In February, a mass movement overthrew the hated dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Now a military council now rules the country. Critics say the new regime has kept much of Mubarak’s repressive apparatus. Meanwhile, extremist Islamist groups are pressuring the government to adopt undemocratic, right-wing policies. On this edition, independent producer Reese Erlich brings you this special report “Who Won the Egyptian Revolution?” Reese Erlich received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his reporting in Egypt.
Tarek Shalaby, Tahrir Square leader; Shimaa Helmy, biotechnology student; Khalid Shalid, Tahrir square protestor; Salma Shukrallah, Al Ahram Online journalist; Dr. Mohammad Shafik, doctor at Manshiet el Bakry hospital; Ellis J. Goldberg, University of Washington political science & American University in Cairo visiting professor; Ahmad Fathi, truck driver; Salah Hamid, barber; Rabab El Mahdi, American University in Cairo political science teacher; Mohammad Said Mohammad, Muslim Brotherhood supporter; Father Antonius, Coptic Christian leader; Dr. Milad Ismail; Manshiet el Bakry hospital administrator.
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Doctor: 40% of Egyptians live below the poverty line, less than $1/day. Four months after the revolution they they haven’t felt any change. That’s why they are here today.
Andrew Stelzer: In February a mass movement overthrew the hated dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. But a military council now rules the country. Critics say the new regime has kept much of Mubarak’s repressive apparatus. Meanwhile extremist Islamist groups are pressuring the government to adopt undemocratic, right-wing policies. On this edition, independent producer Reese Erlich goes to Cairo, to investigate “Who Won the Egyptian Revolution?”
I’m Andrew Stelzer, and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas and important information.
Reese Erlich: A group of protesters sing and clap enthusiastically during a Tahrir Square rally in downtown Cairo. It’s been four months since the revolution and 200,000 mostly leftist and secular demonstrators are demanding an end to military rule. Tarek Shalaby, a well known Tahrir Square leader, says the military is carrying out the same policies as Mubarak.
Shalaby: I’m completely against the Egyptian military, especially the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is basically the entity that is leading the country. They are brutally corrupt. They can start shooting and throwing people into on no charges, just because they can. Just because they want to control. They want to keep the old regime. They are the biggest obstacle against the revolution.
Reese Erlich: Shimaa Helmy, a biotechnology student, says the large turnout shows that that the left and secular forces of the Egyptian revolution have ongoing support.
Student 1: We feel our revolution is being taken over by other people who didn’t take part in it. We feel like there’s something wrong going on. We’re trying to push the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Around 10,000 civilians, most of them are youth, are facing military trials, which is something totally against what we are calling for.
Tahrir chanting crowd
Reese Erlich: Helmy and other demonstrators say their uprising was not a “Facebook Revolution.” Most Egyptians don’t have computers. At one point the Mubarak government completely shut down the internet, yet those days saw the biggest demonstrations. Helmy says people mostly used word of mouth, text messaging, and al Jazeera TV to spread the word.
Student 2: They tend think that only technology and Facebook and Twitter was the reason behind this. Which is not true. If it wasn’t for the support of the people in the street, nothing like this wouldn’t have happened. Technology and social media were just a tool for this uprising. But if it wasn’t for the people in the street, nothing would have ever happened.
Reese Erlich: Another protestor, Khalid Shalid, says the revolution included many poor and working people with no access to Facebook. Today they continue to demand economic justice.
Khalid Shalid: 40% of Egyptians live below the poverty line, less than $1/day. four months after revolution they haven’t felt any change. And this is why they are here today. We are looking for a minimum wage of 1200 Egyptian pounds, less than $200 US dollars.
Reese Erlich: Demonstrators in Tahrir Sq. also strongly oppose US interference in Egyptian affairs. The Obama administration-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak until the last moment, they say, and has done little to help people since. Salma Shukrallah is a journalist with the daily Al Ahram Online.
Salma Shukrallah: The link between the US and the ruling regime here in Egypt has been often criticized and condemned. Of course it was very clear to people, by the end of the 18 days that the US was keen on keeping things as is, and keeping Mubarak… until they thought, ‘oh no, this looks like a lost battle, let’s just switch loyalties.’ You can’t actually have real democracy in Egypt as long as this tie remains the same. No economic changes will actually happen as long as Egypt is dictated from the US because the tnterests are very different.
Reese Erlich: The political and economic demands of Tahrir Square demonstrators resonate widely — nowhere more loudly than at the Manshiet el Bakry hospital in Cairo.
