Egypt: scattered thoughts on a counter-revolutionary moment

The euphoric, Bakhtinian, carnivalesque and dramaturgical moment of January 2011, which caught the attention of numerous observers and which lasted for almost four years, seems to have withered away. 

Mona Abaza
19 March 2015
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.


There is hardly any revolution in history which has not elicited a fierce counter-revolutionary retort: “We are punished for having made the revolution”. This is a sentence repeatedly heard in Cairo since the military take-over of 2013. The resigned collective response that has come to dominate Egyptian political life is highly revealing of the paradox of the “incomplete revolution”. Particularly concerning has been the recent issuing of two draconian laws. One law is related to protests in the form of a retaliation to the violent demonstrations of the Muslim Brotherhood after the ousting of former president Morsi. And a second law curtails the activities of NGOs and human rights organizations. These two laws together have had an assuredly negative impact on the political and cultural spheres. A large number of young activists, who protested against the anti-protest law, have been arrested.

It looks like Egypt is confronting an insurmountable malaise in which witch-hunting the unfamiliar is becoming quite familiar.

There is a growing collective feeling of being personally targeted, while the circle of one´s acquaintance is relentlessly constrained. This is what gives rise to Basma Abdel Aziz´s warning in al-Shourouk newspaper. (Basma Abdel Aziz “taht al tahdid” (translation from Arabic: ‘Blackmail’). Can one then speak of a collective depression, after almost four years of euphoric moments fostering hope, collective dreams and desires for a better life?

In various circles today, one is witness to a massive exodus of intellectuals, artists, and human rights activists, not to speak about those among the younger generation who experienced the revolution. In the process, this evokes many scenes of déjà vu, reminding one perhaps of Milan Kundera´s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and inviting striking analogies with the aftermath of the Prague Spring.

The authorities’ decision to conduct a relentless “war on terror” in retaliation to escalating terrorist attacks against the army, has certainly contributed to a collective feeling of angst. So too have the ongoing terrorist attacks, whereby numerous Egyptian soldiers on both the eastern and western borders have not merely been killed but many beheaded, indicating that the so-called Islamic State organization, and/or its ostensible supporters, have reached Egyptian territory.

Dare one say that with the all-pervasive media propaganda, alongside the multiplying concrete terrorist attacks, popular sentiments have shifted towards the opinion that the respect of human rights and the right to protest remain secondary with regard to the grander cause of national security threats? Many wonder then, why the young revolutionaries in prison are not getting enough popular support for protesting against the regime? And why is it that a large majority believes that between the two evils, (the Muslim Brotherhood versus the army) the army remains as better of two evils. Clearly, Syria is a good case in point, where the disintegration of the state and the army have led to a civil war, all the more plagued by this infectious global Islamic terrorism.

Graffiti, Pharaoh deleted, captured 7 March 2015 at Youssef-al Guindi Street (Cairo)

Graffiti, Pharaoh deleted, captured 7 March 2015 at Youssef-al Guindi Street (Cairo)Fuel was added to the fire with the recent acquittal of former president Mubarak on the November 29, 2014. Mubarak´s acquittal came not long after the draconian law curtailing the role of NGO’s, a law defined by human rights activists as “unconstitutional”. While Mubarak´s two sons were also acquitted, young activist Ahmed Douma, another activist, who has been in incarcerated for a while, recently obtained a life sentence. And violence continues to persist.

One day before the commemoration of the fourth anniversary of the revolution, a young and beautiful activist, Shaimaa El Sabagh, member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, was shot dead by police forces in Downtown Cairo while she was participating in a march. She died carrying flowers to be deposited for the martyrs of the revolution in Tahrir Square. Evidently, the law is targeting the silencing of human rights organizations through imposing the death sentence as a penalty for institutions or individuals ‘receiving foreign funds’ without the authorities’ consent. Many believe that Egypt has taken an awkward downturn as regards a democracy still asking to be measured in the longue durée of the complexity of revolutions.

