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Egyptian Revolutionaries Need to Ask What Went Wrong

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How is it possible that a revolution made by young revolutionaries can end up marginalizing them, while the political candidate of a group that played almost no role in the revolution becomes president, being only narrowly followed by the former prime minister of the very regime that was overthrown?

Are we to believe people like Hamid Dabashi, who crudely invokes an Orientalist logic to compare the Egyptian revolution to the 1979 Iranian revolution, defining the former in opposition to the latter as "calm, composed, gentle, civil, human, hopeful, and principled"? To better understand his approach, we should note that Dabashi relies on a dichotomous formula to polarize the comparison, and to 'other' the Iranian revolution. Edward Said's criticism of Orientalism was that it constructed people from 'the West' as being 'rational, peaceful, liberal, logical, capable of holding real values, without natural suspicion,' and those from 'the East' as 'none of these.' In Professor Dabashi's article, Egypt (once 'the Orient') takes the place of 'the West,' and Iran, 'the East.' This is done through the most extreme of simplifications and misrepresentation of facts, in which anything and everything related to the Iranian revolution becomes evil, while the opposite is true for the Egyptian.

I do not have space here to discuss the complexities of the Iranian revolution, which are still playing themselves out. My focus is on Egypt today, and on asking whether people like Dabashi are right to argue that what is happening in Egypt is nothing but a: "sublime democracy, with minimum bloodshed, with people, the Egyptians themselves, at the driving seat." The military had dissolved the parliament and assigned itself unprecedented power. There is now a president with no democratic credentials, who belongs to a party that has broken all its promises. There is neither a constitution nor a parliament, and the ultimate law-maker is the Supreme Military Council (which has, in effect, become the Vali Faqih of Egypt). All of this is happening while the structure of a state that was built to support dictatorial rule remains intact.

Contrary to Dabashi's argument, there is nothing "sublime" about what is happening in Egypt. It is not a "step in the only direction possible: forward," but a systematic move by the dictatorial power structure of the state to mend the damages which were sustained after Mubarak's overthrow, and even to consolidate its power further. The question which should be asked, therefore, is what went wrong, and what mistakes might have led to the current situation. Without answering these questions, it is possible that the Egyptians will end up with only the facade of democracy, one aligned with American foreign policy, without little substance. For instance, even one engineered bloody protest could enable the Supreme Military to argue that in extreme circumstances, extreme measures have to be taken, so as to re-introduce martial law and later make it permanent.

Lack of alternatives: the Achilles heel of the revolution

The greatest mistake in Egypt was the revolutionaries' failure to develop a democratic alternative that could oversee a transfer of power from Mubarak's regime to the people. In fact, what we saw was only the demand for Mubarak to go (erhal). But as there was no further planning or production of a viable alternative, the fall of Mubarak created a vacuum which was filled by those with different forms of power at their disposal: the Egyptian military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.

Other mistakes include embracing the Egyptian army after removing Mubarak, not realizing that (as in Iran) it is simply a military-financial mafia and has an enormous interest to preserve the status quo. Whether they did so out of a belief in the army's loyalty to the people or out of political expediency is irrelevant here. As a result, the revolutionaries have now trapped themselves between a rock and hard place.

Furthermore, using the number of participants in Cairo as a model, we can see that the demonstrations never mustered more than a million people in a city of 20 million. This means that in Cairo, around 5 percent of the population participated, and we can safely assume that outside Cairo the level of participation would have been even lower. If we compare this with the 1979 Iranian revolution, where 4-5 million people participated in major demonstrations in a city (Tehran) of around 6 million, this means that, excluding the elderly, the sick and the children, over 90 percent of the population participated.

How do we explain such a major difference?

Explaining this difference brings us back to the absence of a viable democratic alternative that could be communicated widely with people. On the contrary, during the Iranian revolution, Khomeini outlined an alternative of Islam as a discourse of liberty in 124 interviews, through which the Iranian public could see the shape of a future regime in which human rights would be central, and hence in which the freedom and equality of all Iranians, irrespective of class, ethnicity, gender and belief would be secured; in which a woman could become president; in which he himself would withdraw from frontline politics, and in which the clergy would not interfere in the affairs of the state.

These points were communicated successfully with people widely across the country, and as a result people could imagine a better future after the overthrow of the Shah's regime. This is why the Iranian revolution was rare in that it cut cross class, ethnicity, gender and belief, and united the entire nation against a dictatorial monarchy.

In the Egyptian case, the very fact of Mohamed Morsi's election as president and the defeat of the revolutionaries in both the parliamentary and presidential elections tell us that they failed both to produce a democratic alternative and to communicate it with the Egyptian people. As a result, we can see that the majority of Christians are voting for Shafiq out of fear, and many others voted for Morsi because they could not see a better alternative.

What should be done?

It seems that the most important task for the Egyptian revolutionaries who are struggling for democracy in an independent Egypt, whether they are Muslims, nationalists or leftists, is to counter the rise of the power-oriented and opportunist Muslim Brotherhood and the anti-democratic Salafis. In order to do this, nothing could be more effective than introducing alternative interpretations of Islam as a discourse of liberty and freedom, so that Muslims do not feel that they have to choose between Islam and democracy. This wheel does not need to be re-invented, and I suggest that, next to the work of Arab thinkers like Rashid Qanoushi, they undertake the task of translating the massive literature being produced by Iranian Muslim intellectuals such as Shabestari, Soroush and above all Banisadr's work (The Koran: A Book on the Discourse of Freedom, Human Rights in the Koran, or Free Intellect, Social Justice and Totalitarianism). One of the major factors which makes Banisadr's work unique is his constant encounter with the concepts of power and freedom. As he uses the Koran as his only point of reference, the usual divisions between Shiism and Sunnism become irrelevant as the Koran is the common denominator of both faiths. Given that Islam is a deeply embedded belief among the majority of Egyptians, even if democracy is established in Egypt, it will be a very fragile system unless there is other work done to revolutionize living Islam, turning its various languages of power into a discourse of liberty.