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Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine
Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
Now the revolution can begin
A new Egyptian uprising needs an 'unprecedentedly broad revolutionary coalition' to coalesce and act.
Last Modified: 16 Jun 2012 14:29
Egypt's election may not signal the end of the revolution, but the inauguration of a new alliance of activists [AFP]


Irvine, CA - 
Even as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians danced, chanted, shot off fireworks and otherwise celebrated in Tahrir Square the night of February 11, 2011, few of the Egyptian activists behind the protests believed their seemingly haphazard revolution was completed. Ath-thawra mustamarra ["the revolution continues"] quickly became the catch phrase, conveying the understanding that the end was a long way off.

In reality, those 18 days, and the 16 months since, turned out to be the prelude to a much longer opus, one for which the Supreme Constitutional Court's invalidation of last autumn's parliamentary elections and dismissal of the parliament has provided a DC al coda, sending everyone back to the beginning to restart the score.

Will the music even continue? Will it merely repeat the same distorted melodies, faux harmonies and out of sync rhythms that produced such an inglorious first ending? Will the feuding "musical directors" - SCAF and the Brotherhood - continue to have such a tin ear towards the desires of Egyptians to move towards a real institutionalisation of democracy?

"Upwards of 95 per cent of the country's 90 million plus citizens, tens of millions of whom survive on $2 a day or less - remained on the sidelines during the uprising."

If so, can the revolution's composers reassert their droit de l'auteur and take control of a revolution that in many ways escaped their control at the moment of their greatest triumph?

True intentions revealed

Certainly there can be no doubt about either SCAF's intentions or, more troubling, the fact that the judiciary - which for years was considered the one institution that acted as a "red line" against the worst abuses of the system - has become little more than a tool of the junta. Mubarak's strategy of packing the courts with his supporters in the past decade is paying dividends not just for SCAF, but for his recently acquitted sons and other members of the old regime.

Few activists expected much better from the military, even during the brief honeymoon period after Mubarak left office. Moreover, they understood that however powerful were the 18 days of protests and strikes, the vast majority of Egypt's population - upwards of 95 per cent of the country's 90 million plus citizens, tens of millions of whom survive on $2 a day or less - remained on the sidelines during the uprising.

The mass of Egyptians could not afford a protracted confrontation that brought the economy to even more of a standstill and encouraged political and societal chaos. When you're living so close to the margins an extra week of protests can reduce a family from poverty to desperation.


The alternatives before poor Egyptians were not pretty. On the one hand, as SCAF has constantly hammered home, lay the possibility of stability, security and survival, however meagre. On the other was an uncertain revolution led by young people who, for the most part, neither looked nor sounded like them, and whose political and economic goals could only be achieved by the kind of wholesale dismantling of the existing system that would demand a long period of instability, insecurity, economic stagnation or worse.

It's no wonder that, even as the SCAF and its allies have jailed, humiliated and brutalised thousands of pro-democracy protesters, rolled back most every gain won since February 2011, and shown themselves willing to do whatever is necessary to stick with the Mubarak era tune, the majority of Egyptians have still not actively supported the revolution.

It's also no wonder that so many Egyptians trusted the Muslim Brotherhood, who for decades provided for the medical, social, educational and other needs that the Sadat and then Mubarak regimes were unwilling to satisfy, to move the country towards a post-Mubarak, post-military dominated future.

Broken Brotherhood promises 

What only became apparent in the past year, however, was how much the Brotherhood had become integrated into the larger ruling system. Not just since Mubarak's ousting, but in the years leading up to it, as senior Brotherhood members climbed their way into the country's economic elite and adopted a more or less neoliberal economic platform by the time of the post-Mubarak parliamentary elections.

"What only became apparent in the last year, however, was how much the Brotherhood had become integrated into the larger ruling system."

Certainly its behaviour during the past twelve months, in particular its betrayal of the liberal revolutionaries at crucial moments, its betrayal of the promise not to run a presidential candidate and its willingness to negotiate directly with SCAF to divide the political spoils between them has shown the Brotherhood's political leadership to be far more opportunistic and power hungry than even many supporters hoped it would be. (Indeed, disqualified Freedom and Justice Party presidential candidate Khairat al-Shater was reported to be in intensive talks with senior SCAF officials in the days before the court's decision).

