The poignant symbolism of Mubarak’s release

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
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In the past week, Egyptian former president Hosni Mubarak has been released from prison. Since the July 3 military overthrow of another former president, Mohammed Mursi, the obituaries for the January 25 revolution in particular, and the Arab revolutions in general, have been prominent and systematic in their insistence. Have the revolutions been defeated? Were they a failure? Would it have been better if they had never happened? What have they truly achieved?

The speed at which the Arab uprisings grew within each country shows something – that these were never "choices." History will record that these countries’ situations were unsustainable – and that the dam that would hold back the torrent of desire for promise could only last for so long. If one wanted the uprisings never to begin, there were very clear steps that could have been taken – but the governments in question never wanted that to happen. The real culprits, in that regard, of the Arab uprisings were, indeed, the Arab autocracies and dictatorships. Had they chosen differently, the uprisings never would have been an inevitable consequence of their rule.

But that does not show precisely: were these revolutions a failure? What have they achieved?

Addressing the Egyptian situation in particular for elaboration (although much of this is applicable to the other Arab uprising countries): on the 24th of January, there was no revolution in Egypt. There were some who wanted progressive change, but they were a tiny minority of people, and never expected to be much more than that. The population was made up primarily of three groups: those who were deeply supportive of the status quo; those who were opposed to the status quo, but not necessarily in support of a particularly progressive future; and those who were not generally not supportive of the status quo, but could not conceive of an alternative. Together, those three groups probably accounted for around 95% of Egyptian society.

When the protests on the 25th of January began, very few people would have even dreamed of protesting for, well, anything. Quite literally, protesting for rubbish was forbidden – a friend once told me how the security forces forbade mobilisation for even a recycling initiative in his neighbourhood. If they could protest for that, then, surely, they could protest for other things.

As long as there is one person who insists that people can build a better future, and is willing to struggle to bring that future into existence – the revolution continues.

H.A. Hellyer

The protests turned into an uprising – because people refused to accept living that kind of existence any longer – and the uprising turned into a revolution. A revolution based on a particular vision – certain slogans (bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity) and the promise of a possible Egypt that manifested itself in the squares of her cities. Most of all, in the square of liberation – Tahrir Square. Three years on, it still baffles observers how Egyptians, with civil society having been so crushed under Hosni Mubarak, could have created that square, with such respect for pluralism, justice and freedom.

Hosni Mubarak is not exactly free, despite the numerous press reports declaring that the autocratic dictator was actually heading home – he is under house arrest, and his release probably would have happened under Muhammad Mursi, considering the present legal stipulations. Nevertheless, the symbolism is poignant – and people do wonder, what has been achieved?

Mubarak’s forced resignation, arrest, and trial, were never the proof or ultimate success of the Egyptian revolution. These were merely side affects of it – but not more than that. The hundreds of people who were killed in the process of the 18-day uprising, and the many more after that were also not proof of the failure of the Egyptian revolution – but were the cost of it. Likewise, even if Mubarak is actually released, that does not signify the death of the revolution. Some argue that less than three years later, Egypt is reverting to a situation that is just the same as January 24th – i.e., before the revolution’s beginning. That is an easy space to retreat to – but it misses a few, critical aspects of where Egypt finds itself.

The first is the notion of revolution itself – which is not an event, but a process. Moreover, it is a process that is primarily defined by commitment. As long as that commitment remains – or, to put it another way, the intention – the revolution itself remains. The ‘success’ of the revolution is the continued existence of that intention and commitment – even if by a small number of people. As long as there is one person who insists that people can build a better future, and is willing to struggle to bring that future into existence – the revolution continues.

A better Egypt

There have been many achievements; some were held for a while, and some were lost. But many have remained. On the 24th of January, the percentage of Egyptians who were willing to believe in the promise of a better Egypt was far smaller than today – it’s a minority, but it is larger today. The percentage of Egyptians who would mobilise for change was also far smaller – on the 24th, the number was tiny, whereas today, literally everyone and their mother will protest for something they believe in. What they will protest for remains to be seen – but they will protest when they feel their rights are being trampled upon.

That, perhaps, is the greatest achievement thus far for the Arab revolutions. The Arabs may have the weight of a historical memory going back hundreds and thousands of years, but they also have youthful peoples. The people of this region are not an ageing population – they are young, and those young Arabs have seen, in their own lifetime, the vivid experience of refusing to live under the boot of tyranny, without saying, ‘No’. No one can ever take that refusal from them – it can only be handed over if they so choose.

No one ought to think that they will soon forget that experience – or that they will choose another path. Revolutions do not always have to take the form of uprisings or armed revolts. Sometimes, the very act of simply saying ‘no, I believe in a better future, beyond what this system provides – and I’m going to work to make it happen, even if I never see it myself’ is, indeed, revolutionary.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and ISPU, 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.
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