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Egypt's Emergent Passive Revolution

[Mohammed Morsi speaks during a press conference after his apparent victory in the Egyptian presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Cairo, June 18, 2012. Image by Ahmed Gomaa/AP Photo.] [Mohammed Morsi speaks during a press conference after his apparent victory in the Egyptian presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Cairo, June 18, 2012. Image by Ahmed Gomaa/AP Photo.]

One and a half years after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian revolutionaries returned to the streets in the first half of June 2012. The huge crowds that filled public squares throughout Egypt defy those accounts that reduce the revolutionary uprising to a naïve effort that is inadvertently paving the way for the usurpation of power by “Islamic autocrats.” While the polarization of Egypt’s political community across Islamist-secularist divide is evident, interpreting the dynamics of Egyptian politics through the prism of this divide proves highly limiting. More than just a spat between Islamists and secularists, the new Egypt reflects a three-fold division between partisans of the revolution, counter-revolutionaries, and “passive revolutionaries”—self-proclaimed revolutionaries whose commitment to advancing revolutionary objectives is tenuous. The weakness of the organizational capacity of Egypt’s revolutionary camp has contributed to the (still shaky) triumph of the country’s passive revolutionaries, as evidenced by the Muslim Brotherhood’s provisional success in the presidential election, thereby raising serious doubts about the future of the January 25 Revolution.

The Threat of Passive Revolution

Egypt’s political community is divided across three sociopolitical camps, namely the old regime (also known as the counter-revolution); the revolutionaries; and the forces of passive revolution. The division between the three camps is defined by their commitment to revolutionary goals (or lack thereof), rather than pure ideological or religious principles. In other words, the role of Islam in the new Egypt is by no means the major question defining the country’s emergent political arena. In fact, all three camps encompass individuals and groups desiring a more Islamic Egypt.

In between the two ends of the spectrum—revolutionaries on the one hand, and old regime forces on the other—stand the passive revolutionaries. A passive revolution involves the taming of oppositional cadres and discourse such that they are absorbed into the existing system, reinforcing its stability and resistance to change. A passive revolution gains momentum under conditions in which an old regime subsides, but its challengers propose only vaguely defined promises (e.g. “liberty” or “social justice”), without giving meaning to these broad promises or mobilizing popular support behind concrete demands.

The leading actor of the passive revolution in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) – “Mubaraks with beards,” as one (Islamic) opposition figure described them to me. Conventional western perceptions of the MB, oscillating between the image of a dangerous theocratic force and, more sympathetically, the agent of democratic change, conceal the group’s most striking feature. Specifically, many local observers in Egypt see the challenge of the Brotherhood’s growing power not as the threat of building an Islamic regime. Rather, the challenge as they see it pertains to the group’s unilateralism and tendency to monopolize power. Thus, many fear that the MB could exploit the revolutionary momentum and discourse to advance goals that are inconsistent with the basic demands of this revolution—such as the group’s interest in deepening the neoliberal project in Egypt.1

The Constitution Drafting Process and the Retreat of Revolutionary Battles

The lines between these three camps should not be taken as a static reality, but a set of dynamic political boundaries that can be modified or undermined by other dimensions of political conflict. For example, while the three camps were apparent during the lead-up to the presidential election when candidates positioned themselves vis-à-vis the revolution and its goals, these same divisions were largely orthogonal to the political battles surrounding the constitution-drafting process. During this process, conflict revolved around spats over the role of Islamic principles in the new political system, thereby crowding out conflicts between partisans of the revolution and their adversaries.

It is therefore unsurprising that revolutionary movements failed to have any observable impact over the constitution-drafting process. Lacking political organization, leadership and experience, the revolutionaries could only attack the SCAF-managed transition from afar. Meanwhile, the Islamists and the “civil forces” (madaniyin) bickered under the shadow of the military, fighting over the balance of representation between Islamist and secularists inside the constituent assembly, rather than the extent to which those selected to write the country’s next constitution uphold the revolution’s demands of liberty, dignity and social justice.

Leaderless Revolts or Disorganized Leaders?

This brings us to the crux of the problem facing Egypt’s revolution, namely the inability of the revolutionaries to participate meaningfully in institution-building processes due to their lack of organization, experience, and programmatic vision. This shortcoming keeps the field wide open for passive revolutionaries and those who want to appropriate revolutionary discourse and goals for the purpose of advancing narrow agendas. This is not to say the revolutionaries do not see value in the battles shaping Egypt’s new political institutions. Revolutionary movements frequently issued statements discussing the flaws of the constitution writing process, and criticized politicians for bickering over seats in the constituent assembly rather than advocating for the goals of the revolution. Such statements, however, made no lasting impact. The problem is not that revolutionary activists are overlooking institution-building battles, but rather that no one will lend them an ear among the players engaged in these elite-driven conflicts. In other words, the absence of revolutionary political organization in effect shields the process of political institution building from the demands of the revolution.

