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Beyond Tahrir Square

 



By Jenna Krajeski

CAIRO—On January 25, Akram Youssef, a mechanical engineer in his early 30s, was relaxing at his childhood home in Heliopolis, a residential neighborhood in east Cairo. It was National Police Day, and Youssef, like much of the country, was off from work. A coalition of youth activists had called for demonstrations that day, to protest the brutal tactics of Egypt’s police and state-security forces. Youssef had supported previous protests against Mubarak and his regime’s tactics. Still, he was skeptical of the day’s events. “You can’t schedule a revolution,” he thought.

In his university days, Youssef had been active in politics. “I would have liked to have been a politician,” he says, drinking tea and smoking a shisha pipe at a coffeehouse in downtown Cairo. But like many other young Egyptians, he became disillusioned and abandoned activism—scared off, in part, by the potential price of publicly opposing Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian rule: harassment, prison, torture. As Youssef puts it, for educated young men of the middle-class who wanted to succeed in Mubarak’s Egypt, there were really only three possible professions: “pharmacist, doctor, engineer.” He chose the third, limiting his engagement with social issues to working with underprivileged children.

As the day went on and protests began to gather around the city, Youssef was persuaded by some friends to head to the Supreme Court building on Ramses Street. To his disappointment, he recognized everyone he saw gathered outside the building. “It was the same people I saw at every protest,” he says. He was thinking of heading home when he received a call from his father, who had been involved in opposition politics as a young man. To Youssef’s surprise, his father wanted to head to Tahrir Square, where he had heard a crowd was gathering, and wanted Youssef to join him. Together, they walked through the square, still empty but for hundreds of black-clad riot policemen. They crossed the Qasr al-Nil Bridge and then the Galaa Bridge, arriving in the upscale neighborhood of Mohandeseen. There, they found a crowd.

“It was a very strange moment,” Youssef recalls. “The people were control­ling everything.” As the crowd began to march toward Tahrir, they were joined by people leaving their homes and stores, em­boldened by the growing numbers of pro­testers. “Now, there were all the activists I know, but also thousands of others,” he says. They encountered lines of riot police on the Galaa Bridge, which shook when the protesters all began jumping up and down, shouting, “This is a peaceful pro­test!” The crowd finally broke through the police lines, spilling into Tahrir Square.

There, they were met by tear gas, water cannons, and a barrage of rubber bullets. By dusk, Youssef was convinced. This time, it was different. Three days later, he was among the thousands of protestors who finally took full control of Tahrir, overcoming the state-security police and beginning a weeks-long occupation. “The space we all existed in was changed,” he says. “It was a revolution.”

The revolution engaged a broad spectrum of Egyptians, whose competing visions were momentarily drowned out by the unifying goal of ridding themselves of Mubarak. But at its core were young people, like Youssef, who dream of turning Egypt into a genuine secular democracy. Their strength—indeed, their very existence—came as a shock to much of Egypt, and to much of the outside world. Now, however, the fate of their ambitious project is in doubt. As international attention inevitably drifted elsewhere, the tide in Egypt has turned from revolutionary to counterrevolutionary. The military government that took over after Mubarak’s departure has cracked down on dissent and shown few sign of embracing democratic reforms that might threaten their power and privileges. The unity of Tahrir has given way to violence between Muslims and Coptic Christians. It’s an environment that favors the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood—long accustomed to organizing under repressive conditions—over the inexperienced and disorganized secular youth groups that were the driving force of the revolution.

Youssef and his fellow revolutionaries are now faced with a sobering prospect. Was it possible that they had enough power to topple Mubarak, but not enough to avoid being pushed aside in the new Egypt? Now that Tahrir Square has been cleared, is there a place for them in the country’s politics?

FROM REVOLUTION TO POLITICS

Conventional wisdom had long held that the only group that truly threatened Mubarak’s rule was the Muslim Brother­hood. But the Brotherhood came late to the revolution, and its involvement had little impact on the mostly secular character of the demonstrations and unrest that ulti­mately brought down the government.

