Understanding the latest developments in Egypt’s protests

Editor’s note: On Saturday, 152 protesters were sentenced to two to five years in prison for participating in protests on April 25, sparked by the transfer of sovereign control of the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. Written prior to the court verdict, this article analyzes the significance of the April 25 protests.

Two contrasting views surfaced immediately after the calls for protests on April 25 that were sparked by the Egyptian government’s transfer of sovereign control over the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. We heard sarcasm on the day of the protest from supporters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with statements like this one made on state television and satellite TV channels owned by businessmen loyal to the administration: “The low-life druggies called for demonstrations and no one showed up.”

In the other camp, among the revolutionaries there was a different tone expressed on youth forums and social media: “In spite of everything, we have won. We have exposed their fear. We forced them to chase us from street to street.”

It is worth mentioning here that the April 25 protests that took place in Giza and Cairo were violently dispersed by the police, who used teargas and chased protesters through side streets. Hundreds were arrested. The police also cordoned off the protest’s meeting points and arrested dozens of young people from their homes and cafes in raids and round-ups that took place in the lead-up to April 25. This poses the question, was April 25 a victory or a defeat for the pro-democracy groups?

Victory and defeat begin and end in the heart and mind. The feeling that you have won constitutes at least half a victory. But victory is also more than “a momentary mental state.” We need to view it as one battle in the ongoing war. In that sense, I see the events of April 25 as an important step in the process of forming a radical opposition to the July 2013 regime.

A bankrupt opposition

All opposition groups were left for dead following the military’s ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013. This includes both the old Mubarak-era opposition groups and the new camps that sprang from the January 25 revolution. The defeat of the opposition was not done by armed military force, but was an ideological and political battle. What I mean is that the opposition — in its overwhelming majority — did not fight and lose to the counterrevolution forces in the streets. Rather, it was engulfed into the many streams of the counterrevolution.

This happened in two ways. The first, and most significant, was the case of the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist supporters, who had gained power through an alliance with the counterrevolution’s spearhead, the Supreme Council of Armed Forced (SCAF), and ended up fighting the military regime under divisive sectarian banners once it turned against them. Secondly, we have the civil forces that rejected the military council because of its alliance with the Islamists, and then supported the military once it was ready to attack them.

As for the revolutionary camp (that vaguely defined minority that lives on the margins of a war between dinosaurs), it was active on the streets but quite dormant in the realm of politics. When politics imposed itself at peak moments of the power struggle, for example, revolutionaries mostly followed traditional politicians, until finally we saw the sweeping majority led by the National Salvation Front celebrate the military as a savior, and the coup as the only solution in the face of the Islamist “dark ages.”

The opposition’s defeat left a dangerous vacuum after June 2013. This is why the April 25 demonstrations were significant, as a step toward a potential rebuilding of a radical opposition.

A new birth?

The April 25 demonstrations took place against a background of a palpable decline in the optimistic celebratory atmosphere that followed Sisi’s coming to power. Probably the most symbolic failures of the current administration and a blow to the Armed Forces’ image is the scandal labelled #KoftaGate by Egyptian social media users. In February 2014, when Sisi was minister of defense, the military announced a sham device that purportedly cured HIV/AIDs, Hepatitis C and other illnesses. This scandal reflects the much broader ethical, moral, technical and information failures that have been behind the systemic collapse of the ruling coalition. This has become literally a filthy rule, ideologically based on a sickening ultra-nationalist rhetoric. This rule is headed toward economic collapse, national humiliation and political instability while alienating its allies and creating new enemies. We can say that what we are facing today is a form of neoliberal militarism that is mediocre and out of touch with reality.

In this context, with the growing economic suffering experienced by large segments of the middle class and poor, reflected in the steady devaluation of the Egyptian pound, the June 30 alliance between the military and civilian groups began to corrode. In January 2016, the first Parliament in four years was sworn in following elections managed by security forces to maintain loyalty to the president. The administration’s failures, the collapse of its credibility and stark contradictions in government discourse have created an opening for the rise of strong opposition satire, whose audience grew by the day. Political satire that circulated widely on social media platforms led an ideological attack on the June 30 regime. The same oppositional role played by independent newspapers and some satellite TV programs in the final years of former President Hosni Mubarak’s era is now assumed by social media platforms that have a higher ceiling and a wider audience.

Against the background of a deep sociopolitical crisis, ideological incitement acts as the opening attack, in the language of military strategists. It breaks up the ruling power’s hegemonic control over people’s awareness. It reveals contradictions, exposes crimes, creates a language of resistance and formulates new ideas about what is happening in contrast to what should be happening. A state of dissent is created, which elevates the initial anger caused by poor living conditions experienced by individuals, or social sectors, to collective dissent.

That is exactly what has been unfolding in the past year: the transition from individual suffering to a collective state of dissent. The April 25 demonstrations were the largest and most significant marker of this shift. While they did indeed have frequent prequels in recent months — be they labor strikes, local uproars against police brutality (in Luxor, Ismailia, Darb al-Ahmar and elsewhere), or the doctors’ fight against the Ministry of Interior — April 25 was the first time that confrontations have taken such a broad, politicized and inclusive form.  

To the street

My aim is not to analyze tactical errors committed by the protesters, or even attempt to draw out lessons for the future. I only want to point out that April 25 was a significant threshold, shifting the confrontation from the ideological realm to the realm of the street. But I also want to emphasize a few more points.

First, taking to the street does not mean leaving the ideological arena empty. Rather, it should be understood as an addition to a multidimensional battle. Such a battle, in order to achieve its major and final goals in both the medium and long term, must blend the intellectual, the political, the organizational, the confrontational and the popular. More often than not, the failure of radical democratic movements lies in prioritizing action for its own sake, sometimes with no horizon, at the expense of independent vision and organization.

Second, this is only the beginning. The opposition was able to take to the streets in the wider political sense, but it did not win any fixed ground. It will now have to advance and retreat, then retreat and advance again, precisely because it is facing a blood-thirsty power that refuses to cede any space in the street or in politics. This means that perseverance is necessary for the radical opposition. Fluctuating enthusiasm could present a greater danger than the repression and viciousness of the regime.

Third, taking to the streets does not at all mean that the street has been won. This is the essence of any radical struggle where the way to victory is seen as winning millions to the side of the fight for justice and freedom. There is still a long way to go for radical activists to win a critical mass to their side. If their movement is to have a higher goal, it should be to belong to the people, to resist being dazzled by the movement of thousands, or tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands. History is made by millions, and revolutionaries are just a small part of those millions.

Finally, from a tactical point of view, Sisi’s supporters have reason to celebrate that the potential of a broad movement on April 25 was derailed, just as revolutionaries can be justified in celebrating having exhausted state apparatuses and revealed their failure in the face of popular mobilization. But from the standpoint of the ongoing struggle, what happened was, in essence, the baptism of a new opposition moment in the street. The state has succeeded in forestalling its fulfilment, but it certainly did not, and will not, succeed in stopping the long march, of which we have just witnessed the beginning.

This article has been translated and edited for clarity. You can read the original Arabic here.

Tamer Waguih 

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