By Dr Vivienne Matthies-Boon
Soon, the second anniversary of the 25th of January revolution will be upon us. However, for many Egyptians there is not much to celebrate. The socio-economic situation is deteriorating and political rights are not improving either. The country is in a mess socially, politically and economically. Unfortunately, ordinary Egyptians bear the brunt of this mess. They still struggle for economic survival, they continue to be tried before military tribunals and they remain tortured in prison cells on a daily basis. Thus, for many not a lot has changed since the revolution in 2011, and a sense of tiredness has set in. Tiredness with political processes, such as elections, whose outcomes do nothing to improve the situation. Tiredness with the daily economic hardship that leaves many Egyptians hungry, anxious and fearful. Tiredness with corruption and authoritarianism, which leaves a bad taste of injustice. And tiredness with self-interested foreign interference, which replays the exact same melodies it practiced so well during the Mubarak era.
However, despite this fatigue, there is also resilience, a sense of stubborn resistance that fights for the social, economic and political improvements that Egyptians deserve. Thus, sit-ins and protests continue in front of the presidential palace and in Tahrir. Many journalists and intellectuals continue writing critical articles, despite the increased risk of being prosecuted for insulting the president. Amongst these groups and individuals, one keeps hearing calls to defend or protect the aims and goals of the revolution, to strive for “bread, freedom and social justice” and to bring about “real change”. And thus the leaders of the National Salvation Front called for people to rally during the revolution’s anniversary in order "to complete the goals of the revolution and affirm that the people will protect their revolution”.[i] Moreover, protesters in Tahrir have established a “revolutionary museum” to remember the victims and the perpetrated crimes so as to protect and defend the revolution.
Yet, interestingly, these calls to “defend” or “protect” the revolution extend beyond centre-left activist groups that claim to fight for the social, political and economic rights the revolution demanded. For, Salafis (ultraconservatives), Islamists and even the president himself have also claimed to defend and protect the 25th of January revolution. For example, earlier this week, the Salafist Tarek Al-Zommor argued that, during meetings with the newly established Al-Watan party, “there were talks about the idea of uniting some of the parties that defend the revolution”.[ii] Equally, president Mursi himself insisted he was defending and protecting the revolution when he published his dubious and much contested Nov. 22 presidential decree. Moreover, he also established a new body, namely the ‘Revolution Protection Prosecution’ headed by Amr Fawzy. This new body is based on the Revolution Protection Law that emerged between the presidential decrees of Nov. 22 and Dec. 9. This new body is charged with investigating crimes committed against the protesters during the 2011 revolution, and looking into the recommendations of a fact finding committee that was established by a presidential decree six months earlier. Whilst leaving aside the advantages and disadvantages of this new body for the moment, it is clear that there is a lot of so-called “protecting” and “defending” of the revolution on the Egyptian political scene.
And in fact, Egypt is not alone in this regard; people all over the world are defending revolutions. For example, the Iranian political elite is still “defending” the 1979 revolution, notably through their Revolutionary Guard[iii]. Syrian rebels have recently set up a security service to “defend” their revolution against the rule of Assad[iv]. And in Tunisia, “Committees to Defend the Revolution” have emerged out of neighbourhood self-defense groups, who are now accused of intimidating the local population[v]. In Cuba, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution are still in full swing, and in Venezuela people in Caracas claimed to be defending the Bolivarian revolution when they gathered to support president Hugo Chavez in 2011[vi].
This should make us stop and think: what does it actually mean to “defend” a revolution? And, within the Egyptian context, what does it mean to defend the 25th of January revolution? Are claims of defending the revolution anything more than rhetorical sound bites?
Looking at the Egyptian political elite, the meaning of defending the revolution depends on the particular vision of the revolution itself. Like SCAF ( Supreme Council of Armed Forced – generals that ruled Egypt after Mubarak) before them, Mursi and the Freedom and Justice Party appear to perceive the revolution as merely entailing the 18 days that overthrew the rule of Mubarak. For them, the revolution’s main achievement is the change of political power from a NDP government to an Islamist one. Or to put it simpler, the revolution’s main feat is that it is their time to play on the ‘big’ political stage. Thus, defending the revolution means defending their rule through all means necessary (including presidential declarations, anti-protest laws and trials against those insulting the president, etc). They merely pay lip service to issues such as social justice, rather than rethink the neoliberal socio-economic order which caused the misery of so many Egyptians. This is not surprising, since they have for a long time shared the previous regime’s neoliberal vision of development. The only difference is that – they claim – this time, there will be “no rotten apples”. For them, the trouble was with individual corruption, and not with the international financial order and the workings of capitalism itself. Indeed, their aim is to get this same old ‘bicycle going again’ as soon as possible, but this time in a bright shiny coat of moral and religious piety.
