Lessons from a lost revolution: Egypt's fate still hangs in the balance

Three years ago today, Hosni Mubarak was forced from power. The revolution has since stalled, but its ideas live on

By H.A. Hellyer

Published February 11, 2014 1:29PM (EST)

Anti-government protesters march toward Tahrir  Square in downtown Cairo, Feb. 1, 2011.              (AP/Emilio Morenatti)
Anti-government protesters march toward Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Feb. 1, 2011. (AP/Emilio Morenatti)

My life has been split between Europe and the Arab world, but in the winter of 2010, I decided to move from one home in England to another in Egypt. My family had grown with the arrival of a baby, and I wanted a quieter, simpler life. A few weeks later, I was in Tahrir Square, witnessing the birth of a revolution. For three years, I watched that revolution, and offered analysis of it as well for a number of news outlets. But above all else, I was in deep solidarity with it.

Today, two major forces vie to speak in that revolution’s name – but they’re interested in power, not in the ideals of dignity and liberty. A rare few indeed are invested in the revolution’s demands for freedom and justice, and I continue to marvel at the dignity on display, at the refusal to allow their faith in a better Egypt to die.

Three years ago today, the night of Mubarak’s resignation, I was in Tahrir Square, hoping along with so many others that the revolution would deliver a better future. Those were the days when revolutionaries, I among them, felt that anything was possible. As subsequent events unfolded to deflate that optimism -- as the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces botched the opportunity for a just transition -- I shared in the revolutionaries' disappointment. When they marched courageously for justice, I marched alongside them, and asked for their courage. When they mourned their dead, my heart ached with them. When I was asked to analyze their cause, was I analyzing my own?

I watched as those revolutionaries split their votes between opposing presidential candidates the following year, saw many of them back Mohammed Morsi over Mubarak’s last prime minister in the final round of voting. Afterwards, I watched the rapid disintegration of Morsi’s popularity. Having continued to hope for a more just democracy, I criticized the conduct of the Muslim Brotherhood during Morsi's tenure, and warned against the increasing likelihood of a military intervention once his failures began rapidly to accumulate. I empathized with those activists who defiantly declared, “Despair is betrayal.”

The realization that Morsi's political movement was about nothing more than the seizure of power was infuriating, to myself as much as the revolutionaries. Nonetheless, while I supported early presidential elections, I didn’t back the widespread protests against Morsi on June 30, 2013. Fearful of an outbreak of deadly clashes, I breathed a sigh of relief when those protests ended without violent turmoil. But his ouster by the military on July 3 was not a celebratory moment. I worried about the consequences of a non-revolutionary force co-opting a popular movement to advance its own agenda. But even then, I couldn’t have imagined the counter-revolutionary momentum that would soon take hold.

Three years on, as I consider what’s left of the Egyptian revolution, I find that respect for its agenda lives on — but only for some. Many of those who've watched the events unfolding, both in Egypt and in the West, seem to misunderstand not only the revolution itself, but also the conflict between the minority who back the Brotherhood’s claims to ‘legitimacy’ and a majority who seem to have settled for the military’s ‘stability’. The revolution’s marginal mavericks, who resist side-picking in favor of a fealty to the principles of the January 25th movement, have seen themselves branded as traitors or as mistresses of the military, depending on the ideology of the accuser.

Those few holding fast to the promise of revolution now exist in a lonely minority, but they haven’t given up on salvaging the revolution. Neither have I.

The myth of the "good" Brotherhood

Not everyone agrees with the perspective I just shared -- including a few of my academic and professional colleagues in London and Washington. For years, we had found common cause objecting to the demonization of Arabs and Muslims, taking to task those on the far right who provided the intellectual ammunition for xenophobic attitudes, policies, and even violence. We jointly critiqued the dangerously counter-productive, U.S.-led “War on Terror” narrative, and the UK’s counter-radicalization “Prevent” strategy. We celebrated the departure of Hosni Mubarak, agreed the military should stay out of politics, and looked forward to a new republic.

Yet, while I saw a genuine movement of Muslims and Christians rally against an Islamist president, a few of my colleagues conflated the Brotherhood's parochial style of Islamism with Islam as a whole. Where I identified a Brotherhood leadership that was permissive of sectarianism and vigilantism, some identified Morsi supporters as simply "the Muslims." So perhaps it was their justifiable commitment to anti-Islamophobia that led them to overlook the failings of the Morsi government.

Brotherhood members are of course Muslim. But then again, most Egyptians are. Indeed, Brotherhood opponents in Egypt, too, are mostly Muslim. Many of them will describe themselves as religious, and many support a public role for religion. Among the non-Islamist religious establishment -- and even in some segments of the Islamist political spectrum -- Egyptians are split between those who oppose the Brotherhood, those who oppose the army, and those who oppose both. Partisans of all stripes show willingness to use religion for political advantage. The notion that the only good Muslims – or even good Islamists – are Morsi supporters is an easily discredited one.

