North Africa, West Asia

The fascist history of Egypt’s revolution

Questioning revolutionaries’ conventional narrative of the January 25 revolution is the only way for Egypt to move forward.

Hesham Shafick
24 December 2015
Demotix / wecancam. All rights reserved.

Demotix / wecancam. All rights reserved.

"I have a question, professor." 

"You are so fortunate. Those are very rare nowadays”, professor Ezz El Arab replied.

Professor Abdel Aziz Ezz El Arab, a historian at the American University in Cairo, is more serious about hilarity than the majority of us are about the most serious aspects of our lives. For every question, even the simplest, he had a question in reply. He is an embodiment of Albert Camus’ prophecy: “to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion."

Until 11 February 2011, the day Mubarak stepped down, I had not met him in a strike or protest. But his very existence and continuous ridiculing of every aspect of what we regard as necessary or normal incited rebellion in a Gramscian sense: contesting conventional wisdom.

Minutes after Mubarak stepped down, I bumped into this man in Tahrir Square. He was euphoric, to say the least. "How are you, professor?" I asked as usual, expecting his usual (non)-answer. This time, though, he did have an answer: "Marvellous" he replied, followed by a 20-minute speech on how optimistic he had become. He no longer asked questions, as if he had finally found the one universal ‘answer’. Like many of his comrades on the left, Ezz El Arab obviously fell into the traditional Marxist trap: perceiving the revolution as the ultimate resolution. 

Witnessing their revolutionary prophecies becoming a reality, Egyptian revolutionaries were overwhelmed. Even the most critical amongst them could not comprehend the revolution in its complicated, byzantine, peculiar essence. Holding on to a teleological, unidirectional, inherently positive stereotype of “revolutions”, the left relegated—or utterly ignored—many key questions about the steps that should have been taken.  

This void was filled by another sector which was, whether we like it or not, an integral part of January’s movement: the fascists. As much as the left were discontented with Mubarak’s abashment of the welfare state, deprivation of the working class, alienation of the intelligentsia, cessation of political space and de-humanisation of citizenship; the far right were no less vexed. 

Recurrent international interference in Egypt’s sovereignty, desertion of its regional role, degradation of its cultural capital, the rise of a savage police-class, worries over Mubarak’s succession, and the overall feebleness of the state were few among many issues that mobilised the right against Mubarak’s state. 

On the surface, many issues concerned the left and the right equally; such as corruption, power succession and the lack of state autonomy. However, the two opposing wings were discontented for utterly different reasons. 

The left was concerned with Mubarak’s excessive tyranny. It attributed the state’s corruption and foreign loyalty to Mubarak and his son’s absolute power. On the extreme opposite, the fascists were concerned with Mubarak’s fragility, and all they actually wanted was a more tyrannical leader who was capable of controlling corruption, instability, and state dependence—that person not being Gamal Mubarak.

The fascist military regime ruling today is not necessarily January’s antithesis or counterrevolution, but its offspring.

The unspoken agreement between the two wings seemed to be along the lines of ‘let us get rid of the Mubaraks first and delay all other controversial questions to the next step’. But after Mubarak was overthrown, the left was too busy celebrating and fantasising its 'revolutionary' success (which was for a big part illusionary), ignoring previously deferred questions. For a detailed account of celebratory leftist movements and 'celebrations' that served counter-revolutions see Lantier and Stern’s impressive work. The authors label the movements as quasi-leftist and discredit their revolutionary agenda. This exclusion of movements that did not benefit the revolution, I argue, is itself an offspring of the ideological belief in a teleological, inherently positive, path of revolutions. I rather think that those revolutionaries failed to calculate their gains and were overwhelmed with the revolutionary miracle they were supposedly witnessing. Regardless of the movements’ debatable intentions, there is no doubt that their deluded messianic celebration of the revolution’s victory was the opium of January’s revolutionary masses.

A sober disillusioned understanding of Mubarak’s handover of power to a ferocious, conservative Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) refutes the ‘revolutionary’ essence of the already disputable ‘success’. 

