The Egyptian revolution: beyond false choices

Egyptians are looking to their own political participation and to further their interests as free individuals. In turn, this means they must build institutions, namely political parties and unions. The legitimacy of army rule is contingent on how smoothly this is accomplished. 

Sherif Joseph Rizk
25 September 2013

Tahrir Square, June 30, 2013. Demotix/Nameer Galal. All rights reserved.

“Egyptians have mastered the art of not being governable.”  - Asef Bayat

A pundit or casual observer might have watched the initial mesmerizing images of Tahrir Square in 2011 and might look at subsequent events in Egypt as a sad quixotic story. Is that really the case? Is the trajectory of the Egyptian revolution one of peak to trough? Does the revolution still have prospects for success? To begin to look at these questions we must go back and look at the initial forces which led to the revolution and take stock of what has been accomplished and what remains to be accomplished.

Revisiting Samuel Huntington’s The Political Order of Changing Societies, Francis Fukuyama believes that like other changing societies, economic growth and social development in the Arab world gave rise to a middle class that was deprived of institutions of political participation. The revolts across the region demanding freedom as well as jobs reflected increased levels of education. In this sense, the Arab Spring is seen in light of Alexis de Tocqueville’s appraisal of the French Revolution.

In his remarkable book A Convergence of Civilizations: The Transformation of Muslim Societies Around the World, eminent French sociologist Emmanuel Todd was not only prescient about great changes that have swept  the Arab world but also provided rigorous quantitative analysis to back up his thoughts. While globalizing many of his modernity indicators, Todd identifies three core changes in the Arab world that completely destabilize patriarchal societies: first, a decline in female illiteracy; second, a decline in fertility; and third, a decline in endogamy. These changes reinforce the notion that the individual and not the patriarchal family are the basis of society.

While these causes were not the immediate instigator of recent events in Egypt, I argue that they will remain the leading forces in the years ahead. However, another almost contradictory picture arises when one studies social dynamics on the ground. To reconcile the two, we should look more closely at a true, people’s history of the revolution which I have divided into three phases: first, bringing down the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF); second, bringing down the Muslim Brotherhood; and third, escaping binary choices.  

The people and the army

The eighteen days in Tahrir have become for Egyptians a collective experience in shattered urban utopia. Perhaps most revolutions are that. Nevertheless, time has answered certain basic questions: Who was there? What were they thinking? The simple answer is they were all there for Mubarak to fall – “they” of course being the urban middle class youth. Adding to the utopian spirit of the eighteen days, there were liberals, leftists, Islamists, and nationalists, all united by one goal: Leave!

The extent to which the Islamist youth rebelled against their internal hierarchies is a matter of contention.  The people in the square had no unified leadership representing them and had no clear vision of the future. The alliance with the army was one of the first and probably smartest spontaneous moves collectively taken. It was popularly known that the police had allied themselves with Gamal Mubarak, and there was a rift between the army and the police in part because of Gamal Mubarak’s designated succession to power.

In allying themselves with the army, the people were essentially isolating the regime and preventing defections from the army. I also believe that the people were keenly aware that, as Huntington points out, in Third World countries the army is often the only institution capable of actually ruling. The army sacrificed Mubarak - one of their own, for their own - for the survival of their institution's position as ruling but not governing, a status they have enjoyed since Nasser's coup in 1952.

Next a fascinating series of developments unfolded. First, it must be noted that some activists had stayed in the square demanding a civilian presidential council and justice for all those killed, along with other revolutionary demands. While certainly short of a vision and certainly lacking in leadership and organization, this was the seed for a revolutionary movement that only grew. The army almost immediately announced amending the 1971 constitution to pave the way for parliamentary and then presidential elections and finally a permanent constitution.

This began the first split as the Muslim Brotherhood and their activists in Tahrir gave full support to the SCAF plan. Activists were split between boycotting a plan they never endorsed or voting no. Activists were also split when the so-called coalition of the youth of the revolution began to sit down with SCAF and to distance themselves from activists in Tahrir and sometimes oppose them. This is also when the first cases emerged of the army’s torture of Tahrir activists and of its use of  military courts to try civilians.

Besides splits among activists, general lines were clearly drawn: the Islamists and the army seemed to share a post-Mubarak plan and together they saw continued protests as a threat. To that end, a counterrevolution was necessary - a plan that had three main pillars: (1) Engineering violence and manufacturing security, (2) Fomenting sectarian strife, (3) Creating economic panic, and (4) Using the extreme Islamists as a scarecrow.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this strategy was that it soon backfired. The standard scene of paid provocateurs and burning churches with no security presence became all too familiar. In response, activists developed a campaign called 'military liars' which was shown on huge TV screens in impoverished areas. The events later known as the Maspero massacre and the battles of Mohammed Mahmoud crystallized a pattern:  the army or police would commit or organize a massacre and then lie about it in a press conference.

