Evaluating a still unfolding revolt is like trying to shoot a moving target. Yet there has been at least one steady pattern in Egypt over the past two years: subversion has constantly outpaced efforts to consolidate a new regime.
Much has been said about the innovative techniques that characterised the recent Arab uprisings. Enthusiasts have marvelled at the way social media levelled the playing field by allowing groups of disparate activists to establish horizontal networks under the nose of the state, exhaust the organs of coercion and surveillance, and mobilise ordinary citizens at dizzying speed. It is no longer necessary to go through the arduous and dangerous process of creating a revolutionary movement, vetting new members, organising cells and maintaining an elaborate command and communication system without alerting the state. Today, calls for a strike or warnings against an imminent security attack can be circulated in no time on Facebook or Twitter. Agitprop can be disseminated easily, and at no cost, on YouTube. An activist with a blog doesn’t have to go through the hassle of trying to get an article published in a newspaper, let alone worry about censorship and distribution. But all the excitement about the ‘democratisation’ of revolution, and the corresponding demise of elitist – and corruptible – professional revolutionary parties, can blind us to the attendant cost. The ease of it all has produced the temptation of permanent subversion.
Why waste time formulating a revolutionary programme, electing a leadership or building a concrete organisation if you can destabilise a regime now and worry about it later? Overthrowing one regime before bothering to think about the alternative is quite common in the history of revolutions. Often, a handful of radical factions, formed before the revolt (Sons of Liberty, Bolsheviks) or shortly afterwards (Roundheads, Jacobins), vie for power, which changes hands a few times before the dust settles. In Egypt today no such revolutionary factions exist. The two most influential political actors are the Jekyll and Hyde of Mubarak’s regime: the remnants of the old ruling party and its alter ego, the conservative Islamist opposition, which was carefully nurtured by the regime for decades. Without organisation, leadership or even a clear direction, revolutionary subversion has done little more than reshuffle the cards, hoping for a better hand next time. But the same two political players always end up ahead of the game, as was painfully demonstrated by the fact that the frontrunners in Egypt’s first democratic presidential elections were Mubarak’s last prime minster and a low-key Muslim Brotherhood functionary. The Brotherhood gained the lead by promising to embrace the revolutionary agenda. It soon became obvious, however, that the Islamists had no such intention, and revolutionaries have found themselves driven into a marriage of convenience with elements of the old regime in the campaign against the Brotherhood’s draft constitution. And the fight is far from over.
The two competitors are mirroring each other’s strategies. They have both used religion to invigorate their popular appeal (one advocates religious rule; the other feeds on fear of it). They have both rallied their extensive patronage networks within the state bureaucracy. They have both unleashed their thugs to intimidate challengers. They have both paid homage to the country’s mightiest institutions, promising to preserve the military’s position and guaranteeing the continued omnipotence of the security apparatus. And they have both selectively manipulated revolutionary forces to legitimise their battles.
But that is not all. The current instability also has to do with the fact that those who have been calling so gallantly for the ‘overthrow of the regime’ have persistently failed to understand it. They fought the police while chanting ‘Down with Mubarak’ in January 2011. They fought the police while chanting ‘Down with military rule’ between March 2011 and August 2012. And they are now fighting the police while chanting ‘Down with Muslim Brotherhood rule’. They have consistently assumed that the police are merely an instrument of repression wielded by whoever’s in power, and that severing the head would paralyse the limbs. They haven’t stopped to consider the possibility that the police are in fact the heart of the regime they sought to overthrow – that Egypt over the last six decades metamorphosed from a military to a police state. Calls to restructure the Interior Ministry have always figured at the end of demonstrators’ petitions, but it should have been their first demand. The struggle between the old regime and the Islamists will ultimately be decided by the men with black batons – unless another coup is in the offing as a result of the intense politicisation of the armed forces in the last two years.
Two years of revolt have not radically altered Egypt’s ‘power triangle’, the tense sixty-year partnership between the military, security and political institutions. But all is not lost. Even though the new technologies of permanent subversion have prevented anyone with truly revolutionary goals from assuming power, they have also made it almost impossible for their competitors to consolidate their rule. Together with the remarkable level of popular defiance in all walks of life, this means it is still conceivable that the organs of repression will be eroded from below rather than dismantled from above. Friction between the authoritarian state and its recently invigorated citizenry may yet compensate for the absence of concrete revolutionary logic.