The way his step down was celebrated was even more revealing of the event’s non-revolutionary character; scenes of Mubarak regime cadres discussing tactics and strategies to achieve the January revolution’s goals with the same media hosts who disparaged the revolution from the start were ubiquitous. A famous talk-show host, Amr Adib, discussed “Mubarak’s Scandals” with Mostafa el Fiky, where Mubarak’s men use their proximity to the overthrown regime to propose insider information against the regime they represented a few days prior. Another example is of the former prime minister under Sadat, Abdel Aziz Hegazy, openly criticising the revolutionary youth while simultaneously heading the post-revolution national dialogue and supposedly maintaining an affiliation and affinity with their ‘noble goals’. Not only ironic, but also alarming, were scenes of military officers being carried on the shoulders of protestors. Pictures of Nasser, Sadat, and other military leaders (like Saad Eddine El Shazli) were raised in Tahrir Square and selfies with military tanks went viral.

There was persistent public condemnation of what became known as “factional demands”, such as the delegitimisation of workers, students, peasants, minority movements as well as every group that sought actual/realist political and economic gains. Under such discourse, the only “legitimate” movement, as stated by General El-Fangary (SCAF spokesperson), was one that serves “Egypt’s supreme interests”, “Egypt” being an indisputable, sacred, super-being that reflects the only acceptable collective will as perceived by the state, its media, and its political elite. Such nationalistic exclusion and vilification of opposing voices as “anti-revolutionary” or worse “anti-Egypt” preluded the fascist conclusion of January’s revolution.

January 2011 (and even June/July 2013) were two revolutions in one. The first was motivated by socio-economic grievances with the slogan “bread, freedom and social justice.” The second was motivated by political/national grievances with a slogan that Sisi later used in his campaign “Tahya Masr" (long live Egypt). That is to say, the fascist military regime ruling today is not necessarily January’s antithesis or counterrevolution, but its offspring. Perceiving SCAF and (by extension) El Sisi as the frontline of January’s revolution explains much of the military regime’s moves: the puzzling and controversial disqualification of Omar Suleiman’s candidacy for president, the stark defeat of National Democratic Party cadres in the last parliamentary so-called elections, the severe offensive administrated by the media against Mubarak’s businessmen, such as Ahmed Ezz and Salah Diab, and the law that convicts defaming January’s revolution. It also explains the figures in support of Sisi and his fascist policies.   

It is very difficult to retrospectively dissect the two or point out which was initially more powerful, but it is very easy to observe the domination of the second. It is also easy to ask the crucial question of “what went wrong?”—a question that was in no way exhausted by the Egyptian left—and to which it is very hard to find definitive answers. 

But as Professor Ezz El Arab taught us, questions are not asked to be answered. Questions are rather asked to challenge conventional wisdom and the status quo it is built upon. Questioning/challenging the ‘purity’ or ‘sacredness’ of the January revolution is a crucial prerequisite for the proceeding revolutionary phase. This revision is not only important to learn from past mistakes, but also to determine the appropriate tactics that may contest current hegemony. 

If Sisi’s regime is nothing but a counterrevolution, the answer/resolution is simple and straightforward: keep pushing! If that is the case, the solution is simply to push January’s revolutionary techniques (mobilisation, confrontation, coalition, etc…) further. But if Sisi’s state is nothing but an imminent offspring of January’s revolutionary momentum, then the resurgence of such momentum is definitely not the appropriate choice. 

In all cases, it is impossible to know whether Sisi is a counterrevolutionary delegate or a revolutionary comrade, in 25 January terms, unless those terms are redefined and reevaluated within their realist empirical and historical contexts. It is only when we break this Marxist taboo of revolutionary sacredness that the left will be able to appropriately reflect on the past three years and move forward. Only then will we be able to comprehend the concurrence of "enzel ya Sisi" (rise up Sisi) with “yasqot yasqot hokm el 'askar" (down, down with the military regime), and understand why the first ruled out the second. Only then will we be able to revert our current position. Questioning and doubting conventional revolutionaries’ understanding of the January 25 revolution is the only way to achieve that. 

It is worth noting that it is not only the ideological bias to ‘revolutionism’ that halts the Egyptian left from questioning January’s revolution. There is also a secular/material reason: this (partially delusional) memory of January’s utopia is the only thing that still holds the ‘revolutionaries’ together today, after all the divisions and disputes that shortly followed. Doubting January’s revolution risks the loss of this grip, but it is still worth it; for this state of doubt forms the core essence of revolutionism and paves the road for contesting the world/nation as we are forced to know it. 

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