Who owns the revolution? A contested anniversary

By: Albrecht Hofheinz, University of Oslo.

Parties, frments and coalitions fight for the ownership of the revolution of 25 January
Cartoon by G. Ḥasan, al-Ahrām al-Yawmī, 19 Jan. 2011

Egypt is waiting for January 25. What is going to happen on the first anniversary of the revolution?

Elections for the lower house of parliament in Egypt are finally over, with the last by-elections having been held on Jan. 18, and the world is settling in to the new reality of the Muslim Brotherhood having reaped the fruits of the Jan. 25 revolution in the heart of the Arab world. Parliament will convene for its first session on Jan. 23, just in time to mark a new phase in Egypt’s history, and thereby to close the page of the upheavals of 2011.

Upheavals? Or revolution? Last November I wrote from Tahrir Square about the hopes of many revolutionaries for a renewal of the revolutionary drive, for a “Revolution II” to pressure the ruling military council (SCAF) to stop meddling in politics and let civilians oversee the transition to institutionalized democracy and the rule of law in Egypt. But those holding out on the square and the adjacent sit-in in front of the cabinet building had to realize that the numbers of demonstrators had swelled in November because people wanted to protest against excessive police violence, not because they necessarily sympathized with the revolutionary demand for a quick and decisive end to military rule. Many, very many, ‘ordinary’ citizens continued to believe that Egypt needs a strong hand, both because its people, used to a strong hand since Pharaonic times, confuse freedom with chaos, and because the military will only accept to bow to a strong hand – in other words, a civilian president with a background in and strong support from the military. I was told such opinions countless times, by people in popular Cairo quarters, by peasants in the countryside, by people from the so-called ‘liberal’ secular elite, by young and old, by Muslims and Christians, and by Facebook friends who had been standing next to me in the tear gas on Liberation Square.

So given this situation, and the fact that most political parties and the Muslim Brotherhood were keeping quiet in order not to endanger the ongoing elections, the Tahrir & Cabinet demonstrators were debating whether or not to continue the sit-in, and in what form, and were gradually coming to the conclusion that they should perhaps rather focus on the first anniversary of Jan. 25. Meanwhile, SCAF and the SCAF-appointed prime minister gave repeated assurances that they would not forcibly evict the demonstrators from Tahrir and from the sit-in in front of the cabinet building. But in mid-December, the security forces cracked down on the sit-in nevertheless. Almost twenty people died; countless others were beaten up, detained and brutally tortured; the distinguished Institut d’Egypte went up in flames. When international observers protested, the regime responded by raiding the offices of seventeen NGOs and by claiming that video evidence of military and police brutality (widely spread on YouTube) was fabricated, reasserting over and over again that the security forces were acting with utmost restraint to protect the achievements of the glorious January revolution from thugs and what they now started to call “counter-revolutionaries”.

Who are the thugs and the counter-revolutionaries? Who is defending the revolution? What was the goal of the revolution in the first place? It is over such questions that a highly controversial struggle is taking place in Egypt, a struggle of definition that is a struggle for the ‘ownership’ of the revolution, and thus a struggle for political legitimacy in post-revolutionary Egypt. The upcoming first anniversary of January 25 serves as a focal point for this contestation.

There are three major camps that are struggling for control over the “Revolution”: SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood, and those who call themselves “revolutionaries” (thuwwār). These three take three clearly distinct positions:

SCAF: The revolution lasted for 18 days (Jan. 25 – Feb. 11, 2011); the army guaranteed its success by taking the side of the people and getting rid of the corrupt Mubarak regime. Honoring the blood of the martyrs of the revolution, the chief offenders of the past regime are being prosecuted. But there must not be a witch hunt; Egyptians must unite in the common effort of building the bright future of Egypt. The army is guiding the country on this path by overseeing the elections and the writing of the constitution, and its role in safeguarding the country against its external and internal enemies must not be jeopardized. ‘The January revolution was about changing the system, not demolishing the state’ is an oft-repeated saying. Any such attempts at ‘demolishing the state’ are counter-revolutionary and will not be tolerated.

MB: The revolution has been successful because the Muslim Brotherhood stood by it and defended it. The ouster of Mubarak was an important step and opened the way to a democratic process leading to free and fair elections and a parliament truly representing the will of the Egyptian people. The MB and the Freedom and Democracy Party are reaching out to all political forces in Egypt to join hands to complete this process which will lead to a government that has democratic legitimacy. Egypt is in a delicate transitional phase where all have to act with responsibility so as not to endanger the successful completion of the transition to a system reflecting the will of the majority of the people.

The revolutionaries: The revolution that burst out onto the streets of Egypt on 25 January 2011 is far from over. The forces of the old regime are strongly entrenched; they have sacrificed Mubarak and a few of his cronies in order to appease the people and to safeguard their own privileges. They pay lip service to the revolution, but the core demands of the revolution are far from being realized. Freedom, dignity and social justice can only be achieved if a real end is put to the old regime. This means not only changing a few heads but thoroughly dismantling the corrupt and repressive organs of the old regime and putting them to justice not only for the crimes they committed while serving Mubarak but also those perpetrated after the revolution. The Ministry of Interior, however (to take just one example) continues to be staffed by loads of people loyal to the old (and present) regime who openly ignore or resist any reform orders that their nominal head, the minister, might dare to issue. As long as this is not changed, any attempt to seriously hold to account police and security forces is thus doomed to failure. The regime in power is the old regime; protecting its power through the same old repressive means, from censoring the media to persecuting and torturing opposition activists to clubbing and shooting down street demonstrators to manipulating elections and skillfully playing the different political camps against each other. Such a regime cannot be entrusted with overseeing a transition to democracy and the rule of law since any real change would cut into their own interests. Responsibility for managing the transition process (the completion of the presidential elections and the writing of the constitution) must therefore be handed over immediately to a civilian body with real powers including effective civilian control over the military and the security forces.

