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Sustaining the state versus permanent revolution

With ministries and public institutions stormed, it is unclear if the generation of the revolution wants to transform or destroy the state

Abdel Moneim Said , Tuesday 8 Mar 2011
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I doubt that it will have occurred to many of the 25 January revolutionaries and other Egyptians —regardless of background and political outlook —that a contradiction is playing out between the nascent revolution and the Egyptian state. After all, the revolution was waged for the sake of the progress and stature of the state. Its chief aspiration was to steer the country towards democracy and the standards of living found in developed nations that breathe freedom and respect human rights. In a sense, it was the product of the former regime’s deafness to all the appeals for reform, which came from within the party at least as much as from without, so that Egypt could catch up with an age that had almost left it behind and so as to bring government into harmony with the changes that had actually taken place in our country, giving rise to new generations that were no longer prepared to tolerate conditions that older generations had come to accept. In fact, this was probably the central point of the article that I published in Al-Ahram on 8 January, two weeks before the revolution, entitled “A much-needed wave of political reform.” Unfortunately, no one listened.

But the revolution accomplished in a matter of days what the reformists had been trying to accomplish for years, if not decades. Moreover, it raised the thresholds of ambition and hope for an entire people, provided that the state can be kept from collapse. Lenin had once favoured establishing a socialist order in a single country in order to safeguard Russia over the Trotskyist ideal of changing the entire world. For a largely similar reason, Rafsanjani relinquished the exportation of the Iranian revolution, while Mao had no problem with deferring the restoration of Hong Kong and Makao if their return would come at the expense of the Chinese state. Even Mohammed Ali the Great, founder of modern Egypt and the mastermind of the first revolution that catapulted us out of the age of Ottoman stagnation, was willing to halt his conquests of the Levant in order to safeguard Egypt as an independent political entity, albeit with the formal blessing of an Ottoman decree.

The state always prevailed over the revolution, especially when imperilled by foreign invasion, or when the revolution’s regional completion was in jeopardy, or when it became embroiled in another type of battle for survival as the consequence of internal weaknesses, problems originating from within the state or the extended perpetuation of revolutionary upheaval in society. The history of Egyptian revolutions offers many lessons in this regard. Historians believe that the British occupation of Egypt in 1881 could have been avoided and most of the demands for a democratic constitution would have been met if the Orabi Revolution knew when to stop. Saad Zaghloul proved much more astute than others in capitalising on the 1919 Revolution. When he agreed to the constitution drawn up by a legislative committee, referred to as the “committee of thieves,” because he knew that this would establish the foundations of a modern civic state and that all the rest was details that could be fixed over time through the democratic process. Abdel Nasser and his fellow Free Officers were similarly clever and farsighted, not just by sending off King Farouq with a 21 gun salute and proclaiming the infant Prince Ahmed Fouad king over whom they appointed a guardianship council, but also in forming a government headed by Ali Maher, a pillar of the old order who was much closer to the deposed king than Ahmed Shafiq was to former President Hosni Mubarak. The revolution was definitely still in progress, changing Egypt by leaps and bounds. But it preserved the continuity of the state as power shifted from one generation to the next and from one elite to the next. When the youth of my generation took to the streets and staged mass demonstrations in 1968 and 1972, we did not just call for war in order to end the Israeli occupation —the second to afflict Egypt during the first generation of the revolution —we also pressed the same demands we hear today: democracy and the end to corruption. However, the need to end the occupation prevailed over the other demands until after the 1973 war, when we prayed for a new dawn that never came.

The democratic revolution of 25 January and its generation are being put to the same test: choosing between the preservation of the state and the continuation of the revolution. I am certain that there is no contradiction between the revolution and the state in the minds of the revolutionaries. However, the realities on the ground tell us that the democratic inroads that have been made so far are unprecedented, but also that these successes have set two possible courses forward, each of which could lead to a democratic state which we would then have the duty to nurture to robustness and prosperity.

