Cairo: Mahmoud Abou Adhma’s despair over Egypt’s course during the past 16 months has turned him from an avid revolutionary who camped out in Tahrir Square for most of the 18 days of protests demanding the fall of Hosni Mubarak, to working for the presidential campaign of the deposed leader’s last prime minister and close friend.
The 56-year-old Cairo tailor’s misery over his own turnaround was visible — his whole body shook with it as he chatted with a circle of young neighbours half his age. It’s not that he didn’t understand the “humiliation” Egyptians felt under Mubarak’s regime, he told them, he’d seen it firsthand. But they had to face facts, the revolution failed.
They spoke sitting outside a polling station in Cairo’s middle class district of Abdeen as Egyptians lined up this weekend to vote on a successor to Mubarak as president, choosing between former prime minister Ahmad Shafiq and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Mursi.
Abou Adhma is emblematic of the confusion many Egyptians have gone through since February 2011 when the leader of three decades finally stepped down. Mubarak’s fall brought an ecstatic sense of accomplishment among millions who joined the mass protests and persevered through violent crackdowns by security forces and regime supporters. As the old regime fought back to retain its powers, that has given way to a wide range of emotions — despair and disappointment among many, stubborn defiance among others.
The generals who took over from Mubarak oversaw a torturous and lopsided transition which they promised would lead to a democratically elected government and president. They proclaimed themselves the defenders of the revolution’s goal: a deep change from Mubarak’s corrupt police state. The protesters summed it up, “Bread, social justice and human dignity.”
Instead, the military is as entrenched as ever.
And Abou Adhma has surrendered. He works as a poll representative for Shafiq, the candidate his friends consider certain to preserve the old system but who he has decided can at least keep stability.
“It is impossible now to get rid of them. How can we? There is layer after layer of them,” he said to shouts of protest from his friends. “Shafiq will win anyway.”
“We might as well just get ourselves used to it again. The country is going down the drain. We should try to save what is left of it,” he said. “There is no revolution and no one will be able to do this again. No one will go to the square again.”
Sipping his tea alongside his friends outside the poll station on Saturday, the first of two days of voting, Abou Adhma insisted that if anyone had seen the worst of Mubarak’s regime, it was him.
“We lived the humiliation his regime put us through,” he said.
He worked in Iraq as a labourer for 17 years, one of millions of Egyptians who migrated there in the 1980s for jobs impossible to find at home. For him, the experience underlined how little regard the Mubarak system had for its own people. Hundreds of the migrants ended up in Saddam Hussain’s army fighting and dying in Iraq’s war with Iran. Others were killed in disputes with Iraqis.
Mubarak once dismissed their deaths, saying, “Why did they go there in the first place?” Their returns in coffins were a deeply disturbing moment for the national psyche.
“We had to dig our colleagues out of the ground ourselves” to return home for burial, Abou Adham said, because the Egyptian government wouldn’t do it. “All the while, Egyptian officials were begging in the embassy for money to repay Egypt’s debt. Donate for Egypt, they would say.”
This is the Egypt he wanted to stomp on. When he returned home, he said, “I saw women eating from garbage piles. I knew this would blow up.”
Abu Adhma’s face clenched as he spoke of the 18-days he spent in Tahrir protesting for Mubarak’s ouster. It clenched more as he bitterly recalled how he thought he had found a presidential candidate who could achieve social justice and human dignity.
That was Hamdeen Sabahi, a Mubarak era-opposition figure who was one of 13 candidates competing in the election’s first round last month. Sabahi is about Abu Adhma’s age and campaigned on the slogan “One of us” with a lightly socialist platform that also vowed to restore Egypt’s standing in international circles.
Sabahi finished an unexpectedly close third, grabbing support among the working class and revolutionary groups as an alternative to either Islamists or regime figures. But his failure to make the runoff left the choice between the two extremes, Shafiq or Mursi, each in their way a holdover from the old system.
“We should stop fooling ourselves. This is not a revolution,” Abou Adhma said. The declaration brought friendly cries of protest in the circle.
“A revolution meant we should have gotten rid of the entire old regime immediately,” he went on. “We should have hanged those security officers and had revolutionary courts. We did none of this.”
As a result, he said, the old regime is restoring its authority.
Abou Adham’s small frame shook as he tried to reconcile fading hope with new pragmatism — and as he tried to keep the respect of his young friends. The group around him, remembering him as a Tahrir comrade, kept their respectful tone. There were no angry cries of “feloul,” or “remnant” of the old regime, no talk of betrayal.
But Bilal Abdul Hadi, a 25-year old lawyer who was shot during anti-military protests late last year, said he and his friends were not falling into the same despair.
“I didn’t lose. I gained myself. I lost fear and I gained strength from my people” — even from Abou Adhma’s despair, he added. If Shafiq wins, Abdul Hadi said, a more violent protest movement will follow.
“We are a generation that has no fear. We are ready to die for this,” he said.
The circle broke up. But the tap of Abou Adhma’s sorrow could not be closed. He broke down in tears, telling his neighbours he feared he would never be able to marry off his three daughters.
On Sunday, he did not appear at his post at the polling station.