North Africa, West Asia

A fascist history of the Egyptian revolution II: laughter and the future

The revolutionary calls were necessary; they united otherwise mutually hostile groups, politicised the apolitical and neutralised the anti-political. But it was not exactly a rupture nor a total break with the past.

Hesham Shafick Abe Abolkheir
10 February 2016
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Press Association/AP/Nasser Nasser. All rights reserved.The question of the Egyptian revolution’s future has become as much a cliché as the discourse on its utopian history. The former is as excessive in its pessimism as the latter is in its optimism. Although neither abide by empirical rationale, both are politically understandable.

But before asking the classical question: “does the Egyptian revolution still have a future?”; let us first agree that such a pessimistically oriented question, or rather proposition, is engrained in and stems from a wider and more comprehensive history of Egypt and the revolution as independent concepts. We do not give rise to such propositions, for history thrusts them upon us as questions nagging for answers, while hiding its own answers within the questions it imposes. So let us not repeat after the ‘written-by-the-victorious’ history what it wants us to keep repeating; and rather seek hidden impulses beneath the surface of contemporary understandings of the Egyptian revolution.

That a huge number of Egyptians took to the streets in 2011 was a necessary moment, a proposition that forced itself. Other propositions were later born out of that momentous rupture. But it was not exactly a rupture; not a total break with the past. It is only an attempt at rupture, better yet a crack.

A revolution is an incomplete rupture; a rupture in the making; a groping for answers yet impervious to immediate answers. If the act of revolting took place, it was only a call for the rupture that had been there. The call did not beget it, only called for it. To employ a Derridean – above all a Marxian – term, the revolution is a ‘spectre’, always there if unseen, waiting to be conjured up or to conjure itself up. But the call was equally a necessary call; a call that united otherwise mutually hostile groups, politicised the apolitical and neutralised the anti-political.

Will the attempt at rupture answer the call of democracy? An answer to this question is conditional. We cannot respond to it unless we dig a little deeper and ask: will democracy answer the people’s call? Or dig a bit further and ask: was the people’s call a “genuine” call for democracy?

If the above is ambiguous, it is only because I did not make myself clearer by drawing on a few lessons of history. But before I go about doing this, allow me to resolve few theoretical ambiguities that have a direct bearing on our topic.

To begin with, let us agree that the word ‘state’ is an abstraction, i.e. it is only understood through its attributes. Thus, the state is state power, a wielding of the state apparatus (both repressive and ideological), namely its machinery of persuasion, surveillance and repression that ensures the reproduction of a status quo, a mode of economic, social and political production. A revolution is anattempt to summon a rupture to the state apparatus; a redefinition of the raisons d'état that preserves the status quo. But such an attempt seldom initially succeeds. Here, it is worth quoting Louis Althusser at some length:

"We know that the State apparatus may survive, as is proved by bourgeois ‘revolutions’ in nineteenth-century France (1830, 1848), by coups d’état (2 December, May 1958), by collapses of the State (the fall of the Empire in 1870, of the Third Republic in 1940), or by the political rise of the petty bourgeoisie (1890-95 in France), etc., without the State apparatus being affected or modified: it may survive political events which affect the possession of State power…Even after a social revolution like that of 1917, a large part of the State apparatus survived after the seizure of State power by the alliance of the proletariat and the small peasantry: Lenin repeated the fact again and again."

Indeed, there were moments in history, though brief and with mixed results, when the rupture was realised. After all, a revolution is a protest against rulers’ estrangement from their subjects. The more profound the estrangement, the more intense and unyielding the protest, and the closer appears the rupture. But what the revolutionaries in Egypt bitterly learned was that protesting is more of a sign of discontent than an actual contestation; thus the now glamourous cliché used by almost all diverse political actors on the Egyptian scene: “protesting is not enough”. 

The calls in June 2013 were not a breaking of silence. They were calls for the reinstitution of silence.

