Mohamed Hassanein Heikal has likened the Egyptian revolution to someone who had managed to achieve the incredible feat of landing on the moon, but when asked what he wanted as a reward was baffled, asking finally, and after some hesitation for a falafel sandwich.
Heikal’s intent was not to imply that the Egyptian revolution was aimless, or had no goals.
Indeed, one of the most astounding features of that revolution was the lucidity of its ultimate aims, the nobility of the almost crystal clear mental image the revolutionaries of Tahrir and elsewhere around the country had of the transformed Egypt they sought, and heroically fought for: a free, profoundly democratic and just society in which human dignity is made sacrosanct, diversity is celebrated and equality for all is a supreme value of the social order.
They did so via signs and placards, banners and graffiti, leaflets and chants, and through the (nearly utopian) daily practice of the 18-day uprising.
What Heikal’s metaphor implies rather is that as grand and magnificent as the Egyptian revolution’s aims have been (reaching for the skies), it seemed to be at a loss as to how to go about achieving them.
And herein lays one of the great paradoxes of the Egyptian revolution, possibly the fundamental paradox at its heart, from which a whole host of other dualities of strength and weakness spring.
Goals, noble or otherwise, are the first primary condition of strategy, but strategy is equally, indeed first and foremost, about having a plan to realise these goals. For such a plan to be effective it must be based on the most thorough assessment of the configuration of forces, on a clear, unambiguous and dispassionate understanding of strengths and weaknesses, within your own ranks, no less than those of your foes.
Equally important, a revolutionary strategy involves a profound awareness of “the present moment”, the conjuncture, and thus possessing the ability to recognize and comprehend the ever shifting configuration of forces, identify “the weakest link” in the chain of oppression you’ve set out to shatter, recognize and identify as well your allies, your enemies and those who could be neutralized: when to strike, at what, and how. Russia’s Lenin has been described as a scientist of the conjuncture.
An ultimate strategic thinker such as Heikal could not but have been struck by the glaring dearth of a strategy, of a plan on the part of the Egyptian revolution. (In a profile I wrote of Heikal for Al-Ahram Weekly in the 90s I drew parallels between his mindset and that of the famous Russian revolutionary leader, which seemed to amuse him to no end.)
One more point needs to be made here. Revolutions, ultimately, are not about protest as much as they are about power. Admittedly, historical experience has shown that revolutions everywhere – however successful – are nowhere the far-reaching, all-encompassing ruptures with their respective anciens régimes they would like to be, and often perceive themselves as being. Oppressive structures rooted in economic and social privilege, invariably have shown a remarkable resilience and capacity for regeneration in new ways, both within the state and outside it.
Genuine revolutionary transformation is thus an ongoing process involving popular protest, electoral politics and the elaboration and refinement of continually-evolving organs of popular power able to subject the state and other structures of power and privilege to a growingly potent siege, to bring them increasingly under their sway – in an ever expanding, ever-deepening democratisation of state and society.
Yet, revolutions do signify a rupture, and one which implies and requires, absolutely, a much greater emphasis on access to power and the exercise of effective sway over it, than with protesting against those who would maintain a monopoly of power. Revolutionary transformation cannot be pursued with a protester’s mindset, or rather a mindset that remains unable to make the vast intellectual leap wherein the instruments of protest are now fully integrated within the overall framework of creating and seizing greater access to, and influence over the instruments of power.
A “leaderless” revolution?
The failure of the Egyptian revolution to translate its goals into a coherent strategy aimed at the exercise of political power by the people has been attributed to the widely held view that it was, uniquely, a “leaderless” revolution. It is not a view that I share, at least not as formulated. And this for two fundamental reasons:
I would suggest firstly that all popular revolutions are in different ways “leaderless”. I have quoted elsewhere no less an authority on the subject than Napoleon Bonaparte – by virtue of both having played a part in the great French Revolution of 1789, and of his having ultimately hijacked it. He says:
“A revolution can be neither made nor stopped. The only thing that can be done is for one of several of its children to give it direction by dint of victories.”
