Towards a single revolution

Abdel-Moneim Said , Tuesday 8 Feb 2011

Egyptians today have a golden opportunity to build on the achievements of the January revolution, but there are still snares on the path to full democracy

What I am about to say may anger many people in the government and the National Democratic Party (NDP), or what’s left of it, as well as revolutionaries of various stripes and perhaps, too, many groups of Egyptian people and people elsewhere.

However, ever since I began my career as a political commentator I have grown accustomed to saying what I have to say in accordance with the principle that little good can come of a writer not voicing what he truly believes and little good can come from a people that refuses to read or listen to what others have to say.

Whether people are swayed by what they read or hear is another matter, and whether they act on their convictions is a personal decision. Therefore, as has been the case with the many other commentaries that have preceded this one, and as will be the case with those that will follow, this article is informed purely by my own personal experience, culture and education. It expresses the views of no one but its author.

I will take as a starting point an interview on the Al-Arabiyya satellite news channel with two figures, one a prominent Egyptian entrepreneur reputed for his patriotism and liberalism, the other a professor of constitutional law well-known for his sagacity and professed moderation. Both men – the business magnate and the jurist – are part of a larger framework known as the Committee of Wise Men, whose job is to serve the nation at a precarious moment by mediating between the government and the revolutionaries who have assembled in various places, most notably Tahrir Square in Cairo. These revolutionaries have made six demands, including the demand that the president step down and hand power to his vice-president and the demand for a new constitution.

The host of the television interview, Hafez al-Mirazi, asked Naguib Sawiris, the entrepreneur, and Kamal Abul-Magd, the lawyer, whether in their opinion the protestors would be willing to call off their demonstration in order to help give rise to circumstances that would be conducive to the implementation of their demands. Their answer was a categorical “No.” While the entrepreneur stated this in a single word, the lawyer worked up to this answer by an explanatory preamble.

All this sounded extremely strange to someone who was struggling to find where wisdom might lie. If this was mediation, then one might expect some balance in the demands being made and between the disputing parties, all the more so given that one of the parties – the president – had actually accepted the fundamental demands of the revolutionaries and, perhaps, those of most of the Egyptian people too.

However, this refusal was more like putting a gun to the head of the government, with the ultimatum that demonstrations, turmoil, instability and the economic paralysis of the state and society would continue unless the government put the demands of the protestors into effect to the letter, these including the president’s handing over office through constitutional procedures and leaving the country.

These wise men seemed to be insisting upon an exact replication of the Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali scenario in Tunisia, anything less being an insult to the people, the protestors, the masses, the nation – or whatever term you care to use – and their just demands.

If this was already wrong in terms of how negotiations and mediation should be carried out, the more dangerous aspect of it was that the approach rested on a mistaken reading of reality. In fact, two revolutions are in progress, not one, and both need to be incorporated into a political solution capable of rescuing the country from the destruction that has afflicted it.

The first revolution is now world famous. This is the one that erupted on 25 January and that, if we discard any suspicions regarding the choice of date, coincided with the commemoration of the heroism shown by the Egyptian police against British colonialism. This revolution championed the cause of democracy, both theoretically, as has been discussed in great numbers of articles, conferences and seminars, and practically, as reflected in the official acceptance of many of the revolution’s demands on the part of the head of state.

I have always believed that Egypt needs not so much constitutional amendments as a whole new constitution, one that is more consistent, coherent, civil and modern. I have said and written this on numerous occasions, both before and after the constitutional amendments of 2005 and 2007. I have also frequently voiced my reservations about the amendments to articles 76, 77 and 88 and others.

However, raising the cause of democracy to new heights and bringing the dream closer to reality was not the only accomplishment of this Police Day revolution. It also yielded a number of other results.

The first of these is that president Mubarak’s term in office will now end at its proper time, it is to be hoped in accordance with constitutional provisions, these helping to safeguard Egypt's constitutional traditions. As I wrote in my article “By the Book,” which appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly on 23 September 2010, and in the Arabic daily Al-Ahram on 18 September 2010, the provisions of our national constitutions, whether they took the form of Ottoman firman, constitutional declaration, or provisional or permanent constitution, have always governed the peaceful transfer of authority, whether the head of state bore the title of Wali, Khedive, Sultan, King or President of the Republic.

If president Mubarak approves the amendment to article 77 of the constitution, so as to set a maximum time limit for serving as head of state, it would perhaps be no exaggeration to say that he will be the one who lays the foundations for a post-Pharaonic state in Egypt.

