An important analysis of the Egyptian revolution and counter-revolution

March 5, 2011

In News

[Sign: “People who produce half a revolution dig their own grave.” Image by Goha.] [Sign: “People who produce half a revolution dig their own grave.” Image by Goha.]

Many groups in Egypt are working for political change – progressive and regressive, transparent and dubious – and the stakes are high because the power of the Mubarak regime has not been relinquished in substance. While the army has benefitted most from the revolution—its image has been polished like no time in recent history and its most likely rival, Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal, has been eliminated–it is by no means clear which direction the Higher Army Council is taking the country. What has become patently obvious, however, is that the Council is in the process of consolidating its already formidable position as the unrivalled arbiter of political change in Egypt.

To that end, the Council assigned a group of constitutional scholars and jurors to amend six of the most contentious items in the constitution in order to put the proposed changes to a referendum by the Egyptian people within two months. This appears to be a step toward the establishment of a legitimate representative government, but the time allotted is hardly sufficient for serious deliberations and amendments. Perhaps the time constraint can be justified under the circumstances, but the lack of transparent mechanisms for negotiation between the Council and representatives of the protesters cannot; neither can the threat to deal harshly with future demonstrations and strikes. Such moves suggest that the army is unwilling to move in a democratic direction at this time.

A look at the most prominent discourse making the newspapers and airwaves during the last week indicates that the army (or parts of it) and elements of the old regime will resist attempts at meaningful democratic reforms. While paying lip service to the youth, the revolution, and the martyrs, the ubiquitous appeal in all the local media has been to urge Egyptians to get back to work in order to get the economy back on track – as if the economy was ever on track in the first place. This “back to work” argument, which also has been put forth by some very respectable people, suggests that further strikes and demonstrations would have adverse consequences and should be put on hold “for the sake of the economy,”  the assumption being that political reforms can be properly instituted only under conditions of tranquility. Whether or not those advocating this position are part of the previous regime, it feeds into a kind of rumor-mongering and argumentation that I call the counter-revolution.

In the Egyptian context, the counter-revolutionary “who” is not too difficult to identify: It certainly includes those officers of the despised state security services who fear being eventually brought to trial (however unlikely that scenario is) for their participation in the systematic torture of Egyptians, as well as people in the intelligence service who are loyal to Omar Suleiman. It includes corrupt businessmen who fear future prosecution and forfeiture of their wealth, and high- and mid-level operators of the now-defunct National Democratic Party for whom it would be almost impossible to do a facelift in a new era. It also includes those media executives, editors-in-chief, journalists and pundits who “spun” the most for the Mubarak regime and who are anxious about their own ouster. Mubarak-era officials who remain in power, including the prime minister, have a vested interest in not extinguishing their own political futures. These are the groups most vulnerable to the demands of the revolution – with the most to lose and the most to hide – and with much power in their hands to wage a counter-revolution.

The goal of this counter-revolution is, obviously, a return to the status quo ante (minus Mubarak) and the media has been used to counter and discredit any potential accusations and indictments of deliberate, premeditated torture, corruption, nepotism and mismanagement. The recent manufactured catchphrases like “forgive and forget,” “let’s start a new blank page,” “let’s look towards the future and not the past” (reminiscent of Obama’s refusal to investigate criminal allegations against former Bush administration officials) have been common. Neither Obama’s invocation of the “looking forward, not backward” mantra vis-à-vis those responsible for the American torture policy nor the current rhetoric in Egypt have convinced me that there is a diametrical contradiction between moving toward a more representative system and bringing to trial the most criminal elements of the previous regime. But “let’s keep the revolution white,” another of the newly spun media slogans, is an attempt to pander to Egyptians’ basic decency. My favorite rabbit-trick slogan that appeared in the last week is “we need to change ourselves before we can change our country,” as if the transformative experiences of Tahrir never took place.

Just as the young, tech-savvy activists had done before January 25, the counter-revolution has turned to social media as a weapon of choice. Calls are on the rise for demonstrations that seem to have no rhyme or reason other than to demonstrate for the sake of demonstrating. Last Tuesday’s demonstration in Tahrir Square is a case in point as it was impossible to say which groups called for it – certainly not the protesters who brought down the Mubarak regime. Although many anti-authoritarian protesters have argued that demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins must continue in order to maintain pressure on the Higher Army Council and to keep the momentum of the revolution going, those actions must have clear and realistic goals otherwise they will fail. Tuesday’s demonstration – which never exceeded 4,000 people (in my estimate) – had no clear goal and was infiltrated by dozens if not hundreds of undercover security personnel.

