Learning from past mistakes

Right from the word go, the Egyptian writer Mansoura Ez-Eldin was part of the protests against the Mubarak regime in Tahrir Square in January 2011. She became a chronicler of the revolution, reporting daily on the unrest in the Egyptian capital. In this essay, she outlines the mistakes made by the former revolutionary movement and explains why Egypt is now undergoing an authoritarian restoration

By Mansura Eseddin

The acquittal of Hosni Mubarak came as no surprise. From the start, everything pointed to the fact that he would be acquitted. Yet although it was in no way surprising, his acquittal was still a hard slap in the face for all those who had taken part in the 25 January revolution.

After all, the message behind the acquittal is clear: with this decision, justice in Egypt has been suspended indefinitely; the counter-revolution has successfully settled in and made short work of almost everything that remained in the collective memory as an achievement of the revolution. I consciously use the word "almost" here, since the most important legacy of the turmoil may well be that the large sections of the Egyptian population, who had previously been entirely apolitical and had withdrawn into their private lives, have become politicised. It will be possible to build on this legacy, as long as there is no fresh withdrawal into the private sphere.

The body of the 25 January revolution may be lying almost lifelessly in a vast pool of blood, but the dreams live on in people's minds. All the more so because the things that caused the revolutionary uprising continue to exist and are now coupled with the accumulated injustices visited on the Egyptians over the past four years.

Egyptian women celebrate the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak on Tahrir Square in Cairo (photo: Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)
From revolutionary euphoria to the sobering reality of life under Sisi: "justice in Egypt has been suspended indefinitely; the counter-revolution has successfully settled in and made short work of almost everything that remained in the collective memory as an achievement of the revolution," writes Mansoura Ez-Eldin

Learning from mistakes

However, it is only justifiable to hope for a revival of the uprising that began on 25 January 2011 if lessons are learned from the mistakes of the revolution and everything possible is done to ensure they are not repeated. And even then, there will only be hope if we admit to ourselves that this revolution was not all that revolutionary, even though many people still stubbornly insist on referring to the turmoil in Egypt as a revolution, just because revolution was called for on social networks.

Even though the break with the Mubarak regime was shouted from the rooftops in the course of this revolution, the revolution ultimately slipped onto a course that focussed much more on reform. There was silent acceptance of the fact that the supreme military council was able to take charge during the first phase of the transition. At the same time, many of the revolution's leading minds deliberately avoided taking charge of state business, instead turning their attention to the justice system, to ensure it would break completely with the opponents of the revolution. Ultimately, they were content to leave it at that, and in so doing they took a number of constitutional as well as legal wrong turns.

Moreover, although it appeared that the main goal of the 25 January revolution was to get rid of the almighty father-figure and the old, ossified political caste, this demand obviously did not go far enough and remained an illusion in view of the prevailing political conditions.

This fact became particularly clear when the political parties that came into being after the revolution were once again characterised by the usual hierarchies to be found in the Egyptian political spectrum: above all, age was the factor that decided who would occupy the leadership positions in political parties – no matter what their ideological standpoint. The younger generation with its alternative political visions was left empty-handed and was once more relegated to the role of mere standard-bearer.

After Mubarak stepped down, the demand for retribution for the lives of the many victims of the revolution became the most pressing matter; all the other important demands had to be deferred even though it should be obvious that one demand alone, no matter how important, cannot be valued so highly that all others are immediately suppressed.

Former Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi (right), talking to two senior members of the army, including former defence minister and current president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (centre) in December 2012 (photo: dpa)
Egypt's secular revolutionaries were caught between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Ez-Eldin, in their alliances with one camp or the other, the secular forces in Egypt "either always surrendered entirely to the conditions placed on them or they made demands that were then simply ignored, which they accepted without a whimper"

The different camps in Egypt

On the one hand, there are those in Egypt who have built the 25 January revolution up into a kind of Holy Grail that must neither be touched nor criticised – even if the aim is to save it or put it back on the "right track". And by "right track" I do not necessarily mean a relaunching of major  protests or demonstrations, but any conceivable path that would guarantee the realisation of the goals of 25 January, namely the setting up of a civil, democratic government built on the principles of constitutional rights and human rights.

On the other hand, there are those who champion the "strong state", who would sacrifice everything to protect it from collapse, without realising that the huge use of violence by the state and the rising number of injustices and corruption will inevitably lead to its destruction.

In between these two camps are those who want to keep alive the memory that the revolution was simply a means of rejecting despotism and injustice in order to give people a more dignified life but who do not under any circumstances want to see the revolution viewed as an end in itself.

