The Many Tides of Revolution

Betrayed optimism Does the spirit of protest weaken, even when it is hijacked?
Betrayed optimism Does the spirit of protest weaken, even when it is hijacked?

Mohammad Morsi was sentenced to death on 16 May for breaking out of an Egyptian prison during the tumultuous days of the Egyptian revolution. Oddly though, the death sentence of the country’s only democratic leader is unlikely to break the heart of many of the protestors who had descended on Tahrir Square on 25 January, 2011 to call for democracy in the erstwhile dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Many of them had in fact participated in the protest to remove Morsi in 2013 and called for an army take-over.

On 11 January, 2011, Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26-year-old, uploaded a video on Facebook saying: “I am going down (to Tahrir Square) on 25 January and I will say ‘no to Corruption’ and ‘no to this regime’. If each of us bring five or 10 people, it is enough. Never say there’s no hope. Hope disappears only when you say there is no hope.” In an atmosphere pervaded with the scent of the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia heralding the Arab Spring, her message caught on like wildfire.

Men and women of Egypt poured into Tahrir Square with no intention to leave until their demands were met. They set up camps, sang songs and shouted slogans. The Square became one giant organism hissing the fire of revolution. “Asshab- Yurid isqat an-nizam” (The people demand the downfall of the regime), they shouted as one. ‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice’, they chanted. It was significantly similar to the ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ chants of the French Revolution and the ‘Peace, Bread, Land’ slogan of the Russian Revolution.

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After days of protests, that shook the world, the Army General on 11 February, 2011 announced the stepping down of Hosni Mubarak and pledged to execute the demands of the revolutionaries. The Armed Forces were entrusted with the management of the nation. The crowd burst into tears and hugged each other. People climbed on to the Army tanks and hung flags over the turrets. Thinking that the revolution was won, they packed up their things and left for home, content. This was to prove a costly mistake.

The demands of the public were not met for a long time and sporadic protests were organised. The military, their recent liberators, started firing live bullets at the crowd. At a protest organised by Christians in front of the State Media Centre, army tanks ran over the unarmed protestors. The Army, which had been recognised by the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square as a trustworthy ally, had started to play its cards in its own quest for power.

The protesters were mostly professionals, young men and women, driven to the square, caught up in the revolution. They had arrived in rag-tag bunches of four or five. They had no leader, no organised command and belonged to no political party. The only entities which had any organisation were the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army. The Muslim Brotherhood, formed in the 1940s, already had deep roots in every strata of the society. The Army, on the other hand, was glorified in the media and enjoyed popular support.

Finally, elections were scheduled. There were only two candidates in the fray, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafiq, a representative of the old regime being backed by the army now. The Brotherhood won the ensuing elections narrowly against the coalition, but after showing a faint glimmer of hope, failed to live up to its promises. “Muslim Brotherhood promised an inclusive democratic government including a female and a Coptic Christian Vice President. Sadly, the government betrayed some of the high hopes it had generated,” says Dibyesh Anand, Associate Professor of International Relations at London’s University of Westminster.

Morsi issued decrees which gave him more power than Hosni Mubarak ever had. The constituent assembly set up by him to rewrite the constitution was filled with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Once again protestors filled the Tahrir Square and spilled beyond. The numbers were said to be larger than those in 2011. “However, with all its flaws and failures, Morsi had been the first Egyptian leader to be elected through free and fair democratic elections. Rather than giving him time, the military used the protestors to overthrow Morsi to create a new coup regime. One has to remember that the protests against Morsi were hugely popular but not necessarily counterrevolutionary. The only beneficiary turned out to be the military establishment,” says Anand.

The army stepped in to remove Morsi and once again the sound of crackers echoed in Tahrir Square as people celebrated the victory of their protest. Again, their optimism was misplaced. The Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organisation. They and the revolutionaries alike, were persecuted. Amnesty international in its 2014 report noted that “at least 16,000 people have been detained, torture and ill-treatment remain “unabated”, and fair trial standards are routinely flouted.” The Army emerged as the singular victor, controlling the media and deepening its hold on power.

“The army, being the only coherently organised institution, was smart and ruthless enough to use popular resentment as well as the secular nationalists and the Salafists against the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Anand. He further adds, “None of this would have been possible without the overwhelming support of the Gulf monarchies, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and UAE, who bankrolled the counter-revolution.”

Around the same time as the Tahrir Square protests, other parts of the world were paralleling a similar kind of revolutionary fervour. Protesters in the US were pouring into public places as part of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. The movement was a response to the growing chasm of economic and social inequality as the by-product of neoliberal economic policies. The swashbuckling image of the Wall Street power brokers projected by American cinema was challenged. Much like their counterparts in Egypt, the protestors sang songs, built tents and proclaimed: ‘We are the 99%’. Four years later though, the ‘Occupy’ protestors have simply dispersed and gone back to their lives.

Mainstream India’s only whiff of a revolution was when the “India Against Corruption” (IAC) movement was at its peak. It was dubbed as the “Second Freedom struggle” and its leader Anna Hazare was touted as the “Second Gandhi”. “IAC challenged one political party but did nothing to challenge the overall political establishment,” says Anand. Rather than achieving its goal of a Corruption Free India, the movement directly affected the Indian National Congress(INC), strengthening the perception of it as a scam-ridden party. It would have an indirect, yet significant role in helping Narendra Modi sail to power in 2014. The Gandhian white cap that the IAC brought back to the national consciousness has become part of the ensemble of an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) worker complete with a broom in his hand. The leader, Anna Hazare, has slipped back into the edge of that consciousness, his place taken by Arvind Kejriwal who brought political organisation to the protest movement and developed it into a party.

“Soon after the Arab Spring, scholaractivist Costas Douzinas predicted similar movements in Europe,” Irfan Ahmad, Associate Professor of Political Anthropology at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, tells Tehelka. In 2011, the austerity measures brought in by the European government; cutting welfare spending and increasing taxes, brought about a reaction from the streets, with protestors occupying public places and clashing with the police. The protests led to the formation of the Podemos, a radical left-wing political party that gained popularity amidst high unemployment and increasing poverty.

However, nowhere have the protests led to a greater impact than in Greece, where Syriza swept the elections to form the first left-wing government in Europe.

“At one level, these protest movements reflect a deep crisis of the “neoliberal” capitalist democracy. Neoliberalism has nearly torn asunder all the guarantees and social security that the post-World War II democracy was based on. The only thing it guarantees now is its own survival. Trust, solidarity and certainty about the future, have all been transformed into bare commodities; citizen herself is now a client. And a client is either useful or not. If not useful, conditions are made for them to disappear,” says Irfan. He further adds: “Political participation has been reduced to a ceremonial circus in the way that politicians pursue decisions, economic policies included, irrespective of what the electorates think. Voters view the matter only when they mimic decisions already taken or prefigured. Politics now stands securitised and militarised, on an unprecedented scale.”

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