There have only been two world revolutions. One took place in 1848, the second took place in 1968. Both were historic failures. Both transformed the world. The fact that both were unplanned, and therefore in a profound sense spontaneous, explains both facts — the fact that they failed, and the fact that they transformed the world.
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These are gloomy days for Egypt. As the old regime stages its bloody counter-revolution, the insurrectionary enthusiasm that once animated the multitude at Tahrir is increasingly giving way to polarization, cynicism and despair. “Everything was possible,” Omar Robert Hamilton of the Mosireen collective grieves in a sorrowful piece for Mada Masr, reflecting back upon the hopeful days when Mubarak had just been overthrown and Egypt’s young and brave revolutionaries set out to build a new country. The field had opened up. A multiplicity of futures came tumbling in. Imagination was in power.
But the spirit of leaderless revolt that toppled the dictator from below is now being suffocated from above. The broad-based popular coalition that overthrew Mubarak has fallen apart. The Muslim Brotherhood betrayed the revolution only to bite off more state power than it could chew. The liberals burnt the scant remnants of revolutionary credibility they had left by immediately jumping on the bandwagon of the army’s thoroughly illiberal aspirations. The revolutionary youth that animated the struggle in the streets finds itself marginalized anew. Everything was possible. The field was open. But the skies came crashing down and the doors to another Egypt were brutally slammed shut.
What is clear is that the constituted powers — the military and remnants (feloul) of Mubarak’s old regime — are not just staging a comeback; they are violently reaffirming the fact that they never really left. The most terrifying novelty, perhaps, is that the level of popular support for the army now appears to be greater than ever. It’s like the revolution of 2011 is running in reverse: in a blatant display of his arrogant self-confidence, al-Sisi is lavishly distributing positions of power to his fellow Generals; the Interior Ministry is reclaiming its control of the streets; security forces execute civilians with impunity; the state of emergency has been re-declared; Mubarak has been released from prison; and Tahrir Square — spiritual home of the 2011 world revolution — has been reduced to a showcase of flag-waving pro-military jingoism.
What went wrong? How could events suddenly take such a dramatic turn for the worse? Who is to blame? And what is to be done? Unfortunately these critical questions are barely being addressed in the media, and insofar as they are, the line of analysis often reproduces the same simplistic binary narrative promoted by the army and the Muslim Brotherhood themselves. Somehow, it has simply become impossible to insist on nuance and reflection: criticize the Muslim Brotherhood for its betrayal of the revolution and you are accused of supporting the “military coup”; criticize the army for its brutal massacre of hundreds of civilians and you are accused of supporting the “terrorists”. What can we do?
Pledging Fidelity to the Revolutionary Event
Clearly we must begin by pledging our unwavering fidelity to the revolutionary event of 2011; the event that stirred the still waters of the collective imagination, overthrew the people’s fear, upended their submission to authority, inspired the world, and opened the field of possibility for the radical emancipatory aspirations of the multitude to come bursting in. On a practical level, this means staying true not only to the revolution’s demands for “bread, freedom and social justice”, or its ultimate objective of bringing about the “fall of the system”, but also to its fundamental organizational form as a leaderless multiplicity of social forces that vies not for state power but for human dignity and meaningful self-determination. Such a statement of fidelity to the event may seem self-evident to some and meaningless to others, but its urgency becomes immediately apparent once we contrast it to the naked opportunism of the warring factions.
In the binary narrative that animates the official discourse on Egypt, legitimacy is always derived from some transcendental notion of sovereignty. For the opponents of the military coup, the legitimacy of Morsi’s government resided in the letter of the law and the fact that he had been freely elected within the framework of the new democratic constitution. For the proponents of the army takeover, the legitimacy of al-Sisi’s military government resides in the fact that it was “restoring democracy” – as John Kerry so unfortunately put it — by ousting a political force that was “insufficiently inclusionary” and, in the final analysis, fundamentally undemocratic. Paradoxically, both sides thus lay claim to a source of legitimacy that somehow seems to have been imposed from the outside: by the internally contradictory liberal ideology of US empire. No wonder, then, that both sides now claim to have been “betrayed” by the Obama administration, which first used its hypocritical liberalism to justify Mubarak’s rule, then used it to justify Morsi’s rule, and now uses it to justify military rule, continuing to support it to the tune of $1.3bn in military aid per year. Whatever happens, Uncle Sam always sides with Egypt’s rulers; never with the ruled.
