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Egypt: Tragedy of a Postmodern Revolution

Stanly Johny (stanly.mambilly@gmail.com) is a Delhi-based journalist.

The popular uprising against the authoritarian President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, culminated in his removal by the army and the subsequent massacre of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The unfolding events have nullified any democratic gains which the country had made after the January 25, 2011 revolution. Today, Egypt stands deeply polarised and is perhaps on the precipice of civil war.

When did the counter-revolution begin in Egypt? Was it on 14 August when the troops massacred over 500 supporters of the deposed President Mohamed Morsi, mostly Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members? Or on 3 July when the army, backed by tens of thousands of anti-Morsi protesters, stepped in to remove the president from power? Or does it go back to the days when the Freedom and Justice Party‒ the political wing of the MB‒ was in power, and when it mistook its electoral victories for a mandate for Islamising Egypt?

The Egyptian revolution was a classic example of leaderless revolutions. At least 10 million people mobilised in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship in early 2011. They were neither bound by any particular ideology nor were part of any single organisational machinery. The protesters, mainly youth ranging from the leftists to liberals to political Islamists came under the banner of anti-Mubarakism. The protests triggered by the mass uprising in the neighbouring Tunisia, which deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, were the logical culmination of widespread resentment against Mubarak’s neoliberal security state. They fought together against the dictatorship till it was abolished on 11 February, 2011. But political revolutions are not only about deposing a ruler, which is comparatively an easier part of any revolutionary project, but also about sustaining the revolution by building alternatives to the overthrown regime. Achieving the latter part is difficult, if not impossible, unless a consensus is formed among the revolutionaries on the path for the future and a vanguard to steer the way. Egypt had consensus on neither. Once Mubarak was gone the army, which had supported his thuggish regime for over three decades, stepped into the vacuum and pledged to open up Egypt’s polity. They did it, though reluctantly. But by the time elections were held, the unity of revolutionaries that had led to the fall of Mubarak became a thing of the past.

The political spectrum of Egypt ranged from the Islamists to the secular groups. The Islamist section comprised the Freedom and Justice Party of the MB; conservative Salafist parties such as Al-Noor, Al-Watan, Al-Raya, and the Salafist Front; jihadi groups turned political—such as the Building and Growth Party; and moderate blocs such as Al-Wasat (center) and Al-Nahdha (renaissance). The other end of the spectrum included secular parties such as the Al-Wafd Party, Al-Dustoor (constitution) led by former Nobel Laureate Muhammad ElBaradei, the Congress Party of  former Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa, the Popular Current led by former presidential candidate Hamdein Sabbahi, and the Free Egyptians Party founded by thebillionaire and Egyptian Copt Naguib Sawiris, whose large business empire had  support of the Mubarak regime. Of these, the MB was the best organised political force. And as expected, it reaped political gains when elections were held, as it could mobilise the Islamist votes, while the secular votes were fragmented among a variety of political parties.

For the Brotherhood, it was a historic opportunity. Ever since the MB was formed in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the movement, whose soul is political Islam, went through several challenges, including systematic state torture, in Egypt and other countries. In the nine decades of its existence, the MB had never been so close to power as they were in the post-Mubarak Egypt. And they played their cards intelligently, at least till Brother Morsi came to power in June 2012. They erred when they thought that attaining political power would make them eternally powerful in Egypt and give them a mandate to reshape the country according to their own designs. This mistake was huge, and it set the stage for counter-revolution.

From Morsi to “Morsilini”

Morsi came to power with a narrow margin. He won 51.7% votes as against the 48.3% of his rival Ahmed Shafik, a former Mubarak era minister, with just a little over half the eligible electorate of 51 million taking part in the elections. As soon as Morsi was elected president, the felool (remnants of the old regime) started a campaign to align themselves with the liberal-left revolutionaries, saying that the ascent of the Brotherhood would endanger the secular character of the state. The secular bloc was suspicious about the MB. But an immediate alliance between them and the felool against the new government was not possible, as it had fought against the old regime only a year ago. But as the MB started consolidating its power under President Morsi in a sharply divided country by late 2012, the opposition to the Brotherhood rule picked up momentum.

