Back in the summer of 2013 when Turkey’s Taksim square protests were at their height, I recall watching a reporter interviewing a protestor to the background of teargas smoke and fervent chanting against the government. The protestor unflinchingly and passionately declared that they are all here demanding their freedom from the dictatorial state. The effect of this whole scene on me was no less than visceral: I felt sick in that way you do when a cliché of massive proportions is unleashed upon you or, even better, when your interlocutor’s moral high-ground is so high – and so delusional – that your natural response, were you not mildly disposed, would be to punch him in the face. Revolution. I no longer believe in Revolution. In fact, I am positively opposed to it, to that irrational impulse to ‘occupy’ the Square and engage in fake unity over idealistic demands with people who in any other context you would normally reject the very idea of spending a minute with, and not only because you find them morally reprehensible. How did this happen; how have I become so anti-Revolution?
It wasn’t always like this. On the 26th of January 2011, a day after the Egyptian Revolution had started in earnest and Tahrir Square was definitely ‘occupied by the People’, I booked a flight from my London abode and flew to Cairo to take part in what I described at the time as “the most significant moment in my life so far”. Together with my ‘fellow’ Egyptians we occupied the Square, our chants developing from the usual concoction of Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice to the comically simply and reductive howwa yemshi mesh hanemshi: He (Mubarak) must go, we won’t go. And he went. On the 11th of February 2011, in what we would later understand to have been a sort of internal Coup against Mubarak, a thirty second announcement was delivered by the late General Omar Suleiman – then head of the Secret Service – declaring that Mubarak had waived his powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
Right after returning to London I wrote in an intense state my account of eleven days in Tahrir Square and published it in Anthropology Today. The article was a success: it became one of the most read articles in that journal for 2011 . I was contacted by a South American – Nicaraguan – Revolutionary journal for permission to have it translated into Spanish and in June of the same year it was published in Envio. The South Americans, of course, being for people of my generation the quintessential Revolutionaries. Yet on reading my account now I have the exact visceral response I had to the Taksim Square protestors: I feel sick – and embarrassed. There is an unmistakable sense of innocence, passion – and delusion – that jumps at you from the page when you read my account of the occupation of Tahrir Square. We were all One. You would see Westernised Egyptian girls, their hair flowing, conversing and agreeing with bearded Salafi men in their white robes. Rich Egyptians sharing a spot and a glass of tea with the destitute inhabitants of Cairo’s slums on the by now eroded grass of the Square. Egyptians, famous for being organisationally and aesthetically challenged, forming neat queues and cleaning the Square to prove to the State that we can do it. We were all united and on our best behaviour. The corrupt state – Mubarak and his henchmen – were the enemy and we were, unquestionably to us, worthy occupiers of the moral high ground. If they would just go, we the People will set it right. And this was and remains the crux of the problem with Tahrir Square and with Revolution in general.
What happened next is well known and extensively analysed. In a number of perceptive articles, Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha eloquently documented and devastated the charade that is the Egyptian Revolution. By October 2011, when tens of Coptic protestors were murdered at Maspiro by security forces, and in the ensuing fabrications constructed by certain ‘fellow’ Egyptians to blame the Copts, I became acutely aware that the unity of Tahrir square was nothing but a temporary delusion: we were never One. We were always divided by class, education, belief, ideology, gender, geography, by our capacity for reason and our integrity: how did I ever think otherwise? Throughout the months in which SCAF were the explicit rulers of the country, they methodically destroyed the possibility of a reasonable transition to a reasonable government. Presidential elections conducted in June 2012 brought to power Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood who after a series of political blunders, mismanagement, and opposition by key state institutions was overthrown, having spent only twelve months in office, in what can only be described as a CoupVolution: it was not merely a Coup, and it certainly wasn’t a pure outcome of People Power. A few months after that and we were back pretty much to where it all started: an army general as our new president, having resigned from his position as head of SCAF. With the media resuming their familiar role of leader-worship and the country bitterly divided; with the space for expressing opinion severely restricted, and the political discourse reduced to name-calling and falsehood; with two presidents on trial and thousands of political prisoners; with intolerance, religious dogma, and harassment right there on the surface of society, it’s no wonder that I and many people like me are painfully disillusioned. From those heady days of the Square to the situation we are in today: now that’s quite a fall.
