»The next battle will be much more violent«: Interview with Philip Rizk

26. Jan 2015

In July 2013, the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi after millions had taken to the streets to protest against the rule of his Muslim Brotherhood (MB). What was the driving force behind this mass dissatisfaction?
Especially considering the current situation, it is quite important to remember that when Morsi won the presidential elections in 2012, there was a huge celebration in the street. Many people saw it as a moment of victory, as a revolutionary moment. In this election, you mainly had those that clearly represented the previous regime and you had Morsi. So he was seen as something different from this military constellation. That day I was in a lower class neighborhood of Cairo, and children on the street and the people were celebrating, trucks were driving up and down the street with people on top of them, there were fireworks…

The demonstration that I was a part of was quite small. Like in many moments in the past three or four years, it took a lot of time for the opposition to gain momentum. A lot of people who had been on the streets protesting were of course for the MB, but many others simply took a stance of: »Let’s give them a chance, let’s wait and see what happens«. However, while not remaining exactly the same, a lot of political and economic policies followed the same logic of governance, for example as far as the authority of the police and opposition to protests was concerned. It was during Morsi rule that, again, there was an attempt to pass a law against protests. And in November 2012 the Morsi cabinet tried to pass an increase of taxes, which would have affected the broader population. When the initially small protest movements were harshly suppressed people realized that something similar to the early days of the revolution was happening. We would have a commemoration of significant battles that took place in earlier phases of the revolution, for example those in Mohamed Mahmud Street. Clashes emerged, and a similar kind of logic ensued, where you would have street battles for days, and especially nights, on end. So people started going back to the streets more.

There was something very important in this phase which leads up to the mass demonstrations on June 30th 2013 and the following days: The media played an extremely different role than they did in early 2011 and then again after the military coup on July 3rd. Priot to June 30th, They actually covered these events very clearly and showed the police suppression on the streets. The media in Egypt is heavily controlled. Censorship begins with direct issues of the Ministry of Interior calling editors and people in senior positions in TV channels telling them what should and should not be covered – for example, military violence has never really been shown –, it continues within the media hierarchy and finally there is self-censorship of journalists. However, during MB rule there was much less censorship. Just to give a little anecdote: Our group Mosireen, that in the past had filmed things that were for us the perspective of the street, almost did not have a role any longer because so much of this repression was being covered by television and news outlets. Especially within the media apparatus there are many people from a liberal middle class milieu who have the tendency to criticize a party with an Islamist background. One could almost say that the media was actually doing the role that they are supposed to play, but they did so only for a twelve months period, during the rule of the MB.

To rephrase the question in more concrete terms: Were these mass protests a response to continuing repression and social misery or did the specific nature of the MB as an Islamic party, slowly trying to “islamicise” society, play a role?
Initially opposition was growing because repression was maintained and especially because it was covered more than in any other period. As far as religion is concerned, it is very difficult to explain its role in public life in Egypt. Egyptian society is probably more religious than Tunisia or Libya and even Palestine, Syria or Iraq. One of the strengths of the military regimes up until the present one (excluding the period of the MB, because they are different) is that they have managed very successfully to portray themselves as being significantly religious without actually following a religious platform. At no point has the government in Egypt tried to change the constitution, for example the claim that it is inspired by the Holy Islamic Scriptures. The Azhar University has always played a very significant role as a religious mouthpiece for the government, in all phases. So they know how to appease this kind of religiosity of the population without actually having a religiously inspired political program.

The media succeeded in playing on this by portraying that what Egyptians want is by no means a kind of »secular« society, or state, but they don’t want religious extremists either. And the discourse leading up to the summer of 2013 was increasingly pointing out the extremism of the MB.

In religious terms?
Yes. And this shift was massive. For example, when there were protests in early 2013 at the headquarters of the MB, rumors started spreading of Palestinian and Syrian militants protecting them and especially the media took up these rumors. It is hard to tell how it started, because there is no evidence or proof of any kind as far as I’m aware. Why would the MB have armed foreigners guarding their political headquarters? It doesn’t make any sense to me. But when these kind of stories spread, very quickly for a lot of the population which is religious, but has a tendency to be critical of religious extremism, of the kind you might hear from Syria or Palestine, they quickly started identifying the MB as a kind of increasingly militant group. Similarly, the armed militants in Sinai fighting the military were quickly identified with the MB although again there is no proof of this connection. The situation there is very difficult to assess and I have serious doubts about a lot of media stories, especially if they are based on statements by the Ministry of Interior or the military. They use these kinds of situations to spread rumors and fear. So, all this is happening in the background leading up to the summer of 2013.

