Revolution and the limits of populism

The bottom-line is that revolution is too loose a category to describe what is happening in Egypt. The real fight is not between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces but between different strategies that lay claim to the idea of revolution. 

Ahmad Hosni
26 July 2013

Since the deposition of the Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi by the military on July 3, debate has circled around whether to call this a coup or a popular uprising. History has traditionally placed the two concepts at opposing poles from each other. This time they have become entangled as never before.

Unorthodox positions have been taken up by political players on both sides: revolutionary groups, despite their previous attitudes to the military, have hailed the generals’ decision, while the conservative Muslim Brotherhood decries it a military coup on the basic premise of defending democracy. But the convergence of interest between the revolutionary forces and the military requires an altogether new term. 

Coup is an unambiguous notion: when an army interferes to overthrow a government it is a coup. Revolution on the other hand, is less amenable to such technical definitions. It is identified intuitively: we know it when we see it. We tend to register it as image, an image of the people in congregation against the sovereign, the acute surge that seems to come out of nowhere, reshuffles the scene and soon dissipates. But that is rarely the case. History is ripe with revolutions that lingered on without endpoints and became constant states under the rubric of revolution: revolutionary parties, revolutionary governments and revolutionary policies and even revolutionary countries. It is during this afterlife that revolution assumes its indeterminate and loose character, even to the point that it might subsume a coup under its semiotic cloak.

We can think of revolution according to two analytic schemes. Firstly, it is the event of a quasi-absolute consensus against a common target, namely the sovereign, followed by a mobilization of the populace. Consensus temporarily suspends discordances typically held among factions of the populace for the sake of the single antagonism. This mobilization is typically momentary, and as history has repeatedly demonstrated, unpredictable. The uprising against Mubarak’s regime in January 2011 could be read according to this definition. 

It is also possible to think of revolution not as the event per se but as the adherence to the event as an idea. The historic event is only an incomplete version of what is yet to come. Here revolution does not become simply a happening in the past but a moment to be concluded in the future. It is the afterimage of the revolution that keeps the notion of revolution alive as a valid political choice despite its ever-receding horizon. There is another name for that: messianic. Messianic prophecies whether in politics or religion have managed to survive against the odds of objectivity. Like religion, it is impossible to demarcate the perimeters of revolution by objective means.

Revolution is an ideology rather than an event. And like all ideologies it comes with its edifice of narratives, interpretive strategies indispensable to which are two premises: the totality of the people and the articulation of an incontrovertible antagonist. It is hard to think of a revolution that did not invoke both. Yet, if the antagonist is always incontrovertibly articulated and identified (be it Mubarak, Morsi or the Tzar), the “people” is a much looser notion. People is not a population, the latter is the statistical count. Instead, people is a semiotic function, a signifier that is always less than the sum of the parts. There is always a portion of the population that will not be counted into the totality of the people. It is a counting strategy, but not the actual numbers. The difference between the overwhelming sway of a population and the substantial portion, between people and faction is not analytical but discursive. Did the army’s intervention come as a response of popular demand or was it merely favourable to the majority of the population? The difference is that the former situates the people as the subject of statistics while the latter endows the people with the agency of a cohesive solid entity. Stress the latter and it becomes a revolution. The former articulation renders it a coup.

Much of the current political conflict in Egypt nowadays involves a battle over the right to these two notions: people and revolution. What happened on the June 30 was a revolution in the second sense of the word; it was a revolution not in terms of its mobilization force but in terms of its appropriation of the idea of the revolution and the invocation of the idea of people as a unity.

Morsi’s opponents have no doubt that what took place was a true revolution. There were over twenty million who have signed no-confidence petitions against Morsi, a large portion of whom took to the streets on June 30 demanding his resignation. The image of the people filling Tahrir Square conjured up memories of the 2011 evolution. Such a symbolism gave credence to the claim that it was a second revolution. But it also masked the fact that there is a sizable chunk of the population, albeit a minority, that took to the streets in support of Morsi. The opposition had not just ignored their numbers, but more importantly their right to be counted as the people. Instead, at best, they were shrugged off as a faction.

Successful revolutions have the capacity bundle up different political factions under the same revolutionary banner. The Tamarod campaign was successful because it was inclusive; people from different political strands could sign to the simple request to take Morsi out of office. It included those who still harboured some sympathy towards the old regime alongside radical factions in the revolutionary camp. It is impossible to know whether those who signed and later went to the streets did so because they were troubled by the Muslim Brothers’ Islamism, or because they had lost faith in Egypt’s prospective civic governance and longed for the law-and-order ethos of a military institution. Like all successful revolutions the campaign suspended—or rather, evaded—ideological difference between factions and in effect totalized the everyday hardship of Egyptians as anti-Morsi sentiment. To claim that it was a set of principles that mobilized the masses is unfounded. To claim that it was in support of liberal opposition is simply untested.

Another challenge to the ‘revolution narrative’ is that the events of June 30 were to some extent anticipated if not even orchestrated. The prelude of attacks against Muslim Brothers` demonstrators and offices across the country by unknown mobs in the absence of any intervention by the police, compared with the swift array of arrests and judiciary acts against the Muslim Brothers after the ousting of Morsi, or the gasoline and power crisis that reached its peak during the week before July 30 only to miraculously disappear afterwards, does not speak so much of a popular uprising, but a surreptitious attempt by the deep state to undermine President Morsi. All of this added the finishing touches to a vicious anti-Morsi, anti-Muslim Brothers discourse that has dominated the liberal media over the past year, and was of course before that, an old theme well inculcated by Hosni Mubarak.[1] 

The bottom-line is that revolution is too loose of a category to describe what is happening in Egypt. The real fight is not between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces but between different strategies that lay claim to the idea of revolution. Let us not forget that supporters of Morsi see themselves as the true defenders of the revolution stolen from them by means of a military coup.

So perhaps revolution is a post-hoc situation. It comes after the real politics have been done: the demonizing, wrong-footing and deal cutting. Those who came out on the winning side will find it easier to claim a revolution. But that is just in the short term, for it is more congenial to associate revolution with the underdogs.

Those who have their leader held in an unknown location under military detention will sooner or later find a better use of the term. This is not good news for Egypt’s secular camp as epitomized in the National Salvation Front. They have invested too much in their image as the true revolutionaries, a category that can be readily usurped by their opponents when conditions are opportune. The popularity of figures such as Al-Baradei has never been put to the test. They have become completely dependent on the army, and most critically, their pendulous politics might have cost them much of their credibility.

It is time for Egypt’s liberals— and indeed all political factions—to move beyond the revolutionary rhetoric and to think of ways of making compromises and reaching consensus. This cannot be done within the necessarily antagonistic dynamics of ‘revolutionary discourse’. They should also avoid tapping into acrimonious sentiment towards the Americans and Qataris. Over the past two years Egyptians have elected a largely inexperienced (and arguably incompetent) president and sent their generals to overthrow their first elected president all under the same label: revolution. Whether this one was revolution or a coup, it was definitely a democratic setback. Now it is time to situate the revolution where it belongs: in the past as an event. Time to move on.



[1] http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/12466/unpacking-anti-muslim-brotherhood-discourse

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