Tahrir and Beyond: Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution

by David Wearing

The Journey To Tahrir: Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt – Jeannie Sowers and Chris Toensing (eds). Verso. 2012

On 25 January 2011, as thousands across Egypt protested against the regime of Hosni Mubarak and the iconic occupation of Tahrir Square began, Reuters quoted US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton saying, “our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people”.

Two and a half weeks later, Mubarak - who Barack Obama once refused to acknowledge as a dictator (“I prefer not to use labels for folks”), and who Tony Blair described at the height of the regime’s savage counter-revolutionary crackdown as “immensely courageous and a force for good” – had resigned and fled the capital. At that point, the prior view of the US government appeared hopelessly out of touch, and Clinton’s statement was subsequently quoted back on frequent occasions with suitable scorn and derision.

A year and a half later, one could argue that the US assessment of the regime’s strength was not as wide of the mark as it first appeared. The ancien regime constituted not simply the dictator himself, but also the top brass of an Egyptian military lavishly funded by Washington since Anwar Sadat broke with the other Arab states and joined the US-led regional order in the 1970s. In addition, the remnants of Mubarak’s former National Democratic Party, the internal security services, state media and sympathetic judges formed a “deep state” whose resilience in the months following the regime’s decapitation became, in many ways, the key narrative of the post-Mubarak era.

The supreme court’s decision to dissolve parliament, and the near-simultaneous decree from the military junta that it would adopt sweeping new supervisory powers over government, both coming just as the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate was poised to win the Presidency in June of this year, capped off a fifteen month period in which the generals had compiled a human rights record every bit as shameful as that of Mubarak. Young pro-democracy demonstrators had been stripped and beaten, gunned down in the streets, and, for some who had the temerity to protest while female, subjected to “virginity tests” amounting to little more than state sanctioned rape. Needless to say that all the while, US military aid continued to flow.

Today, just over a week after President Morsy’s surprise sacking of the heads of the armed forces including the chief of the junta himself, and his repeal of the generals’ June decree, it is possible to view these latest developments with something less than the initial degree of shock. What initially looked like a coup, or a counter-coup, demonstrated that Morsy is no pushover. But equally, nor is he a Nasser or a Khomenei. The fact remains that there is no sign of any dramatic change in Egypt’s strategic orientation. The state is probably too economically weak at present to break with its Western patrons even if it were so inclined. And in any event, the Brotherhood have been at pains to reassure Washington that they have no desire to overturn the essential status quo in that regard. This conservative stance is predictable enough from an organisation whose leadership (putting the rank and file to one side) comprises of businessmen and upper-middle class professionals, and which has shown a preference for caution, pragmatism and, as the revolutionaries would (correctly) argue, cynical accommodation with power.

A policymaker sitting in Hilary Clinton’s State Department today could therefore be forgiven for taking an almost relaxed attitude towards the situation in post-Mubarak Egypt. As the sociologist William I Robinson has pointed out, US-allied dictatorships, lacking popular legitimacy, are not necessarily stable guarantors of US interests. Where possible, Washington may well  prefer a transition to a “polyarchical” form of government, where those elites and social groups most closely aligned to its preferences in the key realms of foreign, defence and economic policy form a hegemonic bloc, legitimised by elections, and capable of defending those interests from any grassroots, popular challenge. Today, an alliance of the Muslim Brothers and the generals newly promoted last week by President Morsy may well be equal to this task.

In the end, however, any such view on Washington’s part may prove to be a touch complacent. Though dramatic and exceptional events by definition, revolutions like earthquakes are produced by deeper tectonic movements playing out over the longer term. If the economic circumstances of most Egyptians are no better, if the security forces are no more violent and humiliating a presence in society, and if the various anti-regime political trends and groupings are no less conscious and aroused than was the case on the eve of Mubarak’s demise, then there is no reason to assume that Egypt’s revolutionary process has ground to an unsatisfactory halt. The French revolution lasted over ten years because a series of historical processes and contradictions simply took that long to resolve themselves into a new order that was capable of enduring beyond the short term. It is hard to discern any sustainable equilibrium in Egyptian politics at the moment. Not, at least, with any real degree of confidence.

To understand the deep background to the Egyptian revolution there are few better places to start than the wide range of fascinating and detailed essays collected in “The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest and Social Change in Egypt”, edited by the academic Jeannie Sowers and Chris Toensing of the Middle East Research and Information Project (“MERIP”). Most people with more than a passing interest in the Middle East know MERIP’s Middle East Report to be one of the finest sources of informed, expert and in-depth analysis available. This edited volume comprises twenty-four updated essays from the periodical, covering the various developments in Egyptian society, politics and economics that culminated in the events of early 2011. What we see is a country that did not suddenly become aware of its condition, in some mysterious eureka moment, as implied by the supremely patronising phrase “the Arab Awakening”, but rather one that had been simmering for a considerable period, and required only that a number of factors align themselves in order for those who had been awake all along to gather the necessary force to act effectively.

