Friday, 02 August 2013 23:44

A Revolution in Jeopardy (2)

In my first blog I wrote about the different parties to Egypt’s current political crisis in the aftermath of the military coup that deposed President Morsi. I also tried to provide historical background to make better sense of the present dynamics.

This crisis has generated so much commentary on all sides that I decided to write three blogs on the Egyptian crisis. This time it’s about the revolutionaries, who they are and how they see the country’s future. Next time I’ll come full circle asking about the future of the Muslim Brotherhood and the role of Islam in general.


Picking up loose ends

I’m thinking of two “loose ends” from the first installment and in light of developments since then: the army’s shocking violations of human rights and role of the US since the coup.

First of all, I will have to agree with John Esposito who wrote a scathing article  in the Huffington Post accusing the army and its secular allies of returning the country to “a military backed authoritarian rule” – what he terms “Mubarak Redux.” General Sisi’s call for people to flood Tahrir Square Friday July 25 in support of the army’s effort to rid the country of “terrorists” is both divisive and dark. How might this pave the way for national reconciliation, the only realistic path away from either a civil war or naked military rule?

The fact that millions answered the call does not justify the tactic. Sisi was obviously playing on a deep-seated loathing of the Brotherhood on the secular side. Tamarod’s (or closer to the Arabic, Tamarrud, “Rebellion”) website before the event called on all Egyptians to come out to support the army “in the coming war against terrorism and cleansing the land.” Fighting words indeed!

By all credible accounts, the aftermath of the parallel protest by Morsi supporters was a second massacre. The army apparently went on a killing rampage in the wee hours of Saturday morning with over seventy dead (no soldiers killed). The Guardian reported that “The crush of dead and injured in the field hospitals was so intense that exhausted doctors struggled to cope”; and that the doctor in charge of the medical supplies said of the victims, “There were bullet holes in the centre of the forehead and right in the back of the skull. It was not just shooting to injure. They were shooting to kill.”

Naturally, this excessive use of force was immediately condemned by the US and EU, and Western countries have continued to call for restraint and for the transitional government to make an effort to bring all parties to the political table to break the current stranglehold. Even before July 27 first the UK and then Washington announced they were delaying  the shipment of promised weapons to Egypt. The Obama Administration in particular said it would put off the shipment of F-16 fighter jets. This is no doubt too little too late, as Americans are now hated by both sides – by the anti-Morsi side because the US supported Morsi until the coup, and by the pro-Morsi side because it didn’t condemn the coup.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported that the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Catherine Ashton, had been allowed to visit President Morsi in an undisclosed location. She reported that he was flanked by two advisers, in good spirits and well taken care of. She also seemed cautiously optimistic that in her conversation with all sides some progress could be made despite the drastically different starting points. The EU, plainly, is just about the only outside party that could potentially mediate between the two sides.

Let me add here that, despite my critical tone with regard to US or Saudi involvement in the events leading up to the coup in my first blog, I was not saying these outside influences caused the coup. As National University of Singapore scholar (and Middle East soccer blogger) James Dorsey writes , “It is too simplistic to reduce events to a conspiracy in which the United States and Saudi Arabia together with the military decided that it was time for Morsi to go.”

Perhaps the best piece I can offer you for a more objective – yet still insider – view of the events unfolding in Egypt is a long interview with Sameh Naguib, a leader of the Revolutionary Socialist party. First, despite his own polar differences with the Muslim Brotherhood, he denounces the way in which they are being repressed by the army, by the remnants of the Mubarak regime, and with support from many of the revolutionaries. What happened on two occasions already was “a terrible, terrible massacre.”

Second, as I had indicated earlier, the army had planned to step in and was thrilled be given such a perfect fig leaf in the form of the June 30 Rebellion:


You have on the one hand what is clearly a revolutionary wave involving millions and millions of the Egyptian people. On the other hand, the army and the old regime have used that unprecedented upsurge to get themselves back in the saddle and to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“. . . the coup, in order to legitimate itself both within Egypt and outside - particularly for the west which is important - has a kind of liberal front.  So, all these people who have very good democratic credentials, like El Baradei, have been placed at the forefront as if there were an actual democratic process taking place. And importantly those people, and the financiers behind them, control the media in Egypt. They have big private media at their service, controlled by the billionaires who are supporting these two parties.”