When Mubarak resigned in mid-February, a group of senior military officers formed a caretaker government. They pledged to move Egypt toward democracy. But it immediately became clear that the secular-minded young people who had been the primary agents of change in January and February would not necessarily see their influence survive. Indeed, by mid-March, the counterrevolution was well underway. The military government announced that all protests were now illegal. Those who defied the order were arrested by military police. Many were beaten, and some detained women reported being subjected to “virginity tests.” Media coverage of the military is now routinely censored, and in April, a well-known blogger named Maikel Nabil was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting the military institution and publishing false news about it.”

The military government proposed a handful of amendments to the constitution that did little to ensure democratic reform. The amendments were approved in a pub­lic referendum, with the endorsement of the Muslim Brotherhood—a possible sign of a tacit alliance between the military and the Islamists, which worried many of the secular revolutionaries. The government has promised parliamentary elections in September, but has not committed to an official schedule. In the meantime, secu­lar-democrats and liberals are scrambling to organize. The result has been an amor­phous array of organizations and parties, each trying to define a platform and iden­tify leaders to sell it to the Egyptian pub­lic. For young people who have lived their entire lives under an autocrat rule, it is an exercise in the unknown.

One such organization is the Union of Progressive Youth, an umbrella orga­nization that formed in the early days in Tahrir Square. A wide range of groups be­longs to the Union, including the April 6 Youth Movement, the group primarily responsible for the initial demonstrations in January. It also includes representa­tives from the National Association for Change, founded by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and diplomat who in­tends to run for president when elections are held. There are also members from the youth factions of the old-line oppo­sition parties—groups that were so weak and compromised that Mubarak tolerated their existence. Lastly, the Union includes representatives from a group of young­er Muslim Brotherhood members who have split with the party’s older, more conservative leadership and constitute a newly emboldened “liberal” wing of the Islamist group.

Akram Youssef has become a key player in the Union, taking charge of the group’s organizing efforts outside of Cairo—in the rural, poor, and more tradi­tional Egyptian towns and villages where the Union’s ideas might be expected to hold the least appeal. But it’s not just the content of the ideas that might prove a challenge; it’s also their form of com­munication. Egypt’s so-called “Facebook revolutionaries” are now confronting the task of spreading their message to people and places barely touched by the Internet and social media, but where many resi­dents still chose to take part in the anti-Mubarak protests.

It’s a daunting task, one that has con­centrated Youssef’s mind on thoughts far from the revolutionary fervor of February. “The worst thing for everyone is if the military stays in power,” he says. “But in order for that not to happen, we need to compromise.”

In mid-April, at a coffeehouse not far from Tah­rir Square, Youssef is surrounded by other young people, many of them engaged in loud, animated political debates that only weeks earlier would have been impossible in public. In this milieu, where revolution­ary passions are still running high, Youssef  strikes a distinctly cautious, conciliatory tone. “Being on the left means you will always struggle against humiliation and injustice,” he says, pulling on his shisha pipe. “But, to be militant in politics is to be unsuccessful.”

Youssef is tall, with a darker complex­ion than most Cairenes, owing to his fami­ly’s roots in Asyut, a town in Upper Egypt, 200 miles south of Cairo. He dresses like an American college student—black-­rimmed glasses, light blue Levis worn low on his waist. When he speaks, he sweeps the air around him with his large hands, pausing pointedly before phrases he thinks are particularly apt. He is becoming the politician he used to dream of being—and he’s proving to be quite good at it.

This is a personal transformation that has eluded many of his peers, some of whom either disapprove of Youssef’s shift or remain too invested in their self-image as revolutionaries to make the change themselves. But Youssef’s blend of prag­matism and vision—and his method of systematic, targeted campaigning among Egypt’s rural lower classes—might rep­resent the last, best hope for Egypt’s left. Time is not on their side. The course Egypt takes will depend to a great extent on whether they remain relevant without betraying the principles of their revolu­tion—or each other.

