Questions about June 30: Who were we and what were we thinking? Part 1

Just before June 30, 2016, we gathered a group of Mada Masr’s opinion writers to ask them about June 30, 2013, what we were thinking then, and what could have been done differently. Researchers Amr Abdel Rahman and Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, writers Amr Ezzat and Belal Alaa, and activist Elham Eidaros were present.

The conversation started with an urge to define “who is the revolution” but the question was adjusted to “who is Egypt’s democratic movement,” peeling away its elusive nature by going back to its recent history and reaching to the moment of choice on June 30. In asking this question, the group rationalizes the pro-democracy movement’s position on that day.

Elham Eidaros: There was almost a consensus in 2004 that the main mission was to remove [deposed President Hosni] Mubarak and his project to pass the presidency to his son. Several proposals, including Islamist and nationalist Nasserist ones, did not see a problem in replacing Mubarak with spy chief Omar Suleiman. A pro-democracy minority, mainly among the left, believed that a wide front joining Islamists and nationalists with democrats would not work and that the slogan should be “no to militarization and no to political Islam.” But they were a very marginalized group.

Amr Abdelrahman: The revolution is a major event that nobody can claim to own. If I ask when did the French revolution win or when was it defeated, nobody can answer. A revolution is an objective event; a total collapse of power relations in a society both in the public and private spheres. This complicated event should not be read through dichotomies of revolution and counter revolution. From the heart of the revolution, a despotic project was born, and I do not think it represents a counter revolution, but worse.

Incidentally, Karl Marx didn’t use the term “counter revolution” in his writings except for a very few times. Marx didn’t call the rise of Napoleon III, who totally annihilated the political space and cracked down on all revolutionary ambition of the working class, a counter revolution. He called it a new project, a “Bonaparte project.”

On the margins of the political struggles [in Egypt], a rooted democratic group was forming over time, based on two pillars: opposing the deep conviction that Egypt cannot be ruled except by security apparatuses, [by arguing that] that it should be ruled through a political space in which different forces, both from the right and the left, can represent their interests. The second pillar is related to democracy: This group is calling for democracy in Egypt, on the level of organizing religion, of private life and of women’s issues, and on some level of structuring the relation between power and wealth.

This democratic group was a minority in 2004 and 2011, and it remains so and will remain a minority in the near future. It did not manage to transform itself into a political project that transcends the membership of some middle-class individuals. Those are people whose families worked hard to educate them. They don’t own fortunes — all they have is their education and their wits, acquired through exposure to technology and some transnational networks. It’s well understood that when the world turned toward neoliberalism in the 1990s, those who didn’t have either wealth or a relationship with power fell suspended in midair.

This group came into 2011 as a minority, with some intelligent political maneuvering, neutralizing the army and challenging the predominant idea that this country has to be ruled by the security apparatus. But starting March 2011, it has received blows and come out defeated in all its battles.

This democratic movement engaged in politics in all possible ways. They allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, developed the Revolution Continues initiative [a 2011 parliamentary bloc], voted for [former Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim] Abouel Fotouh, [human rights lawyer] Khaled Ali and [left-leaning politician] Hamdeen Sabbahi [in the 2012 presidential elections]. Most of it agreed to vote for [now deposed President and Brotherhood member Mohamed] Morsi and then joined forces with the National Salvation Front [which eventually supported Morsi’s deposition]. There is only one battle which this movement engaged in on its own and that was in Mohamed Mahmoud Street [in 2011, when protesters clashed with security forces, while the Brotherhood and the military rulers were gearing up for the parliamentary elections]. This movement always did what it could do, given its abilities. In that sense no major mistakes were committed.

Morsi believed it was impossible for him to strike against the old state without striking against the forces of the revolution. What he mainly wanted was to play the role of Bonaparte. He is the one who drove us in this direction. Before June 30, it felt like a coup was on the way and the Brotherhood did not help itself. In March and April 2013, something was happening among the Brotherhood which I didn’t understand. It is as though they were ready to gamble everything. They wanted to either be Bonaparte or lose everything. The last attempt to put some reason into this was when [politician] Amr Moussa, together with the groups that formed the government after July 3 2013, went to meet [Brotherhood leader] Khairat al-Shater. The Brotherhood refused [to compromise].

It became clear that the old forces in Egypt came to a conclusion similar to that which came to the minds of its counterparts in France in 1848. When the bourgeoisie there was allowed to have its parties as a result of the revolution, it founded what came to be known as the republican party, the regime party and the group of liberal forces. Within four years, the bourgeoisie realized that this was not working, in view of the presence of much more radical social groups. It then sought the army. Marx brilliantly describes this by saying that the bourgeoisie decided to overthrow its state, brought the clown from the stable and appointed him emperor.

