It's been eight years since the revolt in Egypt and the irony is that the country is more authoritarian now then it's ever been - and so are its backers.
Once again we mark another anniversary of Egypt’s January 25 revolution. Remarkably, it’s now eight years since Egyptians, inspired by the spark lit by Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunis, took to the streets in a chain of events that would lead to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt.
What disturbs me most when marking these anniversaries is not the normal tendency of time to fade our memories of it, but the very deliberate and successful attempts of the regime to distort them.
It has become common within op-eds or other retrospectives on January 25 to ask if the whole thing was worth it? Though entirely understandable given the rise of Sisi’s counter-revolution state that eclipses Mubarak’s tyranny in the scope and scale of its terror, the question is essentially meaningless.
If the revolution weren’t worth it, it would never have happened.
What gave the January 25 revolution its ‘worth’ was precisely the fact that Egyptians, from all walks of life, lived in a system that did not provide them with the most basic rights. Any attempts to gain rights were crushed violently by the state.
This, of course, took place on multiple different levels, from the systemic to the interpersonal; from the millions trapped in poverty and the destruction of social services, to the brutal murder and mutilation of Khaled Said, whose only ‘crime’ was exposing drug-dealing cops (a common practice within Egypt’s endemically corrupt security forces).
Revolutions are rarely planned. It’s entirely true that often organised forces work within revolutions, but there is perhaps no finer example of the spontaneous nature of revolution than the phenomenon of the ‘Arab Spring’. Events that erupted like dominos falling and without traditional notions of ‘leadership’.
Spontaneity should never be mistaken as a synonym for mindlessness. Those who occupied Tahrir and resolutely stayed in the square—as well as the millions more around Egypt who demonstrated and supported them—knew precisely what they wanted. They wanted to live in an Egypt where they were, for the first time, recognised as people who had hopes, dreams and aspirations. This might appear vague, but they were realised in the short-lived January 25 democracy delivered after the fall of Mubarak.
Any work on the January 25 revolution thus cannot avoid emphasising its antithesis, namely, the counter-revolution carried out mostly by apparatuses of the Egyptian state, as well as less formal but often overlapping elite social groups. For these forces, democracy was seen as synonymous with a decline of the kleptocracy that dominated Egypt for decades.
Social apartheid and the myth of Sisi as a saviour
The counter-revolutionaries did well to spook the populace with nightmarish ideas about Egypt under the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and Islamic democracy making Egypt ‘the next Iran’.
However, the larger sociological reality was that vast swathes of Egyptians (including many leftists and liberals who took part on January 25) did suddenly realise that with the democracy, they were suddenly giving political power to Egyptians who came from cultures and held beliefs completely alien to Egypt’s broad elites.
This dynamic of social apartheid was what lurked behind the propaganda relating to Morsi heralding an Egyptian theocracy. But, of course, these leftists and liberals were simply useful idiots: Abdel Fattah El Sisi was the figurehead of the counter-revolution, while like-minded regional forces, namely the actual theocracies of the UAE and Saudi, invested billions in the endeavour to ensure its success and their prosperity.
Another common question, particularly among the Western media, is to wonder whether Egypt is ‘better off’ under Sisi than it was during the one year of Egyptian democracy. This line of questioning is absurd on its terms and those who ask it more often than not only see societies through personal ideological, economic lenses, while completely and quite knowingly skating over the fact that Sisi’s Egypt is built on the bodies of thousands of dead Egyptians, thousands more tortured, as well as indefinitely incarcerated, disappeared and banished.
The individual liberties of Egyptians have never been more restricted and curtailed at any point in Egyptian history than right now.
Sisi’s economic policies, crafted by the IMF, have reduced the already precarious, third world living standards of millions of Egyptians. In combination with this, his regime, mostly in connivance with his senior partners in crime the UAE and Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, has undertaken a series of so-called ‘mega-projects’ that are aimed only at Egyptian and regional elites.
All of this is underlined by Egypt’s praetorian kleptocracy – a military state in which the system of economic patronage isn’t simply overseen by military overlords but actively controlled and exploited by them.
The regime has sought to entirely erase the demands and spirit of January 25 from the Egyptian consciousness. And while one could only conclude that they’ve been generally successful in this endeavour as it applies to the population at large, the fact that Sisi continues his reign of terror through an unending ‘war on terror’, one which primarily targets progressive opponents of his rule, would indicate that the ‘stability’ of his regime is not as clear cut as many would imagine.
This is precisely why Sisi during the last non-election arrested all the legitimate candidates who sought to run against him. This is why he has turned Egypt’s universities, the sites of so much resistance and the centres of free thought, into ideologically conditioned fortresses.
The revolution will not be anaesthetised
The spirit of January 25 might be ebbing away as the years pass, distorted and buried by malicious propaganda and drowned in the blood of its progeny, but, on some level, it persists.
One of the small elements of hope that endured after the coup in Egypt was the fact that while every front in the Arab spring has its unique national dynamics, the revolutions existed as links in a broader chain against regional tyranny. But the counter-revolutionaries understood this also.
Syria went from a revolution to a massacre to a civil war to genocide all under the callous gaze of the increasingly uncivilised ‘civilised’ world and underwritten by huge intervention from foreign imperialist powers, namely Russia and Iran.
Yemen has become a near-genocidal catastrophe, one authored entirely by Saudi and the UAE. Libya has been consumed by foreign interference, particularly from the UAE and Saudi, with support from European powers, while the UAE, as testified by former Tunisian president Monsef Marzouki, has been seeking to undermine and sabotage the democracy in Tunis, the Arab Spring’s only real success story.
Only fools cannot see the failure of self-proclaimed democrats to stand up for the universal principles of democracy and liberty in the Arab Spring with the rise of global authoritarianism.
In contrast to the hardly stable world of 2011, we live in a world now where forces of counter-revolution, illiberalism, authoritarianism and populism reign supreme. One of the old lines about the Arab spring was that the people involved looked towards the West and saw the freedoms and liberties they enjoyed and realised that they deserved the same.
Who could have predicted that eight years after Bouazizi made the ultimate sacrifice that the West with its liberal democracies, would come to resemble the Arab tyrannies more than the Arab world would come to resemble the West?
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