Monday, January 30, 2012

Revolution: the first anniversary

The last few days have marked the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.  Even to speak of the events in Egypt over the past year as a revolution is to make a somewhat controversial statement.  Was it, many scholars, commentators, and activists have asked, a real revolution?  Already whole conferences have been held in which experts in many fields, and occasionally even on Egypt, have discussed whether Egypt is a case of revolution, transition (possibly democratic, possibly stalled, possibly incomplete), or simply an illusion.  Egypt is disquieting intellectually in a way neither Tunis, nor Libya, nor Yemen nor Syria seem to be.  The mass demonstrations in the streets, the departure of an autocrat, the immense political agitation self-consciously spoken not only in Arabic but in the languages and symbols of historic Europe seem warmly familiar.  The outcome, however, disconcerts many observers.  No palaces were seized, the peasants have not stormed the manors, which in any case no longer exist in the countryside; many personnel of the old regime—from its generals to its former prime ministers—either never left or have returned after years in the political wilderness.    The elections have brought to power a troubling cast of characters: bearded victors who are modern professionals but speak the language of religion rather than science.  In the American, Israeli and European press it has become common to wonder if religious obscurantism is a rising enemy in the Arab world that has been helped to power by the fecklessness of naïve academics who apologize for its violent excesses. 

            Part of the problem is that in Egypt, and events elsewhere in the Arab world, differ markedly from our canonical examples of revolution and democratic transition.  Social scientists have learned about revolutions from Barrington Moore, Theda Skocpol and Jack Goldstone.  We have also learned about contentious citizens and social movements from Chuck Tilly, Sid Tarrow, and Neil Smelser.  And of course we have an entire repertoire of concepts to understand transitions thanks to Juan Linz, Alfred Stepan and Barbara Geddes.  Over the past year all of these have been deployed in a variety of arguments across the entire spectrum of political and analytical possibilities especially in regard to Egypt. 

            Words like revolution or democratic transition are conceptual categories. Used with precision, we are sure they are tools for comprehension.  Used incorrectly they mislead.  It matters, therefore, whether Egypt fits into the category of revolution, or democratic transition, or authoritarian stability. Perhaps Egypt is an example of a stalled partial democratic transition or perhaps as a certain portmanteau word had it, it is a “refolution” combining aspects of reform and revolution.  And yet Egyptian experience continues to escape from all of these categories and so the problem must lie in the Egyptians not in the categories.

            Egypt obviously does not fit into any concept of revolution derived from or connected to the work of Theda Skocpol:

Social revolutions in France, Russia, and China were launched, it has been argued here, by crises centered in the structures and situations of the states of the Old Regimes. Still, the actual occurrence of social revolutions in these three countries depended not only upon the emergence of revolutionary political crises, but also upon the conduciveness of the agrarian sociopolitical structures of the Old Regimes to peasant revolts.

Nor does it fit into what Alfred Stepan suggests is the received wisdom about democratic transition:

After the non-democratic regime experienced a combination of internal divisions and growing opposition, softliners from the non-democratic regime held important informal discussions with the moderate democratic opposition. Over time, a ‘game’ emerged in which the regime moderates and the opposition moderates both ‘used’ (and attempted to ‘constrain’) their own hardliners.

