The mother of the world: The birth of Egypt’s democracy

This election is not a ‘referendum’ on the revolution, but a step in the only direction possible: forward.

Demonstrators wave flags of Egypt during
The narrowing of Egypt's presidential field has reportedly caused concern among pro-revolutionaries [AFP]

New York, NY –
There is much fear and frustration about the unfolding presidential elections in Egypt. So much so that the astounding historical significance of the event and its widespread consequences for the rest of the Arab and Muslim world seem to have escaped us. 

Analysts are asking: Has the revolution failed? Are people casting a referendum on the actual revolution when they select a formal Mubarak-era official as their top choice? Are the Islamists poised to take over Egypt and turn it into a theocracy? Is the military behind it all? Will it step in to establish “order” when people are finally tired of all these demonstrations and fear for their mundane well-being? Will the US, the Israelis, or the Saudis – with all their might and money – “allow” Egyptians actually to bring their revolution to fruition and thus effectively endanger their respective interests in the region? 

People in and out of Egypt were naturally drawn to a crescendo, a bravura, where the first ever democratic presidential election in Egyptian history would be the final battle scene against the ancien régime. But once Ahmed Shafiq – a senior commander in the Egyptian Air Force and later prime minister for a few weeks – emerged as the main nemesis of Mohamed Morsi – Chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) founded by the Muslim Brotherhood after the revolution – people began to wonder.

 Inside Story – Is Egypt’s revolution under threat?

Flawed fears 

To be sure, much still remains to be determined in the near and distant future. Before the next round of elections, now scheduled for June 16 and 17, the Egyptian Supreme Court is to rule on the so-called “political isolation” law, which makes it illegal for former high-ranking regime officials – such as Shafiq – to run for public office. This is only one of several other major political developments yet to unfold. The parliament itself might be declared unconstitutional, as the constitutional assembly is yet to be formed, and the new constitution to be drafted. Various political parties have just come to a consensus as to how to select the 100-member panel that will be charged with writing the new constitution.

Meanwhile, as all these historic developments are yet to unfold, it is a flawed reading of the unfolding presidential election to consider it a “a referendum on the revolution”. The revolution has happened and succeeded and has only one way to go: forward. 

In a poignant and caring reading of the Egyptian presidential election Larbi Sadiki has observed: “The results in the presidential runoff thus far have been shocking, and worries a folool could win, although alarming, has reminded the electorate not to become complacent, and to partake in voting.” Sadiki then rightly warned: “Those who resisted and defiantly ousted Mubarak now face the prospect of a return of a key figure in the ousted regime that was being groomed to replace Field Marshal Tantawi.” 

These are all necessary, poignant, and timely warnings. But Sadiki’s conclusion, that “this is akin to the last nail in the coffin of a revolution let down by all actors involved in the transition phase”, is quite rash and disconcerting.  

Even more flawed, and indeed entirely unseemly and inappropriate, is for another analyst to psychopathologise an entire nation of some ninety million human beings and diagnose a mass case of “political Stockholm Syndrome” – just because some of them have opted to vote for a former Mubarak official. 

We are all – in solidarity and with necessary humility – trying to understand this revolutionary unfolding, and in the process psychopathologising a heroic people who have just toppled a tyranny is not just politically bad-mannered, it is also theoretically flawed. 

Reading more closely

Let’s look at these presidential elections closer. According to reports in the first round of Egyptian presidential election, Morsi received 25 per cent, Shafiq 24 per cent, Sabbahi 22 per cent, with Aboul Fotouh (at 18 per cent) and Moussa (11 per cent) trailing behind. 

What do these numbers mean – that Egyptians regret their revolution, are caught in a Stockholm Syndrome, or that they are in danger of a theocracy descending upon them, or that they are driving a nail into the coffin of their own revolution? Not really. Here is one excellent reading by Jamal Elshayyal: 

“If we examine the results of the first round of polling, it is clear the majority of Egyptian voters chose in favour of the revolution. The combined total of the three main pro-revolutionary candidates amounts to more than 65 per cent of the vote. Ballots cast in favour of remnants of the old regime – the loathed felool as they’re known in Egypt – amount to fewer than 35 per cent.”

So it all depends how you read these numbers – with or without trust in the revolutionary will of a people. In another utterly brilliant reading, offered by Hani Shukrallah, we read: 

Minerva’s owl flies at dusk… and this for the first time in our history, we can with a fair degree of confidence say that while a quarter of us want the Brotherhood and another quarter want restoration, nearly half of us want the revolution realised; not at all a bad place from which to start putting that revolutionary house in order.”

This is the way a caring revolutionary, committed to the future of his homeland, reads the very same numbers. Even more importantly and poignantly, Hani Shukrallah wisely and accurately reverses the conventional and clichéd fear of the army and the Muslim Brotherhood: 

“The electoral triumph of the Mubarak regime on one hand and that of its no-less-authoritarian historical antagonist, the Brotherhood, on the other, heralds not their ascent but their decline. It is not a new dawn of the Muslim Brotherhood that we are witnessing, nor is it a revival of the semi-secular police state à la Mubarak, Gaddafi et al, but rather the twilight of both.”

Now, that is a superior insight that does not begin first by psychopathologising a nation, but by seeing through its political actions clearly.

 Egypt’s Choice: Morsi and Shafiq emerge as frontrunners

The insights of Hani Shukrallah are corroborated by another equally important piece by Ekram Ibrahim in which she rightly points out: “The emergence of Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi in third place, so far, behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi and Mubarak-era Ahmed Shafiq reveals the significant portion of Egyptians thirsty for social justice.” 


