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Realism and romanticism in the Egyptian revolution

Now that the first flush of euphoria has passed, it is time to get down to the hard issues of building a new democratic order

Abdel-Moneim Said , Thursday 17 Mar 2011
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My first experience with revolution was listening to grownups whispering about the 1952 Revolution. Although my childhood understanding of that great event was limited, I had already become an avid supporter, even as many people around me continued to speak with admiration about Saad Zaghloul and Mustafa El-Nahhas. The Suez War of 1956 fired my enthusiasm for the immortal leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and his disciples in the Free Officers movement. Although there were some who questioned a victory that led to an occupation and the opening of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, the words of Mohammed Hassanein Heikal on the nationalisation of the canal and victory, be it political or military, were sufficient to keep my ardour alive.

The turning point came during my first years of secondary school when my history professor gave us the assignment of writing a short research paper on a major historical event. Mine was the French Revolution. After ploughing through several books on the subject, what struck me most was the difference between the romantic beginnings of the revolution and subsequent realities. There it opened with the exciting fall of a corrupt king, a foolish queen and a wealthy ruling elite against the backdrop of the storming of the Bastille, the symbol of oppression and tyranny. However, the rosiness faded as guillotines severed the heads of the supporters of the ancien régime and then turned their blades on the heads of the leaders of the new order who had transformed a budding democracy into the Bonapartist state whose defeat worked to restore the corrupt monarchy to the throne. What happened in France afterward is not the issue here. The point is that the revolution that had succeeded in uprooting tyranny somehow lost its enthralling glimmer.

In the wake of the 1967 defeat, it was clear that the whole Egyptian revolution needed to be subjected to a process of revision. A host of the revolution’s writers had lost their magic touch when faced with the question as to how such a great revolution could have lost land to the enemy twice in the space of half a generation. For the youth of the July 1952 Revolution it became a duty to demonstrate. They took to the streets in February 1968 to demand an accounting for the defeat and to call for changes that would need to be made to make victory possible. It was the first revolution in that revolutionary Nasserist era. It came at a time when realities were striking home and Abdel Nasser had become an Egyptian-style Bonaparte. While the 1968 demonstrations were a first attempt, the 1972 demonstrations were deeper and more focused on the call for democracy and the fight against corruption. Nevertheless, in those days the revolution had little choice but to concentrate on the foremost priority, which was to end the Sinai occupation.

By pure coincidence I was studying Marxist thought and the Bolshevik Revolution at the time and I came across John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World. This early classic about the October Revolution painted a very romantic picture about a revolution that would soon fall out with itself. When Stalin took power, the revolution turned into rivers of blood. Seventy years later under Gorbachev it met its reverberating collapse. When Yeltsin took over, any residual romanticism quickly faded before the rise of a regime of anarchy and organised crime. Eventually the Russians in the general intelligence agency reached a solution: a government ruled by Putin and Medvedev, alternating between them the posts of president and prime minister. With this formula Russia can have a democracy and a strong state at the same time, or so the new regime would have it.

While I was in the US completing my graduate studies I met many revolutionaries from Ukraine to Chile. However, the ones I felt closest to — and who I found the most interesting — were from Iran. The reason for this was that in 1977, the realisation of their dreams was right around the corner. Indeed, two years later the Islamists under Khomeini’s banner, liberals, Marxists and all other shades of the Iranian opposition had succeeded in toppling a horrifyingly brutal and corrupt regime. It was indeed a thrilling period: massive millions-strong demonstrations, an army that sided with the revolution, the fall of the notorious SAVAK. Even today I can still hear the heated bickering between the Iranian “Jacobins” who were adamant upon the need to dismantle the old order and build anew, and liberals who called for the construction of a democratic order that would steer the country through a historical transformation. The substance of the debate was not new to me (I had read similar ones before), but this time the participants were members of groups that were taking part in a revolution that was currently in progress.

As it transpired, the “Jacobins” ruled the day. The Shah’s regime was liquidated, which was great. Then followed the liquidation of the liberals and Marxists, which was not so great. Then came the turn of the moderates, from Ghotbzadeh to Beni Sadr, who had been part of the early revolutionary regime. Bonaparte, in the form of Khomeini, had won again. We find his latest clone in Ahmadinejad who has worked to safeguard a version of the revolution that consists only of supporters of Ahmadinejad.

