Three years have passed since the outset of the January 25 Revolution. Egypt remains a nation wrongfully imprisoned. The year 2013 in particular has brought the believers in January 25’s promise even more disappointments than the previous year. An authoritarian military regime reasserted its openly harsh rule first by ousting President Mohamed Morsi on 3 July, and then by publicly massacring the deposed president’s supporters in the aftermath. Sectarian violence against Copts has proliferated and intensified. Prior to and after the coup, state security forces stepped up their use of deadly violence against expressions of political dissent across the political spectrum. Political leaders and activists who oppose the new junta are persecuted, prosecuted, and imprisoned. Xenophobic, pro-military chauvinism is at an all-time high. And finally, a heightened sense of insecurity has pervaded the lives of Egyptians in light of the growing human loss resulting from explosions and attacks on public spaces.
Immediately following Morsi’s ouster, observers and activists debated the question of whether 30 June 2013 signified a second wave of the January 25 Revolution or simply a ruthless coup that killed Egypt’s “young democracy.” Let us set aside the sheer simplicity of this debate. It is clear today that reducing these complex events to “just a coup” will not redeem the Morsi government’s exclusionary policies or negate popular opposition to his rule. In contrast, calling it a “revolution,” as pro-military commentators continue to do, can never magically impart democratic legitimacy to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military regime. Nor will it mask the fact that the current regime’s abuses have surpassed anything Egypt witnessed during the Morsi administration. In fact, the narrative of a June Revolution serves the current regime’s efforts to negate the memory of the January 25 Revolution, and the basic demands for bread, freedom, and social justice around which Egyptians rallied three years ago. That same narrative also attempts to mask the growing list of crimes that army leaders and their allies in the domestic security apparatus have committed before and after 30 June. In this context, it is an act of resistance just to remember January 25, since to do so forces one to consider the chasm between the ideals of January 25 and the oppressive political order that rules the present.
Yet this recovery of a “revolutionary purity” is for many a near impossible task. It is true that many activists continue to confront the military regime’s abuses. Yet over the course of the past year the mood has clearly shifted in the way observers throughout the world perceive the quest for revolutionary change in Egypt. The faces and voices that international media used to associate with the idealism of this revolution are either in prison, in exile, silent, marginalized, or have tacitly or actively supported the military. To many outside (as well as inside) observers disappointed at the events of the past year terms like “revolutionaries,” “youth activists,” and “January 25 youth” no longer evoke the courage, conviction, and principle they did three years ago. After witnessing many, though certainly not all, of these same actors condone the downfall of a democratically elected president last year and their subsequent silence on the military’s abuses, for some observers these terms have come to denote naiveté, impulsiveness, and hypocrisy.
But even if we are to assume that the so-called revolutionaries who failed to stand up to the military before it was too late are guilty of naiveté, one could argue that those critics who believed that such revolutionary purity actually existed in the first place are no less guilty of the same charge. Perhaps the events of 30 June and the developments that followed them are a wake-up call for those who bought into the fairytale narrative of January 25, namely that it reflected primarily a youth-led, liberal, pro-democracy movement. While this utopic image may have dominated mainstream Western narratives of the revolution since its outset, there is a pressing need to critically reassess the assumptions that such accounts have imposed on January 25, and that have contributed to numerous disappointments. Equally importantly, we may also need to disentangle the realities of these struggles from our own normative commitments as observers.
The events of the past year only underscore the reality that the popular mobilization that overthrew Hosni Mubarak entailed a complex movement that included multiple long-standing struggles, in which democratization was only one dimension. These struggles also encompassed a host of other ambitions such as demands for social and economic rights, distributive justice, and state institutional reforms that far surpass what liberal democracy alone can offer. These struggles did not articulate in concert. On the contrary, they have often clashed over the course of the past three years, just as they did during the lead up to 30 June 2013.
Following Mubarak’s downfall in 2011, moreover, many of the January 25 Revolution’s partisans sought to work through the military-sponsored transition and the “democratic” process it generated in an attempt to bring to state institutions the type of far reaching reforms that speak to the ideals of January 25. They engaged in everything from building parties, to writing draft laws, to drafting institutional reform documents. That many of these experiences consistently failed to yield any meaningful results only reinforced the perception that the realm of formal politics, however “democratic,” is not a natural ally to the ambitious agendas that advocates of the revolution have sought to advance. These tensions that have emerged in post-Mubarak Egypt between democratic process and revolutionary movements are not unrelated to the current state of the January 25 Revolution. If there is one clear message one finds in the story of the last three years, it is that democratic outcomes are not always revolutionary, and revolutionary outcomes are not always democratic.
In Egypt, democratically elected leaders have been at odds with revolutionary demands, while revolutionary movements have clashed with democratically elected leaders. This is to say that the fairytale narrative of a pure, democratic revolutionary struggle that can do no harm is no longer viable and has failed to capture the complexities and messiness of the social conflicts in which the January 25 Revolution was anchored. Within the multidimensional struggles that January 25 signifies, not all good things go together, as reflected in the apparent tensions we have observed between what is popularly viewed as revolutionary and what is deemed democratic. In fact, the lead up to the 3 July coup speaks to how Egypt’s rulers have exploited these tensions and the predicaments they impose in order to divide-and-rule their challengers.
Maybe the time has come to ponder these complexities critically, and begin understanding the struggles of January 25 on their own terms, and not our own as observers. Maybe it is time to let go of the mirage of revolutionary purity and the dangerously misleading narratives it all too often propagates.