There are moments in world affairs that call for the suspension of disbelief. At these junctures, caution ought to be suppressed and cynicism forgotten to let joy and wonderment resound. Across the globe, everyone, at least everyone with a heart, knows that the Egyptian revolution of 2011 is such a time.
Before January 25, date of the mass protests that kicked off the revolutionary fortnight in Cairo and other cities, Egypt was another populous, impoverished country laboring under an autocratic regime whose police worked assiduously to keep dissent at the margins of civic life. It was a place where the establishment, political, economic and religious, spread the ancient nostrums of tyranny updated for a globalized age: The “wise men” are meant to lead and the rest to be led. The hopes of a lucky few can see fruition through the appointed channels, but the rest are fated to die. Resistance is futile, and the smart money says one should not bother to dream. As the Egyptians chidingly say, and the Egyptians have a saying for everything, “Ishtiri dimaghak” — literally, buy back your brain.
Today, however, millions, if not billions, of minds are on the open market, for the teeming crowds in Tahrir Square are pulsating proof of human possibility. No dictator is too strong for people power to unseat, no matter how vicious his gendarmerie or how committed his external patron to continuity. Perhaps this hope did not need to be brought back to life, but the throngs of Egyptians demanding democracy have released it from its cage. And that, not the forced resignation of Husni Mubarak from the presidency on February 11, is their revolutionary act.
History, of course, is littered with revolutions interrupted, diverted, stolen and betrayed. The regime of which Husni Mubarak was the hated face is not gone by any means, and there is ample reason to feel that it merely lies in wait for the tumult to subside.
In the early days of the uprising, Vice President ‘Umar Sulayman and his entourage wheeled upon the interior minister and associates of Mubarak’s son Gamal, blaming them in the press for the beatings dispensed to the Cairene crowd as it crossed bridges over the Nile on January 25 and the ill-fated charge of the camelback brigade upon the revolutionaries on February 2. The interior minister, it was said in state-run media, had way overstepped the bounds of his instructions to protect Tahrir Square from the protesters’ advance. (Doubtless, his real offense was failing to do so.) Mustafa al-Fiqqi, a ruling-party parliamentarian whose Damanhour district has seen plenty of regime-sponsored thuggery on election days past, claimed to have information that Gamal’s wealthy friends had recruited and paid the mounted assailants themselves. Particularly loathed figures among the crony capitalists — Husayn Salim, who sells Egyptian natural gas to Israel, and Ahmad ‘Izz, who gobbled up the country’s privatized public-sector steel plants — were hung out to dry.
The same tactic seems evident in the most detailed account of Mubarak’s final hours in office published on February 12 by the Associated Press. The refusal of the octogenarian ex-president to leave is ascribed to Gamal, as well as unnamed “top aides,” who reportedly hid the full extent of the popular upheaval from the boss and persuaded him on more than occasion to revise a speech of resignation. In Arabic-language outlets online, there is speculation about spectacular arguments inside the presidential palace involving the various members of the Mubarak family. By this telling, the army and presumably also the “senior Egyptian official” who talked to the AP reporter were anxious to see Mubarak depart much sooner than he did. The top brass is said to have believed, like the White House, that he would step down on February 10. After Mubarak’s speech of that evening, in which he vaguely promised to hand over some of his powers to Sulayman, but otherwise to serve out his term until September, the army’s hand was finally forced. Another account, appearing in the Beirut daily al-Safir, claims that in the end Mubarak did not object to the army’s demands.
Some parts of each story may be accurate, and given the vested interests of the handful of people who know the exact course of events, the truth may never be known in full. It is revealing, nonetheless, that the circumstances of Mubarak’s eventual ouster have allowed the instant rehabilitation of the reputation of the army, which had stood idly by as the camel riders attacked in Cairo and less colorful goon squads deployed elsewhere. Across the country, over 300 people died, almost all at the hands of the police and its minions, after the tanks rolled out of the bases and into the streets. The army was not a neutral actor that reluctantly decided to take a side; it switched sides when it was obvious that Mubarak’s could not win.
For now, Egypt is ruled by a supreme military council, whose first communiqué announced that the council was in open session and whose fourth dissolved Parliament and suspended the constitution. The army says that its dominion is temporary, to last no longer than six months, by which time elections will be held. The caretaker prime minister appointed by Mubarak, Ahmad Shafiq, insists that the army’s plans are transparent. Sulayman, the man who appeared on state television to declare Mubarak’s presidency over, has disappeared from view, at least for the time being. Meanwhile, another miscreant high official, Anas al-Fiqqi, has been placed under house arrest for having ordered the xenophobic and reality-denying propaganda that prevailed on state TV and radio from January 28 until slightly before the end of Mubarak’s reign. There is no guarantee, in other words, that Egypt’s revolution will proceed beyond the scapegoating of select regime insiders and the army’s self-insertion into the deliberations of state. Already on February 11, a tweet had encapsulated the potential corruption of the possible: “Congratulations, Egypt! Don’t let the military entrench itself. Love, Pakistan.”