For their part, the Islamists are mired in fantasies of a pure Islamic identity, which they revere like a holy cow, complete disregarding the prevailing religious and cultural diversity in Egyptian society. They are prepared to sacrifice all the goals of the January revolution for their ideal. The fact that parts of the Islamist movement are now using terrorism and force of arms makes their resolutions to work 'for the revolution' seem farcical. The Muslim Brotherhood's attempts to participate in every protest against the Sisi regime in order to once again use these protests to their own ends, robs the people of any kind of sympathy for them.

Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Cairo demonstrating against the ousting of Mohammed Morsi and the massacre of Rabia Square (photo: dpa)
Looking backwards, not forwards: "Retreating into the role of victim did little to help them [secularists and the Muslim Brotherhood] rectify their own mistakes or implement demands that would help them escape from the vicious circle of eternal self-pity and take an active role in the reconstruction of society," writes Mansoura Ez-Eldin

Unprepared for the consequences of revolution

For decades, a group of Egyptian oppositionists predicted the unavoidable end of the dictatorship and the approach of revolutionary turmoil. They clung to this conviction even when everyone else had stopped believing them. But when the turmoil actually arrived, nobody was prepared for it, or rather: nobody could see what the consequences of this revolution would be.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood was the first political force to use the "January Revolution" for its own ends, it was not prepared for being in power, having got used to being an eternal underground organisation, or at best an opposition party, ever since it was founded. And so, after Mohammed Morsi became president, it ruled in the style of an underground organisation.

Meanwhile, the parties belonging to the liberal and left-wing camps were exposed as being entirely disunited and without any influence, making them playthings in the hands of the two strongest parties: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nor did these secular forces manage to hold the balance of power between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. In their alliances with one camp or the other, they either always surrendered entirely to the conditions placed on them or they made demands that were then simply ignored, which they accepted without a whimper. The main reason for this was that none of the politicians who had set themselves up as the spokespersons of the non-Islamic revolutionary powers was able to exert any influence on the course their country was taking.

Instead of looking for the reasons for their failure and avoiding these mistakes in the future, these powers surrendered to self-pity and withdrew from public life, content in the conviction that they were "morally superior". From this point on, they morally condemned above all those who had, or were suspected of having, betrayed the revolution or stood in its way. In doing so, however, they intentionally avoided all self-criticism – the very thing that would have helped them to correct their own mistakes and regain credibility and public support.

Mansoura Ez-Eldin (photo: Arian Fariborz)
Mansoura Ez-Eldin was born in the Nile Delta in Egypt in 1976. She studied journalism at the University of Cairo and worked at "Akhbar al-Adab", one of the most important literary magazines in Egypt until August 2011. Her novels have been translated into several different languages. In 2010, she was selected as one of the best Arabic-speaking authors under the age of 40 and was the only woman to be nominated for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction

Playing the victim

Instead, they enjoyed playing the victims: the revolution had been betrayed, they said; "the true revolutionaries" had been left in the lurch by everyone else. Nevertheless, they added, they would selflessly continue to carry the "holy flame of the revolution". This was the myth they peddled. At the same time, they cursed the "betrayal of the revolution" as if it were a battle between the powers of heaven and hell.

Later on, after the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi and the massacre on Rabia Square in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood did the very same thing. In both cases, however, retreating into the role of victim did little to help them rectify their own mistakes or implement demands that would help them escape from the vicious circle of eternal self-pity and play an active role in the reconstruction of society.

However, if the relatively short period that the Muslim Brotherhood spent in government represents a form of counter-revolution, then the rule of those currently in power represents it all the more – and in a much more dangerous form too. The people who still uphold the idea of a civil, democratic state based on justice, regard for human rights and the values of civil society, can only be successful if they distance themselves from the Islamists.

This argument is all the more true when seen against the backdrop of the growing strength of both armed jihadist groups and the people who defend the repressive approach of the current rulers. The defenders of a democratic state have to learn from the mistakes of the past, and must above all re-form, eliminating any weaknesses and continuing to work on the structure of their party and organisation, even if the current regime is doing all it can to get the public realm entirely under its control and thwart all other forms of political work.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the Muslim Brotherhood, then it is that perseverance pays off: they have survived politically for 80 years just by carrying on and making use of every bit of leeway, however small, in spite of all attempts to ban or curtail their activities.

In saying this, my intention is not to conceal how complex the situation is in Egypt today or how dangerous the challenges are that the current regime is creating with its attempts at absolute suppression of any kind of opposition. I merely want to call for a little more self-criticism and involvement that would allow the forces of change to remain present in the public eye and to keep the dream of "bread, freedom and social justice" alive.

Mansoura Ez-Eldin

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin