In Translation: Samer Soliman on revolution and reform

For the last few weeks, a favorite topic of conversation around many Cairene tables - particularly those of activists and the politically involved - is how to commemorate the upcoming anniversary of the 25 January uprising. For some, it should be a celebration of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. At the other end of the spectrum, more radical activists are calling for a "second revolution" and a repeat of the events of late January 2011, when, in the revolutionary narrative, "the people defeated the police state." The emerging dominant political players in Egypt - most notably the Muslim Brotherhood - have approached this issue carefully. They do not want another wave of protests only two days after the parliament that they control opens. They want to give some space to lingering grievances, but also control the situation in case radicals push for things to go another way.

I picked the following article because it reminded me of a conversation I recently had (at an excellent Iranian table - thanks P.) with two leading Egyptian human rights workers who worried that many of their friends had taken up revolutionary theory, were tempted by using violence against the state, and unwilling to see that they were a minority. In the article below, Samer Soliman, who teaches at AUC and is a well-known liberal writer, takes those types of revolutionaries to task.

As always, translation is provided by the awesome Industry Arabic, purveyors of fine translation services and more. 

 

A critical stance in support of my colleagues in the Revolution

By Samer Soliman, al-Shurouk, 9 January 2012

The revolution’s one-year anniversary represents a chance for reassessment and self-criticism by all those who participated in it. From this standpoint, the criticism that I direct at the positions and ideas of some of my revolutionary colleagues is the criticism of a comrade and has no trace of superiority. Its aim is to improve the performance of reform and revolutionary currents and get past unnecessary divisions in order to achieve our shared goal: establishing a state based on freedom, social justice and human dignity. I have four criticisms for some of my colleagues.

First: Absolute hostility to parties and to organizing is a fatal mistake

Politics, by one definition, is the management and organization of shared and collective interests. You are responsible for managing the affairs of your own home. However, managing the affairs of the entire building is not your responsibility alone, but rather the responsibility of the union of landlords, tenants or the like. This is politics. Politics is nothing but a collective activity that aims to organize the affairs of the state and society. Consequently, whoever is hostile to organizing is unwittingly hostile to politics. If you refuse to organize yourself in a party or group, how can you engage in an activity that basically aims at organizing society and the state? If you accept being organized in small groups, but absolutely reject parties, then you are hostile to the politics that aims to run the state apparatus. As a result, you insist on marginalizing yourself on the pretext of keeping your “revolutionary purity” away from party maneuvering. Yes, politics does not depend on party organizations alone, but is also based on non-party organizations such as pressure groups. However, these pressure groups are not an alternative to parties. Environmental groups, for example, push through their demands to limit pollution by communicating with parties, and cooperating with them and offering them support to the extent that they adopt programs to protect the environment. Whoever decides to act through politics must be a member in an organization of some sort: a party that aims to reach power or participate in it; a pressure group that does not wield power directly but which exerts influence on it; a union that defends workers’ rights in a certain profession, etc. The important thing is that members of every type of organization cannot do without the other types, and that true change only comes through integration and forming alliances among different types of organization.

Second: Revolution does not mean toppling the regime immediately, and revolution is not opposed to reform

People usually do not rebel against the group monopolizing power until after all means of gradual reform have been exhausted and they have participated in small, partial revolutions. The proverb goes that revolution is nothing but failed reform. There is no shortcut for a total revolution. For people to rise up against the group clinging to the summit of power, they have to go down a long road of attempting to reform the situation and rebelling against lesser authorities. The real revolutionary is someone who marches with people when reform is possible. In fact, it is his duty to be among them even if he is convinced that the possibility of reform is very low. Only when you are among the people during reform and minor revolutions can you preach total revolution and convince people that gradual reform is not the only choice. The revolutionary should maintain his credibility while he is engaging in revolution, and not raise a clarion call to topple the head of the regime without reading the real balance forces on the ground. For this reason, those calling for a new revolution to be launched on January 25 in order to topple the Military Council does not want to see that there is a People’s Assembly emerging that has a great deal of legitimacy to represent the people, and that many people are placing their bets on this Assembly and on the new government that will be formed by the winning parties. If this takes place, and the Military Council does not hand over power to the parliament, the new government or the next president, or if people discover that elected institutions take power for real and they do not live up to expectations, then the clarion call to topple the head of the regime can be raised. Before this time, struggling, sit-ins and protests go to achieve partial victories and limited demands, and do not topple the regime. The real revolutionary is the one who is one step ahead of people, not several steps. Because if you are several steps ahead of them, you will turn and find yourself alone against the powers-that-be. It will not benefit society much for you to be a hero confronting power alone with your chest bared. In any case, before you bring down power on your head, you should consider well who the alternative power is. Political power is nothing but that which organizes individuals and groups. The Military Council only received power after the fall of Mubarak, the police apparatus and the NDP because it was at the apex of a large, cohesive organization spread throughout Egypt: the army. If we topple the Military Council, what is the strong, cohesive organization spread throughout Egypt that will take up power? Please do not say honorable officers outside the Military Council. We have had enough of military coups and military rule.

Third: The older generation is the wrong enemy

The worst thing possible for the revolutionary movement to do is to lose potential allies and put those who are really their supporters in the enemy camp. One symptom of dictatorship in Egypt was the old age of the ruling clique, like Hosni Mubarak, Fathy Sorour, Safwat al-Sherif, Omar Suleiman, and Hussein Tantawi, etc. However, the old age of the elite was only one symptom of the disease, and not the disease itself – just like the fever that afflicts the body after it has been hit with influenza. The old age of the rulers is not the root of the illness, but one of its symptoms. The alternative to this is that the military dictatorship in Egypt started out young. Nasser and his colleagues reached power in their early 30s. It was a reproach to the Free Officers at that time that they were “almost children.” As time passed and the same ruling group remained with some minor changes, the ruling group became more middle-aged, which the regime tried to rectify in its last days by mobilizing a group of young people behind Gamal Mubarak, “leader of the future generation.” If Gamal had succeeded at taking his father’s place and replacing aging top leaders with other, young leaders, this would not have changed the reality of tyranny in Egypt in the least. The corrupt, tyrannical clique that controls Egypt is multi-generational, comprising the old, the middle-aged, the young and maybe children as well, since their children are raised from childhood to have contempt for the people and look down on God’s creatures. Likewise, the current that wants to get rid of this group and reach power must be multi-generational. Look around you. If you find that all the members of your organization or group are from one generation, I know you are moving on the wrong path, since in this case your group will not represent the diversity of your people. I know that you have undoubtedly lost because a mono-generational group is a poor one, and is not allowed to benefit from the diverse skills and resources that enable a multi-generational organization to win.

Fourth: Construction cannot wait for demolition to be complete, and the economy cannot wait for the revolution to be complete

The Egyptian Revolution is long and extensive, and has many waves of attack and retreat, ebb and flow, toppling the head of the regime and putting pressure on the new leaders. It is natural then that the task of building institutions coincides with the task of protesting and sitting-in. For this reason, I was astounded when I asked one of them “Why don’t you join a political party?” and he told me, “Because we haven’t finished tearing down the old regime yet”! Aren’t political parties (some of them, of course) one of the tools for tearing down the old regime? Power is not a building that needs to be completely torn down before a new power can be erected on its rubble. The alternative power emerges in society, delves into it and exerts its influence and control in areas left unoccupied by the reigning power. When it achieves this, removing the existing regime becomes simply a matter of time, and the downfall of the state apparatus at its hands becomes all but inevitable.

One of the most important areas for the emergence of the new power is the economy, which some revolutionaries have been taking very lightly, or rather opportunistically – for example, brandishing the minimum wage as a slogan in Tahrir Square in the hopes of drawing blue- and white-collar workers to the sit-in, and hence to topple the Military Council. You do not mobilize social classes and groups in this way, and it is not through sit-ins alone that you topple regimes, but rather through general strikes. A general strike cannot be realized without a high level of organization of the working and middle classes. The glorious January Revolution overturned the grip of the regime and its security apparatus on the unions that has lasted nearly 60 years. We shall only reap the fruits of this historic victory after several years, because the old unions have not yet been reformed, and the new unions need several years to gain strength.

Egypt will only attain political and social democracy through a struggle lasting many years, in which destruction is mixed with construction, reform with revolution, and calm, foundational work with victorious revolutionary activity. It is normal for some of us to lean more toward destruction than construction, or toward reform more than revolution, or toward victorious activity more than calm, foundational work. The important thing is that we do not fall into the mistake of feeling superior toward one another, and that we do not fall into the sin of breaking with our allies and our comrades simply because they operate within different frameworks or follow a different course to reach the same goal. There is only one goal: establishing a state based on freedom, social justice and human dignity.