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Keywords: Revolution/Coup d’état

[16 March 2012, Revolutionary Socialists HQ, Egypt. The writings on the wall are against the Muslim Brotherhood and their alliance with the US at the time. Image originally posted to Flickr by Gigi Ibrahim] [16 March 2012, Revolutionary Socialists HQ, Egypt. The writings on the wall are against the Muslim Brotherhood and their alliance with the US at the time. Image originally posted to Flickr by Gigi Ibrahim]

What is in a name? When the name is thawra or inqilab, revolution or coup, everything. Or so it would seem in light of the intense debates and major PR campaigns that emerged in the wake of 3 July over how to name the events surrounding ex-President Morsi’s removal from power. What is at stake in the debates over the naming of the combination of mass protests and military intervention that took place from 30 June to 3 July? And why do none of the labels seem fully appropriate?

Part of the difficulty in understanding the dynamics and stakes of the post-3 July semantics debates lies in the fact that there is more than one debate taking place. First, context matters. The arguments taking place in Washington are not exactly the same as those in Cairo. In each location—and in the transnational space of the international media as well—the particular discourse about political change in Egypt has its own stakes, its own assumptions, and its own vocabularies that do not translate seamlessly from context to context. Second, it matters also that these debates are being conducted in different languages. Each of the key terms at play—thawra and inqilab, revolution and coup, etc.—come to contemporary political discourse from different histories of usage that have loaded the words in specific ways and shaped how they are understood today.

Take, for example, the debate in Washington and US media over whether 3 July was a coup or revolution. This debate over definitions is legalistic, and its consequences are immediate, since the fate of the US-Egyptian policy and US monetary aid hinges upon it. One of the prevalent positions voiced early on in this discussion is that the event should be considered a blessing in disguise. Not surprisingly the Wall Street Journal editorial page described it as a “military coup riding mass protests.” The authors go on to say that this is because the coup “stop[ped] a slide into one abyss,” meaning the “chaos” of an attempted “Islamist dictatorship.” The intervention of the military according to this account would create the opportunity for political stability and economic growth under the tutelage of the United States. The WSJ goes on to wistfully hope that Egypt’s generals would be as wise as Chile’s Augosto Pinochet was, and hire “free-market reformers” who would midwife “a transition to democracy.”

This editorial piece may seem extreme in its references and frankness, but advocating for an invigorated neoliberal authoritarian rule in post-Mubarak Egypt is the dominant editorial position in mainstream US media, even when it is at odds with support for democratization. In this, the debates over terms like revolution and coup d’état are nothing new. On the contrary, nearly four decades ago, Edward Said pointed out how these precise assumptions and anxieties about Arab revolution—as prone to falling into abysses of chaos and religious fanaticism and thus in need of iron-fisted generals and a Western government’s guidance to achieve anything—structured the “essentialized description” of “Oriental political behavior” that was “unable to explain […] the confirming revolutionary upheaval in the Arab world in the twentieth century.” As we might expect, Said located the bases of this “essentialized description” circulating among “students and policymakers concerned with the Middle East,” in conclusions drawn from bad philology, particularly those of Bernard Lewis’s essay, “Islamic Concepts of Revolution.” [1] In this piece, one treated by scholars and analysts of Arab politics as an authoritative source, Lewis goes to the etymological root of the word thawra to explain what revolution means in contemporary Arabic:

The root th-w-r in classical Arabic meant to rise up (e.g. of a camel), to be stirred or excited, and hence, especially in Maghribi usage, to rebel. It is often used in the context of establishing a petty, independent sovereignty […] The noun thawra at first means excitement, as in the phrase, cited in the Sihah, a standard medieval Arabic dictionary, intazir hatta taskun hadhihi ’lthawra, wait till this excitement dies down—a very apt recommendation.[2]

Dissociated completely from the word’s modern significance and usages, this “slighting account of thawra”—as Said points out—uses etymology to reduce thawra to directionless excitement that at best leadings to petty sovereignty. And to give us an idea of what that looks like, Lewis gives the example (lifted from the medieval Arabic dictionaries he is citing) of an aroused camel rising to its feet. The harm in such a passage lies not only in its condescension and discrediting of the modern experience referred to by the word thawra, but also in its suggestion that the meaning of thawra can be reduced to a timeless linguistic root that is essential and unchanging. .

