Friday,23 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Friday,23 February, 2018
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

The grandeur and weakness of revolution

The writings of Franz Fanon can help us understand Egypt’s troubled revolution, writes Mohamed Soffar

Al-Ahram Weekly

Now that the early days of the Egyptian revolution, with all its glory, enthusiasm, and self-confidence, are long gone, and the country has been most sadly sinking in the quagmire of the transitional period, the only question to be asked is: what went wrong with the Egyptian revolution?

It is actually high time to practise self-critique, which unfortunately has not been hitherto practised. It is time to turn things around in order to find weakness in the very same grandeur and strength of the revolution. Noteworthy here is the fact that the particularity of the Egyptian case renders inapplicable every historical model or theoretical pattern, hence the failure of Egyptian political scientists all along. By this token, the following self-critique will include some elements of Franz Fanon’s analysis of decolonisation or national liberation in order to find a missing piece of the Egyptian puzzle.

Our story begins as such stories often do with the colonial world divided into compartments and built upon the principle of exclusivity and inaccessibility. It is a contra-nation state, not a nation-state embodying the nation’s political aspirations for statehood, but inversely a steel straitjacket designed to force a slow and painful death upon the nation.

Independence, whether in 1923 or 1952, was nothing but the dark-skinned colonialists taking over the colonial apparatus and continuing the civilising mission of the white colonial masters. Whether it was Gamal Abdel-Nasser or Colonel Cromer it was all the same. Since this apparatus, or post-colonial state, knows no outside, it internalises and integrates every other force and creates it anew, hence the malformation of traditional political parties.

From the start, the notion of the party was imported from the colonial world and mechanically applied to the colonised world. The traditional political party, regardless of its ideology, meant to destroy the living tradition of the colonised country, instead of using and modernising its existing structures. It neither reached out for the mass of the people, nor did it put its theoretical knowledge to its service. Rather, it attempted to establish a framework to be imposed on the people, a framework actually in line with the colonial system and never in its opposition.

One is no way unjust to say that such was the original sin of all political parties in Egypt, in government or in opposition, since 1923 and up till now. It comes as no surprise that the notion of traditional politics cursed by intellectuals and the masses alike stemmed from the practices of these parties.

As expected, in these domesticated political parties, young and pure elements untainted by traditional politics will not only criticise their own party’s lack of ideology and poverty of tactics and strategies, but will also question the legitimacy of their leaders. They are therefore denounced as adventurers and anarchists, and made to feel undesirable, so they dissent and flee to the countryside, where they discover the bottom of the nation and its real problems.

With this discovery comes the realisation that change cannot be reform or bettering of things, for it can only be an overthrow of the colonial system by means of a violent and bloody revolt. Piling up coercive mechanisms, disciplinary methods and control devices in the last two centuries, the Egyptian state has no real outside. The Egyptian countryside was therefore not external to the postcolonial setting.

As such, the rupture opened in Egypt not between the urban parties and the rural masses, but between the actual postcolonial reality and the virtual globalised reality. And just as intellectuals and dissidents fled to the rural margins in the colonial setting, our own youth that questioned and revolted against traditional politics sought refuge online in the anonymity of the post-colonial system’s virtual margins. Blogs, Facebook, twitter, e-mail, and other online tools became vehicles of youth political action, before, during and after the revolution.

Most unexpectedly, as Fanon tells us, the revolution explodes and the situation becomes all of a sudden dangerous for the whole system. The whole country is taken in veritable collective ecstasy, the people that has forgotten itself suddenly finds itself, legislates for itself, and demonstrates its sovereign will. Traditional enemies decide to rub off their historical hostilities and establish cooperation, factions and neighbourhoods come to the help of each other, and a primitive system of intercommunication is established.

Overall, there is an outpouring of spectacular generosity, disarming kindness and sincere willingness to die for the cause. As one reads Fanon’s description of the mystical current of the revolt, there goes through one’s memory an incessant flashing of events during our Egyptian revolution’s early days, whether on the front in Tahrir Square, in Sidi Gaber, in Al-Arbaain Square, in Mahalla or in the rear with the speedily formed popular committees and the watch-turns.

