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The Language of Revolution in Egypt: A Response to Stacher and Springborg

[Protester carrying a sign that reads [Protester carrying a sign that reads "The martyr wants the downfall of the regime" on 27 January 2012. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim]

[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, Joshua Stacher, Adam Sabra, and Elliott Colla.]


I am indebted to Professors Stacher and Springborg for their trenchant and persuasive critiques of my piece. Indeed, it seems the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the 1952 Revolution was a suitable time to interrogate our use of the language of revolution.

Nevertheless, there are several misapprehensions in Professor Springborg’s response that warrant correction. The piece argues that I have ignored “the [Nasser] 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.” I would scarcely dispute these lamentable legacies of Nasser’s leadership – nor would I deny the link between the 1952 Revolution and what Springborg describes as the “fundamental political problem that Egypt confronts today, which is persisting rule by the military.” Indeed, readers of Jadaliyya might recall that, only two days after the resignation of Mubarak, I published a piece in these pages explaining that, “to allow the military to continue to govern the Egyptian people, as it has since the 1952 Revolution against British rule, would be to commit the unpardonable sin of repeating a cardinal error of the past.” There I described Nasser’s decision to prioritize development over democracy as “a historic mistake, for which at least three generations of Egyptians have paid an enormous price.”

Further, Professor Springborg latches on to the phraseology of a “golden age” as if I had myself used that term to describe the years between 1952 and 1970. I indicated in my piece that there are Egyptians who regard the Nasser years as a “golden age,” and used this fact to speak to how compelling that period was and remains in the political imagination. Nowhere have I suggested that one should view the Nasser years as such a “golden age.”

Finally, I would agree with Professor Springborg that one cannot speak of a “Coptic liberation” having followed the ouster of Mubarak. Having consulted with a goodly number of Coptic activists and analysts in the past eighteen months—indeed, having conducted research among them on this topic myself—I feel well-supported in the assertion that I actually made in my piece: that Copts have taken inspiration from last year’s events “to challenge not only the Egyptian state, but their own Church leadership in unprecedented ways.” Unfortunately, Professor Springborg falls back on a time-worn depiction of Copts as “fearful and fleeing” where, in fact, large sections of the community are mounting a vigorous defense of their rights of citizenship. Those with an interest in this question might refer, again, to writings I have published in these pages and elsewhere.

Setting aside these mischaracterizations of my argument, though, one comes up against the principal, and indeed trenchant, point launched by both Professors Springborg and Stacher—that scholars bear a responsibility to “call a spade a spade” as Springborg puts it. I should make it clear, again, that I have benefited enormously from Springborg and Stacher having done just this—having called a spade a spade—in their published work since Mubarak’s ouster, and there is no question that my understanding of Egypt’s current politics would have been much poorer had it not been for their wide-eyed exposition of SCAF’s machinations.

But I am still left to wonder: What are the implications of scholars refusing the language of revolution while countless Egyptians take up this language with alacrity? What is behind the ubiquity of the language of revolution in Egypt, and what is our responsibility as scholars to the words Egyptians themselves use to describe their political action? The principal point I sought to make with my piece is that understanding the spectacle of Morsi taking a symbolic oath at Tahrir—and, specifically, how that spectacle is received by Egyptians—is as important as understanding the machinations of political forces behind the scenes.

Spectacles matter and the language of revolution matters, regardless of the disjuncture between them and action behind the scenes. These spectacles and this language are important insofar as they establish expectations among Egyptians – expectations about, as I explained in my piece, “what is just and unjust, what is acceptable and unacceptable in public life.” In this sense, my personal decision to insist upon the language of revolution is not so much about wishful thinking – though, admittedly, there is an element of that here – but about paying heed to the ways in which Egyptians themselves apprehend this moment in their history.


1 comment for "The Language of Revolution in Egypt: A Response to Stacher and Springborg"


Prof Sedra's approach chimes with that adopted by Jacques Ellul in his 1969 study, Autopsy of the Revolution: "...instead of trying to establish a definition, I have decided to practice a thorough-going nominalism, which seems to me an excellent point of departure for any kind of sociological study. We should accept as a revolution whatever the people of a given place and time experienced as a revolution, and to which they gave that name, even if the precise terminology may have varied. It would be both absurd and pretentious on our part to claim, for instance, that the 1830 revolution was not a revolution, since those who made it and lived it experienced it as a decisive revolution. We have to accept historical reality as the people of the time in question felt it, believed in it, and handed it down to us." So Paul Sedra's choice of language is not simply a political decision to flatter or encourage; it is a recognition of the need not only to take the people's own categories into account, but to start from those categories, if we want to understand their experience, and not just the machinations of a regime bent on survival, or political groups directed towards taking power.

Peter Snowdon wrote on August 08, 2012 at 05:39 AM

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