Remember the guy who owns the sugarcane juice store from my previous article? He did not come out on 30 June to demonstrate. He did not protest even though he blew off the Muslim Brotherhood supporter who tried to engage him. The Brother told him, “It is important to organize, dive into the elections.” He just laughed, “Just a second. Let me go get involved and I will be right back.”
Of course, he did not join up with anyone. But he became an activist in his own way.
On the morning of 30 June, he put an Egyptian flag up in front of his shop. He stuck a little “Irhal!” [Leave!] sticker up on the wall. And he went on making cane juice and selling bottles of water to the crowds of people heading toward Tahrir Square.
“It was a constant stream,” he told me. “People just kept coming and coming toward Tahrir, carrying flags and chanting, ‘Irhal.’ Good Lord in heaven, at night it was the same thing, only now people were going in the opposite direction.
I am sure there is another guy, whose juice shop is somewhere near the Muslim Brotherhood’s Square, Rabia Adaweya, who is telling the same exact story about crowds. Only these were chanting, “La tirhal! [Do not leave!]”
This confrontation between one popular will and another is the part of the story that needs to be made complicated.
There are millions who came out to say, “This regime is threatening our freedom and our future, and we cannot stand by and look on as it happens.” And there are millions who came out to say, “What is the problem? This regime enjoys our full faith. We cannot let them be thrown out of office.”
These two positions are unbridgeable. There is no way to move from these two very different popular wills, let alone move forward in the direction of “democracy.”
Ever since Mohamed Morsi was elected, it has been as if the whole thing was nothing but a winner-take-all contest conducted through ballot boxes. Ballot box rule means the opposition needs to be subjugated, and supporters won over. Once the voting was over, it meant that there were two parties—on the one hand, a triumphant winner who demanded all advantages of power, and on the other, the defeated losers. Ballot box does nothing to guarantee civil freedoms and rights. Ballot box rule encourages the winner to do anything to seize the levers of state power. And on 30 June, the flimsy legitimacy of ballot box rule finally crumbled.
Some people do not want to peer into this aspect of the battle that took place. They prefer to look at it in terms of a struggle between a state power and an opposition, security apparatuses and regional and global alliances; or between elements of the old Mubarak regime and men from the new Morsy regime; or between the old institutions of the Egyptian state (that the new men never figured out how to penetrate) and those old institutions (that the new men had managed to take over). All of these dynamics are there, some explicitly, some only implicitly. But if we seek to understand democracy, we must first correctly appreciate the role played by millions of people who went out to the streets. We must first grapple with the clashes and contradictions posed by these millions of demonstrators, pro- and anti-Morsi alike.
Some observers think both sides are dupes. They believe that demonstrators are out to lunch or in in someone’s pocket. That they are immature or that they will rally around anything like dreamers pulled on strings by others offstage. This theory is utterly baseless—it assumes that people are nothing more than stuff to be used during struggles over power.
Some interpreted the events of January 2011 the same way. One version goes like this: the people toppled the head of the regime, but the army stepped in to protect everything else about the regime. Another version goes like this: they got rid of one authoritarian regime, but opened the way for another, more authoritarian Islamist regime to take over. A third version goes like this: in undermining the authority of the constitution, the people opened the door to chaos, and brought about a constitution that was even more authoritarian in its spirit than the last. Whatever the version, the verdict is the same: Egyptians who demonstrate are deluded, Egyptian protesters are dupes.
And is this not, with very few modifications, the same thing being said again right now?
The millions who stood up on 30 June—as they have before and since—are the ones who threw a wrench in the flimsy kind of legitimacy produced under ballot box rule. These same millions overthrew another Egyptian “Boxocracy” once before, in January 2011.
These millions have this to say to the naysayers: Yes, it was always possible that our revolution would attract authoritarian Islamists. Yes, the army managed to repress the street at first. But it was pressure from the street that made them retreat from their efforts to control “the transition period,” and ended up forcing them to hand power over. We were always there, in the street. And we are still here. Now here we are breaking the Boxocracy of those authoritarian Islamists that you have said “rode to power on our backs.” We will break the Boxocracy of the transition period, which the army directed the first time around. We are not afraid to open the door to the unknown. We are not afraid to risk something new.
We are not afraid face new waves of naysayers, and new forms of stupidity from losing factions who cry over the loss of state authority. Enemies of the revolution. Yes, the people who tell us not to dare, not to risk, are enemies of the revolution.
Thousands of briefings and articles will study the influence of various social forces at play here. These studies will try to write you—the millions who have come out to demonstrate—into the background. And that is what will happen if you agree to their terms. But you can imagine yourselves as the true protagonists of this drama. You, not they, are the real heroes. You are the protagonists in this struggle, not the dashing military officers, nor the leaders of the opposition, nor even the representatives of the protest movements.
To name something is to claim something. To call this moment a “revolution” or “coup” is an attempt to capture that moment and control it. And just as they are trying to define and label this moment, so too do you need to name it yourself.
It is a political act to draw attention to the critical role of millions in the street seeking their freedom. It is a biased gesture to insist that demonstrators count for something, a call for them to go forward. The kind of analysis that emphasizes the role of millions taking to the street is never cold, objective or distanced.
What happened in January-February 2011 was not a revolution. It was the start of a revolution. What SCAF did in February 2011 was not a coup. It would have been a coup had you returned to your homes. It would have been a coup had you given up the public square. In the aftermath of 30 June, we can see the outlines of a military action and also the outlines of millions of people marching in the direction of the revolution. Both are there.
Those who say that this was simply a military coup have no place for you. Their imagination of 30 June excludes your massing in the streets. They have little regard for you. They could care less about what you are doing and what your demands are. Suppose the military brass and their clients assume you to be army supporters. Suppose you go home and leave it to them to manage the details. Then, and only then will it have been a military coup to restore the old machine.
What has taken place since 30 June is only the latest episode of a revolution that has continued apace since January 2011. On display was nothing less than all the social and political forces that still remain in the country. These events may drive the revolutionary struggle forward, or they may push it back. It could be that a vacuum has been created into which the army will move. It could be that another Boxocracy will be created, or a wave of nationalist fascism that will repel all outsiders. There could be a war of attrition between two competing forms of authoritarian fascism. But the pressure from the street might also mean that another bloc might learn enough from its battles to open the door onto a new form of democracy expansive enough to contain freedom for all rather than merely the desire to rule.
The choice is yours, or at least I hope it is.
[This article originally appeared in Al-Masry Al-Youm on 10 July 2013. It was translated by Elliott Colla.]