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Spotlights on "The Egyptian Revolution, One Year On"

[Protesters flood Tahrir Square on the first anniversary of 25 January 2011 Revolution. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy.] [Protesters flood Tahrir Square on the first anniversary of 25 January 2011 Revolution. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy.]


On 18 and 19 May 2012, the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford held an international conference titled “The Egyptian Revolution, One Year On: Causes, Characteristics and Fortunes.” The conference brought together a group of over twenty scholars spanning different disciplines from national and international universities, as well as a few Egyptian political activists. Participants presented their research in six panels: “Preludes and Explanations,” “Movements and Mobilization,” “The Language of Revolution,” “Old States, New Rules,” “Competing Visions of Tahrir,” “Beyond Egypt,” and a special session on “‘The Revolution Continues’: A Conversation.”

The conference constituted a rare opportunity for Egyptian and foreign scholars to interact, learn about, and learn from each other’s work. The presentations covered a wide array of topics and themes. In an attempt to understand the underlying causes of the revolution, Marie Duboc traces labor action in two textile companies with a view to explain the evolution and augmentation of people’s desire to voice the type of grievances that emerged in the 2011 uprising. Alternatively, Adam Hanieh offers a regional dimension to our understanding of the causes of the 2011 uprising. For Hanieh, understanding the origins of the Egyptian revolution demands a closer look at the neoliberal policies that facilitated the internationalization of Gulf-based capital, and the growing role of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states.

Similar to Hanieh’s contribution, several papers attempt to situate the revolution in its regional and international contexts. Fred Lawson examines the impact of the Egyptian revolution on Egypt’s foreign policy relations with its neighbors and important regional players, including Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey. Kerem Oktem looks at how the Arab Uprisings, particularly the Egyptian revolution, affected foreign policy debates in Turkey. He argues that the uprisings, highlighting Turkey as the emerging new power and the successful neoliberal model in the region, contributed to revolutionizing Turks’ perception of themselves by emphasizing the importance of their role on the regional and international levels. Oktem suggests that the Egyptian revolution deepened Turkish government’s fear of its own people’s demands for greater “social justice.” Andrea Teti compares the European Union (EU)’s discourse on democratization in Egypt to that of Egyptian pro-democracy NGOs and groups before and after the January 25 Revolution. One major distinction he highlights pertains to the prevalence of social and economic rights in dominant understandings of democracy among Egyptian NGOs, in contrast with the notions of democracy exhibited in EU’s discourse on democratic change.

Contributions by John Chalcraft, Mark Peterson, and Heba Raouf Ezzat seek to better characterize the processes and agents that advanced the struggle for revolutionary change in Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011. John Chalcraft’s analysis highlights the decentralized and “horizontalist” forms of representation that power relations and processes of mobilizing large constituencies have taken on in the ongoing revolutionary movement that started in Egypt on 25 January. Relying on Victor Turner’s concepts of “liminality,” “communitas” and “anti-structure,” Mark Peterson examines the symbolic meaning of the spirit of Tahrir Square, and the unity that brought together people from different ideological and social backgrounds during the eighteen-day uprising. Heba Raouf Ezzat attributes the chronic violent clashes during the transitional phase, as well as calls for democratic change on 25 January 2011, as the manifestations of a conflict between the “notion of state” and the “notion of the republic.” Acknowledging the failure of dominant theoretical paradigms to predict the revolution, she proposes several concepts worthy of consideration in theorizing and understanding the revolution, including: “surface,” or the idea that “surface –level” or macro-level indicators failed to reflect fully the developments happening at the bottom, “space” which pertains to the urban dimension of the revolution, “size” or the power of small groups to protest, and “sovereignty” which pertains to an understanding of people as the source of authority, securitization and the rise of a new forms of religiosity.

The question of whether and when the Egyptian revolution ended remains at the epicenter of public and scholarly debates. Has the revolution ended with the toppling of Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011, or will the revolution remain ongoing until it leads to a stable democratic order that fulfills the demands that people called for on 25 January, namely bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity? Did Egypt yield an unfinished revolution, a continuing one, or an incomplete revolutionary process? Based on the assumption that Egypt is experiencing an incomplete revolutionary project, Alexander Kazamias examines the impact of the January 25 revolutionary process on the state. Specifically, he explores what he describes as “praetorian parliamentarism,” or the emergent relationship between the state and political parties that seek to represent this revolutionary movement. Mustapha Al-Sayyid examines the management of transitional phases in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. The most pressing challenges these transitions face, he says, are ensuring transitional justice, meeting of rising expectations and social and political demands, building a new political system, keeping the state together, and dealing with regional and international actors.

It is worth noting that although the term “Egyptian Revolution” appears in the title of the conference and some conference participants used the term, many presenters relied on alternative phrasing like “uprising,” and “revolutionary process,” while others avoided the use of any term altogether. These discrepancies perhaps reflect the tension between the historical significance of the Egyptian revolution on the one hand, and its inconclusive, open-ended character on the other. Conference contributions were notable in that they examined the identity and the characteristics of different emerging political actors since 25 January 2011, including the revolutionary youth, the “Ultras” (or what Robbert Woltering called “the unusual suspects”), and talk-show host Tawfiq ‘Okasha, a tool of the counter-revolution, as Walter Armbrust notes in his contribution. Some participants, such as Hebatallah Sallem, examined how Egyptians used humorous expressive art to voice their evolving perception of the revolution, while Tahia Abdel Nasser explored archival poetics in relation to Egypt’s revolution.

As these words were written, Egypt was about to embark upon a presidential runoff vote featuring Mubarak’s last Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and longtime Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohamed Morsi. The course that the presidential election has taken speaks to Mustapha Al-Sayyid’s concluding remarks at the conference regarding the weight of this historical moment. The presidential elections, perceived by several as a milestone in Egypt’s transition, brought to light a range of political, ideological and value-based differences that are highly pertinent to today’s Egypt and that will likely continue to challenge the stability of the country’s transition. While uncertainty and surprises still remain the prevalent features of post-January 25 Egypt, one thing is certain, namely that the ongoing, dynamic process of change in Egypt will make predictions about the future of the country impossible. The Egyptian revolution has certainly empowered ordinary people who are now eager to take part in shaping Egyptian politics, thereby making the monopolization of politics by a minority of people, as was the case in the past, impossible.

[A version of this write-up appeared in the Chronicles, the publication of the Economic and Business History Research Center at the American University in Cairo. The author would like to thank the conference organizers and their team for their vision, dedication, tireless efforts and support, warmth and for creating a most friendly inspiring atmosphere for quality intellectual exchange. Special thanks are due to Reem Abou-El-Fadl, the conference convener, Mezna Qato, Kerem Öktem and Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, the Conference Advisory Board, and Mariya Petkova, for conference assistance.]



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