Anthony Chase Writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Egypt’s Revolution: Is It Possible to Be Both Dead and Alive?
Post-mortems are as rife on Egypt’s revolution as they are on Hosni Mubarak’s health. Each appears to be flat-lining, and yet reports of death may be premature. Egypt’s SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) has baldly asserted its control of all aspects of Egyptian politics by reinstating emergency rule (Mubarak lives!), dissolving parliament (via a pliant judiciary), taking control of constitution drafting (ensuring that it will protect the military’s political and economic privileges), and making clear their control over whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi would be allowed to assume the presidency (and that only after drastically curtailing presidential powers). Any notion that opposition to Mubarak’s regime was “hand-in-hand” with Egypt’s military was always a convenient fiction, as undoubtedly the opposition and the military knew. Worse, however, is that the opposition is itself deeply fractured. These fractures made the military’s recent “silent coup” impossible to effectively resist, at least in the short-term.
There are two problems, however, with saying that Egypt’s revolution is dead. One is that to say it has died is to imply that Egypt had a revolution in the first place. This is a flawed assumption. Mubarak was deposed but the Egyptian regime he represented – the spookily termed “deep state” –has remained in power. What was optimistically termed a transitional stage always seemed bound to be a transition from Mubarak to some attempt at a new form of military domination of Egypt. The fractured presidential election results in which no single faction could manage more than 25% of the vote (though candidates representing generally revolutionary sentiments did collectively gather more than 50% of the vote) left the path open for the military to end the unlikely pretense that it would surrender its political and economic privileges. It was perhaps unfair to expect the opposition – Islamist, liberal, and Nasserist — to make common cause to end military rule. After decades of repression, opposition forces were, at their best, an anarchic expression of pluralistic resistance against the status quo.
The negative side of this, however, is that their disorganized structure and lack of ingrained networks has kept them from filling the post-Mubarak political vacuum. The Muslim Brotherhood is by far the best institutionalized element of the opposition, but has continued its pattern from the Mubarak years of behind-the-scenes cooperation with the state, preferring to cut deals that preserved its position rather than fully engaging in democratic processes. This was most recently demonstrated in the aftermath of the military’s de facto coup, when rather than confrontation the Brotherhood preferred backroom negotiations with SCAF for its slice of the pie (the presidency).
This is of a piece with what I concluded in my recent book:
Hosni Mubarak has been successfully deposed and, as I write this, is on trial. This is remarkable. At the same time, however, the military of which Mubarak was a part remains the dominant institution in Egypt. The military has worked to maintain the deeply embedded power hierarchies that sustain its dominant position. It is doing so in a delicate dance with the Muslim Brotherhood which, while sharing the military’s distance from the Arab Spring’s anarchic impulses, nonetheless combines popular appeal with much more organized, institutionalized forms of power that have allowed it to move into the power vacuum Mubarak’s overthrown created. Until now, the Muslim Brotherhood has cooperated more than it has clashed with the Egyptian military; it is unclear to what degree the Brotherhood seeks to replicate top-down forms of hierarchical power or is open to more substantial pluralism…Overthrowing Mubarak was merely an uncertain first step toward a more complete Egyptian revolution that may or may not be realized.
– A Chase, Human Rights, Revolution, and Reform in the Muslim World (Lynne Rienner, March 2012)
This leads to the second problem with saying the revolution is dead. There was never a revolution as such to kill, but there were revolutionary impulses that led millions of Egyptians into the streets. These impulses delegitimized both Mubarak as well as the military that is succeeding him. That has not died. There is every empirical reason to believe that desires for more democratic representation and other political and economic rights continue to predominate among Egyptians. This explosion of repressed political desires made clear that Egypt – as with much of the Arab and Muslim worlds – has far more diverse normative currents than most observers had recognized. This means hope remains for a revolutionary future, no matter how dismal current circumstances are.
Guns can certainly rule in the short term, so there is no reason for immediate optimism (particularly given, it should be noted, support for the current regime from both regional powers like Saudi Arabia and global powers like the U.S.). In the face of that entrenched power, the challenge for the opposition to Egypt’s military in the long term is two-fold. One, organize Egypt’s anarchic opposition into coherent political networks. And, two, come to terms with the fact that, despite deep ideological differences among Egyptians, there is a shared structural position in opposition to the military. A revolutionary unity grounded in recognizing Egypt’s pluralism is the only possible way to contest SCAF’s attempts to monopolize power. This is a challenge for secularists who, if they hope to contain the military’s power, must work in the tradition of Islamist-liberal cooperation (from the Kefeya movement to Tahrir Square) that has borne some fruit in pushing Islamists toward pluralism. It is an equal challenge to the Brotherhood, which must decide if they want to be “frenemies” with SCAF – i.e., competing for power at the top while cooperating in excluding other political groups from power – or if they dare work in a more cooperative, democratic fashion with Egypt’s kaleidoscope of political actors.
The good news in terms of this two-fold project is that Egypt’s public sphere is more open politically than it has been in decades. That will continue to bring claims for basic political and economic rights shared by most Egyptians to the fore. Tahrir Square let the genie of those claims out of the bottle, and it is doubtful the military (or the Brotherhood) can put them back in. In other words, the revolution is both dead and alive. Dead in that the military remains firmly in power, as they have been all along. Alive in that claims for revolutionary change, once they have exploded, are not easily repressed – the underlying impulses will inevitably recur. In that context, the Egyptian military will be left with a fateful choice that it will have to face sooner or later: either escalate repression (the Iranian model) or reluctantly concede political space that reflects Egypt’s on-the-ground realities (the Tunisian model).
In the meantime, the Egyptian revolution is dead. Long live the revolution.
Anthony Chase is an Associate Professor at Occidental College. He is the author of Human Rights, Revolution, and Reform in the Muslim World (Lynne Rienner, March 2012)
and co-editor with Amr Hamzawy of Human Rights in the Arab World: Independent Voices (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).