North Africa, West Asia

Lessons from a disillusioned revolutionary

Maged Mandour

A reflection on the three years that have passed since the Egyptian uprising began with a list of lessons for future generations.

Maged Mandour
3 February 2014

Last week was the third anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, this anniversary, unlike previous ones, pushed me into a process of remembrance. Reflecting on last year, our dream has turned into a nightmare; the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history took place, the counter-revolution is back with a vengeance, and worst of all, with popular support. The face of Egypt has changed, de-humanized, and I feel that I have become de-sensitized to the daily occurrences of grave human rights violations. This sense of alienation can at times be overwhelming.

When remembering the start of the revolution, I wondered what we would have said had we known the future; so what lessons could the revolutionaries draw from this ordeal, what can future generations learn from our experience? This is an attempt to answer this question.

Lesson one, know your enemy. When the people of Egypt took to the streets in early 2011, they were not fully aware of the nature of the regime they were up against. The Egyptian 'military' regime managed to mystify power relations within the Egyptian polity, ruling through its junior partner, the National Democratic Party (NDP), while using the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), as the illiberal opposition. This lack of revolutionary consciousness allowed the military to deflect the revolution, and slowly strangle it, converting it into a reform movement. This lack of awareness of the nature of the MB caused the revolutionary forces to fall into a number of significant traps; one of which was supporting Morsi in the second round of the presidential elections instead of boycotting, mistakenly hoping that he would rule in a democratic fashion.

Lesson two, know yourself. It is important for the revolutionaries to be aware that they do not represent Egypt, nor the Egyptian people. 'The people' as a single unitary entity does not exist, rather, a composite of different classes that have different interests and views. It is essential for the revolutionary forces to understand that they themselves represent a certain class, namely the urban middle class, that is naturally opposed to the interests of the military-croney capitalist alliance. This idea of class consciousness, in opposition to the ruling classes, could have reduced the ability of the military to outmaneouver the revolutionary movement, and impose a “false consciousness”, as the case is today.

Lesson three, extend your hegemony over all possible allied classes. Looking back at the history of European social change, and the bourgeois revolutions, one can safely argue that these only occur through the ability of the bourgeoisie to extend hegemony over possible allied classes; taking their class interests as their own, they were able to recast European society in their image. As the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci argues, this can be achieved through two parallel paths. First, is the ability of a certain class to adapt to the interests of other classes, extending its hegemony over its allies by extending beyond the demands of the middle classes to cover the demands of the lower classes. This means that the call for political reforms is not sufficient: tthere has to be social and economic reform. Secondly, transformation can be achieved through ideological hegemony: in other words, the revolutionary class needs to convince other classes that they can lead, and this can be achieved by deconstructing the ideological base of the current regime, coupled with erecting an alternative ideological construct that can act as the basis of the new order. It is not enough to know what you do not want, you have to know what you want. The rejectionist nature of the Egyptian revolutionary movements makes it much easier to outmaneuver, and its inability to extend its hegemony to other classes makes it much easier to isolate.

Lesson four, define your aim, this defines what kind of a movement you are. In order to steer the revolution away from being degraded into a reformist movement, the revolutionary’s main aim has to be to take over the organs of the state, most importantly, the coercive arm of the state and use it to recast society according to revolutionary aims. The aim of the revolutionary forces should not be to dismantle the state, rather to use the machinery of the state. This can only be achieved if the state becomes populated by allies or members of the revolutionary movement and once the struggle against the current regime is won in the realm of civil society. One only needs to remember the events of the Iranian Revolution, which only achieved success when the coercive arm of the state, namely the Iranian military, was successfully infiltrated by the Iranian Revolutionary forces at the time. Any aim, other than taking over the apparatus of the state, degrades the movement into a reform movement that aims at pressuring the existing regime, rather than replacing it.

Lesson five, the revolution is an act of coercion. Charles Tilly, in his study of European State formation, highlighted the highly coercive nature of the French Revolution as it attempted to re-mould French society in its own image, using the swelling apparatus of the French state to crush the resistance of the anti-revolutionary forces, and other classes that were not allied with the revolution. In order for the revolution to be successful, it needs to use the apparatus of the state in a highly coercive manner to destroy the social, and economic base of its enemies. In the case of Egypt that would have involved the confiscation of the military’s economic empire, and the purge of the coercive arm of the state.

Lesson six, the revolution has an international dimension. A revolution in a country like Egypt, a pivotal state for a number of global powers, most importantly the United States, will make a number of enemies. The revolutionary forces in Egypt, as representatives of the progressive nationalist forces in the country, will inevitably clash with these global empires. One only needs to remember operation Ajax in Iran in 1953, when the United States sponsored a coup to remove Prime Minister Mossadeq, a man the US considered to be in opposition to their interests. Considering the alliance between the US and the Egyptian military, the revolutionaries should not expect any help; they should take into consideration the role of the US in propping up the current regime. Hence, a clash with the US is almost inevitable.

Lesson seven, a revolution is like a natural event; it is difficult to predict and most importantly, to control. As the contemporaries of the French Revolution observed, the revolution is like a volcanic eruption, the best one can do is attempt to direct and maneuver the flow of lava. Looking at the revolution from this perspective, the need for organization becomes paramount. The revolutionary forces should organize in a manner that would allow them to become more effective, and push for organized political action. The Egyptian revolution of 1919, is a good example of the ability of a charismatic leadership to organize the masses and push for organized political action; from strikes to demonstrations. Also, when the revolution erupts, the need for establishing parallel governance structures is critical for success. As was the case during the Iranian Revolution; Khomeini managed to establish a parallel governance structure, which was essential to his taking over power, replacing the government appointed by the Shah before his exile.  

Lesson eight, you have to become radical. The revolutionary forces need to maintain what can be termed a “Jacobin Spirit”, the vigour to push the movement to its logical conclusion; to replace the current order, rather than reform it. It is necessary to be radical and uncompromising with the aims of the revolution. The aim is to recast society in the revolutionaries own image, nothing less, which is a mammoth task.

I would like to close this article with a quote, that seems appropriate considering the current situation, and provides us with a succinct enough summary of the road ahead for revolution in Egypt:

“To tell the truth is a revolutionary act”- Antonio Gramsci.                                                 

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