Perhaps the first major mistake President Morsi committed was the controversial decree he issued in late November, where he granted himself unlimited powers to “protect the nation” and passed the legislation without judicial oversight. He made this declaration hours after he was praised, both at home by his Islamist allies and abroad by several world leaders including Hillary Clinton‒the then US secretary of state ‒for the Gaza ceasefire. And it came at a time when the MB was widely criticised for “lack of collaboration” in the Constituent Assembly, which had the task of drafting a new constitution for the country. Several non-Islamist members of the Assembly resigned citing the MB’s efforts to embed their hardline views within the constitution.

The presidential decree, as well as concerns over the Islamist designs for the constitution, enraged the opposition, who on 23 November 2012, formed the National Salvation Front (NSF) headed by ElBaradei. Liberal and secular factions, including the one led by Amr Moussa, joined the Front. So did the felool, who must have calculated that the enemy of the enemy could be befriended temporarily. Morsi failed to see the looming dangers, or his Brothers underplayed them. The military still remained the most powerful state institution in the country which could step into the political space any time. The society was as divided as ever. The felool was consolidating their lost ground by aligning themselves with the opposition. And the liberal opposition was coming together under a large anti-Brotherhood banner. With the Egyptian economy in shambles, even the non-partisan people began blaming Morsi and the Brotherhood for their inept governance.

Perhaps it was his failure in understanding the changing dynamics of Egypt under his rule that led the president to go ahead with the constitution drafting plan despite strong opposition. Or perhaps, both Morsi and his party might have thought “this is the moment we have been waiting for decades and we shouldn’t miss it, come what may”. In a rush to grab “that opportunity”, they lost their sense of reality. On 29 November, the president announced that a draft constitution would be ready within two days. The Supreme Constitutional Court was to rule on the Constitutional Assembly on December 2. Morsi wanted the draft to be approved before the Court could take a decision on the fate of the Assembly. The remaining members of the Assembly, mostly Islamists, reviewed, revised, and voted on the 236 articles of the draft constitution within 17 hours. The document was presented to the president on 1 December, while the date of a referendum was set for two weeks later.1

In early December, protests mounted in Cairo. Tahrir Square, once again, resembled the days of anti-Mubarak protests. On 4 December, protesters assembled in front of the presidential palace in huge numbers, forcing Morsi to flee from a back door. They called him “Morsilini”, after the world war era Italian fascist Benito Mussolini. These incidents emboldened the liberal protestors and strengthened the mistrust between them and the Islamists.

This chasm widened with the increasing assertiveness of the Brothers and the authoritarian tendencies of Morsi, while the Egyptian economy was in a free-fall multiplying the miseries of the common people. All aspects of economic life were hit by social chaos and the deterioration of security that followed the fall of Mubarak. This led to an increasing number of street protests, which in turn made the economy suffer more. According to the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights, there were 581 local protests, 558 demonstrations, 514 labor strikes, 500 sit-ins, and 561 highway robberies in 2012. Such protests only increased in 2013.2 With a large chunk of the population still in revolutionary spirits and against the government, Morsi found himself helpless to address the problems the country faced. The talks he held with opposition leaders were futile.

Tamarod Movement

By April 2013, a new movement called Tamarod (rebellion) emerged. Mainly comprising liberal and left revolutionaries, the Tamarod launched a signature campaign among registered voters asking the president to resign. They also demanded presidential elections to be held on 30 June, the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration. By mid-June Tamarod spokesman, Mahmoud Badr, announced that the movement had collected more than 15 million signatures, a million more than those who voted for Morsi in the presidential elections. They further called for mass mobilisations on 30 June against the Morsi rule. Egypt saw an unprecedented mass uprising on 30 June against the MB rule. Millions marched in Tahrir Square in Cairo and other parts of the country demanding the president to resign. The MB cried foul, and President Morsi rejected the demand. Continued protests gave the army, reportedly already upset with the MB rule, a perfect pretext for intervention. On 3 July, it stepped in to remove Morsi and swore in a transitional government headed by Adly Mansour, chief of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court, bringing an end to the year-long rule of the Brotherhood.

