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The Revolution Will Not Be Celebrated

[A protestor encourages others to defy the police, Cairo, 26 January 2011. Photo by Pauline Beugnies] [A protestor encourages others to defy the police, Cairo, 26 January 2011. Photo by Pauline Beugnies]

The common, seemingly benign question, “where were you during the revolution?” leaves most partisans of the January 25 Revolution with a strong sense of unease. While it is obvious that the question, whenever it comes up, is almost always posed in reference to 2011's eighteen days of national protests that led to the end of Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year rule, this innocent query fails to do justice to the belief that the revolution and the eighteen-day uprising are not one and the same. The phrasing of the question, moreover, proceeds on an assumption that the revolution ended with Mubarak’s departure, and that what followed was “politics as usual.” This assumption happens to coincide with a narrative that successive wielders of power have tried to sell to the Egyptian people over the past two years, namely one that purports that the revolution succeeded (and therefore “ended”) with Mubarak’s departure, and that dissenters need to vacate public squares and factories, and begin deferring to their “elders” among the politicians, the legislators, and the constitution writers. “Where were you during the revolution,” in other words, is a question that evokes our own fears about the counter-revolution and its efforts to build a popular consciousness that reduces the January 25 Revolution to an event of the past—one that warrants commemoration and celebration—and not a living phenomenon and an ongoing struggle that has ways to go. These concerns are heightened at a time when it has become acceptable in international media to call revolutionaries “anti-Morsi protesters” or “the secular opposition,” embracing the distortive view that the struggle for revolutionary change in Egypt has taken a backseat to ideological spats and partisan politics.

This is to say that partisans of the revolution in Egypt confront more than just a battle against the wielders of power as they continue to resist calls for transformative change, demands for social and economic rights, and efforts to create a meaningful social depth for the January 25 Revolution. They also face a serious battle against the hegemonic narrative that the days of revolution in Egypt are over, and that the country has re-entered into a state of normalcy in which contentious political action is no longer deemed socially or legally acceptable. Aware of the fact that the revolution’s biggest enemy today is the past tense, advocates of change in Egypt are refusing to celebrate the January 25 Revolution, and are taking to the streets and the squares to renew their commitment to “bread, freedom, and social justice”—the same words that brought the Egypt of Hosni Mubarak and Ahmad Ezz to its knees and that are seriously challenging the Egypt of Mohamed Morsi and Khairat El-Shater.

It is in this context that Jadaliyya uses the occasion of the two-year “anniversary” of January 25 to present a set of critical articles that take seriously what veteran labor activist Kamal Abu-Eita once said: “the January 25 Revolution did not start on 25 January and did not end on 11 February.” Capturing the spirit of the first part of that same quote, Paul Sedra highlights how the underlying realities and the events of the past two years in Egypt challenge historians to reassess the history of Egypt in light of the January 25 Revolution. He writes: “In much the way that the revolutions of 1968 inspired American historian Howard Zinn to write his People’s History of the United States – a history less concerned with statesmen than with slaves, soldiers, and suffragettes – the January 25 Revolution must yield a history of modern Egypt that examines the manifold ways in which Egyptians have defied the central authority that has, for centuries, sought to control them.” A military-centric history that posits 1952 and 1973 as Egypt’s milestones, and that does not grapple with 1919, 1968 and moments that brought to the fore popular struggles for change, is no longer appropriate, he says.

Situating Egypt’s current realities in the often-distorted meaning and history of revolutions, Joel Beinin argues that “the January 25 Revolution is not over. Rather, it has not yet occurred.” While resistance to the status quo has not waned, he observes, much is yet to be done to build a new Egypt that speaks to the type of change that lives up to the term “revolution.”

Aly El Raggal’s contribution (Arabic) brings to light one critical obstacle facing Egypt’s revolutionary struggle, namely the coercive apparatus inherited from the Mubarak era and that continues to adhere to the same repressive practices that arguably paved the way for anti-regime mobilization during the 2011 eighteen-day uprising. While revolutionary activists have thus far failed to force meaningful changes inside the security sector, El Raggal anticipates greater tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and security institutions in the future.

