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The June Rebellion in Egypt

[28 June 2013, anti-Morsi protester holding a sign in Arabic that reads: [28 June 2013, anti-Morsi protester holding a sign in Arabic that reads: "leave, you are a jinx", in preparation for the 30 June nation wide protest against Mohamed Morsi. Image originally posted to Flickr by Lilian Wagdy]

Despite two and a half years of revolutionary experience, the rebels of June had no plan for the day after Morsi, just as they had no plan after Mubarak. One activist eloquently conveyed to me a typical attitude: he joined the 30 June protests because he believed in harakat al-shari’, the dynamism of the street, which would somehow produce the desired outcome. It was the same underlying logic of January 2011: too much planning makes the revolution heavy and immobile. Revolutions now require lightness and dynamism, and any plan may (or may not) emerge later. If not, the crisis induced by harakat al-shari’ will in some way compel influential actors to figure out a solution. If the solution produces a result that eventually proves undesirable, the street moves again, in the same way, and by its very movement gives rise to a different solution, as often as necessary, until we arrive at a happy destination. That was, and still is, the preferred method of the Egyptian Revolution. But after two and a half years, one would expect this methodology to be accompanied by a vision of a political system adequate to the character of the revolution. Is there such an imagination?  

Street Dynamism and Political Imagination

The need for new political imagination is now paramount. It is disheartening to see experienced politicians manipulate such an epic popular struggle only because that struggle, while capable of toppling regimes, has not established a system that resembled the revolution itself, propelled as it was by initiatives from below. That is why the usual suspects have filled the vacuum: opposition politicians, the military, officials from the old regime, and others who have no relationship to the “dynamism of the street” producing all this turmoil. Meanwhile no one asks why we need a president, or a government, or a parliament, or indeed any of the institutions of state, if it is ordinary people who are doing all this revolting, and who seem to want an equally ordinary system that lives with them rather than simply rules them.

There is a good reason why the street rather than the formal opposition has been the source of dynamism in Egyptian politics since January 2011. The street has existed outside the state and organized parties as an alternative form of social and political life. It has been typified by de facto pluralism; spontaneous organization; informal rules familiar to large numbers but not encoded in state law and often contradicting it; local knowledge as primary source of action; mutual aid; and an intuitive approach to solving problems. It was the system of the street, not state policies or promises by politicians, which made life bearable and possible for very large numbers of people. By contrast, organized groups produced at best one dimension of the richness of the street. But typically, they sought to replace the street with either ideological dogma or a celebrity figure. Today, following the June rebellion, politicians are taking the same approach, because they do not know how to think of the street as a source of lessons for political life. They think of the street only as chaos that needs to be controlled by those cultivated enough to know better.

Exploring the aftermath of the June rebellion at the level of high politics reveals the same lack of imagination endemic to Egypt’s political elites, focused on internal struggles and competing to control the state. This relentless focus on the state has sidelined the sensibility of the street, the informing sentiment of Egyptian revolutionary mobilization. Central to that sentiment, it seems, is an expectation that the system that speaks to the ordinary person should itself possess ordinary qualities. Yet there was also good reason to overlook the ordinariness of the revolution. This is largely because the June rebellion, like the January revolution, was itself so focused on the president. But that was so only because there was a president. The fact that the “solution” of the current crisis includes early elections for yet another president suggests that we have learned nothing from this episode, only that we are predisposed to position that unfortunate person as the target of the next round of mass mobilization. If the elementary proposition is that rebellion occurs because society is ruled by somebody, would we resolve the problem if society rules itself in a different way?