“A BAD WORD”

Since Mubarak’s resignation, Egypt’s political landscape has been flooded with new voices. It’s a dramatic shift from previous eras, when Mubarak and his predecessors repressed liberal thought and politics even more successfully than they silenced political Islam. “Since 1952, liberalism has been systematically undermined as an ideology and practice,” says Khaled Fahmy, the chairman of the history department at the American University in Cairo and a preeminent scholar of modern Egypt. “The word itself is nearly a bad word.” For Youssef and many of his fellow Tahrir revolutionaries, the word “liberal” implies moderate politics lacking action; indeed, Youssef strongly resists association with the word.

In addition to overtly repressive tactics, Egypt’s autocrats could always rely on a linkage in the public mind between liberal ideas and the West. Worse than being out of touch with “normal people,” the vision of a secular, democratic, free-market Egypt came to be viewed as an anti-Islamic Western import. “The perception is that ‘liberal’ means pro-West and anti­religious,” says Issandr El Amrani, a well-regarded analyst of Egyptian politics who edits a popular website called The Arabist.

The end of the Mubarak era did not eliminate the fear of being tainted as somehow un-Egyptian. When The New York Times ran an article describing how American NGOs provided protest leaders with training and assistance, the April 6 Youth Movement angrily denied the re­port, and even threatened to sue.

One result of a half-century of intense re­pression is that there are no clear, consensus liberal-democratic leaders. Instead, what has emerged in the past few months is a confus­ing hodgepodge of competing groups and individuals. More than 20 new liberal par­ties have been formed, while groups like the Union of Progressive Youth remain of­ficially uninvolved in party politics. For its part, the April 6 Youth Movement chose to become an NGO rather than risk alienating members by registering as a political party. By staying on the sidelines, it has in effect put the fate of the revolution in the hands of a reform process from which it is abstaining.

The divisions and lack of coordination that have beset these groups have been dis­heartening to many in the West. During a visit to Egypt in March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a group of lead­ers from the Tahrir protests. “I looked at these 20 young people around the table, and they were complaining about how the elections are going to be held, and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists are so well organized, and the remnants of the old National Democratic Party are so well organized,” she later recounted to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. “I said, ‘So, well, are you organizing? Do you have an um­brella group that is going to represent the youth of Egypt? Do you have a political agenda?’ And they all looked up and said no. It made my heart sink.”

THE ISLAMISTS

This lack of unity puts the liberals at a distinct disadvantage, especially compared to the Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned under Mubarak, but as an op­position group, it gained traction on the street level, courting support with door-to-door campaigns and offering social ser­vices that the state was failing to provide. A rival set of Islamists, the Salafis—who espouse a more extreme, anti-democratic version of Islamism than the Brotherhood—are also a small but vocal presence in post-revolution Egypt.

The Brotherhood’s reach was made clear in 2005, when, under international scrutiny, the Mubarak regime held elections that were less rigged than usual. Running as independent candidates, Brotherhood members won 20 percent of the parliamentary seats.

The enduring street-level influence of the entire spectrum of Islamists was on display during March’s constitutional referendum. The military asked Egyptians to pass a handful of constitutional amendments, paving the way for elections to take place quickly. Liberal groups opposed the plan, dismissing the amendments as half-steps, and fearing that the schedule was designed to deny them time to properly organize and prepare for elections. The Brotherhood supported the amendments, hoping to take advantage of their organizational head start. Elements within the Brotherhood campaigned in support of the amendments on the message that a “no” vote was a vote “against Islam.” The amendments passed with a whopping 77 percent of the vote.

