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Revolutionary realists

The histories of revolutions are full of examples of sudden shifts of the masses when they find out that those they relied upon disappointed them

Wael Gamal , Wednesday 29 Jan 2014
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Three years ago, the idea of revolution was under harsh attack in Egypt under the motto, "Egypt isn't Tunisia." The "Jasmine uprising," as it was called at the time, forced Tunisia's dictator to escape to Saudi Arabia. The idea of revolution wasn't an alternative that represented itself except among very few people before Tunisia, even after the rigging of elections in an unprecedented way, even in the light of bequeathing rule of the Egyptian Republic under the umbrella of Al-Adly's (former interior minister) security state. I remember a female colleague, who was covering the goings-on in the ruling party, bursting into tears asserting that the president's son was about to take the presidency by any means, and all arrangements were made with the opposition, foreign countries, business circles and the state apparatus. If any resistance arose, it would be too weak. This meant that blood would be futilely spilt.

Within all this gloom and doom, came Tunisia. An arsenal of sceptical voices blasted a thick curtain of doubt on the idea of revolution and the possibility of it occurring in Egypt. We saw opponents — who spread doubt from seats of opposition — using all the wrong historical examples, denoting the demise of the idea of revolution in leading political change. They expounded their argument as follows: Egypt isn't Tunisia, because Tunisians are better educated or they are better organised; because their trade unions are stronger; because the Tunisian people, due to their proximity to Europe, are more developed than us in their belief in and awareness of freedom, and other human values that Egyptians lack. Conservatives, who often call themselves realists, told us there is no organised force that will plot and execute a revolution against this all-powerful repressive regime, and that people are drawn away from politics, not to mention revolution.

The complete opposite was told to us by the ruling class: what happened in Tunisia was due to Ben Ali's rule, which was repressive in an incomparable way to that of Egypt. Moreover, they elaborated, the Egyptian regime permitted a certain degree of venting of accumulated anger through the media. One of the regime's ministers (who was convicted after January 2011 on charges of profiteering and illegal use of public funds) even came out to say that there would not be a revolution in Egypt because of subsidies, which ensured a degree of allegiance, stabilising the status of the poor.

After a few days, the revolution broke out, forcing the regime to make Mubarak step down in just 18 days, thus breaking the Tunisian record.

The return of realism and realists

As the Egyptian revolution passes its third anniversary, it isn't looking good. Efforts to restore the Mubarak regime are proceeding around the clock, not only by applying its policies but even bringing back its old faces. The interim government's spokesman appeared on television speaking to Mubarak's protégé, who is a fugitive abroad, praising him and welcoming his return. He stated that Egypt since 30 June 2013 is open to initiatives to get things back to normal, in a hint to a deal of clemency in return of reimbursement of half his wealth looted from us — the same deal the Muslim Brotherhood shrouded in secrecy during its rule.

The realists, in all strains and forms, returned to assert once again that our options are restricted in this balance, which is dominated by Mubarak's regime in its new look. According to their viewpoint, we have to accept all its manifestations as the optimum that can be done, especially that this old new regime enjoys a degree of support in the street that it lacked in the past. At the same time, the arrests and harassment returned, as if they are standard universal certainties in this part of the world.

Those and others who call themselves "realists" don't feel ashamed of repeating the same speech whose outer shell seems realistic while its content denotes submission. They are trying to cover their miserable failure in recognising the realism of the revolution and its status in January. But can anyone really predict the occurrence of a revolution?

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were complete surprises for all the realists, who are satisfied with what they see on the surface, whether they are politicians or in opposition, analysts or academics. The Atlantic Monthly published a report titled "Can Data Predict Political Revolutions?" mentioning an index put together by The Economist under the title the "Shoe-Throwers' Index," which attempts to predict revolution through a number of factors. Among those factors, there is: the age structure of the population (specifically, the percentage of under 25's); the number of years a government has been in power; its lack of democracy and excess of corruption; the prevalence of censorship; and the level of economic development. Although this index has some shortcomings that must be complemented with other elements, it has touched on something sound (an actual realism) regarding revolutions, which are the structural reasons lying behind them.

