Article — From the October 2012 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Article — From the October 2012 issue
Egypt’s domed parliament building, with its white colonnaded façade, sticks out from the gray prefabricated concrete of downtown Cairo as if it had been air-dropped in from seventeenth-century Paris. Last winter, the country’s first freely elected parliament in six decades convened there. The 508 members of the People’s Assembly accepted their seats during a half-day ceremony in which they swore to protect a constitution that had yet to be written.
The day after they took their oath in January, I visited the building. As I approached the front entrance, I passed through a sliding metal gate surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers sporting flak jackets and AK-47s, who directed me down the block to the next entrance, where Zyad Elelaimy, one of the assembly’s new representatives, had registered me as a researcher, skirting what he’d heard was a lengthy accreditation process for Western media. The guards looked at my Virginia driver’s license with suspicion and asked whether I wasn’t indeed a journalist. I shook my head, and after a few minutes of conferring, they waved me through.
Over six feet tall, with massive shoulders and bushy eyebrows, Elelaimy greeted me at the ornate wooden doors with a firm handshake. His round face was made more boyish by a dimpled chin and disheveled hair. Dressed in a corduroy jacket, khakis, and thick glasses, Elelaimy looked less like a politician than like a graduate student. He got his start in politics when he was still a teenager, as a member of an underground communist group. In his twenties he worked as a human rights lawyer, defending political prisoners. Last year, he joined the group of young activists who organized the protests that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. I began following Elelaimy’s political ascent during the Tahrir Square uprising and had witnessed his transformation from a street activist to one of the youngest members of Egypt’s new parliament.
“We have a lot of time to talk today,” he told me as we made our way through the marble-floored corridor. The day’s official business was the selection of the nineteen parliamentary committee heads, but Elelaimy and other liberal MPs were convinced the Muslim Brotherhood and its ultratraditionalist allies, the Salafis, who together held nearly three quarters of the seats, would shut them out of all the important positions, so they pledged to sit out the session in protest. “They are trying to make deals for their party,” Elelaimy said, “but we want people with experience in charge of the committees.”
We entered the Pharaonic Hall, where parliamentarians gathered between sessions to drink tea and talk. Television crews were staked out along the walls between thick columns with papyrus capitals. Elelaimy nodded to his colleagues as we passed. It seemed like almost everyone was bearded and had a zebiba, a forehead scar from prostration during prayer that is a mark of the devout Muslim man in Egypt. We sat down under an enormous flatscreen television tuned to the new official parliamentary channel. Elelaimy pulled out a cigarette and offered me one. When I told him he probably shouldn’t be sitting in a room full of Islamists and TV cameras with a young, unveiled woman as she smoked, he scoffed, pushing his open pack toward me. Elelaimy caught someone staring and grinned. “Fuck you, don’t look at me,” he hissed, taking a drag.
“Half this hall was imprisoned under Mubarak,” he went on, turning back to me. It was true, for decades both the Brotherhood and liberals had been routinely harassed and detained by security services. Elelaimy himself had been jailed four times for protesting the regime; first for just one night, when he was sixteen years old. His longest confinement lasted more than a month, during which time Elelaimy’s tormentors broke his arm and permanently damaged nerves in his neck, hands, and legs. And yet despite this shared history, the Brotherhood seemed eager to work with the military stewards who took over from Mubarak, or at least seemed hesitant to challenge them, refusing to send its members to antimilitary protests or speak out against the violent tactics security services routinely used against demonstrators. “All the Muslim Brotherhood are liars,” said Elelaimy. “They never respect their words.”
A bow-tied waiter came by, and we ordered iced hibiscus tea. “We have to work for revolution here,” Elelaimy said. “The parliament members are all conservative, not revolutionary, so I have to push for laws that serve the revolution.” Our conversation was interrupted by a man wearing a slim black suit, who walked over and whispered something to Elelaimy. “We have to go,” Elelaimy said as he rose from the settee we were sharing.
