On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East
By Rachel Aspden
262 pp. Other Press. $24.95.
What happened to Egypt’s revolution?
After January 2011, Tahrir Square became a byword for hope, defiance and the unpredictability of history. The Egyptian people’s unexpected revolt baffled political scientists and other experts. Equally puzzling was the alacrity with which so many of the same Egyptians welcomed a new strongman a few short years later.
Egypt’s volte-face forces important questions about what kind of change is possible in the Arab world, and more universally, about the indiscriminate and violent nature of both revolutionary and authoritarian politics. Why were so many Egyptians willing to risk everything in 2011, and why, just two years later in July 2013, were so many willing to make another devil’s bargain with a despot?
“Generation Revolution” is a whodunit that seeks to resolve these twin mysteries of geopolitics and human nature. Its author, Rachel Aspden, first moved to Egypt from England in 2003, diving into a culture that she clearly loved on first sight. She studied the language, worked as a journalist and tried her best to understand the worldview of her fellow 20-somethings. Through her long-running friendships Aspden is able to see the frustrations that have driven events in Egypt. The life stories of her characters come into focus long before Tahrir Square in 2011. In this way, Aspden does important work establishing context for Egypt’s stifling period of decay, and the improbable revolution and authoritarian backlash that followed. This is a chronicle of politics by other means.
Aspden clearly loves her characters, but she unflinchingly recounts their flaws too. One of the most surprising is Amal, a woman who breaks all taboos to leave her family and village to live on her own in Cairo. Amal finds that political activists and male peers aren’t interested in her kind of struggle for freedom. Her story exposes the sordid mechanics of control and the individual cost of rebellion. At one point Amal, who is Muslim, receives help from a Christian church congregation and is detained by authorities, who suspect her of converting. Back in her village, her family locks her up to stop her from making an independent career as a teacher. She manages to run away and assuages her relatives by sharing some of the money she earns. Ultimately, she marries a foreigner and prepares to emigrate.
Other young Egyptians invite Aspden to meetings of “Life Makers,” a self-improvement group founded by a charismatic Islamic televangelist. They are touchingly earnest and ambitious, perplexed by their secular peers but open-minded enough to nurture friendships with non-Muslims like Aspden.
Still, most of Aspden’s friends are willing to entertain change only in limited areas, like the man who sleeps around in a coastal resort but hopes to marry a virgin. She presents the sometimes distasteful choices of her characters with empathy. Mazen, a wealthy Muslim secularist with some enlightened ideas, unexpectedly oozes bigotry and intolerance for Christians.
Aspden’s reporting is always fascinating, if not always artfully or lyrically delivered. She cheerfully and honestly confronts her own outsider status and newcomer’s naïveté (as when she enjoys a respite from Cairo’s endemic sexual harassment at a cafe that turns out to be a rendezvous spot for prostitutes). Yet her prose can also be frustratingly chatty. In order to profile a wide cross-section of Egyptians over an extended period of time, Aspden has sacrificed depth and focus. Some characters flit in and out, disappearing for years on end. In her tableau, Tahrir Square is but a single inflection point in a long history of national atrophy (the 18 days of the revolt are awkwardly inserted mid-narrative in dated journal-entry format). It’s nice putting the uprising in context, but there’s not quite enough of it.
“Generation Revolution” is at its strongest when describing the thicket of its characters’ personal struggles — with faith, family, friendships and sex. The author introduces us to conversations about existential subjects that reveal character, like Islam, virginity and romantic dreams about marriage. For instance, we catch a rare if fleeting glimpse of atheism, a crime in Egypt, in the person of the young doctor Abu el-Hassan, a critical thinker who begins as a religious fundamentalist and ends up rejecting religion.
Aspden’s Egyptians are evolving people trying to balance faith, family, ambition and personal happiness against the broader imperatives of authoritarian leaders (at home, in the mosque or church, in the government and military). A diet of hypernationalism, propaganda about foreign conspirators and security paranoia imposes limits even on freethinkers, who often end up mirroring official intolerance in their own lives.
One of the saddest elements of the July 2013 coup that abruptly ended Egypt’s experiment with democracy and civilian rule was the popular acclaim that ushered Abdel Fattah el-Sisi from army intelligence to the presidency. A great swath of the public was actively complicit in the new dictatorship that killed the revolution it had unleashed in the first place. Aspden brings to her reporting enough insight to make sense of the public’s conflicting attitudes, and enough critical distance to acknowledge how Egyptians contributed to their country’s sad fate.
“Generation Revolution” is billed as a book about youth, or, as the subtitle puts it, the “front line between tradition and change in the Middle East.” In Aspden’s telling, the young, not yet ground into submission, have posed the greatest challenge to Egypt’s intolerable yet adaptive state. But the young can sustain resistance for only so long. The Tahrir Generation of 2011, she writes, may already be over the hill, though a new crop of restive Egyptians are reaching a boiling point, and they may not submit in the same way their grandparents did when the first military strongman took power in 1952. Nonetheless, Aspden notes, an empowered populace armed with education, modern communication tools and high expectations can repeatedly be dominated by an equally modern coercive state. Her conclusion is dispiriting, but she backs it with evidence. Youth alone, it seems, does not suffice to change tradition.
