North Africa, West Asia

Sister revolution and its shadow twin, counter-revolution

From the start, the revolution was not supported by a significant part of the Egyptian society, a fact that does not seem to have sunk in with anyone except the old regime.

Amr Osman
18 February 2014

Let us remember some things and see if they fit together. On the eve of the “Battle of the Camel” (which took place on February 2, 2011), the deposed president Hosni Mubarak gave an emotional televised speech. Those who were in Egypt at that time, or even those who were “glued” to their TVs or were in constant contact with their relatives and friends in Egypt, know very well the division that the speech brought about among the Egyptians. (And here we must note that those who were actually in the Tahrir Square – which will be soon “locked” in the middle of 12 steel gates – did not know about that division.)

Judging from personal experience, it seemed at the time that almost half of the people were of the view that Mubarak should be allowed to complete his term in office; i.e. that the main request of the revolution should be abandoned. I still remember how some friends (young people, surprisingly) said that “we” should not humiliate Mubarak in his final days (which days keep going on and on). And we all remember that anchor woman, supposedly on the side of the revolution, reduced to tears when Mubarak asserted that he has “saved the country.” Mubarak knew the mentality of his audience very well, and when it was necessary, his new Prime Minister, General Ahmad Shafiq, reminded people that asking Mubarak, the old president, to step down, was not part of those Egyptian “values.”

A year and half have passed after this point. Many things have happened. New faces have become celebrities. People whom one would have never imagined to see on the TV became legislators and politicians. The “actors” in Egypt multiplied uncontrollably. Clashes, violent and not-so-violent, have taken place on a regular basis. Old partners became enemies, and old enemies became collaborators. All this, it now seems, in retrospect, overshadowed the revolution’s twin sister, that significant segment of the Egyptian society, perhaps half, who did not support the revolution to begin with.

Now came the time of the presidential elections. After the first round, people found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Either Shafiq or Morsi. What does this mean? According to the Egyptian media then, it was a choice between the old regime and religious extremism, between secular despotism and religious totalitarianism. And then, after negotiations here and there, where promises were made and expectations formed, it all of a sudden became a choice between the old regime and the “revolution.” You may dislike Morsi, but like it or not, he now represents the revolution. Now there is no other option. Either the revolution or the counter-revolution. Then what happened? The results of the elections were almost 50/50; i.e., according to this prevalent discourse of the time, half the Egyptians supported the revolution and the other half its shadow sister.

Now, if we go with this narrative, then the old regime did not really need to do much to use the twin sister to suffocate its sister. But during the following year, many things happened. Promises were not fulfilled. Expectations were frustrated. Those who won thought that they can fight the battle alone. Those who lost did not want to acknowledge their defeat. Either be equal partners, or “we turn the table on everybody’s head.” Those who negotiated came to the conclusion that their negotiating partners were not trustworthy.

At the same time, the old regime was focusing on the twin sister. What the old regime did may be difficult to describe, but it could be immediately felt by casual exposure to the Egyptian media, and my experience during a short visit to Egypt of the smell of garbage piling up in the streets, and the power outage that became a daily routine at a time when the “kids” were studying for their end-of-the-year exams.

The estimated number of people who took to the street on June 30, 2013, has been much debated. In the beginning, it was 20 million people, then 25, then 30. An advisor to the current appointed president mentioned in all confidence that, in fact, 35 million people took to the streets that day to topple the elected president. We don’t know the numbers: we do know that they were large enough. But if we reckon the earlier indicators, there is good reason to believe that more than half of those Egyptians who could stand the heat of June took to the streets. More than half because half were originally against. What happened during the year only confirmed to them what they already believed. If you add to this even 10% more, then you can have a twin sister that may perhaps be twice the size of sister revolution.

From the start, the revolution was not supported by a significant part of the Egyptian society, a fact that does not seem to have sunk in with anyone. In the middle of it, half of the Egyptians voted against it (according to the narrative of the time). At the end of it, it was natural to have at least half of the Egyptians wishing that it had never occurred, in addition to those who believed that a “second wave” of the revolution was needed. In retrospect, how can I have found it surprising that all the people I knew who believed that Mubarak should complete his (sixth) term to retire in dignity, voted for Shafiq in the presidential elections, and were in the streets on June 30, 2013?

How, then should we read the results of the recent referendum on the new Egyptian constitution? According to the official results, 38% of those Egyptians eligible to vote, participated. 1.5% voted against the constitution, meaning that only 36.5% supported it. According to the discourse that preceded the referendum, the constitution was about supporting June 30, here presented as the same event as July 3. What is surprising here is that we would expect, according to previous trends, that the support for the constitution should be around 50% or more. But that was not the case. This is difficult to explain because it would only be wishful thinking to believe that sister revolution, now formally dead, is actually fighting back and that its twin sister is losing ground.

There is a true mystery here, and unfortunately, we, in all probability, won’t be able to solve it. But is it time that we acknowledged that a revolution without the necessary political culture is doomed to failure? Is it time to acknowledge that democracy and human rights are not always everyone’s top priorities. Is it time to acknowledge that the damage that post-colonial regimes have caused to their societies cannot realistically be cured by a revolution, even one that is as spectacular as the Egyptian revolution was?

It has been suggested in connection with another revolution that even a hundred and fifty years (of scholarship) is not enough a time to know “what really happened.” On the Egyptian revolution, it seems, we either know what happened now, or we will never know. 

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