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Egypt’s ‘revolution’ will be televised

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

With Deputy Secretary of State, William Burns urging reconciliation of Egypt’s warring factions yesterday in Cairo, pro-Morsi demonstrators hit the Cairo streets.  The New York Times reports reports at least seven dead and hundreds injured.   Is this the beginning of the end or the beginning of another wave of street violence?

The military and police may have the upper hand in Egypt.  What they don’t have is the ability to police the nation as if the post-coup political situation has been resolved, the people are united, and a smooth transition to democracy is on its way.

As to the American wish list the Times article quotes Burns:  “The government itself has said it wants inclusion of all political streams. We have called on the military to avoid any politically motivated arrests. And we have also called upon those who differ with the government to adhere to their absolute obligation to participate peacefully.”

Participate peacefully sounds good but what it means when the military calls the shots, sets the political framework and defines the parameters of affirmation and dissent is another question.  When you’re on the outs it’s hard to “participate” in a violent situation except through resistance – or acquiescence.  The middle ground has given way.  That’s the essence of martial law.

On how America is perceived in Egypt right now, here is the Times:  “Mr. Burns said he had ‘no illusions’ about the suspicions of many Egyptians toward the United States. He emphasized repeatedly that the United States did not back any individuals or parties in Egypt, only the principles of pluralistic democracy.”  Like “participate peacefully,” pluralist democracy sounds good but what can pluralist democracy mean with the military at the center? 

What Burns is urging is a contradiction in terms – a military defined/enforced/policed pluralist democracy.  This twist sounds an awful like Egypt’s neighbor, Israel, which has a legally defined/military enforced/policed ethnic democracy. 

Democracy’s qualifiers are important. When is democracy, democracy? When is democracy something other than democracy?

The Times also has a long and fascinating article on the democracy debate within Egypt’s progressive camp.  The debate centers on the military as the guarantor of Egypt’s revolution.  Rabab el-Mahdi, a left-leaning scholar at the American University in Cairo, is pessimistic:  “We are moving from the bearded chauvinistic right to the clean-shaven chauvinistic right.” 

This military/democracy debate is also the theme of the new video from the non-profit media collective, Mosireen. The video asks if, in Gil Scott-Heron’s words, the revolution will not be televised, can it be instigated and controlled by the military?

As martial law continues and the crackdown against Islamists tightens, the debate among progressives is getting ugly.  Some are going the hyper-nationalist route, condemning progressives who question the army’s roles as traitors.  Are Egypt Firsters on the Left much different than Islamists on the Right?

Events in Egypt raise the issue of revolution in our times.  In our globalized era, when is a revolution a revolution and when is a revolution something other than a revolution? The issue of when a revolution is truly a revolution is a perennial issue perhaps best left to historians of revolution.  However, in Egypt the stakes are too high for that.  The urgency of the now is where Egypt is.

As the situation in Egypt deteriorates the term “revolution” itself is coming under fire.  Whatever the ouster of Mubarak and now Morsi may mean in the long run, so far in Egypt it hasn’t meant revolution.  It hasn’t even meant significant change.

Globalization plays its role here.  With everything so interconnected, can modern societies in a globalized world produce and survive true revolutions? In our social media world the revolution may indeed be televised – and therefore more or less limited to a social media project.

American government officials in Cairo pronouncing the American ideals of pluralist democracy after meeting with the American funded Egyptian military that green lighted the overthrow of Egypt’s democratically elected government is a kicker.  It is also part of our interconnected world.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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6 Responses

  1. bilal a
    bilal a
    July 16, 2013, 1:07 pm

    Funny enough, Jonah Goldberg once argued that the alliance of secular progressives, corrupt anti-competitive business cartels, unions, and the military defined the DAP German Workers Party, NSDAP Nationalist Socialist German Workers party, ie Fascism /Nazism.

    And the secularists were brutal to the religious opposition:

    “The Catholic Church in Poland was brutally suppressed by the Nazis during the German Occupation of Poland (1939-1945). Hitler’s plan for the Germanization of the East saw no place for the Christian Churches. Repression of the Catholic Church was at its most severe in the areas annexed to Germany, where churches were systematically closed and most priests were either killed, imprisoned, or deported. Church leaders were targeted as part of an overall effort to destroy Polish culture. At least 1811 Polish clergy died in Nazi Concentration Camps. An estimated 3000 clergy were killed in all.

  2. piotr
    July 16, 2013, 5:48 pm

    “when the military calls the shots”

    This is one of the cases when a metaphor gets broken — its usual meaning is replaced with the literal one.

  3. Keith
    July 16, 2013, 8:11 pm

    MARC ELLIS- “Whatever the ouster of Mubarak and now Morsi may mean in the long run, so far in Egypt it hasn’t meant revolution. It hasn’t even meant significant change.”