The results shocked the activists who had played key roles in the revolution, like members of the April 6 Youth Movement. “We made a big mistake during the ref­erendum,” says cofounder Ahmed Abdel Aziz. “While we were meeting with the Supreme Military Council and appearing on TV, the Salafis and the Muslim Brother­hood were on the streets. There is no doubt that we have to go down to the street to deliver the message face to face.” The “yes” vote confirmed what Abdel Aziz and his fellow revolutionaries feared—after the protesters went home, the loudest voices on the street belonged to the Islamists, who were championing the wishes of the military government.

The referendum results also highlighted the gap between average Egyptians—“normal people,” as Abdel Aziz called them—and activists. “The society of activists thought it was going to be ‘no,’” Abdel Aziz says. “We were asking people how they would vote, but only on Facebook.” The activists were accustomed to working from an Internet control room—and being praised in the press as the progenitors of a “Facebook Revolution.” Now, they have learned the hard way that swaying individual votes online may be only a virtual reality.

On the streets, the young liberals don’t just have the Islamists to contend with. There are also the remnants of the National Democratic Party (NDP), the organization through which Mubarak ruled. The party has been officially disbanded, and many of its top officials have been arrested or are being investigated—including Mubarak himself and his two sons. But the NDP ma­chine lives on. NDP players who manage to survive the current period might be able to take advantage of their years of experience and the patronage networks they created during the Mubarak era. Some of them also still enjoy a level of popular support. “The NDP didn’t win past elections only by cheating,” notes El Amrani, the political analyst. “They also got votes.”

If there was a positive side to the ref­erendum for those who supported a “no” vote, it was the information it provided about the Egyptian electorate. By focus­ing on a map of the results, El Amrani thinks that the liberals could devise a good canvassing plan. “The referendum revealed, at least, what the liberals need to do and where they can do it,” he says. “They need a grassroots campaign in the places where there was a large ‘yes’ vote.” In other words, they need to get off the Internet, onto the streets, and out of Cairo.

A NEW CHOICE

Such a campaign will require reaching parts of Egyptian society that have histori­cally shown little interest in liberal-dem­ocratic values. It’s a task that has fallen to people like Youssef. On weekends, he travels to cities outside of Cairo, talking to voters about their hopes for a new Egypt. Most of the people he visits are usually assumed to be supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Youssef believes this is only because, until now, these communi­ties had no other choice.

“Let me tell you about the people of Monofeya,” Youssef says, referring to an agricultural area a couple of hours north of Cairo. He had recently spent some time there, talking to voters, in particular a group of young residents who had been inspired by the protests in Tahrir Square. “The young people of Monofeya think of the revolutionary youth of Cairo as famous people, as having status,” Youssef says. “Now, they are thinking about what their own new roles can be in opposing the old regime and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The problem in Monofeya, according to Youssef, is that a lack of job opportu­nities forces young people—who have graduated from the area’s relatively strong schools—to look for work elsewhere, ei­ther in Cairo or the gulf. If these young, educated people could be convinced to stay, Youssef believes the political envi­ronment would dramatically change and become more hospitable to secular-demo­cratic ideas.

Among those he spoke to, Youssef found little support for Islamism in Monofeya. “It might seem very strange, but the people of Monofeya don’t want the Muslim Brotherhood,” he explains. “They consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be part of the old regime. By the time I got there, they had already formed groups to protest against them, and their gover­nor,” whose pre-revolution appointment likewise linked him to the old regime. “It made me hopeful,” he says.

Youssef was born and raised in Cairo, but when he travels outside the city, he makes use of his Upper Egyptian heritage. “I have dark skin, like an Upper Egyptian,” he says. His appearance has proven to be a valuable asset. “People don’t believe in strangers. When I travel to Upper Egypt, I say to myself, ‘I shall not look like a stranger.’” He studies local speech patterns and slang so that he can sound like the residents. (When I asked if I could accompany him on a trip outside Cairo, Youssef said he never allowed reporters to do so, fearing their presence would alienate the people he hoped to meet.) Youssef, whose interest in Islam extends only as far as an intellectual fascination with Sufism, doesn’t consider himself religious. But when he visits religious villages like Monofeya, he prays with the locals.