Recent incidents on Facebook pages indicate attempts to increase the number of demonstrations in order to splinter groups and dissipate their effect, or by possibly trying to move demonstrations in a violent direction (abetted by security agent infiltrators), or even by making demands that are out of touch with the public sentiment. These developments reek of the previous regime’s tactics. There has been a rise in the number of Facebook groups, dozens of new individuals have joined older groups, and some individuals and even administrators have been mysteriously removed from groups, all of which seem to indicate that there is an attempt to use this media to confuse, demobilize and discredit the continuing revolution in the public eye. Increasing the number of demonstrations will also give credence to claims that demonstrators are creating chaos and destroying the economy, a strategy that could potentially make the “stability” of the Mubarak regime appear desirable in retrospect.

In this counter-revolutionary discourse, Mubarak’s name is being invoked in nostalgic terms, whereas Wael Ghoneim, who emerged as one of the most prominent figures of the revolution, is being written and talked about as a foreign stooge, a member of the Free Masons, and even as a yes-man for the security services. There is no doubt that Ghonim was under tremendous, inhuman pressure during his days in captivity; and there is no doubt that, from a revolutionary perspective, his political views are naïve and undeveloped as has become clear from his recent interviews. But he has been painted in so many colors in order to make the public wary of him and, to the extent that he is so strongly associated with the revolution, to diminish the legitimacy of the latter. Other prominent figures from the revolution are also being cast in a dubious light. The counter-revolution is using all the media at their disposal to rewrite the past by painting a nostalgic picture of the Mubarak era while simultaneously making all the accusations against his security apparatus and cronies appear unreal and unbelievable.

At the same time, elements of the counter-revolution are trying to appropriate the revolution. Hossam Badrawi’s attempt to form a new party called 25 January is one cynical example of this kind. Badrawi, a former ranking member of the discredited NDP who was appointed to head the Party in Mubarak’s final days, is now regrouping former young NDP cadres into a “new” political party that is adopting the symbolic name and rhetoric of the revolution.

The counter- or contra-revolutionary media blitz has been in full swing over the last week. Mona Shazly, whose program 10 pm has a large following, deserves to become an honorary member of the High Army Council for her recent performance when she interviewed three of its generals and only one young activist. She helped paint the military in the best possible light by allowing the generals to repeat the same vapid media catchphrases: “forgive and forget,” “we are all one,” and “Egypt is above all.” It was a tour de force, which suggests that this police state might be able to get away with the same crimes that it has been committing for the last 30 years if public opinion is persuaded to embrace this discourse of forgiveness and the parallel discrediting of continuing revolutionary “chaos.”

Still, the High Army Council has taken some steps to keep the trust of most Egyptians, like the arrest of several former prominent figures and profiteers of the Mubarak regime, including Ahmed Ezz, the General Secretary of the NDP and the largest steel magnate in the Middle East, whose personal worth is an estimated $18 billion; Zuheir Garrana, former Minister of Tourism with a fortune of $14 billion; Ahmed Maghrabi, former Minister of Housing with a $11 billion fortune; and Habib al-Adly, the despised former Minister of the Interior who has reportedly accrued a fortune of $8 billion. A further series of arrests was reported this week, but missing from the list are two of the pillars of the Mubarak regime: Safwat al-Sherif, who served as Minister of Information for some twenty years and Secretary-General of the NDP until a week before Mubarak’s resignation, and Fathi Surour, the former speaker of the Parliament for twenty years. Both Surour and Sherif, whose corruption has been rumored to be spectacular, have disappeared completely, and it is impossible to know whether the High Army Council has been complicit in their disappearing act.

However, the arrests of other prominent figures can also be seen as a mere palliative: the High Army Council and elements of the former regime are making cosmetic changes, sacrificing some of the most corrupt and hated figures in order to continue with business as usual. After the arrest and arraignment of al-Adly, who was commonly known as the Minister of Torture (and who was arraigned on charges of corruption and not the systematic use of torture), people asked where he was being held. The answer: in solitary confinement at the Presidential Palace.

The public has a right to be skeptical because the High Army Council has not conceded to the most urgent demand of the revolution to repeal the Emergency Law. The ministerial shuffle kept all the important portfolios in the hands of Mubarak-era cronies.

The situation remains fluid, and it is difficult to predict how much the Egyptian revolution will benefit the people of the country. There are positive signs of change: Workers are in the process of forming the first independent labor union in the country, and labor in several sectors and cities have succeeded – even after the tacit threat of force – in having their demands for better wages, conditions, and new management met. Many journalists are campaigning to get rid of the editors-in-chief of the largest official newspapers, and they succeeded in ousting the Secretary-General of the Journalists’ Syndicate. The Muslim Brotherhood is forming an official political party and a newspaper.

The darker facts remain as well: people were tortured and murdered during the revolution under the army’s supervision, and there is no indication that any accountability is in the offing. Some people arrested and disappeared during the revolution are still unaccounted for, and the security apparatus remains in place. Still, strikers in Mahalla and Suez did not suffer at the hands of the army.

The counter-revolution is unfolding as forms of resistance to revolutionary demands. The outcome of this contest is uncertain, but there is still a sense of possibility in the air.