The October Revolution of 1917 in Russia offers great insights in this regard. Like that of France prior to the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian aristocracy suffered from paralysis, a function of years of discussions separated from any obligation to take productive decisions, let alone crystallise them into plans of action. The resultant lacuna was naturally filled by men the likes of Lenin and Stalin, with the vision not only to wrest control from the jaws of anarchy, but also to consolidate their rule through iron discipline.

Their opponents had no recourse other than an archaic habit of obedience that had collapsed, and a long-held patriotism that had been dissolved thanks to the despotic Czars. Revolutionary millennial fancies supplemented by a clear-headed philosophy enabled the Bolsheviks to draw citizens to their side, through political maneuvering on the one hand and infusing them with vigour about a utopian future on the other. Clearly, in times of uncertainty the people are in dire need of those who promise order and solidarity, even if their ultimate objectives are questionable. The Bolsheviks promised both and the rupture was partially realised.

To say that the Bolshevik hold on power marked the end of ideology for the Russians is to ignore the glasnost and perestroika initiated by Gorbachev in the 1980s. I do not intend to share Fukuyama’s rather hasty conclusion that the demise of Marxism-Leninism marked the end of history either. It is always futile to attempt to put a full stop to history. No sooner do scholars – and masses – rest satisfied with their assertions than history disappoints them.

This is exactly what happened in the Arab world in 2011. Although there were predictions of a building resentment in some camps, the tide of Arab uprisings came as a shock to most Arabs (including the revolutionaries and political activists themselves), more so to the westerners. The fact that the revolutionaries’ call for democracy came to the liking of end-of-history scholars is not a sufficient proof of their ‘triumph of the west’ theory, for it accounted neither for the rise of political Islam nor for the fierce resistance battle waged by military generals (i.e. the survival of the state apparatus). 

During the year Morsi was in office, we heard desperate calls for a return to the pre-2011 period, a return to so-called stability. Those calls were even intensified after the overthrow of Morsi. They were not calls for the mere overthrow of Morsi and the restoration of the democratic transition. They were rather calls for cleaning up the whole revolutionary mess. What is more interesting is that these calls brought together the silent 'couch potatoes' who had no stakes in the 2011 uprising to begin with and the very revolutionaries who were panicked by the vivid demise of their end-of-history revolutionary project.

Some people like to attach those calls to counter-revolutionary forces. It makes sense, for who else would have wanted to revoke the democratic gains of the revolution? However, it is hard to determine these “counter-revolutionary” forces. In fact, being counter-intuitive in itself, it cannot be understood except in juxtaposition with the “revolutionary”. But who knows who represents this revolution? There are only assumptions. As I have discussed earlier, there was not one homogenous group that revolted for the same demands.

As such, the calls in June 2013 were not a breaking of silence. They were calls for the reinstitution of silence, for the restoration of their feel-good couches. What explains this euphoria for self-oppression? What accounts for this habit of consent?

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Press Association/AP. All rights reserved.Gramscians might have an answer. The ideological underpinning is a function of hegemony, Gramsci contends, which operates on various levels and takes many forms, but primarily a function of hegemony as an appendix to domination (i.e. the exclusive exercise of coercion or ‘armed force’). The dominant group is at once the hegemonic group, but this shall not be taken for granted. Sisi understood that better than Mubarak, Tantawi or even the democratically elected Morsi. When the new and young general rose to power, he did not merely exercise authority through military tanks. He relied on what Guillermo O’Donnell, referring to Latin America, coined "delegative democracy". Refusing to identify with any political faction, partly to avoid the missteps of his predecessor and partly to strike a nationalist chord, Sisi has projected himself as a ‘paternal figure’ whose destiny is bound up with that of the entire nation.

