A people’s history of the Egyptian revolution (5)

Hani Shukrallah , Tuesday 10 Sep 2013

Unable to impose its emergent political will, the Egyptian revolution is able to frustrate, foil and bring down the political wills of its opponents

5. “We at the height are ready to decline”

The course of the Egyptian revolution, always contradictory, always complex, dialectical, non-linear and “messy,” is destined to take prominent place in the “sociology of revolution.” An ever-present, ever-shifting popular agency seems to bring political actors to the summit, only to pull them down all the more swiftly. (Give it a few years, and you’ll find universities across the world offering courses in the sociology of the Egyptian revolution – happy to take bets.)

It was such popular revolutionary “agency” that brought down Mubarak, clearing the way for the military to ascend to the very summit of Egypt’s polity and society – to chants of “the people and the army are one hand,” yet the very moment of ascendency is at once that of decline – as swift and brutal as was the proliferation of the Field Marshal’s elongated Pinocchio nose on the country’s city walls amid resounding chants of “down with military rule.”

And it was such popular revolutionary agency that would clear the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to ascend to the summit of political power in the country, only to bring them hurtling down in the course of a single year.

“We at the height are ready to decline.” William Shakespeare’s words (voiced by Brutus) sum up the dialectic of the Egyptian revolution as any words possibly could. However, no commentator on the Egyptian revolution could have put it as succinctly as Iranian scholar Asef Bayat: “Egyptians,” he wrote in a recently in an article on Ahram Online, “have mastered the art of being ungovernable. This is a formidable power in bad times.”

The process of dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood had begun, in fact, before their takeover of the presidency. After all, they had been junior power-partners with SCAF during its disastrous year and a half rule. Even if you’re blind to the shifting moods and consciousness of the people – as most scholars seem to be – there is no avoiding the speech of the ballot, of which the Brotherhood and their western sympathisers are so fond. In the space of 4-5 months, between the parliamentary elections (Nov-Jan 2011/12) and the first phase of the presidential elections (May 2012), the Muslim Brotherhood lost some 7 million votes, more than half of its electoral support. I very much doubt there is another example in modern political history, anywhere, of such a swift descent in political fortunes.

egypt election
Soldiers stand guard as voters wait outside a polling station at a school in Al-Sharqya, 60 km (37 miles) northeast of Cairo, June 16, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

Yet again the paradoxical nature of the course of the Egyptian revolution is brought into focus. Unable to impose its emergent political will, but well able to frustrate, foil and bring down the political will of its opponents, the revolution’s success in bringing down the foremost opponent of the moment seems only to clear the way for another member of the power-structure to try a hand at filling the vacuum.

We’d do well to keep this in mind as we approach the murky realm of the revolution’s “third wave.”

No revolution in history has taken on all of its foes – immediate, real and lying in the wings – at the same time, nor should it. Popular revolutions set out to win, not to commit mass suicide, and irrespective of the phantasms (real or imagined) weighing on the minds of the more politically and ideologically “formed” within the revolutionary camp, a genuinely popular revolution will steer a course of its own, imminently practical, goal-oriented, and rooted much more in lived experience and learned lessons than in a priori bias and/or knowledge.

There is good and bad in this, as we’ll see. But let’s – for a moment – take up one supreme example. From day one, the Egyptian revolution faced the latent prospect of having to take on the armed forces. It was Mubarak after all who called the armed forces onto the streets, once his massive police force was roundly defeated. “The people and the army are one hand,” let alone the flowers, the welcoming of army tanks, and the photo-ops with child-kissing soldiers on top of the tanks, doubtlessly contained much that was illusory (as was to be revealed soon), but it contained considerable wisdom as well.

I described it at the time as the “sentimental education” of the military (plagiarising Flaubert wholly out of context). For its own reasons (not least of which the top priority of maintaining the soundness and internal discipline of the armed forces) the military command was hesitant to shoot into the crowds. There is little doubt in my mind that however illusion-laden the “one hand” might have been, it helped check the impulse to shoot.

And even at the height of the revolution’s confrontation with military rule, with all its brutality and blood-drenched repression, the Egyptian military’s need to justify its actions, to maintain even a shadow of its positive image among the people, would continue to act as a check on its repressive impulses. Sceptical? See: Syria.

It would also go a long way towards fomenting intense dissatisfaction with SCAF’s leadership within military ranks, which would ultimately lead to the overthrow of SCAF at military hands.

Already in decline, the Muslim Brotherhood would nevertheless find itself at the summit of Egyptian state and society. Who to thank? Why, the paradoxical agency of a rebellious, revolutionary people. With no help from the Brotherhood, the ongoing revolution had weakened, demoralised and undermined the “senior partner” so resoundingly, SCAF all but gave up.

SCAF’s last ditch effort to stave off the inevitable – characteristically foolish and ill-advised – was to try and mobilise to the fullest extent possible the shattered “remnants” of the Mubarak regime, backing a verbally challenged (even more so than the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi, if you can believe it), corruption-tainted symbol of that regime, Maj. Gen. (rtd.) Ahmed Shafiq, for the presidency.

The great “lemon squeeze” would tip the balance in the Brotherhood’s favour.

In Egyptian popular idiom, inferior food is made more palatable by squeezing a lemon on it. Faced with two bad choices, the bulk of revolutionary Egypt would drench themselves with lemon juice, and opt for the Brotherhood’s Morsi in the second phase of the presidential election.

In a poll rooted in fear on both sides (wherein both Morsi and his contender would garner the balance of their votes not for love of either of them, but out of dread of the other), the Egyptian electorate would show it dreaded Mubarakist Shafiq more than Muslim Brother Morsi by two percentage points.


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