العنوان هنا
Studies 10 September, 2013

Revolution against Revolution, the Street against the People, and Counter-Revolution

Azmi Bishara

General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies (DI). Bishara is a leading Arab researcher and intellectual with numerous books and academic publications on political thought, social theory and philosophy. He was named by Le Nouveau Magazine Littéraire as one of the world’s most influential thinkers. His publications in Arabic include Civil Society: A Critical Study (1996); From the Jewishness of the State to Sharon (2004); On The Arab Question: An Introduction to an Arab Democratic Manifesto (2007); To Be an Arab in Our Times (2009); On Revolution and Susceptibility to Revolution (2012); Religion and Secularism in Historical Context (in 3 vols., 2013, 2015); The Army and Political Power in the Arab Context: Theoretical Problems (2017); The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh): A General Framework and Critical Contribution to Understanding the Phenomenon (2018); What is Populism? (2019) and Democratic Transition and its Problems: Theoretical Lessons from Arab Experiences (2020). Some of these works have become key references within their respective field. His latest publication titled The Question of the State: Philosophy, Theory, and Context (2023).

Bishara’s English publications include Palestine: Matters of Truth and Justice (Hurst, 2022); On Salafism: Concepts and Contexts (Stanford University Press, 2022); Sectarianism without Sects (Oxford University Press, 2021), among other writings. His trilogy on the Arab revolutions, published by I.B. Tauris, consists of Understanding Revolutions: Opening Acts in Tunisia (2021); Egypt: Revolution, Failed Transition and Counter-Revolution (2022); and Syria 2011-2013: Revolution and Tyranny before the Mayhem (2023), in which he provides a theoretical analysis in addition to a rich, comprehensive and lucid assessment of the revolutions in three Arab countries: Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

Egypt's January 25 protests did not start as a revolution but as an angry popular movement against the practices of the Egyptian security agencies. These are the same masses that are claimed to have joined a new revolution: the June 30 Revolution. The protests of January 25, 2011 broke out in response to the momentum created by the Tunisian revolution, but they were also the result of an accumulation of political experience that was contextual to Egypt. The "Egyptian Mohammed Bouazizi" was Khalid Saeed, a young activist who died under torture and whose murder was followed by a statement from the Police and the Interior Ministry-very similar to statements that we are seeing these days-claiming that Khalid Saeed died after having swallowed a cigarette containing drugs. Subsequently, National Police Day was chosen as the date for Egypt's "Day of Rage".

acrobat Icon The January 25 demonstrations were a protest against the practices of the Egyptian police and the security services, practices that at the very least resulted in beatings, torture, and arbitrary arrests, and at times ended in murder. Typically, these would be justified and covered-up through a web of lies, for murder and lies are concomitant to the culture of the security agencies that serve despotic regimes. What we are witnessing today are the very same security agencies at work, defiantly unchanged in their behavior, policies, practices, and ploys. This has been proven by these agencies' behaviors on several occasions throughout the transitional period, crowned by the horrific massacre that accompanied the breaking-up of the Rabia al-Adawiya sit-in on August 14, and the practices that followed the massacre.[1]

It would be logical to speculate that since the security agencies did not change, and since the first popular movement on January 25 was directed against them, their persistence in desisting reform constitutes an undermining of one of the most important aims of the revolution. Furthermore, if these security agencies were to act, their actions would likely be against the revolution's objectives. The difference between January 25 and today, however, is that the security agencies cannot, in theory, act without mobilizing and rallying the street because the January 25 Revolution has brought about a new entity called "the people's legitimacy".

