The Counter Paradise
Youssef Rakha - 03/06/2011
… and from the factories go the heavenly proletarians
awkwardly under their arms they carry their wings like violins
Zbigniew Herbert, “Report from Paradise”
It took blood for paradise to happen. It happened very fitfully and incompletely, paradise. It lasted no longer than three weeks within a cordoned off area around the busiest traffic circle in all of Cairo, including the circle itself. It happened spontaneously and uncertainly, like a dream or a transparent sheet of glass. It was very brittle, I mean. But it happened. By the end of 28 January, while millions of people were recovering from tear gas, I was convinced that God had appeared in Cairo. He was to leave again within the space of a month.
It has been six weeks since I returned from France. By coincidence, my month-long stay there was to start after the “end” of the Egyptian revolution on 11 February. I left on 8 March, still charged. I returned on 9 April to a Cairo just as complacent as the Cairo I had known before the revolution “started” on 25 January. I still believe very strongly in what happened during those three weeks (25 Jan-11 Feb); I would have liked it to keep happening or happen to the end. Now that it is over, my intellect tells me it is wrong to think of something so clearly bracketed in time and so limited in social impact as a revolution. That is why “start” and “end” are placed in quotation marks. Something has to be.
One question that had dogged me since 2005 at least, notwithstanding what nominally democratic practises were being introduced under pressure from the West, was how far the corruption and incompetence of the regime had permeated society.
This spring I ended up missing what many take to be the defining moment in the aftermath of the revolution (and I to be its defeat): the referendum on constitutional amendments proposed by the Higher Military Council, in charge since Mubarak stepped down, and supported by the forces of political Islam as well as conservatives everywhere. Those who had participated in the revolution and those who saw it as a chance for true change were against the constitutional amendments. By speeding up parliamentary elections and still granting the president too much power, the amended constitution would work towards maintaining the duopoly on politics of non-ideological, business-crazed dictatorship on the one hand and Islamic fundamentalism on the other; hence the ironic alliance between Islamists, National Democratic Party (NDP) politicians and a Council at best eager to eliminate uncertainty, at worst working systematically to re-establish the political status quo as fast as possible – a Council whose role as a surrogate for the regime many refused to see.
The referendum was held on 19 March; I remember weeping quietly in my room overlooking the Chateau de la Napoule on the Azure Coast after finding out that the overwhelming majority had voted yes.
In the period after Mubarak stepped down (11 Feb-19 Mar), there was much talk of the counterrevolution. That discourse is less pervasive now, but for a while it defined the way the revolution saw itself and its hard-won triumph (over 800 dead and nearly 6,500 injured,): the long-term fight against clandestine efforts to undermine the achievements of the protesters or reverse the results of the protests.
No doubt this had been going on since the outbreak of the revolution; no doubt it had instantly identifiable agents in the security apparatus, the upper echelons of the business sector, the government and the NDP. The army, led by the Council and (until he handed over authority to it) the President of the Republic, was said to stand apart: a dispassionate observer and keeper of the peace, and eventually also, with a little self-delusion on the part of the protesters, a wielder of power on behalf of the revolution.
However, while counterrevolution as described did happen, there was a different, far deeper and more widespread reactionary current underway – part of which, mad as this sounds, emanated from within the revolution itself: Islamist and (to a lesser extent) socialist-nationalist-Nasserist ideological strains, while automatically pandering to the status quo of which they had been a repressed or a marginal part, upheld exactly the totalitarian, sectarian and patriarchal values that the protests, instigated by young liberals keen on human rights and democratic process, seemed to be rising up against in the first place.
After the disappearance of the police on 28 January, when the protesters took over Tahrir Square, apart from the bumbling brutality of an ancient, decadent and phenomenally smug regime taken by surprise, little could unify the revolution beyond the common objective that the president should step down – something that was further complicated by the absence of leadership – and once the president did step down, handing over his powers to the army, the vast majority of the protesters were willing to let the army take charge. What more or less cosmetic change happened after 11 February, happened through the Council responding to daytime Friday demonstrations that have never since turned into a round-the-clock strike like the one constituting “the revolution”.
For the longest time I had not even asked myself what it was that the revolution wanted: bringing down the regime, as in the main slogan, seemed self-explanatory; and I wilfully forgot much of what I had thought (and written) prior to 25 January: that the regime's most horrendous crime was the way it had managed to graft itself onto society, turn society not only into its arena but, more disastrously, its mirror image, with all the patriarchally rooted structures of nepotism, greed, ignorance, identity bias, policing, disorganisation and impunity replicated again and again from the top down.
The reason I forgot to ask myself what the revolution was about, and the reason it seemed like paradise, was the fact that these structures ceased to function. They were in suspension, and the greater cause made it seem as if they (like the president, like his deputy, like the new prime minister he appointed) could really disappear overnight.
On my return from France the most painful disillusionment had to do with this fact: what the regime stood for, what the revolution was against – notwithstanding either the increasingly imaginary counterrevolution of revolutionary discourse or the increasingly in-your-face counterrevolution of the Higher Military Council, the Islamists (who had played an indispensable role in the revolution itself), and the many and various patriarchally inclined quarters of the Egyptian constituency as a whole – it was all still there, on the streets and at work, in government offices, in the way people drove, in what people said about what was going on. Bribery, stupidity, conspiracy theory were as active as they had ever been – and with sectarian clashes at the time of writing, it is not clear that they are going anywhere. Paradise had broken – glass everywhere!
In a strange sort of way, the counterrevolution now seems to me to have been contained in the revolution itself. The more I think about this the more mind-boggling it gets, but maybe what it means is simply that, rather than an outside force toppling the regime and all that it stood for, what actually happened was an implosion within that regime, a necessary climax of dysfunction allowing society to adjust – or readjust. There will be time for that. I am not optimistic. I am simply grateful that I lived to see paradise.