Five Years of Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt

By Brecht De Smet

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. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt (2016, Pluto) 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.

With regard to Egypt I propose to conduct the study of the 25 January Revolution precisely from the perspective of the absence of transformation. Instead of the nonexistence of revolution this absence highlights the success of counter-revolution. In their struggle to change the status quo revolutionary actors do not face the ruling forces in the form of a passive and homogeneous obstacle that has to be surmounted, but as an ensemble of agents with a will, initiative, and agency of their own. Failed revolutions always presuppose successful counter-revolutions, and vice versa. In the case of Egypt, however, activists and scholars alike disagree about the forces, nature, and temporality of revolution and counter-revolution. This debate immediately began after the forced departure of Mubarak in February 2011, when some activists wanted to remain in Tahrir to put direct pressure on the unreliable ‘transitional government’ while others were content to leave the square, seeing the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) as temporary caretakers and feeling confident they could mobilize again if political and social reforms did not materialize. The 19 March 2011 constitutional referendum drew lines, for the first time, between ‘secularists’ and ‘Islamists’, in which Salafist and Muslim Brother activists found themselves in the same camp as the military and security apparatus. The run-off between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Morsi and former air force commander Ahmed Shafiq during the presidential elections of 2012 renewed the split of the revolutionary movement, with many voters feeling forced to choose between the lesser evils of an ‘Islamist opposition’ or the ‘secular régime’. Although the first months of Morsi’s presidency created expectations among a wide layer of revolutionary actors, his failure and unwillingness to confront and reform the power structures of the deep state and the economy led to a new, unsavory divide between Brotherhood loyalists and democratic legalists on the one hand, and radical revolutionaries, liberal secularists, and feloul – remnants of the old régime – on the other hand. Playing up historical suspicions and contemporary frustrations with the Brotherhood, elements of the deep state were able to infiltrate, organize, and influence the popular protest movement Tamarod (Rebel) that emerged in 2013 against the presidency. The anti-Brotherhood alliance between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary actors paved the way for a new coup backed by street protests, which reasserted the military’s control over the political institutions.

Morsi’s deposal has been framed by some scholars and activists as a missed opportunity of democratic transition. The underlying assumption is that Morsi’s presidency represented a real – albeit imperfect – step toward ‘democratic transition’ and that the coup against Egypt’s ‘first democratically elected president’ represented the victory of the counter-revolution. Some leftists have even chastised radical revolutionaries and socialists for their opposition against the Brotherhood presidency, claiming these forces wasted an opportunity for democratic reform in Egypt in their utopian and dogmatic quest for ‘permanent revolution’. As the massacre of Brotherhood sympathizers at Rabea al-Adawiya and elsewhere and the fascistic leadership of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared to spell the end of emancipatory politics ‘from below’, it is understandable that the brief episode of Morsi’s presidency evoked the feeling of a missed chance to build a real alternative. Yet this nostalgia for the lesser evil is dangerous, because it underestimates the counter-revolutionary character of Morsi’s presidency and it restricts the mass struggles in Egypt to a mere political, democratic revolution.

In order to understand the complexity of Egypt’s revolution and counter-revolution, transcend simple binaries and tease out the internal contradictions of the process it is useful to turn to Marx’s idea of permanent revolution and Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony and passive revolution. Marx’s concept of permanent revolution is based on the premise that every modern revolution has a social soul, a drive for social or human emancipation that pushes the struggle beyond the boundaries of a mere political reconfiguration of institutions and relations of power. This notion of permanent revolution evades the Skocpolian outcome-based binary typology of ‘political’ and ‘social’ revolutions as it draws our attention to revolution as an internal process of subject formation, the interpenetration of political and social protests, collective learning, and the prefiguration of new, emancipatory forms of living and interpersonal relations. In his assessment of the Paris Commune of 1871 Marx mused that in previous revolutions “the words went beyond the content; here the content goes beyond the words” (Marx 1979: 106). What people were doing (introducing socialism) was much more radical than what they were claiming to do (establishing a democratic republic). From this perspective the pivotal moment of the 25 January Revolution is not the short episode of the ‘first democratically elected president’, but the lived experience of Tahrir and the spontaneous democratic experiments in the popular neighborhood and workplace committees. Hence Tahrir should be remembered radically: not as a mere stepping stone to a top-down engineered ‘transition’ toward Western-style liberal democracy, but as a grassroots prefiguration of a free and solidary society, which, in turn, inspired a global wave of ‘square’ or ‘occupation’ movements.

