About the Revolution
By Tarek Heggy
(1) A description of what happened:
There is a point at which a popular uprising, indeed, any popular movement, must be described as a revolution and that is when it succeeds in rallying huge numbers under its banner and when it produces effects and brings about changes that impact strongly on the reality on the ground. The first condition was fully satisfied in the movement that began on January 25th, 2011: the number of Egyptian men and women who took to the streets to demand change ran into the millions. While Tahrir square was the scene of million-plus demonstrations in Cairo over many days, the size of countrywide demonstrations ran to over ten million for several days. Even taking into account the difference in the size of the population, the numbers were proportionally far greater than those who participated in the 1919 revolution or those who took to the streets in support of the army takeover on July 23rd, 1952. Indeed, they were far greater than the mass demonstrations which toppled the socialist era in the countries making up what was known as the eastern bloc. Thus the quantitative aspect attests to the fact that we witnessed the largest popular movement in Egypt’s modern history as well as one of the largest in the history of the world over the last two centuries.
As to the second condition that qualifies a movement to be called a revolution, namely, the effects it produces and the changes it brings about, there is no doubt that what began in Egypt on January 25th, 2011 brought about (and continues to bring about) huge and radical changes in Egyptian reality, the most important being the overthrow of the head of a regime that ruled Egypt with increasing repression for thirty years, attaining in the last ten one of the worst forms of an alliance between power and wealth.
In addition to toppling its head, the revolution shook the regime to its roots, even though many of its component elements not only still remain among us but are actively engaged in fomenting what can only be described as a counterrevolution. There is therefore no disputing the fact that the events which began in Egypt on January 25th, 2011 were a revolution, indeed, a great, even a glorious, revolution. It was also a “white” revolution: the only blood spilt was at the hands of the regime and its cohorts, including a number of loyalist business tycoons.
Thus the revolution of January 25th, 2011 deserves the praise heaped on it by a large number of world leaders who did not stop at describing it as a great revolution but went on to talk admiringly of its resolve, dedication, brilliant organization and peacefulness. Some went as far as to propose that the Egyptian revolution be included as a subject on the curricula of their higher educational institutions.
(2) Background to and reasons for the revolution:
Although no one can deny that the first half of President Mubarak’s rule (1981 -1996) was marked by political repression and economic and social stagnation, there was no momentum for a revolution against the president as long as he was ruling Egypt on his own. However, during the second half of his period in power, his family, notably his wife and younger son, began to take an active part in ruling Egypt, involving themselves in all spheres of activity. The son established an oligarchy between some prominent members of the political power structure and a number of business tycoons. The influence and power of this coalition grew until it became the real ruler on the internal front (leaving foreign policy to the president). During those years, political repression and financial corruption attained levels never before experienced by Egyptians in their modern history. The coalition committed its fatal mistake in 2010 when the president’s younger son helped the secretary-general of the ruling party (the president’s party), Safwat Sherif, a man despised by all Egyptians, and the wealthy tycoon Ahmed Ezz, the son’s close associate, to forge election results twice. The first time was for the Shura (upper house) elections; the second (and this was the more important) was for the People’s Assembly elections, when they took over 98% of the seats for their followers, leaving 2% for the rest of Egypt! As far as the Egyptian people were concerned, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
To recap then: during the second half of his period in power, the president succumbed to pressure from his family, specifically from his wife and younger son, setting in motion a process that was to bring about his downfall. He began by allowing them to participate with him in managing the country’s political, economic, social, cultural and educational affairs, gradually allowing them to virtually take over the running of the country while reserving for himself the foreign affairs portfolio. This led to the formation of an unholy alliance between power and money that engendered corruption in all spheres of life for a full decade and a half, culminating in the unprecedented rigging of the parliamentary elections. A few weeks after this latest chapter in the rampant corruption perpetuated by the coalition between power and money under Mubarak’s rule, the flood gates of revolution opened on January 25th, 2011.
(3) Was the revolution expected?
As someone who has lectured at most of the major universities, academies and centres of Middle Eastern studies in the United States and Europe, I believe I am in a position to confirm that all the experts on the region believed Egypt was headed for a revolution. However, all of them (as well as the writer of this article) expected it to come either from the slums or the mosques. This proved not to be the case. The revolution was launched by young men and women of the middle class, most of them university graduates and all of them adept in the use of modern communications technology. Their grasp of this technology, notably the Internet, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, provided them with a contemporary understanding of two concepts. The first is citizenship; the second the role of government. Most of the members of the computer generation have a better understanding of the rights of citizens than previous generations. At the same time, they know that governments are there to serve not to rule, and can clearly see the difference between governments that serve in advanced countries and those that rule in countries like Egypt.