Revisiting Said’s critique of Lewis and of the 1970s US policy-oriented academic discourse on Arab revolution is important today for two related reasons. First, it reminds us of how loaded any discussion of Arab revolution is in the US context. It is a great irony that in the Washington context, to call it a “revolution” allows for aid—and direct influence—to continue a flow that has persisted much the same way as it did under Mubarak, whereas to call it a “coup” risks disrupting that flow. The second insight to be gleaned from this snippet of Orientalism, particularly those memorable quotes from Lewis’s work, is how not to think about key political concepts like thawra. As Elias Khoury commented shortly after 3 July, it is essential to consider the Arabic terms being debated in their specific historical-linguistic contexts. These contexts shape those terms’ usages and meanings in ways distinct from the contexts that produced “comparable terms” in other languages. Fluid usages, not fixed origins, shape what words mean today, just as current usages will shape what they mean tomorrow. Indeed, post-Arab Spring discourse, now more than ever after 3 July, is putting thawra and inqilab to test in ways that will change what these words mean going forward. We should be conscious of where these words are coming from, where they are going, and why.

Judging from the linguistic creativity and debates over terminology abounding in the commentary on 3 July, whatever it is that happened that day seems so unprecedented that inqilab and thawra appear to be incapable of accurately or fully describing it. For this reason, many commentators are insisting on modifying the noun with an adjective.

For instance, newscaster Amr Adib (closely associated with the Mubarak ancien régime) ecstatically ventured the seemingly paradoxical label inqilab sha‘bi, or popular/people’s coup, to describe the movement of millions to unseat the former President Mohamed Morsi as “one hand” with the army. Adib was fully aware of the oxymoronic and novel quality of this label. Insisting that historians “take notes,” he proclaimed the event deserving of a new term under which to be recorded in history, on the grounds that the event is the first of its kind. The widespread interpretation of this inqilab as a step in the “ongoing revolution” (al-thawra al-mustamirra) is implicit in Adib’s affixation of sha‘bi to inqilab, a word typically understood as an elite-initiated act of overthrowing leadership and in contrast to thawra, which has the connotation of a mass grassroots uprising.

Similarly, in a blog entry posted on 4 July, Juan Cole fused the English words coup and revolution for an effect comparable to that of inqilab sha’bi, arguing that 3 July witnessed a “revocouption” with a “split personality.” One the one hand, he wrote, it was a “manifestation of popular will” and, on the other hand, “a military coup, provoked by the officer corps’ increasing dissatisfaction with President Mohamed Morsi.” Cole thus summed up the struggle to define the event as “an argument over the legitimacy of the actions taken.” Whereas those hailing it as a thawra (and/or part of the greater thawra) mean to highlight the legitimacy accorded it by the mass anti-Morsi protests, those shunning it as an inqilab (or, more specifically, an inqilab ‘askari) seek to deny it that legitimacy and emphasize instead the role played by personal interests based in the military.

Cole’s identification of legitimacy as the core issue at stake in the Egyptian debates is spot-on. His “revocuption” neologism, however, brings us back to that questionable assumption brought earlier in this article—one that has become universally operative in post-Arab Spring discourse—of equivalence between the Arabic and English terms at play.

Inqilab and Thawra, Shifting Usages, Shifting Histories

The scramble to define the significance of 3 July has formed upon contested semantic-ideological ground shared by the modern terms inqilab and thawra that is unlike the rather hard dividing line separating revolution from coup d’état in French and English political vocabularies. By no means new to Arab intellectual and political discourse, the heated discussion over what makes an inqilab and what makes a thawra is one that has accompanied moments of political change in the Arab world throughout the  twentieth century, attesting to a persistent ambivalence between the two words. At some historical junctures interchangeable and at others dialectically opposed, thawra and inqilab have formed an axis for the negotiation and contestation of political legitimacy many times over, becoming all the while embedded with specific meanings, expectations, fears, and experiences that haunt public discourse to this day.

The debates over the significance of the Young Turks’ Constitutional Revolution of 1908, known in Arabic as al-inqilab al-‘uthmani (the Ottoman revolution) produced some of the earliest and more iconic attempts to articulate a model of legitimate revolutionary change through developing definitions of the words inqilab and thawra. Almost three years before Jurji Zaydan’s canonical Al-Inqilab al-‘Uthmani (1911) was published, the Palestinian intellectual and Ottoman statesman, Ruhi al-Khalidi, wrote a series of articles entitled Asbab al-Inqilab al-‘Uthmani wa-Turkiya al-Fatat (Reasons for the Ottoman Revolution and the Young Turks, 1908) on the event. The work shares Zaydan’s understanding of inqilab as deep, structural change to a system of rule that “constitutes a step forward on the path of progress, however much pain and trauma it may cause the nation.” Al-Khalidi shunned thawra, on the other hand, as “injurious to what is beneficial to the nation and in its interests, serving to divert it from its march on the path of success.” The author’s frustrated insistence upon the need to differentiate between thawra and inqilab reveals the degree to which the two terms were being used to describe the same events, among them the Young Turks’ movement and, even more irksome to al-Khalidi, the French Revolution. Bringing Thomas Carlyle’s classic, The French Revolution, into the debate, al-Khalidi referenced the famous lines exchanged between King Louis XVI and a duke after the storming of the Bastille, “‘C’est une révolte!’ said Louis. ‘Sire,’ answered the duke, ‘But it is not…it is a revolution,’” translating révolte as thawra and revolution as inqilab.

