In bleak Cairo, hunger strikers continue revolution

Hunger strikers in Cairo. Photo by Katherine Waters.

“The revolution continues! We will get our freedom!” gasped a protestor outside the Egyptian Parliament where a handful of activists launched a relentless hunger strike and sit-in on Tuesday last week.

The hunger strike, which ended yesterday, was one of the revolutionaries’ latest efforts to avert the resurrection of a Mubarak-like autocracy. For the thousands of people that flooded Tahrir Square over the last week and the hunger strikers, there was still the hope, however remote, that parliament would apply the Political Isolation Law capable of barring former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq from the upcoming presidential run-off, scheduled for June 16 and 17.

The latest wave of mass protest is a response to what is, for many, the daunting possibility of the remnant’s victory and a symbolic return to military dictatorship, which would hasten the demise of a troublesome revolution that has yet to bear fruit. Upon the recent verdict dissolving parliament and allowing Shafiq to continue in the presidential race, their worst fears appear to be materializing quicker and more brutally than expected.

The “Shafiq Challenge” is but one of the many obstacles revolutionary movements and actors have faced since Mubarak’s ousting. National mainstream media, largely viewed as biased and misleading, has been the chief enemy of pro-democratic demands, according to activists on the ground. “They feed the public with lies and try to make the revolution look like a joke, as if we are the bad guys, the killers. They spread rumors that we have public sex, take drugs, receive foreign funds… It’s nonsense!” uttered Mahmoud Hafez, a 28-year old teacher who initiated the sit-in together with four other activists.

Among ordinary Egyptians, economic instability and general lawlessness have further spurred a growing aversion towards the revolution, alienating the masses that were essential in toppling the dictator in February of last year. Satisfying materialistic needs seems to have become more of a priority for many than continuing the struggle to realize their broader democratic ideals. “They revolted for bread, but nothing more. They don’t realize that in order to have a good economy, we need a functioning political system first,” noted a protestor and hunger striker.

Since late last year additional setbacks have included a series of bloody clashes that took place between the military and protestors over slow power transition to civilian rule, which left scores of people dead. This damaged the broad-based appeal of the revolutionary movement in the public eye, explained April 6 Youth Movement activist Ahmed Mohamed.

Traditionally, come public dissatisfaction with the political climate, people have turned to Tahrir Square as the locus of protest. Political elites, however, have managed to turn it into a space for people to vent anger and blow off steam, thereby coopting effective resistance. The popularity and power of the revolution, contingent on its existence outside institutionalized politics, has — as a consequence — been critically weakened. Alternative spaces sought out for their distance from the distorted rhetoric of Tahrir Square have quickly turned into battlegrounds, further weakening the link in the public’s mind with the revolution and peaceful protest.

Thus, with conventional forms and spaces of popular struggle turned obsolete, activists have been forced to reinvent and innovate effective strategies. This time in fewer numbers.

The open-ended hunger strike was one such action, partially inspired by the Palestinian prisoners who refused food for over 70 days in the effort to end their administrative detention. The Egyptian hunger strike began small, but grew exponentially over the week. “We were four Tuesday night. Twenty on Wednesday. Now we are over sixty people refusing to eat, sustaining ourselves only with water and juice,” explained doctor Mina Wageh on Monday. Behind him an elderly woman fainted and was carried to an ambulance.

And as hunger around the parliament grew, so did the tension. As one strolls by a series of tents, posters and banners, ambulances and herds of activists, the sight of a young man, loosely holding his stomach, his face anemic, staring achingly into the void, is striking. “We feed ourselves with the spirit of our revolution. That’s all we have,” remarked a hunger striker.

A member of parliament talks with the hunger strikers. Photo by Katherine Waters.

By the sixth day of the hunger strike, activists claimed they had not achieved anything yet. Parliamentarians had not given any concessions or promises. Instead, they discouraged the strikers from continuing. “They told us it’s useless. Go home, they said. But of course we stay, we must. What else can we do?” uttered Hafez.

Ahead of today’s announcement by the Supreme Constitutional Court, the activists decided to end the strike Tuesday evening. “We knew we were not going to win. So we decided to end it, re-energize for the verdict, and protest outside the Court,” Ahmad Magdy, a former hunger striker said. “We have lost hope. The SCAF [the Supreme Council of Armed Forces] is stealing our revolution as we speak. We will have to brainstorm about our next move but whatever it is, we will react, we will protest,” he added.

Despite this aura of pessimism, the sit-in did prove to be effective in drawing support from at least two members of parliament who joined the stance with the hunger strikers. Most remarkably, five hunger strikers were granted access into the parliament to voice their demands and concerns. And in a provocative and smart move, protestors approached parliamentarians as they left the building. Some MPs avoided them; others stayed and listened. In contrast to pre-revolution Egypt, people were not afraid to address politicians openly and fiercely.

Despite the ruling today allowing Shafiq to participate in the runoff election this weekend, the Egyptian protestor’s call for a democratic Egypt where politicians truly represent the will of the people and can be held accountable will remain strong and resilient.

“When politics continue during revolution; revolution must continue during politics,” voiced one of the activists, countering a widely held perception that the revolution is over. “We will continue until we get our rights. We won’t stop until we obtain our freedom.” .

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