The Brotherhood neither played a major organisational role in the initial protests nor acted to safeguard most of the gains they and subsequent protests have won. Yet it remains that the Freedom and Justice Party, and Islamist forces more broadly, are far more removed from the SCAF-led power structure than figures such as Ahmed Shafik, who is cut whole cloth from the existing system. With the army moved into the political background and a democratically elected parliament and president led by men with long institutional memories of repression, there would have at least been the possibility for an institutionalisation of democracy and a check on the power of the deep state to occur.

Of course, there was an equal and perhaps greater chance that a Brotherhood-dominated political class would continue ensconcing themselves within the system while marginalising the revolutionary forces with whom they've always had a tenuous relationship at best. Yet even then, the extremely difficult economic and political situation facing Egypt's post-election government would have made it nearly impossible for whoever took power to deliver upon the grand promises of economic - and even civilizational - renewal offered during the election. 

A more mature and societally rooted revolutionary-cum-labour movement would at least have had the chance to capture a real share of power in the next parliamentary and presidential elections.

It seems likely, however, that this coda will have to wait until the still young revolutionary movement figures out how to convince the mass of Egyptians who have so far stayed outside the political fray to support a full-scale final showdown with SCAF. We will learn very quickly whether this already unlikely scenario has even a slight possibility of coming into play. But with the Brotherhood-led parliament dismissed and a Shafik presidency, at least the Brotherhood would now be back in the same boat as the revolutionaries, devoid of any share of political power.

SCAF miscalculates?

Perhaps SCAF has decided that allowing even an ostensibly domesticated Brotherhood to take the reins of political power would create too many scenarios for the movement, and the emerging civilian political system more broadly, to strip SCAF of ever more political and economic power (much as happened in Turkey during the past decade). Whatever its thinking, however, in staging such a brazen coup and using the one remaining institution - the judiciary - that Egyptians still trusted as its hatchet man, the SCAF has poured ink all over the still unfinished revolutionary score, forcing everyone to return to the top without a clue of how to proceed.

"[SCAF] has given the revolutionary moment and its allies among liberals, the labour movement, working class Salafis and disgruntled younger Brotherhood members, a chance boldly to reshape the political landscape of Egypt."

In so doing, it has given the revolutionary movement and its allies among liberals, the labour movement, working class Salafis and disgruntled younger Brotherhood members, a chance boldly to reshape the political landscape of Egypt that seemed to be lost only a few days go. But for them to succeed in moving to the revolution's second ending and to a coda that has only barely been imagined, never mind written, two things will have to happen:

First, an enlarged revolutionary coalition will have to act in concert and with a degree of harmony not seen since the original band of revolutionaries mobilised hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets during the unprecedented 18 days between January 25 and February 11, 2011. It must be remembered here that, if the revolutionary forces had agreed on one candidate instead of fielding five competing ones, they might well have won the presidency outright in the first round.

Second, they will have to convince a much larger number of Egyptians, representing tens of millions of tired and wary compatriots who have little stomach left for continued societal conflict, to become actively involved in a long term struggle for the country's future with a force whose power has only grown in the post-Mubarak era. This is a long term process that will require the kind of patient, methodical and strategic capacity, institution and trust-building that the Muslim Brotherhood displayed during the decades it took to build itself into the most formidable opponent of the military-led order.

One thing is certain: SCAF will not retreat unless it becomes clear that it is massively outnumbered across the length and breadth of Egyptian society and its stoking of the most primal societal fears begins to fall on deaf ears. None of this will occur, however, unless the revolutionaries can deploy a set of arguments and political vision that will compel those on the sidelines to enter the fray. A revolutionary-Brotherhood alliance has never been more sorely needed, or possible, than it is today.

For this to occur, an unprecedentedly broad revolutionary coalition, one skilled enough to pull off the political equivalent of bringing Oum Kalthoum together with Rage Against the Machine, will have to coalesce and compose a new revolutionary score quickly enough to prevent SCAF's coup from laying the groundwork for a reprise of the Mubarak era.

It's a tall and perhaps impossible order, but in the near term, it is likely the only chance for survival for a revolution that, more than any other Arab uprising, inspired the world in its wake.

Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and  distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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