Legitimacy reinvented

Koshary and sweat mix with diligence and optimism in the downtown headquarters of the Tamarod campaign, a tiny and stuffy flat with few windows.

The office had been firebombed the previous evening, Friday, June 7, but only the front door was damaged. No one knows who was behind the attack. The next day, the office is still a hub of activity, as volunteers come in and out.

Tamarod (Rebel) is a grassroots campaign that has been petitioning nationwide to hold early elections and remove President Mohamed Morsi from office. One room in the office is piled high with the signed petitions. None of the collected signatures were destroyed in the attack, the campaign says.

Gihad Mostafa, a 17-year-old member of the counting committee, had enthusiastically voted for Morsi. Now she collects signatures against his rule, even if that means confronting aggression from those particularly affronted by someone wearing niqab agitating against an Islamist president. “A group of Brotherhood men even tried to rip my niqab off,” she relates.

The attack on the offices the previous day appears only to have cemented the activists’ determination. They discuss installing cameras and physically protecting the offices.

There was a similar buzz and excitement at a Tamarod press conference some days earlier. “Can you please only cheer and clap after I have gone through all the numbers and announced the total,” the young man announcing the number of signatures collected in each governorate pleads, slightly exasperated.

In mid-May, the number was at 7.5 million signatures, half of the group’s stated goal of collecting 15 million names by June 30, marking one year of Morsi’s presidency. Today, the campaign claims it has reached the target number.

“Because security still has not returned, I don’t want you; because the poor still do not have a place, I don’t want you,” the text on the Tamarod petition begins. It goes on listing grievances in an almost incantatory way, going from the question of the economy and dependence on the United States, to the rights of the martyrs and the goals of the revolution.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters have accused Tamarod of being anti-democratic, because it seeks to get rid of the country’s first democratically elected president. Tamarod is contesting the very notion of ballot-box democracy, although in its goal to gather more signatures than the slightly more than 13 million voters who elected Morsi, it does still resort to the same language.

Emad Kajo, 34, a member of the Popular Current, led by former presidential candidate and leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi, says that the ballot box and legitimacy are linked, of course, but legitimacy does not actually come from the ballot box.

“For example, if you had an empty ballot box, that box would be meaningless. Just as we the people can grant legitimacy, so can we take it away,” says the young man, who first went to the streets in protest on January 28, 2011.

Mahmoud Badr, a spokesperson identified by some as a founder of Tamarod, suggests that there are different kinds of legitimacy: “Political, ethical and legal, and the president is failing at all of them.”

“There is no true democratic state where people are killed outside the presidential palace, a deteriorating economic crisis is managed incompetently, and police continue to torture, with nothing done about it,” he argues.

For Amir Zein, who oversees the committee counting the signatures, Tamarod presents “the second ballot box.”

Rewind back to the presidential elections in the summer of last year, and the runoff pitting the Brotherhood’s Morsi, who proclaimed support for the goals of the revolution, against Mubarak regime figure Ahmed Shafiq. Many voted grudgingly for a Brotherhood president, arguing not only that he was the lesser of two evils, but could be held more accountable to the revolution. Shafiq was seen as a perpetuation of the old regime, and a rejection of him was also a rejection of interim military rule.

Indeed, most of those in the downtown Tamarod headquarters voted for Morsi in the runoff. Some voted out of real support, and others did so reluctantly.

Mostafa Fouad and Amr Tawfiq, both 19-year-old students at Cairo University who have spent most evenings of the past month gathering signatures, make it clear that they are not simply against the Brotherhood.

“We are against the Brotherhood and the National Salvation Front,” Tawfiq says. Both are emphatic about this. Tawfiq says the NSF — an anti-Brotherhood coalition of political figures and parties — does nothing except “make a show of media talk.”

Tawfiq and Fouad, independents with no interest in joining a political party, say their political allegiance lies with the “people,” who they describe as “the ordinary citizen — those who need social justice, and have not seen it since the revolution began two years ago.”

Badri adopts a somewhat more conciliatory tone when it comes to the NSF.

“Any of them can be involved in gathering signatures if they want to,” he says, adding that “they are also part of the Egyptian people, so we have no problem with them being part of the solution.” He suggests that it is Tamarod that offers them the opportunity to be relevant.

While Badr says that “anyone can be involved, because unity is the most important thing,” he is emphatic that “this is a campaign that comes from the heart of Tahrir, born of the demands of the revolution.”

Because it is a grassroots campaign, getting involved is easy. Across the country, people have been printing and photocopying petitions and gathering signatures. With both political parties and young independents working towards the goal of gathering 15 million signatures, perhaps Tamarod has started to chip away at the disconnect between institutional and street politics that has characterized the past two years. 

But not many are enthusiastic about turning Tamarod into a party.

“Party politics is a dirty game,” Fouad says, “and as a party Tamarod will have a platform and goals that it will be unable to achieve in this narrow and dirty game.”

“And so, it will become irrelevant,” he adds. “We exist and work as a network and as friends, not a party.”

Many of the volunteers were already friends before they joined Tamarod. Fouad, Tawfiq and the rest of their group, all active since the revolution broke out in their final year of high school, met at university. They have been involved in politics together ever since.

Another group collecting signatures first met during the 18 days that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. Ahmed Islam explains that since then, their political involvement has been with one another.

“When you fight on the front lines together, when you protect each other during clashes from the police and thugs, your friendship is different,” Islam explains. As the others nod in agreement, he says, “I trust these guys more that I do my brothers; we trust each other with our lives.”

With no legal weight, 15 million signatures will not mean the end of Morsi’s rule, says Emad Mubarak, head of the Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression. “But the campaign will have a positive effect,” he argues.

Egyptians, he says, “are generally split between those who go down to the streets and those who do not. And it is important for us to know how much support we have from those who remain in their homes, and where they are.”

In this sense, the data being accumulated by Tamarod presents a kind of map of those who are against the current regime. The data is accurate, says Zein, head of the counting committee and psychiatry lecturer at Ain Shams University. He explains that their database system prevents duplication of signatures. National identification numbers are cross checked with names, and any petitions without identification numbers are discarded.

This data will be useful for opposition parties, but it remains unclear who the information will be shared with. 

While the belief that June 30 will see mass demonstrations that will usher in the end of Morsi’s rule may be overblown, Tamarod volunteers are not under the illusion that all those who signed will go down to the streets.

That is not necessary, they say.

“The 15 million don’t actually need to go down,” Badr explains. “In no revolution in history are the majority of people in the streets. When we brought down Mubarak, it was never more than seven or eight million.”

“The youth made the revolution and will complete it,” Tawfiq asserts. “Maybe it’s because the older generations got used to being silent, and we don’t have that experience and memory.”

Naira Antoun 

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