That last statement about the media is a theme I picked up elsewhere as well, and I have now added the new media in the hands of the wealthy industrialist class to the list of “players” in my last blog. As elsewhere, big money seeks to dominate politics no matter the context.

So much for the slight update from the last blog… As the crisis continues to unfold, my purpose here is to step back and give a brief synopsis of the social dynamics of the youth who, after all, triggered the “Arab Spring.”


Who are these revolutionaries?

Mohammed Bamyeh is a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh who also happened to be on sabbatical doing research in Cairo the year the January 2011 revolution broke out. I am referring here to his recent piece  in Jadaliyya (an online journal published by the Arab Studies Institute in Beirut and Washington, DC) entitled “The June Rebellion.” Bamyeh has been in Egypt in the last month and interviewed people on the streets. Let me pass on three important points he makes about the revolutionary dynamic.


1. The January revolution is an irreversible social movement with the June rebellion as just one more manifestation of it. As new events unfold, people apply what they learned before. In this sense, we can speak of a revolutionary “unconscious.” In Bamyeh’s words, “What is clear now is that the events we now know as the Arab Spring will constitute a long historical process. It will take many years to arrive at a stable destination defined by a new social consensus.” What one activist told him (“I’m here because I believe in harakat al-shari’ – the “street dynamic”) is indicative of a sea change in the average Egyptian’s involvement with politics. Here Bamyeh expresses both its social impact and its current limitation:


“During the struggle over the constitution at the end of 2012, with millions of people on the streets and the country on the edge of civil war, the most elementary observation of all appeared to escape all concerned: that this was the first time in modern Egyptian history that ordinary individuals actually cared about a constitution in such large numbers. That care was itself a profoundly new social phenomenon, indicating a great social transformation and the entrenchment in society of a perspective that no longer saw whatever happened at the level of high politics as external to ordinary people. But ordinary citizens do not know, yet, how to normalize this high politics, that it to say, how to bring it closer to them.”


Still, I want you to notice how two intelligent and articulate individuals (both “secular,” by the way) can interpret this social dynamic so very differently. Bamyeh is one of the very few sociologists in American academia who is a self-described anarchist (no, Bradly Manning and Edward Snowden, or Julian Assange of Wikileaks, don’t come close to defining a view that favors grassroots movements and mistrusts state power!). Keep that in mind as you read this excerpt commenting on the same phenomenon but seen through the lens of socialist party activist Sameh Naguib. He had just mentioned that this was a revolution that had brought “direct democracy” to millions of ordinary Egyptians. Asked whether this was simply about numbers, he answers: 


It involves sheer numbers in the squares, but many people have the idea that these are a leaderless kind of process. There’s always a leadership in these revolutions. There’s always a method of taking decisions. It’s extremely democratic and people who take part learn about direct democracy, about being involved directly.  Where will the demonstration go to? Will we use violence or not? How will we defend a demonstration? All these questions are up for democratic debate and decision. Again, it is a similar thing with the strike movement.  What do we do with the owner if he closes down the factory? Should we occupy the factory? Should we run the factory instead? There are all sorts of decisions that people learn how to take. In the process they develop a kind of democratic engagement that goes far beyond the very limited framework for democracy that we have worldwide.”


For both Naguib and Bamyeh, the Egyptian people are indeed avid democracy apprentices, learning as they go and eager to find more effective ways to bring about change.


2. We are witnessing the power of “revolutionary legitimacy” at work. This certainly phenomenon fluctuated after the initial January revolution, but its logic was unquestionably at work through the collection of signatures by the Tamarod campaign leading up to June 30. As Bamyeh put it,


Thus the success of the Tamarod campaign in enlisting more than one quarter of the total population of this enormous country in a petition demanding the removal of the president, was a clear indication that the demand possessed more legitimacy than whatever the constitution or any law or court said. Without this campaign and the feelings it generated of the power of society over and above the state and its laws, it is possible that 30 June may have passed as just another day. Revolutionary legitimacy therefore first needed empirical proof of its existence, after which its work became easier.”


Bamyeh notes that it’s like an underground volcano with “episodic eruptions” and that “we should expect revolutionary legitimacy to be our subterranean but sometimes very noisy companion for a long time.” This is because of the contribution of two factors: 1) “acute alertness to all dangers and developments”; 2) a strong suspicion based on past experience that the state and its institutions are corrupt.

I’ll insert a piece to corroborate that second point from the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. Egyptian journalist Wael Iskander reported on a movement that was born in December, 2011, after the army brutally attacked peaceful protesters outside the parliament building and then denied using any excessive force. An activist by the name of Sally Toma combined a YouTube video documenting soldiers dragging, beating and stripping a woman while kicking another woman with the audio background of an army spokesman denying any wrongdoing. That was the beginning of a movement called “Liars” (Kazeboon) that has taken Egypt by storm (at the last minute it declared common cause with Tamarod). It has exposed the hypocrisy of the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) that ruled Egypt for over a year after the revolution, of the Morsi regime, and now of the military-propped up transitional government.

I say “movement,” because activists who belong to various political parties (and mostly to no parties at all) show these short films projected onto walls or sheets hung up – often in poor neighborhoods across the country. Because they can be downloaded from the internet, they are widely available and very suitable for this kind of grassroots campaigning.

Iskander wraps up his article by summarizing their aim: “Kazeboon will continue to counter the regime's narrative when it distorts the facts, irrespective of who is in power.” And then this more specific addition as a parting word:


“Now that Morsi has been deposed by the military, Kazeboon is exposing lies and violations on different sides. It is preparing to take on whatever remains of the “liars in the name of religion,” such as the Nour party [the Salafists], along with the state apparatus that continues its brutality, impunity, and flawed narrative.”


This is clearly symptomatic of a people shaking their collective apathy, building on their newfound revolutionary consciousness, and awakening to the urgency of telling the state that it cannot make decisions without their consent.


3. Finally, the June 30 crowd – up to 20 million around the country, some say – was extremely diverse and consciously thought of themselves as representing the “Egyptian people.” In the early stages of the project it was the vital energy of the youth activists that carried forward the signatures campaign; but on June 30 the crowd was of all ages and segments of society. Since the target of the protest was an islamist regime, “it could not have succeeded without the mobilization of ordinary conservatism and traditional piety against the idea of a religious government,” comments Bamyeh.

Sarah Eltantawi, a fellow in Arab Studies at U. C. Berkeley doing research in Cairo these days, spent a whole day interviewing and photographing people in Tahrir Square right after the coup (that’s her picture on top of this page). In her blog (look up "Dispatches from Cairo by Sarah Eltantawi") she expressed it this way: “I saw a great, wide variety of people today, from the very poor to the very rich, Muslims of all stripes including several niqaabis [full-face veils, a Salafi marker], Christians (I assume) – really just everyone – a genuine slice of the country.”

Though the final blog in this trilogy is focused on religion, let me just end this one by picking up on this last statement. If many traditional, conservative Muslims joined the rebellion against the Muslim Brotherhood, on what ground were they so opposed to them? Eltantawi would agree with Bamyeh that it was a crowd whose anger stemmed from a wound inflicted to their collective Egyptian psyche. Bamyeh writes that “anarchy in June [note his positive use of this term], just as in January, seems closely associated with a patriotic, rather than a nationalistic conception of peoplehood.” It’s revolutionary mostly because it believes itself to embody a “social consensus.”

Eltantawi, for her part, explains that Morsi had tried to rule from his own party only and that the people felt left out. She noted that his political speeches always started with “Ahli wa-‘ashiirati” (“My family and tribe”) – quite the opposite from Sadat who used to address the nation as “My brothers and sisters.” As a result, they feel “rescued” by the army’s intervention and deeply resent the fact that the US (and the international community in general) even considered calling it a “coup” and curtailing their regular funding as a result. As the picture above earnestly conveys, these people see the people calling on the army to intervene – not the other way around.

And then this observation that sums up much of what she heard that day:


People are really and truly insulted that their religiosity and Islamic theology and practice has been questioned by people who seem to think they are better Muslims and thus better people than them. This is hardly a way to win people over. I was on the Qasr al-'Ayni bridge when fitar [the daily breaking of the Ramadan fast] time came; it was eerily silent with people breaking their fast despite the fact that thousands of people were there. Church bells rang at the same time as the ithaan [Islamic call to prayer].”


On this warm note of Muslim-Christian solidarity and with a question rising in our minds about why deeply religious Muslims could be so adamantly against the Muslim Brotherhood, I’ll end here my thoughts about this revolution that, after all, may not be in jeopardy – if only General Sisi keeps his word about truly handing power to a civilian government and a way is found to woo the Muslim Brotherhood back into the political process.