Since the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has become a battlefield of narratives. Each narrative has sought to appropriate and define the January 25 Revolution. The wielders of power, most notably the army, along with its allies, advanced a narrative claiming that the revolution succeeded—thanks to the intervention of the officers. The time had come, this narrative went, for protesters to vacate the streets and the squares, and for workers to end their strikes and return to the factories. The revolution could only continue through the military-engineered transition, through people “going home,” through deferring to elections, constitution writers, and the officers and elites bargaining over Egypt’s future.
But for many, the January 25 Revolution was not simply a quest for an elected government. It encompassed a host of demands for far-reaching institutional reforms and social and economic rights. These revolutionaries did not leave that narrative unchallenged. They pushed back against the military and its civilian partners, who sought to negotiate and construct a political system that could contain rather than amplify revolutionary demands for transformative change.
But the partisans of “bread, freedom, and social justice” remained on the margins long after Mubarak’s ouster. They struggled to resist the narratives of power. In doing so they faced one of the major paradoxes of revolutionary popular mobilization in Egypt that 25 January revealed. Those who took to the streets could build enough pressure to “veto” particular political realities. However, they had little to no sway to replace the realities they overturned. The people, in other words, possess the power to subvert, but without necessarily challenging the ability of the wielders of power to dictate what comes next.
The relevance of this paradox to the events and aftermath of 30 June 2013 cannot be more apparent. In the prelude to the 30 June protests, millions of disgruntled Egyptians signed the Tamarod Campaign petition, declaring:
As a member of the Egyptian people, I hereby declare that I withdraw my confidence from the President of the Republic Dr. Mohammed Morsi and call for early presidential elections. I vow to stay true to the goals of the revolution and work towards achieving them, as well as publicizing the Tamarod campaign amongst the ranks of the masses until together we can achieve a society of dignity, justice, and freedom.
This initiative began as an attempt to gather popular support for early presidential elections after Morsi’s failure to deliver on the demands of the January 25 Revolution. That effort is now ceding ground to actors that are even more hostile to the aspirations that the Tamarod petition articulated. It is true that those who took to the streets may have succeeded in overturning one the largest hurdles to revolutionary change in Egypt, namely the uneasy alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the entrenched centers of powers known as the “deep state.” The popular mobilization that culminated on 30 June made it impossible for the officers and the security establishment to hide their anti-democratic privileges behind the façade of democratic institutions and civilian punching bags. Yet the fact remains: the murderers of Khaled Said, Sayed Bilal, Mina Danial, and Gaber Salah “Jika” are emerging triumphant in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster. They are actively exploiting popular disdain for Muslim Brotherhood rule to carve out an equally, if not more, regressive political order than the one that preceded it.
Similar to what they have done after 11 February 2011, the officers today are promoting a narrative in which they have (once again) intervened heroically to save the day and “protect the revolution.” Accordingly, after they helped oust Morsi out of power, the officers are now asking Egyptians for pay back. The people are now to offer a blind, if not supportive, eye to the military practices as it employs deadly force, repression, and xenophobia to force its challengers into submission. The fear mongering discourse that the military has used as part of its “war on terror” initiative has clearly turned into more than just “words,” after security forces killed dozens of Muslim Brotherhood protesters Friday night, and dozens others in previous attacks. Yesterday’s brutal attacks came right after millions of Egyptians rallied in nationwide public gatherings in support of Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s request for a popular mandate to deal with imminent “terrorist” threats. Many media outlets and opinion shapers in Egypt have uncritically expressed support for this alarming development. This pattern only highlights the extent to which advocates of dignity and justice in the country face an uphill battle in countering the attempts of the military and their allies to liquidate political dissent and dictate the terms of the new political order.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s record in power may have been so horrendous as to justify Morsi’s impeachment. But even so, what is undeniable is that the military’s violent campaign against Brotherhood supporters and the propagation of xenophobic discourse against its activists, as well as any explicit or implicit endorsement of such efforts stand in complete contradiction with the professed principles of the January 25 Revolution. They also defy the vision of a humane, just social order that many individuals have sacrificed their lives or body parts for the past two and a half years. There can be no freedom in a country where media outlets are shut down because they fail to toe the official line and where individuals face the threat of arrest, slander, and violent retribution for their political views. There can be no justice in a country where a former president and his associates are being held accountable for suspected wrong-doings through a process dominated by the very system that has killed unarmed protesters, conducted virginity tests, and have long subjected Egyptians to torture, humiliation, and abuse. There can be no dignity in a country where the coercive apparatus of the old Mubarak regime is reconstituting itself under the guise of a counter-terrorism initiative. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders are guilty for failing to build an Egypt that lives up to the demands of the January 25 Revolution. But their former allies among the officers who are ruling today are just as guilty.
What is next for Egypt? There is little doubt that the military-sponsored transitional framework—like its predecessor—is structurally unfit to deal with the rampant social inequalities that have long animated the conflict between large social segments and the Egyptian state. The current transition is primarily aimed at shielding state institutions from popular demands for revolutionary change. Simply replacing the Muslim Brotherhood with a new cadre of military-allied civilians, even under the framework of democratic institutions, will not quell the struggle for bread, freedom, and social justice. Thus, some might argue that it is only a matter of time before an open clash ensues between advocates of transformative change and the military-led political order. But even if such a clash is probable, the minority who opposes both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood face significant challenges. The events of this last week are painful evidence of the tough road ahead. The January 25 Revolution now faces a fight for its existence in an environment in which power and resistance are more convoluted than ever.