Egypt’s failed revolution and its long-lasting legacies
Gianni Del Panta 20 December 2017

Anniversaries are always good occasions to critically evaluate the trajectory of extraordinary social and political happenings. Considering that in a few days seven years will be passed from the day in which a young Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest the ill treatment he had received at the hands of police officers, triggering an unprecedented wave of popular uprisings in nearly the whole Middle East, something might be said on these exceptional events. In particular, due to the fact that dust has settled – or, at least, this is the general view that this article supports – it seems now possible to approach the dynamics triggered by the so-called Arab Springs in a more sober way than in the recent past.

Since the outbreak of radical protests in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010-11, scholars’ reaction to events that caught them completely off guard can be split into three main periods. In an initial phase, as soon as four long-standing autocrats were defeated in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and others elsewhere in the region came under almost unbearable pressure from below, euphoric views that foresee imminent and far-reaching transformations developed relentlessly. According to some analysts, the region was living its 1989 – in a clear reference to the downfall of the Eastern bloc – whilst other scholars theorized that what was unfolding was nothing less than a new wave of democratization. Yet, such unjustified optimistic expectations had already vanished by the beginning of 2012. Not only, in fact, did Middle Eastern authoritarianism prove more resilient than supposed in the heydays of Ben Ali and Mubarak’s departures, but also the political trajectory of those countries in which autocrats had been kicked out from office remained at best unclear and problematic. Scholarly feelings, therefore, switched from the previous euphoric views to largely pessimistic expectations, spreading the idea that Arab regimes, as elegantly stated by Morten Valbjørn, “were only following [Tomasi di] Lampedusa’s cruel verdict that if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. Such general views would have become – and this introduces the third and last phase – even more gloomy as soon as Syria, Libya, and Yemen fell into long-lasting and still largely unpredictable, especially in the latter two cases, civil wars. Without overlooking the social and political relevance of these events, it remains, however, hardly deniable that the crucial turning point in transforming the Arab springs in dictatorial winters was played by the July 2013 military coup in Egypt, which toppled the first ever democratically elected president in the country history, Mohamed Morsi, and installed a new and much more severe authoritarian domination. Zooming out from the region and adopting more country-based lens, this introduction has brought us to the main aspects analysed by this article. That is, was the supposed Egyptian revolution an actual revolution? And, if this was the case, is the revolution still ongoing?

In the aftermath of the successful military coup led by general-turned-president Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi several scholars have tried to explain why the Egyptian democratic transition was unsuccessful. This is certainly a rich and stimulating literature that merits to be fully addressed. Yet, due to time and space constraints, it has to be left aside here. In a few words, it can be stated that it is exactly the existence of these studies, which have indirectly proved that liberal democracy combined with free market economy was the least likely outcome in Egypt, that provides the theoretical ground to interpret the Egyptian transition as a process with only two possible ways out. That is, either social revolution or military dictatorship. Among those scholars who have worked within this framework, two irreconcilable interpretations have been developed. On the one hand, there are those who have denied the existence of revolution tout court. As stated by the American historian Joel Beinin, arguably the greatest expert on the Egyptian labour movement, “the January 25 revolution is not over. Rather, it has not yet occurred”. Such a view starts from the general premise that revolutions are deep and rapid social, political, and economic transformations. In this perspective, as readers might have already noticed, the emphasis is entirely on revolution as change. The conclusion reached here is thus categorical: No change, no revolution. On the other hand, other scholars have pointed to long-term effects of the Egyptian revolution. In such a perspective, supported, for instance, by Maha Abdelrahman and Gilbert Achcar, who has reaffirmed this view in a conference held in Bari just a few weeks ago and dedicated to Antonio Gramsci and his influence in the Middle East, revolutions have to be understood as long-lasting processes dotted with victories and defeats. Interpreting revolution as movement, these scholars conclude therefore that it would be mistaken to dismiss the Egyptian revolution as unsuccessful. For them, in a nutshell, we have to ‘wait and see’.

I contend that both these two interpretations are incorrect. Regarding the former, not only does the problematic aspect revolve around the complete disavowal of the movement from below, but also, as shown by Brecht De Smet, turning a particular outcome of the revolutionary process into a primary determinants of its definition means that the notion of failed revolution is logically ambiguous, if not impossible. However, even the latter interpretation is not without its own criticalities. Revolutions are processes by definition, but they do not last forever. To understand this point, it might be recalled an amusing episode occurred during Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. In that occasion, when the Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, was asked about the impact of the 1789 French revolution, he misunderstood the question, imaging that journalists were talking about May 1968. His famous answer – “too early to say” – astonished therefore the audience, fostering clichés about the differences between Chinese and Western mentality. However, if the response became, so to say, legend, it was because no one would have supported the view that the French revolutionary process of the late eighteenth century was still ongoing at that time. Possibly, had journalists asked something about May 1968, Mr. Enlai’s reply would have not sounded such weird as it actually did. This brings us to the heart of the problem: When do revolutionary processes end?

Asef Bayat’s last and marvellous book Revolution without Revolutionaries provides some key insights in this regard. According to the Iranian-born scholar, there are two main dimensions of revolution: movement and change. In this regard, whilst the entrance of the masses into the political arena remains the most indubitable element of the outbreak of revolution, the overemphasis on revolution as movement obscures the fact that overthrowing a dictatorship is a necessary, but insufficient in itself, step. From the apparent chaos deriving by the dismantling of the previous existing order a new state in class relationship and ideological terms has to be forged. This amounts to recognise that a window of opportunity for revolutionaries remains open for a short period running from the breakdown of the former ruling coalition and the emergence of a new order. Seen in this light, it seems difficult to reject the view that al-Sisi’s led military coup abruptly ended Egypt’s revolution.

After seven years from the outburst of the revolutionary uprising and having fully entered into al-Sisi’s four year in power, it is time for scholars to conclude that Egypt went through an unsuccessful revolution between January 25, 2011 and July 3, 2013. This opens up two new and interesting research areas. The first one deals with the reasons of such a defeat. The second area, on the contrary, points to the legacies of the revolutionary process. In fact, although the country is not currently experiencing a revolutionary phase, the hegemonic grasp of the military dictatorship on society is particularly limited and all the main structural elements that fuelled revolution remain unsolved. If a new revolutionary wave breaks out in Egypt in the coming years, it will take advantage of a significant different scenario. In fact, the consciousness of those millions and millions of men and women who were crossed by revolution has been profoundly affected by revolution itself. By far, change in consciousness remains therefore the most enduring, although invisible, legacy of Egypt’s long revolution. Try to explore it, it sounds much more interesting than either denying the existence of revolution or stating that it is still ongoing.

Credit: Khaled Desouki / AFP