Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013

Ahram Weekly

Appraising the revolution

Nevine Amin examines the features of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the tactics of its protesters and its similarities and contrasts with other experiences of mass popular uprising

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Al-Ahram Weekly

THE EGYPTIAN REVOLUTION — MAIN CHARACTERISTICS: The 25 January Egyptian uprising is considered the world’s first organised and yet leaderless revolution. It was marked by spontaneous decisions made in various centres. The tendency was evidently rational, as through the absence of formal leadership the unification of the Egyptian people became possible. There was no class, no religious features, to the extent that we could not figure out whether it expressed the vision of Muslims or Christians, or it represented the upper, middle or lower strata of society.

The extraordinary characteristics of the glorious revolution were as follows. First, it was the first revolution that relied on technological and electronic means, such as Facebook and Twitter, to transmit the features of the political system of oppression and aggression, a mechanism the policing system failed to tackle and detect the identities of the protests’ organisers. Technology also assisted in directing the 25 January Revolution. Second, it was a pre-determined date revolution. As usual, revolutions worldwide have to be implemented in confidentiality; however, the Egyptian revolution date was known two months beforehand. Third, the revolution included large numbers of people that exceeded 18-20 million, and also contained all categories of Egyptian social classes.

Fourth, the revolution was peaceful from beginning to end. Though revolutions the world over witnessed protesters engaging in violence with the policing system, Egyptian protesters were adamant to keep the revolution non-violent, though the Egyptian policing and political regime launched fierce attacks against them. For instance, in the “Battle of the Camel”, on 2 February, the actions of protesters was restricted to defending themselves and their existence in Tahrir Square. The banner and chant of “Peaceful” has a spiritual appeal that meant the following: maintaining the religious institutions, securing public and private possessions and continuity in the revolution — there is no surrender. Fifth, the revolution aimed to oust the political regime, not in favour of a specific political force (or party), or a specific political programme as a substitution. Egyptian protesters, during the revolution, did not take in consideration alternative political agencies. To conclude, from all categories of Egyptian people, there was a common interest in ousting the political regime, without proposing an alternative agenda.

Sixth, the revolution cannot be described as an attempt at revenge against the person, Mubarak, in himself, but getting rid of the political regime as a whole under his presidency, including its ministers, entrepreneurs and the judicial system, which entrenches such corruption as an inevitably fixed entity. What is needed from the Egyptian revolutionaries as a collective consciousness is undermining all the constituents of such corruption, along with its laws. Seventh, most political analysts and sociologists hesitated concerning the timing of the Egyptians in making a comprehensive revolution as a consequence of everyday life suffering. So, the Egyptian revolution went against the expectations of several analysts who deemed the Egyptian people passive and unable to collectively object to the political system’s practices. Before the revolution, in 2006, specialists described the passivity of the Egyptian people as “the popular revolution’s illusion”. According to Ahmed Maher, the general coordinator of 6 April Movement, some informed analysts like Amr Al-Chobaki and Amr Hamzawy said there is a necessity for dissidents to incorporate the elite. In other words, it is better to make a relationship between opposition movements and the people and the ruling political regime (change stemming from the regime itself).

Eighth, the Egyptian revolution is an Egyptian phenomenon from beginning to end; the revolution reflected the aspirations and will of all social categories of Egyptian society, from the middle class to both the upper and lower classes. The protesters, whether inside or outside the country, decided to stay the course and to terminate Mubarak’s years of humiliation and passivity. Ninth, in comparison to US interventions in Eastern European revolution against communism, the success of the Egyptian revolution is the result of Egyptian social cohesion and the insistence on making a change, and not on international assistance. Even US intervention was in favour of the Mubarak regime. However, though the revolution aimed to get rid of the figures of the political regime, it failed to completely control the system of power. In other words, there was and has been no dynamic relation between that system of power, then or now, and the revolution’s targets.

To conclude, the absence of leadership in the revolution is considered a blessing and a curse. A blessing as it assured the unification of the Egyptian people, without reliance on class or religious identity. A curse because all Egyptian protesters focussed on toppling the Mubarak regime without forming collective vision and leadership, leaving no representatives of this great revolution on the political landscape to face the transitional period or the current regime under the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

TACTICS — SPONTANEITY AND CREATIVITY: There are two specific and interrelated catalysts that spark protests in general and the 25 January Revolution in particular: the first is the inequitable distribution of wealth, which involves unequal opportunities, abject poverty and the deterioration of living standards. The second is having a despotic regime that holds and controls all powers.

