Dr. Azmi Bishara
Exiting the Tunnel
The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions heralded a new Arab era in which it is possible to couple freedom and social rights, sovereignty and citizenship. Arab regimes will not deride their populations anymore; and they will be facing a choice between comprehensive reforms and the complete overthrow of the regime. On the level of political powers and ideological splits, everything will change as well. Past divisions will lose their significance for the importance of past debates between ideological currents has greatly diminished. None of these actors was capable of engaging with the challenge of overthrowing despotism, and the phenomenon of new social powers that reject injustice and embrace ethical values without giving up their identity has risen. A new polyarchy shall emerge, and leading the ranks will be a thought that can combine democracy, social justice, and Arab identity without denying the legacy of the Islamic civilization.
All of this has been causally linked to the ruling regime in place, this was apparent through anger and popular jokes all the same, and through the irony and poems and songs of the Egyptians. And it could also be sensed in the depression and generalized anxiety that was noticeable to all visitors of Egypt in recent years. The crisis reached the level of identity, with the regime affronting the national pride of the Egyptians and their understanding of their selves and their role. To compensate, the regime fomented a version of Egyptian nationalism that was in the form of an empty, hollow esprit de corps that was based neither on national interests nor on a shared pride resulting from economic, scientific, or political achievements. This was an angry, shallow sense of self-affirmation that could be easily controlled and turned into hatred towards the other or, simply, utmost loyalty for the regime and a fanatical opposition to his critics, who would be regarded as critiquing the nation; even the sport of soccer was used to this end.
Like the rest of the Arab regimes, the Egyptian regime spread a culture where loyalty and hypocrisy towards people in power trumped competence, even in the field of culture. Personal and family relations trumped professionalism, and consumption trumped production. The regime also fomented an ethos of untruthfulness and dishonesty in dealing with the state, and of hypocrisy in relations between subordinates and superiors, and of obstinacy in the face of criticism. It became a situation where every official acted as a Pharaoh towards his subordinates and as a slave with his superiors. Furthermore, the regime normalized a mode of aggressive bullying on the level of human relations that could easily turn into sectarian clashes and other things that were conduits for the frustration and bitterness of people from a cantankerous socio-political system that tensed up the collective psyche and injected it with violence.
- The glorious revolution of Tunisia may have been the finger that pulled the trigger, or the frustration may have reached a boiling point anyway. And, perhaps, the educated Egyptian youth organized in social networks and virtual ethical societies - which represents the diametrical opposite of the regime's culture - was both finger and trigger. This youth is modest, polite, cosmopolitan, patriotic, opposed to corruption and incompetence, and enraged by injustice and political thuggery and clownishness of the media. This youth called for an uprising on the 25th of January after several "rehearsals" preceding the Tunisia revolt. That included the April 6th strike, which was called upon by internet bloggers in solidarity with laborers of al-Mahalla; and the repeated attempts to transmit the suffering of the citizens through the internet and camera phones; and the movement "Kifaya", which broke the wall of fear and launched the phenomenon of demonstrations in protest against dynastic succession (tawreeth) and the renewal of the presidential mandate. Kifaya kept up the demonstrations during years of stasis, with continuous sit-ins in front of the Journalists' Union; and some Egyptian journalist broke the barrier of fear in criticizing what was once considered taboo, such as the President and his family.
- The mood was ready to heed the call, and the minds were set, awaiting action; so the youth' call on January 25th struck like a lightning in the arid plains after a long summer. When the crowds came out, it was not clear whether the "Day of Rage" was a day of protest or a full-fledged political revolution. The day came mere weeks after a broad revolution that took place in Tunisia under similar circumstances, i.e. emanating from an unplanned protest movement. Quickly, the perception set in that the Egyptians were not demonstrating against specific policies of the regime, nor in solidarity with specific victims, but against the regime in the broadest sense. The Egyptian revolution, however, burned the stages between the specific and the general by lurching, from the outset, into the general picture.
- The people of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia took to the streets in protest against their suffering and unemployment and humiliation, after a young man committed self-immolation. Gradually, the protest spread and morphed - by interacting with the conditions of the people and their consciousness - into a generalized revolt seeking to change the regime. We can safely say that this was not the original objective of the people of Sidi Bouzid, but the conditions of the people, including their consciousness, was prepared for such an eventuality. In Egypt, on the other hand, the "Day of Rage" was - from its opening moments - not a movement of demands targeting unemployment or the increase of pay or in protest of price increases, the rage was generalized against all the sufferings of the Egyptian people in the last decades, for which the regime was considered the cause.