To this transcendental notion of sovereignty and this hypocritical liberal attachment to constitutional legitimacy we urgently need to contrast the radical immanence of the revolution itself. The uprising that toppled Mubarak was spontaneous in the best sense of the word: not in the sense that it struck out of a blue sky, but in the sense that it defied any form of centralized leadership or representation. The revolution was legitimate not because it appealed to some transcendental notion of sovereignty, but precisely because it legitimated itself. Moreover, the desire for dignity, freedom and social justice expressed in the revolt did not allow itself to be reduced to a simple demand for free and fair elections. The aim was to bring down not just Mubarak but the entire system of authoritarian neoliberal rule. Needless to say, no pre-constituted authority — neither the Brotherhood nor the army — can legitimately claim to represent such a quintessentially anti-authoritarian struggle. No leader can claim to speak on behalf of a leaderless revolt. The revolution can only ever speak for itself, and today it continues to speak to us as the resonant echo of the event.
Tahrir’s Vision of Total Liberation
This is why we need to take a firm stance against those who — perhaps understandably but nevertheless wrongly — claim that the “defeat” of the revolution at the hands the army is a direct result of the revolutionaries’ failure (or refusal) to designate an effective leadership, organize into a party, or conjure up a pragmatic political program — in other words, the revolutionaries’ “disdain for high politics” and their insistence on radical autonomy from party, state and vanguard. In a scorning piece for the London Review of Books, for instance, Adam Shatz compares the revolution to “a 1960s happening, a meeting of different, often bickering forces that shared the stage only to go their own way after Mubarak’s overthrow.” For Shatz, “Egypt’s revolutionaries mistook their belief in the revolution for the existence of a revolution.”
The only way to counter such nihilistic cynicism and avoid its vanguardist temptations would be to immediately counterpoise to the objective hopelessness of the present situation our firm commitment to the “Truth” of Tahrir. As Alain Badiou has pointed out, the January 25 uprising was probably one of the purest revolutionary events since the Paris Commune, precisely because it rejected leadership in favor of “movement communism”, where communism refers not to ideological or programmatic content but to the movement’s organizational structure of unconditional equality. There was no party to rally the multitude into Tahrir, no vanguard instructing it to storm the Presidential Palace, no leadership to weaken its demands or cut a deal with the ruling elite. Of course there were those who contented themselves with the ouster of Mubarak and the institution of nominally “free and fair” elections, but at its very core the revolutionary demand for the fall of the system was infinitely more radical in nature. At Tahrir, one could already begin to discern the contours of a kind of absolute democracy; an echo from the future — a vision of total liberation.
This is why Shatz’s cynicism about the existence of the revolution wholly misses the mark. Whether or not the structures of domination will be dismantled is ultimately a question of the revolution’s outcome, not of its existence. What matters now is that a political “field of possibility” was opened up in which countless Egyptians firmly committed themselves to a process of radical emancipation. Omar Hamilton is therefore right to shoot back that “the existence of the revolution should not be confused with the existence of a political leadership.” Fidelity to the event and to the leaderless spirit of revolt means recognizing that its radical potential resides not in copying the defunct party-form of Western liberal democracy, but in overturning this reliance on representation in favor of a long-term commitment to a politics of resistance; a politics that aims to vigorously defend the field of possibility from the repressive motions of the state. In Hamilton’s words: “the revolution is dead when we say it’s dead. The revolution is dead when we will no longer die for it.”
Whether it’s the people of Port Saïd chasing the police out of the streets and declaring their independence from Egypt, the steel workers of Suez or textile workers of Mahalla going on a wildcat strike to force their employers into major concessions, or the independent Mosireen collective continuing to report on the revolution from their own autonomous space in downtown Cairo, the politics of resistance fundamentally revolves around the realization that the demands of the revolution simply cannot be met in the narrow parliamentary space afforded by US empire, global capital and the army, and therefore must begin from an “interstitial distance within and against the state.” As Badiou puts it, it is time to replace Mao’s despairing dictum during the Cultural Revolution to “get involved in the affairs of the state!” with a new motto of radical autonomy: “You decide what the state must do and find the means of forcing it to, while always keeping your distance from the state and without ever submitting your convictions to its authority, or responding to its summons, especially electoral ones.”
Trusting in the Constituent Power of the Multitude
Pledging allegiance to the event and Tahrir’s vision of unconditional equality and absolute democracy is far from an act of romanticism. At rock bottom, it is a recognition of the fact that the revolution is by its very definition a process; that the field of possibility opened by the event must be constantly defended from the counter-revolutionary forces that continuously try to close that space and contain the radical potential it exhibits. In other words, committing to the event involves a realization that the struggle for freedom, dignity and social justice will be endless or it won’t be at all. As Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation put it, and as I have elaborated elsewhere in more detail, “the struggle is like a circle: you can start anywhere but it never ends.”
Committing oneself to such an endless struggle — or what Simon Critchley has called an “infinite demand” — requires a major leap of faith. This cannot be a dogmatic faith in some transcendent religious being or political Master, nor a naïve faith in a representational figure who will somehow march ahead to realize the aims of the revolution on everyone else’s behalf. Rather, it must be a self-reflexive faith in the constituent power and revolutionary potential of the multitude as such. “The paradigm of constituent power,” Toni Negri writes in his Insurgencies, “is that of a force that bursts apart, breaks, interrupts, unhinges any preexisting equilibrium and any possible continuity.” As such, “constituent power is tied to the notion of democracy as absolute power.” In his introduction to the same book, Michael Hardt outlines the unresolvable conflict that inevitably arises from the fundamental tensions between the creative and constituent power of the multitude and the fixed or “constituted” power of formal constitutions and centralized authority:
Whereas constituent power opens each revolutionary process, throwing open the doors to the forces of change and the myriad desires of the multitude, constituted power closes down the revolution and brings it back to order. In each of the modern revolutions, the State rose up in opposition to the democratic and revolutionary forces and imposed a return to a constituted order, a new Thermidor, which either recuperated or repressed the constituent impulses. The conflict between active constituent power and reactive constituted power is what characterizes these revolutionary experiences. After the defeat of each revolution, constituent desires disappeared but did not die. They burrowed underground in wait for a new time and a new place to spring forth again in revolution.
Egypt’s Counter-Revolutionary Thermidor
Once we follow this understanding of revolution as a historical process in which the constituent power of the multitude clashes with the constituted power of the state, we must also become firmly critical of those analyses that — like a recent Reuters report — claim that Egypt is “lurching into anarchy”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Egypt’s only mass experiment with anarchy — in its Greek meaning as the “absence of rulers” — was infinitely more peaceful, democratic and egalitarian than the rabid violence of the resurgent police state. During the 2011 uprising, Tahrir Square effectively transformed itself into what anarchist thinker Hakim Bey famously called a “temporary autonomous zone”; an anarchic space of decentralized self-organization that exhibited a germ of radical potential for all the world to see. The counter-revolutionary violence unleashed by the authoritarian state, by contrast, is diametrically opposed to the anarchic solidarity of Tahrir and the absolute democracy of the multitude.
In reality, the apparent chaos and sectarian violence of the past week are the very negation of the much-feared “descent into anarchy”. The mutual bloodshed has been carefully choreographed by the oppressive security apparatus to close down the field of anarchic possibility that had been pried open by the revolution. In this sense, even if the mass mobilization of June 30 hinted at a renewal of the multitude’s constituent impulse, Morsi’s overthrow on July 3 marked the beginning of the army’s Thermidorian reaction: a violent act of constituted closure. Al-Sisi’s government now seems hell-bent on provoking a vicious cycle of retributory violence from the Islamists precisely to legitimate its own absolute rule. In a word, the army is terrorizing the Brotherhood to create the terrorists it claims to be cracking down on, if only to convince the rest of the population of its continued raison d’être as a bulwark against religious fundamentalism. By willfully radicalizing a generation of Islamists, the authoritarian state is creating the preconditions for its own survival.
But while the bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has been the pivot of al-Sisi’s counter-revolutionary strategy, his real intention is to smash the multitude into pieces by making the official representatives of its various factions (Islamists, Salafis, liberals, Christians) destroy each other — and themselves — in their myopic competition for state power. It is exactly by co-opting the leadership of the various parties and pitching them against one another that the army has been able to retain its control over the state. As long as the Generals hold the keys to government, whether explicitly or implicitly, every party leader interested in taking power will have to kiss their feet and guarantee the survival of their economic and political privileges. In such a context, participating in elections and vying for state power would not only imply a definite betrayal of the revolution’s demands for the fall of the system, but would also be the revolutionaries’ surest path to political self-destruction.
To see what happens to popular movements once they begin to aspire to state power, look no further than the Muslim Brotherhood. As the SCAF reluctantly organized elections, the short-sighted and power-hungry MB leadership allowed itself to be seduced into a Faustian pact with the army. Within a year, it had choked on its own ambitions. As the New York Times reported, “hard-liners with the military and intelligence services who always despised the Muslim Brotherhood saw that the group’s experiment in power might have left it more vulnerable than at any time in its eight decades underground.” This emboldened al-Sisi in his decision to ride a wave of popular discontent and remove Morsi from power, opening up the state to the opposition and seducing the eternally hypocritical liberal elite into betraying their poorly feigned democratic sensibilities by jumping right into the Generals’ arms. The army has similarly co-opted the young Tamarod leadership that initially called for the mass mobilization of June 30, and in the future it will undoubtedly try to do the same to anyone else aspiring to vainly represent the multitude’s constituent impulse.
Can the Side Without Guns Ever Win?
The conclusion is clear: only an endless and leaderless struggle exhibiting a spirit of absolute democracy and uncompromising fidelity to the revolutionary event of 2011 can possibly resist these formidable powers of military co-optation. Only the decentralized swarms and constituent power of the multitude can survive a relentless crackdown at the hands of the hierarchical authoritarian state. For this reason we must strongly refute the false prophets of the American and European left who continue to urge Egypt’s revolutionaries to somehow develop a formal leadership structure and organize themselves into a party so they can stand for elections and begin their long march through the institutions in order to gradually push back the army and create the preconditions for a functioning liberal democracy. Such well-intended reformist exhortations may be intuitively understandable, but they are ultimately futile in practice.
Today, more than ever, it is clear that only the power of the streets can beat back the army (or any other form of illegitimate authority that aims to exercise its rule over the Egyptian people). Only the swarm tactics of the networked multitude stand a chance of breaking down the hierarchical chains of command that sustain the Generals’ grip on society. As Hardt and Negri put it in Multitude, “for a centralized power, trying to push back a network is like trying to beat back a rising flood with a stick.” Of course, this is not to say that the revolutionaries will necessarily prevail. Successfully withstanding co-optation and repression is one thing; securing victory is a different matter altogether. One can survive a bloody massacre and remain exquisitely pure in one’s revolutionary ambitions only to be roundly defeated at the hands of a much more powerful enemy.
And so, as Omar Hamilton reminds us, the revolutionaries must now confront a terrifying question: can the side without guns ever win? At this point, it certainly doesn’t look like it: as far as the eye can see, al-Sisi’s counter-revolutionary advances appear to be unstoppable. But while we must recognize the formidable firepower of the military and police, as well as the widespread support they seem to command from the general population, it’s crucial not to overestimate the stability of the present regime. Over the past two-and-a-half years, the military command has been forced — by the revolutionary stirrings of the multitude alone — to maneuver itself into the most inconvenient positions imaginable: from sacrificing one of their own (Mubarak) to blundering their way into direct rule (under the SCAF); and from entering into a marriage of convenience with their previous nemesis (Morsi) to engaging in a blatantly unconstitutional military intervention just one year after presiding over the country’s first “free and fair” elections and the drafting of its first “democratic” constitution.
The bottom-line is that the army never chose any of this. Ever since 2011 it has — in one way or another — been continuously on the run. To be sure, it has responded to the revolutionary fervor of the masses with a cunning mix of pro-revolutionary rhetoric and counter-revolutionary repression, but the survival of its rule can by no means be guaranteed. If the events of the past two-and-a-half years have taught us anything, it’s that the winds of change can turn rapidly in a context of constant crisis, especially when the new social protagonists are willing to put their lives on the line to defend their revolution. Moreover, despite receiving billions of dollars in official assistance from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, the Egyptian economy remains gripped by a devastating debt crisis and massively depleted currency reserves. If the Generals fail to restore calm on the markets and in the streets, the rapid advances of the counter-revolution may yet bounce back at them with revolutionary vengeance.
After all, as our Egyptian friends continue to remind us today, even if the struggle has been violently forced out of the streets; even if the army has successfully co-opted those who claimed to represent the Truth of Tahrir; even if the various factions of the multitude are turning on each other (and on themselves) to satisfy their insatiable lust for power; even if the field of possibility is closing in on itself and the doors to another Egypt are being brutally slammed shut by al-Sisi and his minions — the revolution will continue to live as long there are revolutionaries willing to die for it.