As Aspden demonstrates, all the well-intended characters in her book planted some of the seeds of their own downfall. Amal joined a popular protest movement unaware that it was being manipulated by intelligence agencies to bring Sisi to power. Islamists may have been willing to die opposing the coup, but they were uninterested in the fate of secular dissidents or democracy in general. Part-time revolutionaries mindlessly parroted state propaganda or the bigotry of Egypt’s religious establishment. Almost none were willing to defy their families for very long.
“Generation Revolution” is an excellent social history of Egypt’s persistent pathologies, as well as a universal story about the difficulty of changing deeply ingrained societal attitudes. The ambivalent Egyptians who struggle between radical modern aspirations and conservative community mores bear a more than passing resemblance to their American counterparts trying to reconcile Donald Trump’s vision for their country with Barack Obama’s, and no explanation for any of this can be complete without the kind of social history Aspden provides. The cumulative choices of millions, whether in protest, in voting or in docile compliance, are the indispensable ingredient.
So what did happen to Egypt’s revolution? Aspden, like most of its chroniclers, was rooting for it to succeed. Yet it failed, she says, not only because the police state adapted so efficaciously but also because the people who sparked the revolt ultimately remained faithful to too many reactionary ideas.
The character studies of “Generation Revolution” point to a single conclusion: Revolutionary Egyptians sought radical change only in the narrow lane of their relationship to the government and police. They did not reject the profoundly conservative mores of family, village, neighborhood and religious hierarchy, whose webs of control emerged relatively unscathed from the revolutionary period. Lasting change, however, cannot occur in isolation. Egyptians have proven remarkably inventive and good-humored at finding ways to circumvent or adapt to the state’s abuses, but less so at finding ways to stop them.
CAIRO—Four years after the revolution he helped lead, Basem Kamel has noticeably scaled back his ambitions. The regime he and his friends thought they overthrew after storming Tahrir Square has returned. In the face of relentless pressure and violence from the authorities, most of the revolutionary movements have been sidelined or snuffed out.
Egypt’s new strongman, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has injected new zeal and energy into the military establishment. He has established his rule using unprecedented amounts of force, including mass arrests and death sentences, and the elimination of freedoms that existed even under previous dictatorships. But he has also won considerable popularity, leading Egypt’s revolutionaries to seek new routes to change.
“Maybe in 12 years we will be back in the game,” Kamel told me during the January Coptic Christmas holidays, wearing a sweatsuit as he shuttled his kids to after-school sports. After some thought, the 45-year-old architect, who lives in southern Cairo, added a caveat: “Unless Sisi changes the rules.”
There’s been a dramatic downsizing of expectations since Sisi came to power in a military coup in July 2013 (he retired from the military and was elected president without any meaningful challenger in May 2014). But if the mood is grim among the activists who so recently turned Egypt’s power structure on its head, historical trends suggest that the victorious military establishment has plenty to worry about as well.
Sisi is younger, sharper, and more vigorous than Hosni Mubarak, but he’s applying the same tools to the same problems. A small, insular group of men makes all important decisions, from drafting the country’s new parliamentary-election law to managing the economy to deciding how to prosecute political prisoners. Foreign aid is a key pillar of support for the government. The main difference is in the faces around the top. Whereas Mubarak’s cabal included some rich civilians, Sisi relies almost exclusively on military men.
The problems are daunting no matter who leads Egypt. Unemployment is endemic. The nation can’t grow enough crops to feed itself, is running low on foreign currency, and runs up hefty bills importing energy and grain that it sells at heavily subsidized prices. There is no longer a free media in Egypt, and a regressive new law makes it almost impossible for independent NGOs to do their work. Political parties that don’t pay fealty to Sisi’s order are hounded and persecuted. One result of this repression is that there is no scrutiny of government policy, no new sources of ideas, and not even symbolic accountability for corruption, incompetence, and bad government decisions.
Egypt’s new ruler has made some shrewd moves. He has tweaked the food-subsidy system to reduce waste and corruption in bakeries, introducing a card system with points that allows consumers to spend their allowance on a variety of goods rather than lining up for bread that they end up throwing away. He paid a Christmas visit to the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, the first time any Egyptian leader has done so since Gamal Abdel Nasser, reassuring some Christians after decades of increased marginalization of and violence against the beleaguered minority.
But unless he miraculously resolves the country’s underlying economic plight—a product of the previous six decades of authoritarian rule, most of it dominated by the military—Egypt will snap again sooner or later.
“Six months ago there was huge popular happiness with Sisi’s performance. Now already it is less,” said Ahmed Imam, a spokesman for Strong Egypt, one of the few active political opposition parties left in the country. “I believe in another six months you will find rage, and the rage will become public.”
* * *
The simplest way to understand the January 25, 2011 uprising against Mubarak’s military rule is as a rejection of a government that was both abusive and incompetent. Since the military coup that ended the monarchy and brought Nasser to power in 1952, Egyptian authoritarians have fared well enough when they provided tangible quality-of-life improvements, or when they leavened the disappointment of growing poverty with an increased margin of freedom. But by the end of his three decades in power, Mubarak provided neither: His corrupt government gutted services and the treasury, while his unaccountable military and police establishment freely meted out torture, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials.
According to his supporters and advisors, Sisi is gambling that he’ll pull off the kind of economic feats that characterized the apex periods of Egypt’s three major leaders in the modern era: Mubarak, Anwar Sadat, and Nasser.
