In Translation: Why don't activists have armed forces?

Last month, as the hit documentary film The Square hit silver screens, there were several reviews that used its heart-wrenching footage of Egypt’s revolutionaries to address the failings of the mostly young protest movement. Some American commentators like Eric Trager (in the New Republic) and Max Fischer in the Washington Post argued that the protestors were “incoherent”, that they “practically never leave Tahrir Square”, naively “too principled for politics”, that they “so alienated their fellow Egyptians as to actually engender sympathy for security forces” to take The Square’s director, Jehane Noujaim, to task for “never really addressing the many errors of the liberal protest movement.” Similar sentiment was echoed elsewhere, most recently (and prominently) by the influential New York Times foreign affairs columnist Roger Cohen, who wrote in a piece generally despairing of the state of Egypt,

There is plenty of blame to go around — for Obama, for the hapless Morsi, for the paranoid power-grabbing Muslim Brotherhood, for the controlling military. But above all I blame the squabbling Egyptian liberals who fought for Mubarak’s ouster but did not give democracy a chance.

In our view, these observers of the situation in Egypt compound mistake after mistake, in both their analysis and their taxonomy. Reducing the protest movement of 2011 to an ineffectual, middle class, left-wing group people detached from more profound realities of a poor country is not just unfair, it is simply inaccurate. Like so many observers of the “Arab Spring”, they confuse the media depiction of the protestors with their complex, at times surprising, reality. They also repeatedly make the mistake of labeling those people were neither members of Mubaraks’ regime nor Islamists as “liberals”, rendering the word meaningless in a country where that group actually includes many illiberal leftists, nationalists, progressives, and, yes, conservatives. But much more fundamentally, their decision to appropriate blame at the weakest component of Egypt’s polity (rather than the two strongest actors on the scene, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military and its backers in the business elite) appears not just misguided, but grotesque. This is not to say that these “liberals” did not make mistakes – no one has escaped unscathed from Egypt’s tragedy. But these are arguments are so specious (yet so widely propagated, most often by Western liberals – a category of people that itself hasn’t exactly shone in the last decade or two) it as if these commentators come from another reality.

This why the text below, by noted Egyptian activist and writer Amr Ezzat, packs such a punch. His indignation is fully understandable (even if he is somewhat unfair towards Trager, whose article does contain some worthy insights) and it amounts to a powerful rebuttal of the simply bizarre current trend of assigning blame on a generation of Egyptians that, tentatively but bravely, dared to imagine that their country could be different.

Many thanks to Industry Arabic for translating the article below (please use their services to make it possible for them to continue providing us with content only available in Arabic!), and KK for suggesting it to us.


Why Don’t Activists Have Armed Forces?

By Amr Ezzat, al-Masri al-Youm, 6 February 2014

There are questions that everyone knows need no answer – questions like: “How much of my life before you is gone and passed, my love” or “What love did you come to talk about”[1] Linguistically, these are not interrogatory questions, and I believe that, grammatically, it is better not to put a question mark after them. These are rhetorical questions, the goal of which is to express emotions, like astonishment or condemnation. Any attempt to answer this type of question is an exercise in futility, just like trying to answer the question “Why didn’t the activists or the revolutionaries provide alternatives and political programs for governing instead of just protesting?”

This last question is one of the frequently asked questions repeated by talk show philosophers and establishment experts whenever they have extra time. Whenever it gets a little tricky to justify the current insanity, they alleviate it by repeating words that, in reality, have no meaning. Lately, however, some supposedly notable researchers have joined them. Not only have these researchers joined them in repeating this rhetorical question in different ways but also, in an impressive gesture, they have answered it.

In mentioning these researchers, I mean specifically Eric Trager, a researcher at the Washington Institute whom some find notable, and his article that comments on the documentary The Square. In this article, he volunteers ridiculous answers such as:

  • “It’s hardly surprising that the activists are so routinely and self-destructively caught by surprise: They practically never leave Tahrir Square. They don’t venture into the poorer neighborhoods of Cairo. They don’t speak with the citizens in the Nile Delta or Upper Egypt.”
  • “The activists never tried to form their own party.”
  • “The activists don’t have any clear ideology, let alone a policy platform, around which they could mobilize anyone beyond their own comrades.  They constantly intone, ‘bread, freedom, social justice and dignity’ but don’t give even a moment’s thought to what this slogan might actually mean in practice. Yet perhaps more than anything, the activists’ refusal to form a party is a consequence of how they see themselves: as simply too principled for politics.”

These ridiculous answers that are repeated in ridiculous television programs, ridiculous articles, and in ridiculous research, are entirely consistent with the ridiculous way that this question is formulated. There is a big difference between asking a rhetorical question that expresses distorted emotions towards media and cinematic images of young people demonstrating and revolting, and a serious question that seeks to get close to the problem and examine it. When one begins to seriously examine the issue, talking about “activists,” “protestors,” or “revolutionaries” as a single group becomes a kind of inability to see, which doesn’t deserve to be discussed.

The media or cinematic image taken at the moment of a mass protest or at the moment of clashes with the police forces, or clashes between different crowds, is the peak moment expressing the strength of the crowd or the conflict between the crowd and the police, or two opposing crowds. However, away from this moment of peak media interest, an interested observer – not necessarily a notable researcher – can see and follow thousands of events related to establishing parties, movements, fronts, ties, alliances, work groups, and different specialized initiatives to reform the state’s apparatus, policies and laws.

A close observer can see the faces of these “protestors,” “revolutionaries,” or “activists” when they are speaking in the name of the high committees of parties, alliances, fronts and the campaigns of presidential candidates or electoral blocs, or talking about technical details regarding the structure of the police apparatus or the amendment of laws that restrict freedoms. Such an observer could see them suggesting alternatives to reform unions, the system of local governance, religious institutions or the health, environmental, and urban systems, or even dealing with the status of the military institution and its powers. This observer could see the cultural or artistic movements that went to neighborhoods and governorates and organized cultural and artistic forums, campaigns, and events.

Of course, these organizational forms, initiatives, ideas, working groups, and events can be criticized, and one can measure the degree of their success and political effectiveness in facing the social and cultural situation, with its conservative legacies from which the traditional statist and Islamist forces benefit. It does not appear to be easy for liberal or democratic ideas and practices to challenge these legacies and win quickly.

However, such criticism is different from being stuck in front of the most attractive media images of a moment of protest, or being swept away by a film that shows a group of protestors and activists that participate in nothing but protest throughout the film. It is different from failing to notice that those who do nothing but protest always move in parallel with the activity of organized political groups that try to coordinate or express the movement of the street, like the “Revolution Youth Coalition” in 2011 or the “Salvation Front” in 2012 and 2013, or failing to notice the rally to protest under the banners of these fronts’ various parties, most of which are new parties established with the participation of a large number of the young “protestors/revolutionaries/activists.”

Of course, an interested observer – who does not have to be a researcher – could notice that, while there were protestors in the street, there were also “young people,” “protestors,” and “revolutionaries,” on the lists of the “Egyptian Bloc” and the “Revolution Continues” in the parliamentary elections. Of course, however, there was no party called the “Activist” party, nor was there an electoral alliance for the “Revolutionaries” – even if there was the “Revolution Continues Alliance” – because these people are not protestors, activists, and revolutionaries who live in Tahrir Square 24 hours a day and don’t know anything about Upper Egypt, the Delta, and the poorer neighborhoods, as Trager’s ridiculous words suggest.

Outside of the film The Square, and outside of peak moments on the screens, there are less attractive and more effective images. Everyone knows about these images but they don’t like to ask about them, because asking serious questions about their details is certainly more difficult than asking the stupid question, “Why don’t activists provide any alternative other than protesting?”

The serious researcher or the interested citizen will find that, usually, the real question revolves around the “crisis of non-Islamist forces that don’t want to become the lapdog of the military institution or of the network of old forces.” They will find complicated questions on problems and the obstacles to democratic political organizing among non-Islamist activists.

For example, we can talk about the way many rushed to organize in groups that, in reality, are not brought together by a coherent liberal, leftist, or nationalist inclination, even if this inclination is somewhat present among the leadership of these groups and in their senior cadres. However, in reality, the thing that pushed people into these organizational groups was a desire to participate in politics for the first time, a desire to experiment. Thus, these are essentially primitive forms of organization that interested citizens rushed to participate in. Some of these people are interested in “the revolution’s goals” or “democracy,” and within these groups there is discussion over details that have become difficult to agree on, and which need more time. However, there is one issue that will not wait: how to deal with the “Islamist forces,” which enjoy a strong network of support that can be immediately put to use in any electoral field.

Many of those who were interested and excited found that difficult tasks and a long road await any democratic current in a complicated social context rocked by moments of cultural, religious, and political confusion, at a time in which it enters power struggles that demand a decision now. That is to say nothing, of course, of the paranoid citizens who are not excited about revolution or democracy, and who hate revolutionary or political movement in general because, to them, these struggles appear frightening and they believe that they will end in the victory of the authoritarian Islamist currents.

Many who are now being blamed because they are “activists who didn’t provide alternatives” fought battles to provide an alternative, whether organizational or in the form of ideas or initiatives. They did so to provide alternatives to the old faces in the political world and in civil society. Most of them are people who are interested and excited, who wanted to fight the battle until the end, and still do.

But some who were interested became tired and frustrated, and joined the ranks of the paranoid haters, deciding that the decisive “force of the military” is the only power able to contain Islamist authoritarianism.

Those people, and the writers, experts, and talk show philosophers who represent their views – to say nothing of Eric Trager – express a distorted vision of contempt for the “democratic currents’” gamble, through ignorance, and the complete ignorance or denial of any effort in this direction, as though they themselves should not be participating in these efforts.

At the same time, they are celebrating the leader of the military as sole presidential candidate, when he has not said one word about politics, alternatives, and programs – unless words like “the people will wake up early and we will all share the food” are considered serious talk.

Serious talk is the fact that all of those frustrated people surrendered completely to the failure to enter the political gamble, the revolutionary gamble, and the gamble to demand freedoms and human rights. They think that serious talk has no relationship to programs or alternatives. Instead, what is serious is the force that enables them to stop the Islamists’ authoritarian plan of “empowerment,” even if that is accomplished by empowering a different authoritarianism.

Then, it seems like they will ask a more honest rhetorical question: “Why weren’t those who were working for democracy from the beginning of the revolution and before generals in the military like Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, so that they could defeat the Brotherhood by themselves, without all this effort?"

This is another stupid question, but it is honest and very real. Answering it is simple and does not take much discussion. It needs courage to recognize that we wasted our time talking about politics and democracy and we must look at the past three years and sing together for the military and the general without waiting for answers: “How much of my life before you is gone!”


  1. Well-known lyrics from Umm Kulthoum songs.  ↩