… and from the factories go the heavenly proletarians
awkwardly under their arms they carry their wings like violins.
Zbigniew Herbert, “Report from Paradise”
It took blood for paradise to happen. It happened very fitfully and incompletely, paradise. It lasted no longer than three weeks within a cordoned off area around the busiest traffic circle in all of Cairo, including the circle itself. It happened spontaneously and uncertainly, like a dream or a transparent sheet of glass. It was very brittle, I mean. But it happened. By the end of January 28, while millions of people were recovering from tear gas, I was convinced that God had appeared in Cairo. He was to leave again within the space of a month.
It has been six weeks since I returned from France. By coincidence, my month-long stay there was to start after the “end” of the Egyptian revolution on February 11. I left on March 8, still buzzing with excitement. I returned on April 9 to a Cairo just as complacent as the city I had known before the revolution ‘started’ on January 25. I still believe very strongly in what happened during those three weeks (January 25-February 11); I would have liked it to go on. Now that it is over, I tell myself it is wrong to think of something so clearly bracketed in time, and with such a limited social impact, as a revolution. That is why ‘start’ and ‘end’ are placed between quotation marks. Something has to be.
One question which has dogged me since at least 2005 — notwithstanding the nominally democratic practices introduced under outside pressure — was to what extent the corruption and incompetence of the regime had permeated society.
This spring I ended up missing what many consider to be the defining moment in the aftermath of the revolution — and I, to be its defeat. The referendum on constitutional amendments proposed by the Higher Military Council, in charge since Mubarak stepped down, was supported by the forces of political Islam and conservatives everywhere. Those who had participated in the revolution and those who saw it as a chance for true change were against the constitutional amendments. By speeding up parliamentary elections and still granting the president too much power, the amended constitution would contribute to maintaining the political duopoly of non-ideological, business-crazed dictatorship on the one hand and Islamic fundamentalism on the other. Hence the ironic alliance between Islamists, National Democratic Party (NDP) politicians and a Council at best eager to eliminate uncertainty, at worst working systematically to re-establish the political status-quo as quickly as possible — a Council whose role as a surrogate for the regime many refused to see.
The referendum was held on March 19; I remember weeping quietly in my room overlooking the Château de la Napoule on the Côte d’Azur after finding out that the overwhelming majority had voted yes.
In the period after Mubarak stepped down (February 11-March 19), there was much talk of the counterrevolution. That discourse is less pervasive now, but for a while it defined the way the revolution saw itself and its hard-won triumph (which cost over 800 lives and left nearly 6,500 injured,). This discourse envisioned a long-term fight against clandestine efforts to undermine the achievements of the protesters or reverse the achievements of the revolution.
No doubt this had been going on since the outbreak of the revolution; no doubt it had instantly identifiable agents in the security apparatus, the upper echelons of the business sector, the government and the NDP. The army, led by the Council and (until he ceded his authority to it) the President of the Republic, was supposedly neutral: a dispassionate observer and keeper of the peace; and eventually, with a little self-delusion on the part of the protesters, a wielder of power on behalf of the revolution.
However, while there was indeed a counterrevolution, there was a different, far deeper and more widespread reactionary current underway – part of which, mad as this sounds, emanated from within the revolution itself. Islamist and (to a lesser extent) ‘Nasserist’ and socialist-nationalist strains, while automatically rebelling against the status-quo which had marginalised and repressed them, nevertheless continued to uphold precisely the totalitarian, sectarian and patriarchal values rejected by the young liberals who instigated the protests.
After the disappearance of the police on January 28, when the protesters took over Tahrir Square, apart from the bumbling brutality of an ancient, decadent and phenomenally smug regime taken by surprise, little could unify the revolution beyond the common objective that the President should step down. Even this was complicated by the absence of leadership within the revolution; and once the president did step down, handing over his powers to the army, the vast majority of the protesters were willing for the army take charge. What more-or-less cosmetic changes have occurred since February 11 were in reaction to Friday demonstrations, which have never developed into a round-the-clock strike comparable to the days of the actual ‘revolution’.
For the longest time I didn’t even ask myself what the revolution was about: bringing down the regime, as in the main slogan, seemed self-explanatory; and I wilfully forgot much of what I had thought (and written) prior to January 25. That the regime’s most horrendous crime was the way it had managed to graft itself onto Egyptian society, turning it not only into its arena but, more disastrously, its mirror image, with all the patriarchally rooted structures of nepotism, greed, ignorance, identity bias, policing, disorganisation and impunity replicated again and again from the top down.
The reason I forgot to ask myself what the revolution was about, and the reason it seemed like paradise, was the fact that these structures ceased to function, if only momentarily. They were in suspension, and the greater cause made it seem as if they (like the president, like his deputy, like the new prime minister he appointed) could really disappear overnight.
Upon my return from France my most painful experience of disillusion was realising it was all still there: the Higher Military Council with its increasingly in-your-face counterrevolution; the Islamists (who had played an indispensable role in the revolution itself); and the many and various patriarchally inclined quarters of the Egyptian constituency as a whole. It was there on the streets and at work, in government offices, in the way people drove, in what people said about what was going on. Bribery, stupidity and conspiracy theories were as prominent as they had ever been — and with sectarian clashes in the headlines as I write, there is nothing to suggest they are going anywhere soon. Paradise has shattered, and the glass is everywhere.
For me, in a strange sort of way, the counterrevolution now seems to have been contained in the revolution itself. The more I think about this the more mind-boggling it becomes, but maybe what it means is simply that, rather than an outside force toppling the regime and all that it stood for, what actually happened was an implosion within that regime, a necessary climax of dysfunction allowing society to adjust — or readjust. There will be time for that. I am not optimistic. I am simply grateful that I lived to see paradise.
Written by Youssef Rakha and published with the courtesy of Babelmed, partner of Mashallah News.