So far, however, Sisi has needed to deploy draconian measures to keep control even at his moment of peak popularity. He has outlawed demonstrations. He has imprisoned tens of thousands, many for the simple offense of protesting. Old state security agents have returned to their old ways, humiliating dissidents by leaking their private phone calls to the media. Crackdowns target homosexuals, atheists, and blasphemers. Judges have sentenced to death hundreds of Muslim Brothers—until recently, members of an elected civilian ruling party—in shotgun trials that lasted a day or two and have made a mockery of Egypt’s once-respected judiciary. An activist from the secular April 6 Youth Movement recently had three years tacked on to his sentence because he dared ask about a Facebook page where the judge in his case had openly identified with Sisi’s regime and denigrated the revolutionaries, casting aside any pretense of judicial impartiality.
Such hardline tactics could reflect a military confidently in charge; many activists who subscribe to this view have chosen exile or a hiatus from public life. But the tactics also could reflect desperation: The old regime has won a reprieve, but it has to work much harder than before to keep a tenuous grip on power. In that case, the overwhelming chorus of support for Sisi could be just the prelude to another period of bitter disappointment and revolt.
Critical human-rights monitors continue to track government abuses, some from within Egypt despite the constant risk of arrest. A few youth and political movements continue to operate as well. The Revolutionary Socialists, the Youth Movement for Freedom and Justice, and April 6 all continue to organize, albeit on a modest scale; gone are the mass protests of 2011-2013. The Constitution Party, which includes some leading secular liberals, has been outspoken in its criticism of military rule. So has the Strong Egypt party, led by a former presidential contender and ex-Muslim Brother named Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who has the distinction of having equally opposed abuses by Islamist and secular military regimes since Mubarak.
“Either the regime is reformed and resumes a democratic course, or its bad performance will provoke a revolution that will explode in its face,” Aboul Fotouh said in a recent interview in his home in a Cairo suburb. His party might run parliamentary candidates in the elections scheduled for March and April, but state security agents have made it impossible for the party to operate normally, canceling all 27 conference-room reservations it has made in the last three months—a favorite tactic resuscitated from Mubarak’s time.
* * *
Most of the leaders of the original uprising are in prison or exile. Some have been silenced, and some like, Kamel, seem willing to accept military repression as the necessary price for getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they considered the bigger threat. “Even knowing what I know today, I would say the Brotherhood is worse,” Kamel said.
Today, private and state media channels have become no-go zones for dissenting voices. Independent presenters like Yosri Fouda and comedian Bassem Youssef have gone off the air, and other one-time revolutionaries like Ibrahim Eissa have become shrill advocates for the regime.
In the four years that I’ve been reporting closely on Egypt’s transition from revolution to restoration, I’ve seen young activists go from stunned to euphoric to traumatized and sometimes defeated. I’ve seen stalwarts of the old regime go from arrogant and complacent to frightened and unsure to bullying and triumphalist. And yet, so far, the core grievances that drew frustrated Egyptians to Tahrir Square in the first place remain unaddressed. Police operate with complete impunity and disrespect for citizens, routinely using torture. Courts are whimsical, uneven, at times absurdly unjust and capricious. The military controls a state within a state, removed from any oversight or scrutiny, with authority over a vast portion of the national economy and Egypt’s public land. Poverty and unemployment continue to rise, while crises in housing, education, and health care have grown even worse than the most dire predictions of development experts. Corruption has largely gone unpunished, and Sisi has begun to roll back an initial wave of prosecutions against Mubarak, his sons, and his oligarchs.
Kamel has abandoned his revolutionary rhetoric of 2011 for a more modest platform of reform, working within the system. He was one of just four revolutionary youth who made it into the short-lived revolutionary parliament of 2012, and he helped found the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, one of the most promising new political parties after the fall of Mubarak.
He expects to run for parliament again with his party, but the odds are longer and the stakes lower. The parliament will have hardly any power under Sisi’s setup. Most of the seats are slated for “independents,” which in practice means well-funded establishment candidates run by the former ruling party network. The Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s largest opposition group, is now illegal. Existing political parties can only compete for 20 percent of the seats, and most of them, like Kamel’s have dramatically tamed their criticisms.
“I think Sisi is in control of everything,” Kamel said. “Of course I am not with Sisi, but I am not against the state.”
That’s why he’s devoting his efforts to a training program for Social Democratic cadres, a sort of political science-and-organizing academy for activists and operatives that will take years to bear fruit. “It’s long-term work,” he said.
Still, something fundamental changed in January 2011, and no amount of state brutality can reverse it. Many people who before 2011 cowered or kept their ideas to themselves now feel unafraid.
“We want accountability, not miracles,” said Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for the Constitution Party. “We’re not asking for gay rights and legalized marijuana. We’re asking to stop torture in prisons.” Dawoud is a secular liberal activist who kept his integrity even during the period after Sisi’s coup when many of his peers cast their lot with the generals against the Islamists. He has been harassed by every faction, facing death threats and even a murder attempt by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In three years’ time, Egyptians took to the streets and saw three heads of state in a row flee from power: Mubarak, his successor Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and President Mohammed Morsi. The legacies of the revolution are hotly contested, but one is indisputable: Large numbers of Egyptians believe they’re entitled to political rights and power. That remains a potent idea even if revolutionary forces and their aspiration for a more just and equitable order seem beaten for now.
In the worst of times under Mubarak, and before him Sadat and Nasser, mass arrests, executions, and the banning of political life kept the country quiet. But as Egypt heads toward the fourth anniversary of the January 25th uprisings, things are anything but quiet, despite the best efforts of Sisi’s state. Dissidents are smuggling letters out of jail. Muslim Brothers protest weekly for the restoration of civilian rule. Secular activists are working on detailed plans so that next time around, they’ll be able to present an alternative to the status-quo power. No one believes that this means another revolution is imminent, but the percolating dissatisfaction, and the ongoing work of political resistance, suggest that it won’t wait 30 years either.