I followed the two as they made their way through the halls and stopped at a knot of arguing parliamentarians, who were whispering and gesturing wildly. A few of the members who had promised to sit out the committee-chair votes had brokered deals with the Brotherhood for leadership positions, giving the conservatives an important political victory. Elelaimy argued with them for several minutes before walking away calmly. “It’s dirty politics,” he said, grimacing.
We moved to another antechamber where we sat through the rest of the session and ordered more tea. When the voting was finished, a few independent MPs ended up with deputy-chairman positions, and the Islamists held all but one of the committee chairmanships.
Walking out of important votes would soon become the liberals’ favored tactic. In the coming weeks, they’d boycott the vote to choose members of the first constitutional drafting assembly. In June, five months into the session, during a second vote to form a constitutional assembly, ninety-one parliamentarians would refuse to participate. In the end, however, their attempts at obstruction wouldn’t make much of a difference. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the group of reclusive generals that controls the country, would dissolve the People’s Assembly later that month and announce that it alone held legislative authority.
The failures of the new assembly were clear even before its disbandment. Throughout the spring, I watched Egypt’s newly liberated political actors repeatedly make the same mistakes as they sparred for short-term gains. For the average Egyptian, the highly anticipated parliament, the first truly democratic body most Egyptians had ever seen, had already become a punch line.
Elelaimy was running his own law practice when Mohammed ElBaradei, Nobel Laureate and Mubarak critic, returned to Egypt in February 2010. ElBaradei formed a national group to help promote competitive presidential elections, and Elelaimy soon signed on to help him, becoming one of his unofficial advisers. Later that year, a group of young activists, including members of ElBaradei’s coalition, began planning a protest scheduled for January 25, a national holiday in honor of the country’s police. The activists, who sometimes met secretly at Elelaimy’s mother’s house, called themselves the Revolutionary Youth Coalition. The brutality and corruption of Mubarak’s police force was a long-standing grievance among Egyptians, and in both 2009 and 2010 small crowds had turned out on January 25 to protest police abuse. The coalition, hoping that 2011’s demonstration would draw bigger crowds, planned simultaneous marches that would begin at six points across the city and end in Tahrir Square. They never anticipated that the events would set off eighteen days of protests and end with Mubarak fleeing the capital.
On the night of February 11, 2011, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took control of the country, Egyptians celebrating in Tahrir Square chanted, “The people and the army are one hand,” a show of trust in their new military guardians. Two days later the generals suspended Egypt’s constitution, and soon after issued a sixty-three-article declaration that gave them the power to govern and make laws while the country awaited elections and a new constitution. The SCAF released the document on its Facebook page, which had become its favored forum for addressing Egyptians, three quarters of whom don’t have Internet access. (Anyone who wanted to follow the generals’ missives was thereby obliged to “like” them.)
Yet the SCAF resisted calls to announce a concrete timetable for handing over power to a civilian government, while its head, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, began using his public appearances to make increasingly paranoid and vitriolic attacks against the country’s left, repeatedly accusing “foreign hands” of instigating the bouts of violence that continued to flare up in and around Tahrir Square.
In September 2011, more than seven months after taking power, the generals finally decreed that parliamentary elections would be held that fall. The new bicameral legislature would be elected in a six-round voting process beginning in November and ending by March 2012. The parliament, in turn, would appoint a one-hundred-member committee to draft the new constitution. (Any laws passed by the legislative body would require the SCAF’s approval.) After the constitution was ratified by national referendum, a presidential election would decide the next leader of Egypt, and the SCAF would officially step aside.
But the dates were vague, with no clear deadlines for ratifying the constitution or electing a president, and the parliamentary elections were dauntingly complicated. Candidates were categorized as either “workers” or “professionals”; no more than half the elected representatives were allowed to be the latter. Two thirds of the assembly—excluding ten appointed by the SCAF—would be decided by list-based proportional representation. In an effort to prevent the resurrection of figures from the old regime, the rest of the seats would go to individuals, who could run with or without party affiliation. The result of these rules was an election with more than 6,700 candidates from forty-seven political parties in which each voter was given two ballots and asked to cast three votes.
