State actors and the revolution

Tewfick Aclimandos
Wednesday 27 Jun 2018

What best explains the events of the 25 January Revolution

After the end of the academic year, I returned to my hobby of studying different accounts of the 25 January Revolution. I decided to focus on narratives by Egyptian journalists said to be close to the state apparatus.

They had close access to top actors of the former Mubarak regime and were ferociously anti-Muslim Brotherhood. All of them have sided with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and the 30 June Revolution.

I am currently reading books written by commentators like Mostafa Bakri, Mohamed Al-Baz, Abdel-Kader Shuhayeb and Abdel-Latif Al-Manawi. I have also had a look at other books, like those of the late Refaat Al-Said and Farid Zahran.

These “statist actors” are quite different in their views. Bakri and Shuhayeb adopt a narrative widely shared by Mubarak regime officials and others.

They say that in the 25 January Revolution we saw the working out of a complex conspiracy, with the Muslim Brothers and the US as chief villains helped by lesser ones like Hamas, Qatar, Turkey, Hizbullah and Iran.

Sometimes they seem to believe that the 25 January Revolution was the fruit of this conspiracy, and at other points they seem to think that this conspiracy “derailed” an otherwise glorious revolution and distorted its aims. Shuhayeb’s narrative is very structured, but Bakri had and has better access to top officials, and he quotes abundantly from them.

Bakri tends to say that his unerring heroes, former intelligence chief Omar Soliman and former Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) head Hussein Tantawi, were aware of what was unfolding.

They warned Mubarak, who was misled by his son Gamal and his clique and who for some reason did not want to overreact or anger the Americans.

Some pro-state friends make more specific accusations: Mubarak wanted to sell the transmission of power to his son both at home and abroad by tolerating the development of civil society and the kind of liberalisation that ultimately led to his downfall and greatly endangered the state.

Mubarak believed that the Americans considered him to be a nuisance and an old authoritarian unable to cope with his society’s problems and therefore somehow responsible for the rise of extremism that led to the events of 11 September 2001. Nevertheless, he also seemed to think that concessions would placate them.

In Bakri’s multiple narratives, Gamal Mubarak and Ahmad Ezz were the bad guys who endangered the regime. They had no legitimate claim to power.

Their privatisation policies led to a rise in inequality. Gamal’s ambitions angered public opinion. They rigged elections on an unprecedented scale, not understanding the fact that by doing so they also gave the opposition parties good reason to side with the Muslim Brotherhood.

They persistently misled their ageing boss and prevented him from taking the right decisions. Their pressure, not Mubarak’s old age, explains the slowness of the regime’s reactions during the revolution.

Shuhayeb’s views are similar, but he focuses more on the attack on Egypt’s prisons led by Hamas militias.

For those who are not aware of this, some 800 heavily armed Hamas fighters and some 90 Hizbullah fighters entered Egyptian territory at the end of the “Friday of Anger,” the celebrated day of 28 January 2011 that transformed the demonstrations into a revolution.

These fighters then attacked some of Egypt’s prisons, liberating Muslim Brotherhood leaders who had been arrested a few days earlier, along with Hamas and Hizbullah militants and thousands of detainees who were common criminals.

Pro-revolution narratives usually ignore this episode. They consider the story to have been invented by those addicted to conspiracy theories who are keen to find scapegoats.

However, those who are pro the Mubarak regime and anti the Muslim Brothers tend to consider these events as central, some going as far as to say that they were the most important episode of the whole story.

My own view is straightforward: the episode was very important and can be considered as criminal, but it has nothing to do with the political upheaval. It proved that the Muslim Brothers use violence when it suits them, but it does not prove that the 25 January Revolution was not a genuine one.

It does not prove that the revolution was an act of “foreign aggression against Egypt.” I would also add that the attacks by Hamas militias had a terrible impact on Egyptian state actors.

For Shuhayeb, the attacks should have been expected. The failure to do so was a major failure, and he uses the word ghafla, or stupidity, for not having done so. The police guarding the prisons were not heavily armed, despite the fact that they hosted very dangerous prisoners in the shape of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I recently had a discussion with other insiders, and they convincingly refuted this analysis. Their argument was simple: of course, the police expected attacks against strategic institutions and buildings. However, it was impossible to protect all of them, and many places in Cairo, Alexandria and the provincial towns were more crucial than the prisons.

They point to the fact that the Al-Arish Prison was well protected and that it resisted daily assaults for a month. In this governorate, strategic targets are rare, they say, so it was possible to protect the prison. They also point to the fact that the police collapsed on 28 January and putting them back together again was the priority.

Academics rightly scorn narratives based on conspiracy theories. However, I beg for once to differ. I do not like conspiracy theories either, but the best way to fight them is to use the evidence they provide to construct another story.

Anyone who talks to former regime officials and supporters will quickly discover that they really believe there was a conspiracy during the 25 January Revolution. Their behaviour and strategies are incomprehensible unless one accepts this.

Moreover, the whole narrative may be deeply flawed, but the details can be interesting and revealing. The conspiracy theory is wrong, but this does not mean that Shuhayeb is wrong when he says that the Muslim Brothers decided early in 2009 to topple the Mubarak regime and started preparing to attack it.

He is also not wrong when he says that they counted on American support and on the regime’s tendency to try to gain time by postponing significant concessions, thereby multiplying the anger of public opinion.

In my next article I will examine the arguments of those who believe the Americans themselves planned the upheaval and bet on the Muslim Brotherhood. Suffice it to say here that the evidence for this is thin and unconvincing.

However, the Americans are not “innocents abroad,” and their behaviour can explain a lot of what happened.

The sentence that best captures my impression is a simple one: they did not know what they were doing.

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 28 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: State actors and the revolution 

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