A few years ago, what with the medium being the message, I put up facetious comment somewhere or other noting that, whether the webcam scenes of the square outside the palace were depicting a counter-revolution or a revolution, it was great that we could all see it happening in real time. That one was, I think, the Orange one. It rapidly became clear that the 'colour revolutions' had rather more to do with American soft (perhaps thixotropic is a better word here) power than many of their cheerleaders, including sometimes me, would have liked.
So, here's a brilliant review article by Hugh Roberts in the LRB, which points out that much of the Western interpretation, particularly of the Tamarrod, has been a case of seeing what people would like to see, rather than what's actually there.
Long before the uprisings of late 2010 and early 2011, it seemed to me that the extreme accumulation of power that characterised the Mubarak regime, at any rate during the last third of his reign, which I observed while living in Cairo from 2001, had at least one definite implication for the future: it couldn’t possibly be sustained after Mubarak’s departure, whether or not his son succeeded him. After he went there was bound to be a redistribution of power within the state away from the presidency, and the question would be how this redistribution was handled and to whose benefit.
Roberts' persuasive case is that quite a lot of what got reported as spontaneous popular fervour was either manipulated by Egypt's deep state, or was a result of autonomous forces moving into delimited chunks of political space which the military had purposely evacuated. July 2013 wasn't Eighteenth Brumaire but that's because Eighteenth Brumaire had already happened. Thermidor was October 2011 (laboured French references are mine, not Roberts').
A group of Copts determined to take part in public life as free citizens had organised a demonstration to protest against the demolition of a church in Aswan by Salafis acting with the complicity of the regional governor. Before all of the entirely peaceful marchers had arrived at the Maspero building, they were attacked by army units firing live ammunition. Twenty-eight demonstrators were killed, at least two deliberately run over by army vehicles, and 212 others, my daughter’s uncle among them, injured. The message was brutally clear: whatever the supposed ‘revolution’ had meant, the emancipation of the Copts was not part of it as far as the Scaf was concerned.
One key section looks at the choices facing the Brotherhood, and how they put their heads into the noose which SCAF fashioned for them:
Al-Shater was the Brothers’ leading political brain and about as plausible a candidate as they could field. Denied this option, they fell back on the chairman of the FJP, the lacklustre and distinctly implausible Mohamed Morsi. In putting up their ‘spare wheel’, as he was immediately termed, the Brothers missed an opportunity to solve their dilemma in another way: indignantly to condemn the disqualification of their candidate and campaign for a boycott of the election as rigged, so putting the Scaf and the judges it was manipulating on the defensive and delegitimising in advance whoever won. Instead they soldiered on, limping. Two weeks later, al-Nour endorsed Aboul Fotouh’s candidacy and the second part of the fix was in place. For the backward-looking and openly sectarian Salafis to endorse him may well have seemed to Aboul Fotouh the kiss of death, and who’s to say it wasn’t intended to be?
Roberts doesn't, though, explain why Morsi's weak government then proceeded to create a constitution which embedded Islam to such an extent that the liberal, socialist, and Coptic organisations would find it very difficult to mobilise for democracy against a second coup.
Nevertheless, Roberts is keen to stress that: 'We shouldn’t reduce 11 February 2011 to a coup. It wasn’t a revolution, but it wasn’t just a coup either.' Me, I think that Edward Luttwak needs to issue a new edition of Coup D'Etat: A Practical Handbook in order to reflect modern times and modern thinking. Nowadays, the electronic mass media allows the hands-off creation of mass movements, sometimes with the help of the Ford Foundation, but not always. Because these aren't insurrectionary parties in the classic sense (funnily enough, Luttwak mentions the Brotherhood as his example) they haven't got leaderships which, although vulnerable to decapitation, can formulate demands in a way that a flashmob can't.
A social movement might have made these slogans into demands by pressuring the government to take specific steps. But a movement that wants these desiderata provided by government and, at the same time, wants the government to clear off has a coherence problem. The only demand that mattered politically was ‘Mubarak, irhal!’ The army commanders captured the initiative by co-opting that demand to make it work for them. Almost certainly they did so because it had been their own undeclared objective for some time.
Read the whole thing: I think that it's got relevance far beyond Egypt.