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Transnational Discourses of Power, Revolutions, and Uprisings

[US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, right, poses for a photo with Egyptian Minister of Defense Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in the Pentagon on 25 March 2008. Photo from Wikimedia Commons] [US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, right, poses for a photo with Egyptian Minister of Defense Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in the Pentagon on 25 March 2008. Photo from Wikimedia Commons]

[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, Adam Sabra, and Elliott Colla.]

My friend and colleague Paul Sedra raises important points about the language we use as well as the implications that emerge from what’s in a name. His critique is nuanced and I agree it is vital to reflexively engage with the words we use.

During and since the initial eighteen-day uprising that resulted in the forced resignation of long-time president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, many colleagues have called my assessment of the evolving situation in Egypt pessimistic. Some have told me that I have been too quick to “call” the battle for the future of Egypt, and that I am ignoring the larger historical process that is yet to unfold. Another colleague remarked I was examining the “new” Egypt through an outdated lens. After all, I was told, “The country has experienced a revolution.”

I do not see the role of my work to predict or sugarcoat my interpretation of events since Mubarak was overthrown.  My current research is trying to capture the power dynamics evolving in an incredibly fluid political situation at the moment. Like many colleagues who study Egypt with a great deal of care and deep concern, I seek to look beyond the stirring spectacles and dramatic political theater that has taken place since the fall of Mubarak, and to shine light on the more dimly lit areas of where politics is also taking place. These encompass ways in which the “post-Mubarak” Mubarak regime has tried to reconstitute itself, and where state’s legitimacy and authority to act reside. If one defines change in terms of where power resides, how it operates, and who has the most ability to effect the direction of Egypt’s political trajectory, then the story does not produce such transformative ends.

Other perspectives interpret sights of protesters riding on tanks, Mubarak’s trial, and newly elected President Mohamed Morsi’s inauguration, as symbolic tipping points that signify meaningful change. Yet, such analysis tends to underestimate the continuities that persist as inconvenient remnants of a by-gone era. But what if the remnants are not yet peripheral?

The language we use to talk about politics informs our activism. I believe that if we mischaracterize the political realities on the ground, it could contribute to the distortion of resistance to those domestic and international actors that aspire to assert their dominance over Egyptian society and reestablish hegemonic authority. Thus, while I am sympathetic to those who label the events since 25 January a revolution, I believe such well-meaning perspectives can inadvertently undermine the efforts of those leading the struggle on the ground against counterrevolutionary powers such as the SCAF, regional states, and the United States.

Egyptians succeeded in forcing an end to Mubarak’s rule after achieving a level and degree of popular mobilization that made it impossible for political elites to engineer an outcome that kept their usual pattern of authority intact. This event must be celebrated and those who sacrificed their lives and physical well being to make it happen must be honored. Yet, as the dust continues to settle, the fundamental workings of the regime governing Egypt remain unchanged. Authoritarian institutions, including Mubarak’s coercive apparatus inside the Ministry of Interior, were rebranded, not reformed. Social class hierarchies and the grievances they engender persist.

In a recent conference in Beirut, one colleague told me that my analysis of Egypt is dangerous because it invites despair among Egyptian activists when all they need is hope. While I am sympathetic to this concern, I beg to differ. Besides the fact that there is no room for diplomacy when it comes to speaking truth to power, Egyptians, more than anyone, do not need to read my analysis, or any analysis for that matter, to realize that Egypt’s military rulers have subverted the winds of change.  They have seen, if not experienced firsthand, the wrath of Egypt’s military rulers, even at times when Egyptian State TV was still singing the praises of the “January 25 Revolution.”

My individual framing of Egyptian politics is directed at public debates in the United States and the country’s political leadership. In the aftermath of the eighteen days, President Barack Obama graciously lauded the protesters and went to great pains to praise the popular mobilization that dislodged his former colleague Mubarak. Yet, beyond the words, the White House has been keen to keep the aid flowing and dispatch its officials to frequently visit Egypt’s generals. Even after a president was democratically elected, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made sure to visit not only President Morsi but also Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantanwi.

Thus, my goal is to put truth to the lie that many of the DC pundits and political leaders repeat. They want Americans to believe that epic change and revolution has come to the banks of the Nile, autocracy was defeated, and that Obama stood with the right side of history. The actions of US government officials, however, shamefully indicate a preference for the Pakistani model of military autocracy combined with elected Islamist civilians, rather than the empowerment of a population that clearly articulated its demands for bread, freedom and social justice. These important debates demand analysis that studies power on its own terms—even if it raises disappointing conclusions.

While using the word “Revolution” may inspire and lead to unimaginable pathways of resistance, my own interest as a researcher is in getting the story right at this moment as it unfolds. In time we will hopefully be able to pass more definitive judgment on the questions we are currently pondering. But, for now, the stakes of discussions about Egypt inside and outside of the country are too high. They shape expectations about how our elected and unelected officials should behave. The goal, therefore, should be to accurately detail as meticulously as possible what we witness. In this vein, the words we use matter if greater social justice and political change is to prevail.

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