The first course follows the authentic Egyptian traditions that are brought to bear whenever the evolution of the state takes a new turn. When ex-President Mubarak transferred powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) he nearly plunged us into a major constitutional dilemma. Fortunately, we had the people to perform a precise surgical intervention for this new shift in Egyptian history that entailed suspending the constitution rather than jettisoning it entirely. In the midst of revolution, constitutional and legal considerations are often overlooked or even scoffed at. Fortunately, this does not occur in the case of Egypt, which has always tried to ensure that transfer of power takes place according to the book, whether the text in question was an Ottoman decree or a constitution, permanent or otherwise. What has always mattered in Egypt is that we do not leap into a void only for people further down the line to squabble over questions of legitimacy and charges that the new authority came to power by the gun or other means of force and intimidation.

This is precisely why the work of the constitutional amendment committee was so important. The crucial amendments it drafted promise to take us a long way forward on the road to democracy, even if there are some reservations, which will emerge in the public debate over them. The amendments are to be put to a national referendum this month. Then, to my knowledge, preparations will begin for People’s Assembly and Shura Council elections, which be followed by presidential elections, the victor of which will call for a new constitutional convention. This is how the state continues. Its shape and functions might metamorphose, to be sure, but ultimately it retains its historical continuity, whereby revolution is not a coup but a process of social choice that aims towards broader and brighter horizons.

The second course seeks an immediate and total rupture with the past. It is fired by an overwhelming rage at an age that is perceived as pure evil. This phenomenon has also prevailed in Egyptian history, sometimes taking decades if not entire generations for facts to emerge and temper the view. There was a time when the revolutionaries of the 1952 Revolution stood stunned at the funeral of the once reviled Mustafa El-Nahhas and many decades later Egyptians discovered that King Farouq was not really as bad as they had imagined. The same applied to Abdel Nasser and his era, and Sadat and his era. Both these figures and their eras were tainted with charges of despotism, corruption and negligence, but there was no end to the exaggeration of such ills in a country whose pharaohs customarily defaced the statues of their predecessors.

The revolution we had today was one armed with millions of people. The Egyptian people have changed with the spread of modernity, with its computers, the Internet and all the technology and knowhow that helped the revolution acquire such powerful impetus. But as the revolutionaries campaigned and pushed further, they were blind to see the cracks that were beginning to fissure the Egyptian state and that needed to be mended. Instead, they saw another opportunity to lash out against the old regime, which certainly is to be faulted, at the very least for perpetuating itself in power for so long. Yet, hurling blame does not stop rifts or forestall collapse.

In all events, from their perspective, the revolutionaries have all the time they need not only to sustain the pressure in order to uproot the ills of the nation, but also to organise themselves in order to engage in the electoral battle. In this regard, the roadmap begins with the creation of a presidential council derived not from the spirit of constitutional transition but from the will of the revolution. This council will issue some sort of proclamation that will signal the beginning of the presidential campaigns, after which the elected president will call for a constitutional convention, setting into motion a series of discussions and debates on the questions related to that matter. Then, once the new constitution is drawn up, parliamentary elections will be held.

Both courses do not appear radically different on the surface. Both offer a roadmap to a new constitution that should relieve the country of grave contradictions and extraordinary conditions, all of which I have discussed in numerous articles and which are the subject of Egypt: A normal state, a book I published earlier this year. But there is a significant difference. The first course seeks to preserve the continuity of the Egyptian state in the course of its metamorphosis. It proceeds in accordance with a plan of action designed to enable it to segue smoothly from the old order to the new while ensuring the continued functionality of the institutions of the state while sustaining its position towards the world as well as the world’s position towards it. It follows the tradition of the Egypt state, even if it emerged from a chrysalis in an entirely new form. The second course, by contrast, not only seeks a complete rupture with the past, it also wants to destroy the past completely, even if that puts the institutions of the state into severe jeopardy.