From the moment popular legitimacy began to translate into elected representative institutions, the opposition forces turned "the people's legitimacy" into "the street's legitimacy". Egypt's official agencies-unchanged and resistant to reform-needed this "street legitimacy" to move against elected authorities that represent the constitutional "people's legitimacy". It is a historical irony that repression devoid of this form of legitimacy tends to be less dangerous than the repression that garbs itself in it. The former is an authoritarian repression, but the latter risks turning into a fascistic form of repression that mobilizes the street in an attempt to place all segments of society in service of the same goal. It does not leave people to their own devices; instead, it attempts to change their views through familiar methods of propaganda, including incitement and the demonization of opponents, methods which are based on the industry of lies, rumors, and defamation. It is also common to provoke patriotic sentiments against "foreign hands" and "conspiracies" in order to present detractors as traitors.

Multiple factors coalesced in the quest to mobilize the "street's legitimacy," such as the Muslim Brotherhood's monopolization of rule, even though they lacked experience in governance, and the mobilization of all segments of the counter-revolution across the country, with the aim of supporting the state apparatus and the remnants of the Mubarak regime in toppling the entire democratic experiment, not only that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many in the political arena worked to prepare the street for this role, some acted out because they were negatively affected by the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, while others acted out of malice, such as those who were harmed by the January 25 Revolution. These two groups met and created the "street legitimacy" needed by the Egyptian security and its agencies, headed by the army, to carry out the coup. Private media and funding from Gulf countries were fully mobilized in order to create an intense media campaign, the sole aim of which was to spread angst and pessimism, an indispensable tool for such an endeavor. Parties that oppose the Muslim Brotherhood broke the ban against political dealings with the remnants of the Mubarak regime, and allied with them against the Brotherhood because "since today, there are no more fulul (remnants)" (i.e., since the Muslim Brotherhood has become the principal enemy).

This political rift has been evident since the referendum on the first constitutional amendments on March 19, 2011, and the Brotherhood's insistence to immediately turn the revolution into the rule of the largest political party, without paying heed to the many Egyptians who feared their conceited religious discourse,[2] or making any serious attempt to dissipate these fears beyond public relations' efforts.

At first, the January 25 Revolution included thousands of mature, brave young people-two qualities that rarely come together in political activism. Eventually, the revolution stretched to include millions of protesters in the majority of Egypt's governorates; however, nobody has suggested that the number of protesters was the decisive factor in the revolution. There is no doubt that a "critical mass" of citizens is one of the factors needed for a revolution to be considered popular, and that necessary critical mass was available; counting heads, however, was not a crucial issue. The first important characteristic defining the January 25 Revolution was the fact that it united all segments of Egyptian society, with the exception of the regime's official party and a few opportunistic marginal parties and personalities that lived on the fringes of the National Party, who acted within the margins allowed by the despotic and corrupt state. The second characteristic was that the broad acts of protests were worthy of a revolution because they shifted their objective to changing the regime of rule with unprecedented skill and clarity in the history of revolutions, with the exception of the last days of the Tunisian revolution's phrase: "The people want the overthrow of the regime." Lastly, the entire state apparatus stood against the revolution, worked against it, and even committed murder against its proponents. On the other hand, following a period of hesitation, the Egyptian Army sided with the revolution. Initially, it left its bases and went on to besiege Tahrir Square, pointing the barrels of its tanks toward the protesters under the president's orders, but abstained from firing on protesters for a number of reasons, mainly because of its readiness to sacrifice the ruling family if need be in the hope of at least salvaging the regime, and its respect for the US administration's advice against the use of deadly force on protesters. While it is true the army turned the barrels of its guns away from the Square, it still allowed others time to attempt to repress the revolution, including the so-called "Battle of the Camel". When the police and the intelligence agencies were repressing and deploying snipers against protesters, and even torturing some of the participants in the dark corners around the square, and when the goons of the former regime, known as baltajiya (thugs), were attacking young men and women who were demonstrating, the army sat idly by and awaited the outcome.

