Revolution and Counterrevolution

Against the Current No. 231, July/August 2024

Joel Beinin

Revolution Squared:
Tahrir, Political Possibilities, and Counterrevolution in Egypt
By Atef Shahat Said
Durham: Duke University Press, 2024, 360 pages, $29.95 paperback.

THE INSIGHTS THAT Atef Shahat Said gained into Egypt’s politics of protest and mobilization — through his work and political activities before he embarked on an academic career — deeply enrich Revolution Squared, a participant-observer account of what is widely called Egypt’s January 25, 2011 revolution.

From 1995 to 2004 Said was a human rights attorney, a researcher directing projects at human rights organizations, and the author of two books (in Arabic) about the ubiquitous practice of torture by the police. That was the issue that fueled the demonstration which launched the movement that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, after only 18 days of sustained protest.

Atef Said began practicing politically engaged scholarship in the early 2000s when he joined the Revolutionary Socialists, the sister organization of the British Socialist Workers Party, while pursuing an MA in Sociology and Anthropology at the American University in Cairo.

Roots of the 2011 Revolution

Said’s personal engagement with the protests of the 2000s reinforces the ample evidence, concisely cataloged in an appendix to Revolution Squared on “Major Political Coalitions in Egypt, 2000-2010.” The popular uprising against the rule of President Hosni Mubarak that emerged from the January 25, 2011 demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square built on a decade of oppositional mobilizations.

There were sustained campaigns around the issues of solidarity with the second Palestinian Intifada (2000-2005), opposition to the U.S. imperialist invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, independence of the universities, democracy, and the neoliberal restructuring of the economy.

A burgeoning strike movement throughout the 2000s gathered steam in 2004 with the installation of the “government of businessmen” led by cronies of President Mubarak’s younger son, Gamal. Workers’ collective actions targeted the neoliberal threat to the living standards and employment security of millions of Egyptian families.

The political coalitions of the 2000s that focused on anti-imperialist solidarity with Palestinians, Afghanis and Iraqis, and domestic democratic demands were largely comprised of educated, urban middle classes, especially youth.

As in Poland during the 1970s and 1980s, the collective actions and strikes of Egyptian workers began as a defensive response to threats and violations of the moral economy led by a declining sector of the working class: public sector textile workers threatened with privatization of their workplaces, loss of job security, and poorer working conditions.

The neoliberal economic restructuring program sought to replace their central position in the working class (along with other “uncompetitive” public sector workers in steel, cement, etc.) with unorganized, private sector garment assembly workers (especially young women) and others whose jobs depended on the export economy and who were less active in the strike movement.

While public sector textile workers were in the forefront of the strike movement, by 2007 workers in every sector of the economy were participating in strikes, sit-ins and other collective actions. The social movements of workers and the urban intelligentsia contributed to normalizing a culture of protest that made it possible to imagine significant political changes in Egypt.

However, even though leading elements of both movements understood them to be “allied,” they never developed the kind of organizational linkages and common practices that might have enabled them to act in a coordinated fashion, as the Polish Solidarity union and its intellectual allies in the Committee for Defense of Workers (KOR) did in the decade and a half preceding the demise of communism.

Relatively few participants in the occupation of Tahrir Square had a high level of consciousness about the structural conditions of Egypt’s society and economy. The successive mobilizations of the urban intelligentsia rarely addressed political economy issues. The collective actions of the labor movement rarely addressed political questions.

Mohamed ElBaradei’s National Association for Change began calling for democratic elections for the presidency less than a year before Mubarak’s demise. Very few people openly called for regime change until Tunisia’s longtime autocratic president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was deposed by a revolutionary uprising on January 14, 2011.

“Lived Contingency”

Because the January 25 popular uprising built on a decade of previous social mobilizations in such a diffuse and indeterminate way, Said’s conceptual innovation of revolution as “lived contingency” is key to understanding how participants acted and experienced the events.

Lived contingency helps us to understand why people chanting “The people want the fall of the regime” and “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice” thought they were participating in a revolution, even though they had no plan to seize state power and most of them thought that “the regime” consisted of Hosni Mubarak and leading members of his ruling National Democratic Party.

Lived contingency focuses on the actions the revolutionaries did or did not take, the ways that they did and did not form alternative centers of power to the state, and the unpredictable possibilities created by those choices.

According to Said, the matrix determining these uncertainties was comprised of three sectors. First was the liberated zones in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and a small number of other urban centers, especially Suez (but much less so, Alexandria).