During these and other events, the Islamists used a media strategy to distance themselves from the army and from the protesters. Bewilderingly, many activists still believed that Islamists were part and parcel of the Egyptian polity and that they should work with them. Adding to the confusion were statements such as 'Islamists are not all one color' and the fact that the so-called Brotherhood youth had broken off with their elders as well as groups such as Costa Coffee Salafis that seemed totally inclusive.

Sensing an acute lack of a transition roadmap, I had begun work with other colleagues on a complete transition program including security sector reform, independence of the judiciary, independence of the state media, the constitution and essential principles it must enshrine, among other axes. Upon asking various Brotherhood leaders (most of whom are in jail now) to join our efforts, we were met with arrogant snubs. The split culminated during the battle of Mohammed Mahmoud which began when police forces attacked families of those who were killed during the initial days of the revolution. Activists were shot, and up to five thousand people lost their eyes while the Brotherhood were preparing for parliamentary elections. One activist tweeted, “Some people go to Zeinhom [the official state morgue] so others go to parliament”. No less important, the battle of Mohammed Mahmoud was also the culmination of a gap that would grow between elite leaders and street protesters. El Baradei and Aboul Fottouh were on TV using half hearted diplomatic condemnations just at the moment the police were using toxic gas and firing at protesters.

The overall characterization of this period was that activists were nearly always reactive and rarely initiators, while the SCAF and the Brotherhood were busy planning. In part, the activists' reluctance to completely split with the Brotherhood was a belief that “we are civilians fighting the military and once we bring down the military we can resolve any differences between ourselves”. This was exactly the rhetoric used when presidential elections were between Shafik - representing the military and the former regime - and Morsi, a leader within the Brotherhood but nevertheless a civilian.

Bringing down the Muslim Brotherhood

Before parliamentary elections the Islamists had insisted on only running for one-third of the seats, and they had vowed not to run for the presidency. All that changed, however, as the SCAF and the former regime were weakened and discredited (hence the activist tweeting about the morgue). While the liberals and leftists had assumed they were part of a triangular equation with the Islamists and the SCAF representing the other angles, the binary equation of SCAF versus Islamists in a zero sum game became much more evident. The Islamists would claim more than 75% of parliamentary seats and then aim for the presidency. With regard to the question of activists running for office, most of them snubbed political parties and elections, and the few that ran for office were looked on with suspicion. In any event, political parties were highly underdeveloped if not absent. The Islamists were a different animal altogether, because they had the benefit of being a social movement that had been expanding organically since the ‘70s.

There is a saying “overcoming is conditioned on realization,” and in effect overcoming Islamism had begun with the reaction to the Islamist parliament. People were shocked at its authoritarian tactics and hard-line stances in addition to not seeing any legislation or reforms to improve people's lives. When Morsi ran against the dreaded Ahmed Shafiq, there was a general consensus among most activists to vote for Morsi, believed to be the lesser evil who could be forced to bend to the will of the people through protests and traditional politics. Having the support of his traditional constituency and activists (and bullying tactics at polling stations), Morsi won by a razor thin margin.


Anti-Morsi crowd gathers outside Presidential Palace, June 30, 2013. Demotix/Sophie Anmuth. All rights reserved.

The second transition period began with the mysterious dismissal of Generals Tantawy and Anan, the two top SCAF leaders, replacing them with General Sisi, then an unknown figure. Activists were initially delighted and felt they had brought down SCAF. However, state institutions felt threatened the day Morsi had won, a development that turned out to be one of Morsi's biggest miscalculations. Rather than placating and possibly gaining the state bureaucracy - a labyrinthine complex with over six million employees, crucial to administering the country and no less essential for maintaining authoritarian rule - Morsi began scheming to fill it with loyalists. What followed was a battle by the judiciary and the media, later to extend into other state sectors. The Supreme Court began by annulling parliamentary elections, and Morsi replied by an executive order reversing the decision which was followed by a court order annulling the executive order. Meanwhile, Morsi had been trying to convince Egyptians to go to sleep early and wake up early (from the playbook of Hassan Albanna, the group's founder), and activists and ordinary people were both laughing and suspicious. The suspicion became all too real when Morsi gave himself super-constitutional powers greater than any held by Mubarak.

During the previous two years, only a paucity of activists went to Itihadia, the presidential palace. Now activists and, crucially, ordinary people - non-activists were always either neutral or outright anti-revolutionary - were lined up at Itihadia as well as in Tahrir. The Islamists bussed their supporters in from other governorates and the street battles began. How the battles started is beside the point. The battles crystallized what some activists as well as many non-activists had been thinking all along: (1) The Brotherhood is willing to defend an authoritarian agenda and to use violence in doing so, and (2) the Brotherhood simply follows orders and members do not act independently. Brotherhood torture chambers were found, and activists were slain and the media exposed much of it.

