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The Great Egyptian Revolution

As the regime tries to stem the upheaval in the country through insincere manoeuvres, its rotten rule means the only outcome can be revolution

Azmi Bishara , Thursday 10 Feb 2011
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Views: 4555

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions heralded a new Arab era in which it is possible to couple freedom and social rights, sovereignty and citizenship. Arab regimes will not deride their populations anymore; and they will be facing a choice between comprehensive reforms and the complete overthrow of the regime. On the level of political powers and ideological splits, everything will change as well. Past divisions will lose their significance; none of these actors was capable of engaging with the challenge of overthrowing despotism. The phenomenon of new social powers that reject injustice and embrace ethical values without giving up their identity has risen. A new polyarchy shall emerge, and leading the ranks will be a thought that can combine democracy, social justice, and Arab identity without denying the legacy of the Islamic civilization.


After decades of mounting popular anger, the Egyptian people have finally risen against the ruling regime. The majority of the population sees the regime as the source of their suffering; thus, the regime became the rallying symbol of the bitterness resulting from the abuse in police stations, corruption in the bureaucracy, and poverty and deprivation in the shadow of corrupt wealth, emanating from proximity to the ruling elite.

All of this has been causally linked to the ruling regime in place, this was apparent in anger and jokes, and through Egyptian irony, poems and songs. And it could also be sensed in the depression and generalized anxiety palpable to anyone visiting Egypt. The crisis reached the level of identity, with the regime affronting Egyptians' national pride and sense of self. To compensate, the regime fomented a version of Egyptian nationalism in the form of an empty, hollow esprit de corps that was based neither on national interests nor on a shared pride resulting from economic, scientific or political achievements. This was an angry, shallow sense of self-affirmation that could be easily controlled and turned into hatred towards the other or, simply, utmost loyalty for the regime and a fanatical opposition to its critics, who would be regarded as critiquing the nation; even football was used to this end.


As with all Arab regimes, the Egyptian regime spread a culture where loyalty and hypocrisy towards people in power trumped competence, even in the field of culture. Personal and family relations trumped professionalism, and consumption trumped production. The regime also fomented an ethos of untruthfulness and dishonesty in dealing with the state, hypocrisy in relations between subordinates and superiors, and obstinacy in the face of criticism. It became a situation where every official acted as a Pharaoh towards his subordinates and as a slave with his superiors. Furthermore, the regime normalized a mode of aggressive bullying at the level of human relations that could easily turn into sectarian clashes and other conduits for the frustration and bitterness of people from a socio-political system that tensed up the collective psyche and injected it with violence.


The revolution in Tunisia may have been the finger that pulled the trigger, or the frustration may have reached a boiling point anyway. And, perhaps, the educated Egyptian youth organized in social networks and virtual ethical societies – which represents the diametrical opposite of the regime’s culture – was both finger and trigger. This youth is modest, polite, cosmopolitan, patriotic, opposed to corruption and incompetence, and enraged by injustice and the political thuggery and clownishness of the state media. This youth called for an uprising on 25 January after several “rehearsals” preceding the Tunisia revolt. That included the April 6th strike, which was called for by bloggers in solidarity with workers in the city of Mahalla; and the repeated attempts to transmit the suffering of the citizens through the internet and camera phones; and the movement “Kifaya”, which broke the wall of fear and launched the phenomenon of demonstrations in protest against dynastic succession (tawreeth) and the renewal of the presidential mandate. Kifaya kept up the demonstrations during years of stasis, with continuous sit-ins in front of the Journalists’ Syndicate; and some Egyptian journalist broke the barrier of fear in criticizing what was once considered taboo, such as the President and his family.

The mood was ready to heed the call, and the minds were set, awaiting action; so the call for 25 January's demonstrations struck like a lightning bolt in the arid plains after a long summer. When the crowds came out, it was not clear whether the “Day of Rage” was a day of protest or a full-fledged political revolution. The day came mere weeks after the broad revolution in Tunisia under similar circumstances: an unplanned protest movement. Quickly, the perception set in that the demonstrations were not against specific policies of the regime, nor in solidarity with a particular group, but against the regime in the broadest sense. The Egyptian revolt burned the stages between the specific and the general by lurching, from the outset, into the general picture.