    You are absolutely correct. I cannot understand why supposedly intelligent people continue to refer to the Egyptian uprising as a revolution. In a revolution, the revolutionaries seize power. This never happened in Egypt, nor was there any plan by the so called revolutionaries to do so, or any indication that anyone had considered the consequences of actually deposing the army and the business elites and the transnational corporations and the global financial system. How to feed the people, etc, outside the global system. Most of these so called analyses are simply wishful thinking involving excessive romanticizing by intellectuals out of touch with the real world.

    “Globalization plays its role here. With everything so interconnected, can modern societies in a globalized world produce and survive true revolutions?”

    Once again, right on the money. In a globalized world where the elites interact across borders pursuing common objectives and united by a shared vision revolving around capital accumulation, and supported by the military and financial power of the empire, individual Third World countries are almost powerless to break free from the matrix of control. Not what the romanticizers of Che Guevara want to hear, but true nonetheless. I seriously doubt that the Cuban revolution would be possible in today’s world.

    • Walid
      July 17, 2013, 6:24 am

      “… Most of these so called analyses are simply wishful thinking involving excessive romanticizing by intellectuals out of touch with the real world.”

      We were discussing this very issue back during the onslaught on Libya when the intellos here were sure it was being liberated. Getting back to Egypt, most still believe that it’s a clash between the Islamists and the good guys being backed by the military. Most Egyptians are poor, comfortable and secure being under the wings of the military, and they wouldn’t want it otherwise. The millions that keep gathering at Tahrir are far from being of the same political colour. If it wouldn’t have been for the Rebel Campaign(Tamarod) and its neverending general strikes, the military wouldn’t have dared make its move on the MB. The Tahrir Square coalition is made of the National Salvation Front of 35 separate parties, the April 5th Movement, the Kefaya Movement, the National Democratic Party, ex-members from Mubarak’s team, Nasserites, Mohamed el-Baradei and friends, and others. The only thing keeping all these guys united for now is their common distrust of the MB. Apart from Mubarak being absent from the political scene, the Brothers have been returned to the cellar and nothing else has really changed. Now even the Salafists have teamed up with the military to gang up on the Brothers.

  4. American
    July 17, 2013, 1:04 am

    “Whatever the ouster of Mubarak and now Morsi may mean in the long run, so far in Egypt it hasn’t meant revolution. It hasn’t even meant significant change.”..ellis

    I think you nailed it right here.—>”hasn’t even meant significant change.’

    What we wonder I think is how they are going to get to a significant change.
    Because the actions of the military right now in going after the MB the way they are are not bringing the country or fractions together but widening the divide.

  5. bilal a
    bilal a
    July 18, 2013, 9:00 am

    The military coup, even if it came in response to widespread grievances, is a fatal blow to the Egyptian Revolution. It is a fatal blow because it reaffirmed the politics of the old guardians in Egypt. It confirmed the traditional polarized, mutually exclusivist and equally supremacist politics that has prevailed, not only in Egypt, but throughout the Middle East since the colonial era. Unfortunately, the military coup and the return of the repressive security forces in Egypt came as a natural conclusion to the elasticity of the claims of legitimacy made by so many parties after the revolution.

    But more than anything else, it is the Egyptian secular intelligentsia and the revolutionaries themselves that forced the revolution to commit suicide. This secular intelligentsia – not only in Egypt, but also in the Arab world in general – has locked the region into a near perpetual circle of self-defeatism because they appear incapable of understanding that nothing kills lofty ideas quite like the pragmatic hypocrisy of their bearers.

    Hence, it is critical to understand that the failure above all else is the defeat dealt to the ethics of legitimacy. It speaks volumes that the grievances against Mohammed Morsi were that he tried to monopolize power, he failed to respect the rule of law as embodied in the judiciary and he infringed upon the rights of dissenters. Yet the representative of the judiciary sitting as Egypt’s interim president is blissfully untroubled by the unlawful closing of opposing media outlets, by the mass arrests and even murder of pro-Morsi advocates, and by his own monopolization of legislative and executive powers deposited in him by the military.

    The secular intelligentsia that presented itself as the upholder of civic and democratic principles during Morsi’s rule is now celebrating the appointment of Mohamed ElBaradei, who has not gone through a single electoral test of his legitimacy and has been superimposed upon the sovereign Egyptian people through military will. One cannot miss the paradoxical irony that interim President Adli Mansour, sitting as a judge on the Constitutional Court, could not tolerate any degree of political intervention by a civilian president, but is not troubled by receiving his marching orders from the military.

    The collapse of legitimacy: How Egypt’s secular intelligentsia betrayed the revolution
    Khaled Abou El Fadl

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