This article seeks to trace the main tactics implemented in the 25 January Revolution. They are as follows:

- Dependence on technology in the Egyptian revolution had a positive impact on its success, empowering protesters to evade normal security monitoring and control. Through Facebook, revolutionaries informed each other about ongoing events, encouraging everyone to monitor, participate and know the nature of revolutionary trajectories from districts across the capital and beyond, to access to Tahrir Square. Furthermore, online guidelines appeared from countries worldwide about how to deal with the brutality of the police or security apparatus.

In response to the use of technology, the Egyptian political regime was irrational and panicked as it took decisions to cut Internet and mobile phones services. The decision led the Egyptian people to go to streets to evaluate the real situation on the ground. As a consequence, millions of people entered the streets and joined others. While the revolution was initiated and spread via electronic technology in “the hypothetical world”, the political regime’s reaction to events helped spur the revolution in the real world.

Coping with the near total cut in Internet and mobile services, revolutionaries set up substitute communications via satellite phones, circumventing Egypt’s network. Furthermore, revolutionaries, with the participation of international hackers, managed to find ways to get online via proxies and long-distance Internet providers.

- The forming of expressive slogans and chants used to rationally represent specific targets of the revolution and a programme for change that mixed economic and political aspects matched to all sectors of Egyptian society. There were several banners used in 25 January Revolution: “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”, “Change, Freedom, and Human Dignity”, “Civic, neither Military nor Religion Revolution”, “Peaceful Revolution”, “The People want Mubarak Stepping Down” and “The People want to Eradicate the Political System”. Noteworthy is the shift from demanding Mubarak’s ouster as a representative of the political regime to the insistence on the eradication of the political regime under Mubarak.

Also, in sticking to the revolution’s targets, there were no slogans raised against American and Israeli policies.

Two comments can be made on the slogans used: at first, the raising of the slogan “Peaceful” led to the full failure of the Egyptian police apparatus in that protesters could not be painted as enemies of God and country. Second, the refusal to allow the revolution to be appropriated by any political party or movement left intact the general target of collapsing the political system, allowing mass popular participation towards a unified target.

- When the protests began, they were confronted by police violence. Then, the protest centred on one location and divided itself and spread in the sub-streets around Tahrir Square. Afterwards, protesters collected themselves again. Sometimes, the Egyptian police itself was encircled by the protesters. In spite of being targeted by police violence, the protesters never resorted to violence themselves. Through the third day of the revolution, on 27 January, protesters managed to occupy Tahrir Square after the police withdrew in exhaustion.

- Mechanisms of defence were formulated by protesters amid the following: repeated attempts at infiltration by security personnel or members of the National Democratic Party (NDP); and planned attacks of the political regime using stones, rocks, swords and knives and other tools of violence. In response to attempts at infiltration, protesters set up lines of defence: general inspection of those entering and exiting Tahrir Square; examining identity cards of the same; and physical pat downs to find concealed weapons. Reacting to the second type of attack, from the first day of the revolution, groups of protesters initiated to break Tahrir’s pavement stones in piles available to protesters to use in case of possible attack. They also used the iron walls set-up around a construction site on one side of the square to establish controlled entrances to the square, and as shields during attacks. Some protesters took to the top of lampposts to watch nearby regime forces and warn other protesters of impending attacks.

- A spirit of spontaneity and popular creation was dominant in formulating revolutionary action and reaction tactics. No Egyptian who participated in the events in Tahrir Square can claim to have ever experienced anything like it. This spirit of spontaneity and reaction to the challenges of the moment continued to the very moment then vice president Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak was stepping down.

- The impact of the Tunisian revolution helped in formulating Egyptian defensive tactics, and in particular ways to deal with intense volleys of tear gas. Protesters came prepared with vinegar-soaked scarves and large bottles of water, while the success of the Tunisian experience drove the Egyptian revolution forward.