But it remains too early to yield to pessimism of the intellect. Now is a time for celebration of optimism of the will.
The most positive sign for Egypt going forward is the sheer tenacity of the collective protest that compelled change at the top. On January 25, which one suspects will not be known to the next generation of Egyptians as Police Day, the demonstrators faced down the threat of violence, in the form of the club-wielding riot police who tried to stop them from traversing the Nile bridges leading into Tahrir Square. On January 28, the crowds dispelled the powerful myths of Egyptian languor and apathy, turning their “day of rage” into a genuinely pan-Egyptian revolt. On February 2, the revolutionaries proved unfazed by actual violence, absorbing the blows of the thugs and battling back. On February 10, as on January 28 and other days, they showed themselves to be immune to regime blandishments, rebuffing Mubarak’s half-measures. They were not sidetracked by the regime’s scaremongering about the “constitutional void” that would swallow Egypt whole if the president retired before the scheduled date. The regime, after all, had rewritten this document to give its endless rule a veneer of legality.
Perhaps most inspiring was their steadfast rejection of the old logic of ishtiri dimaghak. The regime tried its damnedest to convince the revolutionaries that time was not on their side. The other mass of Egyptians sitting at home would tire of the disruption to the capital’s main crossroads, the closure of the banks and schools, the shortages of staples in the shops. The protesters’ parents really ought to summon the children home, Sulayman sneered. These tricks, hardly subtle but insidious nonetheless, had quelled unrest so many times before, distracting Egyptians from their main enemy and turning them upon each other. Not in 2011 — as the Google executive and protest blogger Wael Ghoneim cleverly riposted, if Sulayman thinks Egyptians are not ready for democracy, he should let them practice.
The boisterous scene in Tahrir Square, frequently and perhaps misleadingly compared to a carnival, has garnered most of the coverage and hence most of the credit for the decision of the regime to shed Mubarak. But Egypt has been in revolution countrywide. On February 10 and preceding days, there were enormous marches in Alexandria, the Suez Canal cities, the towns of the Delta and the burgs of Upper Egypt, and citizens confronted police even in the oasis of Kharga in the vast western desert. At companies across the country, workers went on strike, some in explicit solidarity with the revolutionaries and their demands, others pressing as well for betterment of their material conditions. In the coming weeks and months, much more will be learned about the role of the Egyptian provinces in pushing the regime into concessions.
The February 13 declaration of martial law is worrisome for the reasons already adduced: It may simply supplant the emergency law in place in Egypt since the 1981 assassination of Anwar al-Sadat, a law that has been used to crush 30 years’ worth of democratic aspirations. But the army’s step also illustrates the famous quotation from Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency.” On cue, the same evening a forum of Egyptian human rights organizations issued a “road map for a nation of rights and the rule of law,” focusing on the precept of civilian-led government and calling for its restoration as soon as possible. Here the activists echoed the slogans in the streets in the period after the army showed up: “Madaniyya! Madaniyya! Mish ‘ayizin al-‘askariyya!” (Civilians! Civilians! We don’t want military rule!)
Another encouraging signal comes from Tunisia, where 2011’s original set of revolutionaries has persevered against great odds nearly a month after the abdication of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. It appears that the remnants of Ben Ali’s regime have seized the opportunity of Mubarak’s fall, when the media spotlight has been trained on Cairo, to reverse some of their pledges of reform. Such revanchism is not surprising and should be expected in Egypt as well. Tunisians did not pack up and go home, however; the streets of the capital have been akin to one big political salon. As Issandr El Amrani reported in Abu Dhabi’s The National, roving groups of citizens have physically occupied the offices of Ben Ali’s party-cum-surveillance apparatus to deny its branches a location for reconstituting themselves. As in Egypt, the revolution lies in the persistence of the struggle, in the determination not only to feel hope, but to act upon it.
No matter what happens to the ferment among Egyptians, theirs is a revolutionary moment, along with Tunisians’ the first real one of the twenty-first century. No media-friendly color for this pro-democracy revolt, whose symbolic images are the red-white-and-black Egyptian flags painted on the cheeks of young girls and boys sitting atop their fathers’ shoulders amidst the crowds. No infusions of cash from democracy-promoting foundations and think tanks in the West. No relation whatsoever to any Washington “doctrine.” No marketing campaigns designed by global advertising firms. How deliciously appropriate that the Arab world, a region long demonized for its lack of participatory politics, should supply these truly bottom-up models for others to emulate.
Historians today are grasping for the right parallel to past revolutions that will predict Egypt’s trajectory. But such instant analysis forecloses the possibility that Egyptians have awakened with their chants democratic and, after all, no one predicted that they would raise it so dramatically and so soon. Egypt is sui generis; it deserves and, in fact, demands to be understood and appreciated in its own terms and on its own merits. Chroniclers of future popular uprisings may compare them to what Egyptians have wrought in early 2011. Whatever its course, the revolution of the Egyptian people is a great and beautiful gift to the world.