On Arab spring's post-revolutionary trauma

Ziad A Akl
Thursday 2 Feb 2017

Each year after the next, the anniversary of the January 2011 revolution brings more questions than answers

With the passage of time you get the chance to ask questions that were not asked before. In our instance, to view the January revolution from new perspectives and diverse angles. The result is usually new findings, which but demonstrates how significant the 25 January revolution was on the social, political, cultural, economic and even personal levels.

Those who took to the streets on Tuesday, 25 January 2011, and those who stayed home in fear or in refusal of the idea of revolution, those two extremes interacted with the January revolution as an event, an event that transformed the lives of those who interacted with it, or at least left an impact that was too significant to ignore.

Therefore, in order to discuss something like post-revolutionary trauma in the case of 25 January, the revolution itself as an event must be depoliticised, meaning that post-revolutionary trauma is a product of a series of events that do not necessarily have to be political. Post-revolutionary trauma is not something to be politically situated or contextualised, in order to be understood.

However, six years after that Tuesday, we can all identify changes in our lives as a result. These changes do not necessarily have to be traumatic, but for some, and perhaps a lot of people, those changes caused significant trauma.

Before discussing post-revolutionary trauma, we must clarify first the concept of the “outcome of revolution”. Revolutions are not systematic or mechanical processes and their outcomes do not necessarily have to be in accordance with their origins. In other words, revolutions usually lead to results that are very different to the demands the revolution once raised. The origins of revolutions are meanwhile the factors or causes of revolution, and determining revolutionary origins depends largely on the analytical approach used to identify the causes of revolutions.

In Egypt’s case, there are analysts who use a Marxist approach towards identifying the origins of 25 January, summarising the causes of the revolution in a class conflict that escalated during the last 10 years of Mubarak’s rule and the uneven distribution of income and wealth in a time where all of Egypt’s economic indications were significantly high.

Other analysts saw that the origins of Egypt’s revolution in 2011 could be traced to elite conflicts, or the empowerment of social movements and forces of opposition, and of course there are those who vest a lot of belief in the conspiracy theory approach towards explaining the revolution of 25 January.

While the past six years witnessed several analyses of why the Arab Spring revolutions erupted, analyses of what was the outcome of the Arab Spring revolutions are quite rare.

Most probably this is the number one cause of post-revolutionary trauma in the 25 January case; the high ceiling of expectations that many Egyptians set after Mubarak was forced to step down. After Mubarak’s rule was ended on 11 February 2011, many Egyptians believed Egypt was on the brink of a major change, one that would exceed a change in political leadership and reach high levels of reform in the different aspects of state and society. However, the revolution did not provide that, or even something close to it. After all, 18 days of protest are not enough to cause social and cultural changes. The result of unmet expectations are deep frustrations, ones that make individuals associate 25 January with a frustrating or traumatic experience.

Another source of trauma in the case of 25 January is how politics suddenly broke into the lives of millions of Egyptians who were never politicised before. Before January 2011, levels of political awareness never exceeded the narrow parameters of politicised individuals who were a minority after all. For the majority of Egyptians, politics was never a dimension of their lives; they never interacted with it and never participated in it.

These people suddenly realised that politics affects their daily lives and their economic status, as well as their overall feeling of security. What is also worth mentioning is how diverse the effects of 25 January were on the lives of Egyptians. There were those who looked at the revolution as a long awaited move that enhanced the quality of their lives and rid them of so many ills that prevailed during Mubarak’s rule. On the other hand, there were those who looked at the January revolution as an unnecessary rupture in a stable and productive regime that should have endured. Egyptians who work in the tourism sector, for example, suffered traumatically from the decline in their income as a result of the political unrest caused by the revolution.

Therefore, 25 January was a traumatic experience for many Egyptians, either those who suffered frustration due to a high levels of unmet expectations, or those who were directly affected in a negative manner, whether in economic losses or being subjected to physical or psychological violence.

Another important dimension of post-revolutionary trauma is rebuilding the relationship with the “other.” Revolutions in general reconstruct the perceptions and interactions of citizens with the “other,” while the “other” could be state institutions, political factions or cultural and religious cleavages. The relationship of so many Egyptians with the “other” has been restructured as a result of the events of 25 January.

The most common of those manifestations is the reformulation of citizens’ relationship with state institutions (coercive institutions in particular) and all the different manifestations of political Islam.

Reconstructing the relationship with the other has led to a pause in the interactions of Egyptians with that “other,” and in turn, became a cause of further trauma.

While Egypt resides in a political environment that appears to be supportive of post-revolutionary trauma, it only seems logical to ask about the strategies of adaptation and coping applied by the different participants in 25 January.

The most common tool of adaptation with post-revolutionary trauma is de-politicisation. It is equally observable between those who were politicised before 25 January and ones who were politicised after it, as a significant retreat from political participation and political involvement.

On the other hand, the ones who did not choose to retreat were faced with one of two options: either significant marginalisation or further radicalisation, two options that seem to construct a lose-lose situation.

Finally, the January revolution managed to transform several facts about Egyptian politics. However, the extent of change perceived in that revolution depends largely on the accuracy of the sources and the precision of historicisation.

However, what seems to be more evident than any other thing is the extent of cultural change induced by the January revolution, which points to further profound changes in coming years.

The writer is senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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