Governing crisis

It wasn't possible before Tunisia or even before 25 January 2011 to determine the moment of revolution or the course it would take place. But it was possible for one who contemplates the elements of the structural crisis to expect that it was the only real alternative to overcome it. I wrote on 18 January 2011: "I can't, or anyone else, say in certainty that the Tunisian scenario will happen in Egypt today or tomorrow or after a year. But the basic elements of the structural crisis existing there exist here in Egypt; economic development for the few, absence of development in Upper Egypt, escalating complaints among the middle class members, even between those in the ruling class, which it seems in disagreement on the next step, alongside the world economic crisis and our vulnerability to be influenced by it. What goes for Tunisia is the same that goes for Egypt."

I can claim that the structural crisis — despite what is appearing on the surface, that the regime's grip on all political threads is tight — is still the same. There is no one vision agreed upon among the different ruling factions. For example, inside the big capitalist approach, there are those who push vehemently to restore the old ways up to the letter. Consider the case of protégé Hussein Salem or the minister of investment welcoming a runaway businessman in his office and issuing a statement saying that he reassured him about the conditions of investment in Egypt.

Inside the same big capitalist approach, there is also another faction that sees that the old ways won't succeed in stabilising the government and it is necessary to offer some concessions to absorb the economic, social and political crisis. The voice of this faction is low, but it exists. Look at the names of candidates for the presidency. Even the Gulf standpoint, which was obvious and direct, became a reason for fogginess in the picture. The most important question remains: Do they have what can be a solution to the crisis? Can they preserve their strategic interests and at the same time present concrete benefits to those they rely on for backing in the street (because that is the measure of things getting better)? Can these people, who are what they are, achieve the minimum level of development that ensures stabilisation? Can they deal with problem of the unemployed?

In the case of the defeated German revolution (1918 -1923), American direct support was a factor in the stabilisation of the new regime for a little while until 1928; to the extent that the rulers began to speak about the end of communism and fascism forever. However, the elements of the crisis stayed latent, and when the confrontation occurred, Nazism began to present its credentials, which seemed, at the time, a viable way of saving the economy.

Moreover, the very elements of the structural crisis are putting restrictions on the Egyptian capacity for reform in front of supporters of gradual solutions and adjustments (from realists and others), thus hindering them from presenting an alternative. The reformists present themselves as an alternative to the "unrealistic" revolution on the basis that while what they display isn't everything, it is achievable. However, the reformists collided, within the Beblawi government and before it, with the fact that the structural crisis and the governing and intransigent interests don't permit such flexibility that reform requires — especially when reformists lack a social backing that provides them with negotiating leverage at the ruling table.

The structural crisis still entails the occurrence of a revolution that will overthrow all the balances of governance for the sake of any reform, no matter how tiny, even if it were paving the 6 October Bridge once again but in the right way.

We mustn't forget that there is a big contradiction between the way the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown (widespread popular crowds in the streets), which is the basis of the legitimacy of post-3 July rule, and the entire realistic discourse that incriminates direct action in the streets now.

We also mustn't forget everybody's lack of sight on what is really going on the streets. Generalising the emotions, fears and interests of the hesitant middle class with its conservative behaviour, which didn't obstruct some of its female members from dancing in front of the cameras in celebration of the referendum during the last two days, is a grievous mistake. Being the first consumer in general and the first consumer of the media and press doesn't sum up all Egyptians at large. We shouldn't forget for the third time that Egyptians, with their disparate interests, aren't immutable deaf blocks in their view of the world, and the histories of revolutions are packed with examples of the sudden shift of the masses from one alternative to the other, when they discover that those they relied upon disappointed them in a glimpse (as happened with the Muslim Brotherhood for example). Let alone what happened to Egyptians after they experienced, during the last three years, their power and the weakness of their opponents, whose interests are in conflict with their own, a number of times.

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