As I said, the struggle for ownership of the revolution is of course a struggle for political legitimacy and thus a struggle to achieve quite concrete political goals. The ruling establishment wants to preserve its power and privileges as much as possible. The Islamic trend wants to make sure that it can take over power in government, if necessary by being ‘realistic’ and agreeing to compromise with the military establishment. And the revolutionaries want to save their original dream, the dream of freedom, democracy, human and civil rights, transparent government and accountable institutions, from being hijacked by partisan interests and pushed to the back in the name of stability.

What will happen, then, on 25 January 2012? SCAF will celebrate their guardianship of the revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood will celebrate the accomplishments of the revolution. And the revolutionaries will demonstrate for the revolution to be rekindled. For the army, the revolution is over. For the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no need for a second revolution. For the revolutionaries, the revolution must continue.

Of course, this is a simplified portrait of the multitude of positions that are being taken by the multitude of those who express political opinions in Egypt. But in simplifying, I am trying to do justice to core issues defended by the various camps. And of course, these camps are not equal in size and power. SCAF carries the guns; the Brotherhood carried the elections. And the revolutionaries carry the “martyr’s dream” and a lot of frustration (as powerfully expressed in this video). But despite their small numbers (they are comforting themselves by repeating that ‘you don’t need to be a majority to win a revolution; all revolutions in history have been carried by only about 10-15% of the population!’), they have managed to keep alive in the public debate important fundamental questions regarding the realization of the hopes of the 2011 revolution.

In this context, Muḥammad al-Barādiʿī’s announcement on Jan. 14 that he will not run for president is symptomatic. It is in parallel to his refusal to run for president under Mubarak, i.e. under a system regarded as inherently geared to preserving the ruling establishment’s powers, a system where elections only serve this inherent goal and cannot bring about real change. In 2010, al-Barādiʿī formed the National Association for Change and announced: first we need to change the system, and only then can we have meaningful elections. Now he is repeating this position, saying that real change has not taken place, that the system in place is unchanged.

Al-Barādiʿī may be more of a symbol than a real heavyweight, but being the symbol of liberal integrity that he is (and for which he is respected by the young revolutionaries even if he is not one of them), his decision and his announcement that Egypt has not yet seen a real change of the system is important and cannot be dismissed as merely due to the realization that he would not stand a chance in the face of the dominant Islamic trend.

Whether they are four or ten percent, the revolutionaries in Egypt are fighting an uphill battle. They are often frustrated and disappointed and angry and worried. They have, however, not lost their spirit, and are drawing energy and confidence from their own dream, their anger, their youthful grit, and their very action, solidary or solitary. And they know that their most important weapon is their voice. After deciding – following the violent crackdown on the cabinet sit-in in mid-December – to focus on the Jan. 25 anniversary, they have been running ever more intensive campaigns to mobilize public opinion. “We are persisting” (Mosireen) and “The army is lying” (#3askarKazeboon) are two of the most prominent ones, as has been the campaign to #freeAlaa (ʿAlāʾ ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ, one of the most prominent and long-standing blogger-activists in Egypt), or the campaign to free #MaikelNabil, the first prisoner of conscience under SCAF rule, the one who was jailed for publishing a detailed blog post detailing the abuses of the Egyptian armed forces after the revolution, a post meant to debunk the revolutionary slogan “The army and the people are one hand” that has been used by the army ever since the revolution to legitimize its grip on power, a post therefore provocatively entitled “The army and the people wasn’t ever one hand”. Such voices can only be dealt with by silencing them, the regime decided and jailed Maikel Nabil for three years in April. Such voices must not be silenced, the revolutionaries insist. Last week, the call went out to turn Michael Nabil’s one voice into many, to go to the streets and read from his blog and record the reading and publish the videos on the internet. “If they arrest one of us, dozens of others will continue to speak out”.

On Jan. 21, Maikel Nabil was ‘pardoned’ by SCAF, together with 1949 other prisoners, on the occasion of the anniversary of the revolution. But until now, we have not seen a fundamental change in how the regime reacts to criticism. Like the old one, it continues to try to censor dissenting voices: “Egypt state TV ordered to blackout January 25 anti-junta protests” was the headline in bikyamasr on Jan. 21. The revolutionaries responded immediately by creating an Egypt Super Channel on Ustream to aggregate citizen journalist reporting and thus making it easier for both citizens to report and for audiences to find information.

The struggle for the voice of the revolution continues. Crudely, as in the minister’s order to state TV. Or subtly, as in the Ahram cartoon above, where only political “parties” and “movements” and “coalitions” are shouting “This is my revolution”. SCAF is conspicuously absent from this struggle. SCAF wants to be perceived as standing above the parties and the partisan strife. SCAF wants to be out of the limelight.

I will never forget how state radio was broadcasting Rāmī Gamāl’s well-known song “Baḥibbik yā blādī”, a song written to honor the martyrs of the Jan. 25 revolution, over and over again in November 2011, with the lines: ‘Tell my mother not to cry – my country will live while I will die’, while state security was firing new rounds of bullets creating new martyrs on the same square where their brothers had died or been mutilated in the beginning of the revolution.

Aḥmad Ḥarāra lost one eye during the bloody Friday of Anger on Tahrir Square on January 28, 2011, and the other one when the military stormed Tahrir Square on November 19. On January 20, Tahrir activists elected him spokesperson of the revolution.

Aḥmad Ḥarāra

الثورة مستمرة