Power, the January 25 revolutionaries, and responsibility

Tahrir. 2011. January 25. Egypt. Revolution.

Four years ago, a fledgling movement of revolutionary activists accomplished in a few days more than the Egyptian opposition had in years. Yet, for those revolutionaries, the “revolution” had just begun, with their political consciousness forged in those 18 days of uprising. Today, that larger-than-life story is but an echo of the roar it once was – and the revolutionaries in a post-traumatic stage.

With good reason, various Egyptian political forces have been critiqued over the last four years. Edward Said correctly notes that speaking truth to and criticising power is a duty in the public sphere – regardless of who holds that power. The revolutionaries, nonetheless, have seldom been subjected to that type of scrutiny. If they ever held power in the formal sense, it was far less than other forces, warranting less attention.

If there is the slightest expectation the revolutionaries might play a role of importance in the future, a critical assessment of the exercise of their power, even if the possession of that power is debateable, becomes necessary. The anniversary of the revolutionaries’ most powerful time would seem to be the most apropos occasion to carry out that task. The ideal venue would be where the revolutionaries find there most sympathetic audience, which is why this piece is kindly published in Mada Masr.

Did the revolutionary camp become powerful? If so, how well did it exercise that power? But let a deeper, more critical eye be cast. The revolutionaries are recognized as the inheritors of the inspirational, revolutionary moment of 2011. Even without being powerful, a responsibility to choose virtuously brings another type of power – which also ought to be evaluated, particularly in regards to 2013.  

Terms are often contested, and so is the notion of the Egyptian revolutionary. Some may try to limit it to members of certain recognized groups such as April 6, or the Revolutionary Socialists. After the departure of the Brotherhood from power, supporters of Morsi appropriated the term. When it is used here, however, it is both a term of negation and one of affirmation. For this author, the revolutionaries were those who rejected certain positions throughout the last four years. They rejected the regime of Mubarak, and they rejected an alignment with SCAF in order to get power. They rejected the instrumentalization of religion for partisan ends, as others did – and they rejected authoritarianism, which gives the state and its institutions a near sacred standing. They affirmed the pluralistic spirit of the 18 days, and affirmed a civil polity, in which the fundamental rights of all are upheld, and genuine reform occurs to fulfil economic and social justice for all. As noted, terms are often contested – and many may consider “revolutionary” to mean something quite different. This is but the author’s reading, which informs the words that follow. If these revolutionaries are to play a powerful role in the future, what should they consider, going forward?

Political power and the ability to affect: The revolutionaries in 2011, 2012 and 2013

During the 18-day uprising in 2011, the revolutionaries gained a certain type of power. Their theoretical perspective, though imprecise, became manifest through popular mobilization. With that, the revolutionaries were able to fundamentally disrupt the workings of the state, provoking and forcing it to change direction, resulting in the removal of Mubarak. At the same time, they also missed the opportunity to harness and develop that power.

In 2011, when the military’s transitional road map was put to a referendum, the revolutionaries had considerable political capital. That capital, however, was not capitalized upon. Revolutionaries generally mobilized for a “no” vote, but provided little in the way of a plausible alternative. They lost the vote. Their failure to properly express a well-developed political vision meant they missed a key opportunity to set the agenda of the post-Mubarak period.

A year later, the revolutionaries had the option of coalescing around a single candidate for presidential elections. It is likely that such a candidate would have prevailed. Instead, the revolutionary vote was split, leading to a run-off between Mubarak’s last prime minister, and the non-revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood. Some will claim the revolutionaries played a critical role in that run-off, by ensuring the former regime candidate lost. They did – but the very occurrence of such an abysmal run-off would have been impossible had there been a single, pro-January 25 revolution candidate.

Arising from that election was a presidency that the revolutionaries eventually, and correctly, opposed. Pro-revolutionary figures were the first to demand presidential elections: a laudable, democratic escape route from the prevailing political impasse, with revolutionaries en masse endorsing the demand. There were, however, other, less scrupulous forces that opposed the Brotherhood’s presidency. The key political party opposition umbrella was the National Salvation Front, which later backed the Tamarod group that called for the June 30 protests. More of the revolutionaries should have focused more intently on pressing Front members to distinguish themselves and the Front from more insidious forces, as well as interrogating Tamarod and its backers.

In short, at a time that could have made a critical difference, the revolutionaries did not realize the need to take initiative. As the protests to fulfill the democratic demand for presidential elections drew nearer, it was only a small group of revolutionaries that were dubious about the outcome. The rest merely made various public calls against military intervention when they should have focused on holding the main umbrella group, the National Salvation Front, to that anti-intervention principle as a condition, and established protocols to be followed if that intervention happened. That was their only leverage.

This is not to say the revolutionaries had control over, or were responsible for, the protests in any effective manner. Had the revolutionaries been silent at home on June 30, the size and the outcome of the protests would have been same, drawn from the broader, anti-Brotherhood segments of the population. Here, effective power, and the “power of responsibility to provide alternatives” diverge – and it is the latter we must now examine.

The power of responsibility: Alternatives and the revolutionaries

Through media and mobilization, the revolutionaries were significant agitators that provoked responses from non-revolutionary forces. Generally, however, those responses only affected the speed at which the post-Mubarak transitional plan developed. Most of the time, the revolutionaries had no effective power to cause the plan to actually change direction.

Nevertheless, as the inheritors of the revolutionary moment of the 18 days, the revolutionary camp had another kind of power. It had the power – but also then the responsibility – to provide genuinely viable options and contingencies, even if it lacked the ability to implement such alternatives. When it failed to do that at acute junctures, it shirked that responsibility.