The second result of the revolution is that the folly of the so-called hereditary succession scenario has now come to an end. This subject had so obsessed the country’s political forces, journalistic establishments, satellite channels and certain intellectual trends and interest groups that it became the number one item on the agenda for a whole decade, during which these same organisations ignored many of the political, economic, cultural and social concerns of the Egyptian people.

A third result is that a generational shift has been thrown into relief. This idea, which encapsulates one aspect of mankind’s race against time, is a universal one that affects developing and developed countries alike. The transition from one generation to the next brings numerous factors of change into play. The opinions and perceptions of the younger generations, in Egypt as in any other country, do not develop linearly from the preceding generations, but rather represent a qualitative shift in the nature of society.

Moreover, a single generation contains diverse segments or groups of young people. One such group might be politically leftist, another liberal, a third Islamist, a fourth Arab nationalist and a fifth apolitical, and so on. However, all these various strands belong to the same generation, each constituting a different ideological response to the historical circumstances that affect them all. Each is a generational unit that becomes distinct when its members espouse a certain set of shared values, opinions, perceptions and like feelings, all of which define the generational awareness of the individuals belonging to it.

Perhaps the most important factor to shape the generational consciousness in Egypt today has been modern technology, and specifically communications and information technology, such as the Internet, Facebook and other social-networking sites, and the mobile phone.

A fourth feature of the Police Day revolution is that it marked how the activity of the conventional political opposition, and specifically of the opposition parties, has declined over recent years, new avenues becoming available to opposition forces to express their ideas and engage in debate on domestic and foreign issues. Above all, the whole of cyberspace was spread out before them, and in this realm the upcoming generations have increasingly turned to Facebook, in particular, as a forum for airing their views and shaping their outlook. Indeed, the new communications technology now offers an alternative to conventional political institutions, such as political parties, allowing bloggers and other Internet activists the scope to speak out and share their perceptions on a plethora of political, social, economic and even personal concerns.

Great numbers of young people have thus been drawn into the public sphere, and the Internet has become a political domain that transcends the frameworks that the Egyptian people have been familiar with. Chat rooms, Facebook, blogging sites and email groups now offer powerful ways to communicate with public opinion, generating an unprecedented growth of interest in public affairs among members of the younger generations. It is worth recalling that this is the generation that had long been criticised by the conventional media and the older generations for being frivolous, apolitical and uninterested in the affairs of the nation and the region.

These young Internet activists often share special characteristics. Most are young men and women with a reasonable command of English and of an above-average level of education, gravitating around the university level. Economically, they belong to various strata of the new middle class. While for the most part they are unaffiliated to any political party, a considerable portion of them belong to protest movements and a minority to legally banned organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The experience of recent days has shown not only that the new voices of protest cannot be silenced, but also that it is impossible to ignore their demands and fail to address their aspirations.

A fifth result of the revolution is that the previously dominant party, the NDP, has now come to an end. We can no longer accept a political life in Egypt based on an imbalance between a dominant ruling party that has enjoyed a huge parliamentary majority since the restoration of party political life in the mid-1970s and a host of small and marginal parties whose parliamentary representation has steadily declined from one election to the next. This was palpably evidenced in the 2010 People's Assembly campaigns, which took place between a party that had a membership of around three million and other parties having memberships in the thousands, if not the hundreds.

These parliamentary elections then gave rise to an overwhelming parliamentary majority that controlled legislation. In the last parliamentary elections, the ruling party failed to persuade the people of the integrity of the polling.

All these things were the positive results of the 25 January revolution, which, like all revolutions in history, was nevertheless also marred by negative aspects. Above all, this revolution, which was led by young men and women, has been unable to lay the foundations for a framework that will allow the ideas motivating the revolution to be transformed into a working agenda for change that can be implemented, negotiated over, or imposed as circumstances permit.

It is clear that the various organisations that formed the revolutionary movement – HASHD (the Popular Democratic Movement for Change), the ElBaradei Movement, the National Society for Change, the Revolutionary Socialists, the Socialist Renovation Movement, the Khaled Said Movement – have continued to behave as if they are separate groups. Each has its own tent in Tahrir Square, and the political interaction between them has been almost as if they were still communicating over the Internet.

Such a situation cannot sustain the needs of a state and steer it toward a mature democratic order. The solution to this fragmentation has been to come up with a simple slogan, such as “Down with the Regime,” the exact meaning of which the groups have been reluctant to define, even as they have simultaneously proved incapable of defining what will come afterwards.

