In 1543, Copernicus wrote his treatise on the movement of planets around the sun De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Bodies). Today, we call his monumental intervention a “scientific revolution,” but in the 16th century, the term “revolution” in English was reserved for technicians in the fields of astronomy or Euclidean geometry. It was not until the events in English history that have come to be known as the “Glorious Revolution” that the term was regularly applied to political change.
The Glorious Revolution is what the British parliament still calls the deposition of King James II by William of Orange. After William’s initial victory, the Convention Parliament was divided over whether to name him King. The radical whigs in the House of Commons supported William, while the conservatives in the House of Lords, many of whom had risen to power under James II and his predecessor’s restored monarchy, withheld their support for William. On February 5, 1689 William held a private meeting with a small group of influential Lords and made it clear that they could either name him King, or he would withdraw his army and let them deal with the angry mob. The next day, the Lords accepted the proposal drawn up by House of Commons to make William and his wife, Mary II, joint monarchs of England. Shortly thereafter, James’ political opponent, the aristocrat John Hampden, coined the phrase “Glorious Revolution” to describe the political victory from which be benefitted.
What strikes me as interesting is that the term “revolution”–which we tend to associate with liberalizing political movements–is being applied to a technique to avoid what is, in essence, a radical form of direct democracy. The aristocrats in the House of Lords assented to a change in government because they were fundamentally afraid of the mobs in the streets. But the change was cloaked in the language of old institutions. William of Orange was himself an aristocrat, and the monarchy was his goal. The law of the conservation of energy seems to be as true for history as physics. Nothing comes from nothing.
Egypt: Revolution 2.0?
When Egypt held its first round of Presidential elections after the January 25th “revolution,” results were scheduled to be released on June 20, 2012. The day after voting ended, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) held a press conference and delayed the announcement of the winner for 5 days while “claims of fraud” were investigated by the Presidential Elections Commission.
Many Egyptians on the streets today believe that, during this five day period, a conversation–similar to the one held between William and the leaders of the House of Lords–was held between SCAF and the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who had assembled their own “mob” of sorts in the form of supporters bussed in from across the country occupying Tahrir Square. When Mursi was announced the winner on June 25, he was greeted by nation-wde celebrations. But, as Lina Attallah describes, this was the same moment that some of the activists who had played a central role in launching the revolution began to feel marginalized.
In his book Revolution 2.0 Egyptian activist and Google manager Wael Ghoneim describes his experiences as moderator of the facebook page “We are all Khaled Said.” It was on this politically-neutral page that the protests that eventually toppled Hosni Mubarak were originally scheduled for January 25, 2011.
Much ink has been spilled (most of it needlessly) on whether or not the Egyptian revolution was directly caused by facebook. The history of civil disobedience under Mubarak and the fact that the internet was down for five days during the revolution easily de-bunk that theory. But I do think the internet and social media provides us with an interesting model to think of a disorganized, non-hierarchical form of politics. In a network of individual machines, any idea–regardless of whether it is an earth-shaking innovation or a cute picture of a cat–can go viral and inspire enthusiasm from innumerable users. Similarly, centers of power proliferate as people can more easily navigate and concentrate on their own interests. With the ability to control your mediascape, your life becomes an insulated echo-chamber, surrounding you with the things to which you have grown accustomed and genuinely prefer.
Egypt has a large upper and middle class. Many of them are also relatively well-educated, with a special emphasis on learning English from the time they are four years old. For the younger generations, the internet has been the life line on which they were raised. Intellectual property laws are not enforced, and torrenting is rampant, allowing the average upper class Egyptian to build a massive knowledge of Western and specifically American culture through the consumption of music, TV, and movies. It is the political activists from this generation who sought to spread the news of the 2008 worker’s strikes in Mahalla online through the April 6 facebook group–a tactic that was further refined by Ghoneim on January 25.
The group City Band (English words transcribed into Arabic) represents this class of cosmopolitan youth well. Formed in 2006, their style is a blend of American Blues and rock instrumentals with melodic vocals that harken back to traditional forms of Egyptian folk culture like the mawwal. The video to their song Ana Mawgood or “I Exist” (above) shows young Egyptians painted in the red, white, and black of the Egyptian flag being beaten by military police. The lyrics by Muhammad Tawfik were intended as a theme song of the revolution (credit to Music Layoonak for the translation):
I exist, but my title keeps changing
My name is youth, and I am young
I am willing to live a short life
And I am not afraid to die
Here I am…
Say that I’m spreading fitna (discord) and I am always undermining the stability
Say that I’m a kafir (infidel) and a traitor and that I’m going to hell
You are free to say what you will
I won’t object to any kind of dialogue
Yes, I’m a killer and my weapon is some stones
I am here…
And when I die, nobody ask why they killed me
And I beg you do not cry
Whoever wants to laugh can laugh, it’s not important
Nobody call out “we will not forget you”
No forget me, but don’t forget
The one who killed me is still out there
And I am gone
The simple title represents the revolution as a powerful assertion made by the ascendant generation to involve themselves in politics. As the lyrics go on, it becomes clear that any means necessary will be employed to ensure that this assertion is met. The specific references refuting accusations of spreading fitna (chaos) or being a kafir (infidel) are clear jabs at the religious parties, which employ such Islamic terms in their political discourse. Similarly, the derogatory reference to those trumpeting istiqrar (stability) is meant to counter a reactionary discourse on the dangers of protest.
