January 25th: from a revolution, to a conspiracy, to a forbidden call

Five years on from the historic events of Tahrir Square, writer and psychiatrist Basma Abdel Aziz reflects on the many names of the Egyptian revolution, and her hopes for the future.

Translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette.

On the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, many of those who were at its vanguard are absent from the political arena. They are absent from their homes, workplaces, and universities, and even from their schools – because the walls of prison hold young students as well. We know that the revolution will only have succeeded when those who began it arrive in the halls of governance and take over the country’s affairs; we also know that when revolutionary movements fail, all too often their heroes are cast into the darkness of prison, or even lose their lives.

The current situation in Egypt is cause for great concern. Those responsible for the revolution face every manner of persecution, while the military establishment maintains a tight grip on power, as it has for over five decades, since 1952. In 2011 the revolution arose in protest against the police system’s constant violations, but today police brutality is on the rise, as are cases of forced disappearance and torture. Against this backdrop, the state is preparing to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution.

The media loyal to the regime attempts to promote the idea of an archenemy, embodied, of course, by the Muslim Brotherhood. Hardly a day goes by without a news piece being published about its members being arrested and charged with ‘plotting’ or ‘inciting’ a protest. Yet, in reality, most members of the Muslim Brotherhood sit in prisons and detention centers. There are no longer enough cells to hold the detainees crowded in there without trial; work is in full swing on the construction of new prisons, in readiness for even more citizens.

The media has completely ignored that there are citizens in the ranks of the opposition who do not belong to religious groups. Day after day, it stresses that whoever disagrees with the current system of rule is necessarily an enemy, who must be dispensed with. It insists that anyone who calls for protest – whether a vigil, demonstration, sit-in, or even silently raising a banner – is a threat which must be eliminated.

Looking back at the revolutionary movement which began on 25 January 2011, we see that it has stumbled on its path. This can be encapsulated in three terms, which have been used successively to describe the movement over the past five years.

The first is revolution, a word present from the start. Some people have held on to this term, mostly young men and women still committed to achieving the slogans they once chanted: bread, freedom, social justice. Slogans which at this point – deeply regrettably – are no more than unrealized hopes.

The second term is conspiracy, one which appeared shortly after revolutionary mobilization began and then gradually spread, gaining a strong foothold over the past two years. It was adopted by a section of the public plagued with frustration and fears about transfer of power during a difficult year in which the Muslim Brotherhood ruled the country. People who supported the continuation of military rule insisted on this term; these included – quite unfortunately – certain leftists and intellectuals, as well as those who had belonged to former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime. They wanted to reproduce the past by all means possible, and tirelessly defended it, forgetting – or ignoring – how staggeringly corrupt, ineffectual and authoritarian it had been.

The third term is forbidden call, one which emerged no more than a few weeks ago. It was first used by certain religious figures working with the state – not about the January 25th revolution itself, but to describe calls to go out and protest on the anniversary of the revolution. The term appeared in fatwas issued by the Sheikh of al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments, both official institutions, and was circulated widely in newspapers. Not only did al-Azhar officials forbid protests, they also gave the revolution a legal dimension; some stated that joining demonstrations in January of this year, 2016, would definitively be ‘a crime’.

We know, of course, that history is defined by the victors, and that the defeated are subjected to those definitions. Yet these three terms, revolution, conspiracy and forbidden call, are all in use simultaneously, without any one of them displacing or dispelling the others. This indicates that none of the camps behind these three narratives has achieved a complete victory, and that the fate of Egypt’s revolutionary mobilization has still not been decided. Some people following events in Egypt may view the country’s return to military rule as evidence that hopes of democracy and civil society have been thoroughly defeated, but I believe we should not surrender to this view so easily. Many Egyptians who supported Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Minister of Defense, when he ran for and became president after the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule ended now think differently. They have reconsidered their views given deteriorating economic conditions and the security services’ widespread abuses, which are now at a level far surpassing the worst periods of political tyranny in the middle of the last century. Former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi lost popularity rapidly in 2013, before he had completed a full year in office. Now, nearly a year and a half since taking power, current president el-Sisi is suffering a similar significant decline in popularity – despite the fact that he enjoys the full assistance and support of all state institutions, which had all allied themselves against Morsi.

Which of these three narratives will prevail in the end? I believe the battle is still long. The revolutionary movement which began on 25 January 2011 has endured the regime’s multiple attempts to quash it, and is now subjected to fierce and organized campaigns against it, in rhetoric and in action. But resistance exists, and continues. The younger generations refuse to submit and surrender: there are detainees under the age of eighteen facing political charges in Egypt’s prisons and detention centers, and this is the greatest proof that the movement is growing.

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About the Author

Basma Abdel Aziz is a psychiatrist, writer and sculptor. Born in Cairo, Egypt, she holds a BA in medicine and surgery, an MS in neuropsychiatry, and a diploma in sociology. Her first short story collection, May God Make it Easy, won the 2008 Sawiris Cultural Award, and her second, The Boy Who Disappeared, won the 2008 General Organization of Cultural Palaces Award. In 2009 she received the Ahmed Bahaa-Eddin Award for young researchers for her book Temptation of Absolute Power, a sociological study exposing the effects of police violence on citizens in Egypt. She works for the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and the General Secretariat of Mental Health, and is a weekly columnist for Egypt’s al-Shorouk newspaper.

About the Translator

Elisabeth Jaquette is a translator from the Arabic. She holds an MA from Columbia University, a BA from Swarthmore College, and was a CASA Fellow at the American University of Cairo. Her work has been published in The Book of Gaza (Comma Press, 2014), Life from Elsewhere (Pushkin Press, 2015), the Guardian and Asymptote, among other places. She is also the Arabic reading group chair for UK publisher And Other Stories, and a judge for the 2016 PEN Translation Prize. Her translation of Basma Abdel Aziz’s debut novel The Queue, which received a PEN Translates Award in 2014, is forthcoming with Melville House in 2016.

Additional Information

English PEN is asking our supporters to take a moment to send Alaa Abd el-Fattah and other imprisoned Egyptian activists messages of support. Find out more about the Season’s Greetings initiative here. Thank you.

English PEN is increasingly concerned by reports that Egyptian poet Omar Hazek has been prevented from leaving the country. Read a statement from PEN International.

Find out more about The Book of Gaza and other great books in translation on the World Bookshelf.

Life From Elsewhere: Journeys through World Literature, a collaboration between English PEN and Pushkin Press celebrating 10 years of the Writers in Translation programme, is available now.

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