammered home by the results of last week’s referendum on constitutional amendments. Many, though not all, of the revolutionaries opposed it, arguing the swift timetable it imposed for holding new elections allowed little time for new parties to organize, leaving the remnants of the former ruling National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood with the advantage. Both movements have deep, nation-wide organizational structures already in place, and supported the amendments.
The referendum passed with 77 percent of the vote.
With parliamentary elections now planned for September, new parties are springing up and sprinting into action to organize a national following, including the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, a collection of liberals and leftists who believe in a civic state, a code word in Egypt for secular. They are so far optimistic. They sent 500 invitations to the party’s first conference, expecting about 300 to show up, and were overwhelmed when more than 1,000 people came.
Still, they face a difficult road building support in the face of organized and entrenched movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. “That will be a big battle,” says Emad Gad, another member of the steering committee. “But if we have only six months, we will do in six months what we would have done in one year.”