New Visions for Egypt’s Ongoing Revolution
By Sherif Joseph Rizk (adapted from an interview with Matt Meyer)
There are many myths about the Egyptian Revolution — first and foremost that it was a success story based completely on the principles of strategic nonviolence. The main fact is that, though it was a mostly nonviolent effect, our only success was in getting rid of the dictator. The rule of the dictatorship, however, continues.
It is important to understand that during the uprisings of 2011, there were elements of confrontation that could be considered “borderline violence” — if you consider throwing back tear gas canisters or Molotov cocktails violent. There was plenty of that. I think there is a threshold that has to do with the proportionate use of force: if the force that is used to counter the opposite force is proportionate, it may not be appropriate to deem that force as violent. In the case of Egypt since 2011, I would say that the force used against the security state was disproportionately small, and therefore, by my standards, should be considered nonviolent. To confront a security state, one needs to throw back tear gas canisters, and though I wasn’t personally involved in those activities, I was close to others who were. I don’t think that’s violent — it is part of the ground tactics needed in confronting a security state.
Fortress Tahrir, during the 18 days when the square was occupied by the Egyptian people, faced many complicated tactical issues. One was how it might best be defended; it was being attacked on many levels by all sorts of challenges. Civilians that were paid and hired by the security state to fulfill certain missions: to provoke and incite violence, to confuse folks about who was behind the real violence of the state. Those people attacked Tahrir with swords and sticks, riding camels into the square to disrupt the pro-democracy demonstrations. They would have overtaken Tahrir if they had not been stopped with some level of force. They were stopped — they were found out — and they were held for some time. At that point, it seemed to most of us that holding Tahrir was the most important and powerful symbol; it was the key to the revolution at that time. Should we have stood idly by, in the name of absolute nonviolence or pacifism?
The same night that agents of the state came to attack us on camels, Tahrir was also attacked by people throwing Molotov cocktails. People were being wounded and martyrs were falling by the second. There had to be a fight to protect Tahrir and the people who were holding the square. I had been detained a few nights before, and I still feel guilty — having just been released and still a bit traumatized — that I didn’t go out there to be part of the defense. There was a fight on rooftops between those throwing the Molotovs — state-hired provocateurs — and those stopping them, fighting with them to stop it. There was a minimal amount of force used to protect Tahrir. Would I consider that violence? No. When you have a million people, unarmed in the square, and you have one hundred people helping to protect the million using minimal force (including the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood) can you call that out or critique for being violent? For me, it is part of the larger nonviolent movement, to preserve the work of the mass mobilization.
It is also important to note that the majority of the people in Tahrir weren’t using the word nonviolence. I can’t give that much credit for the mass upsurge to the April 6 Youth Movement, who had been calling for explicitly nonviolent protest from 2008 onward. They were certainly part of the foundation of the larger movement, but they were by no means a singular leadership of the revolution. Their preaching about nonviolence did not move people to think that if they followed a set course it would lead to a nonviolent revolution.
People — almost spontaneously, organically, and naturally — went down to the streets recognizing that the strength of their numbers and the power of our message for justice could have an impact.
It is an unfinished revolution. We have removed Mubarak but not Mubarakism; we are still ruled by the security state. Egyptian society is run by the security apparatus which includes the army, the police, various elements of the state intelligence and a bureaucracy which is subservient to them. What essentially has happened is that Mubarak’s security state was challenged from within by a recently developed oligarchy which has arisen over the past 15 years. The system has been split between the army itself and the Ministry of the Interior, which has been tremendously strengthened in the areas of policing and defense. The army, who had been ruling for 60 years, is now being challenged by another security-driven apparatus, which now has 1.5 million people working for it.
Egyptians have realized this, though it took some time since the events of 2011. In July of that year, as a sit-in occupation of Tahrir was taking place, I began to notice that there were two essential problems which the revolution was facing. One was a lack of vision about what we wanted to replace Mubarakism with, and how we’d get there. The second problem is that we had nobody that could speak for the revolution or challenge the concept of a fixed and inflexible revolutionary “leadership.” Leadership, by my definition, is a vision that you’re able to unify people around — not just a single charismatic person. After Mubarak was gone, it was hard to figure out what there was to be done, how to turn things around to make a true democracy. Several of us founded the New Republic organization, to try to address these problems.
New Republic’s goal is to rally people — activists, political parties, civil society groups and formal non-governmental organizations — around 10 basic concerns. They are:
- Security sector reform — how do we get the police which have been serving the regime to serve the people?
- Judicial independence
- Rescuing the economy
- Rebuilding civil society, destroyed since the 1952 coup
- Independence and freedom of the state media
- A democratic constitution
- Freedom of information
- Fighting the counter-revolutions from abroad — from Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the U.S. (which played at times both positive and negative roles)
- Human rights
- Public health
These ten areas seem to us the common denominator concerns which people in favor of a democratic Egypt could agree with. We have brought together broad sectors of people to discuss these issues and come up with guiding principles which we have developed into policy papers. The security paper was the first paper to be completed, though it is constantly being updated. The other policy papers are still in development. The hope is that the some of the various political parties will take these up in parliament as a road map for changing Egypt from a dictatorship into a democracy.
Ironically, in Tunisia — which is ahead of Egypt as far as their transition process to democracy — the ruling party has already adopted some of these ideas for their own constitution. As we connect with people throughout the Arab world and Africa, we see that they face similar problems, and many of these same challenges. If Egypt is able to succeed, we can hopefully provide a blueprint and inspiration towards revolutionary democracy for many others.
Sherif Joseph Rizk is a founder of Egypt’s New Republic Project, and was an active participant in the revolutionary pro-democracy movement of 2011-2012. A publisher and founder of Lighthouse Consulting, an advisory company specializing in culture-related industries, Rizk is also a nonviolence trainer involved in the recently formed African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network.
Matt Meyer is an educator-activist, based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.