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A Revolutionary People

Published in Ahram Online on July 15, 2013

Among the most complex lessons Egyptians have learned from the momentous events of the past two-and-a-half years is that they are a revolutionary people, writing their own destiny

Tahrir Square, September 30, 2011 (The graffiti says “No to military rule”) Photo: Khaled Fahmy

We were taught in schools that we were a patient and passive people, and for generations we accepted facile sayings about the genius of Egypt, its tranquil landscape, its gentle river and undemanding people. And yet here we are, proving to ourselves that we write our own history and that we can depose our rulers if they do not succumb to our will.

This realisation — the realisation that we shape our own destiny — does not come easily. Like Prometheus who found himself punished by the gods for stealing fire, practicing “people power” has serious consequences. It is therefore imperative to grapple with this realisation specifically by posing the following key questions: Why did we revolt? When will our revolution come to an end? And more specifically: Why did we rise up against a president we chose in an election that was in itself a product of the first phase of our revolution?

During their sitting in power, the Muslim Brotherhood was obsessed with their phobia of the feloul, the strong men of the previous regime. They did not realise that a revolutionary people cannot be governed by a handful of feloul. As for Western pundits, they were preoccupied with the ailing economy, long petrol queues and power cuts. Of course, the feloul had a role to play in toppling Morsi, and of course the Brotherhood’s mismanagement of the economy led to widespread exasperation and apprehension. Yet the matter that most unsettled people was their realisation that the Brotherhood posed a serious threat to their freedom.

The path to democratic transition was flawed to begin with. The drafting of the constitution was monopolised by one faction; the president issued a constitutional declaration that rendered his decisions immune to judicial review; and the government adamantly drafted laws that curtailed the public sphere, starting with the law of “organising demonstrations,” through the so-called “freedom of information law,” to the NGOs law, and finally the law of “rectifying” the judiciary.

Moreover, the president turned a blind eye to the siege of the High Constitutional Court and insisted on removing the prosecutor general, replacing him with someone who had neither the respect of the prosecution nor the people’s respect. The new prosecutor general filed lawsuits against revolutionaries and threw them in prison as the Brotherhood attempted to reconcile with remnants of the past regime, including businessmen, and flirted with the police.

It was the feeling that their country was being robbed in front of them that prompted millions of Egyptians to take to the streets nationwide to fight for their freedom against a secret organisation that was monopolising power, not sharing it. The message that the people sent to the Brotherhood 30 June was crystal clear: You have failed miserably in running the country and in realising the most important demand of the revolution — defending freedom. So you must leave.

Yet, at the same time that the people sent this clear message to the Brotherhood, as a notification of failure, they issued another message to the army, pointing out the urgency of promptly ousting Morsi. When the army responded to the will of millions, the fate of the Brotherhood was sealed. The problem of army intervention is not in the label we give it (is it a military coup, or another wave of the revolution?) as much as in the nature of the message this intervention transmitted to the Brotherhood.

Instead of receiving the clear 30 June message of “You have failed, and the people rejected you,” the Brotherhood read the message sent by army intervention as follows: “Yet again, we were betrayed and treated with injustice.” It goes without saying that both messages, one of failure and another of injustice, have different connotations and have different psychological and political repercussions.

The move by the army also had important implications for this revolutionary people, for the millions who took to the street demanding the departure of the Brotherhood, confident in their people power and in their ability to topple a second president in as many years, witnessed the army take charge of the situation and grasp the reins in its hands. Thus, we saw El-Sisi delivering his statement while the Tamarod youth were crouching in the background; army jets hovering over Tahrir Square, skywriting hearts, rainbows and the colours of the flag, and chants of “Morsi has been ousted by El-Sisi,” intermingling with “Morsi has been ousted by his people.”

What complicated matters further was the massacre at the Republican Guards club on Monday. In addition to conflicting accounts of the day’s events, amid confusion about whether it was the army that started attacking the sit-in or it was an act of self-defence by the army against a pre-planned attack, people seemed uninterested in inquiring about the structural and institutional reasons that allowed such a brutal massacre to take place in the first place. Who gave the order to use live ammunition rather than bird shot? What are the rules of engagement in situations when the army (or the police for that matter) confront civilians, armed or unarmed? Where does the buck stop, and who is to be held politically responsible for such a massacre?

Another factor overlooked by many was the fact that this was not the first time that lives were lost and Egyptian blood shed at the hands of the army; it seems as though we have forgotten the events of Maspero and the Cabinet and Abbasiya clashes, clashes in which the army wantonly and deliberately shot at defenceless civilians or trampled them under APCs.

This revolutionary people, who managed to overthrow Mubarak in the first round of its revolution, and to topple the Brotherhood in the second round, must hold the army in check in the third round. In the short-run, we need an independent investigation into the events of the Republican Guard club (and parallel events in Manial, Sidi Gaber and Bein El-Sarayat). In the long run, we need to insist on putting an end to military trials for civilians, subjecting the military budget to parliamentary supervision, and opening the door for having a civilian minister of defence. Only then — that is, only when we hold the army in check and subject it to our will — will this revolutionary people rest and realise that its revolution has achieved its goals.

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