Five Reasons for Engagement Following the Egyptian Uprising

January 25, 2013

Egyptians demonstrate outside of the Presidential Palace in May, 2012.  Copyright Amnesty International.
Egyptians demonstrate outside of the Presidential Palace in May, 2012. Copyright Amnesty International.

On the second anniversary of the Egyptian Jan. 25 uprising, there’s a strong sense that the hopes of Tahrir Square have been tarnished.

There’s some reason for this: There have been too many broken promises.  Women, who were so essential to the uprising, were quickly marginalized in the months after it. Copts and other minority groups fear for their future. A new civilian government pushed through a constitution that may further minimize the role of women and lead to past human rights abuses being repeated. And perhaps most important, no institution seems capable of holding former Mubarak officials, security forces and the military accountable for decades of human rights abuses. The spirit of impunity lives on.

Yet, that’s only one side of the situation. There is in fact reason not to lose faith in Egypt’s future. This is not a promise that the path toward justice in Egypt is smooth, nor is it a prediction. But here are five reasons why we must remain engaged:

1. The historic arc of all revolutions is a long one. My preferred analogy for a comparative uprising is the peaceful, long standing and in some way, still continuing Chilean revolution against Gen. Pinochet. “The Chilean people are patient,” Chilean author Ariel Dorfman once described it to me. “They knew when the moment for them to act would be.” Like the Chileans, Egyptians are patient, but it is an active patience, one that will keep moving toward a better future. Like the Chileans, Egyptians are resilient, and have shown that they are ready to return to the streets in the hundreds of thousands to protest any move to undermine the rule of law. New laws to be discussed in the coming months will be a test of the authorities’ willingness to chip away at repressive provisions that have so long restricted Egyptians’ human rights.

2. Egypt has changed permanently. Even as Egyptian activists bemoan broken promises and missed opportunities, they share a message that there has been a civic revolution in which the people have seized the public sphere. Egypt will never return to the Mubarak era. As Egyptian activist Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman recently told the Times of London in an interview on Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign, “We are not scared and will continue the revolution that called for bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity.”

3. Egypt’s civil society actors are getting organized.  The rise of the Muslim Brothers through electoral victory wasn’t surprising; after three decades of the Mubarak regime muzzling civil society, few civil society agents – from independent political parties to the news media – had any kind of organizational strength to take advantage of the new opening. While the Muslim Brothers faced significant harassment and punishment under the Mubarak regime, through their social networks and the use of a religious discourse that easily resonates with the public, they started with a significant advantage. The question was less who would win an early election but whether mainstream civil society actors can over the long term build lasting organizational capacity.  The answer is complicated – there are deep divisions within the secular opposition and many legal obstacles to its work remain – but the overall picture is that Egypt’s long tradition of a vibrant civil society will rebuild, which is good news for human rights.

4. Egypt’s long-standing issues of poverty are getting attention. Under Mubarak’s rule, issues of poverty, education and health received scant attention, ultimately leading to human rights abuses, as in Amnesty International’s investigation of forced evictions and unsafe housing. While the new constitution fails to fully guarantee economic, social and cultural rights, human rights organizations and activists such as Manal Tibe are continuing to force discussion on these issues and ensuring that they don’t disappear from the national agenda.

5. Egyptians have not given up hope.The Egyptian protesters could have gone home after Mubarak’s removal, but they didn’t. Time and time again, facing military abuse, sexual harassment and other threats, Egyptians returned to the street to declare their ownership of the uprisings. When President Morsi’s decree replaced the Public Prosecutor and stripped the courts’ power to challenge his decisions, thousands protested. When he rushed through a vote on a new constitution which did not uphold freedoms, the people returned to the streets. Egyptians aren’t staying quiet, although they had plenty of opportunity and incentive to do so. They know they achieved in two weeks what three decades of outside pressure couldn’t.

So when I read comments, even from Amnesty International members in this blog, that at best Egypt has traded an old boss for a new one, I think: The Egyptians haven’t given up on the spirit of Tahrir Square.  The main thing they ask of us is that we don’t as well.

This post is also available in Spanish.