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Was There A January 25 Revolution?

[Textile workers rounded up by Egyptian police and troops squat outside the Misr spinning factory at Kafr el-Dawar, Egypt on 21 August 1952, following rioting there in which nine people, including a policeman and two soldiers, were killed. Photo Source: AP] [Textile workers rounded up by Egyptian police and troops squat outside the Misr spinning factory at Kafr el-Dawar, Egypt on 21 August 1952, following rioting there in which nine people, including a policeman and two soldiers, were killed. Photo Source: AP]

The “January 25 Revolution” has already taken its place in Egyptian national historical memory along with the “1919 Revolution” and the “July 23 Revolution.” Assigning dates to these events, whose significance in the modern history of Egypt is undeniable, is perhaps a necessary convenience. Calling them all “revolutions” emphasizes their popular character and, at least in 1919 and 2011, the political mobilization of large parts of the nation. However, this form of dating and naming also encourages historical misunderstandings and myth-making which do not serve the interests of Egypt’s ninety-nine percent.

Revolutions – the classical cases are France, Russia, China, Cuba, and Iran – are social, political, and economic transformations involving social movements and political mobilizations, one or more moments of popular uprising, and a longer-term process of reconstructing a new socio-political order involving the replacement of the former ruling coalition with new forces of a substantially different social character and interests. Anti-colonial struggles may or may not involve a revolution. Algeria, Vietnam, and South Africa are the exemplary cases in which it did. The United States, India, Morocco, and Tunisia are typical cases in which it did not.

Most of those who use the term “January 25 Revolution” refer to only one of these elements – the popular uprising of 25 January to 11 February 2011, when the occupation of Tahrir Square became not only the epicenter of Egyptian political life, but also a symbol inspiring popular protest throughout the Arab world and in far-flung locales like Madison, Wisconsin; New York; and even Tel Aviv. However, the movement to depose Hosni Mubarak did not begin on 25 January 2011. It had several diverse points of origin: the labor movement of the 2000s involving thousands of strikes and other collective actions and millions of workers; the solidarity movements with the Palestinian and Iraqi people which, although focused on foreign policy issues, also raised slogans against the Mubarak regime; the increasing boldness of the non-governmental media from 2004 on; the Kifaya movement, which broke long-standing taboos by calling out President Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal by name; the 2006 movement to defend the independence of the judiciary; statements and demonstrations of solidarity with the Tunisian people after the ouster of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011; and the “We are all Khaled Said” campaign, which initiated the call for demonstrations on 25 January 2011. 

Neither the organizers nor the participants in those demonstrations imagined that they were about to depose President Mubarak. The transformation of larger-than-average protests into a revolutionary upsurge occurred on Friday, 28 January 2011, when the Cairo headquarters of the former ruling National Democratic Party was torched – as clear a statement as any that the crowd understood who their enemies were. That act exemplifies Barrington Moore’s argument in Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World, that in a revolution there comes a critical moment when people realize they have broken with the old order and “a…crime becomes the basis of a new legality” (p. 100).

The harmony between Muslims and Copts, the collaboration of Islamist and secularist youth, the broad participation of women without fear of sexual assault, the solidarity among Egyptians from diverse social classes, and the consensus around demands like “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice” during the eighteen-day occupation of Tahrir Square suggested the outlines of a new Egyptian order. The practices of the occupation implied the equality of all citizens, respect for human rights, a new public role for women, and equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth. But that vision was snatched from the hands of the occupiers even before Hosni Mubarak was deposed.

First the “wise men,” who had played no role in initiating, organizing, or leading the occupation of Egypt’s urban squares, appointed themselves spokesmen for the movement. They were, for the most part, people who did not want a revolution, or in the case of Mohamed ElBaradei, who does want a democratic Egypt, had no idea how to organize one. Then, the United States intervened and signaled to the Egyptian military high command that the Barack Obama administration would accept the deposition of Mubarak and continue to provide the annual $1.3 billion in military aid as long as Egypt remained a force for stability in the Middle East and maintained its peace treaty with Israel. As far as I am aware, the details and definitive proof of this intervention are not available. But all the existing evidence indicates that something of this sort occurred. Finally, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a body with no constitutional political authority and led by Hosni Mubarak’s Defense Minister of twenty years, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, proclaimed that President Mubarak had resigned and that it would assume power and oversee the transition to establishing an elected government.