For the Salafis, the revolution also meant the political freedom to play, as it enabled them to emerge from the woodworks and at times even claim centre stage in the political debate (as well as physical public spaces). They also quickly learnt that, despite their stated aversion to politics, politics can be instrumentalised to achieve one’s own ends. Moreover, astonished by their initial electoral gains, they also realised that if one shouts hard enough about moral piety and religious law people will listen. For, despite their infighting, the Salafis have been instrumental in steering the parameters of public opinion and public debate to their own advantage – namely towards issues of religious-identity rather than socio-economic rights. For them, defending the revolution means defending their newly created political space as well as the enforcement of moral piety and religious law. It thus does not mean rethinking the socio-economic order Egypt was built upon over the last couple of decades.
And what about the National Salvation Front, and the variety of political and protest groups it claims to represent? This is difficult to answer since the National Salvation Front arose in direct opposition to what they saw as Mursi’s authoritarian measures rather than the revolutionary context. Central to their political claims have been contesting the presidential decrees, the flawed constitutional process, the onslaught on the judiciary, the upcoming parliamentary elections and a disapproval of a creeping Islamisation of the state. Whilst lip service has been paid to social justice the exact socio-economic vision of the National Salvation Front as a whole is difficult to decipher. This is largely due to the wide variety of groups it represents, ranging from left of centre groups to former NDP strongman Amr Moussa (to whom there is a lot of opposition amongst the youth groups of the National Salvation Front). Hence, for some who associate themselves with the National Salvation Front “defending the revolution” means an entire overhaul of the political and socio-economic system, whilst for others it merely entails the halt of islamisation and fair electoral or judicial processes.
And in this sense, one can wonder whether any of the Egyptian political elite are in fact defending or protecting a revolution at all. For, as German philosopher Hannah Arendt explained, what characterises a modern revolution is that it entails a radical break with the past. Thus, as opposed to mere 'change' or even a 'revolt', a revolution entails a break in the perceived course of history. As she explains, crucial to the modern understanding of revolution “is that the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide”[vii]. It is this notion of a new beginning, a radical break from the past, through the advancement of social, political and economic freedom that hence sets a revolution apart from ‘mere change’ or a ‘revolt’.
And yet, when examining the political elite’s visions of the revolution, it is not clear to what extent we can speak of a revolution at all. For, whilst there have been some changes, unfortunately there has been no real new beginning in Egypt – let alone a new beginning that coincides with the advancement of freedom. Politicians, by and large, are still geared towards their own interests rather than the social welfare of the population.
Moreover, it is doubtful to what extent a new beginning can be ushered in without addressing the deeper underlying structural problems that caused the socio-economic misery of Egypt’s people. Here, I am particularly referring to the legitimacy crisis of the neoliberal economic order that came to the fore as people demanded “bread, freedom and social justice”. For decades, Egypt has been forced into a neoliberal economic straightjacket by international financial institutions and Western actors through Structural Adjustment Programmes and aggressive campaigns of privatization. As a result of these programmes and campaigns living conditions and basic provisions for ordinary people deteriorated. At the same time, the Egyptian political and business elite gathered up the wealth of Egypt’s resources through corrupt cronyistic networks. These networks galvanized strength as a result of this externally enforced privatization, which forced the state to sell its public assets. The state thus sold its assets directly to its cronies for either ridiculously low prices or without the proper process of bidding. Interestingly, the IMF and the World Bank turned a blind eye to all of this when, even just a few months before Mubarak’s ouster, they hailed Mubarak’s economic model as having surpassed all expectations, and deemed it a desirable model for the entire Middle East.
Yet, the underlying crisis of this economic model was not only plain for all to see in Egypt where ordinary people struggled to survive on a daily basis, but across the entire world – from countries in Latin America, to Europe, to the USA and Africa. To put it rather simply, a similar pattern occurs everywhere: as a result of neoliberal economic policies - based on the Washington Consensus – basic provisions deteriorate for ordinary people. For, due to privatization and outsourcing, the price of these provisions (which is to be left unregulated) goes up. Hence, lower income groups are excluded from basic provisions such as healthcare, education, elderly care, etc. In short, basic public services deteriorate. At the same time, these campaigns of privatization ensure that links between business and political elites are strengthened. This not only means that wealth is redirected into the pockets of the few, but also that politicians become increasingly preoccupied with the interests of their business mates rather than the plight of ordinary people. A gap thus emerges between the rich elite and the increasingly impoverished population.
Now, my suggestion is that if we want to usher in real change – and see a real improvement in the social conditions of people, we need to start connecting these crises and expose such deeper underlying structural problems. This also means articulating alternative strategies, or policies, that do not leave people excluded or marginalized. However, until this time, we can safely say that we are in fact still awaiting a real revolution – a real break and new beginning – which unfortunately means this talk of ‘defending’ the Egyptian revolution is nothing more than empty buzzwords.
 Daily News Egypt, ‘Al Watan Party gears up for upcoming elections’, 10 January 2013
 Arendt, Hannah (1963) On Revolution, Penguin Books: London – p29