The People and the Revolution

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A poster that was circulated widely on the internet during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011

“Revolutions are messy affairs. If you want them sparkling clean, sanitary and sanitized, with a love interest and happy ending under a fluttering revolutionary flag—well, go to Hollywood.”

“Where many have seen the turbulence of the past 30 months of Egyptian political history in terms of ‘elite’ conflicts (civil and military, civil forces and ‘deep state’, secularists and Islamists, liberals, Muslim Brothers, leftists and feloul*), I see first and foremost the hand print of the revolutionary upsurge of an Egyptian people unchained, battling on for emancipation.”

 Hani Shukrallah (Egyptian Writer)

Recently prominent leftist journalist and writer Hani Shukrallah wrote a series of articles under the title of “The People’s History of the Egyptian Revolution.”

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Hani Shukrallah

Shukrallah was the former editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, the best English-language paper in Egypt, between 1991 and 2005. He is also the founder of Al-Ahram Online, and was its editor-in-chief from 2011 until early 2013 when the Muslim Brotherhood government forced him to resign. He is the author of Egypt, the Arabs and the World: Reflections at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, published in 2011 by the American University in Cairo Press. He is perhaps one of the most elegant political writers in the English language in Egypt.

Against the numerous narrow accounts that have been offered of events in Egypt—particularly those that leapt to huge conclusions after short-term successes—Shukrallah’s series offers a careful, nuanced analysis. He discusses how messy the trajectory of events was, and also how unprepared the revolutionaries were. He also warns us against one-dimensional analyses. We cannot, for example, focus only on the celebrated 18 days of revolution in 2011, without examining what led to those protests and their aftermath. Similarly, it is of little use to debate, often in dichotomous and reductionist terms, whether the ousting of Morsi in July 2013 constituted another phase of the revolution or a military coup—particularly when underlying assumptions such as whether or not Morsi was democratically elected in the first place remain hotly contested. And like the events in 2011, the ousting of Morsi in 2013 needs to be understood in its proper historical context. People have been protesting since 2011 to voice their disappointment with the continuation of human rights abuses, the ongoing corruption of political elites, and the continuation of unilateral decision made by the country’s consecutive rulers. In other words, what happened in July 2013 should be seen as part of the longer trajectory of the January 2011 revolution. Moreover, complex and varied processes are at work, combining mass uprisings and military interventions.

Shukrallah starts his first installment of the series with a quote from Howard Zinn, from whom Shukrallah took inspiration. The quote goes: “The memory of the oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is an inch below the surface.” Shukrallah then adds: “No popular revolution is ever fully prepared for the tasks, vision and aspirations that set it into motion.” He highlights the importance of looking at the ups and downs what has been happening in Egypt since 2011. He seems to have taken up the late Charles Tilly’s call to understand revolutions as trajectories, not merely in terms of a superficial  dichotomy of success or failure.  Shukrallah’s account explores  the rollercoaster of emotions experienced by people during the revolution; he writes in the seventh installment:

There is a Sisyphean aspect to the Egyptian revolution. Incessantly pushing the boulder of radical democratic transformation up a steep, jagged hill composed of the resistance of the old authoritarian society, the very moment it seems to have reached the summit is also the moment it appears to find itself back at the bottom of the hill – yet again and again.

If we focus only on questions of whether or not revolutionaries seize power as the ultimate criteria defining revolutions, we will fail to see that problems emerge and re-emerge at various points in time. Far from a discrete moment in time, Shukrallah highlights how we might, for example, think of the Egyptian Revolution as having three waves: one against Mubarak, then another against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, and the third against Mohamed Morsi,. Part of a single broad trajectory, each wave or phase, nonetheless, requires separate investigation to understand their similarities and their differences. Shukrallah writes:

Each of the three waves of the Egyptian revolution would carry with it its own distinct baggage of illusions, weaknesses, distortions and unique challenges, yet each would find the revolution had inched closer to its objectives, more able to impose its will, leaving its antagonists weaker, their ranks considerably more fractured and disorganized. And, no less significantly, at each phase, the revolution finds it has ‘re-educated’ sections of its traditional opponents, rendered them more willing to concede at least some aspects of the people’s revolutionary will, even as many among them act to undermine and hijack it.

Why is such writing important for scholars of revolutions in sociology? Let us go back a bit. Sociology is a pioneering discipline when it comes to studying revolutions. Some classical sociological studies of revolutions are masterpieces that have been assigned in reading lists across the social sciences and humanities. Many of these early canonical works focused on comparative, macro-causal understandings of revolutions. But few, if any works provided in-depth ethnographic accounts of revolutions. As a result, the discipline lacks the richer understanding that comes only from people’s stories and narratives.

The irony is that there seem to be a lack on interest in one of the most central concepts in revolutions:  “the people.” As sociologists and social scientists in general, we tend to think of the “people” as a general, overly amorphous term that cannot be studied as such. Instead, we break it down to classes, organizations, civil society, elite, union, and other “concrete” entities more friendly to social scientific study. The outcome, however, is that we have sacrificed understanding how ideas such as the “power of the people,” for example, have a special meaning during times of organizing and at very exceptional moments such as revolutions.

Some scholars have suggested that the Arab Spring saw the emergence of new subjectivities, especially in the age of new media. Was it a coincidence that one of the key slogans at the center of mobilization in these events was “the people want the removal of the regime”? The people may be an invented category, like many categories in political theory. But we ought to remember that this category and the very idea of “we the people,” were originated in revolutionary contexts. The term is revolutionary par excellence. It is the social movements of ordinary people that both scholars and activists care about the most. Shukrallah’s series is a refreshing invitation to think through the relevance of the category of people in the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring, and perhaps to studies of revolutions at large.

* feloul is a term many Egyptian scholars and activists use to refer to the people belong to the Mubrak regime.

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