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Egypt and revolution

January 30, 2014 at 2:37 am

Last weekend McClatchy newspapers published an article under the headline “Egypt’s ‘revolution’ is over as people accept imposition of military rule”. In the article journalist Nancy A. Youssef remarks that, “Egypt now resembles the kind of police state whose oppressive policies” once gave rise to the Arab uprisings.

The Egyptian revolution has indeed been suffering. On 3 July, the army deposed Egypt’s first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi, dissolved the popularly elected parliament and annulled the constitution approved by a public referendum.

Since then, Egypt’s military has appointed interim leaders and Egyptians have been subject to a strict curfew while witnessing a brutal crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and other peaceful protesters who continue to oppose the military coup, as well as a full on military assault against the Sinai, a neglected region of Egypt that has long suffered from marginalization. Thousands of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have been killed by the security services, and thousands more have been arrested or injured.

The interim authorities have also shut down oppositional media outlets and a court has banned the Muslim Brotherhood as well as its affiliates. Furthermore, anybody opposing these developments is portrayed as a terrorist or foreign agent.

And most Egyptians seem to be content with this return to authoritarian military rule.

Thus it is difficult to argue that Egypt’s revolution has not been derailed. Many of the same revolutionaries who inspired the world by reclaiming Tahrir for the Egyptian people also mobilized in the streets in support of the counterrevolution. In doing so, Egypt’s revolutionaries clearly forgot some important lessons of the past. But this does not necessarily mean that the revolution is over. It just means that perhaps now is a good time to step back and reflect upon the meaning of revolution. As Lenin once observed, “Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.”

Ever since former President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down, a romantic conception of resistance has emerged in Egypt that imagines street protests as the equivalent of sweeping change. This is especially problematic considering that hundreds of thousands of voices in Tahrir have been making demands on behalf of the entire nation, but perhaps also helps to explain why street protests have become more important than the ballot box.

However, while the mobilization of bodies in the Arab street does send a powerful message to autocratic leaders, these protesters have failed to materialize the ways in which their ideas of democracy, equality and justice might contribute to the creation of a new social formation that lives these ideals in daily lives. After the 3 July coup Time magazine observed that Egyptians are the world’s best protesters and the world’s worst democrats. While overly harsh, I would add that, so far, they are also somewhat lacklustre revolutionaries.

In 1846, Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology. In this text the authors argued that the dominant “revolutionary” approach of the time in no way combats “the real existing world”, but merely turns our attention to “the phrases of this world”, in other words, to ideas. However Marx and Engels wanted to emphasize the power of man him or herself in changing our world, because “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life”. By focusing on the condition of humans as we really are, both collectively and individually, these revolutionary thinkers conceived of humans as capable of making history. While ideas are also important, it is true that our material relations do need to change in order for us to achieve true liberation. As Marx also explained in his essay “On The Jewish Question”, political equality is never going to be enough when our economic relations still mean that some of us are forced to sell our labour while others are not.

That said, the revolutionary emphasis on materialism is sometimes taken too far because ideas are still the prism through which we perceive our social relations: we must remember the old adage that says one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist.

Fortunately Marxist activist and philosopher Antonio Gramsci synthesised a cultural and material approach, and his conceptual framework provides some insights into the Egyptian revolutionary project today. At the same time, it also leaves a lot of questions unanswered, at least by me. But this is my intention: I want to raise questions for other, more experienced, revolutionaries to try to answer. As Che Guevara once remarked: “I don’t care if I fall, as long as someone else picks up my gun and keeps on shooting.”

Gramsci believed the power of ideas subtly elicits the tacit consent to a social order, reasoning that members of a society willingly participate in structures of domination that keep them in subordinate roles. In other words, people engage in exploitative practices because the dominant ideas about life either convince them that this is a desirable outcome, or disable their critical faculties so that no other alternative appears feasible.

Hegemony is only achieved when a political bloc controls civil society as well as how the dominant ideas in life are refracted through it. These ideas are both produced and reproduced in civil society, which includes the media, political parties, mosques, churches, schools, and even discourse itself; however, these ideas are also always actively contested. Political legitimacy is continuously being challenged in civil society by competing political blocs that have ideological frameworks, or what Gramsci calls “common sense”, which he describes as the repertoire of popular culture, with different social implications. It is only when the balance of civil society experiences an ideological shift that opportunities for any kind of radical social transformation become possible with limited reactionary movement.

Neither the revolutionaries nor the Muslim Brotherhood were able to win this war of ideas in Egypt, and as a result the reactionary movement is now in power. The army that sustained decades of authoritarianism has maintained its hegemony, with protesters now cheering on the massacres of fellow Egyptians in the name of “security”, while carrying pictures of the man who symbolises the reconsolidation power: General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

We all knew that the army remained powerful behind the scenes after the 25 January Revolution. But more difficult to explain is how and why the Egyptian people have remained so loyal. Perhaps the coup leaders were also uncertain about this when they decided to overturn the government, which would explain why General Al-Sisi initially appeared alongside Al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Coptic Patriarch Tawadros and Mohamed El-Baradei to announce the dissolution of the elected government. The army needed these figures in order to have legitimacy among the Egyptian protesters.