Unless, of course, one believes that Field Marshal Tantawi and the generals are the softliners of the Mubarak regime; the Muslim Brothers are the moderate democrats; and that the events of the last year represent the outcome of discussions between these two sides in the small hours of January 27 2011.  This is a possible picture but nobody, not even Stepan as far as I can tell, seems to think it’s an accurate portrayal of the events of the last year.  Given the violence that has left dozens of people dead and hundreds more wounded (from Christians who were run over by military vehicles in October to the shootings around Midan al-Tahrir in November and December) this looks to be a pretty rough “game.”
            In the past year it has also been suggested that the weakness of the revolutionaries is that they have had neither ideological unity nor a coherent organizational presence in Egyptian politics.  This is, and will long prove to be, a difficult question to address.  The canonical cases—whether of revolution or democratization—lead us to expect a path that moves rapidly toward a more secular state, property rights that ensure economic development, and a more active and hierarchical state.   We expect the revolutionary leadership to be self-consciously progressive by the tenets of the age:  Jacobins who have read Rousseau or Communists who have read Marx and Lenin.
It might be objected that these concepts, derived the study of other places and times, are not very applicable to Egyptian experience.  Bernard Lewis (the emeritus Princeton professor doted on by the right and despised by the left in academia today) has suggested that it is not very useful to apply the categories of European experience to an Islamic society.  Lewis argues that in the Muslim world popular social upheavals demand justice not freedom. Thus the canonical cases do not apply.  In one way Lewis is quite correct.  Justice was an important demand of the demonstrators a year ago.  But it was only one of three primary demands expressed in the slogan: “bread, freedom and social justice.”  This is remarkably similar to the well-known slogan of the French revolution (“freedom, equality, brotherhood”) although it replaces the demand for male solidarity with a demand for human well-being .  Lewis is, on this reading, unsurprisingly unmasked yet again as an Orientalist but the demonstration strikes me as futile if we use it to score verbal points rather than to understand the world around us.  We can leave aside the contrast between justice and freedom that Edward Said might have thought invidious to wonder about justice.  Perhaps we would learn more if we explored what Egyptians argue about when they discuss justice.  It is, after all, a concept widely discussed in American political philosophy since John Rawls resurrected it a generation ago in an influential study of the importance of fairness in organizing society.

American social science has been fairly consistent in asserting that neither the experience of revolution (its phenomenology) nor the relatively short period in which a transfer of power occurs is worth much study.  While there are significant differences between the concepts of revolution and transition, they do share one similarity in contemporary American social scientific thinking.  For both Skocpol and Stepan the role of massive public protest plays a rather small role in a process that (as Skocpol asserts) relatively rapidly transforms social and political structures and institution.   They appear to be primarily epiphenomenal to deeper structural causes whether class, institutional or as part of a bargaining game.

            Necessarily for the structural arguments (even of significantly different kinds) to work, the process of change cannot be an open-ended process. It must define a clear break and it should have a definitive moment at which the process begins and at which it ends.  It should also leave no particular mark on those who experience it, not even their rates of discounting the future which are set outside the game itself.  I have no particular problem with this as an analytic stance as long as we recall that it necessarily constructs the materials into a plausible case as it goes along.  It is not what philosophers would call a “natural kind.”  And in point of fact historians argue at length these days in their studies of revolution (as they no doubt will about democratic transitions) about what constitute the points of departure and termination as well as degrees of continuity and rupture between those points.  Skocpol, it is true, recognizes a kind of continuity of institutional administration and even of many aspects of economic and social life but she never pays much attention to how quickly or how incompletely the French revolution changed France.

            The past quarter of a century studies of the French revolution have suggested that it did not mark quite the kind of demarcation point in French society, economy, or governance between the world before and after 1789 that we often imagine.  The clearest demarcation, as the work of Francois Furet indicates, may be between those to whom it marked such a demarcation and those for whom it did not.  The old regime collapsed, and new political institutions and laws were created. It is certainly not possible to say that politically the revolution rapidly created stable new structures of governance or grievance let alone of property rights in the countryside.  The decisive political conquest of a republic by the French did not occur until 1870 with the creation of the Third Republic (which itself has been succeeded by two more). As Eugen Weber points out (admittedly with a significant dissent from Tilly) France itself did not begin to supersede its regions until well after the Third Republic was in place. Patterns of landownership and industry retained significant continuities from the early 18th century until well into the 19th.  Yet the experience and discourse of the Revolution had a decisive impact on French political thought that, as Furet also points out, lasted until well after the Second World War.  Attitudes toward the revolution remained a crucial dividing point for the politics of France until the last third of the 20th century.  Americans will recognize something similar about the civil war.  It marked a significant break in American history in some ways and yet it would be plausible to argue that between 1890 and 1940 power and social practice retained very large elements of continuity with earlier experience in the American South. 

