The revolution in winter

The third anniversary of Egypt's 2011 uprising was a dismal day for the revolutionary activists that organized it. Its birthplace in Tahrir Square was filled by pro-army demonstrators calling on military chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi to lead the country. Small anti-military rallies in the streets around were quickly dispersed by security forces and chased through the streets by army partisans. Deadlier clashes in the city's outskirts left scores dead. Over 1,000 people have been arrested, joining many prominent activists already in jail. The mood in the movement echoes a poignant letter released several days before the anniversary from one of those imprisoned revolutionaries, Alaa Abd El Fattah: "What is adding to the oppression that I feel, is that I find imprisonment is serving no purpose, it is not resistance and there is no revolution."

This day has naturally triggered despondency in a movement that has long used anniversary protests to rebound from despair. Only a few months ago, activists were telling themselves that having toppled two presidents, Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Mohammed Morsi in 2013, it could easily topple a third. But now they see both their key symbol - Tahrir - and their favorite tactic - street protest - appropriated by their opponents. If al-Sissi nominates himself for president, as seems increasingly likely, he will face the long-term challenge of presiding over a state and an economy that are far more delicate than they were under Mubarak. However, unlike Mubarak, el-Sissi has a confident and committed mass following that believes Egypt needs a strong Nasser- or de Gaulle-style leader. Unlike Morsi, he has the full loyalty of the security forces and the bureaucracy.

But while the activists are sober, few are self-critical. (Addendum, Jan 27: For some exceptions, see the essay by Abd El Fattah and Ahmed Douma referenced in the post above.) They portray themselves as being stuck between two illiberal forces -- the Islamists on one hand, and the army on the other. The tone is one of a helpless movement that doesn't quite know what happened to it, or maybe never had a chance to begin with, rather than one searching for where it went wrong.

I believe that the revolutionaries did have a chance to change Egypt. They could never have created a human rights paradise, but they did have an opportunity to set the country on a course where power revolved peacefully, where free expression had legal protections, and where police and officials had strong disincentives not to abuse their power. The revolutionaries lost this opportunity, and lost it because they failed to recognize the limits of their power.

It's obvious from voting patterns over the past three years that committed revolutionaries are a small minority. Their concentration in Cairo, and their lack of experience working inside political parties and other such large organizations, make them ineffective in elections. But this decentralization and energy, combined with their links to the media, does give them considerable power between elections: the ability to stage non-stop street protests which, combined with public reaction against the inevitable videotaped brutal police response as well as the disruption to city traffic and economic activity, have twice created a narrative of a beleaguered government, a country facing the abyss. When the revolutionaries have acted in concert (if not always in collaboration) with other movements, the Islamists in 2011 and former members of the National Democratic Party in 2013, that helped to create the momentum that convinces the army that it is safer for them to unseat the ruler rather than stand aside. Where the revolutionaries failed was to think through the ramifications of deploying that power.

I would argue that the point at which the revolutionaries and their liberal allies went wrong was the decision made in spring of 2013 to add their weight to the movement to unseat President Mohammed Morsi Morsi was not remotely friendly to the revolutionaries' agenda, but the means needed to topple him would destroy the environment in which the revolutionaries were able to operate.

As much as the revolutionaries insisted they did not wanted a coup, many knew very well _ or at least their leaders should have known _ that it would likely end in army intervention. This was, after all, what happened to Mubarak in 2011. Demanding new elections only a year into a leader's five-year term, while hinting at the possibility that the army might intervene if he did not, is basically tantamount to a forced overthrow.

But while Mubarak had been president for 30 years, using a variety of means to ensure he was never seriously challenged, Morsi became president through competitive elections generally viewed as mostly free and fair. This distinction makes a key difference to the outcomes of coups. The overthrow of an unelected leader usually brings an outpouring of goodwill and an incentive for all previously excluded parties to participate in the political process, which, if well-handled (it wasn't in Egypt), can bring about a successful transition. The overthrow of an elected leader favors force over procedure, creates a disincentive for parties to participate in peaceful politics, and polarizes the country - all factors that make a successful transition to pluralistic democracy less possible.

Activists say that they toppled Morsi to prevent an Islamist dictatorship -- and, indeed, if the Muslim Brotherhood had installed a theocracy, that would probably be even more hostile to the realization of their aims then Mubarakist restoration. But it seemed clear that since December, when the police and army outright refused to protect Cairo's presidential palace, that there was no serious danger that Morsi could ever have realized an Islamist dictatorship. The much-vaunted "Ikhwanization" was mostly limited to ministries with little power. (The state prosecutor did have power, but he was strongly opposed from within the judiciary.) Morsi's one attempt to move beyond a constitutional framework _ his constitutional declaration _ ended with him in retreat. This is not to say that Morsi was benign: having an Islamist in power did appear to give radicals the confidence to persecute Christians, particularly in the rural south. But the police were defiant of Morsi, the army was against him, the judiciary, the media, and the bureaucracy. He was about to face parliamentary elections that would probably have dealt the Brothers a fairly serious defeat. In choosing to lend their weight to Morsi's overthrow, as opposed to trying to block specific policies, the revolutionaries chose to replace a weak autocratic personality who had no choice but to operate within a basically democratic framework, and a strong autocratic system that could dispense with it.

Where does the movement find itself now? Any repetition of the tactics used in 2011 and 2013 while probably end in failure. The secular and Islamist wings of the opposition hate each other too much to unite. And in the remote chance that protests did force another change of government, the country is far too polarized to go through another peaceful transition.

But while it is probably right to say there is no more "revolution," in the sense that the tactics of mass uprising will not work in the near future, there is a "revolution" in the sense of a set of ideals and a historical legacy that can guide and inspire activists in the future. To accomplish its goals, however, the revolutionaries need to review why they have failed so far. A dynamic minority of activists can destabilize, but in doing so they only pave the way for someone else. To be a partner in government they need the kind of leverage that can only come from a nationwide mass movement, strong in the provinces as well as just the big cities. Right now Egypt has only three of these: the former National Democratic Party, the Brotherhood, and the Salafis. The first was created top-down by the state but the other two were built up painstakingly over decades, sometimes under conditions that are almost as hostile as those facing revolutionaries today. If Egypt's revolutionaries reconsider their tactics, abandoning the adrenaline and theater of protest for the slow unglamorous work of movement-building, it may have a chance in decades to come.

To succeed, the revolutionaries may need to reconsider their message. The Islamists use religion. The Sissists have what is still the most beloved institution in the country, the army. The revolutionaries have few key symbols that resonate with many Egyptians. What they do have is a vision of the future in which no one's basic rights are compromised. 

Since 2011, members of all prominent Egyptian trends have succumbed to the temptation to demonize their opponents to fire up their base. Islamists have agitated against Christians and secularists, pro-army speakers have labelled revolutionaries as drug-taking cosmopolitan libertines _ and revolutionaries too have at times denounced their opponents as feloul, terrorists, and sheep. They have also tossed around proposals that would essentially disenfranchise a large section of the country: a "political exclusion law" against Mubarak supporters in 2011, or the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. 

To form a mass movement, revolutionaries will need to engage with other groups. To leverage a mass movement into power, they will need to make allies. All three trends are here to stay. The future may belong to whichever one learns to make the least enemies.