Egypt's uncertain revolution
'The revolution continues' is a slogan spray-painted across many of Cairo’s squares. But can the events in Cairo a year and a half ago be considered a true revolution?
A year and a half on, the question on Cairo remains: Was it really a revolution? It’s a question that has concerned many since Hosni Mubarak's undoing in the events known in Egypt as the 'January 25th revolution.' Millions of Egyptians taking to the streets and demanding justice was unprecedented, but it is also clear that Egypt is still in the throes of an incomplete revolution. Here in Cairo, I have been struck by the lack of a monopoly on the meaning of the revolution; it would be wrong to assume that all Egyptians use this word monolithically. How then, from amid the constant stream of rhetoric, can we try to understand the ongoing changes across Israel's southern border?
In political science, the term 'revolution' has specific connotations: in general, it requires a fundamental change in the political and socio-economic power structures in place. In too many ways, this is not what happened. In 2011 the military quickly abandoned former President Mubarak and moved in to take his place; since then, despite numerous reshuffles, many of the same props, plots, and players remain on stage. Many academic and policy-oriented writers have dismissed the term 'revolution' to characterize events in Egypt; they criticize Al-Jazeera Arabic’s overuse of the epithet, and argue instead that it should be called 'unrest' or intifada, as the events in Syria, Libya, and Yemen are called on TV channels like BBC Arabic.
On the one hand, I agree: Egyptians and the international community are deceiving themselves if they think that the oppressive institutions of the past have been completely overturned. But dismissing the word 'revolution' as solely a question of institution-change overlooks the often-differing colloquial meanings of the word for everyday Egyptians. All around Cairo people have decorated the city with the word 'revolution', or thawra (pronounced sawra in the dialect). The word has become a part of the city's façade and the Egyptian people's sense of national pride. In this way what the revolution meant and means to everyday Egyptians is yet another layer to the story of military decrees, political coalitions, and other such indicators of continuity and change.
I point to this distinction amid a time of violence in the Sinai and uncertainty in the state of Israeli, Egyptian, and Palestinian relations. I do so because it is important to consider from a less polarizing perspective what these changes mean for everyday Egyptians. Beyond the academic jargon, the revolution is often framed in the press in terms with which Western audiences feel familiar—like the "Facebook generation" — or as defined by misplaced extremes— like "secular democracy versus Islamist regime." While it is important to consider Egypt’s changes in the context of uprisings and revolutions in other times and places, we should not too quickly reduce the events of January 25th to fit a pre-existing framework or simple stereotypes.
Through the Internet, media, and private conversation, everyday Egyptians have continued to reexamine and redefine the events of January 25th. For many, denying that the events amount to a revolution is similar to aligning oneself with the felool, literally the “leftovers”, from Mubarak’s regime, who opposed the people's rallying cries for hurriya (freedom), adalah (justice), and karama (respect/dignity). While the fall of Mubarak may not have undone the regime's fundamental framework, the intense antagonism that Egyptians feel for the felool explains the Muslim Brotherhood's comparative popularity.
To call the events a revolution also holds great historical resonance for Egyptians as they try to relate to their nation’s past. 2011 is often compared and contrasted to the 1919 revolution that heralded the start of the end of colonial rule, and the 1952 revolution (or military coup) that brought Gamal Abdul Nasser to power. Beyond common comparisons with Tunisia, Syria and other Arab states, it is important to consider connections with Egypt’s pre-existing protest history that also constituted a fundamental break with the past.
Al-thawra mustamirra, "the revolution continues," is a common refrain spray-painted across Cairo’s squares. Onlookers in Israel and America may see this phrase as foreboding, or positive, or as a mixture of both. But so is it also for everyday Egyptians walking past these messages. Unlike the promises of a quick and quiet transition once associated with the Arab Spring, the Egyptian revolution will no doubt continue beyond this summer’s heat. But as we try to characterize these continuing changes, let us not assume that when an Egyptian politician or a preacher speaks 'in the name of the revolution' that there is agreement on the causes and consequences of this word. Questions about the appropriate role of the military, religion, and people in the Egyptian state are not new— but this is the first time the Egyptian people have greater freedom to consider for themselves what these concepts could mean in practice.
Miriam Berger is a Cairo-based writer.