The End of the “Leaderless” Revolution


More than 10 million people in Egypt mobilized against a clumsy autocrat. Yet, their mobilization ultimately led to a military-judiciary seizure of power, with the support of centrist politicians and clerics. Call this what you like: coup d’état, elegant coup, or people’s power. None of these labels change the nature of the intervention and its aftermath: popularly supported military rule, by more or less the same military-police-judicial-business elements who were in power during Mubarak’s reign and who had struck a (shaky and incomplete) coalition deal with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolts of the recent years sparked the imagination of many activists around the globe as “leaderless revolution”s. Yet, the strange amalgam of revolution, restoration, coup, democratization, and authoritarianism that persisted throughout the Egyptian process hints that different lessons need to be drawn from the Egyptian situation.

From a people’s campaign to the reassertion of elite rule

Tamarod, an unprecedented people’s campaign, collected millions of signatures and called for the downfall of president Morsi. Huge crowds gathered all around Egypt on June 30, 2013 in order to enforce the campaign’s call. According to estimates, around 15 million people took to the streets, making this the biggest rebellion in Egyptian history.

Ironically, the main mood among the protesters seemed to be pro-military. There were even groups that openly called for a military intervention. Among the protesters were not only pro-Mubarak civilians, but also thugs and Mubarak era security personnel who came to the square in their uniforms. Actually, during the month of June, it had become increasingly clear that the military intended to use the rebellion as an opportunity to intervene (and some politicians, who had previously made fierce statements against military rule, now welcomed the possibility in roundabout ways).

There were also other hegemonic forces bent on capitalizing on the protests and reinforcing their domination. For instance, Gulf intellectuals rejoiced in the troubles of the Brotherhood. They wanted a real Erdo?an as Egypt’s leader, not a “Taiwanese” version. They chose to ignore that their criticisms of Morsi (power-grabbing, centralization, authoritarianism, etc.) applied equally to their favorite Muslim leader. Regional hegemons thus suggested that the only way out of the Egyptian crisis could be another established path, rather than a truly revolutionary one.

There were calls for a general strike during the protests of June 30, alongside the louder calls for military involvement. In fact, the national situation that set the scene for Tamarod had a class dimension, though this was not articulated firmly as a part of its platform. Moreover, some groups in Tahrir (April 6, Strong Egypt Party, Revolutionary Socialists) openly protested against the military, not just the Brotherhood.
None of this, however, culminated in a roadmap that delineated the way out of the Brotherhood-military coalition (leaving the military and its new allies as the only actors capable of dictating the famous roadmap).

The uprising’s immediate result was the resignation of six ministers. Had a revolutionary political will crystallized in Egypt during the last two and a half years, it could have capitalized on this opening and declared an early victory; that is, it would have intervened before the Kornilovs of Egypt transformed it into their own victory.

When the military intervened, a few anti-coup speeches and slogans were drowned by the overall pro-military atmosphere in Tahrir. The unfounded optimism that anti-militarist forces would remain in the square until the military left did not change the main dynamics. Nobody mobilized Tahrir to fight their erstwhile torturers. Millions came back only in order to prevent the square from the Brothers.

Ultimately, July 2013 witnessed not only the removal of an unpopular president, but the making of a full-fledged dictatorial regime: A hasty crackdown rounded up hundreds of MB and non-MB Islamists. Many television channels were closed down. And most important of all, the military appointed an old regime judiciary figure to replace the president. The massacres that followed were the necessary ingredients that accompanied any military takeover.

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What will happen now? The Egyptian military is very likely to perpetrate neoliberalism, a pro-American foreign policy, and its time-tested authoritarianism. Many sectors of the left already expect nothing from the military; they need no conversion on this issue. But just like the Muslim Brotherhood quickly alienated millions of people in one year of rule, the “new” military regime (which has refurbished itself through appropriating a revolutionary uprising) will show its real face to those who have supported the coup with naïvely democratic expectations. The democratically backed authoritarian “new” regime the military is about to build is very likely to pave the road for a third revolutionary uprising. The left (including not only socialists, anarchists, communists and feminists, but also the left-liberals and left-wing Islamists) needs to use the intervening time to organize the inescapable dissatisfaction with military rule. It has to construct solid alternatives to military democracy and conservative-totalitarian democracy. Based on its experiences throughout the last three years, it should build the leadership, the institutions, and organs of popular power that can implement its alternative vision. In short, this time around, the left needs to be ready.

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The end of the leaderless revolution does not mean the end of the Egyptian revolutionary process. But it spells the end of the fallacy that the people can take power without an agenda, an alternative platform, an ideology, and leaders.

The leaderless revolution has turned out to be the wrong substitute for the status quo and revolutions that end up in a cult of the leader. What we need is perhaps leaderful rather than leaderless revolutions.

Cihan TugalPassive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism. 

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