Of course the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood have also played their part in perpetuating false binaries; from the beginning they have viewed the revolution as a rolling opportunity for a private power-grab, never allowing that it could be a process of change for all Egyptians, never permitting the possibility that their exclusionary, often sectarian discourse could provoke a backlash. At its highest echelons, this is the movement that tried to silence those chanting against military rule in November 2011 and then, once democratically elected, used its time in power to harness the old Mubarak security apparatus to its own ends rather than destroying it. The movement that hammered through the most partisan, divisive constitution imaginable for a post-Mubarak nation and then arrested and tortured those activists daring to speak out against the retrograde, toxic path being trodden by Egypt’s new political elite.
Yes, Mohamed Morsi won power fairly through the ballot box, but democracy does not end in the polling booth. In an ongoing revolutionary moment, after watching the Brotherhood roll out the red carpet to every element of the old state whose foundations had been so dramatically shaken by popular unrest—from the army generals to the country’s corrupt neoliberal tycoons—millions of Egyptians took to the streets once again and withdrew their consent to be governed. Emboldened and protected by Morsi’s multiple concessions to them, the security forces saw their chance to turn the tables not just on the Brotherhood, but on the very notion of there being any alternative to elite politics, any alternative to the omnipotence of brutal state power. And so a new narrative—of patriotic soldiers versus jihadi terrorists—took shape, and so much has withered in its wake.
In this arena of guns and certainties, the revolution’s other fault lines fade to darkness. We can no longer hear the voices of residents of Ramlet Bulaq—a poor settlement without running water in the shadow of corporate behemoth Nile City Towers. Here residents, denied access to the infrastructure riches all around them, are resisting forced eviction aimed at clearing the way for further high-end construction—part of an elite urban development strategy pursued by the old regime, continued by the Brotherhood, and defended by the junta that reigns today.
We can no longer hear the chants of collective hope floating up from Qursaya, an island in the Nile likewise earmarked for luxury property-building, where the local farmers and fishermen have twice fought off deadly invasions by the armed forces—once under Mubarak and once under Morsi.
We can longer hear the inspiring discussions of workers at a ceramics plant on the Suez Canal who, tired of their terrible working conditions and all of management’s broken promises, besieged their politically-connected boss in his car before my own eyes and began talking excitedly about what it would be like to run the factory themselves.
We can no longer hear the proclamations of villages like Tahsin, in the Nile Delta governorate of Daqhalia, which has declared independence in protest of the rural poverty entrenched by Mubarak’s old ruling party and the Brotherhood alike, the village where a farmer told me last year: “We’re no longer hoping that things will get better while we sleep; now we make our hopes real in the daytime.”
Nearly all of the individuals in these communities had joined the protests against Mubarak, voted optimistically for Morsi, and then joined the massive mobilization against him a year later when they saw their revolution being hijacked and betrayed. Their struggles—often dismissively labelled as “parochial” by Egyptian elites—and the feeling of ground-level empowerment and agency which enabled them, are the revolution. And in a binary Egypt whose existential future depends on an all-powerful security apparatus being strong enough to defeat a relentless wave of terrorists, no one can hear them roar.
In such an Egypt, it seems absurdly idealistic to believe that any note of revolutionary dissent might break through. But before 2011, when Mubarak was still the darling of the West and former finance minister Youssef Boutros Ghali—asked at a dinner party whether he was worried Egyptians might revolt against a new tax law that concentrated even more wealth in the hands of the most privileged—could reply with a chuckle, “Don’t worry. This is Egypt ... We’ve taught the Egyptians to accept anything,” it seemed absurdly idealistic to believe that a revolution might erupt at all; a few months later, Egypt changed the world. In February 2011 when Mubarak, in response to unprecedented protests, was removed by the generals and the latter were riding a wave of patriotic populism, it seemed absurdly idealistic to believe that a movement opposing the incarceration of civilians by the military and calling for an end to junta rule would amount to anything; by November, a new uprising had shaken the armed forces to its core.
Egyptians, as the past two and a half years have shown, are liable to take to the streets and provoke a crisis for whatever elite settlement is being foisted upon them. Right now, amid an almost fascistic excess of hyper-jingoism, the prospects seem dim for a revolutionary struggle against authoritarianism, one which rejects false binaries and articulates the slogans of the currently tiny Third Square movement—“no Mubarak, no Morsi, no SCAF.” But absurd idealism, not just in Egypt but in cities across the globe that have been at least partly inspired by Egypt’s turmoil, from Rio to Athens to Istanbul, has astounded us all in recent years. Those hoping that the people have lost their voice should not rest easy in their beds.
In reading some of the moving, melancholic words written by Egyptian friends in the past few days as they reflect on what’s happening to their country and mourn the murder of so many, one common theme struck me: the pain at feeling like something ineffable was being robbed from within them. Activist Motaz Attalla once spoke beautifully of Tahrir enabling people to taste a different language, to taste possibility; I think that’s what Yasmin el-Rifae is referring to when she writes of how the revolution dislodged her cynicism—and how the current “flaunting of our cruelty as a source of pride” has summoned it back. Likewise, Omar Robert Hamilton recalls how transformative it was, that “belief we all shared, for a moment, in each other.” He goes on: “In an eternity of disappointment and greed and malice that moment, that moment in which being human was finally worth something, in which having a community was preferable to being alone with a book, had a value that will never be lost.”
They are right to acknowledge how much has been shattered and stolen by this bloodshed, and right as well to believe that this is not the end: Whatever has been robbed can be taken back. For now, those fighting for a better Egypt in Ramlet Bulaq, in Qursaya, in Suez, and in a thousand other communities across the country may have been quietened, but they will not remain silent forever. And when they do speak out, they’ll find that this regime has nothing but bullets and binaries with which to answer them. That won’t be enough, and so the revolution will continue. As the sheikh of Tahsin told me, “I will not live as a third-rate citizen any more. I have withdrawn my acceptance of the status quo. This is the fruit of Jan. 25, and there’s no turning back.”