Reflections on the Egyptian revolution
Uprising in Egypt
Mohamed Morsi was declared President of Egypt little more than two weeks ago. Challenger and former President Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, sent President Morsi a telegram congratulating him on his victory: “I am pleased to present to you my sincere congratulations for your victory in the presidential election, wishing you success in the difficult task that has been trusted to you by the great people of Egypt.”
As thousands celebrated the victory of the Freedom and Justice Party—part of the 84-year-old Muslim Brotherhood organization—in Tahrir Square, just a few blocks away a much more somber mood prevailed.
“Let me enjoy another bottle of beer,” said an old man as he plunked some coins on the counter at a local grocery store. “Soon the Jama’a (Muslim Brotherhood) will ban it.” The store owner, Mr. Ahmad, nodded. “Allah yastur al balad, [May god protect the country]—it will be like Sudan or Pakistan.” Clearly, anxiety and divisions still persist in Egypt. The pharmacists at the nearby El-Ezaby Pharmacy also looked disillusioned. This profession in Egypt is overwhelmingly dominated by the Coptic Christian community, who represent about 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people, but 90 percent of whom voted for Shafik according to exit polls.Read Egypt at the crossroads.
What are the chances of successful democratic transitions in Tunisia and Egypt? I have just returned from both countries where many democratic activists shared notes with me about their situation, comparing it with the more than twenty successful and failed democratic transition attempts that I have observed throughout the world and written about.Read Contrasting progress on democracy in Tunisia and Egypt.
I have been in Egypt since February 6, 2011, where I have been witnessing events, talking to friends, activists and non-activists, and to the public in Cairo’s streets—and it is not an exaggeration to say that every corner in Egypt talks politics today. . . . From my observations of events and numerous discussions with others, Egypt’s relationship with the U.S appears, in some ways, to be absent from most of the heated discussions going on today. But upon closer examination, this relationship has been present in the revolution, not only during and after the peak of events—from January 25 to February 11—but also, I would suggest, in the very anti-imperialist underpinnings of the revolution, a revolution that the mainstream American media has miscast as one generated purely internally.Read America in the Egyptian revolution.
It has been a season of earthquakes, and the political ones in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Middle East may have shifted the moral high ground within Islamic opposition movements. Put simply, Tahrir Square may have trumped jihad.Read Have the jihadis lost the moral high ground to the rebels?.
Why have I chosen the term “asecular,” and not, say, “non-secular” or “post-secular,” to describe the power manifested by these protests? The term “non-secular” is too easily confused with the notion of the religious. And unlike post-secularity, asecularity is not a temporal marker. It allows for the possibility that asecularity has, in different forms, always been with us, even from within the traditions from which state secularity arises. Explorations of post-secularity typically try to identify the emergence of new norms. Such attempts fail to recognize that the process of identifying and distinguishing secular from non-secular norms is part of what secularism is, and that this process is integral to its power. In contrast, the term asecularity specifies a situation not where norms are no longer secular, but where the questions against which such norms are adduced and contested as answers are no longer seen as necessary.Read Asecular revolution.
The youth-driven Revolution of 2011, with its call for freedom and justice, is inscribing a new feminism, with a fresh lexicon and syntax. The new feminism—which does not go by the name “feminism,” but by its spirit—redefines the words freedom, liberation, justice, dignity, democracy, equality, and rights. It creates its own syntax, which, the dictionary reminds us, is the “arrangement of words to show their connection and relation.” It announces itself from deep within the Revolution, which aims to resurrect the fundamental principles and rights of citizens and human beings that were wantonly trampled down by the Mubarak government. The new feminism might be called, simply, “freedom, equality and justice for all.” It asserts itself in actions, straight-forwardness, and courage.Read Egypt’s revolution and the new feminism.
Thomas Farr, in his recent post, links the mass protests in the Arab world, combined with the persecution of Christian minorities in the region, and what he called “the Obama administration’s striking indifference to America’s statutory policy of advancing international religious freedom.” In my view, if the Obama administration is to do anything with respect to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), it should seek to repeal it and to dismantle the whole policy and institutional structure that it entails, because this statutory policy is an insult to and betrayal of victims of human rights violations throughout the world, including Christian minorities in the Arab world.Read Arab and American revolutions in history.
Invariably, contemporary discussions of Islam seem to begin and end with the relationship between Islam and politics—both anti-Islamic pundits and critics of Islamophobia vigorously assert that the mechanics and kinetics of this relationship are central to the evaluation of Islam today. A nexus of paranoia, fear, ignorance, and old-fashioned bigotry typically animates arguments on one side, while those on the other tend toward the polemics and apologetics of subaltern critique. Both camps, however, assume that discussions of Islam necessarily traverse and trouble the domain of the political. This exclusive emphasis on the political marks the difference between Islamphobia à la mode and the older Orientalist discourses of Edward Said’s interrogation: unlike today’s Islamophobia, classical Orientalism constituted a total romance of the East that subsumed political, aesthetic, religious, and cultural forms. In contrast, contemporary Euro-American public debate about Islam evinces what I call the compulsion of the political.Read Islam and the compulsion of the political.