I have proposed alternatives elsewhere, but I do not want to insist on them. Rather, I only want to point out a deeper crisis, and that is the virtual absence of new political imagination in conditions that require it most. Such imagination is usually the responsibility of the intellectuals. However, with few exceptions, such as Aref Hijawi’s recent proposal to have no president in Egypt, a great many Egyptian intellectuals have thus far been busy with joining the protests and chanting like everyone else. In itself, joining a revolt is a great source of experiential learning, but if one is an intellectual one should do more than simply repeat slogans, take positions with this or that party, and treat opponents like mortal enemies in the normal politics of mutual poisoning. What is most needed now is to learn something new from profound moments in history. This involves translating the street, the true source of all these uprisings, into the kind of political imagination that can then be returned to the public sphere, so that it may enrich debates and introduce dynamics other than those of total war. I do not think it is an underestimation to regard this dereliction of intellectual responsibility as one reason for the closing of spaces for meaningful exchange, learning, and imagination, and their replacement with savage battles, pure negativity, and zero-sum logics.

This imagination, or intellectual translation of popular dynamism, is all the more required now given that it is unlikely that street and state will continue to agree to live far apart after a revolution. This is evident in the intensity of the struggle from below, which suggests that ordinary people continue to be deeply invested in the events of high politics. They do not regard themselves as perpetually external to a political order that seeks to control them from without, and they seem to want that order to consult them as directly as possible. However, they have not expressed how, exactly, that is to be done. Their intellectuals have not done so either.

Clearly a new style of engagement with politics has become an inescapable feature of life for ordinary people. Countless examples may be cited, but one may suffice. During the struggle over the constitution at the end of 2012, with millions of people on the streets and the country on the edge of civil war, the most elementary observation of all appeared to escape all concerned: that this was the first time in modern Egyptian history that ordinary individuals actually cared about a constitution in such large numbers. That care was itself a profoundly new social phenomenon, indicating a great social transformation and the entrenchment in society of a perspective that no longer saw whatever happened at the level of high politics as external to ordinary people. But ordinary citizens do not know, yet, how to normalize this high politics, that it to say, how to bring it closer to them.

In the meantime, high politics continues its surreal course. It is the military that has now produced the “road map” to an eventual civic state, the original goal of the January revolution. But with the exception of Fahmy Howeidy, no one noticed that it had already been outlined by another, unexpected source: the road map is substantially the same as that President Morsi himself previously proposed. On 3 July the army suspended the constitution. On 4 July an interim president in his oath of office swore to uphold this constitution. Whatever he is supposed to uphold, he has the power to issue any constitutional declaration he wishes, checked only by the military. So this great struggle against a potential tyranny, which was at the heart of the June rebellion, replaced an ineffectual but democratically elected president with one who has unlimited power that is checked only by an authoritarian institution. The first acts of the new regime were to close down television stations, prevent coverage of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations, and arrest their leaders. Nonetheless, throughout the country there is a palpable sense that what we see now is a great advance for the cause of liberty, progress, and–whenever it arrives–democracy itself.

This puzzling sentiment seems rooted in the single accomplishment of the June rebellion: unfreezing the stalemate, and setting in motion another political process with perhaps more open horizons. This new process might be tolerated until it, too, hits the wall. But until then, we need to understand how the June rebellion exploded in an environment characterized by a frozen stalemate, which produced a pervasive sense of closed future horizons–unfortunately for it, not felt by the party in power. Thus one can understand why, in spite of the military coming back to guide political life, the absence of any elected body, of any mechanism for translating popular will into acts of governance, and of a constitution, large numbers of Egyptians, likely a significant majority, seem to regard this condition as an opening rather than a closing of the system.

The rebels of June 2013 regard what they have done as a continuation of the revolution of January 2011. This may indicate that the meaning of the January revolution is becoming more apparent to them, even though they did not fully articulate or even comprehend the nature of what they were doing then. If this is the case then one may speak of an “unconscious” of the revolution that gradually emerges to the surface, sometimes in the form of sudden earthquakes, as one tries to experiment with building a post-revolutionary society. What is clear now is that the events we now know as the Arab Spring will constitute a long historical process. It will take many years to arrive at a stable destination defined by a new social consensus. This is because revolutions worthy of the name, at least to those who undertake them, are grand projects of total social renewal. This total social renewal, as is becoming evident to the revolutionaries themselves, is what they intended when they called for the fall of the “regime.” The old “regime,” I hear often now in one way or another, was not just a political institution, but a large cluster of daily worries, uncertainties, and harassments standing in the way of individual and collective self-determination. The “regime” was thus always a very large phenomenon. It was not just Mubarak; the regime was everyday life. It follows, then, that a post-revolutionary “regime” would likewise be as far-reaching in its implications, impact, and expectations.