Because of its inability to organise collectively, the youth movement has had to rely on other political groups that have then sought either to subsume it, or to use it as a front in order to acquire civil legitimacy, as has been the case with the Muslim Brotherhood, or popular legitimacy, as has been the case with the political parties that the youth movement originally arose to replace. In addition to the Muslim Brothers and the legitimate political parties, there have also arisen a host of public figures and independent luminaries who have variously adopted the garb of popularism or the garb of popular wisdom.  

A further negative feature of the youth revolution, which paradoxically primarily emerged from the middle classes that were born as a result of the policies of successive NDP governments, has been that it has gone to extremes, as most revolutions are wont to do, and has denied any accomplishments whatsoever to the NDP governments. Yet, it was precisely the policies of the NDP that produced the communications revolution in Egypt, among other changes. Moreover, because of its social make-up, the youth revolution has been blind to other socio-economic strata, most of which do not have the same familiarity with, or access to, the products of the IT revolution and cannot be expected to bear prolonged economic paralysis. Suffice it to say in this regard that at least 35 per cent of the Egyptian economy is informal, and that the people working in this sector are heavily dependent on their daily income in order to make ends meet.

Such negative aspects of the Police Day revolution have sown the seeds of the second revolution that has taken place in Egypt. While many NDP members believe that the demands of the youth revolution are just, at the same time they have rejected what they regard as its excesses. For one thing, they believe that the element of fanaticism in the youth revolution, and its attempts to drive the NDP out of the political arena, will deprive broad sectors of the populace of their history, a fear compounded by the realisation that Egyptian history, for better or for worse, is not free of dictatorial trends that seek to exclude and eliminate.

In this regard, many NDP members believe that the organisational weakness of the youth movement, just as its demands are, has rendered it vulnerable to manipulation by other groups that not only lack genuine democratic traditions, but that are also rooted in fascist ones. Because of such concerns, the NDP decided to leave the stage to the youth revolution in the first instance, and then to move towards it to the extent that the situation and consensus within the Party permitted. We thus arrived at the point where president Mubarak announced that he would not run for another term in office, which in turn led to other decisions related to drawing up a working agenda for democratic transition that many in the NDP had dreamed of.

This programme envisages amending constitutional articles 76 and 77, to which should be added article 88, so as eventually to arrive at a new constitution in keeping with the spirit of the age and genuine democracy. In short, the democratic demands championed by the youth movement were being translated into a course of practical action, though this was taking place beneath the shadow of looming chaos and extremism.

The second revolution that erupted on 2 February 2011, which took Mustafa Mahmoud Square as its starting point, saw Egypt experience a million-strong demonstration of another sort, one demanding full democracy but armed with full legitimacy in the form of a peaceful transfer of power in accordance with clear constitutional rules and provisions so that no one could later question its legality and authenticity. The silent majority had its say that day in Egypt.

But unfortunately this majority was not the only one to speak. Driven by the strains of economic paralysis, other portions of society lost their self-restraint. Spearheaded by a group from Nazlat al-Samman, an area located near the Pyramids in Giza and heavily dependent on tourism, and joined by other groups who were similarly hurting from the harsh material conditions afflicting them and their families, pandemonium erupted as these groups were joined by gangs of thugs and thieves. These elements had been present since the first revolution erupted, and they were responsible for the burning of NDP headquarters in Cairo, the destruction of police stations, the throwing of Molotov cocktails at private vehicles and the attacks on private homes and property. Such things continued until the young people involved in the first revolution themselves acted to protect neighbourhoods, homes and property.

In the final analysis, revolutions are never as pure as people imagine. Apart from some rare exceptions, they tend to deviate from their original course and are frequently exploited by the foolish, the ignorant and the criminal. Ultimately, successful revolutions are those that manage to turn their dreams and aspirations into achievable goals and political applications. At this moment, we have a golden opportunity to find ways of allowing the two revolutions to converge into a single revolution, bringing the causes of democracy and legitimacy into a single framework. This should be the programme of any committee of wise men, for without such a drive huge fissures and rifts will divide Egyptian society, threatening to last for decades to come.

Perhaps never before have the choices facing the Egyptian people been so clear. Today, they are presented with a splendid opportunity to make a peaceful transition to democracy, bolstered by a framework of legitimacy and the achievements of comprehensive progress. The alternative is chaos of one form or another, or the path to one or another form of dictatorship and fascism.



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