An incomplete revolutionary tradition

On the tenth anniversary of the Arab revolutions, Elham Eidarous outlines the new energy and transformations in the post-revolutionary Egyptian landscape, analyzing the diverse interests, positions, and inclinations of the newly-founded parties.

[Editor's note: This article is the seventh in a series published in collaboration with Mada Masr to mark the tenth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. It is also available in Arabic.]

Can we speak of a revolutionary tradition produced by the January 2011 revolution? A tradition striving for emancipatory political change in values/attitudes and modes of action/organizational structures? Where can we look for such a tradition? Should we look to the values, behaviors, and slogans that spurred millions of people to take action against a monstrous regime? Or in the democratic political projects formed to achieve the revolution’s goals? Or both? 

In his article for this series, Maurice Aaek speaks of a dilemma facing the Arab uprisings, namely the hegemony of a certain conservative political culture that is against freedom (the culture of the counter-revolution) among the majority of the people who took part in the revolutions. But I prefer to focus on what different political projects offered the people, especially since the people aren’t a muted mass, but one with diverse interests, positions, and inclinations. 

I think that the revolution brought with it a historic opportunity to create a new politics. Millions of people became engaged in public affairs and decided to get involved, and new organizations and groups of hundreds, even thousands, of people were formed. It was an opportunity to revive the democracy movement in its most comprehensive sense — encompassing political, labor, civic, and student activism. In particular, it brought an opportunity to reconstitute existing political currents into new projects built on a more democratic, inclusive foundation.

Here I am interested in party structures as a particular form of political organization. All the political currents that had existed in Egypt since the era of national liberation and up to the decade preceding the revolution, which saw growing democratic and social agitation, were present in organizational form before the revolution. In the period of openness and fluidity that followed the revolution, new forms emerged, or developed more fully, and I think these represented an evolution in more democratic, open directions within liberal, leftist, Islamist, and Nasserist currents.

Within the Nasserist current, the Karama Party was a new iteration of the Arab Nasserist Party, an expression of the differences between Nasserists who arose in opposition to the Sadat regime or as Nasser regime officials targeted by Sadat. There was also the Popular Movement that emerged after the revolution in connection with the Karama Party and its leader Hamdeen Sabahi. 

In the liberal current, two important liberal projects were born after the revolution: Masr Alhurreya, led by the liberal intellectual Amr Hamzawy; and the Free Egyptians, led by billionaire Naguib Sawiris, both as alternatives to the Wafd Party. Both of these new organizations were effectively dead by October 2015 and December 2016, however, due to various factors. 

In the leftist camp, there was a call to build a new party for the left on February 10, 2011, encompassing the more politically-open components within three existing leftist factions: the Change Current within the Tagammu Party; the Socialist Renewal Current within the Revolutionary Socialists; and several figures from what we might call the democratic left. The latter included people who had coalesced into various groupings prior to the revolution, rather than in a single organization, as well as a relatively new group of people who did not necessarily identify as leftists before the revolution. All of these factions formed the Popular Socialist Alliance Party. In November 2013, several founding members resigned to form a new leftist project, Bread and Freedom, which has thus far not managed to secure legal recognition. Bread and Freedom, however, was a product of a more circumscribed, narrow period, rather than the previous freewheeling, fluid era. (Another liberal project, the Egyptian Secular Party, was formed in this same period, though it does not appear to have lasted for very long.)

Among Islamists, a group of young people (the Egyptian Current Party) broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood after the revolution in an attempt to form an official party. Former Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh also established the Strong Egypt Party in 2012. After 2013, much of the membership of these two organizations abandoned politics out of either fear or frustration, as was the case with most other political currents. Based on my personal observations, those that remained splintered into three factions: a now explicitly secular faction; an extremist faction sympathizing with jihadists (we know of at least one individual who joined ISIS); and a group that continued to adhere to what it calls “civilized Islam,” engaging in peaceful, democratic political action. 

Several socially-liberal organizations also emerged, most significantly the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, formed by leftists as well as nationalist, reformist liberals who had participated in the pro-democracy movement before the revolution, in addition to several centrist Muslim businessmen, Copts, and relatively enlightened church leaders, particularly from smaller denominations. In addition, Mohamed el-Baradei founded the Dostour Party, while Mostafa al-Naggar established the Adl Party. 

Amr Abdel Rahman writes that most of these new parties were hastily formed “with the primary objective of thwarting the military-Islamist alliance, rather than building a viable social base,” with the near sole exception of “leftist groups and to a lesser degree Nasserist forces outside the Nasserist Party and groups of Brotherhood defectors.” This may be true, but these new parties’ selection of their missions and modes of operation tells us something about which social groups they perceived to be their target audience as agents for change. Despite all the talk of revolutionary youth in this period as an undifferentiated mass unmarked by class, gender or religion, in practice every political party or group identified and addressed themselves to particular groups of people with an interest in democratic change, based on their ideological and intellectual attitudes and perceptions. 

Nonetheless, I believe that the dominance and narrow imagination of the typical, middle-class Muslim male within these organizations; even the liberal and leftist groups; made them timid, and caused them to waste important opportunities when the field was open to all possibilities—it was risky, but open nevertheless. 

The revolution was an opportunity to develop emancipatory answers to questions about the state, wealth, and the rules of private and public life, particularly given the confrontation with the religious bloc, during both its alliance and clash with the military. But due to shortsightedness and the sway of this narrow imagination, opportunities were lost; not to resolve these questions—a truly difficult endeavor—but to establish a new minimum threshold, or pose more radical alternatives that could at least compete with other visions. 

I believe the following questions/moments were central to these missed opportunities: 

  • Questions of social justice were not profoundly pursued: How did Tahrir become the locus for the “big” questions about governance and democracy, while Maspero became the destination for marginalized people (low-income communities facing eviction in the Maspero; Christians rejecting sectarian violence and protesting and getting killed near Maspero) seeking social justice? 
  • The conflict with political Islam around the civil nature of the state was framed along religious lines that ceded authority to al-Azhar as the main Sunni religious institution and strengthened the power of Muslim and Christian religious institutions in general over citizens’ private lives. 
  • Democratic parties lacked interest in fighting over personal status matters with the Brotherhood and Salafis in an Islamist-dominated parliament. This in general reflects their poor outreach to social movements that grew out of specific groups’ struggles around the issues of citizenship and equality, such as women and Christians. 
  • Pro-democracy groups who began the struggle against Brotherhood rule after the revolution welcomed reactionary, regressive elements into their political front, ostensibly in order to expand the battle to save the nation. After the Brotherhood was removed in summer 2013, they were then slow to return to their position of opposition, yielding it to Islamists and instead assuming the role of "sincere advisor" to the new military authority that despised them.
  • New parties sought to rejuvenate their organizational structures to be more flexible and accommodating of emerging incomers, but most of them remained prisoners of the old structures. 

Of course, many of the leaders and members of the aforementioned organizations are currently in prison or exile; disappeared; or under threat. I certainly do not deny that brutal repression played a role in stymying the development of their projects’ thought and practice. Nor do I wish to absolve myself with any of these observations, for I took part in all of these moments as well. Yet if we in this country who support democracy are to preserve the few pockets of democratic struggle that have not yet been crushed, and attempt to create new pockets, we must think about what we did when the field was open to all possibilities.