Sunday, 24 January 2016

January 25: Egypt's Revolutionary Legacy

It was five years ago today that an unprecedented mass uprising against then president Mubarak of Egypt sent shock waves across the region. The Tunisian revolution was one thing, but a similar revolution in Egypt was quite another. Given Egypt's sheer size, population, strategic position and regional and global weight, the Arab Spring was launched in earnest on January 25. 

That date was not chosen at random by the young Egyptian revolutionaries. January 25, known as "Police Day", was meant to commemorate the heroism of a particular unit of Egyptian police against the British occupation of the Suez sixty years earlier; on the other hand, in 2011, the Egyptian police  was feared and reviled as the heavy-handed arm of a police state. 

Five years after the 2011 revolution, the legacy of January 25th is more complicated than ever, and celebrating it is a delicate matter for the current regime. On the one hand President Sisi and his military-backed regime seek to publicly embrace the ideals of the 2011 revolution, at least in principle, while upholding the legitimacy of the June 30th 2013 mass uprising that, in their view, superseded and supplanted 2011, and endorsed the return of the military to power. That many, if not most, Egyptians support that position is a testimony to the general disillusionment with the principle of revolution itself, after the bitter experience of four years of successive upheavals, the hijacking of the revolution by the Muslim Brotherhood, the death spiral of the economy, the rise in terrorism, and the state of insecurity.

The desire for security is key here to understanding the mood of the general public. Revolution fatigue has set in. The young revolutionaries who originally launched January 25th are generally  regarded, at best, as naive idealists who knew how to launch a movement and upend a regime but had no plan for the day after; or, at worst, as witting or unwitting pawns of a foreign conspiracy to create the kind of chaos that would fling Egypt down the path of the failed states surrounding it: Libya, Syria, Iraq. A return to stability seems to be the immediate priority of the majority of Egyptians, and no price, in civil liberties or parliamentary democracy, is too high to pay.

But to be fair, Egyptians are hardly the only people who seem willing to trade liberties for security, a famously unprofitable exchange according to Benjamin Franklin. It took two serious terrorist attacks in one year for the French, with a far more established tradition of civil liberties, to abandon liberté and égalité in favor of an indefinitely extended state of emergency powers and the creation of two-tier citizenship.

In French, the grapevine of rumors and information is called "le téléphone arabe." Today, Facebook and Twitter are the new  "téléphone arabe" of protests. The Egyptian government is taking no chances ahead of the fated anniversary of January 25. Schools and universities have been put on mid-year vacation for a month to preempt campus protests. A newly-elected, safely rubber-stamp parliament held its first session earlier in January, for the first time in three years. The Ministry of the Interior, associated in the Mubarak years with overreaching police powers, has been moved to new headquarters out in the suburbs, away from the center of Cairo. The artists' studios have been shut down around Tahrir Square, historically the hub of protests. Tahrir square itself is undergoing a much-needed makeover, after years of disruption and degradation.

The first anniversary of Tahrir was a peaceful, largely still-hopeful celebration. But it was downhill from then on. The slogans changed from from year to year, from "down with the military" to "down with the Brotherhood" to "down with the military" again. This year may be back to the future, again.