This is precisely the malaise of the “leaderless revolution.” It is perhaps possible to overthrow a dictator even in the absence of leaders, experience and program. But building institutions, and formulating and executing policies and platforms are impossible without leaders to shoulder these burdens.

The disorganization of activists in Egypt is not a conscious choice, as is the case with many Western-based protest movements, but rather a limitation imposed by the legacy of the old regime. Late President Anwar al-Sadat and his successor Mubarak destroyed all political organization in Egypt, save the Islamists and a few loyal opposition parties. The remnants of the old regime, including the country’s current military rulers, continue to harass, torture, wound and kill revolutionary activists. They also collaborate with “passive revolutionaries” to limit their role in shaping Egypt’s emergent political institutions, including its new constitution.

Furthermore, disorganization among revolutionary forces is reflected in the ambiguity surrounding their calls for social justice and their failure to define this goal in concrete terms. The “capacity” necessary to build such a vision takes more than the well-meaning efforts of bright individuals and charismatic activists. It demands the concerted effort of leaders, cadres, intellectuals, and experts over the course of years, if not decades—not in the heat of a revolutionary moment.

Also due to the disorganization of revolutionary forces supporters of the revolution had to settle for presidential candidates hailing from Egypt’s traditional class of political elites who failed to offer a coherent vision on how to advance the revolution’s calls for freedom and social justice. These candidates include Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh, and Hamdeen Sabbahi. In the second round of the vote, the choice that pro-revolutionary voters faced was even worse, specifically one between the counter-revolution and the passive revolution, namely Mubarak’s last Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik and the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Mursi. In this context, partisans of the revolution could not find an alternative on the ballot that truly represents them. Rather they could either vote for Mursi, being the lesser evil when compared to Shafik, the candidate of the old regime, or boycott the presidential election altogether.

The Future of Leaderless-ness

The second round of the presidential election, and the SCAF’s recent offense against political liberty, have solidified the three-way division between the revolution, the counter-revolution, and the passive revolution. They have also reinforced the organizational shortcomings of the revolutionaries. At the same time, while the campaign to boycott the presidential election has not been successful, it has given revolutionary forces an opportunity to assess their power and identify their limitations. The revolutionary camp is becoming more aware of its inability to present alternatives, as evidenced by the limited choices offered by the presidential election. Local observers recently began to argue that inability to develop a credible challenge to the military’s manipulation of this transition is a result of the revolutionaries’ lack of experience and organization. Acknowledging this problem, some revolutionaries argue that they need to develop the capacity to build a fully revolutionary government.

The Egyptian experience offers lessons for political activists worldwide. Passive revolutionaries are most likely to carry the day if revolutionary situations emerge in the absence of a transitional program and an organization with mass ties to mobilize support behind a revolutionary vision. As demonstrated by post-Mubarak Egypt, in such a scenario, passive revolutionaries are likely to emerge as the only viable alternative to counter-revolutionaries.  

That being said, the current realities in Egypt are not set in stone, and there is relatively more space today to strengthen the revolutionary camp and overcome its organizational shortcomings in the face of counter-revolutionary and passive revolutionary forces. While the future of revolution in the new Egypt faces some tough challenges, it remains open-ended. The critical battle that will shape the future of Egypt, however, involves not just a confrontation between advocates of revolutionary change and counter-revolutionaries, but also a conflict between revolutionaries and Egypt’s emergent passive revolution.



[1] The Muslim Brotherhood has been making many economic promises, some of which contradict each other. For example, as it promises local and international business circles that it will adhere to free market reforms, it also promises Egyptian labor and youth that it will intervene in the economy to advance pro-labor policies. For a recent example of promises the Brotherhood has made to the business community, see “Tasrihaat mursi tuno‘sh al-bursa,” al-Akhbar June 13, 2012.

1 comment for "Egypt's Emergent Passive Revolution"

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Having observed and experienced many social, political,as well as pseudo and counter-revolutions, I can't agree more with the absolute necessity of revolutionary leadership for the achievement of at least some of the revolutionary demands and aspirations . This can be clearly noticed in the defeat of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, triumph of counter-revolution in Libya and the current ongoing situation in Syria. The Global Reaction, led by the U.S. and other colonial and wannabe colonial powers, is always capable and willing to advance its goals by organizing or having already organized its own alternatives through well-trained,experienced political and military cadres and vast material resources, enabling it to distort the revolutionary goals, crush, suppress or co-opt the unorganized, leaderless rival, radical and revolutionary groupings and individuals, thus appropriating the state apparatus. This should be seriously considered by genuine revolutionary and dissident groups and individuals in Syria and Iran.

The Occupy Movement in The US is no exception. In spite of its inherent revolutionary potential, lacking a profound knowledge of the nature of Imperialism , Capitalism and class relations, it has not been able to translate its slogan of "we are the 99%" into a revolutionary class-based confrontation. It is bound to be dissolved or co-opted unless it internalizes the concept of Imperialism and realizes that what determines the political function of social classes is class-position and class-orientation, rather than the simplistic notion of class-origin.

Walter D. wrote on June 25, 2012 at 05:26 AM

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