When campaigning began in the fall, the Muslim Brotherhood entered the races with widespread popular support and a roster of tested politicians. The Muslim Brotherhood has, since its inception, used social work to spread its conservative interpretation of Islam. For decades, the Brotherhood filled the vacuum left by Mubarak’s inept national government, running schools, hospitals, and charities all over the country. If a neighborhood wanted a speed bump installed on a certain street or if their sewage line backed up, they were more likely to call their local Brotherhood chapter than a government official. The Brotherhood was barred from national politics in the 1950s, but beginning in the 1980s members were permitted to run for parliament, first under the auspices of affiliated secular parties and later as independents. The group’s MPs soon emerged as the leading voice of criticism against Mubarak’s regime. By 2005, they held a fifth of the seats in the People’s Assembly.
Egypt’s liberal minority was united mostly by its opposition, both to Mubarak’s autocratic regime and to the Islamists’ vision of Egypt as the newest Muslim republic. Drawn primarily from upper- and middle-class neighborhoods around Cairo, they adhered to a range of ideologies, from communism to neoliberal capitalism. Initially the secularist groups tried to oppose the Islamists by running on a single ticket. Fifteen different parties with roots in the protest movement formed the Egyptian Bloc, which carried the slogan “Together, we will achieve what is ours.” But the parties argued over where their candidates would rank on the combined lists, accused one another of nominating Mubarak’s cronies, and fought over campaign finances. By the time voting began, only three parties remained in the coalition. Some activists went so far as to call for a boycott of the elections. The movement that had brought about the country’s political awakening was too small and fractured to secure much political power.
Elelaimy was one of ten members of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition to run for parliament. His south Cairo district drew 130 candidates, including another member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition and a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood. At political events, Elelaimy established himself as the revolution’s candidate, repeatedly saying that he would be “a revolutionary in parliament, and a parliamentarian on the street.” He lived this creed through the election season, suspending his campaign a week before the polls opened to join one of the deadliest anti-SCAF protests yet.
When voting ended in January, the Islamists had won 350 of the 498 elected seats in the People’s Assembly; the Egyptian Bloc held just thirty-four.
The new parliament was sworn in two days before the anniversary of the Tahrir Square protests. The Brotherhood and the SCAF called for a national holiday to celebrate Egypt’s transformation, but Elelaimy was adamant that the revolution’s failures were too great to justify the festivities. The SCAF had not honored its promise to repeal Mubarak’s draconian emergency law, which prohibited public rallies, allowed for indefinite detention without trial, and permitted civilians to be tried in military courts. In fact, the generals expanded the application of the law; 12,000 civilians were subjected to military trials in 2011, more than under Mubarak’s entire three-decade presidency. Restrictions on NGOs and the media had also been subtly tightened. Bloggers and activists were arrested for criticizing the SCAF, and journalists who questioned the military’s intentions were called in for “conversations” with the generals. In December 2011, police stormed the offices of more than a dozen civil-society groups, including some American NGOs, and shuttered their operations. Meanwhile, more than a hundred protesters died in street clashes with police.
So instead of celebrating, an alliance of civil-society groups, among them the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, orchestrated a “week of anger and mourning,” a series of protests and demonstrations that would culminate on January 25, in an echo of the year before, with six marches along the same routes, converging at Tahrir Square. The groups had erected a stage in the middle of the square, where they held rallies every other night. But the rallies had been only sparsely attended, and the organizers were palpably disappointed. Late on the eve of the anniversary, as I left Elelaimy brooding with his friends, he said to me: “I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Will the people wake up? I don’t know.”
The next day at noon, Elelaimy and I drove to Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, one of the locations where the marches were set to begin. Elelaimy had taken care to dress in the same blue jacket, blue sweater, jeans, and black Converse sneakers that he’d worn at the revolution’s birth. By the time we arrived, a crowd had filled the four-lane road outside the mosque, chanting “Freedom!” and blowing whistles. Elelaimy called the Youth Coalition’s operations room to check on the progress of the other marches. “Helwan is big, Shubra is huge, huge, huge, Maadi is not bad, and Giza is great!” Elelaimy told his friends, who slung their arms around one another’s shoulders, beaming.
