#Jan25 and the Egyptian state
In 2015, Egyptians and many in this region will look with favor at a powerful state, regardless of its faults
As the fourth anniversary of the January 25 revolutionary uprising in Egypt comes upon the people of the region, there will be many breathing a sigh of relief. There will be those who will be pleased that rather than an emphasis on the events of that day, much of the focus was on marking ‘Police Day’. The irony could not be starker. But the satisfaction so many of them feel is, in itself, incongruous. For those who opposed the January 25 revolutionary uprising – and are now pleased it’s on deep freeze – fail to recognise one thing. They caused it.
It is not by coincidence Egyptians chose ‘Police Day’ to protest against the regime of Hosni Mubarak four years ago. The police were probably the most unpopular (and this is putting it mildly) institution of the Egyptian state. Today, however, there is nary a whisper about the infractions of the security establishment – let alone a repetition of 2011’s revolutionary call to radically reform and restructure the security sector. On the contrary – because rather than seeing their country’s salvation through the reform of the state, many see the state as their salvation. The contrast could not be more glaring. But there is a fundamental flaw, which continues to gnaw away at society in the Arab world, with that view.
Those 18 days
In 2011, I was in Cairo. I remember when Egyptians poured out into the streets, there were many Muslim religious scholars on state television (which I was forced to watch, as the internet and phone lines had been cut by the state) arguing that the protests were ‘khuruj ‘ala al-hakim’. That literally means ‘withdrawal from the ruler’ – an act that is typically looked down upon as unjustified rebellion, which will lead to chaos and anarchy. In medieval texts, there are definitions pertaining to khuruj, which invariably will include the use of armed force – something absent in the Egyptian protests. But there was something else. As the months and years went on, it became clear that for many, the hakim was not the ‘ruler’, Hosni Mubarak. Rather, the hakim, in their estimation was the ‘state’. Nor was khuruj an armed rebellion – but a challenge, and a challenge could not be permitted. The irony is such a view inevitably leads to that very challenge.
In 2015, Egyptians and many in this region will look with favor at a powerful state, regardless of its faultsEyad Abu Shakra
During those 18 days, I remember being in Tahrir Square on the day of the now famous ‘Battle of the Camel’. I had left the square only minutes before. One of the first causalities was a young boy, whose father had brought him into a peaceful protest, in a public square in the centre of his country’s capital. I was there. It threatened no one. I remember how later that day, as news of the deaths came in, I mentioned this young boy’s passing to an intelligent, sophisticated academic professional in Cairo. I expected to hear words of mourning and condolence. Instead, he burst into an outrage at the boy’s father. “What was he doing there?! His father should bear the blame.” I was dumbfounded his outrage would not even begin to consider those who had killed the boy – but it is precisely that kind of parody of morality that explains much of the last four years. It also explains why the uprising took place.
In 2015, Egyptians and many in this region will look with favor at a powerful state, regardless of its faults. They have accepted a choice between a chaotic future; chaos due to the sectarian ‘sellers of religion’ (tujjar al-din) for political ends, who simply use the tools of authoritarianism for their own ends; chaos due to incompetency; or chaos due to radical extremism. The other choice is a powerful ‘stability’. Given the ease through which one choose between those two eventualities, it is not surprising many will then go with the latter. What they fail to realise is that this is a false choice in the first place – and to accept it as valid invariably leads to the choice breaking down. That was what happened on the January 25 in 2011.
A mythically powerful entity
Those young Egyptians were different from the generation that preceded them – but it was not simply a difference of age. Rather, it was, to put it harshly, a difference of trauma. As I think back to that academic friend, I realise: he was traumatised. He had been raised in the depths of that system which prioritized the state as almost a mythically powerful entity, which could never be challenged. To challenge it was to invite chaos not only upon one’s own self, but one’s community and country. His children, on the other hand, saw the state as either a servant to the people – or the enemy of their progress.
On the most basic level, that was what January 25, four years ago, was about: The recognition that the state was not sacred, and not inviolable. Nor was anarchy some sort of alternative, as the accusation against these revolutionaries often goes. Rather, calling the state and the ruler to account was the duty of any real citizen, as opposed to simply a denizen of a territory. Without that duty being fulfilled, the state would eventually begin to crack under its own weight. That’s what happened.
Four years on, in 2015, there are powerful forces around the region that are deeply committed to reducing the choice again to those examples. They believe they have won the argument. If the median age of Egyptians, and Arabs, were 55, they might have been right. But the average Egyptian is less than 25 years old. They don’t view the state as their ‘saviour’ – they view it as their servant. Those perspectives remain, as they were on the January 25, mutually exclusive.
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.