THE OLD GUARD

The revolution has opened the door for a new generation of Egyptian activists, but it also represents a second chance for the old-guard liberals who managed  to survive for decades on the margins of political life and now have a chance to become real players.

Among them is Dr. Mohamed Ghoneim, a physician who in recent years has become known as a critic of the Mubarak regime. Ghoneim achieved national prominence in the 1980s, after founding a celebrated kidney-treatment center in Mansoura, a town in the rural Nile Delta region. His high profile and popularity afforded him a certain degree of insulation, allow­ing him to become relatively outspoken in his opposition to Mubarak. In 2009, when Mohamed ElBaradei return to Egypt and began organizing an opposition move­ment, Ghoneim joined up.

“In 2009, ElBaradei represented qualitative change for Egypt,” Ghoneim recalls. “He was targeting the masses, asking people to sign his petition for change, and he found that most Egyptians agreed with him.”

I was speaking with Ghoneim in the tea garden of Cairo’s Intercontinental Hotel, where he was meeting with George Ishak, another prominent member of the liberal old guard and a cofounder of the pro-de­mocracy movement Kefaya (Enough), a precursor to the revolutionaries organizations that drove the revolu­tion earlier this year. Ghoneim be­lieves ElBaradei’s status as an outsider who spent most of his career  abroad should be considered an advantage. “He has no ties to the past regime,” Ghoneim says. “His time outside of Egypt has also helped his mindset—he accepts dialogue.”

Yet many others consider ElBaradei’s background to be a major roadblock between him and the presidency. The Mubarak regime, seeing him as a potential competitor, worked hard to discredit him. Without an organized rebuttal, rumors about ElBaradei have preceded him in most of Egypt. While campaigning in Cairo during the constitutional referendum, ElBaradei and a group of his supporters were physically attacked by residents who had heard that his daughter was married to an atheist.

Some in the West had hoped ElBaradei might emerge as a consensus leadership figure in the wake of the Tahrir protests. That hasn’t happened, and it seems un­likely that it ever will. Lacking personal charisma and a built-in support base, ElBaradei has struggled to attract many fol­lowers. “Now, the ElBaradei campaign is not as organized as it used to be,” Ghoneim concedes.

ElBaradei’s apparent failure notwith­standing, Ghoneim and Ishak still seemed optimistic about the future, and about the role their generation might play. “The younger generation wants to run things, and they are right,” says Ishak. “But we can teach them what we know. We can also curb their expectations.”

A SILENT MAJORITY

British comedy is not particularly popular in Egypt. But when Mubarak’s ouster split open the political stage, Monty Python suddenly resonated. A number of people I spoke with about the post-Tahrir period recalled the scene in The Life of Brian de­picting a meeting of an anti-Roman rebel group called the People’s Front of Judea. “The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People’s Front!” spits John Cleese.

What, for example, is the difference between the new Justice Party and the Freedom and Justice Party? Or, for that matter, between either of those and the Justice and Building Party?

The answer, of course, is everything—except the name. The Freedom and Justice party is the official political party of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Justice Party is a secular, liberal group, founded close on the heels of Mubarak’s resignation. “The word ‘justice’ means nothing to the Brotherhood,” says Mohamed Anis, a founding member of the Justice Party. “And, besides, we thought of it first.”

The Justice Party, which is run by a staff of around a dozen mostly young people, is trying to win support among what Anis calls the “silent majority”—the population of disenfranchised voters whose collective voice resoundingly ap­proved the constitutional amendments. “We are different from the old guard,” Anis assures me. “We don’t rely on public figures and we plan to have a large pres­ence outside of Cairo.”