I stood next to Ezzat Amin, a close friend of Elelaimy’s and a satirist famous in Egypt for his book The Party of the Couch, whose title referred to the apathetic Egyptian majority, the people who stayed home from the protests. He shook his head in disbelief at the numbers. “It’s alive!” he said in the voice of Dr. Frankenstein. Soon thousands were marching down the route that would take us to the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, over the Nile, and into Tahrir Square.
As we rounded a corner, another march merged with ours. Both groups’ voices rose in unison: “Leave! Leave! Leave!” “The people want the downfall of the regime.” “Bread, freedom, and social justice!” There were chants against Field Marshal Tantawi, against Mubarak, and finally against anyone like Mubarak. Mohammed Allam, another member of Elelaimy’s clique, broke through the crowd to reach us. “We have to occupy the streets, not Tahrir,” Allam told me. “We are always enclosing ourselves in Tahrir and we’re not talking to the people. See how many people hear us now!” He was skipping as he spoke. He joined Elelaimy in a chant. When they stopped, Elelaimy looked down at me and said, “It’s my place here, not there.”
Around three hours later, we finally reached Qasr al-Nil, and the march hit a standstill. Word moved through the crowd that the previous night, the Muslim Brotherhood had built its own bigger stage next to the Youth Coalition’s stage and urged its supporters to sleep in the square. Now bearded men and veiled women had packed the side of Tahrir closest to the bridge, blocking the entrance. Small clusters of protesters moved forward, trying to break through, as others melted away, defeated. While Elelaimy greeted constituents, his friends debated what to do. Squatting on the curb, Allam got on his phone. He had heard that an impromptu sit-in was forming in front of the state television station. At Allam’s insistence, and after a bit of wrangling, Elelaimy decided we would join them. “We’ll go to Tahrir later,” he told me as we walked. The group turned left at the base of the bridge and walked away from Tahrir along the bank of the Nile.
That afternoon in the square, Islamist MPs addressed the boisterous crowds. “We are here to confirm that the revolution is ongoing. It is today that we were reborn, and we will continue until the demands of all Egypt are met, and we assure you that the parliament is an extension of the Square,” said Mohamed Beltagy, a Brotherhood legislator from Cairo. “The parliament that you vested your trust in will not rest until the rights of the martyrs and those injured during the revolution are completely restored.”
By dusk, it became clear that the revolutionaries had again been outmaneuvered by the Islamists, who slept in Tahrir that night while Elelaimy and his friends went home to their own beds. When state television broadcast the day’s footage of the square, the scene was of patriotic Egyptians waving flags while the announcers cheered on the SCAF.
A week later, on February 1, riots broke out following a soccer match in the coastal city of Port Said, killing seventy-nine people, most of them members of the visiting Cairo team’s fan club. Hard-core supporters of Egypt’s soccer teams, called ultras, had served as shock troops in the anti-Mubarak protests, eagerly taking on the police in the volatile first days of the uprising. Egyptian newspapers reported that home-team fans attacked Cairo’s ultras with knives and bats. Enraged ultras gathered at the Cairo train station that night to receive the bodies of the victims returning to the capital. Elelaimy told journalists the SCAF had orchestrated the violence in order to punish ultras for their role in the 2011 protests and to sow security fears that would justify the generals’ continued reliance on martial law.
The next day, at an emergency session of parliament, the MPs had their first major vote, moving to summon the interior minister before the assembly’s general committee to investigate his role in the deaths. According to international observers, it was the first time in Egypt’s history that a security official had to submit to questioning by an elected body. The chamber also agreed to form a fact-finding committee to investigate the killings.
