In Translation: Diaa Rashwan on Mohamed ElBaradei

Earlier this week, I penned my own reaction to Mohamed ElBaradei’s decision not to run for the presidency (here and here). I have discussed the matter with both pro-ElBaradei and anti-ElBaradei Egyptians: the former are split between those who back his decision and those who chide him for not providing an alternative, the latter say that ElBaradei was always clueless anyway.

I thought it would be interesting to showcase some of the more critical responses to ElBaradei’s decision from those who are not from his political family. Diaa Rashwan, is a political analyst and expert on Islamist groups who, post-revolution, took charge of Egypt’s most prestigious think-tank, the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (replacing the neoliberal scholar Abdel Moneim Said, a former member of the NDP’s Policies Committee who was said to be close to Gamal Mubarak and is the very ideological opposite of Rashwan).

Rashwan is from Upper Egypt, calls himself a Nasserist, was an early signatory of the anti-Mubarak Kifaya manifesto. He is said to be one of the few public intellectuals who is consulted by SCAF, and of course his position at the al-Ahram Center makes him something of a public official and, in some circles, a power-broker of influence. His trajectory in politics has been consistent with the nebulous ideology that is Nasserism, in that he is a corporatist, an anti-elitist, a nationalist, a believer in the centrality of the armed forces and the interventionist state, and that his membership of Kifaya may have made him part of the opposition to Mubarak but not a liberal – an important distinction. In the piece below, he takes ElBaradei’s decision to make a wider critique of what he terms the liberal elite in Egypt.

As every week, In Translation is brought to you by the fantastic Industry Arabic.



Dr ElBaradei and the Theory of Perpetual Revolution


By Diaa Rashwan, al-Masri al-Youm, 16 January 2012

Dr ElBaradei’s decision to withdraw from running for president of Egypt, and the remarks made in his statement justifying this decision give rise to many questions and observations not only related to Dr. ElBaradei’s stances, but also to the trajectory of the Egyptian revolution as a whole, especially in important segments of the young elite that contributed to its success from the beginning.

As concerns ElBaradei, the timing of his withdrawal and the contents of his statement indicate that he believes that the Egyptian revolution will not succeed in its first year and has become in need of a new revolution. This much seems clear given that he timed his withdrawal only ten days before the first anniversary of the outbreak of the revolution. Indeed, some youth coalitions are calling for this anniversary to become the launching point for this new revolution, whose only goal is summed up by their most prominent slogan – which is also the crux of ElBaradei’s statement – “toppling military rule.”

The idea that the revolution has failed and is in need of a new revolution seems to be a premature and hasty conclusion that Dr ElBaradei and segments of the coalition youth have been drawing since the first two months of the revolution. In this, they rely on their own vision of success and failure, which is based on two main notions: the first is that the presence of the army in any transition formula during the revolution is incompatible with, or even inimical to democracy and the revolution, and represents a return of despotic military rule. The second notion is that the essence of the revolution is the mass movement constantly present in the street – and in Tahrir Square especially and exclusively – which aims to defend the revolution and drive it forward. On the basis of this vision and its two main notions, ElBaradei and those who have taken up his cause have been on a clear course from the beginning. The tenor of this is that the mere continuation of the SCAF in the position of running the country during the transitional period, as well as the major mistakes it committed in this role, render it incompatible with the main revolution. Moreover, it means that the SCAF has taken the place of Mubarak in a modified form, and that the country is in need of a new revolution to “topple military rule.”

During the past months, as the actions of both ElBaradei and segments of the revolution coalitions were in the grip of this idea and slogan, it was notable that ElBaradei did not personally make any effort to participate in the new post-revolution experiment in party politics, and preferred to remain an individual symbol rather than transform himself into the leader of one of the party institutions political theory holds to be the entire basis of modern democratic systems. However, the coalitions did not do this: they clung to a vision itself contrary to the one ElBaradei was operating on the basis of, as the majority of them steered clear of party activity, preferring to maintain their elitist coalitions that were founded after the revolution or a short while beforehand. To shun organized political involvement in a democratic process, the essence of which is establishing political parties, and then to shun parliamentary elections – although both of these practices are certified mechanisms in an institutionalized democracy – seems extremely contrary to the public discourse of ElBaradei and his allies in some revolution coalitions, who are constantly calling for a new, post-revolution, democratic political system to be established.

In the discourse and practice of ElBaradei and the coalitions close to him, democracy has come to seem like elite groups exercising their right to “veto” what they believe to be an error or a deviation in the Military Council’s conduct. At the same time, they do not make a real attempt to communicate with the general public, organize their ranks in party and union organizations, or promote democratic values among them and encourage them to participate in building new state institutions – most importantly, local representative councils.

The situation has become more complicated as far as ElBaradei and his associates are concerned, since despite the Military Council’s mistakes, it managed to hold the first free People’s Assembly elections after the revolution, and influential sectors of the political forces in the country have hastened to organize themselves in political parties and blocs. They have participated in these elections, and spurred nearly 60% of Egyptians to participate in them as well. They have nearly finished forming the first democratic parliament in the revolution’s new political system. It has seemed both noteworthy and paradoxical that the main political bloc should be drawn from the Islamists, which has always been classified as hostile to the democratic system, or at least not fond of it. At the same time, ElBaradei and his associates kept their constant place at the margins of the new experiment, despite the fact they have always been classified as democrats or liberals.

ElBaradei’s position, his statement, and his calls to launch a new revolution on the anniversary of the January Revolution appear to be another dangerous paradox in the vision and actions of those who believe they are closest to the democratic school. The concept of an enlightened vanguard, in its liberal or leftist understanding, still has a hold on them as they face a broad public that seems to them to be unenlightened or unable to defend their interests. It has not caught their attention that nearly two-thirds of Egyptians participated enthusiastically in People’s Assembly elections and that most of them – according to both personal impressions and scientific opinion polls – want to stay the course of the transitional period. They also agree on building a new political order based on the current course, and want power handed over to an elected civilian authority.

ElBaradei and his associates believe that a widely organized operation of deceit and repression plotted by those in charge of the country prodded Egyptians into participating in the new democratic process – which, in their perspective, is counter to the interests of these Egyptians. This solidifies their conviction that their vanguard role must continue by causing the people to rise up and encouraging them to launch a new revolution on the anniversary of their original revolution. Thus, the timing of ElBaradei’s withdrawal and the content of his statement are in complete harmony with this vision of a vanguard deserted by the masses. It is now trying to get them back by all possible means, so they do not stray far from them down other paths.

The core of this vision’s erroneousness – whose advocates grow more isolated every day – is its supposition that peoples by their very nature are revolutionary or always want to use revolutionary activity to achieve and defend their interests and their aims. In reality, there is no people in a constant state of revolution – except in exceptional cases, most prominently, foreign occupation. Peoples, in general, desire a dignified, free, stable existence. They rise up when their circumstances become straitened in order to change their situation, then they go back to their true, stability-seeking nature. This error is not new in the history of peoples or revolutions in the world, as every revolution has been accompanied by a wing or current that believes the revolution needs to carry on through popular movements in the streets, the workplace and places of assembly, and that its success is conditional on the duration and geographical extent of the ongoing peoples’ revolution.

In all these revolutions, this vision and its advocates decline in numbers and influence, while at the same time their revolutionary ideas become more vehement and radical. Meanwhile, political and party forces involved in the process of building new state institutions see their influence and impact in society spread through the mechanisms of democratic institutions. As a result, the revolution ends up turning into a state. And at the margins of this state, there remain sectors of the vanguard elite that believe in continual, permanent revolution, and they still try to provoke the masses to revolt.