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A baseline “biography” of the revolution in Egypt

A radio interview with Chris Lydon of Radio Opensource on the historical meaning of the January 25, 2011 Revolution. Recorded in Cairo on November 14, 2012

Photo Credit: Mosa’ab Elshamy

CAIRO — Khaled Fahmy came home to Egypt just months before the uprising in Tahrir Square. He was leaving a big university career in Oxford and New York, drawn by intuition and maybe destiny to be the historian of a great event. In an hour’s conversation he will recharge your sense of the Arab Revolution of 2011. It was just what we half-guessed at the time: a watershed more cultural and psycho-social than it was political. It was a young people’s uprising with grand dimensions of gender as well as generation. And it was an irreversible turn in which a vast and confident crowd made a flash decision together that they would no longer be treated as guests in their own land.

This is a very big bump, Khaled Fahmy is saying, in the modern history of the Arabs — an old society living in an odd quilt of mostly made-up nations. Their map and their last century were shaped by World War I, by the erosion of empires, then by Oil, by the Arab-Israeli conflict and the rise of Islam. Their political regimes were tuned more to Paris and London, later Moscow and Washington, than to anything resembling a popular consensus at home.

Modern Egypt, since Napoleon’s short-lived conquest in 1798, has been the story of an “essentially tyrannical state.” It was contrived by the renegade Ottoman officer Mohammed Ali after 1805, and it was extended by his many heirs and into the 20th Century by British force against an unbroken succession of failed popular protests and rebellions. Native strongmen Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak had their turns personifiying the Leviathan. And then suddenly in Tahrir Square “the people,” speaking for themselves, came on stage as a main player.

“Finally in 2011 we cracked it,” Fahmy says. “We managed to bring down an Egyptian ruler and put him on trial and send him to prison. This had never happened in 5000 years of Egyptian history.” In a city without public parks and benches, the yawning emptiness of Tahrir Square, once headquarters of the British army of occupation, became the spot where Egyptians took over their capital city, up-ended a regime and started a conversation with themselves.

In the Fahmy version, Mubarak was the last of a long line of rulers whose Father-Knows-Best game was to hold his people in arrested childhood. Mubarak was 80 years old in a nation that is mostly under-30; he was in fact two generations removed from his people — a brittle grandfather figure, out of touch, out of sync and quickly out of power.

At some level he was suffering the comeuppance that Nasser escaped after the ignominious failure of Egypt’s military in the 1967 war with Israel. “It was not a six-day war,” Fahmy cracks. “It was a 20-minute war,” in the instant destruction of Egypt’s air force. But an infantilized nation was not ready to hold Nasser to account. “We buried Nasser — we finally killed Nasser — in 2011,” in Fahmy’s telling. “We did on January 28 last year what we should have done in June ’67. It took us 40 years. This is what it was all about: doing away with these charismatic leaders, having trust in ourselves — as messy as this can be. And, you know, we are living in a mess…”

We have a long way to go… This is not a revolution that will be over anytime soon… It’s deeper than a political revolution. It’s a cultural revolution, so deep in Egyptian history and Egyptian psyche that I cannot use any other term. It’s a reversal of how Egyptians thought of themselves and thought of their government. It’s not over in the sense that we don’t have a political system that mirrors this new sentiment. We still don’t have it. We don’t have a constitution. We don’t have people in power who reflect this. What we have is an outburst of energies, not all of them creative or positive, but energies that have been bottled up in the country for the past 200 years.

The amazing thing is that this outburst happened in such a huge country, with so many deep problems, in such a peaceful way. That is what I think is most impressive. If I were a journalist that would be the story — the story of what did not happen. What did not happen is a civil war. Egypt could very well have ended up in a civil war. It’s a big country with serious fault-lines and very strong counter-revolutionary forces who don’t want to see the culmination of this effort. And despite this we managed to do away with much of the former regime and to do this in a peaceful way… I still call it a revolution because… it is indigenous, it is authentic, it has deep roots.

The conservative counter-revolutionary forces are very very strong, most important the Muslim Brotherhood… They are a well-greased, well-knit, well-financed political machine. When election time comes they are the first to know how to turn out the vote. Their rhetoric is not that sophisticated. What they have to promise is very meagre. I don’t think they are the solution. But they know how to do things, and they do it. So that is what we now have. And in that sense it looks like the revolution has failed. But I personally think that having a president who was behind bars only 20 months ago is an amazing achievement. To have a president who had been ruling for 30 years behind bars is an amazing achievement. To do this not in a kangaroo trial but in a legal way, without lynching him, without hanging him from a tree, is a significant achievement. To put all heads of the political establishment — many important figures of the former regime — behind bars is very important. And to start, bit by bit, dismantling this apparatus of tyranny will take a long time. The other option would have been blood — with revolutionary trials, with guillotines or gallows in Tahrir. We didn’t see this. But the underlying currents are still there, and they still run deep. There’s a high level of anxiety now because we still don’t know which way the revolution will go, especially with writing the constitution and in the translation of the revolution into new institutional structures. But in the overall scheme of things, this is a huge reversal of the trajectory of Egyptian history.

Khaled Fahmy with Chris Lydon in Cairo, November 14, 2012

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