“That’s our homework: to prepare a substitute,” said Mohamed Nabil, a leader in the April 6 movement who still speaks openly even though his group is now banned. “At the end Sisi is lying, and the Egyptian people will react. You never know when.”
Alaa Abdel Fattah has been one of the most interesting thinkers and actors of the Egyptian revolution. He knows politics, history and street activism, and he’s put his body and his mind fully into the struggle against authoritarianism for his entire life. He’s not always right, but he never has stopped thinking strategically and philosophically about the revolution, with a sincere willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them. He’s done so at every juncture in good faith and with an unerring moral compass. (I think along with Amr Hamzawy he’s been unique in trying to think in historical-political terms while also partaking directly in the struggle.) Fresh out of prison, he talked to Sherif Abdel Kouddous on Democracy Now! yesterday. The whole hour is worth listening to, but I was drawn to Alaa’s final comments about why he uses the word “defeat”:
But for it to be a revolution, you have to have a narrative that brings all the different forms of resistance together, and you have to have hope. You know, you have to be—it has to be that people are mobilizing, not out of desperation, but out of a clear sense that something other than this life of despair is possible. And that’s, right now, a tough one, so that’s why right now I talk about defeat. I talk about defeat because I cannot even express hope anymore, but hopefully that’s temporary.
Egypt’s struggle today features two flawed and irreconcilable elitist groups, neither of which speak for the popular revolution that upended the status quo. So long as organized Islamists are competing with the resilient deep state, the contest for Egypt will continue to push the country in a reactionary and divisive direction.
Meanwhile, the popular revolutionary forces that seek a reinvented covenant between citizens and their government will continue to play a critical role as a check on tyranny. So long as revolutionaries are excluded from the drafting table of Egypt’s new constitutional order, the country will remain unstable and autocratic. Only when revolutionaries and sincere reformists are represented in a new constitution and a new government will Egypt begin its transition away from authoritarian rule.
The institutional power struggle between Islamists and the Military complex leaves out the most important development in Egypt over the last decade: people power, with an articulated philosophy embodied by the slogan “bread, freedom, social justice.” Until now, the country’s prolific revolutionary impulse remains hostage to the factions competing for the machinery and spoils of government.
Today in Egypt, on one side stand the Islamists, who can plausibly claim to represent a popular majority and who possess an articulated project to Islamicize the state, but whose style and substance runs roughshod over the rights and aspirations of many Egyptians, including Christians, women and those of a secular bent. The Islamists have the only organized popular movements with cohesive leadership and cadres.
On the other side stand the forces of the old order, whose byword is stability. It boasts undeniable resources: the army, the police, most of the state bureaucracy including the judiciary, the financiers of the deposed regime, and a powerful elite that benefited from President Hosni Mubarak’s rule and is loathe to erode their privileges. This coalition pays lip service to freedom for minorities and secularists, but has little interest authentic liberalism and liberty.
The ultimate arbiter for all factions remains the military.
Both lay claims to represent the majority, although the Islamists have the edge in the results of the rounds of elections since the Tahrir uprising. Neither of these poles speaks for genuine liberals, revolutionaries, or the idealistic youth movements who provided the heart, if not all the manpower, of the January 25, 2011 uprising. The long-term fight is between adherents of majoritarian revolution and revolutionary pluralism, a distinction made by the scholar Ellis Goldberg.)
Right now we’re caught up in a momentary conflict between the military complex and its reactionary supporters on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood and some religious extremists on the other, leaving out a major and perhaps decisive swath of the population that supports neither.
In this unenviable contest, the likely outcome is an illiberal, authoritarian government that will lay no claim to consensus, and which will be viewed as anathema, even treacherous, by nearly half the population. If the deep state prevails, it will never have the loyalty of the population. If the Islamists prevail, they will never control the security apparatus and the institutions of state.
The original Tamarod movement is not party to this conflict, but is still on stage, at times driving events. They are the constituency for pluralism, due process, political consensus-making, and accountable, transparent, civilian authority.
The deposed Muslim Brothers have been making an opportunistic appeal to the most superficial elements of the democratic process: elections and elections alone. Their arguments eerily echo those of Mubarak’s regime before it toppled. “There are a million people in Tahrir Square against Mubarak, but there are 79 million at home who support the regime,” a deluded police officer told me just before Mubarak resigned. President Mohamed Morsi lost his mandate to rule because of the unforced errors he committed in office, which alienated almost every constituency in the country.
Equally opportunistic are the military and police, which perhaps out of different institutional imperatives, have piggybacked on the outraged masses of June 30. Sure, there is a distasteful faction that applauds military rule and which is comfortable with the return of a corrupt, abusive police force that has not faced a single consequence for decades of corruption, criminality, and oppression. But we can’t forget that the millions who signed the Tamarod petition and demonstrated on June 30 and July 2 were demanding Morsi’s ouster; they weren’t demanding a military coup, or a return to Mubarak’s system.
Now, we’ll never know what would have happened had the Muslim Brotherhood government been allowed to confront, dismiss, or negotiate with people power. We’ll never know what the Islamists would have done had they continued to push their agenda and fail politically. We’ll never know how Egyptian politicians and civilians would have responded to the latest showdown absent military intervention. In some ways, the coup has absolved the Brotherhood of some of its share of the blame.
