Editorials 25 May, 2014

Towards a Historiography of the Egyptian Revolution

Amr Uthman

Dr. Amr Uthman is an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities at Qatar University. He holds a doctorate in Islamic History from Princeton University in the US. Previously, he studied political science at the American University of Cairo, and obtained his Masters from St. Andrew’s College in Scotland. His research interests include all branches of Islamic studies and modern and contemporary Arab thought.

It is immediately apparent that written analyses of the Egyptian Revolution have flimsy foundations. Egypt’s January 25, 2011 revolution, which came to an end on July 3, 2013 following a military coup that overthrew Egypt’s first elected president, constitutes a historical event and must be treated as such. By the same token, as a historical event, the Egyptian Revolution should be studied on the basis of documentary historical evidence, the significance of which can only be understood if investigated through the formulation of meaningful questions that strive to generate historical knowledge and constructive historical thinking. To this end, this paper offers an introduction to the process of historicizing the revolution. In doing so, it does not seek to know “what really happened,” to the extent that such would even be possible, but to benefit from the lessons learned by Egypt, Egyptians, and Arabs as a whole.

All of those with an interest in history as a discipline are aware that written documents provide the main source of evidence for historical events. When recording contemporary history, the relative value of oral sources might even surpass that of documentary sources—official correspondence, administrative decisions, legal rulings, constitutional declarations, the minutes of meetings, the texts of memoranda of understanding, and similar official records—to include personal letters, opinion pieces, and analyses written at the time, all of which shed light on what is termed the “spirit” of the historical moment. They are essential for understanding the influences on public opinion and the collective consciousness during the phases of the revolution. Media and press coverage of events are not included here because such material is not a primary resource. If anything, press coverage of an event can become an obstacle to drafting its history, particularly in contexts where journalists do not respect the professional distinction between facts and opinions. More to the point, the chronology of the major events forming the Egyptian Revolution is well known and does not require documentation. The difficulty arises not in the events, but in the undisclosed aspects of those events. Here, the greatest challenge to historical research, and the best proof of the need for the systematic collection and documentation of information, can be found.

The historian’s task is to record the past “as it actually was,” to borrow a famous phrase from German historian Leopold von Ranke. From a purely epistemological perspective, however, the historical knowledge we possess rests upon the evidence available that can be documented. This means that our knowledge is conditional on the availability of information and subject to review on the basis of new information. Generally speaking, more documentary evidence appears over time because states may be reluctant to release specific documents to historians for reasons concerning “national security,” and individuals may also be reluctant to publish materials in their possession for a variety of reasons. Distance from the event is advantageous in this regard, but it does not preclude the fact that historical research will, in fact, become more difficult with time. An even more arduous task that grows with time is sifting through mountains of fabricated documents to find authentic records that have been amassed since the relevant incident. Historical knowledge, then, depends on the availability of sources.

There is, however, another element of equal importance, which is the historian’s ability to pose new and meaningful questions that aim to structure this information into a new form and place it within a new context. Here, the work of the historian can be compared to that of a master builder. The work of a builder is not just laying courses of bricks, but includes the attempt to arrange the bricks creatively so as to satisfy the minds and tastes of onlookers, and leave room for someone to build upon the final structure, for better or worse.

This paper does not deal with documents or the process of documentation, the methodology of which depends on the nature of the available documents. This is not because the systematic process of gathering evidence has yet to begin,[1] but because of current conditions and persistent attempts to rewrite the history of the revolution in a way that casts the old regime as the heroic protagonist of that revolution. Such attempts raise doubts about the relevant historical documentation, be it the material available now or that which is to be made available in the future. The possibility that documents considered truly valuable for writing the history of the revolution have been destroyed or subject to systematic falsification cannot be ruled out. Falsifying the record becomes a trivial matter for those who usurped the will of an entire people.

