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Revolutionaries and reformers in Egypt's January 25 Revolution

For real, lasting change to come about in Egypt, the plans of reformers and energy of revolutionaries need to come together

Waheed Abdel-Meguid , Wednesday 30 Mar 2011
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The correlation between shuttering the doors of reform and opening the road to revolution is a logical, rather than perfunctory, one because when reform is impossible within a corrupt political and social system, revolution is the solution. But this solution remains an ambition.

No one on 24 January, 2011 expected what happened the next day when many youth groups called for demonstrations and launched a people’s revolution, which in 18 days achieved what reformers were unable to do for many long years. Revolution was not expected despite the failure of efforts at reform, which had become impossible in the past three years. The constitutional amendments approved in 2007 confirmed that the door to reform was firmly shut, and the very small hope that glimmered in the distance in 2005 was only a mirage.

Even the hardcore supporters of the 25 January demonstrations, both reformers and revolutionaries, could not have anticipated that it would be the beginning of a sweeping revolution. The accumulated dejection which vanquished at least three generations, beginning with the generation who were students in the late 1960s and organised the first popular uprising in 1968.

When the youth of 25 January started the revolution, the revolutionaries were farsighted when they decided that revolution would not succeed unless it removed Mubarak from power. The former president who repeatedly refused minor reforms could agree to major reforms under pressure from a popular revolution, but could change his mind when the revolution subsides.

The reformers who supported the revolution misread the situation when they believed that a step such as transferring the powers of the president to the vice president could the beginning of the end of the regime, although it was suggested relatively early in the second week of revolution. They felt that this formula was a reasonable solution at the time while the revolution gained more momentum and strength to achieve its ultimate goal, namely to establish a democratic, free, just regime. In this way, those who linked the delegation of powers with evacuating Tahrir Square were mistaken.

The momentum of 25 January was more than any reformers anticipated because they were unsure about its ability to see through the ouster of Mubarak’s regime. They knew that the conduct of this regime over many years left no room for confidence in any type of commitment to change. Nonetheless, the fear of the revolution running out of steam before the Mubarak regime was removed was incentive enough to make some consider achieving the goals gradually, while maintaining the revolution and its epicentre at Tahrir Square.

This would begin with the transfer or delegation of the power of the president to his deputy, as part of extensive changes which this writer suggested in early February. Others who agreed with me included Kamal Abul Magd, Naguib Sawiris, Nabil El-Arabi, Salama Ahmed Salama, Ibrahim El-Muallem, Abdel-Aziz Al-Shaf’ie, Amr Hamzawi, Gamil Matar, Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, Mervat El-Tellawi, Amr El-Shobki and Ali Mesharafa (as stated in the declaration by the group known in the media as the Committee of the Wise Men, published on Thursday 3 February).

These figures met quickly at a very difficult moment based on an initiative by Abul Magd and myself which grew out of a telephone conversation on 1 February. We agreed that we must move quickly to grasp a political gain, namely removing Mubarak from the scene by transferring his powers to the vice president. We also agreed that on the ground demonstrators and protesters must be guaranteed absolute safety in order for the revolution to continue until it achieves all its goals. Accordingly, this committee never suggested that Tahrir Square should be evacuated, although some members believed it should.

The immense gap between the dynamic and spirited “revolution clock” and the years-long stagnant “regime clock”, made the announcement that the president’s powers were to be delegated too late and redundant. This fuelled the revolution further and brought about the removal of Mubarak within hours.

The revolutionary posture was more farsighted than the reformers in gambling that Mubarak will fall with one blow. But the reformers were correct when they warned that Mubarak’s abdication, resignation or departure is not enough to build a free and just Egypt, and that the revolution will not have achieved its goals just by his exit from the scene. Evacuating Mubarak, they insisted, from the presidential palace does not automatically mean that the Egyptians will be liberated from the reign of injustice, corruption and oppression. For that to have the greatest chance, they reasoned, a specific road map for the interim period and beyond is just as important.

Just as the revolutionaries were justified in insisting on what they believed to be the paramount demand – Mubarak’s departure –, the reformers were accurate in underscoring the importance of the roadmap towards freedom and justice, in the belief that removing the former regime and building a democratic regime is the true supreme goal. In such a case, Mubarak stepping down is only symbolic.

It is no secret that, on principle, reformers do not trust that revolution achieves what the people want every time. Many revolutions have stumbled or were “hijacked” by opportunists who overthrew the revolutionaries or marginalised them. Many historical figures have disparaged revolutions as the work of adventurers and benefitting opportunists. The ability of opportunists to reap the rewards of some revolutionaries is only one point of the historical dispute between reformers, who seek to bring change through gradual reform as long as it is genuine, and the revolutionaries who believe theirs is the road to true transformation. In reality, when the doors of reform are shut there is no other option but revolution.

The writer’s latest book The 25 January Revolution, a preliminary reading, published by Al-Ahram Centre for Publishing, Translation and Distribution, is out soon.

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