Perhaps this best sums up what happened in the days that followed Mubarak’s departure. All the institutions of the state came under a harsh pounding. This is not just about the collapse of the entire parliament. It is about a systematic drive to demolish institutions carrying the memory of the state and its historic riches. We should stress that this was not the work of the revolutionaries but rather of many parties who have propelled the revolution and the revolutionaries into a critical test that has a bearing on the state, regardless of whether they want some continuity or an entire break.

All the governorates of Egypt, from Alexandria to Aswan, have been scene to diverse forms of sectoral protests of varying degrees of intensity. Marches or strikes were staged by government employees in front of their respective ministries or offices, by workers in their factories, by professionals in front of their syndicates, by students in their schools. Participants included segments of society that had never once taken part in the political protest actions that took place during the past six years. There were police officers and representatives, tour guides, customs and tax officials, and even prison inmates. For such groups, the fall of the old regime offered an opportunity to disrupt public order and break down existing laws and regulations. The revolution against a political regime was turning into a revolution against the Egyptian state.

The revolutionary period gave rise to a number of malignancies, such as the assault on agricultural land. In a recent report, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Development cited 31,128 cases of infringement against construction on agricultural land from 25 January to 8 February 2011. The armed forces have had to divert energies into countering these infringements, a campaign that has so far reversed encroachments on 103 lots of land with a combined area of 2000 feddans. The armed forces have also succeeded in halting six encroachments on public roads and 66 encroachments in archaeological zones where violators had built kiosks, shops and other constructions. In addition, they had to evacuate 2,656 apartments that were illegally seized. Another nasty phenomenon has been gang violence, armed theft and other crimes that terrorise the public. In this regard, the High Military Tribunal has issued sentences ranging from 15 years imprisonment for defendants found guilty of aggravated assault to five years detention for persons found guilty of violating the curfew while in possession of ammunition and explosives.

Our national treasures have not been immune to theft. Storage rooms housing antiquities belonging to the National Antiquities Authority in the pyramids area in Giza were assaulted by a gang of 15 armed robbers who seized several priceless statues and other items after having overpowered the guards. But this is only the latest case of the theft and plunder of invaluable Egyptian antiquities in the country during recent weeks. Similar incidents had previously occurred at antiquity sites in Dashour, Ahnasiya, Saqqara, Minya, Sohag and Aswan. The antiquity facilities that were assaulted contain a collection of rare articles that had been unearthed over the past 200 years. Because of their great archaeological and civilisational value, they were temporarily housed in these storage areas preparatory to their transfer to the large state-of-the-art antiquities museum that is currently under construction in Giza. One of the warehouses contains the un-engraved stone tombs discovered in digs undertaken by the pioneering Egyptian archaeologist Salim Hassan between 1929 and 1968.

On top of the foregoing, many government organisations have come under assault and intense pressure. One was the Central Accounting Bureau whose employees staged demonstrations demanding the dismissal of the bureau’s chief, Gawdat El-Malt, on the grounds of negligence and failure to take appropriate steps to protect the wealth of the people. As a consequence, the protestors claim, the organisation’s performance has declined, causing it to lose public confidence. Then fire broke out on the second floor of the Central Accounting Bureau, stirring speculations as to whether this was arson intended to protect corrupt officials or merely an attempt to destroy and stop the functioning of an important government institution. If it was the latter, it succeeded. El-Malt shut down the bureau for an indefinite period.

Many other ministries and government agencies experienced demonstrations, including attempts to storm them. During the protests against the Ministry of Education, for example, crowds attempted to climb over the walls of the ministry building and breakdown its doors, compelling the armed forces to instruct ministry employees to evacuate. Such sectoral protest actions have blocked major thoroughfares and interrupted traffic and postal services in some areas. The phenomenon has affected museums, hospitals, banks, insurance companies, factories and businesses both large and small. Otherwise put, it is attacking the very pillars of the public life of the Egyptian people and their state, which they built brick by brick since Mohammed Ali laid its foundations two centuries ago. Does the current generation of revolutionaries have the right to make new additions to this structure? Or is it that they want an entirely new one, in which case there will be a parting of ways? That is the crux of the problem.

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