Ultimately, this paper aims to raise questions on the Egyptian Revolution. Indeed, formulating questions is one of the most important skills for a historian. If the historian fails to pose meaningful questions, questions that aim to shed light on the hidden aspects of the historical event, his or her writing is implicitly questionable. The focus here is on “meaningful,” rather than the “right” questions: a historical question is only productive and meaningful if it is right, but not necessarily vice versa.

A historian’s ability to pose meaningful questions becomes apparent over time, alongside his or her own personal and academic capabilities, and in tandem with the availability of information related to the matter in question. This can be expressed through the words of Chinese politician Zhou Enlai, who commented on the significance of the French Revolution some two centuries after the event, noting that “It is too soon to say”.[2] Perhaps Zhou thought that further documents would come to light as time went on, which did indeed occur, but it is more likely that he believed the treatment of the available documents would change. Perhaps it would mature with the creative power of human reason to pose new questions that could cast light on hitherto hidden aspects of an event. This means that not only can the number of questions asked change, but also that the questions themselves can be modified and improved.

Despite this modality, these questions may encourage fresh thinking, challenge what is assumed or taken as “fact,” and raise further questions based on new problems brought to the surface. If this had not been the case, how else would one explain the proliferation of academic scholarship on the French Revolution that continues even today?

It is no secret that the formulation of questions reflects the historian’s biases, whether deliberately and consciously or otherwise. Without doubt, the crucial role played by formulating questions in a skillful and creative way cannot be overstated. It is no exaggeration to claim that a main part of the counterrevolution’s success, in Egypt as in other cases, lies in directing public opinion toward non-meaningful questions. This is a familiar ploy in falsifying awareness and producing the ignorance dictatorships depend on to survive. This is not to downplay the excessive use of violent repression—which is certainly used—but to recognize the limits of those means over the long term. Side-tracking a country’s people into answering questions that hold no meaning might be a deliberate tactic aimed at diverting public attention away from behind-the-scenes deal brokering.

Such questions, then, need to be divided into overarching, meta-questions and partial, supplementary questions. Partial questions aim to get at the information, which is where the importance of documentation and other tools of historical “proof” comes in. These questions to construct answers to the overarching questions that structure this information in preparation for constructing the general image of an historical event. Unlike partial questions, to which clear answers may be found in a single document, these meta-questions are marked by a degree of philosophical generality unsatisfied by partial answers. The partial questions, however, need the global questions to impart greater meaning than the direct and limited meaning inherent in them.

In this context, and despite the controversy it might cause, perhaps the most significant overarching question is: could the events of January 25, 2011 truly be described as a revolution? Such a question, however, should not necessarily lead to questions along the lines of: “What is a revolution?,” for historians, and intellectuals in general, must resist posing an endless chain of questions, where the answer to every question depends on the answer to other questions, themselves dependent on prior questions and so on. The question raised in this context is linked to the treatment of the events on January 25 as a popular revolution; that is, a revolution presumably supported by the vast majority of the Egyptian people, indicating that they were convinced of its necessity and moral and political justifications, saw no alternative to it, and were prepared to bear its consequences in both the short and long term. This global question and the sub-questions subsumed under it do not aim at a linguistic or semantic debate over the meaning of the term “revolution”. Let those who wish to define revolution do so as they please, but in all cases, judgment on the matter requires answering the same questions as part of other questions. Researchers’ efforts to answer these questions, irrespective of how well documented their position is, may illuminate previously unconsidered aspects which may confirm their beliefs or encourage a re-examination of them.

Questioning the nature of the Egyptian Revolution in this case is not impertinent, though there are some indications that might demonstrate the existence of a certain degree of disregard or denial of certain points. During the revolution, some Egyptians actively participated by taking part in the protests, while others gave moral support, either due to distance or an inability to actively participate. Others had a principled opposition to the revolution for a variety of reasons, including their desire to avoid insulting a president who was “growing old,” complacency with the status quo even if it was against their will and interests, and fear of the unknown. Additionally, before the event can be called a revolution, some estimates of the numbers have to be made because it is impossible to find reliable data on the numbers of those who actively participated in the revolution, those who supported it, and those who opposed it for whichever reasons.