The people of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia took to the streets in protest against their suffering, unemployment and humiliation after a young man set himself on fire. Gradually, the protest spread and morphed – by interacting with the conditions of the people and their consciousness – into a generalized revolt seeking to change the regime. We can safely say that this was not the original objective of the people of Sidi Bouzid, but the conditions of the people, including their consciousness, was prepared for such an eventuality. By contrast, Egypt's “Day of Rage” from the start was a generalized protest against the regime for all the suffering endured by the Egyptian people for decades.

Slogans were directed against the president and his family, as is the case in any authoritarian regime, since the symbol of a dictatorial regime is the ruler. The issue of hereditary succession was a strong indication of the regime’s mindset of owning, and not just ruling, the nation. The matter of the son succeeding the father became a subject of sarcasm and anger in the street in recent years, so it was not unusual for the protest to centre on ousting the president.

Obviously, this does not mean that the Egyptian people’s objective is to bring in another dictator or to replace the current one with a figure from the intelligence services, ensuring another thirty years under the same regime. One needs to have a twisted imagination to believe that the slogan of “ousting the president” is solely directed at the man himself. Any attempts to reduce the protesters' demands to the president's replacement are aimed at containing, or aborting, the revolution by keeping in place the ruling regime as is. In fact, if the objective was merely to oust the aging and ailing President, it would have been easier to await his natural death or the end of his mandate in six months. As the newly appointed prime minister told the BBC Arabic on 3 February, “not to run in this case equals departing and this should end the matter.”

Reforms, Revolution, the President and the Vice President

Advancing the proposition that the departure of the President equals the transfer of his authority to his intelligence chief and newly appointed Vice President makes light of people’s intelligence and their sacrifices. People do not spark a rare revolution in the history of the Arabs and the region on such a scale, with such popular momentum, and at such a price – and allow me to say, with such beauty – in order for the president to just hand power to his deputy. Reducing the scope of the revolutionary struggle to a demand for a transfer of power becomes, in a sense, an act of support of one wing against another within the same regime. 

The regime, any regime, reforms itself once it realizes that it can no longer rule with the same methods, preempting a broad social revolution. More often than not, such reforms involve an opening up to social classes and their assimilation by the regime. In the case of Egypt, however, it seems that the regime did not comprehend the need for reform; moreover, it intentionally squandered several opportunities for change. Furthermore, the regime grew more vain and boastful as it declined over the years. The ruler isolated himself from the people in Sharm El-Sheikh with his discourse becoming more dismissive of criticism as he cracked down ever further against his adversaries. Simultaneously, hollow official propaganda reached the level of badly directed absurdism (as in the famous montage of the leaders’ photo in al-Ahram, which was doctored to show Mubarak walking ahead of the other leaders – 30 years his junior – in order for the paper to present him as “youthful”). This attitude was on full display in his discourse and that of some intellectuals during the war on Gaza, and in justifying the non-prosecution of violators in the construction and transportation sectors whose negligence led to the death of thousands, as in the sinking of the Red Sea ferry and the train fire.

There is a view that proposes the revolution is a protest movement with specific demands, and these demands will be met once the president or his deputy appear in the media promising the demonstrators their acquiescence to amending the articles 76 and 77 of the constitution and the president not running for another term in office. This view not only fails to accurately depict the revolution, it is liable to being intentionally dishonest because it belies an effort to reject the actual demands and he who desires reform should affect it before the revolution erupts. The revolution is not a demand that is being raised to the regime, it is a movement against it, and the regime is not expected to answer the “demands” of the revolution, but to conclude that its position is untenable and so must leave.

It is baffling to see the vice president – his appointment being one of the results of the revolution – appear and thank the youth “for without them, this reform would not have taken place”, i.e. without them, he would not have been appointed. This being so, he nevertheless meant to deceive the revolution and outflank it. He who “thanks” does not show gratitude by besieging, attacking and slandering those he is thanking.

