Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

25 January: Taking stock

The revolution of the Egyptian nation has not yet run its course, writes Ammar Ali Hassan

Al-Ahram Weekly

Two antithetical outlooks have locked horns as Egypt commemorates the fifth anniversary of the January 2011 Revolution. One is impetuous, tendentious and determined to bury the will for change for the better that the Egyptian people harboured at a crucial moment in their history.

The proponents of this view now call the revolution a “conspiracy” and they are taking advantage of an isolated and tangential phenomenon that they have woven into their poisonous propaganda that aims to erode the people’s self-confidence, make them give up hope for a rightful status and to induce them to forget their sacrifices and resign themselves to coming away from the revolution empty handed.

The opposing outlook is closer to the truth and is the one that history will bear out. It proceeds from the premise that the January revolution was a great revolution, but that seven parties or agencies — or, let us say, sets of wolves — conspired against it. The first was the Muslim Brotherhood, which saw the revolution as a golden opportunity to leap to power and then to abandon and turn against the national secularist vanguard of the revolution and the popular base that joined it.

The second was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that assumed control after Mubarak stepped down. To SCAF, the revolution was a mere uprising that put paid to the hereditary succession scenario and restored power to the army and continuity to the legitimacy of the 23 July 1952 revolution.

The Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF entered into a temporary and uneasy alliance, each waiting for the opportunity to take advantage of the other. Their collusion and then conflict was instrumental in obstructing the course of the revolution. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood’s persistent claims that they stand for the January revolution gives the current authorities the perfect excuse for generalising, tainting the revolution as a whole and eliminating its genuine symbols, drawing on the general public’s hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood’s conniving and ways of thought.

The third set of wolves was the pillars of the regime that the revolution rose up against. By virtue of their long stay in power they had developed strong and tenacious roots in the government bureaucracy, security agencies and the media. Drawing on such assets, they were able to parry and manoeuvre and turn their huge loss upon their fall from power into a gradual success.

Little by little they managed to creep back to the forefront, aided by the deliberate distortion of the revolution in which SCAF also participated, driven by its resistance to radical change, as did the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, which were opposed to the secularist, patriotic and populist spirit of the January revolution.

The fourth set of wolves were regional powers that feared that radical change in Egypt would threaten their own regimes and the stability of their countries, a fear emanating from the conviction, borne out through history, that when Egypt changes, the rest of the Arab world — and indeed the Middle East — changes with it.

Fifth, there were the international powers and the US above all, whose senior officials confessed that the Egyptian revolution had taken them by surprise. Washington now had to act quickly in order to safeguard its interests and it essentially had two options: either to help reinstate the regime that had been its friend and ally, or look for a reliable alternative. It soon opted for the latter, began to draw closer to the Muslim Brotherhood and eventually placed its stock in that group.

The sixth party was made up of opportunist revolutionaries — or, more precisely, post-revolution revolutionaries. These are the ones who rushed to create coalitions with nothing to bind them. Some of their founders were mostly interested in taking advantage of the revolutionary tide to promote themselves. Not a few of these had strong connections with the former regime, or had even been key members of that regime before jumping ship at the right moment.

The seventh set of wolves were the conventional political parties that had lived off the crumbs thrown in their direction by the Mubarak regime and were content with the cold fringes set aside for them. This group felt that the revolution threatened their interests and, indeed, their very existence. In public, they flattered and supported it; in private, they cursed it and then worked to undermine it in collusion with all the other wolves.

The two opposing outlooks on the revolution — the just one that holds that it was “a revolution conspired against” versus the false and artificial one that holds that it was “a conspiracy disguised as a revolution” — largely define the contours of who gained and who lost from the January revolution.

 The biggest winner, if temporarily, is the army, which re-established its legitimacy, especially after the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood rule, and succeeded in injecting fresh blood into the July 1952 Revolution, the legitimacy of which had begun to erode since the mid-1970s when Sadat launched his soft counterrevolution against the Nasserist project.

Other winners were the “war merchants” who reaped huge profits by exploiting the turmoil and unrest that gripped the country.

It can also be said that the Egyptian people, in general, benefited from the revolution in the long run. Whereas once their will had been expropriated, their views absent, their needs ignored and their value scorned, they have returned to the fore. They are once again a force to be reckoned with, the source of sovereignty and authority, the key to any politician’s success or, if he loses their support, to his ignominious failure.

On the other hand, the Islamist trend lost tremendously through its rise to power and occupation of the highest offices. Its presence in the full glare of centre-stage soon exposed all its previously hidden flaws and caused it to lose the positive image on which it had once capitalised for decades.

Whereas once the members of this movement were seen as martyrs, victims or fighters, once the revolution leveraged them into power, the people began to see through their dissimulations and disguises, rejected their deception and hypocrisy, and toppled them from power. This group’s loss was all the greater because it was now shunned by the people, not just the ruling authorities, as had once been the case.

Key leaders of the Mubarak regime also lost. Those who came to power after the revolution could show clemency to the second- and third-tier members of that regime and put their knowledge, skills and material and social assets, which had been at the disposal of Mubarak, to the service of the post-revolutionary order.

But it was difficult — indeed, impossible — to make the slightest opening for someone from the first tier, not only because of the outrage this would cause, but also because the new powers realised that those first tier members could eventually become rivals at some point in the future.

This is all the more the case as those who came to power appear less interested in championing the causes of the revolution than in containing it and voiding it of its substance, if only on the basis of the illusion that this is the best way to safeguard the state. This means that they will not be able to offer anything different than the pillars of the Mubarak regime.

