Historians of popular movements know that at some point institutional forms supercede continuous states of mobilization. The latter do not last for ever. Either new forms of routinized social reproduction are developed, or old ones are modified or return – sometimes in new and more vicious forms. Periods of heightened uncertainty surrounding major crises of authority have a limited shelf-life.
Egypt’s sociopolitical crisis of 1876-1882 ended in imperial occupation. The debt crisis of 1876 in the Ottoman centre ended in Abdulhamid II’s formula of Islam and autocracy. The crisis of the Arab order inaugurated in 1948 by the nakba resulted in coups d’état and social redistribution in Egypt (1952), Iraq (1958) and elsewhere. Millions on the streets in Iran in 1978-79 wound up in an Islamic republic with institutionalized dissent largely out of bounds after 1982. At some point, a new political settlement is hammered out and institutions with routine ways of solving collective dilemmas are established.
The great achievement of popular mobilization in Egypt – after having already brought down Mubarak – is its major role in overthrowing the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and the remnants of the ancien regime on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand. The problem now, with the army, technocratic elites, and the ancien regime once again holding the reins of power, is that a greatly heightened state of popular mobilization cannot continue to resist dictatorial impositions forever. At some point more stable institutions must be built – and contending forces in the political arena will make an impact on those institutions – whether in constitutional provisions, socioeconomic rights, personal status law or anywhere else.
The key danger to the revolution is that the directly democratic movement that grew up in Egypt in the 2000s will be excluded from the new political settlement. This horizontalist movement – networked not vanguardist, deliberative not ideological, consensus-seeking and not sectarian – succeeded in overthrowing a dictator in 2011 with its demands for bread, dignity and freedom. At this point, however, the fear is that geopolitical and vested interests will take advantage of the fear of Islamist violence and civil war to crack down further. Love-hearts in the sky fade quickly.
The revolution must stand up now or be lost. It risks being forced to choose between the very options it rose to reject: authoritarianism on the one hand, or Islamist rule on the other. Egypt’s revolution declared that there could be a real, directly democratic alternative with universal appeal. If this is true, then any shadow of acceptance of a military coup in 2013 is in contradiction with the meaning of Egypt’s revolution. While the revolution meant many things to different people, one of its central features was the inclusive idea that the peoples of the region could reject the false choice presented by the ancien regime – between US supported corrupt dictatorship on the one hand, and a terrifying theocracy on the other. To accept the coup – to support the actions of the military in ousting the Egypt’s elected president – is to make a choice between Islamism and authoritarianism. But Egypt’s 25 January revolution rejected this choice – an important aspect of its universal appeal. To fudge the fact that the military has once again taken the reins of power in Egypt is to avoid the harsh reality of what has just taken place. The fact that there were crowds in the streets at the time with diverse motivations should not obscure the need to focus on the vested interests of the military in trying to comprehend its actions and in analyzing where it will go from here.
Egypt needs its directly democratic movement now more than ever. All of those who believe in bread, dignity and freedom must coordinate a transgressive and mobilizing sociopolitical project capable of delivering these objectives. Such a project needs to do what popular movements have long done in the region and beyond: say who it is and what it stands for, to define what it rejects, to elaborate goals, modes of organization, tactics and strategies – and to mobilize support. The building blocks of this project – an intelligent multitude, alternative forms of social media, independent trade unions, popular committees and transnational connections have already shown some of their potency. As for goals, it is well known that Egyptians from all walks of life utterly reject the violence and thuggery of the police and Interior Ministry; and who wants to see the army actually rule, or its officers shower themselves with privileges from US ‘aid’ dollars – secured on the back of the betrayal of Palestinian rights? Who in Egypt wants to be the plaything of Qatari or Saudi spooks? And who other than a tiny corrupt elite has gained from IMF brokered neoliberalism? De-centralized decision making appeals to everyone who rejects the corruption of a liberal-elite political process. The directly democratic movements, insisting on participation, deliberation, and consensus, must come together on the political scene with a forceful challenge to existing forms of (geo)political and economic power or become irrelevant. They must demonstrate that they are serious in the face of vested interests, or lose out to multiple competitors, Salafis included – as some Salafis draw their appeal from their rejection of the elite politics of the centre and its links to imperialism. But Egypt’s popular movements must demonstrate their seriousness while rejecting the key premises and forms of the existing political field – a difficult task, but one merely proper to revolutionary forms in the region and beyond.