Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Tractatus Politico-Religiosus

From 25 January to 30 June in four sentences: Youssef Rakha on Egypt’s two revolutions

Al-Ahram Weekly

1. Newton’s third law of motion: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body.  
2. For nearly three years the triumph of the 25 January Revolution involved the Egyptian constituency in a series of conflicts, protests and counterprotests in which the action repeatedly pitted the army as the sole remaining representative of the state against political Islam.
2.1. In the period 25 January-11 February 2011, protesters (including Islamists) were credited with bringing down Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for nearly 30 years. They had no leadership or ideology, and their slogan — “bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity” — could conceivably be grafted onto a communist or fascist system just as well as on the liberal democracy they were demanding.
2.2. The 18-day sit-in that proved decisive to Mubarak’s eventual decision to step down took place under the protection of the army.
2.2.1. The sit-in could not possibly have survived attacks by Mubarak partisans and police if not for said protection.
2.2.2. Many were sympathetic with the sole demand of “the revolution” — that Mubarak should follow in the footsteps of the Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali and leave power — but equally many saw this as the green light for the Muslim Brotherhood to take over.
2.3. The majority of those who went out to celebrate Mubarak’s fall on the evening of 11 February had been if not positively against the revolution then at least indifferent: this was their first time in Tahrir Square, where the sit-in had taken place, defended and maintained by Islamists despite its essentially secular liberal identity. The triumph of the revolution became an occasion for patriotism, not for enshrining the civil (human and economic) rights that had driven the protests.
2.3.1. Said majority, along with many others (including, initially, the protesters themselves), were reassured by the fact that the army was in charge after Mubarak. Voices that claimed this was a coup d’état were suspected of being Mubarak partisans and marginalised if not openly persecuted for disparaging “the people’s revolution”.
2.4. Beyond blanket statements about democracy and freedom, the question of the political future of the country — for which it was clear, even then, that the protesters had absolutely no vision beyond increasingly violent confrontation with the powers that attempt to control demonstrations — was seldom raised at all.
2.5. In the views of everyone except the protesters (Mubarak, army, Western powers and political analysts), the only political force present and organised enough to replace the Mubarak regime was the Muslim Brotherhood, which was now expected to embrace democratic principles and/or “the demands of the revolution” — in effect, “the rights of the martyrs” or casualties of the protests, meaning that those responsible for killing them should be hanged — bringing extremist Islamists into line as well.
2.6. The Muslim Brotherhood did have a leadership and an ideology, neither of which had anything in common with democracy as the protesters understood it or “the demands of the revolution” as such.
2.6.1. The Muslim Brotherhood turned out to be capitalist, pro-America and pro-Israel and even more prone to hierarchical power and conservative values than the Mubarak regime.
2.6.2 It was demonstrated time and again that the Muslim Brotherhood could not care less about people killed during protests, unless they were Islamists defending its own interests.
2.7. The Muslim Brotherhood could use a relatively large existing support base, whether of Islamists or (mostly provincial) people who had benefited from Islamist services (offered in the context of parliamentary elections under Mubarak) to obtain a “yes” vote in the March 2011 referendum on constitutional amendments, which reduced the transitional period to a series of one-off ballot counts that the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies could win.
2.7.1. This referendum, drafted by the army, gave the military establishment absolute power (further confirming the coup thesis) while making no provisions for the structural, rights and security reforms needed for any genuine transition to democracy.
2.7.2. Unlike the “25 January revolutionaries”, the Muslim Brotherhood was willing to accept “the rule of soldiers” as long as it gave it access to state institutions. Given the scarcity and lack of experience of other political forces, the Muslim Brotherhood was confident in its ability to monopolise election results.
2.8. In the period 11 February 2011-30 June 2012, the army, which had adopted the term “revolution” — used by protesters to describe their uprising — managed what was officially referred to as “the transition to democracy” in alliance not with the protesters (who had no support base, effective representation or consistent vision) but with the Islamists.
2.8.1. Evidently urged to do so by the Islamists among them, the protesters regarded the next stage of “the historical trajectory” that was “the revolution” as “bringing down the military”. To achieve this task they knowingly or unknowingly worked to enable the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies to monopolise power. Bringing down the military as a goal was not only implausible but wildly risky: the military forms the scaffolding of the Egyptian state and is its safeguard against civil war and/or Talibanisation. The Islamists in whose favour anti-military activism took place had neither the intention nor the desire to bring down the military; they rather used the energy of the activists to speed up and secure their triumph first in the parliamentary then in the presidential elections, both undertaken in the absence of a working constitution. Yet the activists allowed themselves to be exploited until the Muslim Brotherhood had monopolised power. The true power struggle on the horizon was between the secular-democratic orientation and its religious-totalitarian counterpart, and on each side of the battle line there were those who were pro-25 January and those who were anti-25 January, there were those who were pro- and anti-military. The protesters assumed and promulgated the idea that there was a power struggle between the (counterrevolutionary) army and (revolutionary) political Islam at a time when both parties’ interests were in harmony.
2.8.2 Because it was the military that was now suppressing protests, the protesters were quick to identify it with “the remnants of the Mubarak regime” (which remnants formed 90 per cent of the status apparatus anyway), even though it was the military that had made Mubarak’s ouster possible.
