Egypt’s tipping-point politics

In Egypt, the rush towards constructing a democracy is choking the country’s current revolutionary ethos.

Egyptian protestors in Tahrir
More than 30 people have died in the latest series of protests roiling Egypt [EPA]

Exeter, United Kingdom – Egypt is refusing to kill what I call the “revolutionary ethos”. Only by grasping this dynamic, and its implication for changing politics, can we better understand the call of Tahrir Square.

In particular, the incapacity of the elites to relate and respond, much less accommodate, the revolutionary ethos is at the core of the return of Egypt’s own indignés (rage-keepers) to the one site of bottom-up struggle where they fully possess the terms of the political: tipping-point politics.

From day one, the political relics that should have been swept away to history’s dustbin were plotting the demise of the excluded and the containment of revolution in the Arab Middle East.

The relics from Riyadh to Damascus never looked favourably on the march of the excluded. They trembled and continue to do so at the rage, the passion, the sacrifice, the tenacity and the taking-over of public squares in many an Arab city.

In Egypt and Tunisia, containment of the Arab revolution is attempted by trying to make the revolutionary ethos submit to the democratic ethos.

Underlying this modus operandi is the assumption that the two moral attributes of these two moments are mutually exclusive. That is, the transition to democracy must be completed by terminating revolution. Terminating revolution, inevitably, implies termination of revolutionaries.

It may sound odd, but it is nonetheless true: Re-formalising politics through democratic transition is the first step towards purging revolutionaries and their moral flame – the protesters, the excluded and the Bouazizis of this world.

Towards an ‘Arab Way’

Maybe there is a “fourth way” – re-defining the political in the post-authoritarian moment so that the revolutionary ethos and the democratic ethos work in tandem, inclusively and not through a process of mutual exclusion.

The democratic ethos redefines “formal” and “systemic” politics that serves an institution. The revolutionary ethos carves out the space of the “informal”, which reproduces and renews revolution. The former is shared by the competitive channels, voices and forces of politics – the realm of political convention. The latter is the exclusive site of the non-competitive political struggles whose input and function is about political re-invention.

Political re-invention is the continuous exercise of people’s power intended to keep competitive formal politics “honest”. It is endowed with the inventiveness and mobilisational agency to produce tipping-point politics. The precedent is established in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.

Avid as I may be in my study of democracy, I realise how it can be defeating to see it kill revolution in the Arab world. It is so easy to do when the pursuit of power blinds people to the value of revolution.

Never before have the Arabs invented something as meaningful as revolution since their forbears created (then abandoned) shura, the consultative ethos. Yet there is a rush to let go of a major political find, which if deployed intelligently could furnish a form of counterweight to steer the ship of Arab politics on an even keel.

Here lies the dilemma of democratic reconstruction in both Egypt and Tunisia.

Revolution and democracy

The re-ignition of the revolutionary ethos through a return to Tahrir Square is brilliant. In the lead-up to the multi-stage elections planned for November 28, they do not disrupt the formal transition as much as erupt as an informal vox populi. What can be better in the midst of transition to hear from the people – the excluded and the protesters?

It is their brand of group, open, direct, immediate and spontaneous manifestation of political communication through protest. Had they all been absorbed by party politics, the revolutionary ethos would have died.

The dilemma today in Egypt is that while the established elites seek competition to bypass and transcend revolution, the excluded exercise revolution as their only democracy.

These elites share the blame with the military (namely, SCAF) of failing the revolution in Egypt. The rush to conventional competitive power make them guilty of two cardinal political sins.

The first is the display and exercise of excessive political formalism and political ambition. After Mubarak, the name of the political game remains still about vying for political power and seeking power. Intentionally and unintentionally, this narrows the horizon of politics.

The second is the prioritisation of teleology over methodology. Egypt has no democratic “road-map”; it has planned elections. The two are different.

Misuse of human intelligence

Egypt’s elites are the envy of the Arab world. Its human resources and abundant brainpower continue to be misused. The current crisis is a case in point.

There is nothing new in blaming the military bureaucracy or the police bureaucracy for stifling the quest for orderly, substantive and civilian-led transition. Field Marshal Tantawi is on the way out and is an easy traget. Attention should therefore be directed at Egypt’s potential leaders.

Mohamed ElBaradei: Imagine if he were heading a commission for transitional justice. With his know-how, international standing and integrity, he would have been a pair of safe hands to help Egypt’s transition. This would have helped the cause of the martyrs’ families, among others, whose grievances are yet to be addressed. He is instead fixated on vying for the presidency.

Amr Moussa: A veteran of Egyptian and pan-Arab diplomacy, he has had his share of glory and power. He is probably one of the army’s favourites for the presidency – a statesman who would know what to do in power. But his status would have been better suited to heading an independent commission for negotiating a draft for the functions of a constituent assembly within the soon-to-be-elected parliament.

Mohamed Salim al-Awwa: A credible legal expert whose goal, perhaps with the Brotherhood’s indirect endorsement, to run for the presidency would not serve Egypt as much as if he were to lead a commission of experts to draw up a constitution for the country.

There are endless names whose resourcefulness and skills could have been invested into giving Egypt’s transition a sense of direction and purpose: an independent electoral observatory or commission, an anti-corruption commission, a judicial commission whose sole aim would be to oversee a fair trial for Mubarak and his associates.

The country’s messy voter register needs modernising and updating, a job not attended to properly in the rush to hold elections. The media needs a specialised reform commission too. While at it, a national security commission could have prevented the current crisis if the armed forces’ role was addressed legally and systematically in a way that would have re-defined its role, its rights and obligations, pre-empting the need for supra-constitutional principles.

Tipping-point horizons

It is the absence of the aforementioned institution and institutional capacity to absorb and respond to revolutionary fervour that is at the core of the current crisis in Egypt.

In both Egypt and Tunisia, formidable, durable and highly organised broad-based movements representative of the revolutionary ethos are yet to be formed. The foundations exist, but these are yet to be reified. But the revolutionary ethos is abundant.

Egypt’s political elites have to re-learn politics so that they are sensitised to the dynamic of the revolutionary ethos and youth’s capacity to protest endlessly, if need be.

Note that the youth’s passions and revolutionary proclivity demand a swift response. Here there is a tension between the political stamina of old elites and political establishments equipped with the stamina to endure political inertia and confident and proactive youth protesters. That stamina, effectively a defence mechanism, in which they were coached under prolonged authoritarian rule, is not shared by those protesting in Tahrir Square.

Their only stamina is about engaging in tipping-point politics: mobilising critical mass aimed at change from below.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

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