            What are the implications of this kind of argument for today’s Egypt?

            As we look at the events in Egypt over the last year what we must wonder is what would happen if we reversed our usual focus.  What would happen if, instead of beginning with the canonical understandings and cases, we began with events themselves?  What if, instead of focusing on the known outcomes over a very short period of time and then working back to “explain” them we began with what is more true of revolutionary uprisings: their emotional background and whatever sustains massive protest.  We could begin with a very simple question.  One very good explanation of the uprising in Cairo is based on the assertion of continuities between rising numbers of contentious protests before January 2011 and the demonstrations that drove Mubarak from office.  But what if this explanation hides as much as it reveals?  What if the events of January 25-28 mark a discontinuity with earlier protest instead?  What if what happened over that weekend was a break in recent Egyptian history?

And what if, on the other side, we assumed that the continuities that are apparent even as the mass protests subside are a normal part of revolutionary process rather than a hijacking?  What if we wondered less about the institutional destination to which the revolution is supposed to travel and more about the contestation between the travelers to appropriate the revolutionary narrative as it moves forward?  What if we assumed, for example, that Egypt will still have a powerfully bureaucratic state and a powerful president in five years but that Egyptians will also, for the first time, be publicly divided about the role of the army in their history?  If the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis have their way the most prominent religious figure in Egypt, the Shaykh of the Azhar, will be elected rather than chosen by the president of the republic.  What will happen to the prestige of the institution when it becomes a more obvious focus for open political conflict even if only within the confines of the institution itself?  Criticisms of the Azhar today that it bends to the demands of government may be replaced by criticisms that it bends to every passing breeze or to none at all.  Debates about religion and politics are likely to continue. Debates will also sharpen about whether 1919, 1952 or 2011 represent what the Egyptian revolutionary experience is “really” about.  What if Egyptian electoral politics become, for the first time in 60 years, a focus of practical political effort even if the Ministry of Interior remains a crucial mechanism for determining local spending patterns?   What would happen if, instead of trying to explain what caused something that we define as a single well-defined event—the revolution—we tried to fit it instead into a longer pattern of changing Egyptian intellectual, institutional and even economic patterns?  Would these be useful things to think about?  Would they help us to understand events as they unfold?

            We might notice a few other things worth thinking about over the longue durée.  We would notice, for example, that nearly a century after Shaykh Ali Abd al-Raziq was expelled from the Azhar for writing Islam and the Basis of Governance most Egyptian Muslims accept the idea that parliamentary democracy is the best way to organize the Egyptian state rather than an autocratic system.  What remains unresolved, and what Raziq himself did not address, is what role they assign to Christians in their democratic polity.  One especially burning question is whether they will seek to make Christians equal citizens through their membership in a religious community or as individuals of a liberal republic.  Most likely what happens will turn out to be best described by what is now the watchword or shibboleth of social scientific thinking: it will be termed a hybrid.

The Azhar that expelled Abd al-Raziq was not, however, a particularly unified body nor did it wholly fail to understand that changes were coming for it confided to another shaykh, Abd al-Wahhab Khallaf the task of studying some of the outlines of a new state even as it was condemning Abd al-Raziq.  Many of Khallaf’s proposals are now staples of the politics of both the Brotherhood and much of the Azhari elite.  Indeed by an irony of fate it might be said that the two most prominent representatives of official Islam, the Ahmad Tayyib, shaykh al-Azhar, and Ali Gomaa, the mufti of the Republic, are today significantly more liberal than most of the parliamentarians elected under the banners of political Islam.

Reading the electoral program of the Muslim Brothers is, at least occasionally, an exercise in nostalgia. They propose not only that Egypt pursue self-sufficiency in wheat (which it routinely no longer had before World War I) but that it become self-sufficient in cotton as the basis for a textile industry.  The latter demand mirrors proposals of the 1916 committee for industrialization of Egypt under the stewardship of Ismail Sidqi.  He was, I believe, the only prime minister in the world during the 20th century to have dramatically reduced democratic participation when he stripped Egyptian illiterates of their votes.  It is sometimes said that the Muslim Brothers favor free market policies like those of Hosni Mubarak and the International Monetary Fund.  If so, then they are indeed a group engaged in a trip “back to the future” but their future lies not in 8th century Arabia but in the semi-liberal free market rent-seeking economy of the 1930s.   It is unlikely that they will be more successful in capturing a significant share of the global textile industry from China than Egyptian governments of the 1930s were from the Japanese.  And it is unlikely as well that they can solve the problem of globalization by creating a closed Egyptian market.

            We might also notice some important discontinuities.  A return to plebiscitary presidential elections or completely falsified parliamentary contests seems unlikely. Politically contested parliamentary elections will likely continue even if (or perhaps especially if) the legislature has no more power than the French Assembly for the first three quarters of the 19th century or the German Reichstag under Kaiser Wilhelm. It will be difficult to pigeon-hole such a government, but how much will it be worth to determine what is the appropriate “regime type” to assign to either the old situation (semi-plural authoritarianism?) or the new (plural semi-authoritarianism)? 

            A more important discontinuity is what appears to be, even in the worst case, a dramatic change in the structure of Egyptian politics.  It is common to view Egyptian politics between 1923 and 1952 as a three-cornered game between the Throne, the British, and the Parliament (dominated by the Wafd party).  Between the 1952 coup and 1954 two of the players vanished and the Throne was replaced by the Free Officers and then Gamal Abdel Nasser.  From 1954 until 2012 Egypt remained a one-cornered game. For now, and perhaps for quite a while, Egyptian politics will be a two-sided game in which the parliament (now dominated by the Muslim Brothers) and the presidency (now in the hands of SCAF and likely to remain under their watchful eye) contest.  Egypt in 2012 may not turn into another liberal experiment (even if the Muslim Brothers pursue some of the economic policies of early 20th century nationalists), but it may yet give ordinary Egyptians more access to government institutions than they have had in 60 years.

            Egyptians are also beginning to agree to disagree.  Not always happily and not yet completely, but even in the calls for unity and single-handedness at least one well-worn slogan of the last 60 years has vanished with the demonstrations of the past year:  “no voice higher than the voice of the revolution.”  The use of extra-legal force (whether in the forms of private thuggery or casual repression by the military and police authorities) is worrisome and clearly aims to prevent some voices from being heard that cannot be silenced by appeals to law.  This can be seen in the uneven response to the “Liars” or “Kazibun” campaign in which young activists show videos in public spaces to convince Egyptians that the military authorities are neither truthful nor trustworthy.    I attended one in late December which was displaced by force by angry and nearly violent counter-demonstrators; others have evidently occurred without significant incident.   

            For the Muslim Brothers and perhaps for many who voted for them the events of the last year are miraculous.  For them the revolution has not been hijacked but has slowly moved into a channel as inevitable as any story we can tell about France or Russia.  The military council, on the other hand, as I hope to discuss in another blog may have a very different understanding of the past year as a bullet it barely dodged.  And, lastly, there are other political forces whose dreams were of a different order entirely and who are profoundly disappointed at an emerging understanding between the Brothers and the army leadership.  It would not be difficult to imagine the kind of violence I witnessed in December or that Egyptians have experienced in the past year with attacks on churches, demonstrators, or even in one case an Azhari shaykh. 
            What may matter most is that Egyptians are about to embark on a long political conflict about the nature of revolution with profound implications for the country’s future.  The debate about whether 1952 was a revolution or a coup is not really about semantics (like the regime type debate) but about the nature of mass participation in Egyptian politics.  The victors of 1952 attempted to diminish if not erase 1919 from the national consciousness.  Some of the slogans of 1919 have, directly or indirectly, returned to popular consciousness such as “Religion belongs to God but the nation belongs to all” (al-din l-illah wa’l watan l’il-gamic ) .  Others have been created to contrast with them such as “civil state with an Islamic reference (dawlah madaniyah bi margaciyah diniyah). These will be more than academic debates; they will be visceral.