Some considered the Brotherhood as an Arab-Muslim version of the German Christian-Democrats -- a political force rooted in religion, but essentially accepting of the major principles of pluralism and democracy. There was perhaps such a vision within the Brotherhood, but it belonged to a reformist trend that might have been vocal internationally, yet weak within. Representatives of that trend, such as Kamal El-Helbawy and Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, spent much time mediating perceptions of the Brotherhood for many in London, Washington, and elsewhere. However, that peripheral trend was completely sidelined many years ago in favor of more radical intellectual influences, which came to dominate the Brotherhood leadership. That leadership led the Brotherhood through the post-Mubarak years, carrying on after he was overthrown in an even more right-wing direction. This leadership proved to be less interested in social justice and freedom than in political power.

Attempting to defend the Brotherhood even as it dashed revolutionary hopes, a few of my Western colleagues may have been reacting to the characterization of the Islamist group as some sort of terrorist bogeyman. They would be right to question this mistaken use of the term; over the past decade, I’ve objected strenuously in policy and academic circles when the Brotherhood was described as akin to al-Qaeda. But this modern-day Brotherhood, far from advancing the cause of pluralistic democracy, aligned the group's interests with those of the military junta, stoked sectarianism, and took no issue with encouraging its members to indulge in vigilantism as they felt necessary. The Brotherhood resisted – nay, aborted – efforts to establish transitional justice, and showed shocking stubbornness throughout, at a time when Egypt needed them to be leaders.

For these Western associates of mine, the Brotherhood is the "good guy" in this story of two sides, advocates for "freedom," contra those urging "militarism." At the height of the post-9/11 War on Terror, my colleagues and I have problematized such crude, binary thinking; employing that logic now goes against the spirit of every effort we made.

Ruptures in the city victorious

All over the world, and throughout history, politics has divided families. Egypt is no exception. Wives and husbands; brothers and sisters; parents and children. Some side with the bad, others with the really ugly -- but few, it seems, find themselves aligned with an uncomplicated good. If, in London and Washington, I’ve disagreed with a few former confederates on Egypt, I’ve been repelled on another level entirely by many in Cairo, due to their uniquely distasteful viewpoints.

I’ve known those who claimed during Morsi's presidency that they were for the advancement of human rights, and then turn a blind eye to human rights violations after Morsi's removal from power. Some of these people still, without irony, claim to be "liberal." Many of them would have been dismayed at the killings of protesters under Mubarak or Morsi. But their fury was mute after the “most serious incident of mass unlawful killings” of Egyptian civilians in modern history, as state forces killed hundreds of people in the aftermath of sit-ins and protests against the current military-backed interim government. These people rightly mourn the many who have been killed by Islamist militants, yet they see little wrong in the many thousands detained under dubious justifications. They say little or nothing about the new restrictions against assembly and the press. Without evidence, they willfully accept the arguments of fringe American conservatives who would associate the Brotherhood with al-Qaeda. And it is rare indeed to see them criticize any excess by the state.

On the other side of this divide, there are those delivering apologia for the Brotherhood, arguing Morsi was at worst guilty of understandable mismanagement. In this parallel narrative, opposition against him was minimal, and were he to run in presidential elections, he might even win. I’ve tried myself to directly discuss the collapse in public support to such Brotherhood supporters many times -- drawing on my own work with the Gallup Organization and other surveys – without much success.

They’ll argue that if the Brotherhood lost any support, it was simply due to misinformation in the media — not because of transparent power grabs such as the extra-judicial decree in November 2012 intended to stymy the judiciary and push through the Brotherhood's constitution. It certainly wasn't because of gross mismanagement of Egypt’s economy. Nor because Morsi and the Brotherhood publicly courted radicals that incited violence -- which intensified after his ouster -- or encouraged vigilantism to protect their institutions. No, it’s just a conspiracy, and no progress is ever going to be appropriate, unless it is a reversal of the past eight months.

Just as proponents of the military unfairly conflate the Brotherhood with the radical militant cadres of the “Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis” group, Brotherhood figures deny even the existence of such militants, directly insinuating that any attacks by such are false flag operations, coordinated by the state. The threat of militant violence, however, is real – and other groups, sharing a nihilism based on their own form of dehumanization, are emerging. Their attacks have only increased in intensity and fury, spreading beyond the Sinai Peninsula into urban centers. It seems it is only a matter of time before they target civilians as well, and it is entirely possible such groups will draw more recruits from disaffected Brotherhood supporters in the future. 

