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Why the Language of Truth Matters

[Military police and the army special forces blocking the anti-SCAF march to SCAF headquarters on 23 July 2011. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy] [Military police and the army special forces blocking the anti-SCAF march to SCAF headquarters on 23 July 2011. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy]

[This article is part of a Jadaliyya roundtable on “The Language of Revolution in Egypt.” The roundtable, which can be accessed in full by clicking here, features contributions by Paul Sedra, Robert Springborg, and Joshua Stacher.]

Paul Sedra’s insistence that the term revolution be used to describe political change in Egypt since 25 January 2011 reflects the triumph of hope over experience, as he halfway admits. According to him, the language of revolution helped convert the 1952 coup into Gamal Abdel Nasser’s cultural and social “golden age,” just as it has emboldened Copts now to challenge both church and state. The term revolution, in other words, is not analytically but is politically correct. Although untrue, its use may help realize what is politically desired.

This proposition is flawed and dangerous. Using language not to describe reality but to inspire action is precisely the problem George Orwell addressed in 1984. If words are not meant to be truthful but to instill commitment, demagogy and worse is justifiable and likely. Indeed, that was precisely the problem with Nasser, who used inflammatory rhetoric to mobilize the populace behind his regime and to conceal the truth.

Sedra lauds Nasserism as having delivered social mobility and a cultural “golden age,” ignoring the regime’s underpinnings in the military and security services, its destruction of the quasi democratic order, its systematic abuses of human and political rights, its military adventurism abroad and its ruination of the economy. The fundamental political problem that Egypt confronts today, which is persisting rule by the military, can be traced directly to Nasser’s 1952 coup. But even if Nasserism had really delivered substantial and lasting social mobility combined with sustained cultural effervescence, which it did not, such justifications are on the order of justifying Mussolini’s fascism because the trains ran on time, which they did not. No alleged accomplishments, even if given the label “golden age,” can be used to justify dictatorship.  

As for the Coptic liberation that Sedra claims as reason to label the 2011-12 events as revolutionary, he would be well advised to consult with various Coptic activists and analysts, including Mariz Tadros, for a much more balanced and accurate view. Copts are more fearful and fleeing than liberated.

So let us call a spade a spade. What has happened in Egypt was rightly termed a “coup-volution” by Nathan W. Toronto back in February 2011. By that he meant the military intervened to abort a popular uprising that could have become truly revolutionary. Subsequent events have confirmed this assessment, for the coup makers have clearly taken firm control of the governing institutions that really matter. Revolutionary spirit has died away in the absence of its institutionalization or success.

That is not to say, however, that all remains the same. The masses have had the unforgettable experience of flexing their political muscles, even if they failed to lift the weight of the military off their backs. By manipulating the country’s governing institutions to serve their own ends, General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and his officer colleagues have contributed profoundly to undermining the institutional coherence, effectiveness and legitimacy of the courts, parliament, the constitutional committee, the media, etc. The military itself, the very backbone of the state Nasser bequeathed to his successors, has been compromised and probably divided. The already fragile economy has been further weakened. Egypt, in other words, is far from being stable and secure.

But let us honor those protesters who have made such prodigious personal sacrifices, including their lives, not by referring to the outcome as a revolution. That demeans their efforts, implying that a continuation of military rule, which many of them have openly fought, is a profound change. Let us reserve the term revolution for the real thing, which necessarily includes the termination of the principal component of Nasser’s legacy, which is military supremacy over the state, the economy and the country as a whole.

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