How legitimate is a revolution when the people have to look to the military for help? It is a question that begs asking, and an important one, says Yasmin al-Gouchi, among the leaders of the vast recent protests that resulted in the military stepping in to remove Mohammed Morsi from the presidency. Her friends agree, it is an important question. But they would prefer to answer it later.
After all, this isn't the moment for difficult questions, not now, shortly after a revolution has taken place. Al-Gouchi, a kindly young woman, risked her life a dozen times in recent weeks and she almost ended up in prison. But last Wednesday, he and her fellow protesters finally prevailed.
What exactly that will mean for the country remains to be seen. Violence over the weekend was certainly not a good omen and on Monday morning, a clash between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the military resulted in at least 42 dead. The Islamist group urged Egyptians to rise up against the army as a consequence. Furthermore, the conservative Islamist Nour party said it was withdrawing from talks on the formation of an interim government.
Still, there was an immediate attempt by the interim leadership to calm the situation, with the interim leadership expressing "deep regret," according to Reuters, and pledging to set up a judicial committee to investigate what went wrong. Mohamed ElBaradei, who is involved in the interim leadership, though his exact capacity has not yet been finalized, tweeted on Monday that his country was in "dire need" of reconciliation.
Last Wednesday, of course, the extent of the coming violence could not be foreseen and Al-Gouchi and the protest movement danced, sang and rejoiced in front of the presidential palace in Cairo until 4 a.m., and then they went to the apartment they had rented two months earlier, on the top floor of a 10-story building, with no nameplate on the door. Only nine people knew that this was where the revolution lived, says Yasmin. They call the apartment the "control room." Their computers are still there, and it's also where they hid some of their lists of signatures.
A Moving Speech
They were happy and relieved on the night after the victory, says Yasmin, if only because they hadn't been thrown in prison. They were in high spirits, celebrating Mahmoud Badr, their elected leader, who had sat behind army chief General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi when he made the all-important announcement on television. President Mohammed Morsi, he said, had "failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people," and was being replaced by Adly Mansour, head of the Supreme Constitutional Court. He also said that there would be elections soon, and an interim government would run the country until then.
The seating arrangement for the announcement was symbolic of the nature of the coup: the general in the middle, surrounded by the Coptic pope, the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar University, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, and Mahmoud Badr, the leader of the rebellious youth movement. The general spoke, and then Badr stepped up to the microphone and gave a moving speech.
But what exactly happened on that evening? How does one define a coup against the government by both the people and the military? Was it a sign of a lack of democratic consciousness, or just the opposite?
Eventually the rebels became tired in their control room. It had grown light outside, and at 8 a.m. al-Gouchi went to sleep on one of the cots set up in the room. Her last thought before closing her eyes was that there was nothing they couldn't achieve.
Al-Gouchi is a friendly and inconspicuous 25-year-old woman from Cairo. She wears a light-colored headscarf, has a boyfriend, loves Verdi operas and Beethoven sonatas, and she is a fan of actor Adil Imam, as well as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former president and popular hero. "I'm afraid I have ordinary taste," she says.
In the Name of the People
But despite her modesty, Al-Gouchi was one of the co-founders of Tamarud, or Rebellion, perhaps the largest peaceful protest movement in the Arab world. It began with only nine young, angry Egyptians from the middle class, but they recruited others, organized their effort and spent months planning. In the end, they had collected what they claim were 22 million signatures opposing Morsi, and had brought three million people into the streets. In doing so, they convinced the military to overthrow the government in the name of the people.
President Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, voted into office a year ago, was deposed and placed under house arrest. Several members of the Brotherhood were detained temporarily, their broadcast stations were taken off the air and their newspapers shut down.
Confused Western politicians, criticizing the means but praising the end, avoided using the word coup, instead referring to it as a military intervention undertaken to avert a more disastrous outcome. According to the organization Human Rights Watch, dozens have been killed in street fighting since the end of June.
Al-Gouchi ended up spending half the day sleeping after the revolution, with Apache helicopters circling above the Nile River bridges and air force fighter jets roaring through the skies above Cairo. Mohamed Sharaf, though, arrived in his office at 9 a.m. sharp on the first morning post-Morsi. Sharaf, a computer expert, is a cheerful and jovial man in his early 40s, the father of two sons. "I was a completely normal, harmless citizen" before the revolution, he says.