The Islamist threat is real — and so are the dangers of military rule. The most dangerous blow comes from the absence of political evolution. Why is it natural for Islamists to threaten jihad and generalized violence in the face of a coup? Why is it natural for liberals to turn to an abusive, totalitarian, corrupt, and inept military for protection? Both are suicidal moves.
For all the fears of Islamist totalitarian rule, the Brotherhood could never control Egypt; in a year in power, it made scarcely any inroads within the military and police.
Incredibly, some Brotherhood supporters now claim they’re justified in resorting to violence since the system failed them, as if the millions of other Egyptians whose aspirations were stymied by the security state over the years should have been building bombs instead of movements.
Yet the nasty outcome — military coup and Islamist resistance — doesn’t erase the vast and thirsty popular current, which is sizable and real. Its core has been the reformists and revolutionaries, but at different junctures it found allies among Islamists, former regime supporters, and the mostly apathetic citizens known in Egypt as the “Sofa Party.” This popular current felled Mubarak. It pushed the military junta from power in 2012, long before it intended to pass authority to an elected civilian. And now it has ousted Morsi.
It’s a critical problem that the revolutionary fervor has not found its expression in a coherent political movement that can agitate for a tangible system of checks and balances, rule of law, minority rights, economic reforms, and government policies. It is not yet, however, a fatal flaw, nor a weaknesses that justifies dismissing Egyptian people power.
Egypt can survive many more waves of revolt, election and coup, and it will, until the political order begins to reflect more of the will of the people. The latest roadmap repeats most of the mistakes of 2011 (for detailed explanations of how, readNathan Brown and Zaid Al-Ali). The Egyptian public has developed a profound intolerance for arbitrary authoritarian rule; for opaque, paranoid leaders; for governments that ignore the country’s collapsing economy and standard of living.
Revolutionaries might not represent the majority, but they are now a maturing, key constituency. They are unlikely to embrace fascism or fiats from anyone: not the military, not the Brotherhood, not the old political parties. That’s the underlying signal of Egypt’s latest revolt. Until Egypt’s power brokers recognize the core demands of the public and begin to address them, the public isn’t likely to go away.
My review of the two latest Egypt revolution books is up at The Daily Beast. I discuss Wael Ghonim’s memoir and Ashraf Khalil’s reported book about the uprising.
Two books released this month can help us start to make sense of this puzzle, with detailed accounts of the uprising a year ago and some insight into the institutions and attitudes that shape Egypt’s largely conservative society.
The first is a memoir by Wael Ghonim, the celebrated Google executive who helped spark the uprising with a wildly popular Facebook page dedicated to a middle-class kid beaten to death by the police. Ghonim tapped into a demographic that proved crucial to the Egyptian uprising: upwardly mobile college-educated youth frustrated by Egypt’s stagnation but wary of politics and activism.
As he tells his own story, Ghonim is a driven, socially awkward young man—ambitious but almost allergic to fame. His early clandestine ventures online revolve around building a library of religious recordings called IslamWay.com. He’s offered great sums of money but instead quietly donates it to charity, all while he’s still a teenager. In the years around 9/11, he marries and pursues his dream, which has nothing to do with unseating Mubarak’s tyrannical police regime. No, young Wael wants nothing more than to work at Google, a goal he finally achieves in 2008.
For a broader look at Egypt’s transformation, one can turn to journalist Ashraf Khalil’s Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. Khalil’s illuminating reportingsituates the revolt in the stultifying decades that preceded it. (I should mention that Khalil is a friend dating back to the days when we were both based in Baghdad.) He spends nearly half his story on the final decades of Mubarak’s crony rule, detailing the pompous ineptitude of the aging dictator with eternally young hair. And he does an admirable job pulling together the threads of the early dissident and activist efforts rooted in the late 1990s.
By the time Khalil gets to the demonstrations of Jan. 25, 2011, we understand why some Egyptians felt they could no longer “walk next to the wall,” as the proverb instructs, and felt they might as well risk death or imprisonment rather than submit to Mubarak’s capricious police state. But we share the wonder of Khalil, and many of the activists he interviews, who even as they promoted an uprising doubted that Egyptians would join them in significant numbers.
The state of the revolution in Egypt is today, for me and probably many others watching it closely, cause for rage and despair. The case for despair is obvious: the dumb, brute hydra of a regime has dialed up its violent answer to the popular request for justice and accountability, and has expanded its power. The matter of rage is more complicated: in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries, it was righteous anger — forcefully but strategically deployed — that brought fearsome police states to their knees. The outrages of Egypt’s regime are still on shameless display. The only question is whether the fury they provoke will make a difference.
When we see the Egyptian soldier enthusiastically stripping a female protester while another kicks her abdomen, rage is a natural response. So too when we see soldiers and their plainclothes henchman cheerfully chuck rocks and chairs from a fifth-floor roof, and in at least one case, piss down below on their fellow Egyptians peacefully protesting in front of parliament, drawn to the streets in part because of the dozens of their comrades already killed by the state. Most enraging of all is the self-righteous, imperious lying that accompanies the industrial-scale state abuse of its citizens. General Adel Emara hectored the Egyptian reporters who tried to question him about last week’s outrages in Tahrir Square, including the blue bra sequence.