What is it that drives a people to suddenly throw off the shackles of fear, subservience and docility? Why, when and how do they make that gigantic leap of faith, that enormous transition from coping with oppression, subverting it in various small ways, and endlessly foraging for the means to survive within its nooks and crannies, to that of confronting it head on, with all the courage, unity of purpose and explosion of the imagination and creativity that such a leap implies?
I would suggest that nobody actually knows.
Real popular revolutions are best understood retrospectively. The great Nabil El-Hilaly, a leftist human rights lawyer who spent a great part of the last 30 years of his life defending Islamists, used to say Egyptians were like the Nile, 9 months of low water, and three months inundation. But while Egyptians have known for thousands of years the season of the annual inundation, and styled their calendar accordingly, El-Hilaly’s metaphorical “popular inundation” remains, I would argue, largely unpredictable – and in this, it is much more akin to the “lean years” of drought, of Biblical/Qura’nic fame, than of the seasonal-regularity of the annual inundation.
There is no mysticism in this. Years ago I came across a quote by Bertolt Brecht (I have since lost the source, and would appreciate any suggestions from readers more scholarly than myself). He said something to the effect that the problem with understanding human behaviour lay not in its lack of determination but in that the determinants were too many. And, once you move from individual to mass human behaviour, the determinants are multiplied exponentially. Too many determinants, contemporary Chaos Theory has shown, inevitably produce unpredictability.
My second reservation towards the “leaderless revolution” thesis is that the Egyptian Revolution was not as “leaderless” as all that. The 25 January protest had been called for by a number of youth groups, and while they could not – in their wildest dreams – have expected nor anticipated the popular eruption that would ultimately involve an estimated 7 or 8 million people across the country and bring down Mubarak, there is little doubt that they helped trigger it, not just by calling for the protest on Police Day, thus underlining the police-state character of the regime, but through determined and persistent street activism and protest actions that had been going on practically non-stop over the previous five years.
And very soon after the unpredictable eruption, it had become clear that these youth groups, now unified in the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, which – it needs to be pointed out – included the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood, was providing a great deal of field leadership to the revolutionary upsurge across the nation.
I recall marveling at the organisational genius involved in ID-ing and frisking nearly a million people before granting them access into tightly barricaded Tahrir, even as I was certain that had it been the government, with all the resources at its hand, that had attempted such a remarkable feat, queues would’ve extended for miles, and a mere trickle of people would have found its way into the square by day’s end.
This is merely one example of hundreds of how it all comes together. No organisation, however powerful or disciplined could ever hope to match the organisational burgeoning, initiative and sheer creativity that a people on the move are capable of producing, yet leadership of sorts, even as it springs up spontaneously, is necessary to give it coherence, to pull it together and help direct it towards particular ends.
I experienced this sort of “merger” of spontaneous popular initiative and field leadership first hand during the student and workers upsurge of the 1970s, and was fortunate enough to live to see it happen on a massively expanded scale in January 2011 and since. (At the presidential palace in Heliopolis, nearly two years after the revolution, I would observe young people, mostly working-class, use a chain and pulley to dislodge huge cement blocks in a wall the authorities had stretched across one of the boulevards leading to the palace.)
During the 18-day revolution we saw a great many other manifestations of this joining of popular initiative and ingenuity with the clear hand-print of a field leadership: the naming of the protest Fridays, the articulation of demands, the statements of aims and principles hoisted on huge banners, the giant Egyptian flags, and no less significantly the utter rejection and effective foiling of the “compromise formula” offered by then vice-president Omar Suleiman and backed, and almost certainly brokered by the Americans.
We were to find out later – through revelations by members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth and reformist trend, as well as via Suleiman himself – that the group’s leadership, if not their youth, were apparently happy to work with this formula, subject to a side-bargain with the spy chief and vice-president, involving the blue print of some form of power sharing arrangement between them and the regime.