Sharaf spent last Wednesday night in front of the television, explaining politics to his sons and discussing the events of the day with his wife. That night, he says, marked the end of the life he had led until then, and the beginning of a new life. He had been part of an apolitical middle class, a group that is referred to reproachfully, but half in jest, as "Hisb al-Kanaba," or the Sofa Party, people who sit on their sofas and leave politics to others. "But in the last two months I realized that I had to become involved," he says. "Absolutely! Otherwise my country would go downhill. We couldn't allow the Muslim Brotherhood to control Egypt."
'We Want an Islamic State!'
On the day after Morsi's overthrow, members of the Muslim Brotherhood withdrew to neighborhoods like Nasr City, the Islamist stronghold in the northeastern part of Cairo. An estimated 7,000 people gathered in front of the Raba'a al-Adaweya Mosque, where they pitched tents -- an entire tent city, in fact. It was a clear sign that they intend to stay. The crowd consisted mostly of men, from young to very old, all with stern faces. Many carried hardhats, baseball bats or thick sticks. Everywhere, there were images of their ousted president.
One of the men was a 45-year-old bookkeeper named Fahmi Fawzi. Muscular, bearded and wearing a blue baseball cap, he was furious. "We want the whole world to know," he said. "They didn't give us a chance, the military, the Christians, the foreign agents and supporters of the old regime who infiltrated Tamarud. We Muslim Brothers are the victims of a criminal coup."
As Fawzi spoke, about 100 men lined up behind him. A man with a microphone began to stir up the crowd, shouting: "We want an Islamic state!" The men shouted in response: "We want an Islamic state! An Islamic state!"
These are three very different Egyptians: Yasmin al-Gouchi, the Tamarud activist; Mohamed Sharaf, the citizen who has shaken awake by events; and Fahmi Fawzi, the embittered member of the Muslim Brotherhood. They don't know each other, but each of them played a role in shaping Egypt's fate in recent days and weeks.
Without the fiercely determined Tamarud activists, Sharaf would never have brought himself to demonstrate on Tahrir Square and demand Morsi's overthrow. It would not have occurred to him that it was time to change his life. Without Sharaf and the other apolitical, outraged citizens, Tamarud would have remained a clique of dreamers sitting in Internet cafés. And without the alliance between Tamarud and Hisb al-Kanaba, the Muslim Brotherhood would probably still be in power, and Fahmi Fawzi would be a happy man. He would have been able to rise through the ranks of the Brotherhood's strict hierarchy with the prospect of earning more money and gaining more respect.
The story of these three Egyptians is the story of a recaptured revolution -- or of a coup, depending on one's standpoint. It began with a "Day of Rage" on Jan. 25, 2011 and came to its first climax on Feb. 11, 2011, the day the military forced Hosni Mubarak to resign. It reached its second climax last week, when his successor was overthrown. In the interim, there was a constitutional referendum, a parliamentary and a presidential election, protests by millions of people and dozens of dead, wild strikes and senseless violence. And yet, as the events of Sunday evening indicate, the story is far from over.
'This Is Our Democracy'
"This is only the beginning," said Sharaf on the morning after the revolution. He and Hussam Hussain, a coworker, were sitting in their office, too wound up to work. Sharaf was considering whether to go to Tahrir Square in the afternoon. Hussain had been there on the previous evening together with his wife. She was afraid, he explains, "but I told her that we couldn't stay out of this, and that had to do our part. This is our democracy, and now it's up to us to shape it."
The wives of the two men -- a teacher and an attorney -- voted for Morsi a year ago. They believed that he was incorruptible because he was pious and, more importantly, that he came with a clean slate, unlike his opponent Ahmed Shafik, a former member of the Mubarak camp. Sharaf and Hussain didn't know which of the two candidates to vote for, so they chose not to vote. But they accepted the outcome, thinking that this was what happened in a democracy.
"But Morsi made some dramatic mistakes," says Sharaf. "And when you notice that the pilot is unable to fly the plane, you have to get him out of the cockpit. You can't say: Leave him be, because he has a four-year employment contract!" Egypt isn't a flight simulator, say the two men.
Still, even as the country has been wrested from the Muslim Brotherhood's control, the way forward will be full of tough challenges. Al-Gouchi and her Tamarud activists will have to turn their skillful guerilla tactics into something more suited to everyday life, and they have to be careful not to allow themselves to be crushed. The party of couch potatoes cannot succumb to old routines, and people like Sharaf and Hussain will have to hold onto their sense of political responsibility. "My wife will now join a party," says Hussain. "It isn't my thing, but I will support her."