Most Justice Party members support ElBaradei’s presidential candidacy. But, Anis says, “We cannot give one person power. They don’t want a new Pharaoh or a new Mubarak. If we offer them a strong party, they will come.” He proudly pres­ents me with a mock-up of their English-language press kit. It is a thick, color flip-book, morphing a photo of the scales of justice into the party’s logo—a stylized image of the scales in the colors of the Egyptian flag. There are also photos of the logo on T-shirts and mugs. But the kit is almost completely devoid of information about the party’s ideas or platform. Still, they have big plans.

A couple of weeks after first meeting Anis, I am invited to follow three party members on what is typically referred to here as a “door-knocking campaign” in Shorbeya, a very poor Cairo neighborhood whose population approximates Anis’s “si­lent majority.” On a Saturday, I meet Jihan Shoukry in Heliopolis, where she is collect­ing bags full of grocery staples—rice, beans, and oil. She has been working with an NGO in the neighborhood for eight years, distributing food and money to households lacking a (normally male) breadwinner; she has seen many of the children grow up. The families trust her. She has agreed to let two young male staffers from the Jus­tice Party, Momen and Ahmed, follow her around the neighborhood and, in a method reminiscent of Muslim Brotherhood cam­paigns, hand out food in exchange for an open ear to their political agenda, and pos­sibly a vote in September.

At 33, Shoukry is the coordinator for the ElBaradei campaign in Heliopolis, as well as a member of the Justice Party; that afternoon the back seat and trunk of her SUV are full of the food parcels as well as pamphlets for the ElBaradei campaign—text-heavy leaflets which dispute, case by case, rumors about the candidate. She is wearing a bright orange headscarf and sweater. January 25th, she says, was “the best day of my life.” Before then, she didn’t even recognize the opposition’s in­frequent anti-Mubarak street gatherings as protests, she says. “I called them ‘stand­ing ups,’ not protests.”

Shorbeya is a cluster of low-rise build­ings and tin-roofed homes connected by narrow alleys full of car parts and live­stock. Momen and Ahmed follow us into the dark, mostly one-room homes, hand­ing out the heavy sacks of food to the women and then explaining the Justice Party to them.

In the kitchen of a two-room house, Ahmed sits and listens to an elderly woman who lives there with her daugh­ters and grandchildren—all women. The matriarch’s deeply creased face is dotted with the blue tattoos common to Upper Egypt, where she was raised. Her daughters have no money and the absence of men in the household means there is no income. Their lives, they say, had been miserable under Mubarak. But some of their neighbors—men desperate for money—had been paid during the revolution to act as Mubarak sympathiz­ers or attack protesters. Now, they feel they are being ignored. Before the arriv­al of the Justice Party, the only people who talked to them about politics were Salafis, who convinced them to vote in favor of the constitutional amendments, a decision they now claim to regret.

“We want to make life better for you,” Ahmed tells her. He listens to the women complain about their hardships under Mubarak, and assures them that the Justice Party would represent people like them. But the discussion is light on specifics—Ahmed, it seemed, was there simply to introduce liberal politics as a valid alternative to the old ways. The women seem receptive. Of course, it is hard to tell whether they sincerely agree or simply are treating their guests politely. Still, Ahmed’s message has a certain undeniable appeal: a voice in a new Egypt and a chance, however small, to lift themselves out of poverty.

A week later, in early May, the party holds its first official rally in Al-Azhar park. The weather is beautiful, and the park has waived its entrance fee for those attending the rally. The grounds are teeming with families picnicking on the grass. I spot two residents of Shorbeya who party staffers had visited during the door-knocking trip the prior week. The Justice Party has set up a stage and rows of white chairs adorned with red ribbons. “Not enough for everyone who will be coming,” Shoukry says. She darts around the crowd, ushering people to seats. Large posters for the party show portraits of average Egyptians. Between speeches, a PA system plays audio interviews with the people who appeared on the posters. They complain about the lack of jobs and education.