2.8.3. Because, like other oppositional forces under Mubarak and his two predecessors, the Islamists had suffered political persecution, the protesters were quick to identify themselves with the Islamists, whom they presented as “a national faction” despite their (the Islamists’) unpatriotic orientation and as “a revolutionary/left-wing faction” despite their conservative/extreme-right orientation and as “a democratic faction” despite their fascist orientation. In the absence of a vision of their own, the protesters supported the vision of the Muslim Brotherhood — to their own as well as the country’s detriment.
2.8.4. The revolution became identical with the Islamist takeover of power.
3. It turns out the Egyptian constituency is made up of three denominations, the first of which is incapable of making a difference by itself: Protestophiles (worshippers of demonstrations), Fanaticos (worshippers of the Islamic identity) and Honourables (worshippers of the army).
3.1. Protestophiles (also known as “revolutionaries”, “activists” and “opposition”) are defined as younger people who — driven by the desire for reform, the fulfilment of which was admittedly impossible under Mubarak but is very sadly no more plausible today — mistook “peaceful protest” for old-school radical transformation.
3.1.1. Protestophiles would have been idealists had they avoided certain aspects of “revolution” as opposed to reform: the calls for summary justice; the association of protest with “self-defence”; the dismissal of rule of law and due process on the pretext of institutional corruption; the proclivity for rhetoric, moralisation and absolutism...
3.1.2. The aims of Protestophiles were contradictory: they demand liberal democracy, but they want old-school socialism and the public sector; they demand universal rights and freedoms, but they refuse to take a stand for unequivocal secularism; they demand “a civil state”, but they are willing to accommodate the threat of theocracy...
3.1.3. Protestophiles had no support base beyond themselves, and were therefore forced to ally themselves with some political entity, the most obvious of which — until the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi won the runoff vote against Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmed Shafik on 30 June 2012 — was the Muslim Brotherhood.
3.2. Following the initial euphoria of Mubarak’s ouster, by interrupting the lives of otherwise apolitical citizens, allying themselves with religious fanatics and speaking ill of the army among other “national” idols, Protestophiles quickly lost the moral high ground granted them through sacrifices made during and directly after the 18-day sit-in.
3.3. Fanaticos and Honourables are less noteworthy in that they had existed for at least as long as Mubarak and (being of a higher age on average than Protestophiles) were better accommodated to the corruption, incompetence and conservatism of the Mubarak regime.
3.3.1. Fanaticos derive their name from their essential quality: fanaticism. They include not only terrorists and Wahhabi theologians but also (provincial) middle-class people who are comfortable with religion as a form of underdog political identity, one that reduces faith to a combination of rituals and discourses emptied of all moral relevance to contemporary life apart from rabid sectarianism. In line with their dogmatic incorporeal beliefs, they are not only prejudiced, manipulative and prone to conspiracy theory but also irrational about consensual empirical reality in — among other things — their desire to implement their agenda of Islamic world dominion through war and the revival of the caliphate and their simultaneous pragmatic willingness to accommodate the world powers that be to greater extent even than Mubarak.
3.3.2. Honourables, who can be no less irrational, derive their name from how the army addressed them during the initial transitional period: “honourable citizens”; they include not only the police and many civil servants but also much of the urban working class and the apolitical middle-class known as “the couch potato party”. Evidenced by the fact that the number of participants in the 30 June protests and the Tamarod campaign was much higher than that of their counterparts in the initial “revolution”, the Honourables make up the majority by far. Though never openly secular, they are less sectarian and identity-oriented where religion is concerned than Fanaticos. They are conservative, patriarchal and chauvinist, but unlike Fanaticos they don’t actually want to go to war. Beyond maintaining Mubarak’s (by now clearly rotten) status quo, they have no agenda.
3.4. Through 2011 and 2012, while exerting no force of their own, Protestophiles made it possible for Fanaticos to exert a force against Honourables (something they thought they were doing to bring down the army when in fact it could only be accomplished with the army’s approval). For a few months, all but the most anti-25 January Honourables did not realise what had hit them.
3.4.1. Enmity towards the Muslim Brotherhood was neither immediate nor particularly ingrained, yet “the new rulers” aimed at all possible and potential rivals for power, past or present, extending their target range to Protestophiles. With truly remarkable speed, the Muslim Brotherhood had managed to alienate not only the judiciary and the media but also the army itself.
3.4.2. Whether or not “the deep state” controlled by Mubarak partisans was working in secret against “the Islamic project”, the Morsi regime proved remarkably incompetent in a remarkably short span of time. Honourables who might have been amenable to army-loving “people of God” bringing law and prosperity to the nation were doubly disappointed. The idea that Islamists were oppressed because they were religious and as such honest and right, which had so often worked for the Muslim Brotherhood in elections, now worked against them in dramatic ways. Not only were they as dishonest and wrong as their former oppressors, but they were either lying about the religiosity or religion itself was bad (and religion cannot be bad).
3.5. Through 2012 and 2013, while exerting no force of their own, Protestophiles who had sustained casualties in protests against the Morsi regime made it possible for Honourables to strike back. Once again it was up to the army to make the final decision, once again the army sided with “the people”.
3.6. When all is said and done, 30 June 2013 was to 25 January 2011 what the force of Newton’s second body is to that of the first.
4. The force exerted by Fanaticos in the wake of 25 January has, since 30 June, been countered by an equal and opposite force from the Honourables. From January 2011 to September 2013, in Egypt, no political motion in any given direction has taken place.

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