Note: This is an archived project; no significant changes have been made since parliament was seated in January 2016.
Rebuilding Revolutionary Politics
The empty polling stations, the pleas by pro-Sisi talk show hosts for Egyptians to go vote, and the general atmosphere in which the parliamentary elections were held in the absence of any opposition parties, make me wonder how we got here four years after the January 25 Revolution. To answer this question, I had to take a step back and think about who “we” are to begin with.
I have been struggling to answer this question since I came to Washington, DC. In a city that hosts representatives from almost all corners of the world, a conversation with a Middle East expert, an official in the U.S. administration, or a member of Congress immediately, almost instinctively, triggers the questions: Who are you? Which team do you belong to? And certainly, these days, Who would you vote for?
It took me only a few days after landing in Washington in May to realize that I would need to subscribe to an explicit political identity if I wanted to talk politics. Everyone in the city tries to fit you in a box before listening to you. When it comes to Egypt, it means they want to assign you to one of two camps—the regime or the Islamists. But the complex political scene in Egypt makes it difficult to simply pick a side in this dichotomy. I am one of many who were politicized because of the January 2011 Revolution and remain part of a group espousing different ideologies that all aim to establish a new democratic common ground. Carving a third category between the military and the Islamists has proven to be difficult mission, and to adequately convey the nuances of our political agenda and ideology requires explaining the details of history and context. While this gives a keen and patient listener some valuable background, explaining the weight of our group in the Egyptian political equation is another challenge altogether.
I have personally struggled to present myself and my political group in DC. My first instinct was to say that I belong to neither the military nor the Muslim Brotherhood camps. Then it struck me that this is what we as revolutionaries often find ourselves doing: identifying not by what we are, but who we are not. The revolution came with a boastful momentum, based on exaggerated idealism, and regarded any political participation as a stain on the pure revolutionary cloak. This hindered the establishment of a political agenda adequate to represent its currents.
The January 25 Revolution was a foundational moment that imposed a new political reality. This new reality destroyed the ideological fault lines that divided the different groups in Tahrir Square and united them in the mutual interest of rescuing Egypt from its political, social, and economic freefall. Their focus was to build a truly inclusive democratic process to become a civilian state. However, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood each played the process for their own benefit, thereby sidelining all other actors attempting to build this democratic model. Accordingly, the political map of Egypt, from this moment, appeared to be divided to two camps, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving out the spectrum of groups that led the protests in Tahrir Square.
Defining our political agenda on the basis of ideology may prove problematic in such a defunct political landscape. Politicians across the spectrum in Egypt have taken stances and been involved in coalitions that contradict their own ideologies. It is difficult to ascertain the current regime’s ideology (or if it has one), even from closely observing the economic and social policies and decrees over the past two years.
For me and my cohorts, it is difficult to define ourselves as leftists, for example, without explaining that the Egyptian left is itself intertwined in the current polarization. Some leftist groups are backing the current regime even as other factions call for aligning with the Islamists against the regime. Most of the political right also supports the regime, though a large part calls for more economic reform than the government has endorsed, and there are still a few Egyptian conservatives who call for respect of human rights and civil liberties. Despite the bloody standoff between the regime and the Brotherhood and their allies, some Islamist groups still try desperately to join the regime’s alliance.
Because of this fractious nature of the current political scene, it makes more sense to define ourselves by the January 25 Revolution. This way, we can still maintain our different ideologies—as individuals or as groups—under this umbrella. After all, whatever success the revolution saw was rooted in its ability to transcend ideologies in its infancy. And, while puritanism led many revolutionaries to eschew formal political participation (some of going as far as to accuse voters of “dipping their fingers in the martyrs’ blood,” a reference to dipping their fingers in the pink ink at the polling stations), the revolution as a political moment was also defined by an equal and opposite trend of burgeoning political participation. Youth from the left, right, and Islamist currents joined or launched political parties and presidential campaigns and managed to gain votes. Political organizing and party politics in Egypt saw a blossoming under their watch—dynamic and diverse, if inchoate.
Ironically, five years later, many of us find ourselves watching the 2015 parliamentary elections and agree that we must boycott the process—even some among us who were at the front lines of party organizing during the last elections. We cannot participate in elections which were designed to exclude all parties that didn’t show clear support of the current regime. We find ourselves back at square one—at December 2010—or even worse.
Some of us still tell the story of the revolution from an exaggerated idealistic and emotional perspective, claiming that any political participation was betrayal, and that anyone who has taken part in any elections has abandoned the demands of the revolution. Others believe that the revolution had (or, by definition, revolution has) no political parties and it should have continued only in the streets. These slogans only feed stereotypes about our revolution: that we were a bunch of angry youth in the streets with no clear vision or project.
Policymakers and experts in DC always look for quick fixes and simplified pictures; it is hard to change that, because this is unfortunately how they must operate as they try to address challenges across the globe. But, as those associated with neither binary, what we can do is have a clearer understanding of ourselves to be able to make a more accurate representation of who we are.
It is hard to talk about our weight in the Egyptian political equation because we have been defeated. That defeat has not only affected our ideas and our cause, but has cost our friends’ deaths and arrest, has completely quashed public space, and has left the wounds of trauma on a national scale.
Political action should be rooted in hope for a better future, and to succeed, this hope needs to also be grounded in serious perceptions of the future. But it is hard to think about the future. It is hard to reach the certainty of hope as a base for political action when political space no longer exists. However, if we choose to keep fighting for our existence and for what we believe in, we should do so on a different battleground. Perhaps our only role now is to survive this relapse while looking at ourselves as a political group, to use political tools to keep ourselves afloat and look forward to a shore. Maybe we can gain political weight by reviewing our ideas, our relationship with the revolution, and our political experiences; by writing about them and how to benefit from them; by documenting our revolution and the facts that many are trying to distort; by representing ourselves as the rational current in the age of madness.