A year of revolution: Lessons learned

On 11 February 2011, jubilation broke out in Tahrir Square after Vice President Omar Suleiman announced a victory for the revolutionaries. The belief was that with Mubarak’s departure, Egypt’s political situation would radically improve. While some revolutionaries held their applause at the ominous prospect of an interim military-led government, the majority celebrated.

It was only a matter of time before the rest of the revolution’s goals would be achieved. Social justice was just around the corner. Corruption’s lynchpin was gone, and his underlings were soon to follow.

Almost a year has passed, and many of the same revolutionary forces plan to take to the streets to demand many of the same things they demanded last 25 January. This year’s protests can potentially be a new launching point for the revolution and a second attempt to put the country back on course toward change.

So why do the revolutionaries find themselves going back to the same place with the same demands? For many, 11 February, 2011 was a time to leave the square, and give up what is undoubtedly the revolution’s most powerful weapon, street protests, to begin work on building Egypt anew. According to many revolutionaries, this was the first and most prominent mistake.

“The most important mistake the revolutionaries made was to leave the square so easily and allow the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to assume power unopposed,” said Marwa Farouk, an activist and member of the Popular Alliance Party.

Street protests drove Mubarak out, and have arguably had the greatest effect in winning many of the concessions made by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, despite the SCAF’s consistent berating and bashing of protesters. After 8 July, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf was forced to reshuffle his cabinet. The November protests and the clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street forced the SCAF to introduce an entirely new cabinet and abandon plans for a set of supraconstitutional principles, while finally announcing that they would hand over power to a civilian government by July.

“There is no politics except street politics… when people are there with their bodies expressing their agency and will,” said software engineer and independent activist Alaa Abd El Fattah.

Abd El Fattah believes that it took the military’s atrocities and violence against civilians to bring Egyptians around to viewing the SCAF critically, which they should have done from the beginning.

As 25 January 2012 approaches, Abd El Fattah believes that revolutionaries now see that some of their blind trust in the SCAF was unwise. “We formed a critical mass against the military council after realizing that they are counter-revolutionary. Now we will know how to confront them (with numbers),” he said.

Veteran Egyptian activists believe that the predominantly young revolutionaries of 25 January were naïve when it came to the military.

“We lived through the bread riots of 18 to 19 January [1977] and already saw the military deal with protesters violently,” said Kamal Khalil, who was involved as a student protester in the two-day uprising against inflation and continues to be a prominent voice in leftist politics.

Khalil sees the revolutionaries’ mistakes as a normal part of the process in learning how a revolution should be conducted.

“A year has passed. After continued repression and violence has been used against them, the revolutionaries now understand what they must do,” he said.

One area where Khalil differs from many of his younger comrades regards whether or not they should have participated in parliamentary elections — which he deems illegitimate — and the March referendum on the constitutional declaration proposed by the SCAF.

Revolutionary forces fared poorly in the elections, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Popular Alliance formed a parliamentary bloc called the Revolution Continues Coalition in an attempt to consolidate revolutionary forces with a specific interest in social justice. However, they began fundraising and campaigning well after other prominent blocs began, and won a meager eight out of 498 seats.

“When elections came, no one was taking them seriously,” said Abd El Fattah.

Many pro-revolution voices began circulating rhetoric about the unpreparedness of “ordinary Egyptians” to partake in democratic elections and predicted that the elections would be dominated by remnants of Mubarak’s ruling party. This turned out to be false.

Abd El Fattah thought not taking the elections seriously was a mistake. “People voted for the revolution whenever they found it on their ballot,” he said, citing victories of familiar faces from the revolution such as Amr Hamzawy, Amr al-Shobaky and Moustafa al-Naggar.

Unlike Khalil, Abd El Fattah believes that along with street protests, revolutionaries should take their demands to the parliament. “It is the only legitimate authority in office now,” he said. “I do not consider the SCAF to be a legitimate authority.”

He is not alone. The Coalition of Revolutionary Forces believes that a year after the revolution, they understand the importance of marrying elite and street politics. “The revolution needs to be run both in the streets and in the halls of parliament,” said Mohamed Abbas, a member of the coalition from the Egyptian Current Party, a progressive splinter group from the Muslim Brotherhood.

When the parliament convenes for the first time on 23 January, the Popular Alliance will march to parliament to remind them of their obligation to fulfill the demands of the revolution. In doing so, they hope to rectify one of the other prominent mistakes of the revolution over the past year by putting social justice back on the table as a major demand.

“Somehow over the course of the past year, the revolution veered away from its popular demands, and became political,” said Farouk.

Moreover, many activists say they regret that they allowed themselves to confine their protests to a few central geographic areas, especially Tahrir Square. “We may have, at times, reduced the revolution to Tahrir Square, and this cannot happen again,” Abbas said.

Recently, however, it seems that many activists have already begun to remedy this problem through street campaigns such as “Military Liars,” which screens videos in different parts of Egypt. The videos reveal inaccuracies and lies told by the military council about the revolution.

“At times, there admittedly was a disconnect between Tahrir and the public. This created problems. Now, however, many campaigns are taking the revolution to as many of Egypt’s squares as possible, and that will be central to the coming 25 January,” Farouk said.

One challenge the coming protests will face is the political divisions spawned over the past year as politics took center stage. The Muslim Brotherhood has decided to take to the streets on Wednesday to celebrate and protect the square. Their stance has highlighted how they are at odds with other revolutionary forces who believe that the revolution must continue.

“The Muslim Brotherhood in the beginning agreed that change was important and then decided to veer towards reform,” said Abbas, who initially represented the Brotherhood in the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, but along with many of his friends broke away from them, disillusioned with their stance regarding the revolution.

Divisions between forces for change in Egypt is one of the two main mistakes Alaa el-Aswany outlines in his soon-to-be-released book, “Did the Egyptian Revolution Make a Mistake?”

He blames the SCAF for instigating the divisions through the March referendum which divided political forces based on specific differences on constitutional amendments.

While many see these divisions as a potential stumbling block for continued protests, others are not worried. “[The divisions] will just show who was genuinely supportive of a revolution to begin with, and who was always out for their own gain,” said Farouk.

Whether this Wednesday's protests spark a new sit-in or not, which most activists say will depend on the protesters who show up, one thing they have all agreed on is that they will not trust the SCAF again.

“All of our problems started when we left the square and allowed the SCAF to take over,” Abbas said.

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