This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Acting in history isn’t simple. You never know what’s around the bend. Nonetheless, you have to act. You hope the chips fall where you want them to.
Sometimes the chips fall in a radically different way than you expected. Then it is time to regroup. You have to think again.
(Re)Appraising history isn’t easy – especially when it’s your own history and people’s lives are at stake. It must be done. Otherwise history repeats itself again and again.
The third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution is an obvious case in point. Tahrir Square focused the world’s attention. It was democracy on the move. Now the great reversal is in motion. Reactionary power has consolidated its momentum.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was first on the military’s hit list. Today the progenitors of the democracy movement are on the run or in jail. Professors haven’t escaped the long reach of the military either. The Egyptian government – with the support of the United States – has revived dictatorship in fascist style. Everyone has to be in lockstep or else.
Attempts at reappraising the Egyptian revolution are ongoing. A new series carries the apt title “Revolution Edited: ‘Back When’ Egypt Dared to Defy.” The editorial note is instructive:
Editor’s note: We found it hard to solicit pieces commemorating the January 25 revolution, mainly because we seem to have hit a certain boundary in revolutionary prose. A moment of deep ambiguity accompanies three years of thinking, doing and rethinking. But in the spirit of resisting this submission to boundaries, we went back to what our columnists wrote us at our previous publisher Egypt Independent during the 18 days of the revolution and we asked them to revisit their writings. Some wrote reaction pieces, others edited them and others rewrote them.
One of the reappraisals is by Adel Iskandar, a Middle East educator and activist, who co-edited the important book, Edward Said: A Legacy of Emancipation and Representation, and more recently authored Egypt in Flux: Essays on an Unfinished Revolution. Iskandar wrote his essay in February 2011. It appears now with reappraising language inserted from the present. It’s a difficult read but then the revolution hasn’t exactly been easy either. Iskandar begins:
February 11, 2011 is/was a monumental day in history. The resilience and resolve of the Egyptian people have/had briefly shown the world how a revolutionary movement can rise up to sweep all that lies in its path/the head of state and create a new/new, albeit temporary, reality. I understand this/This sounds like hyperbole, but the past/hyperbole because it is hyperbole. Those two weeks were not exactly/should have been a time for conservative assessment.
Iskandar’s reappraisal is choppy. He changes tense, revises what he wrote, then adds new declarative sentences. Among the new additions:
“Today megalomaniacal cults of personality have prevailed.”
“The revolution was hijacked.”
“Today the revolution wears military fatigue.”
Iskandar’s overall message is one of unrealistic expectations and naiveté. But the lessons drawn from the failed Egyptian revolution are more important and broader than this.
For example, Jews can start with Israel and the 1948 war that ushered in a Jewish state. Jews can continue with Israel’s victory in the 1967 war that led to the occupation. The language and assertions made after each event are all up in the air now. They were/are devastatingly (un)true.
Take Israel’s initial promise of equality and generosity. Take the Jewish use of the Holocaust to justify and to hide colonialism, ethnic cleansing and occupation.
Iskandar: “The revolution was hijacked.”
Substitute liberation for revolution. What do we say about Israel?
Iskandar: “Today the revolution wears military fatigue.”
Substitute democracy for revolution. What do we say about Israel?
It turns out that the obvious naiveté of Iskandar and others who thought that Tahrir Square was the beginning of a new day is shared by many, including Jews.
The hope that the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring would bring Egyptians and Arabs closer to the evolving democratic spirit of our time, catching up as it were with the rest of us, did occur – but in an unexpected way. We now share a disillusioned sense of the democratic spirit as expressed in the modern nation-state.
Today democracy wears military fatigue. But it isn’t only in Egypt. In the broader Arab world, in Israel and in America, too, democracy wears the same outfit. And that’s just the beginning of our (military fatigue) global tour.
More or less, we’re all in the same Egyptian boat. This may be the true lesson of the failed Egyptian revolution.
Sharing failure, a new solidarity for the struggle ahead?