Egypt’s winds of change remain to be seen

They stood in a moment of silent unity, honouring the revolutionary martyrs who helped make this historic dream a reality. Then, one by one, 508 parliamentarians — Egypt’s first democratically elected representatives in 60 years — answered their names and pledged to honourably serve the interests of the nation.

And then the cracks began to appear. The first ultra-conservative Salafist MP to go off script was Mamdouh Ismail, who added “… if not in contradiction with God’s doctrine” to his oath of office and others quickly followed suit. Liberals hit back by tacking on their own spontaneous post scripts, promising to serve the nation “in accordance with the demands of the revolution”.

Many sported bright yellow “No to military trials” armbands, an emblem of fierce opposition to the ruling generals and refused to join a bout of collective applause for the army council that still maintains an iron grip on the country’s levers of power.

The man charged with keeping control of proceedings, 81-year-old Mahmoud el-Sakka, alternated between verbally castigating his unruly charges and sitting back with a sigh as the fault lines of Egypt’s political landscape were wrenched open again for all to see.

The junta that replaced Hosni Mubarak last February hoped that Monday’s spectacle would epitomise Egypt’s transition to democracy in the eyes of its people and the wider world.

Many who crowded around television sets in Cairo’s shop windows and pavement cafes to witness the inauguration would concur but this was an event that symbolised so many other things as well.

“Today is the most important day in Egypt’s modern history because we are witnessing for the first time a concrete gain for our glorious revolution,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, a 38-year-old petroleum engineer and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which captured almost half the parliamentary seats. “From here on in we can build a new society and a new country. Nothing can stand in our way. Yes there are still remnants of the old regime amongst us but last year we swept away a devil [Hosni Mubarak] in 18 days and with this new Parliament behind us the enemies of the revolution know that their days are numbered.”

Political rhetoric
Words such as “enemy” and “revolution” are slippery in today’s Egypt, where the rhetoric of political change is preached by all while the substance behind it remains agreed upon by few.

Ibrahim had come down to the gates of Parliament to express his joy at the progress of an uprising that began almost a year ago but all around him coils of barbed wire, helmeted riot police and, most strikingly, a series of tall granite walls stacked up in the middle of major roads provided a reminder that the has not come to an end — and is being aggressively resisted by what the Egyptian urban planning expert Mohamed ElShahed has termed “the architecture of occupation”, constructed by a military state that knows its own popular legitimacy is anything but concrete.

At one point a small group of anti-junta demonstrators managed to get close to the Parliament gates, chanting “down with military rule” and “there is still a revolution in the square [Tahrir]”.

They were quickly drowned out by Ibrahim and his colleagues, for whom such language no longer sounds inspiring and uplifting but rather provocative and dangerous, a threat to the fragile stability of a system that has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to emerge as the country’s single most powerful political force.

“The truth is that this Parliament and this transition plan is the people’s will,” said 21-year-old Amr Gamal in response to the yells around him. “These men are anti-democratic and just want trouble; how can we march against the army on whom we rely to protect our borders and who are slowly guiding us towards the goals of the revolution?”

The divide between those who view Egypt’s new Parliament as the triumphant fruit of the past year’s political upheaval and those who see it as a hallmark of the revolution’s downfall — a weapon designed to subdue the street by creating the facade of democracy, even as political elites dig in their heels and dissent is brutally crushed by the security forces — is deep and messy with many merely hoping that these MPs can do something to alleviate the many urgent social and economic problems that festered during 30 years of Mubarak stagnation.

With Parliament’s powers highly constrained under the temporary Constitution and with its members hardly representative of the people who elected them — less than 2% of seats will be taken up by women — the gap between hopes and achievements looks set to be vast.

As a foretaste of what is to come, no less than five rallies by different social groups — from artists to workers to the families of those killed in recent protests — attempted to march on Parliament on Monday.

Elusive change
At the same time a youth group formed a chain of national flags along one side of the building, each one scrawled with a message sent by citizens to their new representative, detailing their dreams for the future. “Justice, bread, a house, medical treatment, education,” read one.

This domed white building is now a magnet for national expectations and many wonder whether it will sag under the weight of so much anticipation.

“None of the political parties in the Parliament have the ability to fulfil the demands of the revolution,” said Wael Gamal, a prominent economist and managing editor of al-Shorouk newspaper, who believes institutional politics is not yet able to absorb the ongoing revolutionary energy. “I have no doubt we will see another confrontation, another uprising, very soon,” he said.

Each of the MPs inside the chamber has their own set of hopes and fears for the months to come but one with more to smile about than most is the Freedom and Justice Party’s Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, who is set to be sworn in as the Parliament’s new speaker.

In the last parliamentary session before Mubarak’s fall, Ahmed Ezz, a prominent parliamentarian who was close to the Mubarak family, sarcastically prayed that his own ruling NDP party would soon be swapping places with the then outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, capturing the handful of seats won by Brotherhood members such as Katatni who had run as independents.

Twelve months on, Ezz’s prayer has been answered. He, along with many of his NDP colleagues, have indeed swapped places with their Muslim Brotherhood counterparts, having been placed in the same jail cells that held Brotherhood leaders for many years.

Meanwhile the Brotherhood’s now legal political party has stormed the elections and taken the NDP’s parliamentary seats. “All parliamentarians will cooperate to fulfil the demands of the Egyptian population,” promised Katatni last week.

What those demands are, and what that cooperation will look like in the context of an ongoing revolution, remains to be seen. —

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