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A people's history of the Egyptian revolution (1)

Egypt’s current reality – muddled, chaotic and overcast with ambiguity – can be understood only by situating it within the nation’s tumultuous revolutionary history. Ahram Online will run the essay in daily instalments

Hani Shukrallah , Wednesday 4 Sep 2013
Views: 6186
Views: 6186

“The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface.”

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

1. Real revolutions are red

Revolutions are messy affairs. If you want them sparkling clean, sanitary and sanitised, with a love interest and a happy ending under a fluttering revolutionary flag – well, go to Hollywood.

Better still, have your revolution scripted by CNN, with Mr. Fukuyama providing “expert advice,” opt for pastels, preferably orange, put a few thousands on the street, have the ancien régime implode, rather than be overthrown, wind it all up in as little time as possible, go home, and let the benevolent wheels of the world market and corporate-led “liberal democracy” (in our case, with an Islamic flavour) get on with the business of turning.

Congratulations, you’ve reached the end of history. 

If the above is your criteria for the kind of revolution you’d like to support, then sadly, you’ll find Egypt’s ongoing revolutionary upsurge sorely lacking.

Admittedly, we’ve all of us (myself included) waxed poetically about those wondrous 18 days in January/February 2011. There is nothing false in doing so. There is glory in millions of people throwing off the shackles of fear and submission, transforming themselves into subjects of history rather than its hapless victims; there is glory (and a great deal of poetry) in the heroism, courage and sheer determination of the young people who launched the Egyptian revolution and kept its spirit alive for the past 30 months, against seemingly insurmountable odds, and at great cost.

Yet, the 18 days were as glorious as the long months of resistance that followed them, against the military allied to the Muslim Brotherhood, against the military in conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, and against the Brotherhood’s frenzied grab of Mubarak’s authoritarian state – and no less messy.

It may be trite to say that revolutions don’t transform the people who make them into angels; nor for that matter do they reinvent them as fully aware, politically savvy, strategically sophisticated agents of change. Lenin (who knew something about revolution) said somewhere that people make revolution “half blind.”

The messiness in the Egyptian revolution, then as now, is primarily rooted in the fact that the people who made it were unprepared for the tasks it had thrown their way. Nor did they have anything close to a clear vision, let alone strategy, of how to bring their aspirations for a free, truly democratic and socially just Egypt into being. I’ve reiterated this before. See: “Egypt’s revolution: As it might have been; as it could be” (25 January 2013).

Tahrir Square
Opposition supporters gather during a huge rally in the opposition stronghold in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 8, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

I would suggest further that no popular revolution is ever fully prepared for the tasks, vision and aspirations that set it into motion. For a people to garner the courage and will to rise up against oppression, rather than to submit, subvert and make do, they need to reach for the stars, yet the stars are invariably beyond reach.

The Egyptian revolution was less prepared than most, thanks to 30 years of the eradication of political space, which defined the ugly Mubarak reign. The starkest and most significant ramification of this lack of preparedness lay in the fact that no sooner had the Egyptian people overthrown Mubarak’s obdurate, seemingly immutable 30-year rule, than they handed power over to his military.

This to my mind fully exposes the profound hypocrisy of the heated protestations of military coup this time around. Even in strict legal terms, the late Omar Suleiman’s  uniquely brief television address of 11 February 2011 (in which he announced Mubarak’s surrender of his presidential powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) is no less a military coup than Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s rather more elaborate televised address on 3 July 2013.

We’ve yet to see a signed statement by Mubarak abdicating his powers to SCAF, and even if we did, how legal is an abdication with a gun held to your head, and tanks on the streets? Moreover, there was nothing in the Egyptian constitution that permitted the former-former president to abdicate to an entity called SCAF, which few of us knew existed before the 25 January revolution.

The only constitutional stipulation as to the handover of power by the president – when unable for whatever reason to exercise his prerogatives – was to hand these over to the speaker of parliament. The latter, a stalwart of the Mubarak regime, was in fact sent home, the parliament he presided over dissolved, his party banned, and he, eventually, thrown in prison.

In substantive terms, if you want to speak military coup then 11 February 2011 was much more a military coup than 3 July 2013, since then the military actually took over power, and stuck to it for a year and half. Is a coup then not a coup if it is backed, and very likely brokered, by the Americans?

By 11 February 2011 the deal was all but done. Mubarak’s regime had been convinced that the only real opposition it faced was the Muslim Brotherhood, and so was its military and so were the Americans.

And herein lay the source of another fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Egyptian revolution. The millions on the streets had not been calling for the application of sharia, they were not demanding “rule by what God has ordained;” they did not – for a single moment – proclaim the Muslim Brotherhood as their representative. They spoke of freedom, social justice and human dignity – notions which are as alien to the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau as the dread word "secularism."

Yet, they did not have a viable organisation of their own, nor did they possess a clear strategy of how to go about replacing the police state they rose up against by one which embodied – at least to some degree – their vision of a democratic, free and just nation.

And they were not seen. Everyone and his brother would come to hail the glorious Egyptian revolution, but rulers (no less than the hordes of pundits and commentators who move in their orbits) are inherently incapable of comprehending a people in revolution. For them, people don’t rise up on their own; they must be driven, instigated, incited and manipulated by some force. Add to which, the long-held conviction that Arabs and Muslim could be governed only by either semi-secular police states or Islamists of some sort; in Egypt, that force could only be the Muslim Brotherhood.

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