- In terms of the veneer of slogans, they were directed against the President and his family, as is the case in any authoritarian regime, since the symbol of a dictatorial regime is the ruler. The issue of hereditary succession (Tawreeth) was a strong indication of the regime's mindset of owning, and not just ruling, the nation. The matter of the son succeeding the father became a subject of sarcasm and anger in the talk of the street in recent years, so it was not unusual to have the protest centering around the slogan of ousting the President and preventing hereditary succession.
- Obviously, this does not mean that the Egyptian people's objective is to bring in another dictator or to replace the current President with a figure from the intelligence services, ensuring another thirty years under the same regime. One needs to have a twisted imagination to believe that the slogan of "ousting the President" is solely directed at the President's person, and demands no further than his exit from the office. All those who have tried, and are trying, to reduce the protestor's demands to the replacement of the President is actually trying to contain the revolution, or abort it, or flank it by maintaining the ruling regime as is. In fact, if the objective was merely to oust the aging and ailing President, it would have been easier to await his natural death or the end of his mandate in six months, since he has committed not to run for an additional term. As the newly appointed Prime Minister told the Arabic BBC on February 3rd, "not to run in this case equals departing and this should end the matter".
Reforms, Revolution, the President and the Vice President
- Advancing the proposition that the departure of the President equals the transfer of his authority to his intelligence chief who is newly appointed Vice President - and that this transfer fulfills the demands of the revolution - makes light of people's intelligence and of the sacrifices they made. The people do not spark a rare revolution in the history of the Arabs and the region on such a scale, with such popular momentum, and at such a price - and allow me to say, with such beauty - in order for the President to hand power to the Vice President. The President delegates his power to his deputy in case he loses his mental or physical capacity, or in the incident of death, or during power struggles and coups from within the court. Reducing the scope of revolutionary struggle to demanding a transfer of power from the President to the Vice President becomes, in a sense, an act of support of one wing against another within the same regime.
- The regime, any regime, reforms itself once it realizes that it can no longer rule with the same methods. And the regime that realizes that preempts broad social revolutions by reforming itself. More often than not, such reforms involve an opening on social classes and their assimilation by the regime, thus avoiding the risk of being overthrown. In the case of Egypt, however, it seems that the regime did not comprehend the need for reform; moreover, it intentionally squandered several occasions for change. Furthermore, the regime grew vainer and more boastful, undergoing a process of decline over the years. The ruler isolated himself from the people in Sharm al-Sheikh; his discourse became more dismissive of criticism and he went far in his security procedures against his adversaries. Simultaneously, hollow official propaganda reached the level of badly directed absurdism (as in the famous montage of the leaders' photo in al-Ahram, which was doctored to show Mubarak walking ahead of the other leaders - 30 years his junior - in order for the al-Ahram to present him as "youthful"). This attitude was on full display in his discourse and that of some intellectuals during the war on Gaza, and in justifying the non-prosecution of violators in the construction and transportation sectors whose negligence led to the death of thousands, as in the drowning of the Red Sea ferry and the train fire and other instances.
- There is a view proposing that the revolution is a protest movement with specific demands, and these demands will be met once the President or his deputy appear in the media promising the demonstrators their acquiescence to amending the 76th and 77th articles of the constitution and not having the President run for an additional term in office. This view not only fails to accurately depict the revolution, it is liable to being intentionally dishonest because it belies an effort to reject the actual demands and he who desires reform should effect it before the revolution erupts. The revolution is not a demand that is being raised to the regime, it is a movement against it, and the regime is not expected to answer the "demands" of the revolution, but to conclude that he must leave because he is incapable of remaining in his position.
- It is baffling to see the Vice President - his appointment being one of the results of the revolution - appear and thank the youth "for without them, this reform would not have taken place", i.e. without them, he would not have been appointed Vice President. That is, in case he actually wanted to thank the youth for his new post, but he meant to deceive the revolution and outflank it. He who "thanks" does not show gratitude by besieging those he is thanking at the same time, and by unleashing rascals and criminals upon them, and by arresting journalists so as to not cover their activities, and by inciting against the media that carries their voice, and by accusing them of being foreign agents.
- There is no doubt that the regime is dishonest in its so-called assent to what it terms "the demands of the youth", since it is capable of executing a large portion of them already had it been truthful: immediately ending the State of Emergency for instance, or announcing without delay that the last parliamentary elections were invalid, or ceasing the persecution and arrest of journalists. But the regime offers evidence after another that it does not truly acquiesce to these demands right now, let alone execute them later once the Egyptian people listens to the pleas, ends the revolt, and withdraws from the streets. What will push the regime then to execute what it had previously refused to accept - even verbally, and given that the regime admitted through the appointed Vice President that, had it not been for the revolution, the regime would not have been ready to theoretically consider these demands? Will it practically fulfill its commitments in the absence of revolution in the streets? Or will the campaigns of incitement begin against the "networks of spies" and "the agents" and "the saboteurs" and "the rioters", especially after the regime reinforces itself and regains its international links, relying on the West's pragmatism in accepting its allies as they are? Didn't the West accept the current Egyptian regime before the revolution? Didn't the West show its humane and democratic colors only after the civic revolt erupted? It must be assumed that it will turn and renew its alliance with the regime if it succeeds in putting down the revolt. Return to normal life should not be allowed until the demands are fulfilled, for promises made under the conditions of a revolution mean nothing in its absence. The regime may even move to attack the revolutionaries and open concentration camps for them if it were allowed to persist, and if the revolution were disbanded because of a promise.
Wisdom and Intelligence
- All of this is comprehensible, what is not understandable however is to have intellectuals who view themselves as critical - or who were critical within the parameters of the system - propagating this political mood that views the revolution as a quandary, and regards Egypt as being troubled, and sees in the revolt a crisis that requires a resolution. Subsequently, they start offering "solutions" that consist of transferring the authority of the President to his deputy in a "smooth" manner, as they like to say; and of "calming" the street, and then, negotiating with the Vice President over the demands of the revolution. Such behavior is not fit for critical intellectuals, but for a consulting team in a Think Tank tasked with proposing different scenarios for the regime aiming to resolve its troubles.
- Promoting the Intelligence chief of the regime who became Vice President as "clean" and "decent" is strange to the point of absurdity, especially when these promoters know full well his local and regional role in sustaining the regime for decades, and know that he is not a mere employee in the service of the "dictator", as was Muhammad al-Ghannushi in the case of Zayn al-`Abidin bin `Ali, but is one of the convinced pillars of the regime, as was clear in his special relationship with Israel and the United States during the crises that hit the region in Iraq and Palestine and Lebanon and elsewhere.
- We shall not comment here on how and why a group of intellectuals calls itself a "wise men's council", and what is meant by "wisdom", and compared to whom? This implies an unacceptable assumption during times of revolutions, to the effect that the revolting masses are wild, and that the regime is a hardliner, and they are the wise. It also implies a very "unwise" avoidance of taking a stand during this phase (or it could be "wise", in the sense of unveiled and unintelligent opportunism).
- The revolution needs intellectuals who can shape and express its objectives and explicate its strategy, it does not need intellectuals who seize the moment to rearrange their relationship with a regime which they regard to be persisting, or to support a wing at the expense of another within the regime.
It is without doubt that the "security wing" in the regime has trumped the "National Party wing", and it is likely to sacrifice some of its figures from within the National Party to show that it is serious in combating corruption; it may confiscate the assets of these individuals and prevent them from traveling, thus satisfying what it terms "the demand of the street" or "the demands of the youth". It would not be too far-fetched for these people to betray their friends to appear as combating corruption, while in reality, they are part and parcel of corruption.
- There is also a group of Egyptian politicians and intellectuals who have been critical towards the regime's management of the country, and who never took a foothold within the regime and who were honest critics, but who became accustomed to a certain ceiling in their criticism, which is the ceiling tolerated by the regime in place. All of those cannot comprehend the risk of taking to the street to change the regime; and in such a case, most of them remain at home silently awaiting the end-result, or they switch to one of the existing camps. Or they would attempt to frame the revolution in a way where meeting with `Umar Suleiman is seen as an achievement compared to previous meetings with State Security officers, this is an unacceptable state of mind and critical intellectuals should criticize them for such a stand.
On the Strategies of the Revolution and its Horizons
- The Egyptian revolt was improvised, and powers with popular backing gravitated towards it in a natural way. The revolution is currently on its way to its objective, and I have never learned in the history of revolutions of a revolt that could bring out this many anti-regime demonstrators in so many cities at the same time. The revolution no longer needs proofs that it is popular, but it needs determination and a strategy to reach its objectives. The Egyptian regime is resisting its inescapable fate in all kinds of ways, including the spreading of rumors and lies, and intimidating people with the prospect of chaos, and even pretending to acquiesce to the demonstrators' demands when necessary, while calling them spies when it is useful to do so, and repressing them when it can.