But to what extent did this motivate the protests? Secondly, did the MB in your view have a hardcore Islamist agenda which they merely couldn’t realize or were they more moderate types anyway?
There is no situation where any party coming to power in Egypt will respect civil rights. And I think that the MB, in broad terms, were not significantly different than what came before. They were not planning to give more rights but rather to take many rights away. Looking at Christians, for example, under Sadat and Mubarak, they were lacking a lot of rights that Muslims had. It was not the case that religions were equal just because these figures were not driven by religion. I think that the MB would have maintained that. But they also had an interest in having good relations with their western trading partners. Things would not have gotten better, in some cases we would have had bad situations, where a government with a religious program would definitely turn a blind eye to the suppression of Christians, which especially in upper Egypt happens more frequently. But I personally do not believe that the MB had the agenda of becoming religious extremists. Up until now, all the examples the media, the military and Sisi have used to portray the MB as some kind of terrorist entity, there is zero proof of any of that. That is not to say that it could not ever happen. But I do not believe that it has happened. It wouldn't be in the interest of the MB whatsoever. But this narrative has succeeded and provided the perfect enemy required to increase patriotism and suppress a lot of civil rights.

So you would say that these mass demonstrations were not driven by a fear of reactionary Islamist policies?
Let’s take the situation of women, for example. The MB have a terrible record on how they perceive of, and treat, women’s rights. But so does any previous government. There have been some populist moves by Sisi, pretending to have women’s interests in mind, but in fact there is very little interest in such change. It is easy to pin this on the MB, but the fact is that in Egypt we live in an extremely non-egalitarian society where men have a lot more freedoms than women do, and for example society broadly accepts sexual harassment and violence against women in the workplace, at home, on the street. It is not a MB related issue.

What’s your take on the Tamarod campaign that played a major role in the final protests against the MB regime?
Three or four people were in charge of it, I believe it started as a relatively innocent movement of the kinds of youth protesters who had been active in the revolution since 2011. They decided to collect signatures calling for a re-election and basically showing strong opposition to the MB. A movement like this could easily have been a very short-lived political exercise. But it was in the interests of the security regime in Egypt, the military and the Ministry of Interior and so these apparatuses co-opted it. Fights occurred on various occasions, MB headquarters were attacked and vandalised, and every time the Ministry of Interior would support the protesters.

So the security apparatus would still be controlled by the old military and not by the MB?
Traditionally there is competition between these different apparatuses, and there are quite a few of them. The military and the Ministry of Interior don’t always see eye to eye. But clearly, in a moment like this, their bigger interest is stability. My reading of the situation is that the MB was trying to gain more control within these different institutions. There is no doubt about it. To the security apparatuses that was a red line. The MB needed to be pushed into the limelight, to take responsibility for a phase, but there was a very clear agreement about a division of power between them, the Ministry of Interior and the military.

Some people would say that this kind of plan, to eventually scapegoat the MB, had already been organized when the MB came to power. I don’t think this was the case. The MB was by far the entity with the most following in the streets. When the elections happened, in 2012, the generals were not seen as that favorable. Because this was the end of the period of the military junta known as SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), where some of their violence against the population was becoming more and more known and there was actually a growing harsh criticism. Many people opposed the idea of a new military regime taking power and I don’t think the generals considered this strategic at the time. So there was this common sentiment for civilian leadership, and the MB was the best entity to fill that role.

Here we cannot exclude foreign interests. The USA, the Russians, the Europeans, all of them have some push and pull. When members of the American Congress came to visit they were very happy with the MB because they agreed on all the major points. They were not going to change any of the previous agreements, so Camp David agreement with Israel was going to be maintained, according to their promises. And the MB promised to continue the neoliberalisation of the economy. There are a lot of military links between Egypt and the US, and it was clear that it was an acceptable scenario for the MB to take power at that time.

However, two things happened. One, the MB were not able to maintain enough popularity. So the streets remained unstable; protests continued, especially spontaneous protests with increasing violence. This increasing instability was to nobody’s interest. Not to any of the foreign powers interests, because anyone with money and power is interested in a stable Egypt. It does not really matter who is in power – whether they are a military dictatorship or have a religious agenda – as long as they can maintain a stable situation. And the MB were proving themselves increasingly unable to do that. Secondly, as mentioned before, a lot of the government structure that the MB inherited remained to a certain extent loyal to the old regime. So there was this constant competition, and this internal, slow, everyday opposition to what the MB could do. But at the same time, part of this opposition was also to the MB trying to place their individuals in positions of power.