Renowned activists like Alaa Abdel Fattah, his 20 year old sister Sana Seif Abdel Fattah, Yara Sallam and Ahmed Douma, like countless, nameless innocents who were picked up by mistake in the streets during violent confrontations with the pro-Morsi protesters, are today harshly punished by long prison sentences. These youngsters, turned today into the iconic activists of the revolution, organized a march in the Heliopolis quarter last June 2014 against one more draconian law curtailing demonstrations. Even though the demonstration was not that well attended, it did not earn any significant popular support because the interference of the army in urban life was perceived by a large majority as a legitimate restoration of order on the back of extremely violent pro-Morsi protests. This also was an indication that the Muslim Brotherhood had lost the support of the street. Having said that, many young activists continue to be incarcerated among the countless prisoners.


The euphoric, Bakhtinian, carnivalesque and dramaturgical moment of January 2011, which caught the attention of numerous observers and which lasted for almost four years, seems to have withered away.

Perhaps the appropriation of the model of encampment by the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Rabea al-Adawiyya and al-Nahda Squares after President Morsi´s ousting in July 2013, while Tahrir Square remained under the control of their opponents, marked the end of the mesmerizing effectiveness of encampment as a symbol of insurrection. 

The power of the street through the re-invention of public spaces as perfomative sites of contestation, together with the ‘decentred’ absence of leading parties in the Arab revolutions, have inspired various observers to rethink the changing mental life of the Middle Eastern cities in novel ways. This has recently instigated a parallel rich theorization in the direction of an emerging new political subjectivity, as well as a new political imaginary that seemed to be in the making. Paul Amar argues along similar lines; while the Egyptian revolution has failed to be a ‘social revolution’ that could have overthrown class hierarchies, or promote social equality. Nevertheless, it did succeed in instigating change in the political sphere. It did to some extent accomplish a “revolution in consciousness”.

In relationship to this emerging political subjectivity, numerous writings focus on how to rethink these new forms of individuality to connect them better with collective action in the public sphere and how to transform the very understanding of public spaces in relationship to innovative forms of contestation. For example, Mohammed Bamyeh argues that the Arab revolutions have widened the horizon for a new paradigm that could constitute a promising innovative ‘enlightenment’ – one that will influence the future of the entire region.

It is important in this context to point out that numerous observers of social movements in Egypt insisted that the January revolution would not have been thinkable without the prelude of a long history of organized protests, sit-ins and demonstrations that were first instigated by the Kefaya movement in 2004, followed then by the largest demonstrations ever before January 2011 of the al-Mahallah al-Kubra textiles workers, and the numerous strikes and protests that were carried out by the syndicate of journalists and lawyers, by bus drivers, tax collectors, by peasants, students by the 6th of April movement and the numerous local collective initiatives.

In equal measure it is possible to include protests, which arose in reaction to water and bread shortages as well as the growing failure of the government to provide basic services. These different forms of protest extended to include the Egyptian Anti-Globalization Group (AGEG), Engineers for Democracy, bloggers and Facebook groups, and led to an unprecedented dissemination of information.

This bears witness to the fact that Egypt since 2004 has incurred the most intensive rate of strikes, sit-ins and organized protests since WWII, to the extent that 2007 was considered to be the most important year for labor strikes. Paul Amar argues that January then heightened the consciousness regarding mass mobilization towards what he calls “imaginative labour actions” and “ boundary challenging solidarity”.

Teti and Gervasio on the other hand, track the continuity and significance of the political mobilization prior to the revolution back to the NGO´s, human rights organizations and the trade unions such as the Real Estate Tax Collectors Unions. They too stress the fact that after the revolution, these unions and human rights NGO´s fostered literally hundreds of new unions, which have been struggling for improving labor legislation and fighting for the increase of the minimum wage.  

Parallel to the ongoing writings multiplying by the day that speculate on the success or otherwise of the Arab (Spring or Winter), are the earlier studies that focused on the impact of neo-liberal policies and consumer culture on the reshaping of Middle Eastern cities, with a particular emphasis on Dubai as a successful and replicable utopia/dystopia for the entire Middle East.

