When the crowds swelled in the Square of Liberation in January 2011, the chant of al-sha’ab yurid isqat al-nidham (‘the people demand the fall of the regime’) was a pithy slogan. By the time Hosni Mubarak was pushed out of power eighteen days later, Tahrir Square had become much more than simply a place where people demanded his fall.
Two years on, and at a critical point where the transition is likely to enter a very difficult stage, the challenges in front of the revolution and the strategies of the revolution, ought to be considered in light of the importance of those days.
Egyptians have now divided into camps vis-à-vis those original eighteen days. There were always going to be those who thought that the revolution produced those days, and they culminated in the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. In other words, for this camp, those days are essentially irrelevant to the present or the future.
Yet, there were others who believed that those eighteen days were special, and formed the basis of hope for a better future. They’ve since changed their minds and decided: not really. For them, those eighteen days might have been special, but they probably were not as special as the revolutionaries want Egyptians to believe.
As far as they are concerned, the revolution is over – it failed, and that’s that. Moreover, as the argument goes, it is irrelevant – Egyptians have a different battle ahead of them now against the Islamists, and they will have to work with people who were against the eighteen days in order to forge forward against this new enemy.
And then: there are others.
Those others recognise three things. The first is that the initial eighteen days were not a deviation from what Egyptians are – but a reflection of what is deeply Egyptian. This is what they achieved, when left to their own devices – a pluralistic civil society where diversity was respected, and a standard of ethical behaviour was maintained.
These were Egyptians from all walks of life and backgrounds – and this is what they accomplished. Everyone in that square recognised what was happening in those eighteen days as very much indigenous – but for many, it was an Egypt they had only seen glimpses of before.
In those eighteen days, Egyptians did not create a utopia or something akin to an imaginary place – they saw an Egypt that every Egyptian would recognise as real and representative of the best of Egyptians.
On the one hand, this was a vanguard of Egyptians, in that they refused to accept that Egypt was terminally condemned to the state it was in – but on the other, it was a vanguard that was nonetheless representative of all social and economic classes of Egyptian society. It was not the elite of Egyptians – it was only elitist in that they believed in the right of Egyptians to believe that Tahrir was possible.
The safest place in Cairo during those eighteen days was Tahrir Square – no-one who was there can forget that. The place where women were shown the most respect was that square; the place where differences of political opinion were most cherished was that square; religious harmony was most strong in that square.
The strength of a free and open civil society was shown, and proven, in that square. Those there built something very real – something organic, and not induced by outside pressures. In so doing, they reminded themselves that this was Egypt.
The second is that in society at large, for a variety of reasons, Egypt’s spirit, as reflected in those days, has taken a beating. If anything, Egypt on the whole has regressed tremendously. That ‘Tahrir Effect’ has not thrived – it remains and exists, but it is scattered and dispersed.
In such a situation, with the economic situation getting worse and worse, social problems are becoming more and more entrenched – which translates into political problems. Egyptians are not saints – they are human beings that at their best create environments like the Tahrir of January 25th, 2011. They are also human beings that at their worst create environments like the Tahrir of January 25th, 2013, where women were targeted in sexual attacks.
The fact of the matter is that while sexual harassment didn’t happen in the square, it does now – very, very, very often, and often progresses to sexual violence. They are also human beings where sectarianism and identity politics, strategically utilised and instrumentalised, can be harnessed to incredibly deleterious effects.
Former Brookings Expert
The fact of the matter is that while sectarian sentiments were subsumed in the square, they are not now – and it is progressively becoming an epidemic. The fact of the matter is that the pluralistic, open civil society that animated the square is certainly not what Egyptians live in now.
The third is that those challenges – all of those challenges – can be addressed, and are not insurmountable. Because the original eighteen days were not extraordinary, but a manifestation of what Egyptians are capable of; they can do something like that again. Not in terms of another square of protest to bring down such a ruler – that’s another issue – but in terms of inculcating such behaviour, where such a ruler becomes irrelevant by force of right.
That is precisely the point behind why those eighteen days in that square remain so critical to forming and informing perspectives on the challenges facing Egypt today. A particular standard was set in those days – and the success of the revolution can only be claimed when that standard is met. All of this remains relevant to those who believe in the revolution – because it serves to define strategy, as well as the types of alliances that can be engaged in to bring it to fruition.
There are two dangers in front of those who believe in the revolution in this period. The first is that they underestimate the scale of the problems that face Egypt now and how far Egypt has gone from the spirit of the Square in those eighteen days – no-one can afford to be naïve about the depth of those issues.
The second is that they underestimate the importance of commitment to that Square in those eighteen days. That becomes a question of strategy that faces many of the opposition forces now, as they consider alliances with other forces that stood against the revolution as it began in order to stand against the Islamists in this phase.
If those forces are now truly committed to the revolution, and would have stood in that Square in retrospect, that is one thing. If they would not, then where are the principles that brought people out in the first place? Where is that commitment to that change that took place, when they would have been quite happy for the Square to have fallen under the boot of oppression?
‘The Revolution Continues’ is no longer a slogan or a chant. It is a firm commitment to recognising that what happened in the Square in those 18 days is a snapshot of what Egypt actually is at its core – and what this revolution will fight to make all of Egypt, far beyond the square, once again. Insisting upon that is not failing to see the challenges – it is an expression of confidence that those challenges can be met, and overcome. That is the promise of the revolution of the 25th of January.
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