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[The following article is part of a Jadaliyya roundtable on “The Language of Revolution in Egypt.” It features contributions by Paul Sedra, Robert Springborg, Joshua Stacher, Adam Sabra, and Elliott Colla. Click here to access the full series.]
The Jadaliyya roundtable on “The Language of Revolution in Egypt” raises an important, perennial question: what is a revolution? Without reviewing the copious historical and social science literature on the question, I would answer as follows: a process that radically changes the political and/or social structure of a society. As such, a revolution is not an event, although it often requires dramatic events for the larger process to proceed.
By this definition, the 1952 coup both prevented and resulted in a revolution. The coup brought an end to seven years of increasing volatile protests led by groups ranging from communists to Muslim Brothers. The constitutional monarchy and the multi-party system were abolished with the assistance of the Brothers, before the new dictatorship turned on them as well. In exchange for silence over its methods, the military regime offered substantial social advancement to many ordinary Egyptians, although many others were left out. Nasserism represented a top-down revolution that resembled the Shah’s White Revolution, albeit on a more limited budget. Were it not for the added complication of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Western support for Israel, Nasser would probably be remembered as a pro-American dictator who stood in the way of a communist takeover of the Arab world.
Today, Egypt is undergoing another revolution, albeit a highly attenuated one. It was never the goal of the revolutionaries to repeat the experience of the French, Russian, or Iranian revolutions. Those revolutions entailed enormous social upheaval, mass violence against counter-revolutionaries, and war with external powers. The result, uniformly, was dictatorship. Perhaps these dictatorships were necessary to prevent the victory of the counter-revolution, but the majority of Egypt’s revolutionaries preferred to put their faith in the ballot box. Whether they were right to do so remains to be seen, but the means they have chosen correspond to the ends they seek.
Egypt’s revolutionaries also preferred to avoid exporting their revolution. When revolution broke out in Libya, many waited in vain for an Egypt’s revolutionaries to intervene. For the most part, they were disappointed. Egypt’s revolutionaries have repeatedly expressed solidarity with their counterparts in other Arab countries, but no one has seriously suggested that Egypt attempt to intervene militarily or launch a campaign of subversion against neighboring regimes. Again, the Egyptians have understood their limitations and acted accordingly.
In my opinion, Robert Springborg and Joshua Stracher exaggerate the influence of the military and of the United States. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has relatively few options compared with those available to Nasser in 1952. Stracher is right to call into question the Obama administration narrative that it saved Egypt – the Egyptian people did that – but the real lesson here is that the US has limited leverage over a political system where ordinary people have recovered their voices. The SCAF may fear Washington, but it fears the revival of revolutionary activism even more. The military leadership cannot keep up its shell game forever.
It is noteworthy that none of the participants in the debate so far addresses the possibility that the Muslim Brothers are an important agent of democratization in Egypt. It is as if the Brothers were not a significant part of the revolutionary coalition. Admittedly, the jury is still out on the Brothers as a ruling party, and one can understand the concerns of secularists and Christians about the future. Nonetheless, elections are elections, and they have consequences. To date, there is little evidence that we are headed back to the muzzled political life of the past half century.
The past eighteen months have revealed much about Egypt as a society, and not a little of what we have learned has been deeply disturbing. Nonetheless, this process of revolutionary self-recognition has been a necessary step in initiating democratic change. It may yet be that the revolution will be defeated, but that day is not today.
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