After evening prayers, a long line of speakers takes the stage to talk about the new party. One man, Ahmed Shoukry (no relation to Jihan), describes himself as a “patriot” and repeats a phrase common to the Tahrir Square protests: “Just keep your head up, you are Egyptian.” Following him, a party member trumpets his roots in Mahalla—the industrial town whose protests inspired the April 6 movement. “We are all Khaled Saeed!” he cries—a popular chant of the revolution that invokes the young man whose death at the hands of police officers was the inspiration for the original protests in January.

Later, on stage, Sherine Nabil, a party staffer, explains, “Most of us are new to political life. We have to state our objectives over and over.” And yet, at the end of the hours-long rally, the specifics of their platform were still not clear. (“I thought they were going to talk about what they stood for,” a man near me says as he prepares to leave.) No candidates for parliament are named, and when I speak to Anis in mid-May, he says he doesn’t expect to name any candidates until July, just two months before elections will likely be held. “Our goal is 50 seats in parliament,” he says, undaunted.

THE REVOLUTIONARY’S DILEMMA

For 18 days, Tahrir Square served as an inspiring image of people committed, against all odds, to changing their country. But after a while, the crowds in the square became emblematic of a difficult dilemma facing post-Mubarak Egypt’s new political actors. While Tahrir remained a focus for activists, the rest of Egypt—the masses whose votes the revolutionaries would someday need—was being ignored. At the same time, the revolutionaries feared that, if they stopped the demonstrations altogether, they would lose whatever leverage they still had against the counterrevolutionary force of the military government.

One evening in early April, Youssef’s Union of Progressive Youth meets on the sidewalk outside of groppi, an old coffee shop on downtown Cairo’s Talaat Harb Square, whose chandeliers and long glass display cases speak of a bygone era of prosperity. On the agenda: collecting money to rent an office.

They are also there to talk about the situation in Tahrir. The prior week, there had been clashes between protesters and the Army in the square, and the Union’s leaders are worried about the civilians who had stuck it out and continue to occupy the square. They are not the typical Egyp-tians who had come out in great numbers two months earlier, explains Nasser Abdel Hamad, a founding member of the Union. They represent a more radical subset of hardcore hold-outs. “We don’t know what’s going to happen between them and the Army,” Abdel Hamad says.

A decision is made to head on foot to Tahrir, where the Union members hope that their presence might dispel rumors that the area is populated by thugs. “That’s what they are saying right now on TV,” one says. The plan is to reason with the holdouts and hopefully avoid a repeat of the prior week’s violence.

In Tahrir, the group disperses, with members attaching themselves to the many heated arguments taking place between various factions of protestors, and sometimes between protestors and sol-diers. One activist argues at length with a soldier about the ongoing occupation of the square, until an old man interrupts. During the revolution, he had lost his job and his son had been injured, he says. He has nowhere else to go. This puts an end to the conversation.

Tonight, it seems, there would be no violence. Still, the primary goal of the Union—to organize a political movement to prevent an Islamist government or the return of secular tyranny—is being thwarted by the more immediate task of fighting the counterrevolution. They are being forced to remain activists, instead of taking up the hard work of politics—canvassing, fundraising, and throwing support behind a particular candidate or party.

It’s a situation that clearly frustrates Youssef, who is eager to move past the activist phase of the revolution. “Everywhere in Egypt, young people are gathering,” he says. “They are thinking of how to work and how to get to the political space. But, how do we get these young people to or-ganize, to reach the mainstream, and govern?” he said. “Young people are able to make a revolution, but they are not able to change the cycle.”

Youssef sees Egypt as having awakened from a long slumber, one steeped in a longing for the past, rather than a hope for the future. “I grew up in a nostalgic era,” he says. “My parents were longing for their past, and I was longing for a life I had not even lived.”

The time has come, he believes, to set aside those ways of thinking. “Nostalgia is a prison,” he says.

*****
*****

Jenna Krajeski is a Cairo-based writer and editor at the English-language edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm, an Egyptian daily newspaper. 

[Photo: Zeinad Mohamed/Zoltán Kelemen]
[Photo Illustration: Nick Ditmore]

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