The June rebellion may be regarded as a signpost along this long road. A signpost, because it declares again some resilient themes of social action from below that have already been elaborated in the January revolution. These themes cluster around related understandings of the ideas of legitimacy, peoplehood, and authority. However, its complete focus on combat tactics, that is, on method, and the absence of a new political imagination, has created a reality that threatens to bury all the above ideas in the ashes of civil war.

Revolutionary Legitimacy

One of the greatest indicators of how President Morsi misunderstood the condition facing him was his endless repetition of the fact that he was the elected president of the country, and thus represented “legitimacy.” It is important to understand why this argument held no persuasive power for his increasing number of opponents (and, conversely, why he could not hear the persuasive power of the alternative, “revolutionary legitimacy”). I heard many say that while they had voted for him a year before, now they changed their mind and wanted him deposed. Here, as in the original January revolution, revolutionary legitimacy trumps any other kind of legitimacy. Basic to this notion of revolutionary legitimacy are two constituting elements. First, revolutionary legitimacy is the property of any standpoint that represents a large enough social consensus. Second, formal procedures and rules–that is, legal or constitutional legitimacy–can be undone at any time by revolutionary legitimacy.

However, revolutionary legitimacy is not something that is constantly practiced: since January 2011, this concept has fluctuated in appearance depending on several factors, the most important of which is the existence of experienced and empirical evidence that what one was doing represented the popular will. Thus the success of the Tamarrod campaign in enlisting more than one quarter of the total population of this enormous country in a petition demanding the removal of the president, was a clear indication that the demand possessed more legitimacy than whatever the constitution or any law or court said. Without this campaign and the feelings it generated of the power of society over and above the state and its laws, it is possible that 30 June may have passed as just another day. Revolutionary legitimacy therefore first needed empirical proof of its existence, after which its work became easier.

In general, revolutionary legitimacy appears to be a constant undercurrent of the revolutionary climate. Like an active volcano, it makes its presence known through episodic rather than constant eruptions. As such, we should expect revolutionary legitimacy to be our subterranean but sometimes very noisy companion for a long time. Because it continues to be fed by two sources:1) acute alertness to all danger and developments that is a basic feature of revolutionary climates; and 2) the historically accumulating distrust of the state and its corrupt institutions, a distrust yet to be overcome by sufficient proof to the contrary.

“The People” and the Principle of Consensus

If consensus is what makes a revolution, it follows that majority rule is an inadequate means to establish a post-revolutionary system. The forty-nine percent are not willing to allow the fifty-one percent to rule them one hundred percent. In principle, all camps agreed that transitional governance should be based on a broad coalition, but could not agree on how exactly to do it. Morsi’s year was filled with countless acrimonies about who was responsible for the lack of cooperation. The mundane truth is: everybody, but in different ways. On the one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood made a fatal mistake when it disregarded Rashid al-Ghannushi’s sound advice based on his Tunisian experience, that it should not put too much stock into the transient fact that it won elections. It did not appreciate the fragility of its electoral majority (especially in the second round of the presidential elections, in which at least half of Morsi’s votes came from lukewarm supporters confronted by a bitter choice). The Brotherhood also vastly underestimated the sense of dread of an Islamic dictatorship they were arousing, whether unintentionally or due to poor experience or due to an actual inclination, among an increasing number of Egyptians. On the other hand, the formally organized opposition was hardly constructive. It rejected all offers of dialogue; acted as if it deserved to rule the country in spite of its dismal electoral performance; and wished that the Brotherhood would fail so that they could replace them. Its main spokesperson, Mohamed ElBaradei, began to openly call for military intervention in the political process long before the recent mass mobilizations.