The Dangers of “Re-colution”

Was it a coup? The Egyptian media and opposition members coined terms such as “second revolution”, “people’s coup” and “re-colution” to describe the events as noted by Adam Shatz in his London Review of Books article.3 “Some even called it a postmodern coup”. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said the “military did not take over”. Whatever you might like to call it, the end result is that Egypt has slipped under another military rule. Even those who thought, including this writer, that the military would be restrained this time, as the country is still under a revolutionary fervor, are appalled now by the violence unleashed by the security forces on those who protested against the removal of Morsi. At least 1,000 people, mostly Brotherhood supporters, have been killed by the security forces. As the MB has called for more protests, it is almost certain, given the nature of the crack down, that more blood would be spilled on the streets. The felool, meanwhile, is consolidating itself with the support of the army. General Sisi appears to be on a mission to rebuild the Egyptian army as the only “legitimate” state actor in the country, a move which will have far-reaching consequences in the future. On 19 August, in what could be seen as a perfect gesture of counter-revolution, an Egyptian court ruled that Mubarak could no longer be held in custody on a corruption charge. Following the ruling his lawyer said he could be freed within days, even as Morsi remains under military custody in an undisclosed location for over a month now.

This is the tragedy of the Egyptian revolution. The people assembled at the Tahrir Sqaure, people from all walks of the society, in early 2011 wanted the despised dictator to be deposed and the system to fall. And what was the system to be replaced with? What were the ideals of the revolution? Paul Amar says the appeal of the revolution was “social justice, a civil state, gender parity, economic equalisation, the end of police brutality and security forces’ impunity, the strengthening of worker and welfare rights, and the establishment of a newly independent foreign policy”.4 Who will make sure that a new political dispensation would work toward these goals? In historical revolutions, the vanguard of revolutionaries would embrace these responsibilities. But in ideology-less, leaderless mass uprisings, there is no committed machinery to take the revolution forward. Romanticised pluralism may not be good enough in rebuilding a post-revolutionary state. If there is no centre holding the revolutionary forces together, the latter will splinter, which is what happened in Egypt. In the country, it was the MB that tried to fill up this vacuum. But the MB’s sectarian politics backfired, dragging Egypt back into turmoil rather than rebuilding it on the revolutionary principles. As Cihan Tugal argued in a CounterPunch essay, “when movements don’t have (or claim not to have) ideologies, agendas, demands and leaders, they can go in two directions: they can dissipate (as did Occupy), or serve the agendas of others.”5

One feels sorry for the Brotherhood. But it cannot be absolved of the crisis Egypt is facing now. As Ahdaf Soueif wrote in The Guardian, “Two years ago, we believed progressives, liberals and Brotherhood supporters could work together for a civil state. Instead, the Brotherhood, in power, courted the police and the army; today it, the country and the revolution are paying the price.” Nor can the Tamarod be completely blameless. Had there been a clear plan for Egypt, they could have used the huge mobilisations in the street to hold those in power accountable rather than aligning themselves with the Army and the felool.

A coup is a coup, even if it's a "re-colution". Letting the army rule and solve the political problems would only deepen the crisis. The army, which claimed to have intervened to “restore order” in Egypt, has pushed the most populous Arab country towards civil war. Sadly, that is what the anti-Brotherhood protesters failed to realise when they supported the army intervention to oust president Mohamed Morsi.

References

1. For details of the Constitution drafting process, see Rashidi, Yasmine El (2013), “Egypt: The Rule of the Brotherhood”, The New York Review of Books, Accessed on 15 AUgust 2013, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/feb/07/egypt-rule-brotherh...

2. Cited in Al-Amin, Esam (2013), ‘The Rule of Democracy or the Rule of the Mob: Egypt’s Fateful Day’, CounterPunch, Accessed on 16 August 2013, http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/06/26/egypts-fateful-day/

3. Shatz, Adam (2013), “Short Cuts”, London Review of Books, 35(15):25 Amar, Paul (2013), “Egypt”, in Paul Amar and Vijay Prashad (Ed), Dispatches from the Arab Spring, Leftword Books: New Delhi, P83.

4. Tugal, Cihan (2013), ‘A Global Fallacy and the Military Intervention in Egypt: The End of the “Leaderless” Revolution’, CounterPunch, Accessed on 16 August 2013, http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/07/10/the-end-of-the-leaderless-revolut...

5. Soueif, Ahdaf (2013), “Now Egyptians are all paying the price”, The Guardian, Accessed on 18 August 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/14/egyptians-paying-pr...

6. In an essay on AlJazeera, Mahmood Mamdani offered this point. In his view, Egypt’s secular left must abandon its historical attachment to power and side with accountability instead. See Mamdani, Mahmood (2013), “Lessons for the secular left”, AlJazeera, accessed on 10 August 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/07/201373010918291221.html

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