In this piece originally published in the Review of African Political Economy, Brecht de Smet, author of Gramsci on Tahrir, considers the absence of transformation in the five years that have followed the ‘Arab Spring’ in Egypt.
Five years after the Egyptian 25 January uprising and the subsequent ‘18 Days’ of protest that shook the world the outcome of the revolutionary process is bleak. After the almost fascistic fever of anti-Brotherhood mass mobilizations in 2013, orchestrated by the ‘deep state’, the once vibrant politics ‘from below’ appear to have given way to the apathy and cynicism that characterized the Mubarak era. Opposition parties and revolutionary movements have largely been neutralized, either by vicious repression and calculated cooptation, or they have simply collapsed under the weight of internal political contradictions and personal strife.
As the structures of the deep state and the economy emerged relatively unscathed from their confrontation with mass popular movements, scholars came to reject the labeling of the events that took place since 2011 as a ‘revolution’. This interpretation was rooted in Theda Skocpol’s comparative methodology which “highlights successful change as a basic defining feature” of revolution (1979: 4). Such a ‘consequentialist’ approach is informed by a historian’s desire to compare and judge past events on the basis of the same, objective measure: their outcome. This means that a process can only be defined as a revolution post factum, when it has run its historical course. In Gramsci on Tahrir I criticize this ‘distant’ outlook from the perspective of revolutionary activists who do not have the luxury to wait out the process but find themselves in the midst of it, in want of a concept of their political practice that allows them to actively determine the outcome of the struggle. When protesters on Tahrir claimed that they were ‘making a revolution’, they did not claim to have transformed Egypt’s state and society structures: they demonstrated their developing desire, intent, and will to change the status quo. The study of revolution cannot satisfy itself with an investigation of the structures that are the outcome of mass struggle, it also needs to comprehend the construction of collective subjects and wills that aim to produce these structures and the absence of change in the face of a revolutionary mass movement. Continue reading