Talking in Emergency Room
Dr. Mohammad Shafik: As you can see, this is a common scene for the emergency room.
Reese Erlich: Dr. Mohammad Shafik stands in the middle of a chaotic emergency room with orderlies pushing patients on gurneys and guards standing in the hall. He says since the revolution, security for patients and doctors has become a major issue.
Dr. Mohammad Shafik: Fights in the hospital are a common scene. When you come and find there’s no real health services given, when I ask you to buy cotton from a nearby pharmacy or buy syringes or medicine because we lack the primary services, that would make you fight. Conditions are worse after the revolution because people expect more. So they are willing to fight. And who is the symbol of authority in a hospital? The doctor. So, they start to fight against us.
Reese Erlich: Dr. Shafik says a dispute between two people might result in one coming to the hospital with a gunshot wound, and then the relatives of the shooter come into the hospital as well.
Dr. Mohammad Shafik: In many situations, there’s a fight between two individuals. The relatives of the other one come into the hospital and finish him off. In upper Egypt a patient was in surgery. And his opponent came in, pushed the doctor away and finished him off on the table. So, you can imagine. And, the police were just standing and watching.
Reese Erlich: Doctors say that Egyptian police, once a key component in the repressive apparatus of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, now often refuse to carry out their jobs. Dr. Shafik says it’s a combination of timidity in the face of new conditions and a form of reprisal against those who overthrew the old regime.
Dr. Mohammad Shafik: These police who shot and killed protesters have had not 1 or 2, but 3 increases in wages, as a kind of reward. Still, they won’t do their job. It’s a kind of punishment against that we have done a revolution and taken their leader, the minister of interior, and put him in jail.
Talking as we walk through halls
Reese Erlich: As we walk through the hospital, Dr. Shafik explains that hospital workers at Manshiet el Bakry decided to take matters into their own hands. Every public sector workplace in Egypt was run by a political appointee under the control of the Mubarak regime.
Dr. Mohammad Shafik: We have a small Mubarak in every hospital, in every administration, taking most of the profit of the hospital, making his corruption legal, not caring about service to the citizen but what his superior will say about him. This is the kind of corruption we’re dealing with and the kind of experience we’ve had.
Reese Erlich: The doctors, nurses, clerks and other staff at Manshiet el Bakry formed a hospital-wide union. Their first action was to remove the old administrator and elect a new one. Then, says Shafik, they sent a fax to the deputy minister of health.
Dr. Mohammad Shafik: And we told him that we had an election. We kicked off your old manager and we will not tolerate anyone unless they are elected. We called the press. We said you have two choices: either you send us a fax saying you have appointed the elected manager. Or you are not going to do this and tomorrow he’s going to sit in the manager’s office and run the hospital. If you try to do anything we’ll close the hospital gates and we’re going to make it a fight. So he responded with a fax two hours later to appoint the manger we had elected.
Reese Erlich: This kind of democratic uprising worries those in power. While making his rounds, visiting patients, Dr. Shafik explains that the health care system has become an important battle ground against the current military government.
Dr. Mohammad Shafik: Of course the regime has not changed totally as we had hoped when we removed Mubarak. They are trying to manipulate us, to reinvent the regime once more with new faces. That’s what makes the health issue a central point in the struggle against dictatorship in Egypt. Every percentage increase in the health budget will come from the budget of the Ministry of Interior and other parts of the oppressive machine.
Reese Erlich: Doctors and other medical workers have demanded that national health funds be increased until they reach 15% of the national budget. The additional money, they say, should come from the Ministry of Interior. Right now the government allocates 3.6 percent of the national budget for health care, while the repressive Ministry of Interior funds an armed force of 1.4 million police. The exact amount of the Ministry of Interior’s budget is a state secret.
Dr. Mohammad Shafik: The military budget is a closed, black box. Nobody knows it.
Most of this budget is not to provide security for the citizens but to oppress them. It is part of the oppressive machine. It is a stick that is meant to keep us down. We are willing to take part of the money for equipment to oppress us to buy equipment to treat us.
Reese Erlich: To date the military has offered small increases in the national heath budget, but nothing close to what health workers say is adequate. Ellis J. Goldberg, a political science professor at the University of Washington, who was also a visiting professor at American University in Cairo, says the current military government won’t significantly increase the health budget or meet protestors demands for an increased minimum wage.
