Revenge of the remnants: Egypt's new 'felool' consolidates

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Low-level power-brokers under Mubarak stand to win in upcoming parliamentary elections. Pictured: Armored vehicles and barbed wire block an entrance Sunday to Tahrir Square during the 4th anniversary of the January 2011 uprising.

Credit:

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

There was a vocabulary to the street demonstrations that erupted on “January 25 Revolution” in 2011 and that after 18 days swept President Hosni Mubarak from power ending his 30 years presiding over a police state.

At the center of it all was Tahrir Square or “Freedom Square,” referring to the central Cairo traffic circle where massive demonstrations took place and where periodic protests have continued for years including violent clashes Sunday that killed 17 demonstrators. And there was a new global phenomenon described as a Facebook revolution because so many of the young, secular supporters of the pro-democracy movement had organized via social networking.

And then there was Ihkwan, or “The Brothers,” referring to the Muslim Brotherhood that joined the demonstrators in Tahrir and, as many of the original secular protesters came to realize, began to hijack their movement and ultimately consolidate their religious movement into political power.

Amid all of this dramatic change and great uncertainty for Egypt, the name for the old Mubarak-era police, politicians and power brokers was the word “felool,” which is Arabic for “remnant.”

Even in those heady days when it seemed a new era was being ushered in, there were many Egyptians who believed it was only a matter of time before the “felool” would regain power and reassert its authority. The violent response to demonstrations Sunday on the fourth anniversary of the Tahrir protests illustrated just how intent the old guard is on using any means necessary to keep tight control over the country.

"The term felool became so broad that I became proud to be felool, proud to be against what was happening: if this is what felool means, then screw the alternative," said Adam Mowafi.

Mowafi is a 28-year-old CFO with the M04 creative agency, whose office on the 23rd floor of a Giza high-rise is filled with white leather sofas and glass-topped desks. One room has a panoramic view, where Mowafi and his 50 employees can look down over the tops of the tallest buildings in Zamalek, the affluent central Cairo neighborhood.  The term felool was coined after the Jan. 25 revolution as it became clear that the former Mubarak regime, mostly members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, were still very much engaged in political life. But in the four years since Egyptians first took to the streets, the term has expanded to encompass anyone who supports the policies military-led government led by former Defense Minister now-President Abdel-Fatah al Sisi, including a small section who fetishize a return to the era of former leader Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi capitalized on massive street demonstrations in June 30, 2013 against former president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi took power and arrested Morsi in an undisclosed location, carrying out what many observers termed to be a military coup. The army then brutally suppressed pro-Morsi demonstrations, notably at Raba’a al Adawiya Square in August 2013.

President Sisi later called for elections, in which he won 97 percent of the vote. The election was brought into question by international observers, who were concerned about extending the presidential run-off. Observers from Democracy International also later stated that they had “limited access to some polling places.

The upcoming parliamentary election has been presented as the next pivotal phase in Egypt’s modern history. Some observers believe the parliamentary election could end up showcasing a range of new voices and faces, as the supporters of the new electoral system have espoused. Others believe the election is simply an opportunity to rubber-stamp Egypt as being on a path to democracy.

But critics point out that even if most of the faces are new, their beliefs look like a return to ideas that prevailed before January 2011.

While felool is typically used to mean the older generation who were resistant to the demands of the revolution, Mowafi represents a slice of society who were the same age as the young demonstrators who filled Tahrir Square, but who have come to realize they favor the regime's way of doing business.

"I feel part of a band of people who love Egypt, love equality and love rights. But we also understand the importance of work," Mowafi says. "The word felool was why June 30 happened. When people talk about binaries, they forget that the revolutionaries created that binary themselves — if you're not with us, you support the police crackdown."

The first round of parliamentary elections is due to kick off on March 21 after a series of delays. Mowafi says he doesn't yet know who he'll vote for, but that "like any voter", he's looking for practical promises that will help grow business, and not ideology. He credits the changes that have happened after June 30, 2013, when former president Morsi was ousted, with having created an environment that is now "open for business."

He is pleased that companies like Samsung and Coca-Cola are now looking to do business in Egypt, and believes that a growing economy better answers the needs of the common man.

"Everyone going into Tahrir Square to protest every little thing hurt a lot of people, the people the revolutionaries claimed to be helping," he says. "Jan 25. was essentially a revolution about bread — the right to work."

New System, New Faces, Same Policies

In one sense, there is plenty of choice for Egyptians when it comes to choosing who to vote into parliament. The past 18 months have witnessed an explosion of political parties. A ban on religious parties enacted in September 2013 means that there is no threat from the Muslim Brotherhood, although the Salafist Nour Party has not been prevented from running in the elections.