What made the distinction between thawra and inqilab so clear-cut in al-Khalidi’s mind was the legitimacy or right (haq) upon which the political actions of the revolutionaries—both Young Turk and French—were based. As he saw it, their “right of exiting (khuruj) from obedience” derived squarely from their subjection to an illegitimate form of rule: despotism (istibdad), or, as al-Khalidi named it, “the womb that bears inqilab.”[3] The opposite sense in which this author understood thawra as chaotic, destructive rebellion against legitimate rule that throws the umma into sectarian strife was by no means uniquely his. As thawra began to be used in a political sense in the late  nineteenth and early  twentieth centuries to describe the outpourings of popular dissent or “rage” (hiyaj, which is the basic meaning of thawra) that defined nationalist events like the 1879 ‘Urabi revolt. It came to be associated with classical terms for schismatic politico-religious transgression, such as fitna, khuruj, ‘isyan and tamarrud. An Ottomanist devoted to the cause of uniting the empire under centralized, legitimate authority as nationalist “dissention” threatened to tear it apart, both al-Khalidi’s wariness against the movements emerging under the banner of thawra and dismissal of the form of rebellion they represented are not particularly surprising.

What might prove more surprising to us, however, is the lasting power of the connotations of fitna and unlawful revolt or khuruj with which discourse of al-Khalidi’s era loaded the word thawra. Such is evident, for one, in the quickness with which pro-regime speeches and propaganda from all corners of the Arab world have conjured the specter of fitna to discredit and undermine the self-proclaimed thawrat of the past two years. This legacy has likewise shaped the Arab Spring’s diverse discourses of resistance; whose architects and spokespeople have systematically addressed the anxieties concentrated in the word thawra, foremost among them the possibility of fitna and question of whether thawra is an act of unlawful khuruj. An important example of such an intervention is found in ‘Azmi Bshara’s Fi al-Thawra wa-al-Qābiliyya li-al-Thawra (On Revolution and the Potential for Revolution, 2012). There, he argued that the contemporary model of thawra realized by the recent uprisings is not an “exit from the collective or even the reigning power” as were the instances of sectarian dissention in Islamic history, but, rather, an “exit to the public sphere […] to demand a right that is impossible to attain within the political system instated by the standing regime” (my emphasis). By here reversing the directionality of khuruj to transform it from a negative gesture of rejection into a positive act of calling a new right into being, Bshara renders the community-destroying temporality haunting thawra into a moment of collective re-formation within the new political space and legitimacy of “the square.”[4] The fact that legitimating thawra has elicited such treatment illustrates the degree to which the word’s contemporary meaning and reception are colored by the particular historical events and contexts that shaped its coinage over a century ago.

The hard barrier between thawra and inqilab that al-Khalidi attempted to set at the start of last century did not hold. On the contrary, the intellectual production that accompanied the anti-colonial uprisings (named thawrat) of the following decades (e.g., the “Arab Revolution” of Sharif Husayn in Greater Syria, Egypt’s 1919 Revolution, Palestine’s 1929 and 1936 revolutions, etc.) and developed to yield the nationalist philosophies that inspired the later Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni “free officers’” coups ultimately conflated the terms. We see how in Qunstantin Zurayq’s famous Ma‘na al-Nakba (The Meaning of the Nakba 1948), for example, inqilab is the author’s word of choice for the revolutionary transformation that he declared necessary to turn the Arab umma into a “modern national entity” capable of re-entering the historical trajectory of awakening (nahda) from which it had been deflected by the Nakba.[5] Michel ‘Aflaq similarly formulated inqilab as essential to the ba‘th (rebirth) of the Arab nation. Indeed, the term inqilab (with its basic meaning as an act of turning over) fit and reinforced the cyclical metaphors so essential to Ba‘thist ideology. The radical and to-the-core nature of the revolutionary change envisioned by both Zurayq and ‘Aflaq is embedded in the name they chose for it; the root of inqilabqalb—doubles to signify both the action of revolution as turning and also the ultimate object of that transformation: the heart or essence.