The Achilles’ heel of the Egyptian revolution was, therefore, not so much that it was leaderless, but that the leadership that emerged in its throes was unprepared for the tasks history had shouldered it with. This was not a function of the authoritarian character of the Mubarak regime – since, to argue so would beg the question of an anti-authoritarian revolution.
Rather, as I’ve argued repeatedly before, the unpreparedness of the Egyptian revolution was first and foremost a function of the thoroughgoing eradication of political space in the country in the course of Mubarak’s 30 years rule. As such, we came upon the 25th of January, 2011, with a new generation of revolutionaries and activists who had never known political life in any real sense, whose experience, and mindset were limited to the persistent, even heroic and largely desperate protest actions of a besieged minority, battling on against seemingly impossible odds.
The young revolutionaries – it is safe to say – were as surprised by the revolution as everybody else, at home and abroad. If anything, the Egyptian revolution went leagues beyond the extremely modest groundwork laid ahead of it. So astounding and so massive was the leap that I would write on 4 February 2011 (a week before Mubarak’s overthrow), suggesting that “dead for over 30 years, the political realm burst out from the popular uprising of the country's young women and men, fully armed, like Greek mythology had Athena spring from the forehead of Zeus.”
As it proved to be, however, it was not as “fully armed” as I, and many others, believed at the time.
This section presumes considerably on the reader’s indulgence. ‘What ifs’ are always problematic, and in fact a saying of the Prophet Mohammad – loosely translated – deems them the work of the devil (literally, “opening the door for the devil”). Islamic scholars, however, have denied that the saying implies a blanket ban on such musings, citing Qura’nic verses wherein ‘what if’ appears.
But, fairly safe from charges of “apostasy”, “disrespect for religion” or the like – all of which often involve nasty repercussions, I freely admit that “what if” usually opens a can of worms. What follows therefore is purely a mental exercise. It does not imply that the Egyptian revolution should – or indeed could – have taken the course I will outline below. Nor yet, does it imply an attempt to lay blame on the young revolutionaries who both triggered it, and acted to give it leadership.
Not only do I have the deepest respect for these young men and women, for their indomitable courage, unyielding heroism, intense love of freedom and enormous creativity, I am most profoundly humbled by it.
The object of the exercise is to show that, with a bit more readiness, a somewhat different mind-set, more organizational and political experience, the January revolution might have taken a vastly different course. Ultimately, we’re concerned with the present and the future not the past, with what’s to come rather what has, or might have been. Lessons learned, even if they can no longer apply in the same way, could be of great value in charting the future of Egypt’s on-going revolution.
In retrospectively attempting to re-imagine the Egyptian revolution as it might have been, it should have become starkly clear from the above that two points of departure immediately come to mind: an organized, self-aware and popularly acknowledged leadership rooted in revolutionary legitimacy, and a strategic perspective that would confine itself neither to overthrowing the tyrant, nor to professing the principles and values upon which the new post-Mubarak Egypt should be based.
Under somewhat different circumstances, and a relatively greater level of political and organisation experience, the Revolutionary Youth Coalition could have been transformed from the largely behind the scenes field leadership that it had been into the core formation of a national revolutionary leadership able to speak openly, clearly and forcefully on its behalf, indeed, to make of itself – to use the common phrase – the sole legitimate representative of the revolution.
Theoretically, it had all what it takes to do so. Made up of popular organisations rather than the ideologically-based and largely bankrupt political parties inherited from the Mubarak era, the RYC was also reflective of a broad revolutionary front, encompassing a whole range of political and ideological persuasions, transcending in particular the “secularist-Islamist” divide that had plagued the nation’s growingly diminutive political space for decades.
Most important of all, it embodied as no other grouping I’m aware of, the youthful spirit that was the driving force of the revolution. Certainly, a great many people, groups and organisations have laid claims to the Egyptian revolution since its triumph in overthrowing Mubarak and its commensurate iconisation – some with a certain degree of legitimacy, and others on the basis of utterly trumped up falsehoods.
Yet, this was without a doubt a revolution of Egypt’s youth; an emergent and very different generation from all who preceded it, however long and resolutely some of them fought, and paid the price, for its aims.