(4) January 25th, 2011:
In defiance of state security arsenals and an interior ministry swollen from one hundred thousand men in 1981 to over a million at the beginning of 2011, despite extensive wiretapping and eavesdropping on all forms of electronic and telecommunications and tight state control over much of the media, the January 25th revolution was a well-organized movement from the start. Armed with a steely determination, it succeeded in mustering a mass following that was remarkably united across class, age and sectarian lines. These features of the revolution deserve to be studied in depth. They also deserve to be highly praised. When the police state shut off access to Facebook and the Internet, then text messages on cell phones and finally cell phones themselves, its attempts to abort the revolution backfired as popular indignation sparked even wider protests. A respectable state, one that respects its people, would never resort to such shameful acts, and those who ordered the social media blackout must be brought to justice.
Despite the regime’s best efforts, however, the revolution flowed on as relentlessly as though following a detailed musical score. In the final analysis, science defeated a primitive power structure out of touch with the realities of the age. The leaders of the Kifaya movement told me of their frustration over the years because of their inability to mobilize even one thousand people for a demonstration. Then out of the blue, as it were, the January 25th generation miraculously managed to organize a 1000-strong demonstration that swelled in just four days to a one-million strong revolution in one square. The reason is simply that these youngsters managed to break the fear barrier and that they believed in themselves and in their message. At the same time, they knew that though their enemy appeared strong it was in fact extremely weak.
(5) A revolution for freedom, not bread:
While no-one disputes the importance of ensuring decent living standards for all citizens, ‘dignity’ and ‘freedom’, not ‘bread’ and ‘jobs’ were the catchwords and triggers of the revolution. In fact, there is a dialectical relationship between dignity and freedom on the one hand and bread and jobs on the other that the revolution’s youth understood full well. The failure to provide all Egyptian citizens with decent living standards is the direct result of a political system that denied freedom to its people and stripped them of their dignity. People who enjoy freedom with dignity participate in political life; they can change their rulers and the rules by which they are governed and eventually reach a stage in which all citizens enjoy equal rights to decent living standards with all that the term implies: housing, food, the right to marry and to found a family, medical treatment, etc.
(6) The demands of the revolution:
The demands of the revolution were predominantly political - freedom, dignity, participation and social justice. They were also limited to the domestic front. The revolutionaries did not attempt to deceive people with rousing slogans related to matters outside the national borders. Their main concern was to reform the country, not the world. Prioritizing goals and placing them in the right sequence is a sign of emotional maturity and mental equilibrium.
(7) Secularism of the revolution:
From the very first moment until the overthrow of the head of the regime the revolution was purely secular in all its aspects. On the few occasions when some of the protesters attempted to raise religious slogans the majority would shout them down with cries of “secular…..secular”.
Among the many achievements of this great revolution was that it exposed the real weight of the government of president Mubarak, of the opposition parties formed during his years in office and of the Muslim Brotherhood. The revolution showed the whole world that although there can be no denying the existence and influence of the Brotherhood, the regime deliberately exaggerated its weight to frighten the world into believing Mubarak was the only alternative to a takeover by political Islam.
(8) The days of the revolution:
Countless articles and books are sure to be written about the days of the revolution and the incidents that revealed the admirable qualities of the Egyptian people. However, as an eyewitness who was often in Tahrir square during the revolution, I would like to record here those aspects of the revolution that impressed me most. First, the Egyptian people focused on their goals with an iron resolve and an unwavering determination that many thought they had lost forever. Second, the prevailing mood in Tahrir square was marked by a degree of camaraderie, solidarity, harmony and warmth unprecedented in gatherings of this size and diversity anywhere in the world. Third, the heroism expressed by the revolutionaries in standing up to the brutal force brought to bear on them by the regime, which attacked its people with weapons, cars, hired thugs on horseback and camels, Molotov cocktails and snipers. For close on three weeks the revolutionaries stood firm against these unrelenting attacks, displaying fortitude as solid as the granite so beloved by the ancient Egyptians. When the history of this revolution is written it must record for posterity the crimes committed by the Mubarak regime against the peaceful protesters, such as its attempt to dispel them by launching a barbaric attack on Tahrir square using state security forces, a large number of former convicts and rampaging horses and camels normally used by tourists. The attack was orchestrated and funded by elements belonging to the two wings of the power establishment: the political and the financial. These people must spend their remaining days in prison, after being tried before regular courts of law, not the military tribunals the Mubarak regime used to try civilians.
