The revolutionaries in Egypt may be a
tiny proportion of the population, but they are minority that has worked
miracles. A few thousand dedicated
street fighters drove the police off the streets in January of last year, and through their faith and pain in November, on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, forced General
Hussein Tantawi to set a date for the Presidential election which will be held
in three weeks time. There is no
doubting their bravery, nor the justice of their cause: a true people powered democracy,
not a liberal puppet show where the military sets the tune.
However, this minority has a problem: if anecdotes and impressions from the street are to be believed, they find themselves increasingly alienated from popular opinion. This was reflected in the very real possibility that Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's former mukhabarat chief, was a serious contender for the presidency, until he was disqualified. (Poor planning by his supporters led to an attempt to collect 30,000 endorsements from 15 governorates in less than two days. They missed a few dozen from one governorate.) It is also reflected in the fact that, as Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr reported, when the curfew following yesterday's street clashes was announced, Egyptians in one cafe erupted in spontaneous applause.
Protestors clash with soldiers outside the Ministry of Defence in Cairo (Copyright Tom Dale)
revolutionaries are not solely a middle class force, nor are they divorced from from the broader Egyptian public. But they are a
minority, and one which is increasingly resented by Hezb al Kanaba, the
'Party of the Couch'. Hezb al Kanaba is seeking stability, in order to rejuvenate the tourism industry and to allow for economic normality.
There is a limit to how long the revolutionary minority can survive without popular support. The state always has the physical capacity to crush such minorities, but they have not donse so yet because of the broad sympathy which the revolutionary minority enjoys. When the military state has over-reached in the past – on Mohammed Mahmoud street in November, and in their attempts to clear Tahrir Square during the Cabinet sit-in clashes in November – they have inflamed popular opinion. Most famously, in December, soldiers were filmed half-stripping and beating a young woman in Tahrir Square, and dumping a dead body in the trash.
But the outrage that followed the 44 deaths of Mohammed Mahmoud, and the thousands who flooded Tahrir, has not been repeated in response to the 21 deaths of the past three days outside the Ministry of Defence. In part, this is due to the lack of the type of powerful and persuasive images which captivated the public in November. But it also reflects a certain public weariness with the violence. And this is dangerous for the revolutionaries. They still have many battles ahead, for the political and socio-economic ideals of the revolution. The revolutionary slogan was aysh, horreya, adelah igtama3ya. Bread, freedom, and social justice. Even if civilian governments grants the first demand, in a sense, it may not necessarily bring the rest.
So, what can the revolutionaries do? It would be trite and useless to simply say,
“be peaceful, be non-violent”. There are
several reasons for this. For one thing,
it ignores how such clashes actually develop.
As I reported
for Egypt Independent, witnesses claim that yesterday's clashes began after
soldiers arrested peaceful demonstrators.
Another man told me that the crowds watched soldiers viciously beat the men
they had arrested. February's violence
followed 74 deaths in the Port Said stadium tragedy – protestors blamed the
security establishment for complicity, and initial reports from the official
investigation into the events appear to bare this out. December's clashes started after police beat
a young man so badly he couldn't open his eyes.
In November, violence began after a peaceful sit-in by relatives of
those wounded in the eighteen days was viciously attacked.
The revolutionaries believe that to walk away in the face of such attacks is to renounce the spirit of their revolution. They are not pacifists, and if they were, there would have been no revolution in the first place. If they had been pacifists in November, they would never have forced the state to concede to holding the Presidential elections.
That does not mean that their violent retaliation is without fault. Many revolutionaries
agree that there is a time to reflect.
For example, the violence at the beginning of this week, and on Wednesday,
has been criticised by many revolutionaries on the basis that what started as a demonstration
against the generals ended with violence between civilians. (It is quite possible that some plain clothes
soldiers, police, or intelligence officers were involved: but that does not
meant that they predominated – my impression is that those present were largely
a combination of ideologically motivated baltageya, and angry local
But still, the revolutionary street-fighting minority has a real problem. It isn't my place to offer advice or solutions; to advocate violence, or to condemn it. I do neither. But if the question is, “how can the minority reconnect with a sufficient weight of public opinion to press their demands?”, perhaps the answer lies not primarily in street-fighting now, or the lack of it, but overarching trends in the Egyptian economy.
The economy has limped along for the past
year or so, but growth remains lacklustre.
One particular problem is the risk of an impending foreign
exchange crisis – Egypt has been spending its foreign currency reserves in
order to prop up the price of the Egyptian pound. But those reserves are dwindling, giving rise
to the risk that the pound will lose a substantial proportion of its
value. Because Egypt imports
40 percent of its food, and spends too much on subsidies already, this
could be catastrophic:
food prices could rise, and popular anger increase.
None of this is inevitable. There are various moves that Egypt, International Financial Institutions, and sovereign lenders such as Saudi Arabia can make to cushion the blow. But as Chatham House analyst Jane Kinninmont suggests in her recent briefing paper on the political economy of Egypt's transition:
“There remains a concern among many
observers that a persistent failure to address the economic aspects of popular
demands could ultimately lead to a second, angrier and hungrier revolution yet
In other words, if Egypt doesn't get its economic house in order, it may be that the revolutionaries will find themselves, once again, at the centre of the popular mood.
We should avoid millenarian accounts of the likelihood of serious economic decline in Egypt, and mechanistic assumptions about the relationship between economic crisis and revolutionary activity. (Often economic crises are very bad for successful social movement activity.) But nonetheless, if Kinninmont is right, it may soon be the time of the revolutionaries again.