Egypt is quieter these days. Protests against the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi have subsided for now — although a Muslim Brotherhood-led alliance is calling for marches and civil disobedience Friday even as the military-appointed interim government retains a firm grip.
Yet, Egypt remains deeply polarized. And the middle is a lonely place to be.
Some of the young revolutionaries who led the 2011 uprising against the regime of Hosni Mubarak feel they are back to square one, battling authoritarian forces on both sides.
At 9 p.m. on a recent evening, Aalam Wassef stands on his balcony and bangs a spoon against a pot. The noise echoes in the neighborhood but no one else returns the clattering sound.
The video artist and activist yells “Masmouaa,” the Arabic word that means “to be heard.”
Wassef’s message? That there is a third way against the Muslim Brotherhood and against Egypt’s military.
“This polarization — it’s first aim is to change the conversation,” Wassef says. “The real conversation that no one is talking about is bread, freedom, social justice and rule of law, none of which was supported … by the Muslim Brotherhood and certainly not by the military regime, which has been ruling this country for over 60 years.”
Since Morsi’s ouster, Egypt is a country deeply divided in a zero-sum game: You are either with us or against us.
That’s the view of the military, which now rules Egypt. Anyone who disagrees faces grave consequences. It’s a warning to street activists like Wassef and to others like Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, who resigned as vice president after the bloody crackdown on pro-Morsi protesters. Now, ElBaradei faces charges of breaching national trust.
Wassef and his friend Khalid Abdalla, a young actor and activist, started the Masmouaa campaign to show people there is a middle ground. Every night at 9 p.m., they bang a pot and hope others will join.
“In that first bang, you are afraid and you feel alone. As people begin to respond, you begin to feel less alone,” says Abdalla. “You begin to feel more courageous. You begin to feel like you can state your opinion.”
‘Barrier Of Fear’ Returns
But very few people are speaking out now. When they do, they are quickly demonized as traitors.
Local television channels play constant montages about what is called “the war on terror,” showing bearded men with guns and images of dead policemen. There is no outlet now for more critical voices. Islamist TV stations were shut down right after Morsi’s ouster, and most independent journalists have been intimidated into silence.
During the 2011 revolution against the Mubarak regime, activists celebrated the collapse of the “barrier of fear.” For the first time, Egyptians were free to express their political vision. Now, because of the poisonous political climate, that old fear is creeping back.
Take Samira Atteya, a housewife in central Cairo. She is among those Egyptians who have suspicions about both sides.
“I don’t trust anyone. If I say anything about the Muslim Brotherhood, people say all the bad things about them,” Atteya says. “If I praise the government, then I’m a remnant of the old regime. So even if I have faith in someone I can’t voice my opinion.”
Ahmed Maher sympathizes.
In January 2011, he was one of the most visible faces among the activists in Cairo’s now iconic Tahrir Square. But today he shakes his head and says that moment is “history.”
“We were so optimistic then and now everything is so complicated,” he says. “There is no easy solution and we feel like we’re back to point zero.
A Waiting Game
Maher says his mother called him recently in tears, after her friends told her he was supporting terrorists when he condemned the mass killing of Morsi’s supporters.
And he is facing possible charges, accused of being a foreign agent and disrupting national security. It is the latest indication of a broadening crackdown by the state aimed at silencing critics.
A team of Al Jazeera English journalists is currently detained and expected to be charged. Two Canadians, a doctor and filmmaker, were also detained last week. It’s unclear if the will be charged, but they’re accused of participating in Muslim Brotherhood activities — this comes as thousands of other Egyptians have been detained in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Maher reflects on the Egyptian rollercoaster of the past two and a half years.
“I’m not sad, but if I want to blame someone, I’d blame myself, blame the revolutionary movements, blame the Muslim Brotherhoods, sure blame the military,” he says. “We made many mistakes.”
After Mubarak’s ouster, Maher says, he and other revolutionaries fought among themselves instead of uniting for a strong alternative political voice in Egypt’s future. It made them weak and ineffective.
The Muslim Brotherhood shut them out and made a deal with the military and now the military is back in power.
So Maher says young revolutionary activists like himself will wait. He is reaching out to other parties — writers and politicians who reject the authoritarianism of both the Islamists and the military. And soon, he says, it will be our time again.