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On the Confusion of the Present Moment

[5 February 2013, the Arabic reads: [5 February 2013, the Arabic reads: "a second revolution". graffiti in Post Said, Egypt. Image originally posted to Flickr by Hossam El-Hamlawy]

Now everyone is an expert on crowds. At times, we associate them with the revolution. At other times we connect them with fascist-inflected hysteria. Like the enraged mobs described by the nineteenth century sociologist Gabriel Tarde, we imagine crowds as little more than media-inflamed masses seeking to take revenge on the Muslim Brotherhood’s failed and exclusionary rule. Time and again we neglect them, only to contradict their demands. Drawing our maps for the future transition to democracy, we are content to interpret their presence as a sign of popularity, easily led to enable this or that political power, or to ward off the specter of civil strife between supporters and opponents of the Brotherhood.

This confusion undermines analysis that seeks to monitor the impact of street politics. There are entire schools of analysis that focus instead on the palace, regional, and international negotiations as the privileged site for understanding the meaning of political events. We can deconstruct these ambiguous interpretive frameworks. Just as we need to understand the army’s involvement since 30 June, we need to understand the diversity and significance of the mass protests. These crowds were the agent that carried out the will of the people. These crowds were what created the grounds for regional and international negotiations to give Egypt’s political arena a different shape from that of the past two years.

Contradictory Visions and Motivations of the Masses

We cannot ignore the growing crowds, nor the diversity of their visions, their demands, and their courage to remain in the street over the past ten days. In one instance, these crowds seek to express their support for the kind of legitimacy that elections offer. In another instance, they show their support for civilian rule in Egypt. They seek to remind us of the necessity of continuing the demands of the revolution, to widen the political arena and transform the mechanisms of authoritarian rule into something else. They remind us that the same authoritarianism characterized both SCAF rule and the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The importance of the numerical size of each camp is overshadowed by their organizational abilities as well as the degree to which they are determined to continue pressing their demands. Here, the confusion fades to some degree, and leaves us with a first, bitter conclusion: in contrast with the first two camps, the revolutionary crowds are weak. It is not just that the revolutionary moment has been coopted. There is also a political vacuum that is waiting to be crystallized by a discourse, waiting for its efforts to consolidate, and waiting for its potential to be achieved. This does not necessarily mean that the counter-revolution has triumphed so much as it reflects deep disappointment about the possibilities for change.

The term “disappointment” is central to understanding the psychology of the masses; far from Gabriel Tarde’s or Gustave Le Bon’s writings which characterized the crowd in terms of demagogy or emotionalism, these are crowds driven by the desire to translate their slogans into lived reality. These crowds are not in a rush. They did not rush to install the Brotherhood in power. They did not rush to drive the Brotherhood out of power despite the failure of its rule. It was a failed rule by all accounts as it attempted to rely on state institutions that were set in their ways for much longer than the Brotherhood’s brief moment. The crowds worked hard behind a barricade of twenty-two million signatures. Certainly, there were conflicting motivations among them, to break into the political arena and begin to negotiate on behalf of the revolution. And they have been locked out of a political arena monopolized by the military, the Islamists and figures of the old regime.

A Common Feature: No More “Living With It”

Here, we step beyond the task of observing the masses’ morphology to analyze how their political demands are translated by their representatives. There is a new common denominator, different to that which characterized the crowds in January 2011, or the waves of revolutionary youth, or the angry sectors of society during Mohamed Mahmoud, the Parliament, as well as student, professionals, and workers strikes. The crowds want firstly to suppress a contradictory public voice. They are not directing demands towards a state authority. Instead, they are begging their respective leaders to crush the rival side.

When we turn to public opinion on the killing of more than fifty-seven people in front of the Egyptian Republican Guard building, this divisiveness becomes more evident, whether in Brotherhood discourse or supporters of Egyptian state discourse against Islamism. It diminishes the power of the masses calling for democratic revolution. It chokes the discourse of democratic revolution until it loses its intensity and becomes a joke. Again, this does not necessarily mean that the counter-revolution has triumphed. It merely confirms the size of the political vacuum that has been growing in Egypt in recent months.

The Army: Between Representing the Institution and Embodying the Nationalist State

There are vast differences between the army’s position in February 2011 and in July 2013, despite similarities in the techniques of their intervention, both in procedure and official discourse, in which the army claims to represent the will of the people, and claims to work in the service of Egypt’s national interests.

There are two possible reasons for this difference. On the one hand, the army’s political rival of 2011 is now long gone by which I mean, the vision of Gamal Mubarak’s circle. Gone too is their neoliberal plan of authoritarian rule by law and security discourse rather than army prerogative. On the other hand, the army is no longer worried for its future as a political, economic, and governing force.

Today, the army remains in the back seat, sowing alliances and setting the rules of the game. Yet it now acts from within a more stable position than before. Put simply, it does not represent a sector or party in the game as much as it embodies “historicity.” By this, I mean the historicity of a state of national liberation, and everything that entails. As it turns out, wide swathes of Egyptian society demand this historicity for diverse reasons. Not only do the Nasserists, the nationalist Left, and pro-modernization middle classes support this historicity, but it also receives the support of political and economic liberals. Groups from the Left hope to see the crystallization of conflict against the army as the chief representative of the counter-revolution in order to turn the wheels of history and make the poles of revolution and counter-revolution clear.

Perhaps this fluid compatibility will last for but a few weeks, but it is also likely to last longer, as it is the only fixed narrative in a fluid political moment filled with differing interests and fragile alliances. It is the narrative of a country after independence. It is a narrative that, when faced with many challenges, does little but propose “unity” as a tool for action. It is a narrative that mobilizes nationalist sentiment against external enemies with clients hidden inside the country’s body politic. It invites the political regime to return its role of defending the nation against the outside, instead of demanding respect for the rules of accountability and transparency on the inside. It is a narrative mute on the subject of freedoms. It has nothing to say about law in the service of pluralism and governance.

In this sense, the last few weeks have been a return to the post-independence state, far more than they represent a military coup against civilians. The double nature of revolutionary struggle has been crystallized not against religious rule, but against an inherited delusion of national unity and cohesion; a hallucination of international plots against Egypt. Will this duality be the key to understanding the mobilization of democratic, revolutionary powers in the coming months?

[This piece originally appeared in Arabic on Jadaliyya on 10 July 2013. It was translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. Click here to read the Arabic version.]

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