In transcending party politics, the Sisi regime based itself on obscurantism (including the identities of Sisi’s close advisors) and is represented as anonymous and apolitical. This surely runs in naked contrast to representative democracy, but yet in parallel with a castrated form of it, with parliamentary elections being a critical sideshow to beguile and divert the people’s attention away from a serious bid to install military authority. To maintain appearances, he retains electoral politics, but then curtails it with all sorts of dilatory electoral rules that filter out true independents and dissidents and ensure the success of those with either material resources or connections with the seats of power. Besides ensuring politically correct election results, the ‘crowning’ achievement of all this is political incoherence, with alienated oppositionists at a loss whether to totally boycott or participate in political life and under which banner(s). This makes such a form of delegative democracy a political deism, in which the voters delegate authority to the president who then acts as he sees fit.

While the above has only proffered a diagnosis of what went wrong, what follows is an attempt to show how to put it right, and to put the question “does the Egyptian revolution still have a future?” to rest. But first it is important to again acknowledge that the rupture is unavoidable, for the rupture is already there. Where? Some would ask. Not in actual mass mobilisations, but in various other means of contestation to the state’s very unstable hegemony. There is one event and quote which combined give a vivid example. The quote is Hannah Arendt's:

"The surest enemy of authority is contempt and the surest way to undermine it is laughter." 

The event is that of Shady AbouZeid and Ahmed Malek distributing balloons made of blown up condoms to proud, narcissistic policemen in Tahrir on 25 January 2016. The state had set this day as a moment of reinstating its authority, not only by using force and warnings to prevent any protestor from entering Tahrir, but also by bringing in pro-state mobs to celebrate the day as Police (not revolution) Day.

By being utterly absent from all serious political debates, Sisi made of himself the hero of the masses’ fantasies.

Shady and Ahmed made a very short video that made the celebrators, the large swathes of police officers, and the pro-state media appear utter idiots. The videos went viral on social media and the police took it a bit too seriously and threatened them. Shady refused to pull back, although Malek understandably but sadly did apologise. Now social media is full of statements supporting Shady by making further fun of the police, putting forward a plethora of ridiculous hashtags and groups.

That is not to say that “laughter” is a solution by and in itself. In fact, making a joke of the oppressor is only making the event of oppression – which was vivid with tanks fully occupying Tahrir on the anniversary of a revolution against the rule of those very tanks – less serious. Even Arendt herself asserts that “detachment and equanimity in view of ordinarily unbearable tragedy is the worst sign of dehumanisation.”

But what I argue here, following Arendt, is that laughter is a means of communication between potential revolutionaries when other means are absent. It is a sign that the revolution is still alive.

Herein lies the challenge: how to convert such a “silent revolt” (borrowing Søren Kierkegaard term) into a grounded challenge to oppressive authority? My answer is, I do not know. No, that is not the right answer. The answer is: I shall not know. The answer shall not come from the same few educated elites who imposed themselves on January 2011’s agenda, ultimately leading to its current lamentable fate. The answer shall happen on its own, stem from a rupture of the already existing crack, impose itself, not be imposed. As Gramsci contended, and as we later saw in the Egyptian revolution, “the dangers inherent in introducing knowledge from above lead to the bastard trio of skepticism, sectarianism and tragedy. The knowledge to be imparted must derive inspiration from the beliefs and mode of thinking of the masses.”

This is what Abdel Fattah El Sisi understood. Instead of proposing a particular agenda to the masses, he was one of the few presidents in the 21st century to run for president without even a nominal mandate. By being utterly absent from all serious political debates, he made of himself the hero of the masses’ fantasies. That is also precisely what a counter-Sisi movement ought to do. Stay silent for a while and wait to see what the rupture will beget. Meanwhile, follow Albert Camus’ revolutionary catalogue: “laugh, laugh, laugh and laugh again.”

For apolitical militarism cannot and in any case should not be challenged with a political agenda; for it is out of the political realm. Shady and Malek have thankfully shown an alternative way to counter apolitical authority, perhaps without noticing their impact and most certainly without thinking of Arendt's or Camus' philosophy.

Thus, as to the question “does the Egyptian revolution still have a future?’ I do not think it does, for it never actually did have a present; but I see it coming.

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