Once that is done, one would then be able to rethink what it means for the previous regime’s prime minister to have obtained approximately half the votes in the first post-revolution presidential elections. This is particularly surprising in view of the media discourse prevalent at the time, which presented Shafiq as the regime’s candidate and Morsi as the candidate of the revolution. One can then also study the relationship between this result, the number of protestors on June 30, 2013, and the number of supporters for the leader of the coup against an elected president; in other words, is there a quantifiable relationship between the proportion of Egyptians who opposed the revolution and those who voted for the former Prime Minister Shafiq, and between the June 30, and those who support the current regime?

A second question concerns the aims of the protests. Was there any agreement, even if undisclosed, over the aim of the revolution? Did the revolution’s ultimate aim evolve from limited secondary aims, such as removing the government, specific ministers, or specific policies, into more radical goals, such as regime change? If that was the case, how did people understand regime change? Why did the protests disperse with the fall of the regime head? How did protestors conclude that their revolution had been completed? What would such a belief among the protestors imply about their political culture? If the goals of the protests underwent any change or evolution, what led to this development, and who was responsible for it?

The final partial question points to a larger meta-question about the leadership of “the revolutionary consciousness”. Was the Egyptian Revolution really leaderless, as has been stated? Leadership in this context does not mean the identity of those calling for revolution, as that group did not claim to be leaders in the first place. Instead, leadership alludes to those capable of creating a consciousness that continued to blaze for 18 days from the beginning of events until the fall of the head of the regime. While it is highly unlikely that such a state of collective revolutionary consciousness randomly and instantaneously formed, or was able to sustain itself for nearly three weeks, it is equally true that we do not know of any person or group who had the capacity to create said consciousness, ensure its presence, and direct it. This question may be connected to some subsidiary events during the protests, such as negotiations that took place between some parties, though negotiations currently only take place on the assumption that the participating parties are able to stick to any agreements made. Was there a party able to negotiate in the name of the revolution, with a presumed ability to influence its course—an assumption that also applies to the other side?

Another overarching question deals with the nature of the state and the regime, but it is important to note that the state is not the regime. For the regime to present itself as the state is perhaps the most effective way known to dissimulate, since the call to overthrow the regime and its pillars becomes synonymous with the call to overthrow the state. It is no secret that this deliberate obscuration has played a role in counterrevolutionary propaganda.

Because a regime is a group of alliances that make use of the state and its institutions, a revolution basically tries to liberate the state from the existing regime. However, because of the close-knit and complex relationship between the regime and the state, especially when they have been deemed coterminous for a many years, the boundaries between them blur. In this context, one needs to question whether the parties to the Egyptian Revolution are able to differentiate between state and regime, and whether they have a vision of how to untangle them so as to bring an end to the regime while preserving state institutions. One might also ask how these parties view the state in general, or how they conceive of the nature of the state they would build once the old state is freed from the existing regime.

In contrast, one could ask in general whether the most important thing about the regime is the group of people and alliances that comprise it or the philosophy that governs it. People and alliances may change, but the regime remains the same. Similarly, is it the nature of the state that imparts modern regimes with a particular form, or is it these regimes that form the apparatus and institutions of the state in a way to maximize their interests? These questions stem from political philosophy, and as such, the historian may need to put them aside so as not to fall into the trap of a never-ending line of enquiry. Nevertheless, an awareness of these questions is essential for reading the documents and understanding the various party positions and the course of events in general.

The next global question concerns the bodies that were formed after the revolution. Can these bodies be categorized on the basis of their positions toward the revolution and their understanding of it? What led these bodies to adopt specific positions, enter into alliances, or arrive at understandings with other, specific parties? What role did ideological attitudes play in this regard? What was the role played by political factors? In other words, what led each party, whether pro- or anti-revolution, to act the way it did?