We would be wrong to think that this is a matter of a person's stubbornness, or that it is a personal issue. The matter is not that of Mubarak's hard-headed personality, I can even venture and say that he no longer rules Egypt, and that Egypt is now effectively ruled by `Umar Suleiman and the newly-appointed Prime Minister Ahmad Shafeeq, and that they are both trying to consolidate themselves within the ruling elite and the state as symbols of the regime. The question is not that of an individual's intransigence and his personal character, but that of a ruling clique that is attempting to defend itself and its interests and to survive the ongoing struggle politically. It is a political, not a personal, matter.
This struggle will be decided once the regime realizes that it faces a choice between the continuation of the revolution until it gradually turns - by the force of things - into violent struggle, or the transition of authority through a transitory phase and the beginning of negotiations over how these conditions will be met. In the later case negotiations over the departure of the regime can be effectuated with anyone.
It is not a personal matter, it is a matter of the rulers admitting that power needs to be transited peacefully, and that this process requires a transitory phase, and that the negotiations should deal exclusively with mechanisms of the transitory phase, this a negotiation, not a debate. It is a negotiation over the turning of authority through a trusted mechanism, and the same regime cannot manage this transitory phase. This is a struggle that requires determination and strategy and an understanding of the nature of this struggle.
- The Egyptian regime has entered a phase of complete international isolation, and this isolation needs to be deepened because it weakens the regime and the interest groups surrounding it, and in order to deepen the isolation perseverance and indispensable and it should be made clear - on the international stage - that the revolution is victorious, a thesis that could be disputed if the regime is allowed to catch its breath. The United States and Europe have realized that it would be better for them to abandon losing symbols and personalities in the regime than to lose the entire regime and gain the animosity of all Arab peoples, which they did not realize in the cases of Iran and Tunisia.
- We must distinguish between protest movements that are followed by negotiations over certain demands within the context of the existing regime, and between a revolution seeking to change the regime. The revolution is not mere protests that end under the same regime, but is a series of continuous actions that persist as long as the regime is in place. This means that the revolution should not morph into a specific action, a sit-in or a demonstration for instance; new, unpredictable forms should be adopted, thus confusing the regime with all its ramifications. The regime could learn to coexist with a mere sit-in in Maydan al-Tahreer as long as it is not a nerve center directing the revolution outside of it. In addition to the ongoing sit-in, demonstrating could take place everywhere, and the revolution could erupt in a factory and in a newspaper and in a media outlet. Revolution is comprehensive when it includes all societal groups, with students revolting in the universities, and journalists protesting in newspapers against the dictates imposed on them, and the workers rebelling in their factories. This does not need to be done all at once, but to spread into different sections of society so that it can later lead the transition of interest groups and state institutions and, most importantly, the army, into the winning side. There is no doubt that most join the revolution as individuals, but at a certain stage, this quantitative interaction - which is measured by the number of persons - should turn into a qualitative leap involving the judicial institutions and the Army. But the Army will not choose this until it reaches a certitude due to local and international interactions, or if it reaches a stage where the rebels force it to choose - through their actions - between clashing with them or joining their ranks. Such a scenario applies to the massive million-man demonstrations that attempt to takeover major state establishments, making it difficult for the Army to contain them with violence, forcing it to reconcile with them. This cannot happen if people believe that they can turn the Army by showering it with constant praise.
- The Egyptian revolution highlighted the best in the people, showing images that are civic, diverse, modest and inclined to dialogue in a manner that was hitherto unknown to Egyptian political life under the regime. It has been a long time, not remembered by many, since a Friday preacher spoke about "millions of Egyptian men and women", or discussed the ethics of Islam and Christianity. Or where such a mass of men and veiled and unveiled women gathered without incidents of sexual harassment, with millions chanting together and marching in orderly demonstrations without chaos.
These authoritarian regimes bring out the worst in Arab societies under their shadow: fanaticism, sectarianism and crime. We have all seen samples of the thugs unleashed by the regime and its men against the demonstrators, in a glaring comparison between the reactionary and primitive regime on the one hand, and civilized people on the other. Which debunks the myth promoted by the regime in the West regarding the people, when it claims to need authoritarian rule because it's people is "backward".
On the other hand, when the people marches against such regimes, it is as if it passes in a cleansing process, shedding the deformed culture of these tyrannical regimes. There was not an Egyptian or an Arab citizen who was not moved by the scenes of joy that accompanied the demonstrations of Tuesday (February 1st) or Friday (February 4th) in the face of the ferociousness and backwardness of the regime's actions on Wednesday and Thursday (February 2nd and 3rd).
The people came back to its self, and Egypt is once again at peace with itself, and it looks as if the Arabs are reconciling with themselves when the take to the streets against the ruling tyrannical regimes.
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