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History and Consequences

[Graffiti in Arabic reads: [Graffiti in Arabic reads: "You will not kill our revolution." Image originally posted to Flickr by Gigi Ibrahim.]

Brecht De Smet begins his recent article on “Revolution and Counter Revolution in Egypt” by demurring from my statement on Jadaliyya on the occasion of the second anniversary of the 25 January 2011 Egyptian popular uprising that, “The January 25 Revolution is not over.  Rather, it has not yet occurred.” De Smet does not, in fact, disagree with the substance of my judgment about the balance of political forces in Egypt. Neither of us believes that Egypt has experienced a “fundamental change in the political and economic relations of power” as he puts it. The bulk of his article was written before the coup d’état of 3 July 2013. In early 2014, it is clear that counterrevolution is on the offensive. The Egyptian military is seeking, and in many respects succeeding in, a full restoration of the Mubarak regime with enhanced prerogatives for itself.

 De Smet objects to what he terms my “consequentionalist historical perspective.” He rejects the proposition that determining whether or not a revolution occurred depends on the outcome of the events because this can only be determined post factum. Perhaps it is a historian’s prejudice. But this seems like common sense to me. I cannot think of any other valid criterion. In contrast, De Smet wants to term virtually any significant historical change a revolution of some sort.

Using terms coined by Antonio Gramsci, De Smet would prefer to call the January 25 uprising a Caesarist “passive revolution.” This appears to assume an outcome that is far from determined. I agree with De Smet that despite the apparent triumph of counterrevolution at this moment, the long-term outcomes of January 25 will take years, if not decades, to unfold. Will they result in a radical restructuring of economic and political hierarchies in Egypt? Will they result in some gradual process of reform? How could anyone possibly know at this point?

Personally, I remain somewhat optimistic. It is difficult to imagine that after experiencing the exhilaration of discovering their voice and power and deposing two presidents in two-and-a-half years, Egyptians will so easily lower their heads and accept whatever abuses the military-sponsored regime imposes on them. But if pressed, I must acknowledge that this judgment is rooted in a Gramscian “optimism of the will.” Those who opt for Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect” have a case.

Another problem with De Smet’s use of “Casesarism” and “passive revolution” is that in his lexicon they apply to everything that has happened in Egypt since 1952. Nasserism was a “relatively progressive,” “qualitative” Caesarist, “passive revolution.” Sadat’s regime was a “civil, reactionary, and quantitative….Casesarism…embedded within the global passive revolution of ‘neoliberalism.’” The Mubarak regime was likewise a “passive revolution.”  The SCAF’s highjacking of the January 25 uprising was a “Caesarist intervention” (on this, I would concur). Mohamed Morsi’s election as president represented “Islamist Caesarism” with a civil turn, though he ultimately failed to play the role. The military coup of 3 July 2013 was a “Caesarist maneuver [that] temporarily succeed[ed] in re-imposing military hegemony upon the process of passive revolution.”  (How do we know if it is temporary or how long a period temporary is?)

With authority from Gramsci, De Smet argues that “the concept of passive revolution” is useful for interpreting “every epoch characterized by complex historical upheavals” but also that the term “is almost interchangeable with reformism.” With all due respect to Gramsci – and he certainly does deserve respect – this theoretical verbiage is unnecessarily obscurantist. De Smet asserts that the core of his argument is, “that the ‘soft coup’ of the SCAF was accepted by the revolutionary masses because of the Armed Forces enduring aura as a national, progressive and transformative institution derived from the Nasserist era.” This uncharacteristically lucid statement is innocent of Gramscian terminology. Moreover, anyone who knows Egypt well would concur.

The underlying problem propelling De Smet’s over-theorization is his teleological understanding of the nature of the historical process unleashed by the January 25 uprising. Similarly to the transitologists who imagine that liberal democracy is the end of history, De Smet argues that “[t]he democratic revolution cannot succeed except by a fundamental reform of the economic structure, and the economic structure cannot be reformed unless political power is captured and appropriated by a subaltern counter-bloc.” So, beginning with Gramsci, De Smet arrives at the Trotskyist theory of “permanent revolution.” Trotsky and De Smet may be right about Egypt. But there is no way to know that now. And if this scenario did unfold, the January 25 uprising would have to develop beyond anything that could reasonably be categorized as a “passive revolution.”

There are good reasons to use concepts derived from the Marxian theoretical tradition. Defending their insights against overly culturalist understandings of society and history is an important project in the current conjuncture. However, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks were written while he was imprisoned for ten years during which he was in almost constant physical and psychological pain. His language is sometimes intentionally oblique to circumvent censorship; and like all great thinkers, he was not always consistent. Applying Gramsci’s terminology promiscuously when it does not add anything substantial to our understanding serves neither him nor the analysis of contemporary events in Egypt.

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