You said that the military was not hostile towards the movement against the MB. But how did the different groups in the streets, like ultras and workers, see the military?
Enemy number one were the MB, just like enemy number one in early 2011 was Mubarak’s regime. So that was the agenda of the day. Most people did not consider the military to be in power. The MB were in power. Suppression was maintained, the prisons were full, torture continued. So people signed on to Tamarod, because that was a movement with momentum.

Criticism of the military was not welcome. For example, I was part of a small march that happened on June 30th that chanted slogans against both the MB and the military. There were two different marches of that kind, but both were extremely small compared to the masses that went to the streets. On television you had Tamarod activists telling people what to say and what not to say. The message was very clear that there should be no chants against the police and the military: Right now we have one target, which is the MB, so we should not divide our ranks by creating internal fighting. Those who were against both, like myself and a relatively small group of protesters, we were a tiny voice amongst this ocean of opposition exclusively against the MB.

What was the situation like when the military began massacring people?
The situation was really shocking. At the end of the day, it was a military strategy of divide and conquer. The military really succeeded in dividing the opposition, by creating a scenario where you are either with the MB or you are not. There is nothing else. Protests that were not pro-MB, but simply criticized the military, were quickly portrayed by the media but also by military spokespersonS as supporting of the MB and therefore immediately delegitimized. Sadly, a lot of intellectuals, a lot of previously very active and well-known figures in the revolution, took this position to not criticize the military yet and to rather give them a chance and see what kind of transition they would be able offer us because our main concern right now was making sure the MB do not have another chance at power.

How do you explain that, for example, parts of Ultras White Knights who had fought against MB rule and who were relatively immune to religious fanaticism began fighting alongside pro-Morsi activists once the massacres started?
I don’t think it’s so important to differentiate between ultras and others because this applies to all protesters. A lot of those that were really convinced that the MB offered a radical change from the past turned a blind eye to the abuses of the MB regime while they were in power. And now they maintained that position and marched for the MB.

The ultras were a very organized group of football fans, and they played a very specific role in different periods of the revolution. And there were significant splits within their ranks, like with those who continued protesting against the MB and those that were for the MB. Again there is a very strong divide and rule that was used against the ultras. Because they were seen as a threat against the system and they needed to be disqualified. And they became strongly divided – either for or against the MB.

Is this also true for the workers?
First of all, there is no workers movement. There was a wave of workers’ strikes. I have written about this in my article »2011 is not 1968«.1 Tunisia, for example, has a very different historical background as far as labour organizations are concerned. In Egypt, they were very harshly suppressed. So strikes continued, but they always happened in a separate sphere from street protests. Sadly, these two processes are quite separate.

But now? Independent unions have been formed. Why does this not translate into a political dynamic?
Largely because the demands that bring the workers together are bread and butter demands. There were always attempts by various socialist groups to bring these workers into some kind of political formation. They always failed. In 2011 a workers/farmers party was formed; I don't even know if it still exists. Maybe it does, but it has no existence on the ground. Amongst workers, political groups or more politicized individuals were quickly discredited because they were seen as having other interests than just the immediate worker demands.

In my view, there wasn’t a kind of momentum of a workers’ movement. There was a very significant wave of worker actions, but it was extremely difficult to mobilize workers even to have solidarity to a nearby strike or action. Because jobs are so threatened, you do not want to lose your job. In certain periods people were willing to risk their jobs in order to improve their situation, but very rarely for political ends.

At the same time, there was never a consensus among workers that the MB or the military would have the best intentions for us. We’re far beyond the Nasser era, where there was at least a rhetoric – though a deceptive one – of pro-worker sentiment. Sisi portrays himself in the same way and I do think he gained some traction, but it is not going to last long because there is nothing on the ground. If anything, repression has gotten much worse.

When the MB won, strikes quieted down for a while because there was a broad perception that things would change. I remember having conversations where people were saying: »This age of corruption is over, privatization is over.« There had been promises that there would be no more privatization …

The MB actually promised that?
Yes. And I don't think they really managed to continue much the privatization process during the year they were in power.

I remember that one of the most important figures amongst public transport workers was a Salafi guy that everyone called Sheikh. Towards the end of the MB period he showed very strong opposition to the MB as well because didn’t want workers to be tricked that easily. When their demands are not being met, and when they are given promises and they are not being met, then workers struggle, even if they have a strong religious tendency. At the end of the day they have their demands and they want them. I visited several occupations of factories and the two or three more senior figures were very religious.