There is no doubt that the regime is dishonest in its so-called assent to what it terms “the demands of the youth”, since, where it sincere, it would have already executed a large number of them, such as immediately ending the State of Emergency, announcing without delay that the last parliamentary elections were invalid or ceasing the persecution and arrest of journalists.  What will push the regime to execute what it had previously refused to accept – even verbally, and given that the regime admitted through the vice president that, had it not been for the revolution, it would not have been ready to theoretically consider these demands? Will it practically fulfill its commitments in the absence of revolution in the streets? Or will the campaigns of incitement begin against the “networks of spies” and “the agents” and “the saboteurs” and “the rioters”, especially after the regime reinforces itself and regains its international links, relying on the West’s pragmatism in accepting its allies as they are? Didn’t the West accept the current Egyptian regime before the revolution? Didn’t the West show its humane and democratic colours only after the civic revolt erupted? It must be assumed that it will turn and renew its alliance with the regime if it succeeds in putting down the revolt. A return to normal life should not be allowed until the demands are fulfilled, for promises made under the conditions of a revolution mean nothing in its absence.

Wisdom and Intelligence

All of this is comprehensible, what is not understandable however is to have intellectuals who view themselves as critical – or who were critical within the parameters of the system – propagating this political mood that views the revolution as a quandary, regards Egypt as being troubled and sees in the revolt a crisis that requires a resolution. Subsequently, they start offering “solutions” that consist of transferring the authority of the President to his deputy in a “smooth” manner, as they like to say; and of “calming” the street, and then, negotiating with the vice president over the demands of the revolution. Such behavior is not fit for critical intellectuals, but for a think tank tasked with proposing different scenarios for the regime as it tries to resolve its troubles.

We shall not comment here on how and why a group of intellectuals calls itself a “wise men’s council”, and what is meant by “wisdom". This implies an unacceptable assumption during times of revolutions, to the effect that the revolting masses are wild, and that the regime is a hardliner, and they are the wise ones. It also implies a very “unwise” avoidance of taking a stand during this phase (or it could be “wise”, in the sense of unveiled and unintelligent opportunism).

The revolution needs intellectuals who can shape and express its objectives and explicate its strategy, it does not need intellectuals who seize the moment to rearrange their relationship with a regime which they regard as surviving, or to support a wing at the expense of another within the regime.

The “security wing” in the regime has undoubtedly trumped the “National Party wing”, and it is likely to sacrifice some of its figures from within the National Party to show that it is serious in combating corruption; this includes confiscating their assets and preventing them from traveling, thus satisfying what it terms “the demand of the street” or “the demands of the youth”. It would not be too far-fetched for these people to betray their friends to appear as combating corruption, while, in reality, they are part and parcel of the corruption.

There is also a group of Egyptian politicians and intellectuals who have been critical towards the regime’s management of the country, and who never took a foothold within the regime and who were honest critics, but who became accustomed to a certain ceiling in their criticism, which is the ceiling tolerated by the regime. All of those cannot comprehend the risk of taking to the street to change the regime; and in such a case, most of them remain at home silently awaiting the end-result, or they switch to one of the existing camps. Or they would attempt to frame the revolution in a way where meeting with Omar Suleiman is seen as an achievement compared to previous meetings with State Security officers, this is an unacceptable state of mind and critical intellectuals should criticize them accordingly.

On the Strategies of the Revolution and its Horizons

The Egyptian revolt was improvised, and powers with popular backing gravitated towards it. The revolution is currently heading towards its objective, and I have never heard in the history of revolutions of a revolt that could bring out this many anti-regime demonstrators in so many cities at the same time. The revolution no longer needs proof that it is popular, but it needs determination and a strategy to reach its objectives. The Egyptian regime is resisting its inescapable fate in all kinds of ways, including the spreading of rumors and lies, and intimidating people with the prospect of chaos, and even pretending to acquiesce to the demonstrators’ demands when necessary, while calling them spies when it is useful to do so, and repressing them when it can.

We would be wrong to think that this is a matter of one person’s obduracy, or that it is a personal issue. It is not a question of Mubarak’s hard-headed personality, I can even venture and say that he no longer rules Egypt, and that Egypt is now effectively ruled by Suleiman and the newly-appointed Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq, and that they are both trying to consolidate themselves within the ruling elite and the state as symbols of the regime. The ruling clique is attempting to defend itself and its interests amid the ongoing political struggle.

This struggle will be decided once the regime realizes that it faces a choice between the continuation of the revolution until it gradually turns – by the force of events – into violent struggle, or the transition of authority through a transitory phase and the beginning of negotiations over how these conditions will be met.