What is wrong with Revolution? One of the more obvious criticisms is that Revolution can only be destructive. The collective uprising that is Revolution occurs because there is no political process capable of responding to peoples’ grievances and needs. The People rise and forcefully articulate what they do not want, but, naturally, they have nothing else to replace it with, nothing substantial or meaningful that is. And this is not a coincidence. What is required for there to be a political vision by which alternatives to the existing system can be conceived, is a political process capable of generating this vision. But Revolution is an outcome of the absence of such a process, it therefore can offer no serious alternative to replace the machinery of the State it is so intent on bringing down. A quickly cobbled together system of ‘government’ that is in actuality a disguised sectarian ideology or, in other words, the Muslim Brotherhood, does not qualify for a viable political system. In fact, in the case of Egypt, it almost brought the country to the brink of total collapse. Further, the demand for Bread, Freedom and Social Justice may appear, contra to my claim, a positive rather than a destructive demand. But how can this demand ever be realised in the absence of the State? If the People want material equality, freedom and respect, their hope of realising any of this is within the confines of a functioning State. The State may fail miserably on all these dimensions, but the very demand for equality, freedom and respect presupposes an existing structure of which such demands can be made. Things, then, seem much more serious than the average Placard Holding, Tear-Gas Fighting, Square Occupying, Freedom Demanding protestor seems to appreciate. And to realise that I, by virtue of participating in the Revolution, am also guilty of this phenomenal and dangerous naivety.
I might be accused of being too pessimistic and short-sighted. Revolution, the thought may proceed, can only be judged like other major events of this kind with the benefit of hindsight once seen as part of broader historical changes. The long-term consequences of Revolution will only be palpable several decades down the line. Might it not have been the case that certain French individuals at the height of the French Revolution in the late 18th century were also, like me, disillusioned with the idea of Revolution? And weren’t they too myopic and ill disposed to see that the French Revolution was a first step on a long road to Democracy, the system of government now generally considered infinitely preferable to absolute Monarchy? Now this is an important argument and I concede that it is not possible to be cognizant of the future desirable consequences of such social upheaval. But that’s precisely the problem. We consider Democracy desirable because our values and perspectives have changed from those of the 18th century. From where we stand now, for many of us at least, it is difficult to desire a form of government that is entirely undemocratic. But the point of interrogating the rightness of an act, in this case of Revolution, is to interrogate it with what I have at my disposal now; with what I know now and not what I would know given the resources available through some hypothetical future. Revolution is a powerful social phenomenon with consequences beyond our capacity now to fathom, but the point is to know how we should position ourselves in relation to it as moral agents living in this age and place, right now, right here. And it is my contention that Revolution should be resisted because, paradoxically, it is a mechanism which guarantees that no change will actually happen where it matters.
Revolution is premised on a fundamental lack of integrity. Even more, Revolution is essentially defined by a worldview which is so morally unambiguous and transparent only because it traffics in one of the more extreme acts of self-deception a person can commit, short of outright insanity. Revolution is not morally discerning or subtle: there is ‘us’ and we are good; and there is ‘them’ and they are evil. A worldview so simple and reductive that in any other situation we would severely reprimand its holder – if not feel pity for him – whereas with Revolution we actively embrace it, shedding with it our cognitive and moral integrity. In apportioning all blame to a circumscribed entity – variously the State, Mubarak, the National Democratic Party, or the Muslim Brotherhood – the Revolutionary is thus free to plumb the depths of victimhood, shielding himself from all possibilities for self-examination. And that would have been bad enough if no serious consequences followed from this collective act of self-deception. But it is precisely this self-deception that makes it appear to the Revolutionary that one thing must happen, and must happen now, which is for the identified guilty political entity to be dismantled. And what happens next? Having no alternative system to replace the outgoing one, what gradually but inevitably occurs is for that outgoing system to return, only rearranged and cosmetically altered. This is not due to some underlying conspiracy, or even due to the failure of the Revolution; this is precisely the purpose of Revolution: a sort of rearrangement of the same political and social structure which existed before. Revolution is a trick, the purpose of which is to recycle society rather than genuinely change it. Revolution is conservative; Tradition in spectacular garb.
Joseph de Maistre famously wrote that “every nation gets the government it deserves”. While he was referring to the choices people make within a democracy, his epigram can equally be applied to autocracies where people apparently have no choice in who governs. Now that may sound counter-intuitive, after all how can I deserve that which I have not chosen? How can anyone, to be more specific, deserve a Gaddafi or an Assad? But tyrants don’t just descend upon us from nowhere. We create tyrants as much as we create democrats and both have to be ultimately accounted for in terms of the people whom they govern. In order to stop getting ‘what we deserve’, we must stop projecting the worst that is in us and receiving it back in the form of a Mubarak or a Sisi, then rising against them in an impotent act – Revolution – only to find, when the dust has settled, that nothing has changed. By reflecting, each one of us, on his and her place in the social fabric, we can begin to perceive the part we play in that ugly and fractured society we are so keen to change yet are unwilling to take responsibility for. It is not so much a case of the unashamedly romantic “be the change you want to see in the world”, rather, it is the more sober: if you want to see change in the world then you better start by looking at yourself.
Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed