In Translation: Five Years On.. Did the Egyptian Revolution Fail?

The Egyptian authorities were so worried about the anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak that they reportedly inspected hundreds of apartments Downtown and forced young people to show their social media accounts. They also shut down many cultural venues that are gathering places (being young, being online, and hanging out Downtown are now explicitly grounds for suspicion). 

A lot of media is publishing eulogies of the 2011 Egyptians uprising, asking those who supported it to reflect on its disappointing denouement. It can be painful and a bit frustrating to read these pieces (I think media professionals themselves -- and I include myself -- as well as pundits and Western politicians, could just as well be asked what they got "terribly wrong"). That said we have one of our own, translated as usually by the professional team of Industry Arabic

Rabab El Mahdi is a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. She was also an active participant in post-2011 politics, notably when she acted as an advisor to the presidential campaign of moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (El Mahdi herself is a staunch leftist). This piece takes a brooders view at the current moment of crisis, not just in the Middle East but in the world's economic and political systems. 


Rabab El Mahdi, al-Shorouq, 21 January 2016

A mixture of suppressed anger, sorrow and fatigue engulfs the city known as “victorious,” [Ed. Note: One of the meanings of Cairo] a rough but vibrant city. Over the past five years the city has changed – and, to my mind, not necessarily for the worse, as the followers of the “good old days” school of thinking like to put forth. However, it has changed and I am almost certain that it will never be the same. Those who supported the revolution and thought that something better was possible have become frustrated and dispersed; those who followed the revolution with interest and anticipation have become fatigued; and those who opposed the revolution and continue to do so, believing it to be a conspiracy, are still afflicted by the fear caused by that earthquake in 2011, whose consequences, though they have temporarily subsided, remain present. The question shared by all these groups, whatever their political orientation, is: What next? This question is on everyone’s minds, even if it is not spoken aloud. But the question that remains of particular concern to the majority of those who dreamed of and believed in the 2011 revolution in Egypt is: Did the revolution fail?

I do not think that any one of us, whatever they claim, can definitively answer this question, and anyone who attempts to do so is just showing that they are not aware of the limits of their knowledge. However, there are in my opinion some necessary starting points, even if they are not enough for us to be able to understand what happened and therefore—most importantly—what can happen in the future.

We must realize that what Egypt has been going through over the past five years is not just a political movement or even an aborted attempt at a revolution, it is a historical process of change that involves society as a whole, including its political and even its cultural structures. Therefore, this process could last for decades. The post-colonial state that was formed in the middle of the last century has reached its end. In its current form, it is no longer able to fulfill its various roles managing society or even to achieve the requirement of being accepted by new generations, who are no longer satisfied with the idea of exchanging freedom for a non-existent economic security or to relinquish their personal dignity in a police state under the pretext of security and national autonomy. We are in the midst of a battle to redefine and to question what had previously been a given.

The fervor surrounding the idea of national independence and international conspiracies is no longer enough to subdue the generations of the new millennium, especially those whose political awareness was formed by the revolution, even if they did not participate in it. The concepts of the nation, pride and dignity have become part of the public debate and are linked to personal lives and no longer merely abstract concepts. Thus, the famous song lyric: “Don’t say, ‘What has Egypt done for us?’” is no longer a sufficient response to their questions and aspirations to a better individual and public life. Just as the project of the independent state was the dream of  20th century generations, the dream of a free society is the project of 21st century generations. From another perspective, the welfare state capable of providing social advancement through education and employment—even if that state is authoritarian—has ended. With the crisis of global capitalism and of the ambitions to build of the Gulf states, the Egyptian state is no longer able to meet the needs of its citizens. It cannot do so by way of an “industrial renaissance,” as in the era of Nasser, by offering a model like Sadat’s “Infitah” or even by way of the rentier state model (exporting labor to the Gulf and relying on their remittances), as was the case during the Mubarak era. For global and regional reasons, all of these economic models have been exhausted.

At the same time, society is experiencing these labor pains not only at the level of the relationship to the state, but also at the level of social and cultural patterns and individual relations. Towns and villages have evolved into small cities; the state’s domination over local media, education and cultural institutions is being confronted by the ungovernable openness of the internet and the diversity of resources for self-education; control by the religious establishment is being confronted by the rise of religious currents that may be worse and more extremist, but that are disrupting the idea of religion being monopolized or dominated by a single institution. The struggle among these views is reshaping society and the individual in a historic sense not seen since the late 19th and early 20th century with the end of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the concept of Arab nationalism and the emancipation of women, etc. This is a struggle that surpasses the idea of a political movement, which has become merely the outer layer of the deeper changes that society is experiencing.

Furthermore, the region and the world are witnessing rapid transformations that affect us, though some had thought that they didn’t. The regional scene has come to resemble what Europe and the world went through during the period of the first half of the 20th century: world wars, the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism and Nazism, the end of the old colonial powers and the Ottoman Empire, the rise of national movements, the drawing of borders for new states and the beginning of the Cold War. With the rise of non-state actors, such as ISIS and even Hezbollah as regional actors and the shift in the network of state alliances -- with the emergence of Iran and Turkey and the rise of China and Russia as states with international ambitions particularly focused in the region -- the set and the nature of regional actors has changed, as has the game itself. Thus, it is no longer possible to restrict oneself to long-term, low-level conflict management. On the contrary, what we see is an intensification and escalation, up to the moment of an imminent explosion that will redraw the map of the region – that may redraw even the nature of the states and their borders as we have known them over the last century and the concept of the state’s control over the instruments of legitimate violence and fixed territorial borders, which we studied in political science.

At the same time, the world has been witnessing successive crises, beginning with the 2008 financial crisis and through the recent crisis in Greece. These crises threaten the nature of the global economic system as we know it or at least indicate the scale of the crisis created by the global capitalist system. In parallel, we see the rise of movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy and the demise of political parties as the principal instrument for managing conflicts and political competition as well as the rise of far-right discourse in Europe and the Arab world (though their tools and motivations differ). These variables reflect the magnitude of the change that is overtaking to the world as a whole, and even those ideas and concepts the world had thought settled, such as the optimal political form and the meaning and administration of democracy.

In sum, we are at the beginning of the end of a historic phase domestically, regionally and globally, even if that does not mean that this phase will end tomorrow. The starting point is to understand the nature of this phase and then to begin to pose questions about what we, as individuals and as groups, hope for in order to shape the future and to draft preliminary plans for how to achieve it, while keeping in mind that both state violence and non-state violence are an unsustainable situation. In this sense, judging the outcomes of the Egyptian Revolution or what is called the Arab Spring is premature. We are witnessing the beginning of the final chapter of a stage in the evolution of human society, but how this final scene will end has yet to be decided. May God have mercy on all the martyrs, refugees, prisoners and all those who came out and took action, only wanting a better future for humankind.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.