Ellis J. Goldberg: I think it’s unlikely the military will grant that primarily because the military doesn’t want to make those kind of hard decisions. The only reason they might is if there was some major political disturbance by the workers that threatened the political stability of the country, not simply economic interests.
Reese Erlich: Goldberg notes that since February hundreds of workplaces around the country have experienced strikes and demonstrations. They demand a minimum wage of $200/month. A plethora of independent unions, worker federations and worker parties arose. To date, some unions have won demands for wage increases or replacement of managers. But Goldberg says the government has resisted more thorough going changes.
Ellis J. Goldberg: The workers strikes are primarily around of issues of insecurity, job loss and the demand for a 1200 Egyptian Pound minimum wage. Often they’re over the authority in the factory. Workers are very unhappy with factory managers who they see as part of the old corrupt regime.
Reese Erlich: Goldberg says economic change is slow because Mubarak cronies still control much of the economy through corruption and political patronage.
Ellis J. Goldberg: In terms of the economy, the real problem was you had a group of probably 30-40 people who formed leadership of ruling party and who had significant investments in areas of the economy benefiting from state contracts: tourism, steel, cement and a variety of other industries. This was a very tight group of people. And they used political power to maintain monopolies.
Reese Erlich: Back in Tahrir Square, protestors are trying to make fundamental, not just cosmetic, changes. In the months that followed the February downfall of Mubarak, many different kinds of people demonstrated here: leftists, moderate secularists and devout Moslems. Secular protesters acknowledge that they have alienated some in the broader society. Student Shimaa Helmy explains.
Tahrir student: We’re trying to raise awareness in the streets. People are starting to hate the uprising. The prices are getting high and they think it’s the revolution. We’re trying to convince people that it’s for you, not just for us.
Reese Erlich: And you don’t have to go far to find some of those alienated people.
Andrew Stelzer: We’ll be right back.
Andrew Stelzer: You’re listening to “Making Contact,” a production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information or for C-D copies of this program, please call 800-529-5736.
Andrew Stelzer: Because of listeners like you, this show is distributed for free to radio stations in the U.S., Canada and South Africa. To find out how to support us, download shows, or get our podcasts go to radioproject-dot-org. Like us on facebook, and follow us on twitter—our handle is making-underscore-contact. We now return to “Who won the Egyptian Revolution.”, a report from Cairo, by Reese Erlich
Call to prayer mixed with traffic sounds
Reese Erlich: Muslims gather at a Cairo mosque for Friday prayers. The conservative Islamic group, the Moslem Brotherhood, exercises considerable influence among people here, as well as among peasant farmers, the urban poor, and sections of the middle class. Truck driver Ahmad Fathi, reflects the conservative view that anti-government demonstrations should stop.
Driver: We should give the government some time. We shouldn’t have sit-ins and demonstrations every day. We need time for things to get back to normal.
Mosque, street – car and horn
Reese Erlich: In the working and lower middle class Sayyida Zeinab district, walking distance from Tahrir Square, barber Salah Hamid says he’s a Moslem Brotherhood supporter.
Hamid: He likes the Moslem Brotherhood and would like to see them in power. They are trying apply Islamic law and we are in a Muslim country. That’s why he likes them.
Reese Erlich: The Moslem Brotherhood enjoys considerable popular support because it promises to govern Egypt based on Islamic law. It’s similar to those politicians in the United States who call for government based on the Ten Commandments. In addition, the Moslem Brotherhood was one of the leading groups to help overthrow Mubarak. Hamid himself attended some of the big anti-government rallies in Tahrir Square.
Hamid, Zeinab: The whole country was oppressed. He was proud to participate in Tahrir because everyone felt bad during the previous regime.
Reese Erlich: But now Hamid, like many Moslems Brothers, says demonstrators have gone too far.
Hamid, Zeinab: The main purpose of the demonstrations was to force the resignation of Mubarak. He thinks what they are doing now is wrong. We should get back to work. I don’t approve of constant demonstrations.
Reese Erlich: Hamid supports the military government, which he says, is trying to rule under difficult conditions. He points out that in Libya and Syria, the military didn’t support the demonstrators, leading to more deaths and civil war.
Hamid, Zeinab: They think that they are working hard to rule the country although they’re kind of slow. Still, they listened to people’s demands and worked on them.
Reese Erlich: The Moslem Brotherhood and other conservative Islamists won a major victory in March when the military put forward a referendum to legitimize its power. Leftist and secular forces opposed the referendum. The Moslem Brotherhood and other conservatives supported it, claiming a yes vote would maintain the leading role of Islam in Egyptian law. The referendum passed by an overwhelming 77%. Tahrir Square leader Shalaby makes an analogy to the influence of conservative evangelicals in US politics.