But a reform of the voting system sets the stage to hand power back to those who were powerful at a micro level under the Mubarak era, relying as it does on individual candidates rather than parties.

The new voting rules are complex. The system will draw 74 percent of representatives by popular vote, and 21 percent from winner-take-all party lists (meaning that a candidate or list need only to get 51 percent to win a seat or block), plus 5 percent directly appointed by President Sisi.

This has been combined with widespread redistricting, leading many Egyptian political parties to criticize the changes, saying they are designed to weaken parties’ influence.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems agrees, arguing that redrawing the electoral boundaries to include far larger areas means there can be no relationship between a party candidate and their constituency.

Analysts and political parties alike say that this all adds up to a return to power for those who led districts in the Nile Delta region and Upper Egypt under Mubarak, meaning prominent and relatively wealthy local families who either ran as members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), or became NDP members after being elected.

Former NDP members had been banned from running in elections, but a court overturned this ruling in July 2014, meaning 2015 looks to be the year they stage a comeback.

Adding to this resurgence is a tradition that Egypt's parliament serves as a "rubber stamp" to the president's decrees. Thus parliamentarians tend to focus on providing municipal services to those they represent rather than being a check on the government. This has fostered a political culture that favors the wealthy and connected, who are likely to be better placed to fulfill these demands.

Analyst Ahmed Morsy, formerly of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Foundation, argues this return to power makes the term "felool" somewhat redundant.

"In a way we are all felool," he laughs "we were all around before the Jan. 25 revolution. Felool is just a term for stigmatizing people," he said.

The New Grey Area

This growth in new candidates who support old ideas has created a grey area in Egyptian politics.  "We are often punished with the idea that we are a felool party. But I say, show me five names of people who are felool in my party. We haven't more than three," says Dr. Magdy Morshed, vice president of the Conference Party (also known as the Congress Party).

The pary’s founder is Amr Moussa, a longtime foreign minister under Mubarak and former head of the Arab League. Moussa is also a failed presidential candidate who went on to back Sisi and become his political adviser.

Morshed distinguishes between hardcore felool, who he estimates included up to 500 formerly powerful individuals, and the 3 million rank-and-file members of the NDP.

"To call someone part of the old regime, they really had to have a powerful place in the old regime, not just be a regular member of the NDP," he explained.

But fundamentally, he says that someone being considered a felool politician shouldn't necessarily be a black mark. "If someone is a felool but they're honest, not a thief, not stealing the rights of others, there is nothing pending before a judge or in the courts for example, there's no problem for them to continue — this person can continue to practice politics," he argues. The independence of Egypt's judiciary, particularly after Morsi's ouster, has routinely been called into question by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

What's Left of What's Left

"Democracy is not like instant coffee. You can't prepare and drink it in five minutes," says Khaled Dawoud of the Constitution Party, quoting its leader Mohamed ElBaradei.

Dawoud, the spokesman for the party, is trying to find political space to reflect the values of the Jan. 25 revolution inside the forthcoming parliament.

Still, he has lost what he dismisses as his own idealism that took place around the time of the revolution, as well as the ouster of Morsi, in which he also participated.

"There's no intention to change the state institutions," he says. "When we propose to restructure the Interior Ministry to focus on human rights, it's seen as a threat to the state."

Dawoud is highly critical of the new electoral system. He describes the current state of Egyptian politics as one where he feels he has a giant "X" on his head each time he gives a public appearance. He recently appeared on a cable TV channel, to be greeted by the news that someone had opened a court case against him.

"We don't have an NDP now, but it's coming," he says, citing the example of Sisi's economic adviser and former Prime Minister Kamel El-Ganzouri's ongoing efforts to create a single list of non-Islamist candidates. "They're tailoring the election to create public support for Sisi, as it's treason not to support Sisi. The old state machinery is trying to make a pharaoh out of him whereby he's the only one capable of doing stuff."

As the machinery of elections slowly grinds into gear, many of the people who went out into Tahrir four years ago say they are looking at a bleak future, whatever the outcome. Opinion polls show that slogans about stability, security and the economy are winning out — ones that the current regime have positioned in opposition to democracy and human rights.

Dawoud sums up a widespread cynicism in Egypt these days in one sentence.

"I'm negative,'' he says, "about the current prospects for democracy.”  

Support for this reporting was provided by The Correspondents Fund with additional funding from the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. The reporting fellowship is dedicated to the spirit of late colleagues Anthony Shadid, Marie Colvin and James Foley who all dedicated themselves to on-the-ground reporting to tell the stories of the people caught in the tumult and conflict of the Middle East. This story was edited from this piece on Global Post.