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Why Egypt’s revolution continues

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

It has been more than two years since Egyptians went to Tahrir Square – and almost a year since they elected their first post-Mubarak president. The revolution, yet, that they called for is unfulfilled, and many wonder about the utility or usefulness of this revolution. In a phrase – was it worth it?

With the protests continuing, and a new campaign that seeks early presidential elections to replace the president that presently occupies the presidential palace, it is a question worth pondering. Yet, there is a substantial assumption made in the question itself.

The hard truth is that Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, Mursi, Shafiq, and all those that now stir such disappointment and opposition now, are products of an Egypt gone wrong – but products of an Egypt nonetheless.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer

The 25th of January was, at its beginning, a call for a change through peaceful means. That call was not a choice – it was inevitable, considering the needs of Egypt. The situation for Egyptians on that day was not sustainable – at some point, something had to give. Historical revisionism aside, Egypt under Mubarak was not a difficult environment – it was a pressure cooker. At some point, it was going to have change, one way or the other. The question was only when– not if.

Doubtlessly, the movement that developed from that day wanted change through peaceful means. That was a choice it made – but it was not a choice that was sustainable with the attacks that fell upon it. They were forced to respond; that, too, was not a choice.

But how they responded was a choice – and at the time, I fully expected their response to be comparable to that of a brutalised dog. Indeed, that was how Egyptians had so often been treated – and the trauma of such a long experience could hardly be expected to produce much else.

Engaging with the revolution

Yet, that was not how #Jan25 evolved. Instead, it created a phenomenon, covered by the media mostly in Tahrir Square, which inspired people around Egypt, the region and the world. That organic phenomenon had principles – and a revolution was born. How the revolution unfolded was a choice – but the development of it per se was not. It was a necessary consequence.

From that point on, Egyptians had another choice – how to engage with the revolution. They could engage with the revolution, pushing for positive change – or they could be silent. Ethically, Egyptians could not advocate for the status quo prior to the uprising – not ethically, anyway. Egypt deserved no less.

Some have since argued that the situation was far better under Hosni Mubarak – that the rubble that was Egypt was far more positive. That woefully underestimates the situation in those days – and moreover, it fails to appreciate that whatever emerged out of that rubble would be consistently without blemish.

This brings us to the present day – an Egypt where the first free presidential elections brought the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) to the presidency. One can blame the revolution for that – but if the point is to apportion blame, then why blame only those who voted for the MB candidate, Mohammed Mursi over Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq? Could not one legitimately blame those who voted for Shafiq in the first round, which brought him, and not anyone else, into the second round against Mursi? Could not one blame those who split the vote among those who claimed to want positive change from this revolution?

Or perhaps one might blame even Mubarak himself, for having governed in such a manner that would produce such candidates, rather than better ones?

That is not a popular line of thinking – because if one takes it to its logical conclusion, one has to ask: can one not blame Egyptians for having aided and abetted a society that would produce conditions that made a revolution inevitable?

The reality of that is important to grasp – because then one understands what those 18 days in Tahrir were, and what is necessary now. Those days in Tahrir and in other squares around Egypt were a moment: a moment that opened the space in Egyptian society to take action. It created a direction as well for those who believed in the mini-society that was created in the square – but for all Egyptians, it gave a choice.

An Egypt gone wrong

Many Egyptians still fail to grasp a very serious truth – that this government, for all its failings, incompetence and drawbacks, is doing precisely what is expected. Indeed, it is immature to expect that it would do much else – because it learnt from the best. Power corrupts absolutely – and corruption corrupts not simply those in power, but those who suffer from its trauma.

The hard truth is that Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, Mursi, Shafiq, and all those that now stir such disappointment and opposition now, are products of an Egypt gone wrong – but products of an Egypt nonetheless. An Egypt that to varying degrees, Egyptians made possible – and thus, made a revolution normal, natural and inescapable.

What would have been natural, and normal, would have been for that uprising in those days in 2011 to be repugnant, violent and cruel – much like how a tormented soul behaves when released and given power.

Yet, it was not. That uprising was, indeed, miraculous – not because it brought down Hosni Mubarak, a dictator of three decades. It was miraculous because the revolution it birthed was beyond all expectations in what kind of a movement it became. Those moments that jolted history reminded Egyptians of the best of themselves. As the next phase of the revolution unfolds, it is important to remember those moments – because they were living proof of what could be.

People inside and outside of Egypt continue to ask – what are Egyptians who believe in the revolution still fighting for? Was the uprising and the revolution it led to worth it? That question assumes that there was a choice – and having a revolution was not a matter of choice. Nevertheless, how the revolution unfolds is indeed a choice – and for those who believe in the revolution, those moments in Tahrir represent a promise in that regard. When people ask – what are the people of Egypt still protesting and agitating for, they need to ask a very simple question. Have those goals of the revolution been taken seriously? Are they being put at the forefront of public policy in Egypt?

As Egypt’s new rulers, and many others inside and outside of this country, wonder why the revolution continues, they need only ask those questions. When they do, they will realise it was never a question of whether or not the revolution was worth it – but indeed, if it can ever be worth it to not fight for it. Egypt has tried that path already – and the results are clear. They have won the right for another chance.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs who previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.