In Egypt the elite may have changed, but the revolution continues

Jack Shenker writes: The vast majority of Egyptians have been told throughout history that they are little more than interlopers in the closed rooms where decisions over their lives, community and environment are made; this is a nation where the political elite has always viewed the wider population as so many static pieces, devoid of agency and in need of being controlled and pacified through a fluid web of top-down munificence and brutal repression.

That authoritarian conception of the state remained entrenched regardless of the differing ideologies and motivations of those who ruled, from colonial officials to the post-1952 military dictatorship, from Hosni Mubarak’s kleptocrats to the army junta that managed the so-called “transition” to democracy.

And it remains today, under the rule of a Muslim Brotherhood whose critique of Egypt’s problems is moral rather than structural, whose vision of power is exclusionary instead of pluralistic.

All these regimes have variously claimed the mantle of revolutionary legitimacy and attempted to seize a narrative of progressive change. All have deployed crude symbolism – nationalistic and religious – to turn Egyptian against Egyptian in an effort to solidify their power and maintain the status quo. And all have resorted to raw violence when faced with opposition.

It is that authoritarian state that the Egyptian revolution has been ranged against since January 2011. Some well-intentioned commentators have bemoaned how the utopia of the original “18 days” in Tahrir Square has given way to bloodshed, how the unity of so many Egyptians in rejecting Mubarak has sadly dissipated into internecine strife.

But they forget that this has never been and never could be a pacifist revolt: more than 100 police stations were burned to the ground on 28 January 2011 as revolutionaries met state violence with resistance of their own and sought to beat the regime’s security apparatus off the streets. And although the “Islamists v secularists” faultline is not irrelevant, it is also not the primary lens through which to understand the latest scenes.

There never was a golden struggle that came to a glorious conclusion when Mubarak relinquished power, only for civil warfare to subsequently blot the copybook of “New Egypt”. There is one ongoing struggle, against a state that seeks to deny Egyptians any genuine empowerment and a voice in their own futures, and its latest iteration is playing out on the streets of Heliopolis this week.

Unlike his predecessors, Mohamed Morsi was elected democratically at the ballot box, but like his predecessors his notion of government is narrow, conservative and anything but democratic. Despite his rhetoric about the revolutionary martyrs, the security apparatus that killed them remains virtually intact under Brotherhood rule.

In Morsi’s first 100 days as president, rights organisations recorded 88 cases of police torture, resulting in 34 deaths. Opposition, be it official or on the street, is viewed as a conspiratorial enemy to be blitzed, not a legitimate element of political life.

For evidence just look at the draft constitution, not the content (though that is alarming enough) but the process. Written almost exclusively by old, Islamist men, the document is now being rammed through via the ousting of dissenting voices and Morsi’s unilateral constitutional decree that puts a metaphorical gun to the heads of the electorate: vote yes to my constitution, or reaffirm my extra-judicial dictatorship.

Democracy is about more than just a single ballot paper every four years, and Egypt’s revolution is about more than just formal, institutional democracy. Since early 2011, ordinary Egyptians have messily, heroically and relentlessly muscled their way into the arena of political power. Never mind Tahrir – from Nile Delta villages to Bedouin tribal lands and urban slums, communities are tearing down the outdated suffocating contours delineating who gets to have a say, who gets to make a dynamic choice about the world around them.

The old elite game of making decisions at the top and allowing access to state resources only through an extensive patronage network, the flipside of which is violent repression, no longer works; the only problem is that those wedded to a moribund vision of the authoritarian state, including the Brotherhood, don’t seem to have noticed yet. [Continue reading…]

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One thought on “In Egypt the elite may have changed, but the revolution continues

  1. delia ruhe

    It took the US — the modern world’s first democracy — 200 years to get everybody properly enfranchised, yet they expect the Arab world to establish perfect democracies instantly. Egyptians have got a lot of trying and testing to get through. Let them do it without Westerners throwing their hands in the air and declaring the Arab Spring over.

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