A people’s history of the Egyptian revolution (7)

Hani Shukrallah , Monday 16 Sep 2013

Popular revolutions inevitably have strange bed-fellows; the point is which party gets to be on top

Tahrir Square
People pose for photographs with army tanks in front of the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square in Cairo February 12, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

7. Uprisings, love-fests and strange bed-fellows

There is a Sisyphean aspect to the Egyptian revolution. Incessantly pushing the boulder of radical democratic transformation up a steep, jagged hill composed of the resistance of the old authoritarian society, the very moment it seems to have reached the summit is also the moment it appears to find itself back at the bottom of the hill – yet again and again. 

This is mirrored in the psyches of Egypt’s young revolutionaries. One need only follow their blogs, Facebook postings and tweets or, better still, actually talk to them, to note the remarkable mood shifts as euphoria and renewed hope almost overnight give way to despondency, invariably coupled with grim determination to fight on, to keep pushing that bloody, blood-drenched boulder up that accursed hill. 

Certainly, on the surface of events since 25 January 2011, it looks like it: Egyptians overthrow Mubarak, to get the SCAF, with the Muslim Brotherhood as junior partner doing their damndest to reconstruct the Mubarak state; they rise up against SCAF, and get the Muslim Brotherhood doing the same; they rise up against the Brotherhood, and get the military again, with hordes of Mubarak “remnants” cheerfully, and with brazen aplomb, jumping on the bandwagon – their hopes of restoration seemingly at an all time high. 

Zeus punished Sisyphus for deceit. History was punishing the Egyptian revolution for naivety – for being insufficiently prepared to carry its vision of a free and just society through to fruition. 

Yet real human history is always much more complex and nuanced than its mythical representations – or, for that matter, than whatever literary metaphor we choose to enfold it in. Real revolutions never actually fall back upon themselves, even when they most seem to have done so. The path of such revolutions is never linear, moving from one triumph to the next. Rather, they realise themselves in convoluted ways, their legacy, values, and the new political will these embody, making their imprint on history even as they appear at their darkest moments, at their most defeated. 

We don’t need to search far for historical precedent. The French revolution would lead to Bonaparte then to Bourbon Restoration, yet Old Bumblehead (Louis) the 18th, famed for having “learned nothing, forgotten nothing”, was no more than a glitch on French and human history’s panoramic screen.

Each of the three waves of the Egyptian revolution would carry with it its own distinct baggage of illusions, weaknesses, distortions and unique challenges, yet each would find the revolution had inched closer to its objectives, more able to impose its will, leaving its antagonists weaker, their ranks considerably more fractured and disorganised. And, no less significantly, at each phase, the revolution finds it has “re-educated” sections of its traditional opponents, rendered them more willing to concede at least some aspects of the people’s revolutionary will, even as many among them act to undermine and hijack it. 

Two points need to be underlined here. The first is that the Egyptian revolution has always had “strange bed-fellows”, which it has tended to shuffle and exchange – not for the most part consciously or willingly, but effectively – as it strove to fulfil its destiny.

The second point -- by no means unique to the Egyptian revolution -- is that not only do popular revolutions exploit fractures in the prevailing power structure; they tend to count on them. Indeed, such fractures seem to be a precondition for a popular uprising’s ability to overturn a particular regime, even if it falls short of replacing it with a truly new and genuinely popular power of its own. The examples are manifold: from the Russian revolution, which seemed to have required a world war to overthrow Tsarist autocracy, up to the much more recent overthrow of Apartheid in South Africa and the military dictatorships in much of Latin America. 

Mind you, it goes both ways. Insofar as you use (consciously or not) the divisions within the extant power structure, you open yourself up to being used by them (there’s no “free lunch”, at least not in this dynamic). Invariably, the very forces within the power structure you neutralise or win over, however transiently, will want their “pound of flesh” in return.

For “it must follow, as the night the day”: counting on fractures in the power structure and using them – consciously, half-consciously, or not at all – renders the revolutionary upsurge of the people vulnerable to that power structure’s attempts to manipulate and even hijack it. 

Whether you default on your debt, give over half a pound or ten or have your kneecaps shot out depends on a great many factors, all of which boil down to a basic balance of forces between the revolution and its strange bedfellows. 

One crucial feature of this always-highly-complex dynamic is awareness. Revolutionary risings invariably “re-educate” sections of the ruling class – sentimentally or otherwise – but yet again, in doing so, they also render the revolutionary ranks vulnerable to a host of illusions about those they’ve “re-educated”. Teachers take pride in their brighter, more responsive students – though it might transpire that they’ve only taught them to become better cheaters. 

It’s a fact of life that while you can re-educate the ruling classes in becoming cleverer or even into conceding different rules of the game, ameliorating their dominance, you can’t educate them out of their fundamental nature; individual members certainly, but not whole institutions, interest- and privilege-based sections of it. 

Love fests of the sort we saw repeatedly from the 18 days of 2011 onwards reveal an intermixture of two contradictory impulses in people’s awareness: their will to win, on the one hand, and their illusions on the other. Thus, the “people and the army are one hand” and the photo ops on the top of tanks; the Tahrir inauguration of prime minister Essam Sharaf; the Tahrir inauguration of president Mohamed Morsi; and, most recently, “the people, the army and [even] the police are one hand”, with portraits of El-Sisi held high in Tahrir next to portraits of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Illusions, after all, are never merely products of the moment, but no less of memory.

None of it was lasting. The morning after would invariably bring with it break-up and acrimony. 

The basic argument I have tried to elaborate throughout this “short history” goes farther, however. The Egyptian revolution did not merely make use of the rifts within the various power structures it came up against from 25 January onwards, and was in turn used by them, but was – in fact – the formative element in creating them. 

By their very nature, power structures sit on fault-lines made up of the diverse interests and orientations of the groups and institutions amalgamated within them. Authoritarian power structures tend to be more internally disciplined, fixed and less adaptive, but as such are considerably more brittle than the more “hegemonic” variety, wherein changes in the power structure’s external environment (made up first and foremost by the “hegemonised”) is much more readily reflected in renegotiating the power relations within it. (An African-American Democrat, of Muslim descent, coming to the White House on the heels of a right-wing Republican in daily conversation with a jealously Christian God being a notable case in point). 

For fault-lines to become deep schisms, in power structures as in the Earth’s crust, you need pressure from below, in the shape of volcanic activity or indeed, popular uprisings. My basic thesis here is that it was the ongoing revolutionary upsurge of the Egyptian people that would repeatedly disrupt attempts at rebuilding the power structure, transform fault-lines into fissures. 

I have – rather presumptuously, I admit – borrowed the title of this essay from Howard Zinn’s remarkable A People’s History of the United States, which in turn inspired another remarkable, if less universally-known work by Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World, for this reason: Where many have seen the turbulence of the past 30 months of Egyptian political history in terms of “elite” conflicts (civil and military, civil forces and “deep state”, secularists and Islamists, liberals, Muslim Brothers, leftists and feloul), I see first and foremost the hand print of the revolutionary upsurge of an Egyptian people unchained, battling on for emancipation.

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