How the June 30 uprising wasn’t the January 25 revolution
July 21, 2013
Was the June 30 uprising akin to the January 25 revolution, a continuation of it, or a failure of it?
It was a good thing for Egypt, for a variety of reasons, that Mohammed Mursi prevailed over Mubarak’s last Prime Minister, Ahmad Shafiq, in the run-offs last year. It was a pity, however, that within just a few weeks, it became clear that Mr. Mursi felt no obligation to keep to promises he made to the electorate. Criticism of Mr. Mursi and his administration began then, and rightly so, as holding those in power to account is one of the freedoms that were given by the 25th of January revolution. In the spring, there were those who urged Mr. Mursi to change course in order to avoid a situation that might lead to a military intrusion into the civilian arena in the summer (for the author’s article on this in these pages, see here).
Some of that all panned out – but the military did not wait for mass deaths to intervene. It’s been clear for months that the military has been in touch with different parts of the opposition as well as the government, and even with civil society groups that wanted early presidential elections. Their message had always been clear to the opposition and to the government: it is best you sort out your differences. Less clear, however, were the disputes the military leadership was having with Mr. Mursi on national security issues, particularly within Sinai. The military hoped they could prevail upon the president to listen to his national security advisors in the military – but they knew that any intervention on their part beyond private counsel would be illegitimate.
The military probably hoped the millions would come out onto the streets – but they couldn’t guarantee it, and they wouldn’t move without them. Mr Mursi’s popular legitimacy had, in their assessment, already been lost (a speculation backed by numerous public opinion polls); the political elite had generally rejected him; the institutions of the state were abandoning him internally; and as soon as they saw the millions of people on the streets, the military could see that Mursi’s continued presence was not only being rejected popularly, but that it would be the immediate source of wide-scale chaos and instability that would get severely out of control if the military did not halt it early on. Ironically, the institution that eventually led to his downfall was the same institution that was actually least willing to bring Mursi down: they gave Mursi two days to come to some sort of accommodation with his opponents, including many options that left him as president. He refused, and two days later, they removed him in what can only be described as a popularly backed coup. Similar, some say, to February 11, 2011 – also a popular coup.
Was the June 30th uprising akin to the January 25th revolution, a continuation of it, or a failure of it?
The truth is: yes and no to all of the above.
The streets that were filled with protesters certainly wanted an end to the presidency on both occasions. When the army intervened and overthrew the president in both cases, the protesters against the president more or less all went home: they did not stay to protest the army’s involvement. On the contrary, particularly in Mursi’s case, many were actively calling for it.
However, it is worth noting some key differences. People were protesting against a freely elected president in 2013; in 2011 they were not was not. When people went to the streets on January 25th, they didn’t have the support of more than a tiny minority of the masses: they had to win it. June 30, on the other hand, did not have that handicap, and instead enjoyed broader support, especially since it was able to mobilize and publicize ahead of time with the circulation of nation-wide petitions demanding Mursi’s resignation.
January 25: freedom and human dignity
Here is the key difference, however, between those two different times. The January 25 revolution was not about Hosni Mubarak per se, but about the insistence on building a future based on bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity. The removal of Hosni Mubarak was a necessary, but insufficient, precondition for that to happen. Tahrir Square during the 18 days of uprising was a place of pluralism and coexistence between all strands of Egyptian society – including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and by the end of it, even disaffected members of the state. It was where Shaykh Emad Effat, the Revolutionary Shaykh of the Azhar, entered and said, “The first time I saw Tahrir Square was the first time I saw Egypt.”
No one can make this argument about the protests of June 30-July 3 – there was one demand, and it was clear: the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from the presidency. This uprising had a destination – but certainly not the same soul that existed during the January 25th uprising. The ecstasy and joy of June 30 protesters and supporters came only from being released, as they saw it, from their hijackers – but beyond that, there is much that ought to be done to transform that group of protesters from simply being against something, to for something.
If the core group of January 25 revolutionaries were a disparate group supported by temporary allies, they at least had a common vision that went beyond simply the removal of Hosni Mubarak. On the other hand, beyond the removal of Mursi, very few of those who actively supported the protests of June 30-July 3 had a common progressive vision of pluralism in mind. Indeed, it is likely that those few who did were supporters of the January 25 revolution who decided that despite the risks, it was important for the revolution to be present at the June 30 protests, so that they could at least maintain the soul of January 25. In that regard, this was a continuation of the January 25 revolution because, indeed, the goals of the revolution could never be implemented with Mursi occupying the presidency.
But here is where June 30 was a failure for the revolution of the 25th of January. The problem traces back to March 19, 2011. On that day, the revolutionaries failed to convince the majority of voters that the post-Mubarak military road map was a mistake. If they had succeeded in convincing the public that a constitution was needed before presidential elections, and then provided a candidate that could make it into the second round of elections (or better yet, an election process that allowed for preferential voting), neither Shafiq nor Mursi would have won: and it is unlikely that the military would have had any cause – or opportunity – to intervene.
That brings us to two final, blunt questions. Was the recent military ouster a good thing? And what next?
Many will have easy answers to the first question – but it actually isn’t so easy. In fact, it mostly rests on guesswork. The only way one would be able to answer, “yes, of course it was a good thing,” would be if one were certain that a military overthrow prevented loss of life, and led to a better, stronger democracy. No one will ever know if the former is true, because we cannot assess something that was not allowed to happen. Is it likely that there would have been significant loss of life? It is hard to see otherwise, considering the millions out on the street who would not go home unless their demands were listened to, and an uncooperative president who was simultaneously extremely unpopular. But frankly, if preserving life is our litmus test (which it ought to be), we will never be able to fully answer that question.
As to what next: now that the dust is beginning to settle, the Muslim Brotherhood will have to engage in some soul-searching and reform. If it does turn to violence, which some now fear, it will be their loss and Egypt’s. As part of an actual policy shift, they will have to drop their demand for Mursi to be reinstated, and for the good of Egyptians, recognize, if not actually participate, in the interim government.
Simultaneously, and more importantly, seeing as they have more power, the state, including the military, has to guarantee a place for a peaceful MB in Egypt’s future – the alternative leads Egypt only down a darker path. Indeed, a larger priority for the state now is to finally begin with security sector reform – particularly of the police – a priority that no post-Mubarak government has ever done, even though it was police brutality that originally sparked the January 25 revolution.
As to what those who supported that revolution beyond partisan, political gains ought to do now – therein lies a part of the answer to the first question. Ahead of Egypt now is a choice: will it roll back the gains of the January 25th revolution, as people worry in light of the killings in front of the Republican Guard, continued police brutality, and the detaining of citizens without charge or trial? Or will it move to a better, stronger Egypt, where the rights of all people are protected and ensured, regardless of their political views, and a pluralistic, respectful society is maintained? That is the struggle of all those who supported the January 25th revolution – and hopefully very few of them have been waiting for this article to receive that message. The Tahrir Square of the 18 days can come again – but all Egyptians, from all sides, will need to work hard for that.
Dr H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.
This article was published by Al Arabiya on July 21, 2013. Read it here.