Insulting Egypt's history: On #Jan25 and #June30
Revolutionary activists who are opposed to both Mohammad Mursi and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi might describe the July 3 as a coup
In the aftermath of a Cairo criminal court dismissing the most egregious charges against Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government announced it would pass a law forbidding the “insulting of the revolutions of the 25th of January and the 30th of June.” Ironically, the declaration was met with derision by the 25th of January revolutionary camp, which supported early presidential elections to end Brotherhood rule, but which has been deeply critical of the Egyptian state since. What is behind the announcement, what might it mean going forward? There is, actually, a way to make this law a tool of great progressive change – but let’s explore it first.
Some commentators reasoned that the real reason behind the announcement was to legally bar any description of the June 30 protests as it ended in a popularly backed coup on July 3. The current Egyptian administration partially bases its legitimacy on the notion that July 3 was not a coup, but was a revolution. Had the announcement taken place in July last year, this might have been a plausible theory but a year and a half later, the public narrative around June 30 and July 3 is hardly in question.
Revolutionary activists who are opposed to both Mohammad Mursi and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi might describe the July 3 as a coup, but they are a small minorityH.A. Hellyer
Revolutionary activists who are opposed to both Mohammad Mursi and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi might describe the July 3 as a coup, but they are a small minority, with little space in the Egyptian media. As for the Brotherhood and its supporters, they have far more supporters, but even less space in the public narrative. In general, they are suffering from a phenomenal crackdown, accused of terrorism, which makes such a law wholly superfluous.
Aggressive media campaign
It is far more likely the law is designed to end discussion around the January 25 revolutionary uprising of 2011, rather than the 30th of June. There is a keen and aggressive media campaign in the Egyptian media on both public but mostly private channels that vilify the uprising as a conspiracy of various external powers and the Brotherhood. Indeed, even within the court judgment relating to Mubarak, such a conspiracy, made up of a vast consortium of rather incongruent elements, was mentioned with full seriousness.
It might be asked why the Egyptian state would be opposed to such vilification. After all, it does not appear as though any Egyptian authority since the toppling of Mubarak has seriously endeavored to meet those revolutionary demands at all – so why should there be any sensitivity around insults pertaining to that revolution?
The key, however, lies in understand how revolutionaries perceive the January 25 revolution on the one hand, and the state’s leadership on the other. For the revolutionary camp, the revolution relates to fundamental reforms of the state institutions to fulfil key demands of the uprising – and as such, has never been successful. For the state’s leadership, however, the revolution was successful, as Mubarak was, indeed, toppled. This is not a small difference – if the narrative of the revolutionaries, who actually sparked the uprising, is taken as true, then the state is obliged to carry out a number of far-reaching structural reforms in the security sector, the judiciary, the law as it pertains to fundamental rights, and the economy. There is no evidence to suggest the state recognizes such obligations.
Vilification of the uprising
More pertinent to the proposed law, however, is the reality that if the vilification of the uprising as a conspiracy is correct, then what does that say about the military leadership that toppled Mubarak after the protests? Especially considering the military leadership remains, essentially, the same, and one of its number sits in the Egyptian presidency? While the disparagement drive within the media may not realize it, its crusade to delegitimize the January 25 revolutionary uprising cannot be successful without delegitimizing the military establishment which has used that uprising for the last three years. The official state narrative does not deny the January 25 revolution – it co-opts a re-interpretation of it.
Of course, there are substantial repercussions to Egyptian public discourse if this law is passed – particularly in the realm of freedom of speech. However, there is a very easy way around this hurdle. Rather than proscribe insults to the January 25 revolution which invariably would touch on the right of freedom of expression, the Egyptian state could adjust the proposed law to reinterpret “insult” not as speech, but as actions.
In such a revised law, an “insult” to the revolution would refer to any action that stood in the way of fulfilling the demands of that revolution, or a failure of individuals or institutions that are responsible for fulfilling those demands. Those demands, if the January 25 of revolution is interpreted according to the revolutionaries that sparked it, would include accountability of public officials, ending of excessive use of force by the security sector, dismantling of corruption, social justice, and protection of fundamental rights.
Admittedly, it is somewhat dubious the Egyptian state is likely to advocate this precise interpretation.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.
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