Like the American generals in the early years of the Iraq occupation who complained that the nay-saying media was telling mean, inaccurate stories about their swimming success, Emara blamed the media. The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces was protecting the nation and the demonstrators downtown were spreading chaos. “The military council has always warned against the abuse of freedom,” he said, apparently without irony. In statements this week, the military has incredibly claimed that the bands of hundreds or thousands of unarmed protesters are actually a plot to overthrow the state — a grotesque reversal of the truth.
The new prime minister, Kamal Ganzouri, blamed the “counter-revolution” and “foreign elements” for the demonstrations. He also promised no violence would be used against them, even as security forces shot more than a dozen people and beat hundreds of others. No shame here, but perhaps some ulterior plan to discredit protest entirely. An angry response might be the only one possible, the only way potentially to thwart this colossus. Remember the original protests a year ago in Tunisia and Egypt: people billed them as “Days of Rage.”
Why the violence against demonstrators, against women, against foreigners? Apparently the SCAF believes it can intimidate people into submission, that it can succeed where its authoritarian predecessor Hosni Mubarak failed. The death tolls of this year, and the arrest of 13,000 civilians brought before military trial, are measures of the repressive reflexes of the current military rulers. On November 19, police set upon a small group that had camped out on the edge of Tahrir Square, beating them and destroying their tents — and sparking two weeks of street battles that left at least 40 dead and 2,000 wounded. More recently, on December 16 security forces attacked a follow-on protest in front of the parliament building and the ongoing fighting has killed at least 16 people and critically wounded hundreds.
There are few plausible explanations for the recent spasms of violence against nonviolent demonstrators. It’s hard to imagine why state security attacks civilians during periods of calm, sparking new protests and reinvigorating the revolutionary movement. Perhaps the military has a strategy designed to discredit protesters and revolutionary youth, allowing or even engineering street violence which they can then use in the state media to portray activists as hooligans. Or, perhaps, the police and common soldiers have developed such an intense hatred for the demonstrators — who let us remember, succeeded at putting the security establishment on the defensive for the first time in 60 years — that whenever they confront a protest their tempers flare and they lash out.
There’s also a theory that the police, and even some parts of the army, are simply in mutiny, disregarding the SCAF’s orders. Some believe that the SCAF genuinely believes that all protesters are saboteurs, foreign agents, and traitors out to gut the Egyptian state. Some also suggest that the SCAF is simply incompetent, and that each sordid episode of protest, massacre, political agreement, and betrayal is an act in a bumbling melodrama starring a cast of senescent, befuddled generals, most of whom lived their glory days in military study abroad programs in Brezhnev’s Moscow.
Whether there’s a plan or no plan, some of the results are becoming clear. The Muslim Brothers and the Salafis, who dominated the election results so far, have essentially supported the SCAF’s vague schedule to transfer power to a civilian president by summer. Liberals have coalesced around a new demand for a president to be elected immediately and take over by February 11, the one-year anniversary of Mubarak’s resignation. The SCAF has continued its divide and conquer tactics, undermining all dissent in public while meeting in private with politicians from all parties.
All power still rests in the hands of the military, which has designed an incomprehensible transition process clearly engineered to exhaust any revolutionary or reformist movement. (Before Egypt can have a new government with full powers, the military believes there must be a referendum, two elections of three rounds each for a legislature, another referendum on a constitution, and then a presidential election. That doesn’t include runoffs and do-overs.)
Meanwhile there’s a debate underway about who “lost” the revolution, as if the demonstrators and liberal Egyptians could have gotten it right and changed Egypt over the last 12 months. Steven Cook partly blames the protesters for “narcissism” and “navel-gazing,” claiming they lost the opportunity to engage the public because they were too busy on Facebook and Twitter. Marc Lynch writes that the protesters have not captured the imagination of the wider public, though he (correctly) holds the SCAF responsible for bungling the transition so far.
Perhaps the most depressing read this week is a dark and self-critical essay by the revolutionary, blogger, and failed parliamentary candidate Mahmoud Salem, better known by his blog pseudonym Sandmonkey. He now believes that he and his fellow revolutionaries blew a chance to connect with Egyptians during the brief, hopeful moment after Mubarak quit; that, Salem argues, is when people were willing to change. Now that moment of possibility has evaporated.
One common thread runs through these writings, and through much of the critique of the uprising: that the revolutionaries never bothered to try to reach “the people.” There is some truth to that claim. Some of the most talented organizers among the original January 25 revolutionaries quickly turned their focus to party politics. Their efforts might bear fruit within one or two election cycles — five to ten years — but theirs is a dreary and inside job of crafting party platforms, opening branch offices, and recruiting staff and members. Another crucial cadre of revolutionaries were radical by conviction; it was by design, and not by accident, that they invested their energy in street protests and in forging links with labor activists, in order to spread the revolution into the workforce. That’s not to say that the remainder, who number at best a few thousand, didn’t try to engage the Egyptian public; they’ve been trying, but they haven’t been too successful. They go on television, they write newspaper columns, they hold press conferences. In August and September, they put on Revolutionary Youth Coalition road shows, where they went to towns and neighborhoods across Egypt to explain the goals of the protests. Even without a budget, however, they could have done that kind of outreach, in cafes and poor neighborhoods, every week since February 11; instead, much of their time was tied up in Tahrir protests whose utility made less and less sense even to sympathetic Egyptians.
