Strange fruit: the Egyptian revolution one year on

The phrase being used is “reaping the fruit”. “Reaping the fruit of democracy”, as Ali Dora, an MP with Egypt’s now powerful Freedom and Justice Party puts it (see the short film embedded in Jack Shenker’s piece for the Guardian).

The Daily Telegraph’s (newspaper edition) headline on the post-Mubarak parliament’s historic first sitting yesterday is “Egypt’s parliament celebrates fruit of Arab Spring” (it’s the Arab Harvest, so to speak). Or is it? Leaving aside the silly business of the seasonal metaphor, the serious question of Egypt’s future a year on from its 25 January revolution is very much at issue.

Shenker’s vivid piece on the tensions reverberating through yesterday’s opening parliamentary session included some vox-popped views from the street. For example “21-year-old Amr Gamal” said this about a throng of people who had gathered outside the parliament building to protest at the behaviour of the Egyptian military:

“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?"

Hmm, that last phrase (“slowly guiding us …”) has an uncomfortable sense of The Big Man/The Party/Dear Leader/Holy Word phenomenon of authoritarian regimes the world over. The fear here is that the two big political players - the “Islamic bloc” of the Freedom and Justice Party / the Nour Party, and the military - will increasingly squeeze out those calling for human rights-based reforms.

And why do I say there are such fears? Well one reason is the only-somewhat-reassuring results of a canvassing exercise of 54 of Egypt’s political parties undertaken by Amnesty. Asking them a series of questions on women’s rights, freedom of speech, fair trials and other key policy issues, the tendency of the answers coming back was:

Promising on combating torture, protecting slum residents' rights and ensuring fair trials.

Disturbing over a lack of support for women’s rights and a strong resistance to abolishing the death penalty.

Of the 508 MPs who took their sets in the parliament building yesterday, only eight were women (there’s an uncomfortably easy numerical split to remember). Naturally gender is no guarantee of a pro-women stance (as a certain Meryl Streep-related person should remind us), but this kind of gender imbalance will surely store up trouble.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the parliament gates there were, as I’ve said, various protest groups voicing their discontent at Egypt’s present course. "Justice, bread, a house, medical treatment, education", was one message emblazoned on an Egyptian flag. Once again, as so often with last year’s Middle East and North African uprisings, it’s the mix of the material and the ideological that counts for so much. (Goodish-sounding news just coming in, BTW, about a lifting - at least partially - of the much-abused state of emergency powers).

What next? How to (or whether to) curb the excesses of the army will surely remain a big political issue in Egypt (please support Amnesty’s campaign). In fact, the whole question of whether we’ve seen a “human rights revolution” at all in Egypt will, I reckon, be at the centre of events in the country for years to come. Keep Saturday 11 February free in your diary: it’s the date we’re demonstrating for a “Human Right Revolution” across the Middle East and North Africa. We will be in Trafalgar Square.

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