By June, therefore, the January revolution appeared to be completely stalled, except of course from the point of view of the Brotherhood. But for so many others, the regime of the revolution was expected to showcase key features of the revolution itself. Thus, if one key feature of the revolution was consensus, then the absence of consensus after Mubarak appeared as a symptom of a stalled revolutionary process. The rapid decline of consensus during the Morsi year, and its replacement with endless acrimonies may be part of a revolutionary process itself, but the complete cessation of dialogue across political currents meant that a grand clash became unavoidable, and it appeared as another round of the revolution. This grand clash was preceded by several rounds of mobilization and counter-mobilization, from which no one learned anything other than the need for even more mobilization against one’s political enemies.

But the June rebellion was qualitatively different from all other struggles during the Morsi year, precisely because it appeared as something that was ethically larger than a mere struggle for power between a ruling and opposition parties. On 30 June demonstrators explicitly disassociated themselves from both camps, even though it is the opposition parties that stand to benefit most. But the June rebellion itself did not nominate anyone to replace Morsi or the Brotherhood. In this light it must be seen as a revolt against the idea that any single group or person should be able to control a system that came into being due to a collective popular revolution. Broadly based governance seems necessary not only because it better approximates the social consensus out of which the original revolution emerged; it is also essential given that it is now virtually impossible to implement any policy in any area without broad consent. An uncontrolled revolutionary climate stands in the way of any simple majority, just as it stands in the way of the state’s claim to be the only source of legitimate governance.  

Given the above, it seemed clear as we approached 30 June that the camp that most clearly resembled “the people,” rather than the camp that had only formal legitimacy would emerge victorious. Thus both camps mobilized completely, but their appearance was different. The rebels encompassed a broad social and ideological spectrum, including those with traditional religiosity, and thus were demographically closer to the makeup of the January revolution. The pro-Morsi camp, on the other hand, appeared monochrome by comparison: those it mobilized tended to be Islamist, though excluding the Salafis who abandoned Morsi and left the Brotherhood to their fate. Islamist rather than general revolutionary slogans were ubiquitous in the gatherings of the pro-Morsi camp. This monochrome character of the loyalists indicated a profound misunderstanding of the Egyptian Revolution, which has never been about Islamicizing society or the state and did not emerge out of religious motivation.

Still, one cannot describe the June rebellion as a people united against a regime, as in the January revolution, even though the size and energy of the mobilization was impressive. But unlike the January revolution, there is another camp now that has a solid presence in the streets, even though perhaps with less popularity than before. Unlike the Mubarak regime in January, this other camp is also able to mobilize large numbers throughout Egypt. It follows that the June rebellion more resembles a popular civil war than a popular revolution, with each camp possessing sufficient mobilizing capacity to convince itself that it stands for a cause worthy of sacrifice. But their appearance differs: one camp appears more as “the people” and is armed with revolutionary legitimacy, whereas the other appears more as a single faction and is armed with formal legitimacy. 

“The People” as Source of Authority and Anarchy

The above is part of the persistently anarchic character of the Egyptian Revolution. The June rebellion, like the January revolution, seemed disinterested in clear and solid leadership and preferred loose structures. The energetic Tamarrod campaign that set the stage included no known public figures and functioned more as a network of young activists dedicated to the single task of collecting millions of signatures. Like in January, no leader emerged to embody the spirit of the June rebellion, but qualities other than leadership seemed more important. The Tamarrod campaign exuded youth and vitality, aspects that initially led it to be dismissed by the formal opposition parties that, clustered around known public personalities, were capable only of obstruction but never of generating sustained popular mobilization. By contrast, the youth factor proved to be just as important in June as it had been in January, at least in the initial phases of the mobilization. One can say that it also imparted youthful characteristics into later phases, when mobilization became multi-generational, but continued to be characterized by lightness of movement, resistance to clear ideologies, preference for action as a means to knowledge, and tactical inventiveness.