(9) The dramatic collapse of the Egyptian police:
The revolution’s early days witnessed a dramatic collapse of the Egyptian police force on which the former regime spent tens of billions of pounds and which it furnished with arms and equipment more suited to an army than a police force. The regime also expanded its membership to over one million officers, patrolmen, policemen and conscripts. As the revolution unfolded, we saw the decline and fall of this colossal organization, whose motto had been changed by its former chief, the deposed interior minister, from “to serve the people” to “to serve the regime”. The brutality of the police force against the men and women of Egypt was what brought it to its knees. Still, I believe there were, and still are, honourable men in the police force who genuinely want to serve the nation and its citizens to the best of their ability. But the leaders of this organization (the successive interior ministers appointed by Mubarak) and their leader (Mubarak himself) changed the orientation of this national organization, which shifted its main focus from security against crime to political security under the leadership of a succession of mediocre men with corrupt intentions.
I speak from personal experience, having come to know all the interior ministers who served in the last thirty years. It was these men, with their narrow vision and lack of any cultural dimension, who masterminded the incidents that were attributed to sectarian strife. Moreover, they used the emergency law for one purpose only: to protect the head of the regime, not Egypt and the Egyptian people. Many of the top cadres in the interior ministry over the least three decades helped the head of the regime propagate the big lie of his presidency, viz, that his regime was the only alternative to the Islamist bogeyman! Given the absence of a cultural dimension in their makeup, and lacking a sense of history, the police leaderships dealt with the Islamist threat they were brandishing to frighten the outside world and their own people with a security mentality, that is, through the use of police measures exclusively, without any attempt to deal with the cultural or political dimensions of the phenomenon. And even the police measures they resorted to were often illegal, marked by excessive force, downright brutality and a total disregard for basic human rights. To my mind, all the blame should be directed against the head of the interior ministry, not its officers and soldiers. They are sons of Egypt whose only fault is the policies, orientations and objectives that governed them in general and Habib el-Adly in particular.
(10) The coalition of power and money:
Much can and indeed should be revealed in detail to the Egyptian people about the negative features of the past three decades at every level. But I think the worst one of all, the one that impacted most negatively on their lives, was the coalition formed in the second half of the Mubarak presidency, that is, in the period from 1996 until January 25th, 2011, between some members of the power elite and a number of wealthy businessmen. In the first half of the former president’s years in power the coalition did not exist; it only began to take shape on his younger son’s return from Britain. The members of the coalition soon came to monopolize the country’s political and economic life. They infiltrated the ruling party and, in addition to their control over the party as a whole, formed a powerful group within it that they called the policies committee. They then moved on to infiltrate a number of vital sectors. In the space of a few years, most banks were headed by coalition members. Their tentacles spread to the media, with many of their members placed at the head of leading press establishments and TV channels, thereby exerting no little influence on Egyptian public opinion. At a later stage, the influence of this diabolical coalition spread to other important institutions, notably the universities. It was the curse that destroyed the Mubarak presidency and engendered the revolutionary spirit in the hearts and minds of Egypt’s youth, who rose to bring one of the worst chapters in the country’s modern history to an end. No one can deny that the Egyptian people are performing a great service for their country and future generations by insisting on opening the political and economic files of the ousted regime and pushing for a thorough investigation into the many violations it committed which could, if the public prosecutor finds grounds for legal proceedings, lead to the incarceration of their perpetrators.
Anyone who violated the law in any way, anyone who plundered Egypt in any way, anyone who spread corruption in Egypt over the last three decades must be punished. In this connection, the definition of corruption must extend to include fortunes made by reason of connections with the power establishment.