In our re-imagined revolution, the RYC would have possibly reached out to other groups and political organisations genuinely and actively involved in the day-to-day revolutionary activity (the independent trade unions, for instance); widened its ranks to be as inclusive as possible; acted to win the trust of the millions gathered in Tahrir and on squares and streets throughout the land, and with their support, proclaimed itself the legitimate representative of the revolution, and its overall leadership.
Admittedly, it couldn’t have happened this way. The RYC was fracturing already even before Mubarak’s overthrow, personalities and petty rivalries seem to have played an inordinately great part, and the youth leaders were being pulled every which way by the older, if not wiser political figures within their respective ideological and political leanings.
At the same time, the revolution was accompanied by a mindset that was almost obsessively mistrustful of leaderships of any kind, in yet another manifestation of three decades of the eradication of political space in the country (the life-time of the young revolutionaries) and the associated bankruptcy and co-optation of the bulk of extant political parties and figures.
Meanwhile, the various police and intelligence bodies were trudging out youth coalitions by the dozen, infiltrating the ranks of the gathered masses in Tahrir and elsewhere, and engaging in dirty tricks and conspiracies of all sorts.
Wary of proclaiming a leadership of its own, the Egyptian revolution effectively, if by no means willingly opened the door for its hijacking by the military, already in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, and the State Security Intelligence fostered Salafists and “repentant” Jihadists, originally and ironically conceived as an Islamist bulwark against Muslim Brotherhood influence.
Let us proceed, nevertheless, with our re-imagined revolution. Having elaborated a unified and legitimate leadership, the revolution – via that very leadership – might then have moved to deal with the crucially urgent task of determining what’s to come after Mubarak. Theoretically, it is inconceivable for a revolution to overthrow a political regime while having only principles and values to replace it with. No less important than principles and values, one would have thought, would be the elaboration of the vehicles and processes by which they’re realised.
The first among these would have been the question of transfer of authority. Certainly, it seems to defy the imagination that you would set out to overthrow a regime as obdurate and seemingly everlasting as Mubarak’s (we were, after all, in line for being ruled by his still relatively youthful younger son) and then leave it up to the topmost bureaucracy of that very regime to determine to whose hands power would be transferred.
Hence, the SCAF, the ultimate falafel sandwich, if ever there was one, though with an added twist: this particular sandwich had been let lie by the wayside for far too long.
Alternatively, and as soon as the revolution had determined that it would not cease until Mubarak was overthrown, it would have been obliged to set out, publicly and clearly, the nature of the agency which was to take over the reins of power. To do otherwise is akin to changing a flat tire without having a spare.
This to my mind could have been only the naming of a provisional government charged with overseeing the realisation of the most urgent tasks of the revolution and overseeing the transition to a genuine democracy. Not that I’m suggesting that the young revolutionary leaders would have made themselves into a government – ours was not that kind of revolution. Rather, in consultation with a newly established broad democratic alliance, the revolutionary leadership might have coupled its demand to oust Mubarak from power to the surrender of authority to a specifically named provisional government in which some of the most respected political and intellectual figures of the country would be included, with adequate representation for the revolutionary youth, women, minorities, and reflecting as well, as broadly as possible the pro-democracy political and ideological spectrum in the country.
This would have been the true expression of the revolutionary legitimacy which the SCAF hijacked for itself without any basis in constitution, law or custom, local or international, and which – in cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood – it almost immediately set about subverting.
The objection might well be raised that the military would never have allowed such a thing. Maybe yes, but then again maybe not. The idea suggested here assumes that such a vehicle for the transfer of power and the democratic transition of the country would have been elaborated before the ousting of Mubarak, and as crucial a condition for halting the uprising as the president’s overthrow. In plain language, the revolution would have maintained its occupation of the country’s streets, and indeed escalated its offensive so long as these incontrovertibly entwined twin conditions were not met.
Needless to say, a revolutionary leadership that had already won the confidence and support of the millions on the streets would have been absolutely crucial in this respect.