That afternoon, ultras marched on the Interior Ministry to demand justice for the victims. The protests quickly escalated. Two days into the street skirmishes, I accompanied Elelaimy to Midan Falaki, a small square a few blocks from Tahrir. With him was Nadine Wahab, who had been a deputy campaign manager for ElBaradei’s abortive presidential run, and Sally Toma, the only female member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition. The two women were busy trying on the new gas masks Wahab had just bought.
We could hear the low rumble of riots a block away, but Midan Falaki was eerily calm. Protesters clustered in small groups, wrapping keffiyehs and surgical cloths over their faces, preparing to join the clashes. Toma carefully brushed back stray strands of hair to make sure none of it would break her gas mask’s seal. She placed the heavy-duty plastic over her face and pulled the rubber straps tight around her head before turning to help Wahab adjust hers. Motorcycle horns blared intermittently from across the square as volunteers raced injured protesters to waiting ambulances.
A dozen feet away, Elelaimy stood greeting supporters. He had told me earlier that he hoped the presence of a parliamentarian in the crowds might encourage the police to stand down or at least to soften their attack. Every time he turned to join us, more people would come up to shake his hand. When he was finally finished, he walked back to our group, pulling a gas mask over his unkempt hair. The streetlights were all out, but the sign over a local fast-food restaurant cast a red glow on the middle of the block. The street was pockmarked from the riots; protesters had torn up chunks of asphalt to throw at police, who chased them in armored personnel carriers. Elelaimy and his entourage walked toward the crowd through the debris wearing their gas masks and, in the middle of their backs, circular stickers calling the SCAF “liars.”
Later that night, when I met up with them again at Felfela, a restaurant that functioned as the unofficial rest house between stints at the front, Wahab was bouncing in her seat. “Sorry, sorry,” she said to me in English. “You know running from tear gas gets your adrenaline pumping!” They had reached the intersection of Mansour Street and Mohammad Mahmoud Street, Wahab said, to find riot police guarding the Interior Ministry, a minimalist concrete complex surrounded by twenty-four-foot walls. Other troops prevented the protesters from going around the fortress. The crowd pushed forward, some people hurling stones while the police beat them back with tear gas. Half an hour later, the canisters were coming in so heavily that Wahab and Toma could no longer see in front of them. When Elelaimy finally pulled the two women to safety, they didn’t put up a fight.
The group was planning their return to Mansour Street, but Elelaimy sat silently at the head of the table, smoking a cigarette and eating while they talked. He chewed deliberately, soaking his bread in sauce before bringing it to his mouth.
“We don’t have enough people to take the ministry,” he said at last. “The tactics of protesters are not winning the support of the people. We just don’t have the numbers.” He shook his head. Allam had been listening to Elelaimy. “You know, you should wear your new mask to the parliament,” he joked.
“We should just gas the parliament,” said Elelaimy with a sad smile.
The following day, the assembly addressed the escalating violence. Activists said riot police had used live ammunition against the protesters, and local papers reported at least eight people were killed in the clashes. At the afternoon session, Saad ElKatatni, the assembly’s speaker, announced that according to the interior minister, the police used only tear gas. Liberal MPs were outraged. Mohammed Abu Hamed, an MP from Cairo, stood up holding bird-shot casings as proof, but the Islamists shouted him down, arguing that the pellets could have come from anywhere. “These are not the revolutionaries of the January 25 revolution,” declared one Salafi parliamentarian. “These are a bunch of thugs who get paid two hundred pounds a day as well as receiving two meals.” Later in the session, a different MP tried to snatch the casings from Abu Hamed.
Elelaimy had hoped to add his own experience at the Interior Ministry to the official record, so while the commotion continued, his party asked for the floor. But ElKatatni denied their request. In response, Elelaimy declared that he would take up a hunger strike, beginning immediately.
I found out about the hunger strike a few hours later from Allam, as Wahab and I walked into Felfela for dinner.
“Zyad can’t be on a hunger strike,” she said, taking the open seat next to Toma. “He’s diabetic.”
“He’s going to sleep in the parliament,” Allam told us, “and he wants us to bring him toothpaste, a toothbrush, two packs of cigarettes, and a phone charger.”
