Egypt's January 25 revolution: A curse on the people?

Egypt's January 25 revolution: A curse on the people?
Comment: Egypt today finds itself in a brutal deadlock. There is destruction and decay, without the kind of contradictory growth that led to 25 January, writes Sam Hamad.
8 min read
25 Jan, 2017
Egyptian protesters at a demonstration in Tahrir Square on 26 January 2013, Cairo [Getty]

"January 25 was a curse", says one Egyptian activist who wants to remain anonymous, as most of them inevitably do these days. "Under Mubarak we had the illusion of revolution", the anonymous revolutionary continues, "but now we don't even have the dream".

Quite remarkably, it has been six years to the day since the protests - centred so famously in Cairo's Tahrir Square - that would eventually bring down Hosni Mubarak, erupted in Egypt.

On one hand, it feels like just yesterday that masses of Egyptians so unthinkably thronged in Tahrir, braving assault from the security forces and their camel-mounted baltagiya (thugs), but unwilling to budge until Mubarak stood down, as Ben Ali, his Tunisian counterpart, had done just days earlier. On the other hand, Egypt's January 25 revolution feels not like a lifetime ago, but as if it occurred in a different world. 

Egypt's revolution erupted at a time following the Bush administration-led "War on Terror", where the logic of tyrants like Mubarak, those who were willing to tow the US line and provide places where the US could send "terror suspects" from around the world to be tortured or disappeared, had seemingly never been stronger. 

To Egyptians, never mind the rest of the world, the 25 January revolution occurred like lightning following the revolution in Tunisia - appearing as if from nowhere, though it channelled decades of resentment against a tyrannical regime.

It's not hyperbole or bitterness to say that Sisi is much worse than Mubarak

In order to understand precisely what was lost, it is important to consider why 25 January occurred. Part of the counter-revolutionary narrative of the Sisi regime has been to distort the events to the extent that it is no longer seen as being a revolution; a narrative that has been readily accepted even by liberal and Left forces who at first supported 25 January. 

Following the counter-revolution that saw the seizure of power by the Sisi from the first elected president of the country Mohamed Morsi, we've seen a will to eradicate 25 January from history, and expunge its enduring presence from modern Egyptian consciousness. 

While Sisi at times attempted to co-opt 25 January by distorting the events to fit the counter-revolutionary, anti-Brotherhood narrative, his goal was to smash not just its concrete effects, such as democracy, but also its causes.

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It's not hyperbole or the bitterness of those whose futures have been lost; families ripped apart and lives destroyed by the end of democracy in Egypt, to say that Sisi is much worse than Mubarak.

This observation is based not on the idea of any revisionism when it comes to Mubarak as a tyrant, but rather on the circumstances that were yielded by his policies. Mubarak was brutal, but the operating logic of the Sisi regime is that he was not brutal enough. 

Mubarak, aided by the IMF, had taken Sadat's liberalisation of the Egyptian economy to new heights, allowing enterprise to determine and eclipse many of Egypt's national and social resources. This period of liberalisation brought with it areas of objective progress, such as the demand for a more educated workforce and an explosion of new technologies among the people.

Mubarak's National Democratic Party - through its own appetite for enrichment via liberalisation - was forced to allow in a vital but limited manner, certain rights for previously oppressed social forces. The result was increased though extremely restricted political representation for non-NDP forces, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood and certain controlled "national liberal" forces.

Accompanying this "objective progress" was social destruction, which was also a major reason for Mubarak slightly relaxing his grip on and utilising the Brotherhood.

This had been bubbling away under the surface for decades, until it was combusted by the spark lit by Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia

Under Mubarak, Egypt's social services, once strong under Nasser, were increasingly weakened due to reckless privatisation or the diversion of the resources used to fund them, to more profitable endeavours (often the pockets of regime officials and cronies).

Realising that the lack of decent schools, hospitals and other provisions for certain classes might lead to increased social unrest against the regime, Mubarak allowed the Brotherhood, with its vast network of social services, ranging from clinics to schools, to deliver these provisions in a limited manner.

