As crowds ecstatically celebrated the victory of the revolution in Tahrir Square and in Egypt’s major cities all through the night of the 11th of February 2011, there was little room for anyone to think about the road ahead. Indeed, the moment was worth celebrating. To end Mubarak’s three decade rule, arguably one of the darkest chapters of Egyptian history, by way of this unbelievably classic and amazingly noble form of a popular uprising, was simply beyond anyone’s imagination.
Throughout those historical two and a half weeks, Egypt’s revolutionaries showed courage, resilience and an unyielding belief in the righteousness of their cause. This was a generation and a people so powerfully asking for a brighter tomorrow that –as the famous poetic expression goes - even destiny had no choice but to respond. For 18 consecutive days, the revolutionaries of the ‘Tahrir Squares’ across Egypt endured the evils of one of the most ruthless police states in third world history, and prevailed. Mubarak and his oligarchy certainly did not go down without an ugly fight. Hundreds of Egypt’s finest young men and women had to sacrifice their lives and thousands were wounded while marching and demonstrating for nothing more than their natural rights to freedom and justice.
Many more millions across society faced the even more complex arsenal of Mubarak’s regime. Neighbourhoods and streets around the country suffered from a total absence of police forces intended to spread a sense of fear, insecurity and intimidation across the nation. Ordinary Egyptians organized themselves into vigilante-like groups to protect their homes and streets from thugs, dangerous prison inmates and criminals freed by the regime’s security forces. The plan was to create social chaos and release an artificial nostalgia for ‘stability’ under Mubarak. As men guarded their homes through the cold winter nights of January and February, their families faced a media tsunami aimed at delegitimizing ‘those in Tahrir’, starring famous journalists, celebrities and even religious figures. So yes, when Vice-President and long time Mubarak confidant Omar Suleiman announced the ex-President’s step-down, the revolutionaries in the ‘Tahrirs of Egypt’ had every reason for jubilation and pride.
Three months later, however, the social forces which spearheaded the revolution found themselves challenged by the pressing need for shifting modes from ‘revolution’ to ‘politics’. The army, which took over power as the Egyptian state itself seemed to be facing the prospect of gradual disintegration in the last days of Mubarak, is by definition much less radical in inflicting changes and chasing the remnants of the old oligarchy. The revolutionaries’ political leverage was becoming less by the day as their capability of mobilizing crowds in support of more complex objectives –as opposed to the clear goal of removing Mubarak - naturally decreased. They found themselves not only facing the army’s traditional preference for stability over change, but also the negative effect of the differences and discrepancies within their own ranks. These differences had been hidden behind their agreement on the priority of Mubarak’s removal. Moreover, decades of suppression and state security meddling seem to have taken their toll on the ability of existing politicised groups to connect with wider social audiences, especially outside of Cairo and away from cyberspace where the revolutionary youth undoubtedly reign supreme.
On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood broke away from the wide spectrum of forces which led the revolution much more quickly than anyone had anticipated. Six weeks after Mubarak’s step-down the ruling military council called for a referendum on constitutional amendments the approval of which would eventually lead to parliamentary elections and the writing of a new constitution under supervision of the elected legislative.
The Brotherhood supported the amendments, probably calculating that early parliamentary elections would be inIn short, Egypt’s Revolutionaries need to turn into Politicians their favour. It was the sole organized political force capable of drawing on decades of grass roots work to secure the passing of the amendments. To that same end, and perhaps much earlier than most of us had expected, the Brotherhood shamelessly deployed its heavy weaponry into the political battlefield. A populist campaign based on misleading religious propaganda orchestrated by the Brotherhood and Salafi groups managed to mobilize enough support for the amendments. The tactics of the Brotherhood were ironically in line with the official media, still manipulated by the military, which openly advocated a yes vote based on ‘stability’ discourses typically popular in middle class ranks. Youth-led groups who orchestrated the uprising against Mubarak and stunned the world with their civility in ‘Camp Tahrir’ drastically failed in their first post-Mubarak political test. Along with other progressive forces of the revolution they clearly advocated the refusal of the amendments and the writing of a new constitution altogether through an elected constitutional assembly.
The lesson from Egypt’s first post Mubarak political battle is clear: the rules of democracy are different than those of revolution! In order to be able to implement a progressive socio-political agenda, the milieu of players widely referred to as ‘the revolutionary forces’ need to organize politically, and they need to do so quickly. Democracy’s rule of thumb is simple: in order to get a seat at the decision making table, you need to be able to win elections. To do so, you need a political infrastructure, you need to organize around building real popular constituencies, and most importantly you need a lot of money to do all of the above.
Representatives of the wide spectrum of progressive social forces which spearheaded the revolution need to unite to form a broad based coalition which should remain as long as it takes to reach the point when a new progressive constitution worthy of our revolution is in place. Only then can these ideologically diverse groups allow themselves the luxury of political difference and competition.
Now what are the chances this could actually happen? Well, several difficult obstacles lie ahead. But perhaps at the top of the list, there is the challenge of organization. How will this diverse cocktail of political groups connect to their natural constituencies, while most of their representatives and intellectuals are still grappling with the dilemmas of clustering, grouping and establishing formal parties?
There is a need to focus less on establishing new parties and concentrate more on reaching agreement on a unified list of candidates to be supported by all for the sake of all. In this case, and despite the effort needed to reach such an agreement, the diversity of the revolutionary forces will turn into an enormous advantage, as each group could focus on mobilizing its constituency for this broad based progressive coalition. Whereas the socialists and leftists could play a leading role in mobilizing the workers in different industrial centres, the liberals and their groups could focus on the traditionally urban based professional middle class both in the greater Cairo area and elsewhere including upper Egypt, where contrary to the popular myth, not all constituencies vote based on family and tribal ties. Pragmatism is called for, and a unified progressive coalition needs to reach out to several parts of the country which have remained marginalized under Mubarak, such as the Sinai and the Red Sea governorates, which had a remarkably high percentage of a ‘no’ vote in the last referendum.
In short, Egypt’s revolutionaries need to turn into politicians. They need to focus in order to ensure that a progressive alliance secures a considerable portion of the next People’s Assembly. Only then a constitution worthy of our future will be within reach and the prophecy of the revolution, ‘the people want the removal of the regime,’ can be fulfilled.
Editor's Note: This article was written before the Egyptian parliamentary elections.
Khaled Shaalan is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London