These insights are accurate and trustworthy, even if we limit ourselves to events here and now in Egypt. But there are other historical comparisons we can make. If you want to have a simple sense of what exactly has happened in the Arab and Muslim world that we celebrate as the “Arab Spring”, just compare the Iranian Revolution of 1979 with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 – in a span of just a little more than three decades.

Look at the candidates and compare the scene with thirty years ago, when the Iranian revolution happened. The combination of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Mohamed Morsi would be the functional equivalents of Ayatollah Khomeini, while Ahmed Shafiq and his fellow army officers would be the late Shah’s army officers that Ayatollah Khomeini had swiftly gathered and sent to the roof of his residence to be summarily executed. Hamdeen Sabahi would be the sum of all the Iranian leftist revolutionaries who Khomeini ordered executed by the stroke of one pen, their supporters and sympathisers violently purged from universities, clubbed to death or silence in newspapers by the thugs at the employment of the clerical leadership, or else forced into exile out of their homeland. 

Now: which one is a superior and more hopeful revolution?  

The Egyptian revolution is everything that the Iranian revolution was not: calm, composed, gentle, civil, human, hopeful, principled. All the legitimate fear that all Egyptians now have for the future of their revolution is fuel for visionary progress. It is good that a former army officer, a Muslim Brotherhood member, and a socialist are running, debating, charging, and trying to appease their electorate. This is sublime democracy, with minimum bloodshed, with people, the Egyptians themselves, at the driving seat – with Tahrir Square supremely at their disposal.

Frost Over the World –
Rebuilding Egypt for a democratic future

Which one is a superior historic moment for us as a people – Arabs, Iranians, Muslims, from one end of Africa to another end of Asia: The moment when the former officials of the Pahlavi regime are summoned on the roof of Ayatollah Khomeini’s residence and swiftly executed, or when the former officials of the Mubarak regime are given a democratic chance to go to their people and tell them their vision of their future?

The moment Ayatollah Khomeini is treated like a demigod and cheered on to usher in his charismatic terror as the cornerstone of a brutal theocracy that would ruthlessly rule a people for more than thirty years – and only the Almighty knows for how many more – or when Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is invited to go on television to debate his rivals about his aspirations for the future of Egypt and for him to be roundly defeated in the first round of elections?

Can you even imagine Ayatollah Khomeini humbly going to a television station thirty years ago and debating his ideas for the future of Iran upon national television with a former army officer of the Shah’s regime? Which is a better mark of a free and democratic future: the moment when thousands of leftist revolutionaries are sent to the firing squad or gallows by one decree of Ayatollah Khomeini? Or when Hamdeen Sabahi secures a solid third position on a national presidential election?

The result of those thirty plus years of vicious tyranny in Iran is not only the almost total annihilation of the Iranian left but also the rise of corrupt old Stalinists rotting in decadence in California and pontificating how there is neither imperialism anymore nor national severity, in unison with a younger generation of pro-US right-wingers who unabashedly and in utter vulgarity write open letters to President Obama encouraging the US – and even Israel – to impose even harsher crippling sanctions on Iran and ultimately attacking their country. That ignominy of segments of “the opposition”, now in cahoots with the most corrupt factions of US neocons and militant Zionists, is precisely the result of that theocratic terrorism that the Islamic Republic has perpetrated for more than thirty years, and from which Egyptians are now wisely, judiciously, heroically, saved.  

Those who fear that Egyptians are not revolutionary enough, or that they are caught in a “Stockholm Syndrome” ought to ask themselves: Do they want Egypt to be thirty years from now where Iran is today – ruled by a fraudulent tyranny, violently opposed by career opportunists in cahoots with the neocons, with the vast majority of Iranians sick and tired of one and disgusted by the other?

Long live Egypt and long live freedom!
Revolution! Revolution until victory!
In Egypt, the mother of the world!

As Hani Shukrallah has rightly observed, what we are witnessing is not the rise but in fact the fall of the military elite and the Muslim Brotherhood as we have known them, when they face each other off in the public domain. The Muslim Brotherhood is now widely demonstrating against Ahmed Shafiq at Tahrir Square, while Ahmed Shafiq is accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of complacency in the murder of demonstrators. The military elite and the Muslim Brotherhood are wearing each other down, staring each other down, and cutting each other down to the size of public judgment. This is a glorious moment for “the Mother of the World”, as she gives birth to our free and democratic future. 

Timely warning and caring concern for the future of Egypt and demonstrating vigilance in the protection of the revolution are, of course, all worthy interventions – but not psychopathologising the citizenry. Needless to say, counter-revolutionary forces in and out of Egypt have every intention not to allow the promises of the Egyptian revolution fulfilled. But reading the signs of this revolution in solidarity with its aspirations requires a moral investment in the heroic sacrifices Egyptians continue to make on a daily and continued basis. 

Today, Egyptians are the light of our world: instead of discouraging them, finding fault with them, the world must stand up in reverence and awe, salute them and happily sing with them in humility: “Tahya Masr wa Tahya al-Huriyya, Thwarah Thwarah hatta al-Nasr, fi umma al-Dunya Diya / Long Live Egypt, and Long Live Freedom, Revolution, Revolution until Victory, in Egypt, the Mother of the World!”

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism was just released by Zed.