Other losers were figures that have almost been consigned to oblivion. Once the staunchest supporters of the Mubarak regime in the press and the government, they were unable to stay afloat in post-revolutionary tides.

Also among the losers are the families of the revolution’s martyrs and wounded who realised that the sacrificed blood was not for the sake of a pension or reward, but to build a new Egypt, blessed with freedom, social justice, human dignity, sustained development and independent political will.

In like manner, some of the revolutionary youth are on the losing side until now. Prime among these are those who have been sent off to prison, who had been among the fiercest opponents to the Mubarak regime and who were rejected by the post-revolutionary order because they clung to their belief in radical change rather than cosmetics.

Naturally the revolution has not achieved all its aims, but it has accomplished much up to now. It will continue to forge forward, thanks to the dedication and commitment of revolutionaries and other conscientious citizens, until it attains its aspirations in full. As for the accomplishments, these can be summed up as follows:

- Exposing the Muslim Brotherhood. They used the revolution as a means to seize power, only to reveal their true nature once they occupied the stage. In the Mubarak era, the people had sympathised with them, respected them as visionaries, and saw in them the promise of a solution to their problems. Were it not for the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood would have continued to expand, silently and craftily, until it obtained more sources of material and human strength.

At that point, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to remove them from power, whether through the ballot box, which they would have rigged, having picked up all the tips in this regard from the corrupt National Democratic Party (NDP) and added more of their own, or through protest, as their rank and file and their allies would have been the more stronger and more brutal.

- The decline of the Salafist trend. Before the revolution, some pundits from this trend were widely revered by the people, who believed everything they said, heeded their sermons and responded to their demands. Those sheikhs were bent on changing the moderate and tolerant character of the Egyptian creed and slowly destroying the religious institutions that the Egyptians had built up for centuries, most notably Al-Azhar. They were changing people’s attitudes toward many important matters in life.

Had it not been for the revolution, these preachers and their ideology would have continued to spread until they had millions of followers. At that point, when they reached power, whether through an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood or on their own, it would have been impossible to dislodge them from power for the same reasons cited above.

But even if those sheikhs did not seek power for themselves, they would prepare the ground for any Muslim Brother or other extremist to secure the throne. More insidiously, they would have persisted in their drive to change the values and attitudes of the Egyptian people in ways that would threaten their society and identity as shaped by the many strata of civilisations and cultures that have accumulated in the course of thousands of years.

- The revolution achieved political esteem for the people, which is to say the people’s confidence in themselves. This is a fundamental condition for sound and democratic governance. Having broken the fear barrier and raised their voice in unison, the Egyptian people have gained the awe and respect of those in power.

No one in the seat of power can deride or scorn them. This generates a constant pressure on them to act justly and respond to the demands of the people, as failure to do so could lead the people to drive them out of power, just as they did in the June 2013 Revolution.

The revolution even changed some who had belonged to the former ruling party and who learned an important lesson. These people had once believed that the sole route to change was to enter the ranks of the regime, or to flatter it and cajole it in the hope of exercising some influence, because they had imagined that the people were powerless and the opponents of the regime were a bunch of crazy idealists who asked the impossible.

The revolution put paid to that belief. It also changed the attitudes of the millions of people who preferred to remain silent and uninvolved — the “couch party” as we used to call them. Suddenly, they too were in the streets in their dozens of millions, to toss the Muslim Brothers off their throne.

- The revolution stimulated political participation. Political apathy had once been a chronic Egyptian disease. It enabled successive authorities to forge the will of the people, monopolise decision-making processes, and utilise the moral and material capacities of the state in manners that were counter to the welfare of the people.

After the revolution, we began to see mile-long queues at polling stations. Average citizens realised that their vote counted, that it could change history whereas before the revolution one would commonly hear, “Why bother? The government will do what it wants whether we like it or not.”

Before the revolution, the most the opposition could hope for were clean voter registration lists, or authenticating identity with the national ID number. These measures were finally introduced after the revolution, in addition to numerous guarantees for the integrity of polls, including judicial supervision, an autonomous committee to supervise and run the elections, and live broadcasting of the polling process.

- The revolution succeeded in changing many governing political and legal frameworks. Above all, it brought a constitution that restricted the powers of the presidency, created a balance between the branches of government, and established rules for political plurality and the peaceful rotation of authority.

The benefits of this cannot be overstated as most of the problems that afflicted Egypt before the revolution came by way of the perpetuity of the ruler for life, around who gathered a clique of corrupt cronies. This paved the way for nepotism instead of competence, a ruthless security apparatus that deviated from its original function, the growth of monopolies, and the ever-widening gulf between classes.

- The revolution exposed many for their hypocrisies and deceptions. As political developments unfolded, people could see the players on both sides of the fence, the schemers who put their own interests above the welfare of the nation, the machinations of those who used every trick in the book to hold on to posts or wealth they had wrongfully obtained.

In spite of the foregoing, it is impossible to draw up a final balance sheet of the gains and losses of the January revolution after only five years. Nor can anyone say, at this point, that a particular loss is a permanent loss, or that a certain gain has been won and that’s the end of it. The arc of the first revolution began on 25 January 2011, but it has not closed yet.

This we have learned from the histories of other nations that have experienced major revolutions. There, too, revolutions were turned against, cursed as conspiracies, and blamed for chaos and destruction, even though the regimes that had triggered the revolutions were the source of the chaos and destruction.

Eventually, people realised the truth, regained their awareness and revived their faith and belief in the need for change for the better, at which point the balances shifted. The January revolution is no exception to this, as the times ahead will tell.

The writer is a novelist and socio-political researcher.

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