After enough pressure Morsi rescinded the worst parts of his executive order and the police turned the buses back.  The economy began to contract after initial exuberance from the assumed stability that SCAF's downfall might bring. In effect, Itihadia was the beginning of the Brotherhood's downfall. In response, a considerable number of women removed their veils in an atmosphere that was in some respects anti-religious as well as defensive of religion. In the typical pattern seen throughout the revolution, what began as a significant but insufficient movement nevertheless grew much bigger than expected by skeptics and pundits.

Reinforcing their agenda to pave the way for a sharia society and for the caliphate, the Brotherhood began work on “their constitution” and ignored the fact that liberals, leftists, and the Coptic church had walked out. Having been chosen by the dismissed parliament, a committee drew up a constitution that paved the way for sharia and discriminated against women and minorities. The media was rampant with Islamists inciting hate and issuing extraordinary fatwas. Meanwhile, routine demonstrations against the Brotherhood were a daily occurrence and almost lost their effectiveness.

This was when the US began a monotonous request for dialogue. Dialogue was always a cosmetic choice for both the Brotherhood and for politicians keen on being seen as working towards a break-through. Christian pogroms and emigration were both increasing as Brotherhoodization dominated the agenda. There was an overarching sense of deadlock as the economy continued to deteriorate along with human security.

Whether or not the Tamarod campaign was an invention of the army and the former regime, only history will tell. What is clear is that it was massively endorsed. In fact people rarely knew who its promoters were or what they looked like. Nevertheless, the signatures demanding early presidential elections were an avalanche, and they generated some excitement. The previous several months had seen protests which could not rein in the Brotherhood's drive for power. Amidst an already crumbling country, sudden fuel and electrical shortages became a daily occurrence, and Morsi's response was banal. The call by Tamarod for mass protests on June 30 was seen as a positive move, although most agreed that it would be another blow to the Brotherhood but would never break their hold on power.

Perhaps because they encompassed both activists and those who were always against the revolution, the protests may have brought anywhere from 14 to 17 million people into the streets at various times on a nationwide basis according to some public reports, thus being labeled as the largest “revolutionary outpouring” in world history by one Egyptian historian interviewed by the BBC. Many commentators and governments directly or indirectly called it a coup. For some, the mere presence of tanks made it just that. In any event, the binary zero sum game with the Brotherhood had shifted, nearly eliminating the Brotherhood and Islamism as a popular ideology - a development that could never have happened had they not ascended to power.

Escaping binary choices

In another shift, the popular sentiment toward nationalism elevated General Sisi to cult status just as the Islamists turned to terror tactics in an attempt to renegotiate their position. While many activists have criticized the 'war on terror' of the army, the overwhelming number of Egyptians continue to support the army and its hard line tactics toward the Islamists. However as the remark by Asef Bayat, an expert on Islamist movements, illustrates, this is unsustainable in the medium and long term. At this point, most people understand that the army is currently the only institution that can prevent a total collapse of the state or a descent into what some have warned could be a civil war.

If this is a war by another name, it is a war for modernity. The detour to Islamism only confirms this. In many respects, the religious resurgence has been a reaction to modernity since the nineteenth century. While the reaction will continue socially and politically, it culminated with a year under Morsi. In parallel, this also has significant implications for any type of army rule. For the moment, the army is mandated to rid the county of the Islamist threat. Even if the cult of Sisi takes on a Napoleonic turn, it will be more than what was bargained for.

The youth which make up the overwhelming percentage of Egyptian society have broken off with the patriarchal Mubarak, to which loyalty and family linkages were key to social mobility (exactly like the rest of the Arab world with its ruling families). Instead, Egyptians are looking to their own political participation and to further their interests as free individuals. In turn, this means they must build institutions, namely political parties and unions. The legitimacy of army rule is contingent on how smoothly this is accomplished.

A detour to fight terrorism can be accepted for now, but soon there will be pressure for mediation between various segments from the masses and those in power. Nasser failed at doing just that and those in power are aware of that. Common interests would point to an authoritarian transition as described by Huntington. However, this is a two-way process, and the activists who were busy bringing down those in power must get on with the task of bringing themselves into a negotiated and legitimate position of power.

The civil resistance of Tahrir, the manipulations of the army, the self-discrediting of the Brotherhood, and the societal outpouring of June 30 demanding further change, were not fully anticipated, inside or outside Egypt. If they mean anything, they mean that this is a country still intensely engaged in reconstructing its system of authenticating and wielding political power and finding its way beyond false binary choices between would-be power-holders. The name for that is revolution. It is not over.


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