You mean senior in the union?
In this one case I visited it was not even a union, they were just the strike leaders. They were very religious younger guys. I remember the leader was at most in his early thirties. Long beard, again being called Sheikh, which means he has some religious weight within this community of workers. The military was quite soft on these workers actions compared to how they have been in the past year, where things have changed by 180 degrees. During the MB rule they were permitting unrest because it served their interests.

In the past, we largely accepted the thesis that workers‘ strongholds like the textile industry in Mahalla were much less inclined to believe in the Islamist promises.
I don’t see that as a conflict. I spent quite a bit of time in Mahalla and I didn’t come across any strong religious backing in the main figures in 2006-2007. But that is not to say that in many of the other worker groupings there is no strong religious tendency.

Let’s talk about the current situation. Repression is worse than under Mubarak. Is the movement dead?
As I mentioned earlier, the powerful players both inside and outside of Egypt have as their main interest a strong stable state. And the way the cards have been played is in the interests of this kind of stability. A very clear enemy of the state has been projected and this narrative has been accepted by a relatively broad part of the population, especially the middle and upper class who as in most places have a stronger impact on public narrative. So the excuse for increased repression and decreased rights of any kind is to stabilize and strengthen the core of the state as well as the economy. This is the basis for the anti-protest law and has given the ministry of interior a free hand to do what they want. And that kills any momentum for a possible movement in the street for the time being.

But how strong is the support for the current regime actually? The picture seems contradictory – little protest, but also little enthusiasm as the low participation in the elections show. Are people simply tired?
The situation is also very contradictory to me. The media definitely maintains its very pro-military propaganda approach. You will never hear anybody publicly criticizing the current situation. Day in and day out the media claim that things are better, things are going to get better, things are going to get stable, and that the military is doing all it can to oppose any opposition to growing stability. So there is this strong narrative of extreme patriotism.

But it is exactly amongst those people who are purposefully excluded from these media outlets, those who are never portrayed, that we find people who are becoming increasingly skeptical about the current situation. Especially from lower middle class or poor neighborhoods who do not believe in the political process. Partly because they never did – they simply don’t think their vote is going to make a difference. But there are also those who after three and a half years of extreme turmoil and unpredictability don’t see that something different is possible because there is no alternative offered. As long as you think within the statist narrative, there are no alternatives. Egypt’s partners abroad will continue to support the powerful, with zero interest to what the common person in the street needs.

Sisi spent a lot of time thinking whether he should run for the elections or not. Because once he is in the top position, he cannot forever push the responsibility for any negative consequences on somebody else. Sisi is very clear on this and I think that he is scared shitless. Because, yes, he was extremely popular for a period, but that is declining. And he is forced into a position where he has to cut subsidies, where he knows prices are going to increase, where economic reforms like in the past are not possible – he cannot portray himself the way Nasser did, as this kind of populist leader with the masses behind him, even if he wanted to.

There is very little belief in the political process; the elections speak very clearly about the situation we are in. They extended the elections by a day, popular talk shows hosts were accusing people of being non-patriotic by not participating, the public prosecutor even claimed that those who do not vote will get fines of 500 pounds – which for some people is a month’s or half a month’s wage – and up to 6 months in prison. They were literally threatening people into voting, just to legitimize the process. And people still didn't go to vote. Estimations about the actual participation range from 15 to 60 per cent, not the 95 plus per cent that the government claims. That is a very strong message. The prospects for those in power are not great.

Talking about possibilities for reform: what could capitalism in Egypt today provide?
Capitalism, here too, has nothing new to offer, only more of the same stratification that brought about the conditions for the January 25 uprising. Capitalism is not a thing, I would rather want to speak of the spirit of capitalism that in the Egyptian context has manifested itself as a convoluted oligarchy, where the power lies with those with capital, with control of militarized statist institutions. Capitalism in this form in Egypt will only drive people that are not a part of this club of rulers deeper into crisis. Prices are rising excessively as neoliberal policies are maintained by the Sisi government as they were by Morsi. Gas prices have gone up, transport and food prices are constantly going up and wages remain constant, jobs are hard to get ahold of. The more the guarantees for a decent way of life wane, the more capitalism approaches its end. The next battle will be much more violent.