Shalaby: Remember how some Churches told people it was a sin not to vote for Bush? Well, the Islamists did something very similar here when they said it is your responsibility as a Muslim to vote yes. Otherwise they might remove Article 2 of the Constitution which might make Egypt into a secular state. And that means all hell will break loose. People will run around naked and we’ll be swimming in acres of alcohol.
Reese Erlich: After being arrested at a demonstration, Shalaby got some insights when he shared a jail cell with conservative Islamist political prisoners.
Shalaby: It’s blasphemous to question certain things. And that’s why I had to be very clever. As an atheist, obviously I never told them I’m an atheist. I told them I was in the process of becoming a practicing Muslim. I’m telling them: Yeah, I’m a Muslim but I stopped praying these days. I’m lazy. Obviously I wasn’t going to tell them, I’m an atheist and lose all my credibility.
Reese Erlich: Did any of your arguments work; did you manage to convince any of them?
Shalaby: They we’re convinced I’m this nut case and making arguments they’ve never heard before. But they were also convinced that I have credibility.
Reese Erlich: Professor Goldberg says the Moslem Brotherhood and other conservative Islamist parties have considerable popular support.
Ellis J. Goldberg: It’s quite likely that the Muslim Brothers will be, if not in power, certainly participants in a ruling coalition. What’s not clear at this point is how powerful the parliament will be. My off hand guess is that as much as the the Muslim Brothers prefer a strong parliament, that’s not going to happen. But there will likely be a strong presidential regime, with the Moselm Brotherhood as the dominant force in parliament.
Reese Erlich: In recent months the Moslem Brotherhood has been challenged by an even more conservative movement known as the Salafis. They are a ultra-orthodox religious movement that combines a strict interpretation of Islam with an extreme right-wing ideology. Many Egyptians believe they are responsible for violent assaults on Sufi Muslim shrines and the burning of Christian Churches. Rabab El Mahdi, a leftist political activist who teaches political science at the American University in Cairo, says the Salafi leaders didn’t even participate in the Tahrir Square demonstrations that began Jan. 25. They came out only after Feb. 11, when Mubarak resigned.
Rabab El Mahdi: Until Jan 25, you didn’t hear about them except when it came to some woman was converting. Two, three years ago, you didn’t hear about them. They would stick to their mosques, wear certain clothes, but apolitical and indivisible. Suddenly after the 11th, they’re everywhere. The military is complicit. They’re actually allowing them to play leading roles.
Reese Erlich: Salafis became famous for violent attacks when a Muslim woman wanted to convert to Christianity in order to marry a Christian man, something they say is prohibited by Islam. Prof. El Mahdi says these ultra conservatives were promoted by the old regime and its allies.
Rabab El Mahdi: Salafis are a tendency nurtured by Saudi money and state security apparatus to counter balance the Moslem brotherhood and jihadi Islam which was very radical. So they basically allowed them a space and allowed the pouring of Saudi money. So they came out with that version of Islam that is very socially conservative. Much more conservative than the other tendencies but also very apolitical. They are the people saying that protesting against the ruler is haram. But at the same time they would demonstrate because they didn’t want a Christian woman to be Muslim. They range from the completely berserk to people you can reason with.
Reese Erlich: In May, a suspected Salafi mob set fire to a Christian Church in Cairo. Why would people who claim to be devout Muslims attack churches? Prof. El Mahdi explains.
Rabab El Mahdi: For them modern Christians are infidels. Good Christians existed before Prophet Mohammad came and after that, they should have converted to Islam.
Reese Erlich: Extreme Salafis constitute a small minority in Egypt, and their attacks are condemned by mainstream Islamists.
Juice stand, salesman takes orders
Reese Erlich: Back in the Sayyida Zeinab neighborhood, Mohammad Said Mohammad, stops at a juice stand. He describes himself as a Moslem Brotherhood supporter. He strongly criticizes the church burnings and other violence against Christians.
Mohammad: All these conflicts are completely wrong. We have been living together – Muslims and Christians – for many centuries. It’s part of our teaching to treat Christians in a good way. Prophet Mohammad was married to a Coptic woman. Prophet Mohammad told us to take care of the Christians of Egypt specifically.