Egypt's last mavericks

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu never spoke truer words. He spoke in reference to those who equivocated about apartheid, and chose "neutrality" instead of clear opposition to the oppressive South African regime. Against the current backdrop of violent polarization in Egypt --where not just the military rulers, but also their chief adversaries, are guilty of striking malfeasance -- is there any good alternative?

My father, a veteran of the anti-apartheid movement in the U.K., once described the apartheid regime as self-evidently evil, and the oppositional African National Congress as a sufficiently moral force with which to stand against that evil. There is no comparable political movement to stand behind in Egypt. But the intellectual heart of the revolution that began in Tahrir Square was always "speaking truth to power," regardless who held it. Doing so means rejecting the binary presumption of "picking sides," and instead holding both the military-backed regime and the Brotherhood accountable for their misdeeds.

There are those who remain true to that original revolutionary impulse, who reject the false choice of these two non-revolutionary forces. These mavericks, who focus on holding all to account, are not themselves above reproach. Indeed, they can and should be criticized for their own failings, missed opportunities, and strategic mistakes. But at every point, they’ve doggedly remained true to that core principle. In the process, they’ve lost some of their own to the violence in the streets. Others sit in jails, detained under the pretext of the new anti-protest law. But the scores of journalists, civil rights activists and human rights defenders that make up the core of this fledging movement have made a defiant choice.

It is they who continue the fight to call all to account, through certain media outlets like Mada Masr and Daily News Egypt -- through rights organizations like the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and the Egypt office of Human Rights Watch.

I've been in Egypt for most of the mass killings over the past three years  -- and there have been more than a dozen, with fatalities reaching into the thousands. It is these mavericks that seek accountability for those deaths, regardless of the identity and political alignment of perpetrator and victim. It is they who try to find a space to voice themselves in new coalitions, like the "Way of the Revolutionary Path," and civil society organizations like the film collective "Mosireen." It was from these margins, these mavericks, that the revolution was born -- and it is with them that it remains sustained.

When these revolutionaries reject the two major forces in Egypt, it comes at a price, and they have invited attacks from both. The state considers them dissenters, at a time where dissent seems akin to treason. An Egyptian version of McCarthyism infests much public discourse, as does a kind of neo-fascistic militarism; police brutality has claimed the lives of hundreds. Egypt's mavericks are exasperated by the idea that the growing insurgency means giving the interim government, its military backers, and state institutions a wide berth. There will always be an excuse to avoid holding the state to account. But account they must.

There is also no love lost between these mavericks and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, which suspects, by some opaque logic, the unaligned revolutionaries are secretly pro-military. ("How would the Brotherhood have reacted," the fervently anti-military mavericks sarcastically retort, "had the military removed a president the Brotherhood had opposed?")

Talk of the security state returning is inappropriate -- for it never truly left – but was the Brotherhood ever really interested in reforming that security apparatus? Or did it, as human rights activists would testify, instead try to co-opt that system, and use it to its own advantage? Critics remain convinced that what seduced the Brotherhood was not pragmatism or naiveté, but power, above any other concern.

The last, best chance for Egypt

Caught amidst a dangerous game of zero-sum brinkmanship, it is ordinary Egyptians who truly suffer the most. While supporters of the two major political powers wish to claim moral clarity, neither group is likely to deliver on the demands of the revolution. Even as that revolution fades further away into memory, it remains to be Egypt's best chance at progress.

Activists in support of the January 25 revolution aren’t angels: They’ve made mistakes from very early on. The revolution demanded more of them. Over the past three years, their idealism has become more battle-hardened. While they’ve not become Machiavellian operators, they’ve matured from their marginal roots. Yet they have to evolve even further.

These activists persist, and they will be the ones who continue to remind those of influence, and those in power, of one simple truth: The people of Egypt descended on Tahrir Square in 2011 to fight for dignity. They’ve made that choice to endure, to keep fighting for an alternative, to continue speaking truth to power.

They’re not just the famous activists lavished with attention. They’re the legions of pro-revolution Egyptians who are not known to the press, but who are even still fighting battle after battle in their own arenas, obscured to the non-Arabic-speaking international media. They exist nonetheless.

There would have been no Tahrir Square without these people, who formed the bedrock of an uprising that inspired the world.  They haven’t given up yet. While they continue what efforts they can, the story of the revolution of the 25th of January, 2011, still remains a story unfinished. As I traverse and try to understand their story, I recognise the truth of whether or not I’ve ever been an observer in their story – or a part of it.

Dr H.A. Hellyer is a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in DC, a Research Associate at Harvard University and an Associate Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London. @hahellyer

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Egypt Egyptian Revolution Hosni Mubarak Mohammed Morsi Tahrir Square