The result was that the Brotherhood were able to gain a large social base and were given increased political and economic rights - Brotherhood-affiliated businesses were allowed by Mubarak to prosper, but if it was deemed that they were growing too successful or that they were posing a threat to the regime, their businesses were shut down and the proprietors were subject to imprisonment. 

This system under Mubarak birthed what might be called a "counter-class", one which simultaneously benefitted from the above-mentioned increased political freedom, as well as education opportunities and the explosion of technology, such as the internet and communications, but which were ultimately locked out to full participation in Mubarak's authoritarian system.

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This led these forces, from national liberals, nationalists and leftists to the so-called "Islamists" of the Brotherhood, to attach themselves to the democratisation of Egypt and the end of tyrannical rule. This had been bubbling away under the surface for decades, until it was combusted by the spark lit by Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia. The result was 25 January - a national, democratic revolution.

The Sisi regime understands all of this, which is why its counter-revolution has been so viciously thorough and so flagrant in its targets.

It has sought not merely to overthrow democracy, but to actively destroy the main agents of the democratic revolution. Most notably, this concerns the Brotherhood and every aspect of it, whether its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which won every democratic election it contested, or merely individuals associated with it.

The Sisi regime has sought to annihilate the very means through which January 25 was achieved

But, more generally, the Sisi regime has sought to annihilate the very means through which 25 January was achieved. While 25 January was in part birthed through the internet and social media (something that ought not to be overstated), especially on sites such as We Are All Khaled Said, Sisi has sought to crackdown on internet use with extreme efficiency. 

While 25 January was defined by the congregation of disparate protesters in Tahrir, the Sisi regime has ensured that the nascent protests against his regime, most notably by the Brotherhood-affiliated R4BIA movement, have been kept apart and isolated. 

The Rabaa massacre, the spectacle of over 1,000 protesters being murdered by the regime in a single day, served as both punishment and warning to those who might want to take to the streets. Egypt's campuses, breeding grounds of anti-Sisi activity, have become fortresses, while students have been brutally repressed. 

Even national treasures, such as the footballer Mohamed Aboutrika, are not spared from the ferocious rigor with which the Sisi regime has pursued those who openly supported democracy in Egypt. 

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Aboutrika has been officially declared a "terrorist" by the Sisi regime using bogus counter-terror laws, with his assets and passport being frozen. His crime is to have supported Mohamed Morsi for president in 2012, which is considered by the regime to be "funding terrorism". 

In light of all this, I fully understand the sentiment of 25 January being a curse, but one must never forget that Sisi's base is fundamentally shaky - if 25 January was merely an illusion that led to something worse, Sisi would not need to devote so much of his presidency to vicious repression. 

The mass imprisonments, the disappearances, the blacklisting and the massacres have occurred precisely because 25 January was a dream that came true, a genuine revolution that delivered a flawed, fragile democratic process in Egypt. In fact, as we can see from its crackdown in the days leading up to the anniversary, Sisi fears the mere memory of 25 January.

The mass imprisonments, the disappearances, the blacklisting and the massacres have occurred precisely because 25 January was a dream that came true

The Sisi regime faces its own existential dilemma. It must constantly maintain counter-revolutionary repression, but it must also keep the vast kleptocracy going on behalf of its elite base, as well as maintaining Egypt's economic credibility. 

With Gulf aid drying up, Egypt has had to look towards the IMF, but any deal struck with it requires "shock therapy" reforms that may stir up Egypt's increasingly impoverished masses. But given Sisi has brutally rescinded even Mubarak's dynamic of authoritarian compromise, the country finds itself in a brutal deadlock. You have the destruction and decay without the kind of contradictory growth that led to 25 January.

Sisi must rely on demented schemes such as the plans to build a new capital city or the complete damp squib that was the "New Suez Canal". These provide sources of propaganda, as well as new profit-making schemes for the elites.

With Sisi seemingly finding a soulmate in Trump, and with counter-revolution coming to define regional and world order, it seems that the dream of January 25 has never been further away. This is how Sisi can be simultaneously pro-Putin and pro-America, or how he can be simultaneously supportive of Israel and of Iran's "Axis of Resistance" as it destroys Syria's own democratic revolution.

We can only hope that a new dream can emerge amid the nightmare of counter-revolution.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.