The impermanent revolution: the organizational fragility of the Egyptian prodemocracy movement in the troubled transition.

AuthorGerbaudo, Paolo

THE EGYPTIAN REVOLUTION OF 2011 HAS OFTEN BEEN CELEBRATED IN THE media and among Western activists as a "leaderless revolution," in which participants were mobilized through informal networks of friendship and by resorting to the power of social networking sites. Indeed, there is some truth in such accounts, even though they often tend to downplay the importance of a diffuse charismatic activist elite within the movement and to exaggerate the role of the Internet (Gerbaudo 2012). What is often forgotten, however, is that the almost exclusive resort to informal mobilizing structures, which characterized the uprising against Mubarak, has contributed to some of the strategic problems encountered by the revolutionary movement during the phase of transition to democracy. The revolutionary movement has suffered from the lack of solid coordinating structures that might sustain and direct its long-term struggle. Moreover, a widespread libertarian fixation with the imaginary of leaderless resistance has made revolutionaries largely incapable of crystallizing the movement's practices and moral aspirations in newly founded organizations and institutions that might give a degree of permanence to revolutionary gains. In this situation revolutionaries have been no match for their adversaries and in particular for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which electoral victory after electoral victory has progressively strengthened its grip on power. With their tight and sturdy organizational structure, the Islamists have easily managed to outmaneuver a revolutionary movement that is pervaded by anti-organizational cynicism and a self-defeating reluctance to participate in the arena of electoral democracy.

This article will discuss the organizational fragility of the Egyptian revolutionary movement during the transition phase between the fall of Hosny Mubarak on February 11,2011, and the first months after the new president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, assumed power. This period is of significant interest for understanding the long-term dynamics of the revolutionary movement. Further, it offers powerful lessons for Western anticapitalist social movements, which have drawn much inspiration in terms of tactics and forms of organization from Egyptian activists. During this phase activists have progressively become aware of the risks entailed in loose coordination following the model of "leaderless resistance." Although effective during the uprisings, after the revolution it has not proved suitable for the struggle for democratic consensus.

Between the fall of Mubarak in February 2011 and the election of the new president in June 2012, Egypt was in the midst of a "troubled transition" (El Gandy 2012). It was a particularly testing period for the secular and progressive section, which constituted a crucial part of the revolutionary movement against Mubarak and subsequently found itself challenged by the military junta and the rising Muslim Brotherhood. After Mubarak resigned as president, a military junta assumed power under the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), whose Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi had been Mubarak's Minister of Defense. The SCAF soon came to be seen as a continuation of the old regime. Members of the junta repeatedly showed a reluctance to respect the timetable for the handover of power to a civilian authority. They were intent on maintaining control over the "deep state" of the army and public companies, beyond democratic scrutiny, in a way reminiscent of the army's role in Turkey in the 1980s and early 1990s. In response to the military's perceived "betrayal" of the revolution, after the spring of 2011 activists staged street demonstrations that often became all-out confrontations with the security forces (Noueihed and Warren 2012).

Besides the power of the military, activists also faced the increasing dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood, which in the month after the revolution slowly managed to conquer the different apparatuses of the state (Bradley 2012), including the presidency. During the fight against Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood had struck an alliance with secular and progressive forces, but with the fall of the president it pursued its own agenda, often siding with the military junta instead of with the protestors of Tahrir. With the victory of Mohammed Morsi in the presidential election and the "civil coup" of August 2012, through which the new president supplanted the military hierarchy, the Brotherhood has increasingly come to be perceived as the new power holder against which mobilizing efforts need to be concentrated.

Having to deal with these two organizational titans, the revolutionary movement, which since the 18-day revolution had followed a model of informal mobilization, using friendship and acquaintanceship networks as a key infrastructure, has found itself "between a rock and a hard place." The skepticism toward formal organizations and the neo-anarchist dogmatic refusal of representation and delegation have proved to be self-defeating in the new political landscape of post-Mubarak Egypt. Egyptian activists have become increasingly aware of these pitfalls and have started to engage in the construction of new formal organizations to represent the demands of the revolution and to coordinate the long-term fight for democracy and social justice. In this article, I reflect on the challenges faced by the revolutionary movement during the transitional phase. I argue that the movement has been affected by its profound organizational fragility. Although the imaginary of leaderless resistance that animated the movement at the start of the revolution was effective in speeding the destruction of the old system, it became an obstacle to the fulfillment of the constitutive tasks of revolution, the founding of the new institutions and organizations needed to fill the vacuum left by the old regime.

Revolution as Constitution

One reason the Arab Spring has resonated worldwide is that the avalanche of uprisings encompassing Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Lybia, Syria, and Bahrain has rescued from the dustbin of history the idea of "revolution" as the possibility of a rapid and profound change in the social and political structure. Using the force of street demonstrations as in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, or mass armed struggle as in Lybia, revolutionary movements in North Africa and the Middle East have managed to defeat deeply entrenched authoritarian regimes. These events have raised urgent questions about the nature and prospects of social movements in the Arab World and beyond. One key issue in discussions about social movements is the relationship between revolutions and political regimes, between "constituent power" and "constituted power" (Negri 1999).

To understand the process of postrevolutionary transition in Egypt after the 2011 uprisings, one must delve into the complex relationships between revolution and the political regime not just as a negative opposition aimed at the destruction of the old system, but also as the construction or better foundation of a new system in place of the old. It is useful at this level to refer to Charles Tilly's (1993) distinction between "revolutionary situations," determined by the level of fragmentation of state power, and "revolutionary outcomes," which define the degree to which revolutions produce a durable and extensive shift of state power. "Revolutionary situation s" take place only in states where ruling elites are highly discredited, the state is no longer capable of integrating large sections of the population within its own structures, and civil society is not able to channel social demands. State breakdown, as Goldstone (1991) has argued, is almost invariably the starting condition for the unfolding of a revolutionary movement. Revolutions take place not simply because activists call people to take to the streets, but also because the existing political system is undergoing such a crisis of legitimacy that vast sections of the populace begin to bet against the "devil you know." This was the situation of the Mubarak regime at the onset of the uprisings, given its difficulty in keeping alive a mix of state socialism and economic neoliberalism, and its resort to heavy police repression to quell the labor protests that had been intensifying since 2006.

Besides the way in which movements make use of revolutionary situations, to assess the impact of a revolution one must also take into account the nature of revolutionary outcomes, and specifically the degree of change in the country's power structure. Here the question of...

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