Why would anyone imagine that such a maneuver constituted a revolution or the overthrow of the regime, as opposed to the replacement of an autocratic president with a military junta using the popular uprising to legitimate its rule? If there was any doubt, the constitutional referendum of 19 March 2011, and even more so the SCAF’s utterly undemocratic Constitutional Declaration of 30 March, should have made this obvious.

One of the most impressive and radical aspects of the occupation of Tahrir Square – its organization, largely by youth, on a non-hierarchical, horizontal, basis with little participation from the parties of the Mubarak era – may be part of the explanation. The revolutionaries did not have an organization or a program. A spontaneous popular movement can bring down an autocrat; it cannot construct a new political order. Another factor may be that after sixty years of autocracy and only the most limited possibilities for democratic participation in public life of any sort, few Egyptians had sufficient political knowledge and experience to outmaneuver the SCAF and the Muslim Brothers, who collaborated to contain the popular upsurge throughout 2011. A third factor may be the widespread misunderstanding of what constitutes a “revolution” based on the promiscuous use of the term for the events of 1919 and 23 July 1952.

The “army movement” of 23 July 1952 did not involve a popular uprising of any sort. If anything, it undercut and blocked the successive mobilizations of workers and students around both national and social issues that gathered momentum after World War II.

The land reform announced by the Revolutionary Command Council on 11 September 1952 is often considered the emblem of the new regime’s “revolutionary” nature. But this was not its intent. In the early 1950s, in response to the 1949 communist seizure of power in China, the United States viewed land reform as a prophylactic measure to prevent peasant revolutions. In Cairo, the U.S. embassy and CIA operatives urged the Free Officers to carry out a land reform. Egypt’s land reform entailed redistribution of only about fifteen percent of all cultivable land – a more modest redistribution than in Syria or Iraq. Land reforms in all these Arab socialist states were less radical than the resolutely pro-American, anti-communist dictatorships of South Korea (fifty-two percent of cultivable land redistributed) and Taiwan (about two-thirds of all tenant farmers received lands).

The land reform did eliminate the political power, and much of the economic power, of the 12,000 large land-owning families who dominated Egypt under the monarchy. But what Leonard Binder called “the second stratum” – families owning up to three hundred feddans – continued to occupy the positions of rural power they had consolidated in the mid-nineteenth century. As Timothy Mitchell noted in Rule of Experts, the notorious al-Fiqqi family of Kamshish exemplifies this class and the failure of Egyptian land reform to effect a rural revolution.

The lack of a popular uprising, the management of a limited land redistribution from above, and the blocking of the organization of an independent trade union federation were key elements in making the army movement of 23 July not a revolution, but an anti-democratic military coup that established a corporatist regime with populist social policies. The Nasser regime was similar to Peronism in Argentina or Mexico under Cárdenas and the PRI. The misunderstanding of 23 July 1952 as a “revolution” contributed to giving the army popular legitimation in 2011 that it did not deserve.

In 1919, there was a popular uprising. But the landed cotton-growing elites of the nineteenth century, who had benefitted from the British occupation, retained and even increased their power. Moreover, the aims of the popular uprising were not achieved. Britain continued to occupy the country and thwart the democratic will of the Egyptian people in alliance and competition with the monarchy it had installed--thus, no revolution.

The January 25 Revolution is not over. Rather, it has not yet occurred. There was a popular revolutionary upsurge that until now has been outmaneuvered by the military and the Muslim Brothers. There have been repeated popular upsurges – most recently the massive protests against President Mohamed Morsi’s anti-democratic constitutional declaration of 22 November 2012 and the new constitution – that have registered some successes and limited or rolled back regressive measures favored by the Brothers and the army.

The reconstruction of the centers of power of the Mubarak regime – the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Justice, the military and its economic privileges, and the business class (whether represented by Ahmad Ezz or Khairat al-Shater) that disproportionately benefits from IMF-sponsored neoliberal policies while the rest of the country is impoverished – remains on the political agenda for the future. The revolutionary forces have not proposed concrete programs to achieve gender equality, equal citizenship rights for Muslims and Christians, rehabilitation of the public health and public education systems; decentralize executive power; and empower elected local and provincial government. There is much to be done.

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