The revolutionary youth alone hold promise for Egypt’s politics of accountability, rule of law, minority rights, and civilian control over the army — the unpopular but important bulwarks of a more liberal order. It would be a mistake to focus too much on public opinion of the protests, or even the gatherings’ size. What matters is their impact. The military, in fact, has set the parameters. Since February, they have scorned those who negotiate with them in good faith at polite meetings. The only concessions the generals have made — including, last month, their agreement to schedule presidential elections a year and a half earlier than they’d originally wanted — came as the result of violent protests in Tahrir Square. Perhaps the revolutionaries found it simple to flood Tahrir in response to every crisis; but it was the generals who taught them that protest was the only tool that actually worked.
So when it comes to blame, save it for the military, the actor driving events and the sole authority responsible for Egypt. The act, now ragged, has the generals pretending to be reluctant rulers, eager to hand over the keys if only a responsible captain would materialize to steer the ship of state. The rest of the players in Egypt merit mere disappointment: the mediocre politicians; the Muslim Brothers who repeatedly passed up the opportunity to take a moral, national position rather than defend their narrow institutional self-interest; the activists who failed to weave a national culture movement in the aftermath of January 25; the Egyptian elites who didn’t invest their money and influence in revolutionary causes; the civil servants and state institutions that slavishly serve whoever is in power; and Washington, which has utterly failed to persuade its billion-dollar welfare ward, the SCAF, to behave responsibly.
Is Egypt’s revolution dead, beguiled by its own hype, endlessly occupying and fighting over meaningless patches of pavement while the rest of the country forgets about their utopian aims? “Symbols are nice, but they don’t solve anything,” Mahmoud Salem writes. “There is a disconnect between the revolutionaries and the people. … Our priorities are a civilian government, the end of corruption, the reform of the police, judiciary, state media and the military, while their priorities are living in peace and putting food on the table.”
Can persistent revolt eventually beget genuine revolution, like wind carving a valley through granite? I’m of two minds. The women’s marches this week fill me with hope. With determination and creativity, Egyptian women flooded the streets to shame their oppressors and reclaim the righteous narrative fraudulently hijacked by the SCAF. “Egypt’s women are a red line,” they chanted, and for once, the SCAF issued a formal apology. But another recent encounter, a private one, fills me with despair. A man I’ve known for some time, who used to work in the tourist trade and whose financial well-being teeters precariously between Spartan and destitute, confided in me that he saw only one option to provide for his children in the new Egypt: to rob an armored truck. At first I thought he was kidding, but he was not. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “I have a plan. No one will get hurt. The bank can afford to lose the money. I will be able to be strong again for my children.”
I hope I dissuaded him, but for my friend and presumably many like him, this year of political turbulence has been more terrifying than inspiring, for reasons only tenuously connected to the SCAF’s abuses, the missed opportunity for a cultural revolution, or the birth of a new Arab politics. The junta’s propaganda habitually describes critics as unpatriotic, counter-revolutionary, or “not Egyptian,” eager to present a uniform mold of the “true Egyptian.” On the contrary, however, the proud marching women and the marauding soldiers are all Egyptian, just like the perplexed revolutionaries and the would-be bank robber. All of them will be aboard for the voyage.
In the weeks since I returned from Egypt, I’ve made a number of previously scheduled talks, originally intended to cover Hezbollah and the most recent developments in Lebanon. I’ve made a stab at addressing the tumultuous change more broadly, as three forces are now competing for popular momentum: revolution (the massive and ongoing regional wave), reaction (the old statist regimes and monarchs), and resistance (the axis of empowerment through armed uprising).
It appears that Salve Regina, the small college in Newport, R.I. that hosted one of those talks, has posted the video online. It is with some trepidation that I post the link.
Tunisia’s popular uprising began in December when a man set himself on fire in protest against a repressive, US-allied government. Quickly, one man’s gesture sparked a national movement that within a month toppled a dictator, a first-time event for the Arab world.
Even before the fleeing autocrat had found refuge in another country, internet boosters were calling Tunisia a “Twitter Revolution” and a “Social Networking Revolution.” Chroniclers of the revolt – mostly bloggers and journalists – traced the revolt to disclosures from Wikileaks that quickly spread among Tunisians through Facebook and Twitter. In this telling the social networking sites were pivotal to organizing the street protest that toppled the regime.
Luke Allnut on Tangled Web writes that our Western eagerness for an easy, quick explanation for a distant revolution blinds us to truer but less jazzy narratives – like the one about people in Tunisia rising up because of chronic unemployment and violent government repression. “Twitter revolution narratives are popular because rather than being about Tunisia, they are often really about ourselves,” Allnut writes. “When we glorify the role of social media we are partly glorifying ourselves.”
The enthusiasm of social media evangelizers echoed their breathless reaction to Iran’s massive anti-regime protests in 2009. Jared Cohen, a whizz kid at the State Department who put social networking at the center of democracy promotion, intervened to keep Twitter online during the protests. He made a much-ballyhooed trip to Syria promoting the idea that better web access would lead to more freedom. Last fall he left government to found a “think/do tank” for the web monolith called Google Ideas.
Clay Shirky, an NYU professor who is one of the most eminent theoreticians of the internet, argues that the tools of social network have forever altered the geography of power in the world. His view is a more staid and academic version of Julian Assange’s radical claims about the power of Wikileaks to counter American power. (He is best known for his gospel of crowd sourcing, “Here Comes Everybody,” and his latest book is “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.”)
A backlash has taken root though, with some serious scholars and analysts calling into question the information innovation bubble. Their counter-narrative tells a deflating story.