When set against the above, there is no doubt that the June 30 movement was a broad protest movement that was calling for early elections and the stepping-down of the elected president under the pretext that millions of signatures were collected in support of that demand. This movement, however, was not directed against the existing regime, nor against the apparatus of the state. In fact, it witnessed the participation of the majority of the state apparatus in the organization, mobilization, and collection of signatures against the elected president. There is little doubt that the Egyptian Army's statements stressing the protection of the protesters were, in fact, a call to demonstrate;[3] all of this took place in a political system where the January 25 Revolution had made it possible to change the president and the parliament through elections.

Essential facts have been absent from the debate over the description of the events that took place between June 30 and July 3, 2013, which are grouped together as a single event despite the will of many participants in the June 30 movementwho do not condone what took place on July 3. Some of them believe that June 30 saw the emergence of a popular movement, while the military coup took place on July 3. At any rate, a futile debate has been raging regarding these two events: do they constitute a revolution or a coup? This debate is futile because its purpose is not to resolve an academic, conceptual, and terminological problem by reaching an agreed-upon conclusion; instead, those speaking of a revolution are, in fact, declaring their position in support of the two events, while those dubbing them a coup tend to oppose them. This is not a disagreement that can be resolved through a consensus on the meaning of the term, but through an agreement over the political position. In this case, the terms used matter little in furthering or blocking agreement.

At this point, it would be useful to examine whether or not this was a coup from an angle that people do not feel the need to conceal their stances vis-à-vis events by changing the terms they use when referring to them since, after all, they are not the ones who carried out these events. From an Israeli perspective, for instance, those who supported deposing the Egyptian president and persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood, use the term "coup," and are supportive of it since "military coup" does not carry a value judgment in their eyes. They refer to it as a "coup" because, from their perspective, it is a coup, and they laud it because it puts a stop to the Islamist and democratic tides. They argue that these developments are beneficial for Israel, regardless of the actors' intentions, and a consensus on this has been reached, supported by Israeli politicians who are pressuring the West to prevent a siege on the new regime.

It is worth mentioning here that it is still common with Arab disputes to confuse Israel's benefiting from an act with accusing the actor of being an agent for Israel, with some speaking of the enemies' mother's Jewishness, or that the enemy allegedly visited Israel. One of the most difficult hurdles facing the victims of despotism is the fact that their reactionary discourse of defamation and exclusion is, itself, the product of despotism.

Revolution and coup are not academic concepts that have explanatory models for such complex phenomena, as concepts are supposed to in the social sciences. Instead, they are simple terms. In Arabic, mustalah (term) comes from istilah (agreement or consent), indicating a word that has been agreed-upon to name phenomena and objects. This public debate on terminology in Egypt was lacking all of the elements that are "agreed-upon" regarding the terms "revolution" and "coup". The term "coup" refers to an overthrow of the authority from within the regime; in other words, certain regime elements turning against others in the same regime with the use of unconstitutional means. The crucial factor here is that one of the organs, or constituents, of the regime is turning against the ruler. Most often, the purpose of a coup is to reach power, not to change the regime. It is also natural for the coup to be military in nature since the party that is capable of overthrowing the authority from within the regime is the army or, at least, the security services. Revolution, on the other hand, is usually a broad popular movement emanating from outside the regime that seeks to change the regime of rule. Some coups were termed "revolutions," as with the officers' coup in Egypt in 1952, because the new rulers changed the regime with popular backing. The officers in this case had exerted much effort to garner a popular cover after abolishing political parties, disbanding the parliament, and deposing the head of the Revolutionary Command Council, Brigadier Mohammad Naguib. It was a real irony at the time that demonstrators shouted against "liberties" and called for the fall of political parties.

The discussion here is not about concepts, but about terms. After the notorious Pinochet-led military coup in Chile against the elected regime of Allende, and other similar experiences in the Third World, laws in some Western countries defined a "coup" as a military takeover of an elected government. These laws were designed to prevent governments from offering aid in support of such political acts. With this definition, and after the wave of democratic transition, the term began to elicit negative connotations. Even the African Union has now established rules to prevent it from recognizing governments that are the result of coups. Some, who still live with the mentality of the 1950s, remain unaware of the extremely negative associations that are triggered by the notion of a military coup against an elected regime, especially in countries that went through similar experiences.