And the Muslim Brotherhood? It will have to find a new role. If it wants to avoid descending into sectarianism, it will have to shed its conspiracy theories and fantasies of omnipotence. It has the most difficult role to play in the current political drama. Fawzi and his fellow Islamists still haven't realized that Egypt has changed. First and foremost, it will have to do its part to prevent the kind of violence that struck on Monday morning -- and calling for an uprising against the Egyptian military is certainly not going to help.
Still, the violence was perhaps not unexpected. Last Friday, tens of thousands of Morsi supporters converged on Tahrir Square, spurred on by Mohammed Badie, the head of the Brotherhood. At a previous rally, he had said: "We will sacrifice ourselves, our souls and our blood, for President Morsi." That Molotov cocktails flew through the air, shots were fired and scuffles ensued late last week seemed to be part of the plan.
It only worsened throughout the weekend and the casualty count has risen. Indeed, there is more and more talk about Algeria now, a country where Islamists won an election, the military staged a coup and the ensuing civil war cost tens of thousands of lives. Egypt is certainly not Algeria, but society is deeply polarized, and no one knows what the Muslim Brotherhood will do next. Will it take part in elections? Will it go underground again? Will there be attacks and political murders again, as there were in the past?
Al-Gouchi and two of her fellow activists, Sara Kamal and Mai Wachbar, were sitting at a McDonald's restaurant in the Dokki neighborhood, not far from Tahrir Square, last week. They were drinking tea and eating strawberry yoghurt as Arab pop music blared from the loudspeakers. Their laptops were open.
We asked Al-Gouchi the same question again: How legitimate is a revolution when it needs the military's support?
"That's an important point," she says. "We discussed it often at the beginning. But it's also very theoretical. The reality, however, was like this: We had nothing, while the Muslim Brotherhood had the government machine on its side. Getting the army involved was our only option." She pushes her yoghurt to the side. "To be perfectly honest, many of us gave Morsi a chance at first, but we were quickly disappointed."
A Majority on Paper
Morsi was elected in late June 2012, after winning 51.7 percent of the vote in a runoff election. But turnout was low, with only a little more than half of all eligible voters going to the polls. Furthermore, many only voted for him because his rival was a former member of the Mubarak administration. In the end, only about a quarter of voters truly wanted to see Morsi in office. It was a majority on paper, formally legitimate, but Morsi used it as a moral carte blanche. And within only one year he had managed to alienate an overwhelming majority of Egyptians.
This is why the question of the legitimacy of this coup is so complicated, a question that can only be answered by considering the events of the last year.
Al-Gouchi, Sharaf and many other protesters accuse Morsi of making three mistakes. First, they argue that Morsi took every opportunity to place his supporters in government positions, the media, the judiciary and the police, while caring very little about their competency. "We care about a person's ability to solve a problem," says Sharaf, "and not about whether he is devout." The low point, says Al-Gouchi, was Morsi's attempt to push through an Islamic constitution in November 2012.
Second, they fault Morsi for his inability to unite the nation, and for his complete lack of sensitivity. When the new Coptic pope came into office, Morsi made a point of keeping his distance. He tolerated Islamist clerics agitating against Christians, Shiites and liberals. And he appointed a member of the radical group Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya as governor of Luxor, a city where the terrorist group had once committed attacks on tourists.
Morsi's third mistake, say his critics, lies in his handling of the economy. "Of course Morsi couldn't get rid of decades of corruption overnight," says Sharaf. "But what did he do? Nothing at all. This year, we have learned that the Muslim Brotherhood is a corrupt mafia group itself." Gasoline became scarce and there were frequent power outages. The Egyptian pound lost value and the cost of bread and many other goods rose.
No Politics at McDonald's
The reasons for these failures lie in the history of the Brotherhood. Founded in 1928, it has operated largely as an underground group since then, taking a tactical approach, and yet consistently behaving with a conspiratorial martyr-like mentality. Many of its members and leaders spent time in prison, which explains the group's constant thinking in terms of "us" and "them."
"You can't even have a normal conversation with Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Their worldview is isolationist and they see conspiracies everywhere," says Al-Gouchi. "And they also believe that they are acting on God's behalf, which makes them obstinate." This distrustfulness is like an infectious disease, she says, "and it's spread throughout the entire society."
The young women of Tamarud were speaking passionately and loudly, in voices hoarse from singing and shouting. One of the guests occasionally looked up from his milkshake. Suddenly the manager appeared at their table, looking tense and surly. The women should leave immediately, he says, because political discussions were not welcome at McDonald's.
The three young women hesitated for a moment before closing up their laptops. Then they got up, not deigning to look at the man. "There are more important things to worry about," says Yasmin by way of explanation. And then they left.