Malcolm Gladwell argued in a very influential New Yorker essay that the “weak ties” of Facebook and Twitter could effectively mobilize people to donate a few cents for Darfur, but only “strong ties” created by face-to-face life could inspire people to make the kind of physically risky sacrifices necessary for real protest, like the American civil rights movement.
I have always been slightly puzzled by the certainty of the internet-freedom-utopians, who for a decade have been blogging their revolutionary ideas about how the world wide web has created a new taxonomy of power, tilting the balance away from central venues of control and toward the little man, the anarchic hacker, the crowd.
They seem always to be posting over comfortable connections in the United States; I sensed in their vertiginous web euphoria that they were surfing at warp speed on fiberoptic networks, streaming video or music over their ample bandwidth.
In contrast, I’ve spent much of the last seven years accessing the internet from places like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Gaza, Iraq and Lebanon. As a matter of course connections there are balky and heavily censored; watching YouTube or listening to Pandora was out of the question. Entertainment articles often fell astray of sloppy filters that target political content or un-Islamic porn. My own coverage of political events in American newspapers has been at times inaccessible to me online from the country in which I was reporting. This past summer as I covered a government crackdown on dissidents, I could follow the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights postings on alleged torture and detentions. Suddenly, the next day, their site was blocked.
Secret police loiter in the hotel lobbies; they listen in on phone calls and show up at interviews with dissidents that were scheduled by text message (this happened to me in Cairo this summer, when I met a Muslim Brotherhood webmaster). They’re carefully monitoring online activity too, and if it better suits the police state’s interests, they can sever access in an instant. Friends in Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere assumed that secret police were reading their email. Often enough the monitors would leave traces in my friends’ webmail, either out of carelessness or to send an intimidating message.
The people of Tunisia, or China for that matter, aren’t surfing our American internet. Information might want to be free, as the tech bubble generational saw has it, but many governments around the world still don’t want their people to be. Twitter and Google Chat are no match for a well-funded authoritarian ministry of the interior.
American thinkers have a tendency to project their own theories and tastes on political waves elsewhere; perhaps that explains the Twittermania and Facebook faddism over Tunisia today and Iran in 2009.
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One danger that Morozov often highlights is that the more the United States interferes with an internet it doesn’t really understand, the more unintended harm it might cause.
“The Internet is far too valuable to become an agent of Washington’s digital diplomats,” he wrote in a recent Foreign Policy essay.
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a speech just over a year ago at the Newseum in Washington acknowledged that the same technologies that help dissidents promote accountability also empower Al Qaeda and human rights transgressors. But she contrasted the divisive symbolism of the Cold War Berlin War with the open internet, which she called “the new iconic infrastructure of our age.”
“On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does,” Clinton said. “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.”
The implications are stark. At best, the contrarians suggest that the web in all its incarnations and with all its tools and hype-fueled pseudo-philosophy – social media, crowd-sourcing, citizen reporting, web 2.0, the long tail, flattening the world, Skype and all the rest – are potent communication tools like the telephone and the television. What naïve boosters often ignore is that these tools and the multiplier effects they create are just as available to a repressive government looking to extend its control as they are to activists looking to overthrow it.
At worst, the internet skeptics point out, the world of web activism has disproportionately empowered despots. It gives frustrated citizens a harmless outlet to blow off steam, channeling their rage at a nasty regime into ribald blog posts rather than into underground organizing, street protests, or violent attacks that might truly threaten a police state. Even more importantly, the web concentrates opposition and other activists in forums that feel private and unified but which in fact are easily monitored and penetrated by state security. As a result, more than ever before in the wired age police states know exactly what their opponents are thinking, debating and planning.
Recent events illustrate the silliness of believing that new communications platforms have erased the advantages of old-fashioned coercive sources of power – secret police and surveillance for governments, and massive demonstrations and crowd violence for anti-government activists. Dictators in history haven’t been shamed out of office; they’re overthrown. Today, police states won’t be Tweeted, Facebooked or Wikileaked out of power either.
“Cambanis has produced an account of the rise and fall of the Egyptian Revolution that is at once gripping, illuminating and wise. Once Upon a Revolution is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the political and religious crosscurrents currently roiling the Middle East.” —Scott Anderson, author of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
“In Once Upon a Revolution, Thanassis Cambanis draws on a decade of reporting in the Middle East to produce a kaleidoscopic narrative of ‘the revolution that for an instant felt like it might transform the world.’ Gripping, vivid, compassionate, and often funny, Cambanis's book captures the political drama and human folly of these historic events in Egypt.” —Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Chatter and The Snakehead
“A valuable account. Cambanis is one of those rare foreign correspondents more interested in the impact of the carnage on human beings than in military maneuvers or bang-bang.” —The New York Times Book Review
“An indispensable guide to understanding the region’s most formidable extra-state actor. ... In prose that is often eloquent yet earthy, indicative of scholarly erudition as well as a storyteller’s flair for capturing the complexities of human psychology, Cambanis describes the seemingly contradictory impulses he discovers.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Cambanis provides crucial insights to those who might hope to counter Hezbollah's increasing power and influence in the region, as well as an important reminder that in any war, one's enemies are human.” —Publishers Weekly
“Hezbollah is a formidable presence that cannot be ignored, and Cambanis’s book, a well-balanced blend of journalism, history and geopolitical primer, is a significant aid to understanding it.” —Kirkus Reviews