Among the governments that have coined a legal definition for a military coup and prohibit the extension of help to such attempts is the US government, which was implicated in the past in the organization of coups in different countries, especially in Latin America, as with the case in Chile. The new rulers in Egypt are thus attempting to convince the US government that what has taken place in Egypt was not a coup, but a revolution, with June 30 being the proof. If what went on in Egypt was a military coup against an elected government, which it was, the US government could not, legally speaking, provide the new government with aid. This analysis does not exclude the possibility that the American security agencies knew of the coup that accompanied the popular movement before it happened. Had the coup succeeded without a trace, there would have been no political problems because it would not have garnered much of the public's attention. However, the policy of unbounded repression and the wave of political McCarthyism that followed in Egypt, in addition to the unchanged brutal practices of the Egyptian security organs-which did not refrain from persecuting even foreign journalists-were sufficient to cause deep repercussions and draw public attention.

Most importantly, the Egyptian political discourse needed the word "revolution," not only to sway public opinion, but also to convince the participants in the June 30 protests that what the officers did on July 3 was an embrace of the revolution-even if a revolution was not declared by the protesters, and the sole objective of their demonstrations was to call for early elections. It makes sense, in retrospect, for the military to describe the events from June 30 to July 3, 2013 as a single revolution, rather than speak of a legitimate popular movement carrying political demands that was exploited as a popular cover for a military coup in a state where failed governors can be changed through elections. Thus, the new rulers, politicians, journalists, and intellectuals retrospectively made June 30 into a revolution, despite the fact that many of the participants took to the streets on June 30 to demand early elections, not to obtain a military overthrow of the regime. These people are not responsible for the collusion of other protesters who were not only well aware of the security and military plot, but communicating with these agencies during the collection of signatures campaign.

[1] On the morning of Wednesday, August 14, the Egyptian security forces moved to break up the mass sit-ins held by Morsi supporters, in the squares of Rabia al-Adawiya and al-Nahda. According to official government sources, the number of victims reached 740 dead, including 43 police officers. Muslim Brotherhood sources in the field hospital, however, spoke of more than 2,200 dead and thousands of injured. On August 17, the Council of Ministers issued a decision ordering the Ministry of Health not to provide any information or press statements regarding the numbers of the dead and injured in the events, and that only the Council of Ministers should make such statements.

See: "Minister of Health: The Council of Ministers is charged to issue statements regarding the numbers of the dead and injured during the ongoing events," Aswat Masriya, August 17, 2013, http://aswatmasriya.com/news/view.aspx?id=78e82520-a3c7-4540-af0a-3a0070b4c906.

The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) published a list containing the names of 1,063 individuals, most of whom were civilians, killed throughout Egypt on the day the sit-in was broken up. By August 19, the number had reached 1,360 dead, and the center indicated that it is likely to increase. The center also published the names of more than 1,734 citizens who have been arrested by the Egyptian security forces under charges of murder, attempted murder, joining an armed gang, assault against security officers, and possession of firearms. Given that the entire event took place in a few hours of brutal repression, the numbers of the dead and injured are a veritable precedent, even by Arab standards. For the current numbers of dead, injured, and detained, see the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights' website: http://ecesr.com/en/.

[2] The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists insisted on presenting the vote of the Egyptian people in favor of the constitutional amendments as a victory for religion. Mobilization on the base level and centered on the second constitutional article, which is related to the religion of the state, was not included in the amendments despite the fact that the article in question.

[3] On June 23, the Egyptian Army issued a statement giving "all political forces" one week to agree and resolve the crisis. Moreover, hours after the start of the protests on June 30, the army issued a 48-hour warning to "all parties" to respond to the demands of the protest movement.