Since 2011 the very idea of ‘democratic transition’ has played a nefarious role in demobilizing, dividing, deflecting, and destroying the revolutionary movement. It offered political and economic elites a means to channel recalcitrant popular will into representational structures and procedures that could be circumscribed and controlled. Thus the authoritarian dimension of counter-revolution – open and violent repression of revolutionary groups and movements and sexual intimidation of female activists –  was complemented with a ‘counter-revolution in democratic form’: elections, constitution-making, the cosmetic reform of state institutions, and so on. Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution addresses this continuous displacement of permanent revolution from the historical perspective of the ongoing constitution and reconstitution of capitalist structures, moving from the process of Italian unification, over the rise of Fascism to the transition of imperialism to Fordism. Ruling groups learn from revolutionary episodes and are often able to preempt radical change and overcome economic and hegemonic crises through gradual reforms that leave essential political and economic relations of power intact and through the absorption of opposition figures and groups in their project.

The discourse that since 2011 Egypt and, of course, Tunisia, have gone through a – botched? – democratic, political revolution merely re-inserted the nation in the liberal-utopian narrative of global democratization. Due to ‘persistent authoritarianism’ and ‘Islamic obscurantism’ the MENA region had escaped the ‘third wave of democratization’ (cf. Huntington 1991) that brought authoritarian régimes such as Portugal, Spain, Latin American dictatorships, and Eastern Bloc countries into the fold of bourgeois democracy. Through the ‘Arab Spring’ the MENA was either catching up to the third wave, or it constituted a fourth wave that could, perhaps, engulf other stubbornly authoritarian nations such as Iran, North Korea, and China. In the case of Egypt, the interpretation of ‘transition’ from the Mubarak dictatorship was immediately understood as a transition toward the finality of Western-style liberal democracy. Hence the dominant interpretation of the revolutionary process became determined by its normatively supposed end point, inducing an ideological blindness toward the ‘social soul’ of the uprisings. The orientalist, paternalist view that the MENA countries were still catching up to Western modernity rendered the idea unfathomable that the self-organization of the masses during these uprisings represented an embryonic society that was already moving beyond the restricted paradigm of bourgeois, representative democracy. The imaginary of Tahrir galvanized groups in Europe and the US, which not only asserted the geographical character of the ‘permanent revolution’ that was taken place, but also the ability of revolutionary masses in ‘backward’ nations to pose the most radical and advanced solutions to the problems of global capitalism.

Moreover, the notion that Egypt’s deep state can be transformed into a genuine bourgeois democracy without radically transforming the economic structure is fundamentally utopian because it abstracts from existing national, regional, and global relations of power. Ironically the ‘third wave of democratization’ of the 1970s and 1980s has gone hand in hand with a neoliberal restructuring of the global economy, which entailed a politically authoritarian project that reinforced the position of international capital against labor, and acted as a scaffold for US imperialism. In my book I turn to Gramsci’s concept of Caesarism as an analytical tool to understand the naked representational relation between state and capital. After a historically brief Fordist and developmentalist interlude neoliberal transformations are – gradually and unevenly – rendering the essence of the capitalist state as the dictatorship of capital explicit. Instead of expressing an eternal form of ‘praetorianism’ that stretches back to the Nasserist or even Mamluk era, the repressive régime of Sisi is very much in touch with its time. As much as the Egyptian revolution has been a source of inspiration for contemporary radical politics, the counter-revolutionary Egyptian state holds the mirror up to the core countries of the West, which can recognize their own policies in the peripheral, broken reflection of an authoritarian, debt-ridden, and unstable ensemble that is only able to fuel its hegemony negatively: by fear, coercion, and exclusion of the Other.

Brecht De Smet is a post-doctoral lecturer and researcher at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies, Ghent University and author of the recently published Gramsci on Tahrir: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt published by Pluto Press.


Huntington, S. 1991. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late 20th Century. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press.

Marx, K. 1979 [1852]. ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’. Marx-Engels Collected Works 11: 99–197.

Skocpol, T. 1979. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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