In another respect, anarchy in June, just as in January, seems closely associated with a patriotic, rather than nationalist, conception of peoplehood. “The people” remains an abstract idea, and no one stands in for this abstraction as a whole. The profusion of pictures of the defense minister who “resolved” the crisis and the lavish praise of him in Tahrir afterwards was not associated with any call for him to rule the country, something that he seemed to be wise enough to not want to do. In general, the idea of “the people” remains inescapable for a revolution that can only be based on a conviction that it represents a social consensus. But "the people" are not producing anything like a Nasser or a Khomeini who would appear as great as the idea of "the people" itself. This manner of using the idea of peoplehood ensures that the revolution based on it would be well-disposed to managers rather than leaders. This expectation is evident now in the broad support expressed immediately after the fall of Morsi of the notion that the interim government should be one of technocratic experts rather than savior-leaders or even politicians.

Finally, even though the target of the June rebellion was an Islamist government, it is important to remember that it could not have succeeded without the mobilization of ordinary conservatism and traditional piety against the idea of a religious government. And that is because we are speaking of a country characterized by pervasive but pragmatic social conservatism, coupled with preference for informality and results rather than rigid, formal rules. The fact that a large number of traditional religious individuals joined the June rebellion against an Islamic party in power shows not their “liberalism,” but something more basic. It shows their resistance to the idea that religion should be transformed from a voluntary ethical system that is controlled and interpreted by the pious individual situationally and as needed, into a rigid structure of laws imposed by a government, and thus outside of the control of the pious individual. If the latter were to happen, religion would be transformed from a source of freedom from other human authorities and of self-discipline, into its exact opposite: a system of control and discipline by other human authorities. Noteworthy here is the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood was not opposed by so many traditional religious individuals when it was not the government.

Violence as Method?

While questions of legitimacy, peoplehood, and authority have been basic elements in debates about the nature of revolution during the two and a half years since it began, a few words are warranted about a new dark feature that has also become a companion of the revolutionary climate. One can document a steadily increasing role of violence, not only as sporadic instances but also as a tolerated tactic by those who formally disavow it and do not themselves practice it. It is important to remember that in June the actual violence happened away from the sites of mass mobilizations, except for the armed attack on the crowds around Cairo University. But among activists I did not detect any particular revulsion to violence, and more of a sense that it may be necessary. I am referring specifically to the storming of the Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo, but also of several provincial Brotherhood offices during the preceding months, and the increasing crescendo of mutual attacks during the last year including senseless sectarian murders.

Since the Port Said sports stadium massacre there have been numerous unexplained incidents that have often been blamed on the “deep state” of the old regime. However, I have observed a number of events, including the burning of the Egyptian Academy, to doubt this explanation. Among those who were active in demonstrations at least, I did observe an increasing tolerance and expectation of violence, and in many cases even a feeling that somehow it may be necessary as part of the process of change. This issue is too complex to be adequately discussed here, but I only want to stress one dimension of violence that is related to polarization.

The road to June was filled with ominous feelings that were absent from the January revolution. The mood was dark, each camp saw in the other absolute evil, and also felt existentially threatened. This environment was itself for a long time fed by a constant stream of rumors that were usually reported as facts if they were politically useful. Unverified rumors of the worst kind were paraded as yet further definitive proof of the irredeemable nature of one’s political enemies, including by intellectuals who should have known to communicate with discernment and nuance. The opposition saw the Brotherhood as a real threat, bent on irreversibly dominating state and society. Similarly, the Brotherhood saw in their opponents a will to destroy them and a bitter hatred they did not understand. In short, it felt like a condition of total war. Some have pointed to Algeria in the 1990s as a possible scenario for Egypt, which is all the more reason for heightened sensibilities, inclusiveness, and openness at the moment. But I do not think anything we have seen in the past year has prepared anyone for this gratuitousness.  

But overall, the fact that after two and half years of constant dynamism we still have features of rebellion that are common with the January revolution and others that differ from it, suggests that we have a single revolutionary project. This project involves a process of learning, unavoidable as it is even if occasionally one learns the wrong lesson. But learning proper to revolution is one that produces a new imagination, and not just tactical inventiveness. We should hope for this imagination because it is good not just for Egypt but for the entire Arab Spring and for the world at large. That is because unless it is a suffocating, immobilizing dictatorship, what happens in Egypt will not stay in Egypt.

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