Most interesting is the work of Ahmed Kanna on Dubai, which, far from being related to the Arab spring, speaks equally of a differing ‘subjectivity’, here however, in relationship to an emergent neo-liberal, individualistic, “valuable citizenship”. Kanna borrows from Aihwa Ong´s concepts “flexible” and “valuable” citizenships to apply these to Dubai´s struggle with the modernity/tradition paradox. He convincingly weaves the discourse of global corporatist ideology - self-made solutions achieved within the intricate local ethnic hierarchical specificities. However, both positions, Kanna on the one hand, in contrast to Bamyeh and Hanafi on the other, seem to converge on similar conclusions: that these novel figurations of subjectivities, both revolutionary and neo-liberal, point once again to fresh understandings of individuality and forms of self-reflexive individuality, which nonetheless can be different from neo-liberal individualism.

Gasmask pharaoh, captured 22 November 2014

Gasmask pharaoh, captured 22 November 2014Egypt, standing at the crossroads of a counter-revolutionary moment, seems to suggest that the future appropriation of the post-revolutionary city of Cairo will arise from the struggle between these two opposing “subjectivities”. A struggle between preserving the memory, knowledge and experience of urban wars and performative revolutionary advocacies and neo-liberal agendas obsessed with erasure. A struggle today confronted by a neo-liberal gentrification supported by a military “order”. 

Parallel to the neo-liberal agenda, the aggressive politics of the “war of terror” might end up inviting even more terrorism to Egyptian cities in retaliation for the unresolved economic crisis, similar to the scenario Stephen Graham identifies as the ‘new military urbanism’, that is becoming a normalized quotidian reality. It is no coincidence that Dubai ´s neo-liberal subjectivity as an urban utopia, with its bombastic shopping complexes, is what transpires in the proposed 2050 futuristic plan for reshaping Cairo that was proposed by the government before 2011. In that plan, large alleys, highways, skyscrapers and gentrified quarters will necessarily lead to the typical mass eviction of countless slum dwellers.

Once again, the encampment/occupy movements have given birth on a global scale to an unprecedented accumulation of material knowledge in re-evaluating the worth of public spaces. People have learned to read their own cities under a new light, through protests, marches, urban wars and the refinement of the tactics of attack and confrontations with police forces.

Recent years of intensive street politics and urban wars have resulted in an ascending toll of martyrs, the militarization of space, policing, lethal gassing of protesters, separation by walling and segregated spaces, as well as the zoning of Cairo and various other cities. All these public performances, graffiti, filling the walls of the city with insults, were confrontations that created an entire new visual landscape and ‘know how’ in learning about and moving in the city at the same time as exhausting and physically ruining it.

While this particular moment in history has enriched the image of Cairo´s creative chaos as if it were a Breugelian surreal tableau, how long can a revolutionary liminal moment last? For how long could the power of the street have continued? For how many years could the power of mass demonstrations have stood against the violent confrontations and the mounting toll of deaths by the day?


As Sherief Gaber argued recently, for those who still maintain faith in the revolutionary path, the decisive struggle today is evolving around ‘political memory’ in times of pervasive smearing campaigns against activists and human rights advocates. Dina Makram Ebeid´s work on the Helwan Iron and Steel Company, is highly revealing of the voices of the peripheral working class. Makram Ebeid convincingly argues that these forces have experienced a noticeable transformation in advocacy and the demands for further rights after the January revolution, whereby a generational element taking risks in protesting seems to be decisive in relationship to the question of “precarity” and “stability” of jobs. Furthermore, Makram Ebeid reports that in November 2013, the workers ended up organizing the largest and most significant sit-in ever since 1989 (a crucial moment of working class uprisings), lasting for about a month. The sit-in ended up being a worthwhile learning experience for the workers to improve and further widen the ceiling of demands.

In this brief piece for openMovements, I have tried to convey a dual tableau: on the one hand, pessimism as concerns short-range perspectives. Yet I have pointed to various promising groundbreaking transformations in mindsets and advocacies for justice and freedom. However, the prolonged battle against neo-liberal authoritarian rule is far from over. It is no coincidence that the surfacing of ISIS in the region is legitimizing the politics of the “war on terror”. It has undoubtedly been instrumental in hampering the revolutionary momentum.

How to cite:
Abaza M. (2015) «Egypt: scattered thoughts on a counter-revolutionary moment», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 19 March. https://opendemocracy.net/mona-abaza/egypt-scattered-thoughts-on-counterrevolutionary-moment


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