Reese Erlich: But Professor El Mahdi says such a view contains a fatal flaw. Christians and other religious minorities don’t want to be “taken care of.” They want equal rights.
Rabab El Mahdi: Declaring Islam as the only true religion, is by definition exclusive. They see women as second class citizens. So imagine if you’re a Coptic woman? You’re third.
Reese Erlich: And that’s precisely what worries Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of Egypt’s population.
Coptic rally chanting slogans
Reese Erlich: Thousands of Coptic Christians rally in Cairo to protest the church burnings and demand equal rights. Father Antonius, a Christian leader, complains that so far, the military government has cracked down on Christian protestors but not arrested the arsonists who burn churches.
Father Antonius: They arrested some of the young people yesterday. They accused them of having weapons and they didn’t have any. And one of the students has an exam day after tomorrow.
Reese Erlich: There’s a common pattern to the Muslim-Christian conflict in Egypt. The dispute often surfaces when a Christian woman wants to marry a Muslim man. Extremists accuse the Christian priests of keeping her in a church against her will. Then the extremists go to the church, supposedly to rescue the woman, and a fight breaks out. Tahrir Square leader Shalaby says people on both sides feel threatened.
Shalaby: After spending 4-5 days in a political prison with very religious people, that there is this notion of fear that Christianity might grow out of control. There’s also notion from Christians that the Muslims want to take control and turn this into an Iran, and that would be disastrous. I think the old regime is benefiting from this. They might orchestrate it. But it takes very little effort and it spreads like wildfire.
Reese Erlich: Father Antonius says the government could undercut extremism by extending full freedom of religion to everyone. Right now, for example, the government must approve the opening of any new church.
Father Antonius: To open all the Christian churches and put on trial all the perpetrators who have attacked us. We want justice.
Reese Erlich: The Egyptian revolution has experienced sectarian violence and the rise of extremist groups. But it also has successes.
Reese Erlich: Back at the Manshiet el Bakry hospital the worker’s uprising has improved conditions for both staff and patients. Newly elected administrator Dr. Milad Ismail says patients no longer have to pay for hospital supplies out of their own pockets.
Hospital speaker: We treat patients for free but we accept some fees. Basic services are free but people must pay for such things as elective surgery. About 50% of our services are free.
Tahrir Sq chants
Reese Erlich: The overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship in February unleashed a volatile mix of political, economic and religious forces in Egypt. Conservative Islamists are on the move. Parliamentary elections originally scheduled for September have now been postponed to November. Tahrir Sq. leader Tarek Shalaby says leftists and secularists need the time to get organized because their movement is new and inexperienced.
Shalaby: You can’t just expect a party to form right away. You need at least six months of complete chaos, arriving late to meetings, forgetting meeting minutes, finding out how to use the proper email account. It just takes time.
Reese Erlich: The Moslem Brotherhood and Salafis are also using the time to organize. They’ve held huge rallies in Tahrir Square as well. The military, secularists and Islamists will be contending for power for some time. Shalaby says the very future of the revolution is at stake.
Tahrir Sq speaker: If we give up now, we might end up in a worse position than we were pre Jan. 25.
Reese Erlich: For Making Contact, I’m Reese Erlich, Cairo.
Andrew Stelzer: That’s it for this edition of “Making Contact.” You’ve been listening to
“Who Won the Egyptian Revolution?” produced by Reese Erlich.
Special thanks to Shaimaa Helmey, Mandi Fahmy and Kirolos Nagy for translation
and arranging interviews. Reese Erlich received a grant from the Pulitzer Center
on Crisis Reporting for his reporting in Egypt.
Andrew Stelzer: For a CD copy of this program, call the National Radio Project at 800 529-5736, or check out our website at radioproject.org to get a podcast, download past shows, or make a difference by supporting our work. Like Making Contact on Facebook, or follow us on twitter—our handle is Making, underscore, contact.
Andrew Stelzer: Lisa Rudman is our Executive Director; Kyung Jin Lee and Esther Manilla, producers; Irene Florez, Web Editor, Karl Jagbandhansingh, Volunteer Coordinator; Lisa Bartfai, production intern, And Barbara Barnett, Dan Turner, Alfonso Hooker, Ron Rucker, Alton Byrd, Alex Collins, Katherine Brousseau, Katherine Lee, and Dashal Moore volunteers.
Andrew Stelzer: Thanks for listening to Making Contact.
For More Information: The Pulitizer Center on Crisis Reporting provided a grant for Reese Erlich’s reporting from Egypt.