Moreover, the revolutionary leadership might have considered giving some concessions to the military in return. No revolution achieves all its objectives in one fell blow, especially one that was – very wisely – keen on maintaining its largely pacifist character and on avoiding a bloody civil war. Latin American experience shows that such an eventuality was not beyond the pale.
As it happened, the Egyptian revolution did not even try to bargain with the military; it stood by while they seized the whole thing, lock, stock and barrel.
In the event, a number of revolutionary and other forces later floated the idea of a “presidential council”, and even named its possible members. It was already too late, let alone that the crucial conditions of both a unified revolutionary leadership, and ongoing revolt were missing.
And frankly, since we’re speaking revolutionary legitimacy, I don’t see why we would have been stuck with the rather bizarre notion of a presidential council, to replace an authoritarian president, when the much more obvious course of a provisional government is backed by reasonableness as well as wide-spread precedent.
I would suggest three more vital actions that might have been undertaken in this imagined revolutionary transformation. The first might well have been the issuance of a “Declaration of Rights”, enshrining the fundamental principles and values of the Egyptian revolution. This might well have been drawn up and issued by the revolutionary leadership and put to the vote on the street, as the revolution was taking place. Later, and upon the transfer of power, it might have been put before a specially convened revolutionary congress or to a referendum.
The real point here, irrespective of details, is that today, two years after the revolution, we are yet to have in our hands a document that sets out clearly and succinctly the principles and overall aims that had been so glaringly and so potently expressed in Tahrir and throughout the country during those glorious 18 days of January and February 2011.
As for precedents, we need only refer to the two seminal revolutions of the modern world, the American and the French revolutions.
No less important would have been to draw up and declare a concise action plan outlining the most urgent tasks of the revolution, and its provisional government. These might have included such vital house-cleaning as purging the legal code of the tons of repressive and anti-democratic legislation, some of which was actually drawn up during the times of British colonial domination of the country. (Notably, and until today, not a single piece of repressive legislation has been amended or repealed).
They might have included as well resolving to eliminate the enormous waste and plunder practiced by the nation’s top bureaucracy, from the so-called special funds – through which billions of pounds are regularly siphoned off, down to the fleets of mean black Mercedes limos, using the substantial savings to immediately support the imposition of a fair minimum wage. Civil servants would have been banned from dabbling in business of any sort, and so would have been their offspring, and partners – subject to severe punishments.
No less urgent would have been to resolve to, and to institute appropriate measures aimed at overhauling the police, which had gone half rogue in the course of the revolution and after it, and had the blood of thousands of Egyptian citizens on its hands.
Forgiving the debts of small farmers as well as a general amnesty to all those among them who’d been languishing in debtors’ prison as a result of the cynical policies of the Mubarak regime and its international backers, would also have been high on the agenda of such an action plan. So would have been to reinstate the rights of tenant farmers, which had been won under Nasser and done away with by Mubarak and his clique.
The third urgent action would have been to initiate a genuine “transitional justice” process, making use of the wealth of international experience in this regard, to ensure that the murderers and torturers of the people are made to pay for their crimes, and to bring some sense of retribution and solace to the families and friends of the martyrs.
And what now?
Here, I feel bound to admit that I have tricked the reader in the title of this piece. I had no intention of offering a formula of ways and means to move forward to achieve the aims of our great, if hitherto hijacked and subverted revolution.
I have long held that the job of a writer and journalist – and I lay claim to no other capacity – was to critique reality, not to lecture or deliver sermons to his/her readers, and least of all to offer unsolicited advice on policy.
The above has been a work of the imagination, and of criticism. These lie within my legitimate provenance.
As for charting the way forward, I humbly leave this task to its real owners, to the tens of thousands who are today once again on the streets, showing yet again that the Egyptian people’s revolutionary energy is as alive and as vigorous today as it was two years ago, and to the young and heroic activists who continue, with unyielding tenacity and determination, to hold the banner of freedom aloft.
All I can hope is that such a work of criticism might provoke some rethinking, somewhat different ways of looking and moving towards the kind of future promised us all by the revolution.