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Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Statist narratives of 25 January Revolution

What do accounts by journalists close to the state have to say about the course of the 25 January Revolution

Tewfick Aclimandos , Wednesday 1 Aug 2018
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I have spent recent months reading what journalists close to the state have had to say about the 25 January Revolution, and I have used this column to discuss the “conspiracy theories” that structure some of these narratives.

I have tried to explain why intelligent pundits could believe in such preposterous theories, though of course the discussion could and should go much further.

I have not discussed the US pressure on Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, for example, nor have I mentioned the understandable unease of many Egyptians at the rise of transnational networks and their consequences.

Many foreigners living in Egypt in 2011 tried to help the young revolutionaries with money, food, and access to logistics.

This does not prove that foreign intelligence services were acting against former president Hosni Mubarak, however.

At critical points some Egyptian activists sent e-mails to Western friends asking for help, but this does not prove that these western friends were the “mentors” of the revolution, even if some of them were diplomats.

On the other hand, Western interference and lecturing are often unpalatable, and the youthful infatuation with revolution is still a mystery for many officials and members of the Egyptian middle classes.

Conspiracy theories tend to structure the narratives of many insiders, though others do not fall into this trap even if they do mention cases of “foreign interference”.

I cannot claim I have read everything that has appeared by journalists close to the state on the 25 January Revolution. However, it is safe to say that Abdel-Latif Al-Minawi’s book The Last Days of the Mubarak Regime is probably the best book in its league.

Al-Minawi was head of TV news at state television in 2011, having been appointed some years earlier to take on the apparently impossible task of competing with Al Jazeera.

His remit was to provide credible information from a plurality of perspectives while respecting the regime’s restrictions. And he had to achieve all this without the financial and technological resources required.

He had not emerged from the ranks of state TV, having worked for the influential daily Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper as well as for Al-Ahram. Moreover, he was a staunch liberal.

His book is a work of testimony and not a study. It is not an attempt to tell us what he did and what he did not do for television. Instead, it is an account of the crisis in 2011 as it unfolded and as he saw it.

In this he had many advantages as he was an insider and his position allowed him to oversee developments in the country as a whole.

Moreover, he was “in the middle” and had to convey messages from the top to the bottom of society and vice versa. He was fighting on many fronts as the presidential family and staff found him too liberal while the activists considered him and his team to be regime stooges.

The power elite was also divided: his direct boss, the then information minister Anas Al-Feki, was a supporter of Gamal Mubarak, the son of the former president, but the balance of power favoured the army.

Al-Minawi got a lot of credit when he aired the army’s celebrated statement at the time of the revolution that “we have never, and we will never, open fire on peaceful demonstrations,” though he does not mention this episode in his book.

Instead, he tells us that he frequently had to check the content of news broadcasts with the army and the mukhabarat (intelligence services): were the instructions given by somebody in the president’s camp acceptable? He says he had to check when the topic was important or when he disagreed with his manager on what was the right course.

He often gathered important information. His superior, Al-Feki, was or became his friend and told him important things. I appreciated Al-Minawi’s defence of his former mentor in his book. Loyalty is a rare virtue.

However, Al-Minawi is especially harsh on Gamal Mubarak, leading aide Zakaria Azmi, and to some extent also former president Mubarak.

They persistently underestimated the seriousness of the crisis, were unwilling to cede an inch, and were too slow and authoritarian in their reactions, he says.

They paid too much attention to international reactions, and they tended to consider the events to be part of a conspiracy, even if they disagreed about the source of the trouble.

For some of those in charge at the time the Revolution was a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy, while for others it was led by Tantawi, or by the West. Nobody seems to have understood that the people had risen, and therefore their decisions were wrong.

Al-Minawi is too harsh in his book for my taste, as he forgets that the upheaval was very sudden.

Just a few months before, a demonstration gathering 1,000 people would have been considered successful. Gamal Mubarak knew he might face trial or prison, and it was difficult for him to face a future with at best no political role.

Many international and local pundits thought that the regime led by former president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali in Tunisia had collapsed because it had made concessions. These can calm a situation, but they can also embolden foes. Everything depends on the timing.

Moreover, the most disastrous blunder, launching the “Battle of the Camel” against the revolutionaries, was understandable to some extent.

Mubarak still had support, as Al-Minawi says, and his second speech in late January 2011 was a success. Many of those who had earlier protested in Cairo’s Tahrir Square left the area, having been satisfied with Mubarak’s promises. It was tempting to try to reverse course.

Al-Minawi’s book contains a lot of revelations and insights. We learn things about the confrontation between Mubarak and the army and about Tantawi’s strategy.

He tells us that the composition of the crowd occupying Tahrir Square kept on changing, and he says that after the police collapse on 28 January 2011 the army and the television were the only functioning administrations in the country.

He describes the first nights after the police collapse, when thugs and criminals engaged in an orgy of robbing and stealing.

He says Mubarak retained some support, but his slowness and then the Battle of the Camel squandered this for many. He tells us that the army decided to get rid of the president five or six days before his resignation.

We realise how close Mubarak was to Gamal, even as other writers have described an ailing president being put under unbearable pressure by his wife and son.

Al-Minawi suggests that things were more complex and that on many crucial points they had the same agenda. Unfortunately, he frequently does not elaborate.

The valuable information the book contains is not its main strength, however. Instead, this is Al-Minawi’s riveting and very concrete account of the crisis.

We really see the revolution through the eyes of an official of the time, someone who was a reformer and who had seen it coming. He had to face the flow of information, too much on some accounts, too scarce on others. He had to face conflicting orders and desertions.

He had to find some time to sleep and to change his clothes. He had to work far from his family in a building surrounded by hostile people who were trying to attack it. He had to face the unknown and to confront fear.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Statist narratives of revolution

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