Faking Egypt's Past

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Faking Egypt’s Past: The Brotherhood and Jan. 25

Prior to the use of the Internet, historical revisionism typically took decades. Different political forces are breaking previous speed records, however, with regards to contemporary Egyptian history. When it comes to the role of the Brotherhood in the Jan. 25 uprising (which led to a revolution, but let’s leave that aside for the moment), three interesting narratives are increasingly becoming popular. They each destroy not only the spirit of the Jan. 25 uprising, but also try to dismantle its memory.

One narrative indicates that essentially, the Jan. 25 movement was a weak and feeble movement that could not bring more than a few people to the streets from the wider public. As such, the Brotherhood valiantly took up the cause, mobilising people from day one of the uprising to ensure the revolution succeeded, and was the leading force of the uprising. Recently, this narrative gained credence with supporters of the Brotherhood outside of Egypt, and others who were not actually in Egypt during the 18 days.

On the anti-Brotherhood, albeit pro-revolution side, one can find a range of perspectives in support of another narrative. Some, particular in the anti-Mubarak, but pro-military, private media, are positing the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood was essentially absent from Tahrir Square and the various squares around the country at the beginning of the uprising. It joined, according to this narrative, very late, and was essentially inconsequential.

Brotherhood conspiracy

The final main historical revisionist narrative is one where the Brotherhood was very much involved in the uprising. In fact, the Jan. 25 uprising was a conspiracy by the Brotherhood. The protesters that were killed by pro-Mubarak forces on the Day of the Camel were killed, actually, by the Brotherhood. There were non-Brotherhood forces in the square, but they were just being manipulated by the Brotherhood.

At times, it is appropriate to call things silly and absurd. I was in Cairo during those 18 days, and I remember clearly the events that transpired. But one did not need to be there, because so much of this was broadcast and reported very effectively at the time – which makes this historical revisionism, indeed, silly and absurd.

In the run-up to the protests, the Brotherhood, like most Egyptians, did not take the Jan. 25 call to protest very seriously. There are suggestions the leadership met to discuss the protests, after what had happened in Tunisia. Nevertheless, when this highly disciplined organisation mobilises, it organises. There is no evidence to suggest it decided to do so privately, let alone publicly.

Claiming the Brotherhood was thus a critical part of the protests in the early days would be quite a stretch – the leadership didn’t take Jan. 25 seriously, although it did not forbid Brotherhood members from participating if they so chose to do so. The choice, essentially, was up to individual members as independent Egyptians.

Increasing momentum

It was a relatively small crowd that went to the streets on the Jan. 25 – and there was a small minority of Brotherhood youth members among the majority who were not. These youth attended not as Brotherhood members acting under orders, but as young Egyptians who wanted change along with their countrymen. In a very short period of time, the people of Egypt became energised by the Jan. 25 call for change, and the momentum increased, from all sectors of society.

Looking at the published statements of the Brotherhood during January and February, it is clear the leadership went through an evolution in its perspective vis-à-vis the protests. In particular, the 48-hour period from the evening of Jan. 25 till the evening of the 27 saw the Brotherhood change its position more than once quite dramatically.

When the protests began to trouble the Mubarak regime, the leadership first chose to publicly disassociate itself and the organisation from those protests, after having said nothing at all, except to privately let their youth know they weren’t forbidden from participation. The message to the regime was clear: “we have nothing to do with organising this, so don’t try to pin it on us. You ought to respond to the youth and the people in the streets.”

Protesters called for the “Day of Rage” on Jan. 28 – the first Friday of the revolution – and different sectors of society decided to join them. This was the beginning of a mass mobilisation of Egyptians, and an impressive protest movement – one that 11 percent of Egyptians later claimed they participated in, in nationwide Gallup polls. Those same polls show the movement as a broad-based, popular movement – one that represented all sectors of society, and not limited to one particular faction.

Mobilized members

In response to the impressive, organic mobilisation of ordinary Egyptians, the Brotherhood leadership decided to change their original stance of disassociation from the protests, and formally called for their members to mobilise by the evening of Jan. 27. By the following morning, much of the Brotherhood’s senior leadership was arrested as a result of their public statement – but many of their members indeed mobilised and joined the protests on the 28.

One need not over-estimate the Brotherhood’s role, and that of its leadership, particularly at the beginning of the rising, but also later. Indeed, they disappointed their own youth, many of whom who left the Brotherhood after the uprising, regarding the leadership as insufficiently revolutionary.

Others felt betrayed by the Brotherhood leadership in its dealings with the generals after Mubarak’s ouster. But that is another story, which relates to whether or not the Brotherhood leadership truly believed in revolutionary change, or decided to utilise the revolution for its own partisan interest. Incidentally, the Brotherhood’s leadership are not the only ones who can now be accused of that.

‘Day of the Camel’

Equally, however, one ought not to erase the Brotherhood component, particularly further into the 18 days. After the “Day of Rage,” until Mubarak’s ouster, the Brotherhood’s leadership had a role, formally organising its members within the protests. One has to remember: had the Brotherhood youth not been present, Tahrir Square would have most likely fallen to the pro-regime thugs on the Feb. 2, the infamous “Day of the Camel.”

It may be fair to write out the Brotherhood as an organisation or as a leadership in the early days of the revolution. To imagine the organisation played no role later on, or to insinuate individual members were simply not there at all in the early days, is fantasy.

Revolution’s dawn

The Jan. 25 uprising was not a “Brotherhood-led revolution” – nor were the 18 days bereft of Brotherhood members. Both of these perspectives are historical revisionisms for contemporary political gain – and essentially lies. Tahrir Square was much bigger than the Brotherhood, and it was big enough for everyone to be included. That was Jan. 25. That was the dawn of a revolution.

On the eve of the third anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution, those who supported those protests in those early days, who were in Egypt, Cairo and Tahrir Square ought to remind everyone:

“We were there. You weren’t. Stop lying. Stop trying to bring shame upon those who died to give Egypt a better chance. And stop trying to bring shame upon those who lived to see their revolution used and abused.”

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is an ISPU Fellow, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the Royal United Services Institute.

This article was published on Al Arabiya on January 20, 2014. Read it here.