Of course, there are other revolutions we can talk about. For example, Chairman Mao’s “long march” and Red Book were often the romantic symbols of the Chinese revolution. However, it is Egypt’s January 27 Revolution that concerns me here. Can its current romanticism and great dreams also turn into a nightmarish reality?

I was struck by an analysis that my friend, Mustafa El-Fiqi, gave during a meeting with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. So far, he said, the revolution has passed through several “waves” which I will take the liberty to describe as follows. The first was the youth wave, which set the revolution in motion via the Internet and Facebook. It was characterised by a disciplined romanticism fired by progressivist aspirations and the dream of democracy. They were then joined by the youth of other opposition parties and forces, notably the Muslim Brotherhood. The members of the latter brought their history and ideology — as well as their complexes — to the tents in Tahrir Square. The third wave came with the arrival of groups demonstrating for sectoral demands, ranging from wage increases to religious principles, as was the case with certain Sunni groups. In the fourth wave, ex-cons, jailbirds and others with criminal records boarded the train of millions. El-Fiqi feared the arrival of a fifth wave, which would bring the slums to the ranks of the revolutionaries. The revolution of the starving masses hasn’t hit yet, he said.

Regardless of how we might describe its unfolding phases, the revolution — like all others that have gone before — has lost the romantic glow that characterised its fine beginnings as special agendas began to mount. At the same time, there was an outbreak of various social ills. These had been there before, but the prevailing spirit of romanticism had led people to believe that they had been purged by the revolutionary fires in our chests, or washed away with the blood of our great martyrs. So it came as a complete surprise to many to see a resurgence of sexual harassment, another surge of sectarian violence, and a fresh spate of sectoral demands out of all proportion to our country’s resources and capacities. At one stage, this latter phenomenon reached the tragicomic height of tax officials demanding a five per cent cut of tax revenues. Finance Minister Samir Radwan could not help wondering if that should also apply to the revenues of the Suez Canal, to which I might add the petroleum and mineral wealth sector.

Society has returned to its original state, which is only natural, since the ills that infect it can not be remedied by demonstrations in Tahrir Square, even by conjuring up the bogeyman that goes by the name of “the remnants of the NDP and state security”. It came as no small surprise to hear these words in the first meeting between the new “government of the revolution” and the press, writers and intellectuals, given that 13 members of the new government belong to the democratic reform wing of the NDP and had long striven by various means towards the same aims of the revolution, particularly the democratic and civil rights components. One could not escape the impression that the NDP — or rather its “remnants” — were leading the revolution and the counterrevolution at the same time. Equally surprising to see a kind of free-for-all in tearing down the material and moral capacities of our national security services when it is obvious to anyone with a rational mind that in order to put an end to crime and gang violence we will have to rebuild the Ministry of Interior agencies, including the State Security Investigations agency, so that it can perform its original tasks of fighting terrorism and espionage. Needless to say, this is not to suggest that any allowance should be made for abuse of authority, systematic torture, arbitrary arrest and other such crimes that members of State Security had committed, or that we should tolerate certain laws and regulations that have their origin not in the former regime but in the original sin that dates from the outset of the republican era.

The situation is clear. The romantic phase of the revolution has reached an end. The age of innocence should lead to a new age of maturity and robustness, which begins by dealing with the facts as they are, not as we would like them to be, and with the realities as they are, not as we imagine them to be. The sooner we apply this the greater will be our ability to address conditions that we had thought were gone for good. What we need is to build a democratic government founded upon the principle of true citizenship. We need to build a developmental structure than can propel us forward to where developed nations stand. We need to build a social structure based on recognition and respect of the other. We need to catch up with the rest of the world and to incorporate modern sciences and technology throughout the whole country and not just in parts of it. These tasks will require as much toil and sweat as the millions-strong demonstrations whose mission should be to ensure that all these tasks are proceeding in the right direction, but without obstructing them. This is the only way forward. The other alternatives are to be found in the revolutionary experiences referred to above. Revolutions either emerge from their romanticism and innocence to get down to serious and constructive work or they veer off in another direction. Where they end up exactly is impossible to predict, but history offers some very obvious clues.

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