Toma and Ahmed ElGohary, another friend of Elelaimy’s, sat picking at their food and silently checking their phones, barely registering the conversation. The clashes were entering their fifth night, and the restaurant was packed. The four revolutionaries at my table looked exhausted.
“Zyad updated his Facebook profile again,” ElGohary announced without looking up from his iPad. At 7:37 p.m., Elelaimy had posted his demands to parliament: First, it should intercede to stop the clashes. Next, it should conduct an inquiry into the abuses of the Interior Ministry. The chamber must also consider his motion to investigate Tantawi, strike from the official record the statement of the Salafi parliamentarian who called the protesters criminals, and issue an apology to the protesters. Comments had already flooded the page:
You are our last hope in the parliament.You weren’t elected to go on hunger strike, mister MP. If you can’t do [your job] then just resign.Political conflict is what we need, not a street war.
The group finished eating and settled the bill. Wahab went to a meeting, while the rest of us walked to a pharmacy to buy Elelaimy’s supplies. Under normal circumstances, Felfela was only five minutes’ drive from the parliament, but the route was blocked by the riots, and it took three tries before a cab would agree to take us. When we finally piled into the car, Allam turned to me and said, “We might hit checkpoints of honorable citizens, so no English, okay?” They had taken to calling SCAF supporters who roughed up activists “honorable citizens.” “You look Egyptian enough. If we get stopped, just don’t talk.”
We hid our gas masks in Allam’s backpack as our taxi coasted through downtown, passing brightly lit stores. Businesses had long since stopped closing because of the violence, but there was still no one on the sidewalk.
Zyad, here’s the news: you’re not a free man.” I had joined Elelaimy in the satirist Ezzat Amin’s apartment. We were sitting around a coffee table piled with plates of fried chicken and pasta with sausage. Mohammad Allam was splayed out in a beanbag chair nearby. Elelaimy’s fast had lasted fewer than twenty-four hours. By then, he told me, ElKatatni had agreed to his demands. The objectionable comments were struck from the record, and the clashes eventually died down. But after three days parliament still hadn’t investigated Port Said or the military abuses, so Elelaimy marched on the Ministry of Defense and, with another parliamentarian, unfurled a seven-foot-long banner reading go back to the barracks before a crowd of jeering honorable citizens. The military police stood motionless as one SCAF supporter slapped Elelaimy, who accepted the blow with impressive stoicism.
Elelaimy gnawed on a drumstick while Amin lit into him. “You’re not free after being elected to parliament,” Amin said. “You have to be not free for us to be free!”
Elelaimy shook his head. “I’m a free man trying to get us a free country, so I have to behave how I believe and say what’s right,” he said.
“Well, that’s right, but just don’t fuck my revolution, because if you fuck my revolution, we’ll all be in jail. And I will spend the twenty-five years in jail telling you one thing: ‘I told you so!’ ” Amin wagged his finger at his friend.
Everyone laughed, but there was despair behind Amin’s jest. The hunger strike had been part success, part adolescent tantrum. The march on the Ministry of Defense could have ended with much worse than a slap. At the heart of Amin’s jab was a plea for Elelaimy to shape up.
I asked Amin how Elelaimy could ruin their revolution, and he responded instantly: “If he has done anything wrong, anything—scandal!” Amin was almost shouting with mock outrage. “In Egypt, anything is a scandal. If he wears a pink shirt it’s a scandal!”
“But I used to go to the parliament in jeans,” Elelaimy said proudly.
“Yes, even this is somehow a scandal,” Amin said, shaking his head. Elelaimy was confirming Egyptians’ stereotypes about the liberal left. Amin said he was worried Elelaimy would end up giving ElKatatni the finger or, worse, cursing at Tantawi. “If Tantawi is in the parliament you will hit him, I’m sure you will hit him. ‘Hey! Come here! Seventy-six-year-old grandfather, come here.’ ” Amin beckoned and began air-punching the leader of Egypt.