These theorists of Arab nationalism understood the event of thawra, meanwhile, primarily as the emergence of the “spirit of struggle” (to quote Zurayq again) in the people, whose “resistance against oppressors” constitutes the first step to achieving “unity, independence and self-determination.” While according to Zurayq, thawra thus releases the national collective’s will to power, it is inqilab that translates this will into reality and gives it historical form. It is crucial to recognize that inqilab here refers first and foremost to a comprehensive change of socio-political, economic, and subjective being rather than the isolated political event of a coup. True enough, Zurayq assumed that the desired “total inqilab in our ways of thought, knowledge and life as a whole” would require the political initiative of a coordinated, region-wide vanguard of leaders “who are inqilabiyin in their cores.” The inqilab for which he was calling, however, was not simply the vanguard’s felling and takeover of the standing regimes, but, more broadly, the structural transformation of Arab subjectivity and society that would be complete (in his Marxian reading) once the “specific economic and intellectual conditions” were set for the “negation of feudalism” and ensuing emergence of the modern bourgeois state.[6]

The works of Zurayq and other luminaries out of whose thought the programs of Arab nationalist organizations like the Ba‘th and George Habash’s Movement of Arab Nationalists grew thus theorized a sort of causality between thawra and inqilab, with the former standing as a wellspring or formative condition for the latter. Where thawra ends and inqilab begins became even more indistinguishable in the wake of the free officers’ coups, which, depending on the context, were referred to as events of thawra and/or inqilab. It was thawra, however, that emerged over the 1950s and 1960s to become the primary descriptor of these events and also eventually of the actions and reforms undertaken by the so-called “revolutionary” regimes they brought to power. We see as much in the founding document of Arab socialism, Nasser’s 1962 National Charter (al-mithaq al-watani), which described itself and its policies as at once a manifestation of and guide to “the revolutionary experience of the Egyptian people.” The appearance of the word thawra over the 1960s in this sense, designating a force and praxis of socio-political transformation, is a milestone in the development of the word, which acquired at this juncture a meaning that was formerly signified (as we saw in al-Khalidi and Zurayq’s works) by inqilab, namely, of structural change to government and society.

As thawra’s scope of signification widened to encompass the events of both popular uprising and socio-political transformation, inqilab came to be used most frequently in its narrower sense of coup d’état. Any kind of thorough answer to the questions of how and by whose work these terms changed over the post-colonial period is impossible to give here. However, the reason to seek out such answers is more compelling now than ever, as something similar to what occurred then appears to be happening in post-3 July public discourse. What we can say here about the reorganization of these words’ conceptual content in the late 1950s and 1960s—particularly in regards to the then-new use of thawra as a signifier for both mass uprising and top-down reform instated by an unelected military regime—is that it served to legitimize a massive expansion of state power by giving the impression that the regime’s “revolutionary” policies emerged from and expressed popular will.

Revisiting Nasser’s Falsafat al-Thawra (Philosophy of Revolution, 1966) reminds us how the word thawra was used to nominally locate the agency and point of origin of the 1952 Free Officers’ coup (and thus also of their authority) with the popular anti-colonial will expressed in 1919. He wrote that the thawra undertaken by himself and his comrades was not born on July 23, 1952, but, rather “in the boiling waters of the 1919 Revolution,” thereby framing their coup-cum-revolution as the fulfillment of this most legendary of Egyptian uprisings.[7] Restated in this way, the relation of causality leading from thawra to inqilab found in Zurayq’s text turns into a popular license for the elite who seizes power in the people’s name via coup. The distinctions between thawra and inqilab, between 1919 and 1952, and between the peasants and the Free Officers, all dissolve in this narrative into one historic event crowned thawra from start to finish.

While those distinctions and the power dynamics that were at work in their fudging appear clear to us now in retrospect, the debate and confusion of the current moment gives us a sense of what it may have felt like in the midst of those events. Collaborative, thoughtful naming of the historic events currently unfolding is one of the best practices of navigating and comprehending them. It is also and just as (or more) easily a practice of controlling, thwarting, coopting or tempering events and their authors. To effectively engage in this practice while neutralizing the provocations and manipulations of official naming, we all must ask what is in the specific names we are debating and question what sounds too good—or bad—to be true. 

[1] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1979), 312-315.

[2] Quoted in Said, ibid., 314-315.

[3] Muhammad Ruhi al-Khalidi, Asbab al-Inqilab al-‘Uthmani wa-Turkiya al-Fatat (Cairo: Ru’iya li al-Nashr wa al-Tawzī’, 2011), 29-30

[4] ‘Azmi Bshara, Fi al-Thawra wa-al-Qabiliyya li-al-Thawra (Doha: Markaz al-‘Arabi li-al-abhath wa-dirasat al-siyasat, 2011), 8.

[5] Qunstantin Zurayq, Ma‘na al-Nakba (Beirut: Dar al-‘Ilm li-al-Malayin, 1948), 42.

[6] Ibid., 44-68.

[7] Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir, Falsafat al-Thawra (Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1966), 4.

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