One Year On: My Mother as a Protester and A Few Other Dilemmas
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 6 Feb 2012
At the risk of stating the obvious, think of revolution not as a single event but as a period of waves. After an initial disturbance, a swell gathers momentum, forms into a crest, breaks just before it hits the shore, creates a splash, dissipates and then starts to move in the opposite direction, breaks on another shore, retreats and then builds up again, and so on and so forth until the revolutionary energy is consumed and a new equilibrium is reached. In the Iranian Revolution, this process lasted for a short while before the revolutionary energy got diverted to the confrontation with the US during the hostage crisis and then the long senseless war with Iraq. This gave the new rulers time and space to fully capture the state and establish their authority. In the American and French Revolutions, the waves kept recurring for decades.
In Egypt, the revolutionary wave completed its first journey in almost exactly one year, from the initial gathering in Tahrir in the afternoon of 25 January, 2011 until its dissipation with the first session of the new parliament on 23 and 24 January, 2012. The splash on the shore took place in November and December, when at least 84 Egyptians were killed and thousands wounded in the most violent clashes since the ousting of Mubarak last February.
Then Egypt became relatively quiet all of a sudden. The elections brought the vast silent majority, not to Tahrir but to the ballot box. Record turnout represented a vote for stability and a desire by ordinary Egyptians to resume their normal routines. The decline of the unifying revolutionary energy, and the replacement of the legitimacy of the square by the legitimacy of the popular vote, created a space in the streets for all sorts of dispersed grievances to come to the foreground. Therefore, the few last weeks prior to the first anniversary of the revolution have seen a sharp rise in so-called sectoral protests. From Sinai in the east to Matrouh in the west, from Alexandria to Aswan, in Cairo and all major cities, crowds gathered making all sorts of demands. In Alexandria, government-employed pharmacists protested against newly imposed caps on their bonuses. In Daba’a, on Egypt’s northwestern Mediterranean coast, an angry mob demolished buildings of a proposed nuclear plant erected on lands confiscated from its owners more than thirty years ago. In Sohag, Asyut and Aswan in the south, railway tracks were sabotaged in protest over shortages of cooking fuel and petrol. Train services came to a total halt, isolating Upper Egypt from the rest of the country.
In Cairo, my mother took her walking aid and limbed her way to one of the squares of the city’s centre to join other pensioners who were demanding a 30% increase in their pensions. She worked for the government for almost 35 years and upon her retirement started to receive 1000 Egyptian pounds per month, which is around 125 Euros. She has other sources of income. Others are not so lucky. The pensioners were particularly incensed when they learned that former governments had squandered more than 430 billion Egyptian pounds from governmental pension funds by simply adding them to the general budget of the country to improve its overall balance.
These sectoral protests have created a dilemma for the revolutionaries who wish to continue with the revolution until the whole regime is dismantled, with army and all, and a new proud Egyptian is born, one who is not cowered at the sight of a police officer in uniform and is immune against subservience to any corrupt authority. The revolutionaries were elated at the sight of all sorts of Egyptians flocking to the streets demanding their rights. However, these demands could not be channelled into a single revolutionary momentum against the authoritarian state but were, in fact, fragmenting the revolutionary movement into small, controllable chunks. What’s more disturbing, from a revolutionary perspective, was that these demands were made to SCAF and the government. In other words, they were made to the last remaining strongholds of exactly the same state that the revolutionaries wish to dismantle and fundamentally transform.
The state bent backwards to meet the multitude of demands. A few days after my mother went out demonstrating with her fellow pensioners, the government announced that it would increase pensions for former government employees by 30% (once the initial anger was absorbed, this was later reduced to only 10%). Schemes for employing youth have been unveiled, and around half a million temporary workers were given permanent contracts. The state simply had no choice but to scramble for means to appease the population, in order to undermine any further swell of revolutionary momentum. But in doing so, it is only postponing the next implosion. With decreased production and little material support from abroad, a fiscal crisis is inevitable, some say by the middle of the year. The middle class revolution that has just concluded its first round may be then completely taken over in subsequent rounds by the hungry and disenfranchised. For some, this could have disastrous consequences. For others, it would be a welcome continuation and expansion of revolutionary momentum.
Which leaves those standing half-way between the state and the revolutionaries facing the most intractable dilemma. These are the middle class politicians, whether Islamists, liberals, socialists, token nationalists or opportunists who come in all shapes, sizes and colours. They are the ones who jumped on the shoulders of the revolutionaries in order to inherit the state from the previous regime. The Islamists, as the clear winners in the elections and the ones expected to deliver the goods by a distinctively impatient nation, are in the most awkward position. On the one hand, they must penetrate a mammoth state, grease the wheels of production, combat corruption, and keep the peace abroad while at the same time re-establish law and order and distribute justice and wealth more equitably. They are simply faced with and must solve the age-old contradiction between efficiency and equity under less than optimal conditions.
Over the long run, this is not at all impossible in a country relatively well endowed such as Egypt. But as the famous economist once said, in the long run, we are all dead. It is all about the short term now, at least until the revolutionary energy consumes itself completely. No one knows when this will be: it could be one year from now. Some of the Islamist politicians I meet here say 3-4 years. Others, mainly the revolutionaries, believe (or rather wish) it will be at least a generation before a new equilibrium is reached.
As experience from elsewhere shows, success in solving the contradiction would be generously rewarded by voters, and the Islamists may end up as a result staying in power for a very long time to come. Failure, in case the alliance between the Islamists and the army holds, might lead to a slide back into authoritarianism. If the alliance does not hold, chaos might be the order of the day.
Ahmed Badawi is the Middle East Convener of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.
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