“I stopped myself several times, believe me, I swear.” Elelaimy chortled. “I kept thinking, Don’t say anything to make him mad.”
In private, Elelaimy had admitted to me that he had some image management to do; he still had doubts about his role as a parliamentarian—and even as a public figure of any kind. It had occurred to him how lonely his position in the People’s Assembly was, and being a “parliamentarian in the street” was just as difficult.
“I’m nervous from the responsibility. I feel like I’m responsible for everyone in this revolution, everyone killed, everyone hurt,” he told me one night when we met at an upscale hookah café in central Cairo. “When we reach the violence point in our country, I can hold a Kalashnikov, I can fight, but I can’t imagine that I’ll push for someone else to fight and die.” He paused. “Do you understand how hard it is for me?”
Amin’s warning turned out to be well founded. A few days later Elelaimy was at a rally in Port Said, addressing rowdy supporters. In a moment of boldness, he told the audience that everyone knew who was really behind the Port Said massacre. Then he used a common Arabic expression: Egyptians should no longer beat the saddle for the behavior of the donkey. Someone from the crowd shouted up at Elelaimy, “Who is the donkey?” The parliamentarian smiled and said: “Tantawi.”
In Arabic, calling someone a donkey is a serious insult. Egyptians have been imprisoned for less: Maikel Nabil Sanad, a prominent blogger, wrote a post titled “The People and the Army Were Never One Hand” that chronicled the military’s abuses of power. He was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of insulting the military.
When I saw Elelaimy a few days after his donkey comment, at his basement apartment in Moqattam, an affluent Cairo neighborhood, I asked him why he had called out Tantawi specifically. “Now is the time to face the truth,” he answered. “They are getting more aggressive, and the revolutionaries are getting weaker in the streets. If you’re not taking a brave stance, your supporters will be weaker,” he reasoned. “We have to say everything aggressively, equal to the aggressive way they are attacking us.”
Since his divorce a little more than a year ago, Elelaimy had shared the apartment with his best friend. His ex-wife and eighteen-month-old son lived a few blocks away. The living room was filled with food-delivery containers and newspapers. Black beanbag chairs faced a big flatscreen television with a PlayStation hooked up to it. Arabic- and English-language DVDs—Kill Bill, Match Point, The Last King of Scotland—were stacked on the shelves. There seemed to be an ashtray on every surface.
Elelaimy and I sat at the kitchen table talking while he ate a late dinner of leftover pizza. “I discovered that in parliament, all people think about is their political future. They are trying to make deals with everyone for their political future, I don’t think it’s the time for that—it’s not the time for compromises.” He told me his colleagues had urged him to issue a formal apology; they worried he would lose his parliamentary immunity and end up in jail, but Elelaimy dismissed their concerns.
As we spoke, he continued to field anxious calls, and his demeanor changed. After one exchange, he asked me whether I thought he’d made a mistake. “Well,” I asked, “what’s your most important fight?”
“To kick them out.”
“What’s the best tactic to do it?”
“To say it in a civilized manner, to attract the support of as many people as possible, to kick them out,” he responded. Then he paused. “I made a mistake,” he said, shaking his head. His face realigned as it registered his thoughts. “I made a mistake,” he repeated quietly.
Elelaimy promised to sneak me into parliament again, so a few days later I waited at the gate for him to come get me. It was his thirty-second birthday. A small group of demonstrators stood nearby, some chanting in his support, others holding signs denouncing him. The day before, parliament had voted to refer Elelaimy to the ethics committee for his donkey comment. He would likely face censure, and possibly jail time. But after the vote, Elelaimy struck a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis: If he recited a preapproved apology before the chamber, the Islamists would vote to rescind their decision. His friends—Wahab, Toma, Allam, and Amin—supported the plan. The revolutionaries needed politicians, not one more warm body in the streets of New Egypt.