Second was the army, which was never an ally of the popular movement although the hegemony of a particular nationalist narrative, centering its role in the creation and preservation of an independent Egyptian state, led many participants in the uprising to believe that at least its conscripts might be.

Third were the popular committees that formed in some 152 neighborhoods in greater Cairo, Alexandria, and smaller urban centers throughout the country to protect property and provide security.

Said devotes particular attention to Cairo’s popular committees because they emerged to fill the vacuum created by the retreat of the police from public spaces after the crowd defeated them in the course of reoccupying Tahrir Square and then torching the headquarters of the National Democratic Party on January 28.

He argues that the popular committees seized some portion of the powers and functions of the state, despite their having an ambivalent relationship to the revolutionaries in Tahrir and no common political outlook or organization beyond the micro-level.

All revolutions are characterized by the participation of many actors with competing and even contradictory political agendas. Perhaps this is more pronounced, or at least more immediately visible due to the ubiquity of digital media, in 21st century revolutionary movements. Said argues that this variation on Trotsky’s conception of dual power explains the nuances of practicing power on the ground.

Ambiguous Revolutionary “Center”

The title, Revolution Squared, embodies an important conceptual question that has, with some exceptions, hitherto not been carefully examined.

Those who occupied Tahrir Square, and most Egyptians and foreigners observing the events, understood Tahrir as the epicenter of a revolution. Said asks if centering Tahrir was a blessing or a curse for the Egyptian revolutionaries, or both simultaneously?

Tahrir Square had been an iconic site for political protest since the 1960s, including legendary brief occupations in 1972, 2003 and 2006. These prior events were the building blocks in the mytho-spatial conceptualization of Tahrir. Its centrality for oppositional political movements mirrored the centrality of Cairo for Egyptian regimes for centuries.

Centering Tahrir rendered it a readily understandable focal point for both revolutionaries and the global media. Yet that necessarily diminished the visibility of protests in other urban centers and throughout Egypt as well as the popular committees in Cairo and elsewhere.

Actions outside Tahrir were not immediately perceived as part of the revolution. This allowed Cairo-centered political actors to overlook the importance of building a nationwide network of support and consultation.

Said argues that the biggest mistake of Egypt’s revolutionaries was not that they left Tahrir Square on February 11, 2011, the day Mubarak relinquished the presidency and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed power. Neither was it that they trusted the military in this moment.

Rather, it was that they did not believe enough in their own power.

The masses of the population of any country have the potential power to withdraw their consent, overthrow governments, and reshape the social order. This does not happen very often, because people typically learn that they have this power only by participating in repeated anti-systemic struggles through which they develop tactics, alliances and political demands to radically alter existing structures of power.

It was not a “mistake” of Egyptian revolutionaries that this did not happen. The mobilizations of the preceding decade had not (yet?) cohered into a social movement with a consensual answer to the famous question Mao Zedong posed to the Communist Party of China in 1926, “Who are our friends and who are our enemies?” The 18 days of Tahrir were not a sufficient amount of time to answer the question for Egypt.

The Military’s Role

Lack of clarity about the central role of the military in Egypt’s post-1952 “officers republic” led some some of the sharpest political minds among secularist leftists, including Said as he acknowledges, to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood represented a more regressive force than the nominally secular military.

Consequently, many revolutionaries accepted the role of the army and military intelligence in what Said calls the “infiltrated mobilization” begun by Nasserist youth on April 26, 2013. This mobilization, the Tamarrod movement, paved the way for the military coup of July 3, 2013 that removed Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, from power.

Said convincingly argues that this outcome was not predetermined. He character­izes Egypt as experiencing a revolutionary situation defined by an acute regime crisis with some elite defection, the formation of a strong opposition that challenged state power, and a mass mobilization.

The value of Revolution Squared is not so much its contribution to the debate over whether or not this is an appropriate definition of a revolutionary situation. Rather, Said invites us to follow him as he guides us through the day-to-day struggles among the leftists, Islamists and liberals whose only point of agreement — embraced tactically by the military when its commanders felt there was no better choice — was the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.

For two years between the ouster of Mubarak on February 18, 2011 and the military coup of July 3, 2013, the outcome was undetermined, although constrained by social and political structures that most revolutionaries had not deeply interrogated.

Large numbers of people who saw themselves as revolutionaries contended for political power. The military took them seriously enough to undermine every form of popular political expression, even the not particularly democratic rule of Muhammad Morsi — culminating in the installation of the praetorian dictatorship that has crushed public culture and political life and has remained in power since then.

July-August 2024, ATC 231

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *