Egypt: The revolution that wasn’t

Hugh Roberts writes: Tamarrod, which means ‘disobedience, insubordination, revolt, rebellion’ (and ‘mutiny’), is the name of the group that organised first a nationwide petition against President Morsi and then the demonstrations of 30 June. It’s a new group, founded this April. The petition stated that its signatories called on the president to resign. The organisers announced their ambition to collect 15 million signatures and claim to have obtained 22 million, a figure I have never seen verified. But let us allow that they did obtain millions of signatures. To organise, let alone sign, such a petition is not an anti-democratic act: citizens have a right to call on an elected office-holder to resign, just as he or she may choose to stay in office until defeated at the polls. The petition said nothing about the army, let alone calling on it to act in the matter. The same was true of the mobilisation for the 30 June demonstrations. Several well-known groups that had played key roles in the demonstrations against Mubarak, notably the 6 April Youth Movement, the Revolutionary Socialists and the ‘We are all Khaled Saeed’ movement (formed to protest at the murder of a young man by the Alexandria police in 2010), did not hesitate to take part. They had reasons to dislike Morsi and his FJP and to want him out of office. But what happened at the demonstration itself was another matter, for many of those present did indeed call on the army to intervene. When the army deposed Morsi three days later, many of the demonstrators reacted as those on 11 February 2011 had reacted, triumphant that their point had been gained and inclined to see the army as the instrument of the people’s will. As one Tamarrod activist, quoted by the Observer on 6 July, exulted:

Sisi and the army took their cue from the people. They had many previous chances to do what they did but they didn’t take them. But once millions of people went out and started chanting for the army to step in, they took their orders from us. The army did not take over power. They were merely a partner in the democratic change we were seeking.

The element of wishful thinking, if not sheer delusion, in this is a pointer to Tamarrod’s real nature. But so is the statement of fact it contains. Why did the demand raised by Tamarrod’s petition, that Morsi step down and early presidential elections be held, mutate into the demand that the army ‘step in’? Clearly Tamarrod itself was happy with this development. Could it be that it was the Tamarrod activists themselves who, having got millions of Egyptians to sign a petition in support of one clear demand, then managed, during the demonstration itself, to convert this demand into something else? The organisers of demonstrations are usually the source of the slogans chanted by the participants and most demonstrators will happily chant the slogans they hear others chanting.

The target of 15 million signatories for the petition was clearly chosen because it exceeded the number of Egyptians – 13.23 million – who voted for Morsi in the presidential election of June 2012. It was subsequently claimed that at least 14 million marched against him on 30 June. This figure was soon overtaken by others: 17 million, 22 million. The veteran Egyptian feminist Nawal el-Saadawi even claimed that 34 million had been there, a majority of the total electorate. These figures were fairy tales, the tallest of tall stories. But the Egyptians who bombarded the world’s media with such whoppers can’t seriously be faulted for trying it on: the West made itself the gallery; they played to it. For them the stakes were immense and c’est de bonne guerre. The question we should confront is how and why our media was taken in by this nonsense and then parroted it back to us.

The numbers question was investigated by Jack Brown, an American writer who has lived in Cairo for several years and who on 11 July published a detailed article in Maghreb émergent, an indispensable source of serious coverage of North African developments, republished in English on the website International Boulevard. Brown worked out from the actual area of Tahrir Square and the streets leading to it that on the most generous estimate the demonstration can’t have exceeded 265,000 people. If we assume for the sake of argument that the other big demonstration in Cairo, in Heliopolis, added a further 211,000, that gives at most 476,000. So where did the other 12.8 million needed to exceed Morsi’s election tally come from? Cairo is home to nearly a quarter of Egypt’s total population. Vague Western media references to ‘hundreds of thousands’ marching in other cities may authorise us to push up the overall tally, but we’re still looking at maybe a million, or at the very most two million across the country as a whole, less than the 2.85 million Morsi polled in Cairo and Giza. The phantasmagorical figures quoted to the Western media may, as Brown observes, have exploited a confusion between attendance at the demonstrations and Tamarrod’s claim for the number of petition signatories. But however many millions really signed the petition, none of them signed a petition calling for the army to depose the president.

As the violence of the army’s assault on Morsi’s supporters grew and grew, some of the participants on 30 June had second thoughts. Ahmed Maher, the leader of the 6 April Youth Movement, supported the anti-Morsi campaign but later dissociated himself from the army’s actions. The Revolutionary Socialists also eventually dissociated themselves. But the Tamarrod leaders did not. They saw no significant difference between citizens calling on a president to resign and the minister of defence ordering him to be removed manu militari and they were not only delighted with the outcome but claimed the credit for it. The Tamarrod activist quoted by the Observer was called Mohamed Khamis. On 16 August, two days after the massacres at Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and Nahda Square, in which at least 628 protesters died, the Guardian quoted him: ‘“We agree with what happened at Rabaa and at Nahda,” said Mohamed Khamis, a spokesman for the Tamarrod (Rebellion) campaign, which mobilised public opinion against the democratically elected but deeply unpopular Morsi. “We don’t like what the Brotherhood did.”’


The activists who set up Tamarrod were veterans of an earlier protest movement, dating from 2004 and 2005, whose official name was the Egyptian Movement for Change but which rapidly became known by its main slogan, ‘Kifaya!’ (‘Enough!’). Kifaya was not an organised presence in the demonstrations of January and February 2011: it had petered out in 2006 and been superseded by more recently formed groupings. But as I followed the drama in 2011, it became clear to me that the young revolutionaries, with the exception of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialists, were Kifaya’s spiritual children and were bound to lose the initiative the moment their single, purely negative demand was conceded. I was a sceptic about the ‘revolution’ from that moment onwards.

A good account of Kifaya can be found in Holger Albrecht’s timely study of the opposition movements that existed under Mubarak. Contrary to the caricatures that became de rigueur once the balloon went up, Albrecht insists that Mubarak’s was ‘a liberalised authoritarian regime that provides [sic] limited – because entirely controlled from above – though surprisingly substantial degrees of pluralism’. This is more or less the way I saw it while living there. The press in particular was generally lively, with room for a wide spectrum of opinion, including plenty of criticism of the government. But there were definite ‘red lines’ and, as Albrecht explains, what was interesting about Kifaya is that it crossed two of them: the ban on unauthorised demonstrations under the Emergency Law and the ban on explicit criticism of the president and his family. Moreover, it did so with relative impunity: most of its demonstrations, while small (two or three hundred strong) and always massively outnumbered by riot police, weren’t suppressed or broken up but, strangely, tolerated, except when activists tried to demonstrate outside Cairo. Kifaya was essentially an agitation conducted by a dissident wing of the Egyptian elite against Mubarak’s ‘monopoly of power’ and the prospect of his son succeeding him. Although, under the very sober-sounding name of the Egyptian Movement for Change, it attracted a range of reformist viewpoints and published a lengthy shopping list of democratic-sounding aims and demands, the agitation it actually conducted was entirely negative in character.

In investigating Kifaya in 2005 I found that it was dominated by secularist Arab nationalists and Nasserists. Its steering committee included two liberals and the moderate Islamist Abu ’l-Ala Madi, the founder of the Wasat (Centre) Party, as well as two communists. But its co-ordinator and most prominent figure was George Ishaq, a Copt and veteran Arab nationalist, and its other main spokesman was Abdel Halim Qandil, the editor in chief of the Nasserist paper al-Arabi. Both men were impressive in their way: Ishaq, whom I interviewed, struck me as combative and engagingly forthright, and Qandil had shown admirable powers of resistance in enduring particularly thuggish harassment by the regime. In April 2005 I visited the offices of al-Arabi and interviewed its other editor, Abdallah Senawi. In addition to telling me that ‘Kifaya is the natural offspring of al-Arabi and its slogans were first put forward by al-Arabi; most Kifaya activists are Nasserists’ – claims that may have been exaggerated but certainly weren’t unfounded – he frankly outlined the Nasserists’ true vision, which was to look to the army to resolve the ‘Mubarak question’, citing the recent military coup against President Ould Taya of Mauritania as a possible model.

In a report I wrote for the International Crisis Group in 2005, I argued that its exclusively negative message – the lack of a single positive demand or proposal – was a major reason for Kifaya’s failure to gain a wider audience. I came to the conclusion that, as Nasserists or at least Arab nationalists, their real objection to Mubarak was not his authoritarianism but his abandonment, like that of Sadat before him, of the pan-Arab vision that Nasser had proclaimed, and that they were not capable of organising a genuine democratic agitation. But it’s possible that I got cause and effect at least partly back to front and that the refusal to canvas a positive demand that might mobilise ordinary Egyptians reflected a concern to keep the challenge to the Mubaraks within the closed world of the Egyptian elite, calling outsiders to witness the limits to the Mubaraks’ dominion but not wanting to involve the public in the settling of scores that they dreamed about.

The demonstration on 25 January 2011 and the historic drama it inaugurated were made possible by the shockwave of the Tunisian revolution and the emergence since 2008 of a new generation of young middle-class activists enthused by the series of workers’ strikes that began on 6 April that year (the raison d’être of Ahmed Maher’s 6 April Youth Movement) and outraged by the thuggishness that the regime increasingly exhibited, culminating in the murder of Khaled Saeed in June 2010, which prompted Wael Ghoneim to launch his ‘We are all Khaled Saeed’ page on Facebook. But while these developments supplied what had been so evidently absent in 2004 and 2005, a substantial reservoir of politicised energies that made mass demonstrations feasible at last, the degree of politicisation was limited. The young activists knew and could agree on what they didn’t want, but that was all. Kifaya’s negative agenda was what oriented them, whether they were conscious of its pedigree or not, and it was in these circumstances that the Nasserists’ dream of the army resolving the Mubarak question came true.

We shouldn’t reduce 11 February 2011 to a coup. It wasn’t a revolution, but it wasn’t just a coup either. It was a popular rising that lost the initiative because it had no positive agenda or demand. ‘Bread, freedom, social justice’ aren’t political demands, just aspirations and slogans. A social movement might have made these slogans into demands by pressuring the government to take specific steps. But a movement that wants these desiderata provided by government and, at the same time, wants the government to clear off has a coherence problem. The only demand that mattered politically was ‘Mubarak, irhal!’ The army commanders captured the initiative by co-opting that demand to make it work for them. Almost certainly they did so because it had been their own undeclared objective for some time.

What happened on 11 February 2011 was a renewal of the Free Officers’ state. Mubarak’s fall didn’t in itself amount to a revolution because the fundamental framework of the state established by the Free Officers following their coup in 1952 was still in place, as the emergence of the Scaf as the dominant political actor should have made clear to everyone. In this respect, the outcome in Egypt fell far short of that in Tunisia. The Tunisians didn’t merely force the departure of Ben Ali, they went on immediately to abolish the ruling party, the Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD). The RCD was the evolution of the nationalist party that, founded and led by Habib Bourguiba, had charted the course to independence. It was a genuine ruling party, the source of power and the principal instrument by which the state exercised its hegemony over society. It has had no counterpart in any other North African country. The abolition of the RCD signified the end of what French analysts called the ‘parti-état’. It meant that Tunisian society was heading into terra incognita, constitutionally and politically. But when the Egyptian demonstrators destroyed the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, they weren’t attacking the source of political power in the state, merely the regime’s façade. The army had been the source of political power since 1952. It had been marginalised by Mubarak and so took little part in the day to day business of government, but it hadn’t been displaced by an alternative source of power. And so the events of January and February 2011 that brought it back to centre stage were not a revolution.

The Nasserist tradition of hailing coups as revolutions was inaugurated in July 1952. Critics of the events of 3 July who have refused to endorse the ‘second revolution’ thesis have in some cases described what happened as a counter-revolution, a view with which I sympathise. Given that in June 2012 there was a real electoral contest in which people’s votes really counted, making it seem that a democratic line of development had begun, one can certainly regard 3 July as having destroyed that and therefore as being counter-revolutionary. But there is at least a germ of coherence in the claim made by General Sisi and by Tamarrod that 3 July 2013 restored the fundamental logic of 11 February 2011. We can see this once we accept, however reluctantly, that this logic was the reassertion and reclamation by the army of its historical political primacy and not a real revolution, let alone the revolutionary advent of democracy. But what, more than any other consideration, qualified the logic of the way the army surfed the wave of Tahrir Square to resolve the Mubarak question was the fact that the Muslim Brothers had been in Tahrir Square too and had earned their share of the opening that ensued. [Continue reading…]

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