(11) The regime’s concessions in face of the tidal wave of revolution:
It would seem that two factors, namely, a stupefyingly long period in power and a poor cultural formation, rendered the leaders of the former regime unable to understand the reality, magnitude, orientations, strength and determination of the January 25th revolution. This lack of understanding made some of them believe they were facing “demonstrations” that could be quelled through a carrot-and-stick approach. This meant using security measures while making some concessions, like removing the Nazif cabinet, then appointing a vice-president [to fill a post the former president claimed that for a quarter of a century he had tried and failed to find someone worthy of occupying], then announcing first that the president, then that his son, would not be running in the presidential election in September 2011, then removing the leadership of the National Democratic Party [the most hated institution in the country], then delegating some of the president’s powers to the vice-president. These concessions attest to an unnerved regime’s failure to understand what was happening. A revolution does not stop when a few crumbs, large or small, are thrown its way. We must thank the president’s son for forming the power/money coalition because had it not been for this particular outrage the anger of the people would not have reached the critical mass necessary to spark a revolution that seemed to go against the nature of the Egyptians, who are noted for their resilient and fatalistic attitude to whatever the fates throw at them. We must also thank those who failed to understand what happened on January 25th, 2011. Because had they realized what was really going on even more innocent blood would have been spilt. This in no way makes the regime’s murder of more than three hundred Egyptian men and women any less horrifying and those who committed those crimes must be tried and executed.
(12) The former president’s speeches during the revolution:
The three speeches delivered by the president during the revolution were very revealing of the way he thinks of his country and his people. The speeches showed up an extreme stubbornness that can only be found in people with limited intellectual abilities. They also revealed that the president sees himself as a benefactor who deserves gratitude for the many favours he bestowed on Egypt.
In all three speeches, he spoke down to the people, revealing an arrogance that he had hitherto been careful to mask. The speeches showed an amazing detachment from reality. Not once did he refer to what was happening as a revolution; not once did he refer to the coalition between power and money that led to the revolution; not once did he refer to the rigging of the parliamentary elections, which was a slap in the face to the Egyptians. Nor did he utter a word of apology to the people for the crimes committed against them before and during the revolution. He did not apologize for the more than 300 peaceful protestors killed by his regime. Moreover, his speeches always came hours behind schedule, yet another sign of his lack of respect for his people. The last speech he made 24 hours before stepping down was the worst ever since he became president of Egypt on October 14th, 1981. I am confident that analysts and commentators will have much to say about the speeches and the lessons to be drawn from them.
(13) Incomprehension .. bluster .. stubbornness – downfall:
As the revolution unfolded so too did a soap opera, starring the regime, played out in several episodes. The first was entitled “incomprehension” which led to the second, entitled “bluster”. This was followed by “stubbornness”, a quality the former president was proud to admit to. This soap opera helped the revolution and the revolutionaries, who achieved their first victory when they heard the former president announce he was stepping down. I deliberately used the word first to describe this victory because the revolution has other objectives, no less important than the removal of the head of the regime, that have not been fully realized yet.
(14) The downfall of the head … the regime has been weakened not toppled:
There is no doubt that the January 25th revolution succeeded on two counts:
It brought down the head of the regime and dealt a debilitating blow to the regime itself. But not all the regime’s symbols and officials have gone away, nor has the spirit of the Mubarak era or the methods and aims of state institutions. This might be the only alternative to chaos and a political vacuum. But the next six months are what will determine whether the regime, even greatly weakened as it is and with its head removed, can spawn a new regime in the same mould and with the same characteristics or whether the armed forces [the great hope of the Egyptian people] will succeed in administering matters in a way that will lead us to the beginning of an entirely new era on 14th October this year, an era in which Egyptians will enjoy real political freedoms and participate in shaping their present and future, an era in which corruption will retreat and with it the dominance of the power/money coalition, an era in which we will see a rotation of power, where leaders can be changed and held accountable and governments are there only to serve the people.
(15) The armed forces:
There is no doubt that the armed forces protected the revolution and the people as a whole from many evils the head of the regime and the leaders of a number of his political and security agencies would not have hesitated to visit on them in order to remain in power. The armed forces protected Egypt from internal fighting and destruction and all their decisions and actions testify to their patriotism and love for the people as well as their determination to safeguard the public utilities and wealth of Egypt. The hope now is that the army hand over power to a president elected in free and fair elections and to a civilian government of competent individuals so that we can start a new and better era, with greater freedom, trust and transparency, an era in which everyone is accountable.
In this article I have tried to paint a panoramic picture of the most glorious revolution in Egypt’s history. It will be followed by another article proposing a detailed prescription of what needs to be done during this transition period.