While it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood definitely out-organized any other party in democratic elections and won the majority in the parliament, as well as secured the presidency, the movement’s electoral successes were reversed in only one year because it never achieved hegemony. From an outside perspective, this is somewhat surprising, especially considering that the Muslim Brotherhood comprises such a powerful sector of civil society in Egypt. As Nadine Farag writes for Frontline, “Social service provision has been a core activity for the Muslim Brotherhood since the early 1930s, predating the group’s political mobilization. The Brotherhood has long viewed social outreach as a way to demonstrate its ideological commitment to alleviating poverty, reducing inequality and increasing social responsibility.” She further explains that, “the group operates hospitals, schools and programs to support widows and orphans across Egypt.”

And yet when members of the Muslim Brotherhood were elected into office, the opposition saw only religious fanatics trying to seize power. Elected leaders countered these criticisms, but their ideas either did not resonate with many Egyptians, or they were interpreted very differently to the way the Muslim Brotherhood intended. And this is Gramsci’s point: if leaders promise democracy this can mean a myriad of things. In the case of Egypt, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and critics of the coup think that democracy means elections and majority rule, whereas those who mobilized in the streets on 30 June against President Morsi and his government think that democracy means inclusive politics, perhaps even to the point of privileging minority voices.

The Muslim Brotherhood and anti-coup protester’s claims to legitimacy today probably ring hollow to those who now view the army as the ultimate institution in service of the Egyptian people. The Muslim Brotherhood, they claim, only serviced their own, thus lost their legitimacy. Ironically, these Egyptians are both suffering from historical amnesia and momentarily blinded to the army’s current oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, but this will change when the guns are pointed on their own, as they inevitably will be.

Class dynamics definitely play a role here as well: the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi were subjected to all kinds of degrading insults while in power, similar to Western Orientalist stereotypes, and today these sentiments have transformed into a fascist discourse that portrays the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists, and sometimes as un-Egyptian or even un-Islamic, according to a recent article published by the Washington Post.

So if the Egyptian Army has always maintained its hegemony throughout this entire process, we must ask ourselves: what exactly did the 25 January Revolution actually achieve?

The revolution forced Egypt’s corrupt authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak to step down. However it did not change the foundations of the Egyptian security state or its corrupt economic system. The powerful generals and wealthy businessman may have been politically isolated, but their power and money remained intact, and today they rule again.

To me, the most important thing that the revolution changed is the idea that ordinary Egyptians matter: that all Egyptians not only deserve a say in their government, but also should benefit from the vast wealth that Egypt has to offer. Of course, recent developments have eroded this achievement, but there is already a longing among some to revive it.

The problem is, that both the revolutionaries and the elected leaders of Egypt’s short-lived democracy failed to imagine a revolutionary project that would systematically institute this newfound sense of equality and justice. The military establishment maintained total control of the use of force and its economic elite were left unchallenged. The Muslin Brotherhood acquired the only thing that was up for grabs: political power. And by trying to access what was not up for grabs, including the judiciary, they ended up using their political power in a way that made their opponents scared, angry and marginalized.

The Muslim Brotherhood did attempt to reach out to the opposition, but these attempts were rebuffed. They also tried to introduce reforms to this system, but these reforms were hardly a radical re-imagining of Egypt’s social relations, and anyway they were never allowed the necessary time it would take to realize any meaningful change.

The revolutionaries have been even less impressive, focusing all their attention on street mobilizations rather than improving the lives of ordinary Egyptians. Egypt is the same today as it was before the 25 January Revolution, and arguably much worse.

And Egypt’s revolutionaries have learned this lesson the hard way. After initially supporting the coup but now finding their voices marginalized by the interim authorities, many have declared their opposition to the current military regime and taken a step back to reassess the dire situation that they unintentionally helped to create. According to Youssef, “Last month, seven revolutionary parties, including Maher’s, agreed to put aside their differences and form a coalition, the Revolution Path Front. Instead of seeking the presidency or changing the way the nation operates, the front now seeks smaller victories like raising the minimum wage in the private sector and getting the state to restart train operations.”

Youssef argues that, “The attention to such working-class concerns as pay raises and better working conditions marks a shift for the so-called revolutionaries, who mostly hail from Egypt’s elite classes.” One can only hope that organizing with the poor will give Egypt’s revolutionaries a new appreciation of the Muslim Brotherhood that is based on respect for the movement’s historical commitment to the people, despite its political marginalization.

As the revolution continues to unfold, new alliances will need to be formed in order to articulate new ideological frameworks that mobilize for revolutionary change. It will not be an easy task. Indeed both the revolutionaries and the supporters of democratic legitimacy have a lot of work to do. But as Castro once declared, “A revolution is not a bed of roses. A revolution is a struggle between the future and the past.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.