Fanon provides a clue for what astonished everybody at the moment: how could a population deeply believing that it lost all ability for action make such a demonstration of unified will and coordinated action? It even smoothly performed the functions of a government that withdrew its arms and stopped functioning. During this explosive period, Fanon tells us, spontaneity is the king and initiatives are localised. With spontaneity, there is no programme, trend, or leader, because the problem becomes clear.

Colonialism must go and a common front must be formed for armed combat, hence the creative local initiatives, concerted action and coordinated operations everywhere, yet without leadership or organisational structure anywhere. Spontaneity means one doctrine, the nation must act in order to exist; the art of politics was transformed into an art of war; to fight and to practise politics became the same thing. One can but affirm the analysis of Fanon with all accounts, in different times and place during the early days of our revolution, of coordination without a coordinator, collective action without a collective actor, or a revolution without organisation and leadership. There was one driving demand that the ruling regime must go, and for that purpose a common front transcending all hostilities and differences was formed.

Most unexpectedly, Fanon reveals to us that the grandeur of spontaneity, the essence of the revolutionary act, is at one and the same time its main weakness. Afterwards, the initial enthusiasm and conciliation, spontaneity, once vaunted, cannot be tolerated but is condemned and repudiated. For the practical realism of everydayness takes the place of the early effusion and spirit of eternity.

One element saves the situation, according to Fanon — the dissident intellectuals and activists that fled to the countryside. They take it on themselves to continue the fight for the mass of the people, as they have discovered in the heat of the events the true meaning of revolutionary politics. They spread the political awareness that the struggle is not about the place where you are standing but the place where you are going, for there is no strategically privileged position.

But each fighter carries his warring country between his toes. They take on themselves to enlighten and educate the various groups of the people, to create an organisation and a central authority, and to channel the various local fights and uprisings into one national direction. In a word, they discover that the success of the struggle presupposes clear objectives, a definite methodology, and the need for the masses to realise that spontaneous efforts were only a temporary dynamic.

It is exactly here that Fanon puts our hand on what went wrong from the very first days of the revolution. Our dissident youth, though exploiting to the utmost all technological capacities of the globalised era, failed to strike roots in the actual reality. Their attitude towards the so-called sectorial demands, a term used by Mubarak’s last prime minister, is a case at hand.

Whereas Fanon’s dissident activists fled to the countryside and renewed contact with their societies, in terms of concerns, strategies, symbols, and knowledge, ours escaped to another world with different concerns, symbols and knowledge alien to their own society. Whereas Fanon’s dissidents took the revolt from rural areas to the shantytowns and to the cities, ours descended from the virtual space on the public squares and kept the revolution from start to end an urban phenomenon if not an urban legend. Whereas Fanon’s dissidents were an offshoot of their parties, fully aware of the benefits of leadership, organisation and hierarchy, ours absorbed the advantages of the web like easy and instantaneous communication, but also its worst side, the lack of a centre and a fixed chain of command, and the vertical (non-obligatory) social relations.

Ousting Hosni Mubarak has not only disclosed that the reigns of power were not in the hands of one man, whose removal from office solves the whole problem, but most importantly it revealed that there are several centres for power within his authoritarian system. By this token, the revolution did no more than inflict heavy damage on the system and cracked open a space to be filled by any marginalised social or political force with organisation and structure, a privilege that the revolutionary elements continue to lack even at the moment.

Thus, they cannot invade the system from within. And even the destruction or replacement of the system is beyond our horizon, not least because the revolutionary activists, in their fluid shape, invite all traditional political parties to ride them or take them as a Trojan Horse for their counter-revolutionary goal, namely reproducing Mubarak’s regime without Mubarak. Even worse, our activists cannot even stop former ruling party members and affiliates from sneaking back into the system, due to their lack of leadership and orientation. That Egypt’s revolution that has not yet won the battle still stands at a crossroads is a certainty, but less certain is the result of the battle and the direction the whole country will take in its aftermath.


The writer is associate professor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science.

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