Political change, particularly grassroots revolutionary change, is often a non-linear, messy process. From 1989 we learned that even with the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union the economic and political realities of countries of the Eastern European block did not undergo a complete overhaul overnight; nor did they move at the same pace or change in the same ways. Over the past two decades the majority has moved towards increased transparency and democracy–with the Ukraine continuing to trail behind. We learn from Iran’s 1979 revolution that the beginnings of an uprising do not determine its end. What began in 1977 as a rejection of a Monarch’s autocracy with secular and religious support led to another form of autocracy, religious in color, which has been faced with yet another set of challenges to its legitimacy in recent years. It is also difficult to define the beginning of what is revolutionary action. The movements of activists in Latin America throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, and more recent movements like Mexico’s YoSoy132, are a call for respect; but are they the beginnings of real systemic reform, or perhaps a continuation?
I was asked by Literal to revisit the changes that have occurred in the Arab World over the past two years, since the start of the uprisings, and to use this context to reflect on movements in Latin America. As an Egyptian citizen, I have decided to focus predominantly on my own country’s process. I begin with a rejection of the notion that the revolution has ended in Egypt. This is not a piece commemorating a past event, but rather a reflection on the dimensions of the process of Isqat Al-Nizam, bringing about the downfall of a system.
William Sewell teaches us that social processes take time to work themselves out –making the defining of the contours of “revolution” difficult for the observer. On the second anniversary of the start of Egypt’s uprising, celebrating the initial eighteen days and the removal of Mubarak holds a certain allure. However, that would be missing the point, because the public squares remain full: indeed, they have not been empty for the past two years. Egypt’s streets have set the stage for constant cyclical challenges to the myriad obstacles to democracy. They also remain the site of violent clashes and sacrificed lives. Over the past two years I have read countless articles about how the revolution has been co-opted by members of the former regime, by the Military, or by the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, I argue that with each attempt at co-optation, there is a constant pushing back by activists who reposition themselves against each threat, changing their chants from “down with Mubarak” to “down with Tantawi” and finally “down with Morsi.” The driving force of these crowds is a commitment to the realization of dignified lives; to have under just law their political voice and basic well-being recognized. I reject the argument that these protestors are a weak, liberal elite. Instead, I turn to one of the few empirics available to me to argue that despite the final victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, in May 2012 the largest contingency of voting in the first stage of elections–forty percent–was for candidates that did not belong to Islamist parties and did not belong to the former regime.
Still, and particularly in the case of Egypt, the goals of the revolution are far from being recognized. Politically, we continue to live under undemocratic institutions. Our president pushed through the passage of a botched and disjointed constitution overnight which serves as a weak blueprint for upcoming parliamentary elections, already anticipated to be undemocratic. The self-imposed introversion of the military, which has full control of arms and full autonomy without civilian oversight, is a frightening reality. Additionally–much like our Latin American counterparts–we continue to struggle against steadily increasing levels of poverty, expensive foodstuffs, and the privatization of our once public education, resulting in inequities that riddle our society.
What I will celebrate today is that throughout the Arab World–in Tunisia, where Bouazizi lit with his own body the fire of resistance; in Yemen and Libya, where militants have taken up arms; in Egypt with its ongoing struggle; or even in Syria, where those fighting for freedom are massacred as the world watches–the scope of the possible is forever being expanded. People can no longer be silenced, and there is no going back. While we focus on the start of these revolutions as being in the winter of 2010-2011, regional experts may disagree. Kamal Abu-Eita, the renowned labor activist, contends that not only is the revolution not over, it started with labor actions that began decades earlier. Joel Beinin, professor of Middle East History at Stanford, argues conversely that not only has it not ended, it has not yet even begun. As we watch the student protests in Chile, Mexico, Colombia and Puerto Rico, we are seeing calls for dignity, which though different in each country, and different in trajectory and goals from the Arab context, all hold a firm commitment to fight for the realization of a better life for citizens. If there’s something that we’ve learned over the past two years, it’s that change is possible, albeit messy; and also that change is difficult to anticipate, or even to recognize.