As for Egypt, major forces of capital run its interests through the security authorities and presidential palace. After the revolution, they found themselves in a situation where they had to organize in political parties, and so we had the Congress Party, the Free Egyptians and so on. Then they were taken aback by the fact that the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party could single-handedly swallow them and that it wasn’t worth the effort. They began to collect signatures in support of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which later became the Tamarod campaign [demanding an end to Morsi’s rule]. They did that to give the matter a revolutionary tone in order to make it more acceptable.

In this context, the haute bourgeoisie’s bet was on the army, while Morsi insisted that he was the revolution’s Bonaparte. What do I do [as a democracy advocate]? Should I stay at home? It doesn’t work. When the country is in a revolutionary state, as one of its players I can’t suggest to people to stay home. Should I ally with the Brotherhood, who don’t want to ally with anybody? The last option was what we settled on and it was not a mistake. The core of our failure lies in our inability to use the space we had bought for ourselves before July 3.

Ibrahim al-Houdaiby: The alliance between the Brotherhood and the army was wavering. The Brotherhood became a burden for the institutions that brought them in to contain the revolution. On the other hand, the Brotherhood’s stubbornness was increasing, not only because Morsi refused early presidential elections — he even refused to remove [former Prime Minister] Hesham Qandil when this was his own party’s demand. In mid-June 2013, leaks from Shater’s office were saying that the Brotherhood were running four countries: Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.

On June 30, the Brotherhood’s choice was not to make any compromises, even to save the organization. They did not want to leave power defeated, unless they were made to leave oppressively.

Before June 30 my bet was to join the demonstrations, and there was one of two possibilities: either the huge number of protesters would force the Brotherhood to compromise, or they would try to contain the military’s role — as some groups tried to do and where most of us participated.

Amr Ezzat: [There are two meanings associated with revolution.] The first is a state of revolution, which as Amr Abdelrahman said does not belong to anybody — a state of struggle and collapse of power relations between different forces. It is true those power relations did not collapse completely but they were threatened. The second concerns the description of the movement that defines itself as revolutionary because of the initiative it takes and its commitment to political ideas of change and the steps that should be taken in that direction.

After the ouster of Mubarak, and the consensus on it between the army and Islamists and wider sections of the state and the people, we were joined by many forces. At the time, I felt something of a defeat, as if we were a small group undertaking a very difficult task with the beginning of the revolution and then we suddenly reached a fast victory and everybody had a share in it. After that, a new phase of struggle began which revealed power relations in this society. It began to be clear that the revolutionary movement that’s different from the Islamists is the weakest in revolutionary performance, although it’s the one that most talks and thinks about the revolution.

Parallel to that was a sense among this movement — particularly the most radical among us at times of heightened struggle on the street — that we’re a force working to break old and hegemonic relationships in society and all forces in power, including the Islamists, and that we wouldn’t enter into any agreements but oppose all agreements and compromises.

At the same time we had a problem, which we shared with the Islamists. The elites were unable to fully control the people and sometimes it was the people who drove the elites into more radical, less consensual positions. The people were hungry for movement, for change and for a revolutionary struggle. Most young people allied with the revolution in its most revolutionary and dramatic form, such as in the battles of Mohamed Mahmoud. They insulted those who wanted to negotiate and make agreements.

This was not very different from what was happening among the Islamists. There was a huge population of Islamists in that “we are the revolution” state of mind, the Islamic version of it. Large groups such as Salafis and Hazemoon [followers of Salafi preacher Hazem Salah Abou Ismail] internalized the revolution. While the political elite of the Brotherhood was willing to be flexible, the people behind it were telling them during the controversy of the [2011] constitution [around the extent to which it should be Islamic]: We’re behind you for an Islamic solution — you can’t remove the Islamic provisions we want to include in the constitution, which are far less than what we strive for.

At the end of the battle, a third movement appeared: the old forces, the forces of capital and the classes who are afraid of radical change. They started to mobilize, and with them were the military and various state apparatuses. That movement, paradoxically, was the one able to eventually use the revolutionary logic, which materialized in Sisi’s rule. He subjected all to his power, entered the battle for power in a revolutionary performance bypassing procedures, killing, imprisoning, drafting laws he wants and cracking down on political groups. We lost in the game of revolutionary logic.

Before June 30, it was never an option to support the Brotherhood against a possible coup, because we were on the frontlines of a battle against them on the street and in the media and the military was not clearly apparent in the picture. Its intervention was possible, lurking out there on the horizon. It seems the revolutionary groups did not sufficiently consider how to join forces with it in a position that could allow engagement and struggle later on. After a while, the old powers began to occupy a wider space in the battle against the Brotherhood. These are powers that tell us they’re with us but want the army to rule. Some of the more pragmatic among the political elites wondered: How will we deal with the situation and what will be our role if there’s a coup? Those elites later played a role after the coup. Revolutionary constituencies began to abuse them and call them traitors, and they, for their part, were unable to market their participation in the government to their revolutionary constituencies. They became individuals representing themselves after having been part of a movement, and began to behave as such.