- Mechanisms were developed to sustain protesters in and outside Tahrir Square, with the needs of all catered for, from food to organising bathrooms for men and women separately without any theft or harassment.

- Establishing lines of defence to protect buildings and institutions around Tahrir Square; cleaning the square daily, and setting up centres for charging mobile phones, holding popular committee meetings, for submitting and delivering lost and found items, including wallets and mobile phones. In addition, setting up mobile hospitals open to all people and not restricted to party or religious affiliation.

- The rational way of dealing with the Armed Forces, with protesters taming this powerful entity in their open confrontation with the political system. Protesters did not clash with the army, making a separation between the army’s role and position and that of the regime’s police, raising slogans often repeated that the people and the army are one hand, leading the army to tacitly support the revolution.

- When social movements such as Kifaya, or political parties such as Al-Tagammu, held protests or opposed the state’s policies, the Egyptian police apparatus encircled them and used all means of violence against them. But the 2011 revolution began at the margins, as did the Tunisian one, beginning in small streets and gathering and moving to larger thoroughfares and squares. The protesters’ entrance to main squares was often simultaneous from several directions, out-manoeuvring the police.

By innovation, the Egyptian revolution emerged and continued to evolve to achieve its main target. Undoubtedly, there is still revolutionary potential in Egyptian minds and hearts to actualise the goals that have not yet been achieved. The hijacking of the revolution by some religious movements will fail because the revolution’s requirements are internalised by millions of Egyptians, translated into partial goals related to the real actualisation of freedom and social justice.

 

DIFFERENCES AND SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE EGYPTIAN AND ROMANIAN REVOLUTIONS: The Egyptian and Romanian revolutions are both considered expressions of strong objection, whether individual or collective. While the Egyptian revolution in 2011 is viewed as a turning point for Egyptian citizens striving for freedom from domination, poverty, and all kinds of humiliation under the Mubarak regime, the Romanian revolution in 1989 reflected a qualitative shift in the life of the Romanian people who suffered under the dictatorship and repression of Ceausescu and his Communist Party. This article seeks to trace the main similarities and differences between the Egyptian and Romanian revolutions.

Every revolution comes with the hope for radical change, including its social, political, economic and cultural aspects. Revolutions can be classified into violent and non-violent ones. The Romanian revolution is classified as violent where protesters took up arms and burned down buildings belonging to the Communist Party. It was a forcible and defiant uprising, with Romanians waving altered flags and singing a national song banned since 1947. In contrast, the Egyptian revolution is viewed as non-violent, though the Mubarak regime used intense violence in the attempt to stem the tide of the uprising.

Concerning the number of dead and injured in both revolutions, the Egyptian revolution, for a total population of 85 million in 2011, saw up to 840 deaths reported and about 6,467 injured. In the Romanian revolution, with a total population of 25 million in 1989, there were 1,104 deaths: 162 in protests that took place from 16 to 22 December 1989 and brought an end to the Ceausescu regime, and the remaining 942 in riots before the new political structure, the National Salvation Front, seized power. The number of injured reached 3,352, of which 1,107 were from the period to when Ceausescu lost power.

It seems there are initial similarities between the Romanian and Egyptian revolutions. First, dominant powers worldwide did not intervene to protect the existing regimes of Ceausescu or Mubarak. The then USSR’s policy of reforms, executed by Gorbachev and his policy of “glasnost”, led the Romanian people to believe that the Soviet Union would not interfere in the country’s internal affairs. Concerning the Egyptian revolution, the US demanded that the Egyptian government acknowledge press freedoms and restrain the police, bolster civil society associations and social movements, and stage legitimate elections at all levels. But the US did not intervene directly. Both Romanians and Egyptians realised there was only the domestic enemy to defeat and the world might lend them moral support.

Second, the success of previous revolutions achieved either in the Middle East or in East Europe encouraged the Romanian and Egyptian revolutions and convinced the demonstrators that popular movement had a greater chance of succeeding than at previous junctures under both Ceausescu and Mubarak.

Internal similarities included that, at first, both revolutions took place as a consequence of a general labour movement. In Egypt, the Egyptian labour movement exploded on 6 April 2008 in Mahalla Al-Kobra and played an essential role in normalising a culture of strikes and public action. In Romania, the Romanian revolution in 1989 was the last act of a sequence of events stemming back to Brasov on 15 November 1987. A strike had begun at a truck manufacturer, Steagul Rosu, the night of 14 November and continued to the next morning with a March downtown. This event represented the first real open street protest against Ceausescu.

