Advice for revolutionaries

Practically, my ability to keep up with the news has been disrupted by my probation: my half-days are spent breathlessly trying to rebuild my social, familial and professional life.

Psychologically, the idea of being an inactive observer of the revolutions in Algeria and Sudan, surrounded by the paralyzed Egyptian opposition, is not easy.

But I have closely followed the ongoing debate around whether we, as Egyptians, have any advice to offer the people of Algeria and Sudan. Unsolicited advice is generally more a form of nostalgia than a practical position: a longing for a time when we were active and influential.

Perhaps it would be best for us — and our comrades in Algeria and Sudan — to recognize this emotion, and to take advantage of it to ask questions about our recent past? Any insight gained through these conversations would likely be more useful to us as Egyptians, rather than general rules that can be applied to all times and places. We may not find answers, but it may be useful to examine our personal and collective narratives about our shared history, a history we failed to document, turning it into a space of contention with a regime determined to kill meaning to mask their inability to produce it.

We can begin, for example, with the usual advice of not leaving the square after the president resigns, which seems like natural, logical, and intuitive advice that shouldn’t need repeating. But have we reflected on this seriously? Would the path of the Egyptian revolution have changed had we stayed in Tahrir the day after February 11? Did we not return to protest over and over again afterwards? And every time the sit-ins would last longer and longer? I think this specific piece of advice is meaningless – a sit-in’s strength is bound up with its moment, and with very local contexts, that are impossible to judge from afar.

Another example: the question of negotiations after the president is ousted. Our advice is neither a revision nor a lesson learned: it’s nothing more than a re-iteration of a position we’ve fixated on since 2011. Mr. Amr al-Shobaki, for example, insists on advising the revolutionaries of Algeria and Sudan to cooperate with the reformist wing of the regime — even though this supposed wing has not once revealed itself in the history of the Egyptian Republic. Meanwhile the revolutionaries — as if they were speaking from experience — warn of the dangers of negotiations, even though we had almost no experience of them. They speak of treason, as if there is a categorical moral judgement on activists in circumstances we are not living — while ignoring the forced disappearance of the one youth leader in Egypt who, during the glorious early days of Tahrir, wanted to negotiate. We know nothing of his fate because the current regime considers him a hardened member of the opposition.  

Instead, it may be useful for us — and even more useful for them — to open a debate about things, like the importance of granting an absolute priority to personal freedoms and the dignity of the body. Or about the dangers of pre-packaged discourses inherited from old movements: nationalist sentiments, the hollow discourse of machismo, the labyrinthine details of specific demands, or strategies centered around sectors that once had weight (judiciary, labor, civil service) whose time has now passed.

Asking difficult questions that may not have clear answers may not seem urgent, but in Egypt our moment is not crucial; we can have the luxury of reflection.

What the Arab revolutions do share, for example, is the phenomenon of the Elder Statesman, who has helped manufacture dictatorship, attempting to position himself at the forefront of the revolutionary movement. Similarly, judges, ambassadors, senior bureaucrats — who never took an oppositional (or even reformist) stance until after the revolutions broke out — play complex and varied roles in shaping the future. They benefit from the revolution’s attempt to speak for itself, not to break from the past, but rather as a much-needed correction to the course of history, to guide the people towards an inevitable destiny.

Can we liberate the vocabulary of nationalism, patriotism and identity to build narratives that bind the struggles of the past with today’s movements? A narrative that we own and that does not own us; one which truly expresses our ambitions, our pain, and our dreams? Or has this vocabulary, this history, been so completely nationalized by school curricula, television screens, official broadcasts and the imaginations of state-sanctioned artists that whenever we invoke it we open the door to relics of the past, relics that seek both to ride the wave of revolution and steer it off its course.

It is likely that we will fail in coming up with definitive answers and advice, which may leave us confused. Perhaps confusion is useful. The belief in the greatness of our revolution, and in the sheer tragedy of our loss, is both understandable and noble. But they remain feelings of the past, not of the future.