At a time when observers are carefully assessing the prospects for conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled presidency and entrenched powers inside the Egyptian state, most notably the military, Wael Eskandar explores the history of the Brotherhood’s relations with the wielders of power in Egypt. Eskandar’s contribution suggests that the emergent détente between military leaders and the Muslim Brotherhood speaks to a long history in which the group has consistently opted for accommodation rather than confrontation with the country’s power holders.

Also examining how the Muslim Brotherhood is managing its alliances and relations with important political actors after coming to power, Islam Abdel Bari’s article (Arabic) analyzes how recent developments within the Salafist camp, including defections from Al-Nour Party, could impact the Brotherhood’s competition with such groups.

As advocates of transformative change continue their struggle to build an Egypt in which equality and freedom transcend religious difference, Karim Malak examines the perennial dilemma of demographics when thinking about Copts in the modern Egyptian nation-state. The article offers valuable insights into how various powerful actors have exploited demographic statistics and numbers for political gains.

Underscoring the extent to which the January 25 Revolution has been transformed into a living struggle, Mona Abaza’s photo essay shows how the evolution of street art on Mohamed Mahmoud Street has mirrored a spirit of resistance and subversion that animates artistic expression in Egypt. She writes: “As long as Egypt’s wielders of power continue to undermine calls for revolutionary change in the country, the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and many others, will continue to offer an arena for the lively expression of political dissent and resistance. The dramaturgical performance that Mohamed Mahmoud Street is witnessing today will continue to unfold. The play is far from over.”

Another photo essay by Amro Ali attempts to use artwork from the streets of Alexandria to tell the story of the two years of revolution that Egypt has experienced thus far. “As we enter the second anniversary of the revolution,” he writes, “Egypt needs to find a way to tell the art scene, 'It is okay to dream too high.'”

The series of articles also feature a much-needed effort to reassess our understanding of the eighteen-day uprising and how it relates to the current state of the revolutionary struggle in Egypt. Arguing against the conventional narrative that presents the eighteen days as a primarily Cairene initiative based in Tahrir Square, Mahmoud Salah provides an important report (Arabic) that explains the crucial role played by the mobilization that occurred outside the capital in forcing Mubarak’s ouster. These insights could not be more relevant in our present day, when analyses on the state of revolutionary dissent in Egypt are overly focused on Cairo-based elites.

Jadaliyya is also featuring an exclusive interview (Arabic with English subtitles) conducted by Linda Herrera with Abdelrahman Mansour, founding co-admin of “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page and the person who set the date of 25 January 2011 for the protests that sparked the Egyptian revolution. AbdelRahman, who has been almost entirely overlooked by international media, talks about what it means to be a youth leader in the age of social media, the pros and cons of anonymity, where he turns for new ideas, and the struggles involved in building a new Egypt.

All these contributions are united by a commitment to resist the “past tense” in assessing the January 25 Revolution and its significance. Such an effort mirrors the determination of many Egyptians to sideline calls for reducing the revolution to a distant memory to be celebrated and remembered. Today, 25 January, is an opportunity for partisans of the revolution to reflect on the sacrifices that many individuals have made in the name of a more just and humane social order, and to find strength in these sacrifices as they continue to push forward. Ask any of them “where were you during the revolution,” and they will answer you back with great confidence and conviction: “Right here, right now.”

Jadaliyya Features

Egypt Map and Stats

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Population(July 2016 est.): 94,666,993
GDP($US trillions, 2016 est.)$1.105 
Unemployment: 13.1% (2016 est.); Youth Unemployment (ages 15-24): 34.3% (2013 est.)
Internet Users (/million, 2015)31.767 (35.9%)
Exchange Rate(2016 est.)$342.8 billion 
GDP Growth Rate(2016 est.)2.51% 
Military Expenditures(2015)1.73% of GDP 
Health Expenditures (/GDP, 2014)5.6% 
Population Growth Rate (2016 est.):  2.51%
Age Structure (2016 est.)0-14 years: 33.21%; 15-24 years: 19.24%; 25-54 years: 37.47%; 55-64 years: 5.91%; 65 years and over: 4.17% 
Literacy (2016 est.): 73.8%