I waited outside the parliament for two hours, calling or texting Elelaimy every few minutes, but he never answered. Finally my phone flashed zyad elelaimy. I picked up to hear his personal assistant. He sounded embarrassed as he tried to explain the delay. “Sorry, Sarah. Today is a bad day for Zyad to be seen with an American journalist.”
Later I watched the video of the session. Elelaimy stutters through ad-libbed comments, then launches into the official apology. Every few minutes he is interrupted by MPs—shouting, standing, jumping, flailing their arms, waving papers. ElKatatni attempts to regain control of the floor, but each time Elelaimy speaks the ruckus overwhelms him. It’s impossible to tell what the livid representatives are saying, because their microphones aren’t on and they are all shouting at once. One liberal MP can be heard bellowing over the noise—the assembly is bound by the deal it made the night before, he says—but ElKatatni cuts him off. Elelaimy tries to reread his statement several times, but the chamber never quiets down for more than a few seconds.
Finally ElKatatni demands that everyone in favor of referring Elelaimy to the ethics committee raise their hands. Nearly everyone stays standing, and the shouting continues. “Okay, fine. Those in agreement should stand. No problem—I can take the vote any way,” he yells over them, making no attempt to disguise his exasperation. He tries again to bring the hall to order: “Listen to your colleague well! You might be persuaded by what he says! You have the full right—do not interrupt! Let’s hear him clearly!”
ElKatatni calls for the vote three times, and each time the MPs stay on their feet and the shouting continues. Finally he announces the results: Elelaimy will be sent to the parliamentary ethics committee after all.
I didn’t see Elelaimy or his friends for a week after that. At one point, he texted me to say they had all decided to go to the beach. “We’re tired.”
On June 30, 2012, Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, took his presidential oath. He accepted the presidency not in the parliament building, the traditional site for the ceremony, but inside Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, a neopharaonic concrete building that rises six stories above the banks of the Nile.
Two weeks earlier, the court, which still retained the eighteen jurists approved by Hosni Mubarak, ruled that a third of the members of the People’s Assembly had been unconstitutionally elected. The SCAF responded to the news by disbanding the legislature and issuing another constitutional declaration, this time granting the generals sole legislative responsibility and curtailing the power of the presidency. Observers interpreted the dissolution of parliament as a trade-off for the Brotherhood’s presidential victory. No one thought the SCAF would let the Islamists have both.
Then in August, the new president forced Tantawi and a few other high-ranking generals into retirement and claimed for himself both the executive and legislative powers of the SCAF. Like the generals, Morsi enacted his decrees unilaterally. There was no legislature to check his rule and no constitution to prescribe his authority. The SCAF’s new leaders were pulled from its lower echelon. Morsi didn’t announce plans for reforming the security services; the generals would not be held accountable for the deaths on their watch. The following day, Egypt’s attorney general announced that a journalist and a TV personality who had criticized the Morsi government would soon stand trial. The Brotherhood had succeeded in securing the presidency, but it had lost the democracy in the process.
The only remnant of the People’s Assembly was the constitutional committee, but its legitimacy was also under review by the court. Even if the committee survived review, its fate was uncertain. Morsi had given himself the power to dismiss the committee and appoint a replacement should the body fail to come up with a new constitution.
A few days before the SCAF dissolved parliament, military prosecutors requested that the Justice Ministry strip Elelaimy of parliamentary immunity, which meant legal proceedings over his donkey comment would likely follow. The next time I saw him, the former MP had begun preparing for what could be his fifth jail stint. When he was imprisoned in 2005, his mother had sent him polo shirts with Arabic proverbs written inside the collars for moral support. He told me she promised to do the same this time. She would also send him toys to give to his son on visiting days.
He seemed at peace with parliament’s dissolution. Perhaps the liberals would learn from their mistakes, giving them a better chance in the next election. Maybe the next parliament—which most likely won’t be elected until after a constitution is in place—would actually get a chance to govern.
“If I’m not in jail, I’m thinking to run,” he said. “But I think they want to keep me there during the next elections, because otherwise I’ll make more trouble for them. They’ll probably let me out afterward.”
You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
More from Sarah A. Topol: