North Africa, West Asia

Five years on, has the revolution failed?

It is still too soon to judge the outcomes of such a profound and wide-ranging global upheaval. عربي

Rabab El-Mahdi
25 January 2016

Flickr/Dan H. Some rights reserved.A cloud of suppressed anger, regret and boredom engulfs Cairo, the city I know as overpowering and harsh but also vibrant. Five years on, the city has changed — at least to my mind – but not necessarily for the worse, as some followers of the ‘good old days’ school like to claim. But it has changed, and I can say with near certainty that it will never go back as it was. The supporters of the revolution who thought that possibly better times were ahead are frustrated and dispersed. Those who followed the revolution’s news with interest and anticipation are jaded. And those who remained against the revolution and considered it a conspiracy still fear the 2011 earthquake and its repercussions – temporarily dormant as they might be. 

All these different parties have one question in mind, whether they voice it or not: “what now?” A large part of the population that dreamt of the 2011 revolution in Egypt and believed in it is wondering, “did the revolution fail?” I do not think anyone, regardless of what they claim, can answer this question categorically. But there are important – albeit insufficient – conditions and starting points to allow us to understand what happened, and more importantly, what might happen.

We must realise that over the last five years Egypt has been witnessing more than just a political movement or a foiled attempt at revolution. It has been undergoing a historical transformation that involves society as a whole, in its political and cultural structure – a transformation that might go on for decades. The post-colonial state established in the middle of the last century became obsolete when it failed to continue fulfilling its various social management roles, and to gain the support of new generations who no longer accept to sacrifice freedom for non-existent economic affluence, or personal dignity for ‘national security’ in a police state.

We are in the midst of a battle to redefine and question previous givens. It is no longer enough to use the pretexts of national sovereignty or existential threat conspiracies to subdue the millennial generation, as they became politically aware during the revolution, even those of them who did not participate in it. The concepts of nation, pride and dignity became part of the public debate, linked to people’s lives instead of remaining mere abstract concepts. The famous song “Ma t’oulsh eh edetna masr” (Don’t ask what Egypt has done for us) was no longer a good enough response to people’s questions and aspirations for a better life on both the personal and public levels.

Just as the project of an independent state was the dream of 20th century generations, the project of a free society is the dream of 21st century generations. It is a personal and humanitarian dream, far from fake patriotism. Therefore, burying it is impossible, even if endeavours to fulfil it have temporarily dwindled. 

The welfare state capable of providing upward social mobility through education and employment – even if it is authoritarian – no longer exists. With the global capitalism crisis and the construction ambitions in the Gulf states, the Egyptian state can no longer meet the needs of its citizens. It can no longer attempt industrial renaissance, as during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s days, nor can it adopt Anwar Sadat’s “open door” model or rely on the rentier state (export of labour to the Gulf states and reliance on their aid), as was the case in Hosni Mubarak’s days.

These economic models were exhausted for international and regional reasons. As a result, popular anger not only increased pressure on the regime, but also added to its confusion. This is why there is a conflict between attempts to revive big projects, like the new branch of the Suez Canal and the establishment of a new capital, and attempts to finance the economy through levies on businessmen to foster initiatives like the Long Live Egypt donation fund. The regime does not know whether it wants to rely on the private sector or on the state as an economic actor. It is sending out conflicting messages to an economy that is already deteriorating under the global capitalism crisis.

We are seeing the beginning of the end of an era, domestically, regionally and globally.

Meanwhile, Egyptian society is facing upheaval not only in its relationship with the state and economic growth and the possibility of achieving it, but also in its social and cultural patterns and in people’s relations with each other.

Towns and villages have turned into small cities and the state has taken over the media, the educational sector and cultural institutions; countering this, there is an uncontrollable openness through the internet, in addition to multiple self-education sources. Moreover, while the religious institution prevails, religious currents are emerging that might be worse or more radical, but which break the religious monopoly and dominance of one institution.

The conflict between these various currents is historically reshaping society and the individual in a way unprecedented since the late 19th and early 20th century, with the end of the Ottoman caliphate, the rise of Arab nationalism and women’s emancipation, and so on. This conflict goes beyond the notion of political change, which is merely the superficial layer of deeper changes affecting society.

The whole region and the world are undergoing rapid changes that are very similar, though they might not seem to be. The regional situation now resembles that of Europe and the world during the first half of the 20th century, with world wars, the Russian revolution, the rise of Fascism and Nazism, the fall of the old colonial powers and the Ottoman state, the rise of liberation movements, the remapping of new borders and the outbreak of the cold war. With the rise of non-state actors like Islamic State (IS) and Hezbollah as regional players, and with a redrawing of alliances amid the emergence of Iran, Turkey, Russia and China playing a regionally ambitious and intense role, the game has changed, and so have the regional players. It is no longer just about managing long-term, low-level conflicts between powers. On the contrary, what we are seeing is the build-up to an imminent explosion, which will reshape not only the borders of states as we know them, but also redefine long-established notions of state monopoly on violence and fixed territorial borders.

The world has been undergoing successive crises that began with the 2008 financial crisis and which are far from over with the Greek crisis. These crises threaten the nature of the global economic system as we know it, or at least indicate the depth of the global capitalist crisis. In parallel we see the rise of movements like Occupy Wall Street, Podemos in Spain and MoVimento Cinque Stelle in Italy; the fading impact of political parties as key tools for conflict management and political competition; and the rise of extreme right-wing discourse in Europe as well as the Arab world (despite differences in means and motive).

All these variables reflect the huge changes the whole world is experiencing and which also touch on established notions of the optimal political model, the meaning of democracy and its management. We are not isolated from these changes. If the rise of Nazism in Germany and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia could change the face of the world and echo around Egypt and the region at a time when the economy and global communication were much less interconnected, it is only logical to imagine the impact of these political and economic revisions on Egypt today.

In sum, we are seeing the beginning of the end of an era, domestically, regionally and globally – even if it does not happen overnight. First we must understand the nature of this stage, and then ask what future we want as communities and individuals. We must set preliminary plans to reach that future, knowing that state violence – just like the violence of non-state actors – cannot and will not last forever.

It is thus far too soon to judge the outcomes of the Egyptian revolution or the Arab Spring in general. This is the last chapter of a stage in human social development, but this last chapter has yet to be written. May God have mercy on all the martyrs, refugees and prisoners, and on everyone who worked towards a better future for humanity. 

Translated from the Arabic by Pascale Menassa.

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