A further question on the economic prospects: the general situation seems to be very shaky but there have been massive capital inflows from the Gulf states and grandiose development plans more recently.
Many people are still convinced of the good interests of the current regime. With prices going up, there is a perception of foreign funds flowing into the country as a positive thing. These grants or in most cases loans, whether they are coming from the Gulf or other banks or states, are very short term solutions. The regime wants a quick influx of money to band-aid over the short term economic turmoil, but within five to ten years Egypt will have to manage to pay back these loans and servicing debts, which is going to be horrendous in the long run. But who thinks about anything in the long run in the current situation? So if you have some Gulfie saying that they are going to build new airports to strengthen the tourist sector in some Red Sea resorts, even public sentiment won’t oppose that. People think that is exactly what we need, and only the military can provide that because they provide security.

Plans around the Suez canal are very tricky and here again, I don't know how it's playing out on the street. Nasser was really celebrated when he opposed the British and the French when he took back the Suez canal from the colonial powers of the time. This is a huge issue, in the public memory of Egyptians. But people often have short term memory. And when you have all these propaganda stations, day in and day out, talking about how the Suez canal development is going to create so many jobs and bring in new companies and bring in the funds that we now need... Why would we expect people to react differently. If the experts say that these projects are going to create jobs, then they are going to create jobs.

The Suez canal is seen as a national treasure. So we are going to make more money out of it? Great. As far as we know, all the income from the Suez canal used to go straight into Mubarak's coffers. I was part of a group that was working on debt in the past couple of years and we don't know where that money went. So if they are going to increase the profits from there, where is that going to go?

So what are the perspectives for struggles in the near future?
The prospects are not all bad. The immediate situation is extremely difficult because a lot of our friends are now in prison and there is very little that can be done compared to the past. If you protest today, you risk ending up in prison for anything between 6 months to 15 YEARS. So suddenly we are left without the tools to get very far. But, as my reading of this UPRISING has been since 2011 and prior, we – I mean the milieu that I’m in, a politicized largely middle class opposition – are not really the significant factors in this revolt.

And that's precisely where the hope for the future lies. People will not be able to remain content, and in many cases they will not be able to survive in these conditions in the near future. Prices have increased significantly, just in the past three months. Fuel subsidies were cut twice this year. That has a very strong effect on transportation, food costs, it affects everything. Life is becoming more expensive. Right now, Sisi can ride this wave of popularity, but it is not going to last forever. It was the same with Sadat: He rode a wave of popularity when he came to power, but in 1977, when he tried to cut subsidies, they had to overturn these policies immediately from one day to the next because of the fear of what would happen following people taking to the streets.

I don't think this is going to happen in the next few months, but it will come back. The conditions that brought people to the streets in 2011 are already here and so protest will return in the near future. And I think that it will be much more violent the next time, from both sides. I think you can't discredit what happened in the past three years, even though many people paid with their lives or are paying with heavy prison sentences. The kind of consciousness that has been created through these moments of revolt and the various different debates and mobilizations that have occurred, it can’t be undone. It has left a very deep impression on the population at large. We have gone through a lot of waves in the past four years. In 2011, in 2012, there were already heavy moments of depression and almost regret for what has occurred. It is far from over.

But do you have any hope that struggles could take on a new quality? Looking back on the years since the so-called revolution in 2011 one can see that people were able to topple governments, there were massive workers‘ struggles and a strong youth movement striving for freedom rights. At the same time, however, people first supported the military against Mubarak, then the MB against the military and finally the military against the MB… After the coup in July 2013, there was widespread acceptance of the military’s massacres. How could the next wave of struggles look like? Just a repetition of previous ones?
It is very hard to tell. On the one hand that is bad for us, but it is also bad for those in power because there is no back-up plan. One of the reasons why Morsi or Sisi came to power was that at the time, they were the most popular option on the streets. The next option? I can't see any that would be popular after Sisi.

I have never gone to the streets in order to change government. I think the system really needs to collapse in order for some kind of better form of society to emerge. But what that means, I have no idea. And maybe that is not such a bad thing. I think one of the important lessons to learn here is that things cannot easily happen in Egypt in a vacuum, apart from what happens elsewhere in the world. Because you constantly have this influence from the outside, whether it is from the Gulf or from the western states that are sending in at this point weapons and military training and financial support and maintain their trade agreements in order to shape the power constellation. So for things to significantly change in Egypt there needs to be a significant change in those different centers of power as well. And things will have to happen in broader circles, not just individual points of clashes. And in my view, this is something that we are steering towards. I don't know what it would look like, but I think that this is not far away.

Philip Rizk is a filmmaker and writer. He lives in Cairo. The interview was made by some friends of the classless society in autumn 2014 in Berlin.