Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

A tale of two revolutions

Competing claims of legitimacy continue to inform Egypt’s struggle, writes Hani Mustafa

Al-Ahram Weekly

For a revolution to earn its moniker it must achieve at least some of its objectives. The events of January 2011 were nothing but an uprising until the police force disintegrated on Friday 28 January. This was the point at which the uprising turned into a revolution.

A new situation developed in the country as of that day, characterised by a vanished police force, security disruptions, army deployment, multiple protest sit-ins and a population clamouring for regime change. That’s the stuff of revolution.

Six decades earlier, on 23 July 1952, the army moved against the king. At first not even the army called the action a revolution. Newspapers that appeared on the next day spoke only of a “purge”, the description used in the army’s first communiqué. It was only after the king left Egypt aboard the Mahrousa on 26 July that the R-word came to the fore.


THE LEGITIMACY QUESTION: Before 30 June 2013 activists and intellectuals knew that public protests would not achieve much unless they were backed by force. They wanted a repeat of the 25 January scenario, with protests against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leading to its ouster with the help of the army. But that raised the question of legitimacy. Had Mohamed Morsi come to power with the legitimacy of the ballot box or the legitimacy of 25 January?

The MB interpreted legitimacy as a concept confined to the ballot box. It saw democracy as an appendage to the bayaa (oath of loyalty) that Muslim caliphs demanded.

During the year in which Morsi served as president the issue of legitimacy was revisited time and again. On the surface everything may have seemed fine but we had a president who won with the tiniest of margins, and only because his rival was a major figure from the old regime. We had a constitution that was written solely by the Islamic current. We had a Shura Council that was elected on the basis of a flawed law. We had a Constitutional Court asked to offer rulings on controversial constitutional matters but which was besieged by Islamists and threatened with physical violence. Even so some people continued to argue the president had the legitimacy needed to stay in office.

Those who imagined the 25 January was the source of legitimacy were disappointed. They worried that not only had the revolution failed to achieve its objectives but that the MB was trying to create a mirror image of the Mubarak regime. Only the supporters of political Islam were happy. For the first time they were being given top administrative positions as a policy of Islamist cronyism took hold.

The 30 June 2013 protests were in some ways a replay of 28 January 2011 demonstrations. The masses again took to the streets but this time their task was easier for they were confronting a single political group not the entire state apparatus. Indeed, the state apparatus was about to distance itself from the MB.

This may be the reason the numbers of demonstrators doubled, in one estimate reaching 33 million people. Ordinary citizens felt they could vent their anger without suffering the consequences of confronting a repressive police force.

The search for legitimacy is a question every ruler confronts. This was the case with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which took charge of the country on 11 February 2011. SCAF claimed legitimacy by insisting on its role in protecting the revolution — tantamount to an admission that its legitimacy was subsidiary to the 25 January Revolution’s legitimacy.

Many of the measures taken by SCAF while in office were misguided and contradictory. One error SCAF committed was to accuse revolutionaries of receiving money illegally from abroad, as was the case in the well-publicised case of the NGOs.

Following 30 June 2013 a different set of problems emerged. Mohamed Morsi may have been Egypt’s first president after the revolution but once in power the MB resolutely refused to join ranks with the revolutionaries whose side they had only joined once they were sure the days of the Mubarak regime were numbered.

Any legitimacy to which Morsi could lay claim came from the ballot boxes. He won the presidency only because his rival, Ahmed Shafik, was the prime minister of the last government under Hosni Mubarak. Morsi was a compromise the revolutionaries had to accept because they couldn’t find another way of protecting the revolution.

Morsi’s legitimacy ultimately rested on that of the 25 January Revolution but this was soon forgotten. As president he showed little respect for the goals or values of the mass protests that he had ridden to power.

Once again we are in a situation where legitimacy is relevant. The legitimacy of the current roadmap rests on the massive protests of 30 June 2013.


REVOLUTION AND COUNTERREVOLUTION: The term “revolution” suggests radical changes in the structure of the political regime. When a major part of the population offers its support to such change we can speak of a “popular revolution”. This happened in Egypt twice: on 25 January 2011 and again on 30 June 2013.

Discussions in the social media, on Facebook and Twitter, show that people vary widely in the way they regard Egypt’s revolutions.

The 25 January Revolution witnessed protests of a magnitude not seen since 1919. This is relevant to our current situation, for it was the 1919 Revolution that forced the country to change course with the introduction of the 1923 constitution, which diminished the power of the monarchy and laid down the foundation of what became known as Egypt’s liberal era.

The 25 January Revolution may have been a popular one but it soon gave rise to scepticism, especially when SCAF was in power. As SCAF accused revolutionaries of accepting payment from foreign countries and political Islam began to steamroll its way to power with the March 2011 referendum on constitutional amendments, many accusations were traded. Some complained that the 25 January Revolution had dismally failed to achieve its goals of bread, freedom, social justice and dignity. With a president in power who belonged to a group known to honour blind obedience over any semblance of freedom things soon got worse.

The problem with political Islam is that its followers believe society should be run by the ahl al-hal wal aqd (Sunni theologians), a reference to the small community of elders, army chiefs and theologians who were the traditional leaders of Muslim societies. It is not a concept that dovetails easily with the freedom for which people took to the streets on 25 January 2011.

During its year in power the MB made no effort to espouse social justice but stayed on the course set by earlier Mubarak governments. Dignity was squandered when Morsi promulgated the November 2012 constitutional declaration, a move that was immediately followed — on Wednesday 5 December — by clashes in front of Al-Ittihadiya palace. In the course of the clashes MB members killed and tortured political activists. This was the point at which many people realised the MB had turned its back on the 25 January Revolution and was intent on creating its own despotic regime.

The followers of political Islam, hardly an insignificant part of the population, now complain that they were pushed out of power in an illegal manner. They refer obsessively to 3 July, when the army deposed Mohamed Morsi, but conveniently forget every transgression leading up to that day. Morsi, they insist, was removed from power in a military coup, and in their insistence forget that no army in the world can ignore the demands of 33 million people who take to the streets demanding a change of regime.

Some intellectuals and activists harbour sentimental images of the 25 January Revolution stressing how, in a great show of harmony, the people were able to challenge an incumbent and powerful regime and oust it in 18 says. Many harken back to akhlaq al-midan (the morals of the square) as an ideal that went awry.

In comparison, 30 June 2013 might seem a lesser event. It all happened too quickly: the massive protests followed by the army intervention and the declaration of the roadmap. One political scientist, Amr Hamzawy, even describes 30 June as a “soft coup”. But among most activists and intellectuals the main issue is that the goals of 25 January remain far from being realised. The 25 January Revolution, everyone agrees, is a popular revolution that ran into trouble from the start.

Revolutionaries locked horns first with the SCAF, as the bloody events of Mohamed Mahmoud Street and the cabinet protests show. Battles with the MB and its allies began immediately afterwards.

For two and half years the people have fought for the same goals, and 30 June was but another landmark in this ongoing battle. Political scientist Gamal Zahran says that 30 June was the day in which the 25 January Revolution was freed from its captors; namely, the MB. The poet Sayed Hegab stresses that previous revolutions in Egypt were all led by elites. Only the last two revolutions, he argues, were routed in the street, launched by people from all walks and transcending class barriers.

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