Second, the oppressive nature of the two regimes was evident not only before the revolution, but also during and after the revolution. The two regimes brought decades of aggression and corruption, extending 30 years in the Egyptian case and 22 years in Romania. During and after their respective revolutions, the regimes or their remnants used all means, in collaboration with the police or the army and security forces, to destroy the revolutionary movements. This can clearly be seen in the National Salvation Front in Romania, which consisted of former members of the second rank of the Communist Party, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt.

Third, police brutality reached its apex in both countries under the former regimes. In Romania, the secret police (Securitate) was intensely aggressive, rendering Romania a police state. Free speech was limited and criticism of the Communist Party was prohibited. It was believed that one out of every four Romanians was a Securitate informer. In Egypt, according to a report from the US Embassy in Cairo, police brutality was endemic. In its last five years, the Mubarak regime denied the existence of torture or abuse by the police. However, domestic and international groups provided evidence through cell phone videos or first-hand accounts of hundreds of cases of police abuse.

According to the 2009 Human Rights Report by the US State Department, “Domestic and international human rights groups reported that the Ministry of Interior, State Security Investigative Service, the police, and other government entities continued to employ torture to extract information or force confessions. The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights documented 567 cases of torture, including 167 deaths, by police that occurred between 1993 and 2007, and 30 cases of torture during the year 2009. The deployment of plainclothes forces — paid by both Mubarak’s ruling party and the police apparatus — has been a hallmark of the Mubarak government.”

On 6 June 2010, Khaled Said died under disputed circumstances in the Sidi Gaber area of Alexandria. Multiple witnesses testified that Said was beaten to death by the police. His death, and the images of his face crushed and destroyed, was one of the main impetuses to confront the regime.

Fourth, poverty spread in the Egyptian case under corrupted practices of privatisation. Implementing neoliberal international financial agreements in the 1990s, the government of Egypt gradually withdrew from the economy and encouraged the international and local private sector to step in. The move towards economic reform was not met by parallel political and institutional reform. This left Egyptians dealing with new pressures in the market and facing closed doors at the political and institutional levels. In Romania, and dictatorial communism, Ceausescu practised a draconian austerity programme designed to liquidate the entire national debt in only a few years, confronting the population with painful shortages. Romanian TV was reduced to a single channel that transmitted two hours per day; electricity saw routine blackouts and there were long lines at grocery stores. The communist regime became very unpopular. By mid-1989, Ceausescu had paid Romania’s external debt of about $11 billion, but in the months following austerity measures remained in place along with shortages.

Fifth, both the presidents Ceausescu and Mubarak created a cult of personality. Ceausescu engineered stadium-sized celebrations dedicated to him, his wife and the Communist Party. Mubarak, meanwhile, dealt with the people not as a president but as a king, replete with a plan to bequeath power. Nepotism under Ceausescu was rampant, with his wife, Elena, treated as second-in-command, appointed first deputy prime minister, member of the Political Executive Committee, and the chairperson of the Central Commission for Cadres. Their son, Nicu, became a member of the Political Executive Committee and head of the Sibiu County Party organisation. The deviation of the regime towards Sultanism (a form of authoritarian government characterised by the personal presence of the ruler in all aspects) was obvious and this made it resistant to any form of non-violent transformation.

Sixth, although the Romanian media reported nothing about the Timisoara massacre, everyone knew what had happened from Radio Free Europe broadcasts — the most popular radio station for Romanians. In the Egyptian context, the formal media reported nothing about Tahrir Square. However, everyone knew the real strength of the uprising second-by-second through following Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya satellite channels, among others.

The repression and corruption of the Ceausescu and Mubarak regimes not only affected the economies and infrastructure of Romania and Egypt, but also the psyche of their respective citizens who came to believe that dissent was useless. Such attitudes do not fade overnight and resulted not only in tolerance towards corruption, but also passive acceptance of a party still ruled by old communists in the case of Romania, or a transition overseen by former members of the dissolved National Democratic Party in Egypt.

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