Hindsight and Egypt’s revolutionaries

The Egyptian revolutionary camp is not above critique, and never should be

H.A. Hellyer

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Hindsight is, indeed, 20/20. A certain critique of Egypt’s Jan. 25 revolutionaries is becoming common at the moment, having started to take shape in the run-up to the third anniversary. It is not that the revolutionary camp does not require criticism – it does. Indeed, there is probably no section of Egyptian society that does not deserve criticism for the outcomes of the past three years. But what kind of critique are we talking about?

The critique goes something like this. The revolutionaries, a bunch of Twitterati and/or well-educated elites from upper class urban neighborhoods, managed to bring together a critical mass in 2011, and then squandered it because they were unwilling to get involved in the nitty-gritty of politics. They were far too elitist, and wouldn’t get involved with regular Egyptians. These revolutionaries then, dismayed at the electoral accomplishments of the Islamist camp, called in the military to overthrow Egypt’s first democratically elected president – and thus showed their betrayal of democracy. They then cheer on the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the forced dispersal of the pro-Mursi sit-ins, the repression of dissent and civil liberties. Until, of course, the effects of such repression hit them personally. And so, the story of the noble “revolutionaries” dies an ignominious end.

The faults of the revolutionaries

Hindsight is 20/20. Except, of course, when it isn’t. There were, of course, Twitterati and the upper class elite represented within the revolutionary camp. It’s how many Westerners, in particular, got to know the revolutionaries – because that subsection of that group could speak their language (literally), while many, if not most, could not. But the revolutionaries went far beyond that tiny elite. When one reads criticisms, past and present, of the revolutionary camp that is clearly about specific members of even that small subset, one is forced to pause. Is a criticism about elitism, which clearly applies to a specific subset of people (i.e., one’s own “bubble”) any less elitist than the elitism being criticized?

The revolutionary camp is not above critique, and never should be

H.A. Hellyer

Hindsight is 20/20 – except, of course, when it isn’t. The revolutionary camp wasn’t one that commanded critical mass – it was a marginal, maverick movement from day one. Had the revolutionary camp been so powerful, as criticisms now seem to indicate, why is it they were unable to gain so little support in the constitutional referendum in 2011, which delivered an 80/20 result, contrary to all of the campaigns by the revolutionary camp? Or in those parliamentary elections, later on? One cannot have it both ways, after all – either the revolutionaries were so powerful, and thus shared huge responsibility – or they were not so powerful, and thus weren’t as responsible as those who were.

There is something to be said for the criticism that the revolutionaries stayed with street protests, and not with political parties. But it is a very partial critique. Many actually did go into political parties – many even formed new ones. They weren’t particularly successful, as compared to the Salafist movements and the Muslim Brotherhood – but that was not down to the efforts that were or were not made from the time of the revolutionary uprising. The Salafist and the Brotherhood leveraged socio-religious capital that had been earned over decades – not over months. If one wants to criticize the revolutionary camp for not having been involved in gaining that sort of social capital before the revolution even began – well, that critique could stand, but surely would be justifiable for only a few. Given the state of the political arena at present, where the “War on Terror” narrative is narrowing political space tremendously, one might argue that Egyptians ought to be grateful that not all of their best have gone into the political arena, and still continue their struggles in other parts of civil society.

Limited desires

Hindsight is 20/20 – except, of course, when it isn’t. While many of the revolutionary camp did call for the June 30 protests, not all did – they limited themselves to calling for early presidential elections, without endorsing those protests. Of those that did support the June 30 protests, many vigorously and publicly opposed any military role, hoping Mursi would respond constructively to the protests. Does that make them naïve? Perhaps. Does that then make them accountable for the military ouster that then took place, although they stood against it? Does it make them responsible for the ensuing suppression, which they did not support in any case?

Why not extend that rationale further? If those who simply called for early presidential elections are somehow responsible for the immense crackdown, why not blame the Muslim Brotherhood leadership for the same? Was the interior minister in August 2014 not the same one appointed by Mursi himself? The blame game can be done another way - would anyone care to hold those who left Tahrir Square on Feb. 11, 2011 for the killings in Mohammad Mahmoud later on that year? Should Mursi now be “blamed” for the faults of a future Sisi presidency, considering that Mursi appointed (he didn’t really, but never mind) Sisi to the position of Defense Minister?

Not above critique

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 – except when it isn’t. The revolutionary camp is not above critique, and never should be. Over the course of the past three years, many revolutionaries have made mistakes – and continue to do so. One wishes they could have organized themselves better throughout the last three years – even if one doubts that might have made enough of a difference to change things at the moment, it may make all the difference in the future. But when assessing this camp, the revolutionaries ought to be assessed for who they are, as opposed to what we wanted them to be. They were not a massive political party, and they did not hold power in their hands to be then judged for the misuse of it.

There are criticisms to be made, without a doubt, of the revolutionary camp. One hopes there are actual critiques made, and made soon, considering the actual errors and mistakes the revolutionary camp made, and continue to make. Nevertheless, one is forced to wonder, is it the people, supporters of the revolution or otherwise, who hold power in Egypt? Or is power simply being fought over by two main blocs, supported by different elements on either side? That, perhaps, is a question, best left to another piece – but it is one that, at least, the revolutionary camp is clear on. Hence why it remains to have at least one power: the power of principle. Egypt could use more of that.


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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