The relationship between the old regime, as well as the first regime engendered by the revolution, with the state also needs to be examined. Did the old regime lose control of the state at any time? Conversely, was the regime produced by the revolution able to establish real control over state institutions? Did this new regime try to form an alliance or reach an understanding with the old regime, or did it opt for confrontation? If it chose the former, was that a tactical move or a strategic position? Did such an alliance or understanding, if it existed, come at the expense of some other party? In other words, did the new regime share the same conception as the old regime regarding the nature of power and try to take its place in running the same state, or perhaps jointly running affairs with it? If that was possible, why did this alliance or understanding fail?

The role of foreign intervention throughout the entire path of the revolution creates another overarching question. Which regional and international players had influence over events during the two and a half years that have passed since the revolution? How extensive was any such influence? What were their interests? What was the nature of the contacts and understanding with the various players, and what support did they provide? Did some of these positions change? If so, why? Were certain foreign players motivated by ideology, as was the case with some of the domestic players, or were all understandings and alliances based on purely political foundations?

The final question relates to the counterrevolution. When did it start? Who participated? How did it succeed? Evidently, the parties of the counterrevolution were elements of the regime that the revolution sought to oust. While this might be the correct answer, it still requires study and documentation. When political regimes feel threatened, they attempt to reproduce themselves in new form, akin to a virus mutating to avoid the risk of vaccination. There is thus a need for information related to the events of February 11, 2011, when the head of the regime was removed. Was his overthrow real or tactical? How did some pillars of the old regime manage to keep going after the fall of some of their allies, and how was it possible to create new alliances? Were these forces always a driver of events as part of a long-term strategy to regain the initiative, or were they at times forced to respond? If one can say with certainty that the old regime did not fall, to what extent was it weakened? How was it capable of utilizing so much of what seemed inimical to its own interests in order to attack the revolution? These questions are connected to the entities that formed after the revolution and the alliances and understandings that they took part in, where it becomes possible once again to talk about the different parties’ understandings of the regime and the state and the convoluted relationship between them.

Even if the answers to some of these questions seem obvious, this would not necessarily indicate that there is historical or logical/rational proof for any such answers. If the aim is understanding, then what is needed now, from a historical perspective, is documentation, which is the first step in writing the story of the Egyptian revolution on a basis that transcends personal inclinations, ideological biases, political affiliations, and the worldviews of all those who undertake this writing. This is no easy task given that the event being studied continues to unfold before our eyes, that events which will certainly provide information and documents that enable further questions to be asked or existing questions to be reformulated will continue to unravel. At the same time, we do not have the luxury of time. We must either understand what happened and learn from it, or repeat the same mistakes and remain in a vicious cycle of transient optimism followed by painful and ongoing disillusionment.

In dealing with the Egyptian Revolution as a historical event, putting forward a particular series of events that organizes commonly accepted beliefs into a dazzling narrative based on ready-made theories is the easiest thing. Such an approach, however, carries little academic weight, and is unlikely to survive beyond the historical moment. The more difficult approach is also the more meaningful and productive. What is productive is the posing of questions and documenting information, and from there, beginning to construct the picture on academic foundations as far as historical knowledge permits.

This first step described throughout the paper cannot be completed or productive in itself until the second step has begun: that is, the point where questions intersect documentation in an ongoing dialectic able to produce firm historical knowledge.

This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation Department. To read the original Arabic version, click here.

[1] There have been serious attempts to do this, but it appears that they have been confronted with serious obstacles put up by various parties.

[2] I mention this quotation while maintaining an awareness that Zhou Enlai was referring to the student demonstrations in Paris in 1968, not the French Revolution itself as is commonly believed. Nevertheless, the profusion of academic research on the French Revolution confirms that Zhou’s quote applies to that change, too.