The Tunisian revolution, as a revolution of ordinary people, inspired the demonstrations in Egypt, leading to Mubarak’s fall. It has opened the Tunisian people’s political imagination, which had been foreclosed by the elites in power, with the support of Tunisia’s European and American allies. This new narrative of change through popular revolution has expressed what was previously impossible to say openly: that a radical regime change is necessary and must lead to individual freedom (both economic and political), political representation, and government accountability. The self-immolation of Muhammad Bouazizi made manifest the economic and political plight of the Tunisian youth and the people’s distrust of a state that had humiliated them, repressed all dissent, and practiced corruption at all levels since the country became independent in 1956. Tunisians and Egyptians have expressed their desire to become citizens, rather than subjects, of their states.Read The power of a new political imagination.
Gene Sharp is the foremost strategist of nonviolent social change alive today. He holds a doctorate in political theory from Oxford and has had positions at Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Books like The Politics of Nonviolent Action and Waging Nonviolent Struggle, together with numerous pamphlets and other writings, have inspired and guided popular movements around the world for decades. They have been credited, most recently, as a major influence on the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. He continues his work as Senior Scholar of the Albert Einstein Institution, which operates out of his home in East Boston.Read The science of people power: An interview with Gene Sharp.
Waking up to what looked like a new dawn, and not only in Egypt, a woman on Tahrir Square, who had participated in the last phase of the revolution, said on the morning of Saturday, February 12, “I can’t imagine all this really happened: Who did it?”
This revolution has been dubbed the revolution of the “street,” the revolution of “shabab al-facebook” (“the youth of Facebook”), but also the revolution of al-Jazeera. An astounding variety of people took part in it: everyone from Sufi practitioners to organized soccer fans. The subject of revolution is always elusive. In this case, due to the extraordinary combination of self-organization on the ground and the supportive role of a vast array of so-called new media, the elusiveness is even more striking.Read The elusive subject of revolution.
For the last month, we have been witnessing, in Tunisia and Egypt, the first revolution of the twenty-first century. We are indeed fortunate to live in the presence of such a world-making event, even if we are not in the streets together with those who are making it a reality in daily life. Hastening to provide analyses of ongoing social and political alterations of such magnitude is always ill-advised, because world-historical events also alter the known modes and means of analysis, especially those crafted by pundits and academics.
Nonetheless, in an attempt to respond to the sublime sentiment of watching an entire people erupt in a collective desire for self-determination, which is, moreover, actualized in the very means of conducting and realizing this desire, I feel a personal exigency to articulate certain elementary observations on what I perceive to be the worldwide consequences of these alterations. I do so in the spirit, not of analysis, but of speculation, and with the self-conscious risk of being an amateur observer.Read Withdrawing consent.
The degree of success of the Egyptian revolution is still undecided as I write these lines. The situation is critical, and Egyptians are probably facing a long struggle ahead. Whatever the shape of the new normality that will emerge from the revolution, one thing is already certain: The generation of Egyptians who participate in this revolution can never again be governed the way they once were. Their experience of acting and changing their condition, the success of going out to the streets at all on January 25, of throwing back the police on January 28, of establishing law and order in the absence of the police after the lootings of January 29, of organizing mass peaceful demonstrations and putting the entire political system under pressure, has changed the way they understand their scope of possible action.Read Power, normality, revolution.
While the uprising in Egypt caught most observers of the Middle East off guard, it did not come out of the blue. The seeds of this spectacular mobilization had been sown as far back as the early 2000s and had been carefully cultivated by activists from across the political spectrum, many of these working online via Facebook, twitter, and within the Egyptian blogosphere. Working within these media, activists began to forge a new political language, one that cut across the institutional barriers that had until then polarized Egypt’s political terrain, between more Islamicly-oriented currents (most prominent among them, the Muslim Brotherhood) and secular-liberal ones.Read The road to Tahrir.
It is illuminating to ponder the recent events in Cairo’s Midan al-Tahrir as we try to understand the relationship between space, power, belonging, and resistance, as well as the productive interplay between physical and virtual space. Communication technologies such as the Internet (especially the websites Facebook and Twitter) and mobile phones aided the organization and publicizing of the protests in Egypt. At the same time, the marches, rallies, and the demonstrations of millions of Egyptians have brought a sense of visibility and immediacy that other means of communication alone would not have been able to secure. As I write this piece, the strong link between virtual and physical space continues to be central to the making of publics that are seen, heard, and legitimized.Read Space and resistance.
No one expected this unfolding series of events—certainly, no one of my generation (those of us in our mid-forties), nor of my parents’ generation, and the generation in between. But the death, in December 2010, of twenty-six-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, who doused himself in petrol and set himself alight, which was soon followed by that of Sidi Bouzid, who electrocuted himself, sparked Egyptian youth into an unprecedented mobilization for radical change—not just political, not just economic, and not only social, but a comprehensive call for the overthrow of a regime that is seen as embodying all that is socially unjust, politically illegitimate, economically corrupt, and legally impaired in Arab societies.Read The dignity of Egyptian youth.
The term ‘secular’ and its conceptual affiliates are doing a lot of work in misrepresenting the uprising in Egypt. ‘Secular’ politics has been taken to mean ‘good’ politics (limited democratization, stability, and support for the peace treaty with Israel), and ‘Islamic’ politics is being translated as ‘bad’ politics (the myriad dangers allegedly posed by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies). Accounts of the current situation in Egypt are handicapped by an inability to read politics in Egypt and Muslim-majority societies outside of this overly simplistic and politically distorting lens.Read Myths of Mubarak.