For example, the decade preceding the revolution saw a significant upsurge in protest from trade unions in response to the acceleration of neoliberal policies and accompanying decline in the standard of living. Three million workers participated in up to 4,000 strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations, occupations and other actions  between 1998 and 2010, as analysed in a crucially important chapter by the expert on Egyptian labour, Joel Beinin. Some members of the Muslim Brotherhood offered verbal support to worker activism,  but ultimately, as a party led by affluent businessmen and with a history of anti-unionism, the Brotherhood was never going to be on the side of organised labour. Trade unionists had to struggle against the establishment without the support of the leading political opposition, and often against their own often government-appointed leaders as well. Even the April 6th Youth Movement, although named after a general strike in support of textile workers in 2008, mostly opposed linking political demands to economic demands during the early revolutionary period, until later relenting in June 2011. Beinin notes that the outbreak of mass strike action in early February 2011 was a key factor in convincing the army that Mubarak’s rule was no longer tenable.

Political opposition in Mubarak’s Egypt appears to have been more lively than in some other regional dictatorships, thanks both to the few openings available and to the willingness and ability of regime opponents to brave its repression and evade its restrictions. Tahrir Square was also briefly occupied in protest at the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Sharif Elmusa and Jeannie Sowers have a particularly interesting chapter on environmental protests in Damietta during the late 2000s, while Mariz Tadros reminds us of the mass protests following the 1 January 2011 suicide bombing of the Two Saints Church, Alexandria, arguing that this show of animosity directed squarely at the regime by Coptic Christians, a section of society hitherto seen as fairly compliant, was key to breaking the culture of fear, and opening the floodgates for what was to come.

The flourishing of dissent and social affirmation that famously appeared in Tahrir Square did not therefore materialise out of nothing. Ahmad Shokr describes the micro-culture that developed over those 18 days as the square was “elevated from a rally site to a model for an alternative society [where] a spirit of mutual aid prevailed”, as the space organised itself communally, holding vigorous political debate, and engendering the sense of solidarity that was crucial in its resolute defence by the people against waves of regime thugs. The book opens with a gripping narration of the revolutionary days of January and February 2011 by Mona El-Ghobashy, who describes the multitudes liberating the streets from the shocked security forces before turning their attention to the patriarch himself. These acts of mass and individual bravery become no less humbling to the reader with the passing of time, and bear revisiting and re-examining for new details and insights.

One insufficiently discussed aspect of the failure of Mubarak’s rule is the neoliberalisation of the economy and the disastrous effects on those policies for the majority of the population. Excellent chapters here by Karen Pfeifer, Timothy Mitchell and others correct for this frequent omission. Egypt’s earlier state-led economic model had been undermined by the costs of major wars in 1967 and 1973, the collapse in oil prices during the 1980s, and by its own intrinsic inefficiencies. The ensuing debt crisis gave the IMF and World Bank leverage to impose neoliberal structural adjustment, ending price controls and subsidies, promoting labour market “flexibility” (making people easier to sack) and enforcing a wave of privatisations which privileged foreign buyers, concentrated wealth still further and acted as an enabler for extensive corruption.

The results of the reforms recommended or imposed by Egypt’s Western tutors were altogether less than impressive. Outside of a super-rich elite, and a modestly affluent five to ten percent, the public saw little benefit and significant downsides. Real wages stagnated or fell, household expenditure sharply declined, unemployment rose as the private sector failed to fully compensate for state lay-offs, prices for basic goods and services went up, economic and employment insecurity was exacerbated, and already high levels of poverty increased yet further. Beinin cites World Bank figures stating that nearly 44 percent of Egyptians are now “extremely poor” (unable to meet minimum food needs), “poor” (unable to meet basic food needs), or “near poor” (able to meet little more than basic food needs). In addition, as Mitchell points out, the advance of neoliberalism in Egypt was accompanied by “a harsh restriction on political rights” where Egyptians were “denied the right to organise political opposition or hold political meetings”. Economic discontent played a major role in sweeping Mubarak from power, so in a way, the “liberalisation” of the economy was related to a subsequent opening up in the political scene, albeit not quite in the sense anticipated by standard liberal theory.

“The Journey To Tahrir” offers an invaluable insight into an enormous range of aspects of Egypt’s society and political economy, from an impressive cast of experts in their own particular fields. This is a serious work of scholarship which is also accessibly written and will appeal to anyone wishing to go beyond the headlines and develop a serious understanding of what has happened, and will continue to happen, in this key nation of the Arab world. It serves as a guide, not just to Egypt’s immediate past and to its present, but also to a future which remains vigorously contested and, thankfully, unresolved.

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First published: 19 August, 2012

Category: Activism, Book Review, Economy, Foreign policy

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