Unfortunately, the violence intimated in Ana Mawgood became tangible on January 28th, 2011, when the growing protest movement–which was still largely composed of the upper- and middle-class youth–was attacked by state security forces while marching on Qasr al-Nil bridge. When these images and the news of the deaths of 11 young people spread across Egypt, the protest movement became truly broad based. It was only after this that the Muslim Brotherhood rank-and-file joined the protests, as well as other elements of Egyptian society. What transpired was an eighteen-day occupation of Tahrir Square, with many protestors sleeping in tents or on the ground, until Mubarak was deposed in favor of the SCAF-led “transition period.”
The day Mubarak stepped down, crowds in the square rejoiced. Groups spontaneously started to form to pick up trash and repair the damaged bridge. But soon evidence began mounting of a growing disconnect between the euphoria of Revolution and the reality of military rule. Thousands of political dissidents were rounded up under the Emergency laws which still remained intact and tried in front of military tribunals. Female protestors were subjected to degrading “virginity tests.” And state security continued its efforts to brutally repress protestors in the events at Maspero, Abbasiyya, and Muhammad Mahmoud.
Despite this reality, public support for the military was still quite high. In an effort to bridge this gap, a group of young political activists started ‘Askar Kaziboon’ or “The Military are Liars.” Changing tactics, they concentrated their efforts in offline activism by crowd-sourcing projectors and sending videos of abuse at the hands of Military and state security to activists across the country. These activists in turn screened the videos in public in an effort to reach a wider audience. According to Adel Iskander, the effort was largely successful in shifting public opinion. In asserting their right to exist, young people were trying to organize to create a new style of politics in Egypt.
A Leaderless Movement
But despite the success of rank-and-file activists in reaching broad swathes of the population with changing tactics, the movement spearheaded by Egypt’s upper- and middle-class youth was less effective at producing a political leader. The man many first looked to was Mohamed el-Baradei, the former secretary of the International Atomic Energy Agency and former winner of the nobel peace prize. Although el-Baradei had cooperated with the Muslim Brotherhood in spearheading a political movement against Mubarak in 2010, he refused to enter his name into consideration for the Presidential elections, arguing that the process was tainted under military rule. El-Baradei has an impressive record and a sharp mind, but he is an intellectual who lacks the charisma necessary to win a political contest.
With el-Baradei out, many of supporters latched on to the opposition figure Hamdeen Sabbahi. Sabbahi finished third in the Presidential elections, taking a majority in Alexandria. But his campaign ultimately proved too little, too late to go against the entrenched political machines of the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the former National Democratic Party supporting Ahmad Shafiq. Sabbahi was reportedly offered the position of Vice President in Mursi’s administration, but turned the position down. Sabbahi and el-Baradei have been joined by former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa in creating the National Salvation Front–an umbrella group of opposition parties. But the Front has consistently refused dialogue with the government.
It is in this context that the Tamarod or “Rebel” campaign to oust President Mursi was started in April of 2013. Starting with a massive petition drive instead of a facebook page, Tamarod was able to reach vast swathes of the population. They gathered signatures for a platform that was largely couched in negative terms: a rejection of the current government based on a lack of security, justice, and dignity. It is perhaps this ability to build a consensus around what people don’t want that has led to the stunning success of the petition drive: on June 29th, Tamarod announced it had collected over 22 million signatures. The only positive demand put forth is the call for early elections to find Mursi’s replacement before the end of this year.
But it remains to be seen whether the demand for early elections will ever materialize. What we do know is that the demonstrations planned by Tamarod culminated yesterday in one of the largest political crowds in human history. The Army announced that the size of the crowd numbered in the “millions” and was “unprecedented.” To be sure, the protest was not peaceful. The death toll has risen to 7 since Friday, with hundreds wounded including dozens of gunshots.
But the goal of the protestors is not peace or stability. They simply want to make their voice heard. They refuse to let the farce that has been the “transition process”–in which the military, judges, and executive have vied with and against one another to seize power in the midst of chaos–define their social opportunities or their future. This is a new model of revolution. No political elites can be said to “represent” the “class” of people out on the streets. They are simply to diverse to be represented.
Egypt has provided the template that we have seen other revolutionary movements implement–with varying degrees of success–in places like the United States and Turkey. For revolutionaries who refuse to accept legitimacy derived from the institutional trappings of democracy, participation in the system is not the goal. The goal is change. And only the future will show what change will come.