Supporting early presidential elections was laudable, and the open revolutionary rejection of a military intrusion to bring about such elections ensured revolutionary participation in the protests was ethical. Without effectively planning for the contingency, however, of such a military intervention, the revolutionaries, en masse, shirked their responsibility to specify alternatives – particularly those who actually participated in the protests.

As June 30 approached, it was sensible to presume a voluntary departure of Morsi from the presidency was unlikely. Most revolutionaries, naively, mobilized anyway – admittedly, with many of them going into the protests considering the military as an institution already neutralized, or aligned with the Brotherhood. The revolutionary camp did not propose substitutes to that mobilization – except to simply not mobilize. Some never protested; others demobilized in defiance after they saw the military threatening interference. But in the end, revolutionaries either stayed home, or persisted in the notion Morsi’s voluntary departure was plausible.  

Many accuse the revolutionaries of turning into “faux liberals” at this time, whose principles were all secondary to hatred of the Brotherhood. There were indeed cheerleaders for the military, those who later justified the most horrendous abuses. But while some of them might have even been revolutionaries themselves once upon a time, such “faux liberals” put the revolutionary camp in their crosshairs as well. The revolutionary camp’s failures were not in its converting to “faux liberalism” which excused human rights violations – rather, it was through the failure to deliver alternate choices.

Few revolutionaries would have ever opposed the departure of Morsi from the presidency, and most harbored concerns about the military coming back to the center-stage of Egyptian politics. However, on July 3, revolutionaries effectively abandoned the field to the generals, though for varying reasons.

Some impetuously lauded the military, thinking they could control the Armed Forces if it got out of line; though most revolutionaries escaped being swept up in the popular, gullible exhilaration about the military’s return. Some revolutionaries expressed cautious optimism about the involvement of figures like Mohamed ElBaradei in the post-Morsi cabinet. They felt such figures would restrain more dastardly influences, bringing about an inclusive, civilian-led transition that would include the Brotherhood and others. Others still simply stayed on the sidelines, with the majority of revolutionaries likely harboring concerns. Yet, those concerns did not immediately result in the revolutionaries standing up to the military, going to the streets, or providing any plan or strategy to deal with the new reality.

Within a couple of weeks, there were few revolutionaries that expressed even a circumspect optimism about the new political dispensation. Police brutality in July, let alone August, as well as the call to “mandate” the military to “fight terrorism,” dispelled that limited confidence. Some revolutionaries began to protest against both the Brotherhood and the military in July – but they were few, and before long, security concerns meant protesting became tactically nonsensical. Yet, once again, they failed to imagine a practicable alternative.

The revolutionaries had genuinely and publicly opposed any role for the military – but they found themselves practically yielding to that role when it took place, without providing an alternate path. It would be unfair to describe them as “military cheerleaders,” who put aside notions of fundamental rights, as did so many others. Nor could the revolutionary camp have affected the outcome on July 3, one way or the other – but they had a responsibility to be relevant, nonetheless.

The sum of the revolutionary camp’s concerns and discomfort led it to being either naïve, or virtually inept, in the run up to and in the aftermath of June 30. They should have rallied behind other choices: a referendum on the military-led roadmap; a new roadmap altogether; but no viable options were seriously considered and mobilized for. That is where the real failure of the revolutionary camp after Morsi’s departure lies – naiveté, and the shirking of the responsibility to stipulate other courses of action.

The future of the revolutionary camp

Any opening for genuine, progressive change to a more inclusive and democratic political culture in Egypt is likely to take years to materialize. In the meantime, there is much for the revolutionary camp to consider, if it is to properly address the failings of its infancy. It can still play the role that it rightfully ought to, if it stays true to the spirit of the 18-day uprising, and the revolution it seeks.

  1. To adopt viable political positions, as well as issue cohesive critiques, requires a real vision, underpinned by a genuine political philosophy, concerned about the next 10, 20 and 30 years. Developing such a political project, forged in the experiences of the 18 days and the history of the last four years, remains vitally necessary. Otherwise, any future opportunity that presents itself will be squandered, as Egyptians – and Arabs – fall to the false choice between an Islamist right, or authoritarianism. Egyptians – and Arabs – deserve, and can do, much better.

  2. The next generation of activists will need subsistence – but also training, and creativity. Other models of activism for them need to be considered, as they look for different ways and tactics to pursue their goals. Some institutions of this current generation may fade away into the annals of history – indeed, the next generation may even be so impatient as to discard them. But others can develop, and lay down seeds for the future.

  3. The revolutionary forces need to decide what role they want to play, at different levels of society. But more than that, they must also engage in greater coordination, so that diversity is strength, as opposed to simply being a cause of fragmented disunity. The British labor movement gave rise to different types of political formations and groups – but they coordinated, giving them the ability to function powerfully.

  4. Finally, the revolutionaries must also remain cognizant of what has distinguished it. The core of the January 25 revolutionary uprising was speaking truth to power. That is a tremendous stance of ideational power, if not political power. While the revolutionary camp may sometimes embrace certain fixed and regular political personalities or forces, it ought never to make the mistake of confusing its mission with that of simply acquiring a power position. Otherwise, it can – and should – easily meet the same fate as so many others that have passed from the scene.

The revolutionaries need to be creative, focusing themselves on the medium to long term. Their time may indeed come, but not today – but when it does, they must retain to their core what made the 18 days of 2011 so important. If they would be revolutionaries, they must be revolutionary, and continue to be as such. The inheritors of the January 25 revolutionary moment of 2011 not only have the ability to do so much more for Egypt and beyond: that inheritance means they have a responsibility to do so.

H.A. Hellyer 

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