That’s part of our problem among ourselves. There are some who are doing revisions and say the solution lies in organizing, as if we could all join one disciplined party, like the scouts for example. But in reality, there was first, during the period after the revolution, a hysteria of organizing in movements, groups and all different forms; and second, as a group we were getting bigger, including very diverse people, and we needed time and effort to actually become a movement with similar ideas.

I believe the Islamists’ constituency that’s hungry for revolution drove them to this fate. In dialogues with relatively moderate cadres in the Freedom and Justice Party, they told me they feel like they were riding an elephant. They agree to the deletion from the constitution of a provision that’s part of Islamic jurisprudence, but the elephant they are riding would not allow them. They had fed the elephant for too long on the idea of the Islamic solution and religious text versus democracy.

Houdaiby: That’s true, but at certain moments it wasn’t. With the Legitimacy and Sharia Friday [protests organized by Islamist groups in summer 2011] or the [March 2011] constitutional declaration or on the Rabea [al-Adaweya] platform, it was the Brotherhood leadership who were inciting their masses.

Belal Alaa: They wanted to radicalize their masses.

Ezzat: Yes, the leadership would come out and radically defend the Islamist project. In the end they knew their constituency and were addressing it. But behind the scenes, some of them had a crisis similar to ours. For example, the Brotherhood leadership sought new relations with Iran, but their constituency refused. The position of the Brotherhood leadership regarding a unified law for places of worship was flexible, but the Islamist masses and Al-Azhar firmly refused. The Brotherhood as a political entity were thinking about power relations and balance. They had consensual wishes, but the wider Islamist movement was not for consensus. All stakeholders acted according to their whims at the time: We’re in a revolution, we clearly express ourselves and we are thirsty for struggle and a radical victory.

Alaa: At the moment of June 30, the revolutionary masses in general, with the exception of the Islamists, wanted to defend Sisi. When [pro-democracy leader Mohamed] ElBaradei left, people felt he was running away from a battle when they wanted to engage. Since the revolution, there’s been a demand to radicalize discourses. While Islamists with democratic tendencies lost control over their masses, Hazemoon became the ones with the dominant discourse. As soon as a Muslim Brotherhood member sits with a Salafi, the latter defeats them and makes them feel guilty, so they radicalize their discourse again; we become angry and radicalize ours.

At the time it seemed to the mainstream that the revolutionary tendency was huge. Even Sisi believed that. That’s why he appointed some of them in the government after June 30. The problem is that he discovered before he came to rule that people loved him more than the revolution, and that the oppression he represents is more radical for the people than talk about democracy and negotiation. Thus Sisi became a revolutionary solution, not only because he used revolutionary methods, but because he had an answer to the heightened struggle that nobody wanted to solve between two parties, each of which refuses to negotiate. That’s why, for a year following June 30, those who criticized the army were a minority — because people really liked him.

The Brotherhood, on the other hand, were condescending toward the masses. So the people came down against them, but still they [the Brotherhood]did not believe and questions arose regarding the real number of people who took to the streets on June 30 and they had to measure the squares to calculate their numbers.

Abdelrahman: Important analysts were busy on [Brotherhood-sympathetic channel] Al-Jazeera solving this problem. [Laughter.]

Houdaiby: The Brotherhood never said that except after June 30. But they didn’t imagine that large numbers would take to the streets. People being angry is one thing, but the ability to mobilize them is something they did not foresee. They didn’t want to see the masses, because then they would have to answer the question “What did we do wrong?” A year before, [liberal MP] Mohamed Abu Hamed had called for a million-strong march against the Brotherhood, but only 200 people showed up. What had changed then? That’s why all the time June 30 and not July 3 is referred to as the coup. The Brotherhood want to erase the image of the masses from their memories.

I think the Brotherhood didn’t choose the slogan “Morsi will return” except to maintain the organization’s cohesion, despite their conviction that Morsi would not return. They were ready for limited violence to maintain cohesion. But we should not forget that the Brotherhood were also dealing with butchers — if it had only been the presidential guards massacre [in July 2013], it could have been possible to maintain the organization, but in Rabea they were taken to a different level of violence that made it impossible to maintain.

Alaa: Any authority facing a revolution makes some concessions in its discourse. Two days after January 25, Mubarak appeared on TV and removed [Minister of Interior] Habib al-Adly. The concessions were very fast. But the Brotherhood didn’t make any, not even at the level of discourse.

Houdaiby: Morsi made concessions on July 2. He said everything except that he was planning to leave. But his speech wasn’t comprehensible.

Abdelrahman: Morsi’s message in that speech was simply that the cost of legitimacy is blood.


Translated by Aida Seif El Dawla


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