It is not a personal matter, it is a matter of the rulers admitting that power needs to be transferred, and that this process requires a transitory phase, and that the negotiations should deal exclusively with mechanisms of the transitory phase; this a negotiation, not a debate. It is a negotiation over the turning of authority through a trusted mechanism, and the same regime cannot manage this phase. This is a struggle that requires determination and strategy and an understanding of its nature.

The Egyptian regime has entered a phase of complete international isolation, and this isolation needs to be deepened because it weakens the regime and the interest groups surrounding it, and in order to deepen the isolation perseverance is indispensable and it should be made clear – on the international stage – that the revolution is victorious, a thesis that could be disputed if the regime is allowed to catch its breath. The United States and Europe have realized that it would be better for them to abandon lost symbols and personalities in the regime than to lose the entire regime and gain the animosity of all Arab peoples, which they did not realize in the cases of Iran and Tunisia.

We must distinguish between protest movements that are followed by negotiations over certain demands within the context of the existing regime, and a revolution seeking to change the regime. The revolution is not mere protests that end under the same regime, but rather a series of continuous actions that persist as long as the regime is in place. This means that the revolution should not morph into a specific action, a sit-in or a demonstration for instance; new, unpredictable forms should be adopted, thus confusing the regime with all its ramifications. The regime could learn to coexist with a mere sit-in in Tahrir Square as long as it is not a nerve centre directing the revolution outside. In addition to the ongoing sit-in, demonstrating could take place everywhere, and the revolution could erupt in a factory and in a newspaper and in a media outlet. Revolution is comprehensive when it includes all societal groups, with students revolting in the universities, and journalists protesting in newspapers against the dictates imposed on them, and the workers rebelling in their factories. This does not need to be done all at once, but to spread into different sections of society so that it can later lead the transition of interest groups and state institutions and, most importantly, the army, onto the winning side. There is no doubt that most join the revolution as individuals, but at a certain stage, this quantitative interaction – which is measured by the number of persons – should turn into a qualitative leap involving the judicial institutions and the army. But the army will not choose this until it is certain, due to local and international interactions, or if it reaches a stage where the rebels force it to choose – through their actions – between clashing with them or joining their ranks. Such a scenario applies to the massive million-man demonstrations that attempt to take over major state establishments, making it difficult for the army to contain them with violence, forcing it to reconcile with them. This cannot happen if people believe they can turn the army by showering it with constant praise.

The Egyptian revolution highlighted the best in the people, showing images that are civic, diverse, modest and inclined to dialogue in a manner that was hitherto unknown in Egyptian political life under the regime. It has been a long time, not remembered by many, since a Friday preacher spoke about “millions of Egyptian men and women”, or discussed the ethics of Islam and Christianity. Or where such a mass of men and women gathered without incidents of sexual harassment, with millions chanting together and marching in orderly demonstrations without chaos.

These authoritarian regimes bring out the worst in Arab societies under their shadow: fanaticism, sectarianism and crime. We have all seen samples of the thugs unleashed by the regime and its men against the demonstrators, in a glaring comparison between the reactionary and primitive regime on the one hand, and civilized people on the other. Which debunks the myth promoted by the regime in the West regarding the people, when it claims authoritarian rule is necessary as its people is “backward”.

On the other hand, when the people marches against such regimes, it is as if it passes in a cleansing process, shedding the deformed culture of these tyrannical regimes. There was not an Egyptian or an Arab citizen who was not moved by the scenes of joy that accompanied the demonstrations of Tuesday (1 February) or Friday (4 February) in the face of the ferociousness and backwardness of the regime’s actions on Wednesday and Thursday (2 and 3 February).

The people came back to its self, and Egypt is once again at peace with itself, and it looks as if the Arabs are reconciling with themselves when they take to the streets against their ruling tyrannical regimes.  

The writer is General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar.  


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Elena Ivanova
10-02-2011 08:21pm
Great Revolution
Dear author! We, in Russia, understand well the euphoria and are glad for Egyptian people. But ... As historian, I remember Russian books 1905 - 06 with exactly the same name "Great Russian Revolution". It seemed so at the time, but it was defeated. Be vigilant!
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Moez Ben Meftah
10-02-2011 04:14pm
Thank you Mr Azmi for this in-depth analysis. Really it is a well-put article that covers most of the phazzy edges of facts and incidents I like to figure out in this turning point of a revolutionary moment. Many thanks from Mahdia, Tunisia
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