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Commentary: Egypt is in an ongoing revolution

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 10, 2013 - The following is condensed from open letter Ismail Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria, sent on July 6.

Egypt is once more doing things its own unique way. After millions of people went into the streets and, in 18 days that shook the world, succeeded in toppling the regime of Hosni Mubarak, they came back in their millions into the streets and squares of Egypt and toppled Mohamed Morsi.

Morsi was Egypt’s first elected civilian president, in free and fair elections organized by the post-Mubarak military rulers after 18 months of transitional governance. The people rejoiced in the election and the handover of power from the military to Morsi on July 1, 2012. They backed him in his bid to assert civilian leadership over the military.

But soon, through a series of ill-advised actions, the Morsi government seemed to most Egyptians more intent on serving the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood than in bringing the country together. The Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) they created alienated all political factions in Egypt, even the Islamists in the Salafi movement who largely share their vision of an Islamic Egypt.

Feeling blocked in their desire to change course, and some even feeling betrayed by the narrow agenda of the ruling Brotherhood and FJP elite, the people felt obliged to resort to a democratic and largely peaceful tactic of collecting signatures and coming out in peaceful protest. Despite spurts of violence and the likely continuation of some strife in the short term, we all hope we will move on to create a real, inclusive and properly functioning democracy and open a new era for Egypt and its people.

A historical precedent

In late 1918 Egyptian nationalist leaders led by Saad Zaghloul wanted to present Egypt’s case for independence from British occupation to the Versailles conference at the end of World War I. They proved to the British their legitimacy by getting hundreds of thousands individually signed statements deputizing them to represent Egypt. Egypt’s people had spoken clearly and democratically.

The British ignored this mandate and exiled Saad Zaghloul and his colleagues to Malta. The public took to the streets, followed by widespread civil disobedience and ultimately the British had to back down. They brought back Zaghloul and his colleagues, recognized Egypt’s independence in 1922 and Egypt started 30 years of liberal multi-party democracy with the 1923 constitution.

Revolution gets a second wind

The revolution of Jan. 25, 2011, was beautiful and peaceful. But to many who participated in it, the events following the revolution did not deliver on its promises. This time they were determined to have a “mid-course correction” and give the revolutionary spirit its second wind.

Despite efforts at intimidation by the Islamists, including their big demonstrations on June 28, and their blaring TV channels warning that anyone who opposed President Morsi would be an apostate and should be killed and other such tactics, the people stayed on course and came out in millions for these days. These were not “days of rage” but very largely “days of peaceful protest” where the nation came together and showed a certain moral grandeur.

Incidentally, the Morsi-appointed Islamist minister of culture was waging all-out war on artists and intellectuals, who retaliated by blockading his office and holding performances in the street from street theater to poetry readings. The opera was closed; ballet was banned, and the heads of the national library and archives, the conservatory of music and the High Council for Culture were all dismissed. Their staffs went on strike (against the minister). The Library of Alexandria was probably the only public cultural institution to remain open and functioning more or less normally, without any interference.

No police or public buildings were targeted. Over the last few months, the targets were the headquarters of the Brotherhood and of its political party. Many were attacked and burned by a number of rioters. The police found stashes of weapons in some of those party headquarters and the Brotherhood’s own central headquarters, which they claimed were for self-defense.

The Army asked the president several times to seriously search for common ground. It got only a “no compromise” and “I am the boss” speech. Seeing the will of the people expressed in individual signed statements by ordinary citizens and the enormous crowds estimated at somewhere upward of 20 million in all of Egypt, the army rejected the “no compromise” line of the president and worked with all the leaders of these national groups deposed him. The head of the Constitutional Court of Egypt, the pope (head of the Coptic Church), Sheik Al Azhar (a Sunni leader), the Al-Nour Salafi Party (an Islamist group), (Muhammad) El-Baradei, and representatives of other movements, drafted the communiqué together with the Army leaders, and they were all there in reading the communiqué.

This was no coup

President Morsi’s followers claimed what happened was a coup d’état by the military against an elected civilian leader, and called on outsiders to respond accordingly. But this was no coup. There was no small group of conspirators. There was no secrecy. The army simply aligned itself with the will of the overwhelming majority of the people, who refused to be intimidated by the threats of the Brotherhood and the FJP and came out into the streets on the appointed day of June 30.

Merriam Webster defines coup d' etat as “a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics; especially: the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.” And the Concise encyclopedia says it is a “sudden overthrow, often violent, of an existing government by a group of conspirators. … Their success depends on surprise and speed.”

In what way does this even remotely describe what happened in Egypt? Starting several months ago with a public campaign by youthful activists under the slogan “Tamarud” (rebellion), tens of millions of people have been saying they want the current rulers to step down and that they would express themselves peacefully by collecting signatures (about 22 million signatures) and will come into the public spaces of Egypt (not just Tahrir Square) on June 30 to prove their point. And come they did. In the millions.

A can of tuna…

I asked one of the demonstrators what he thought of the fact that Morsi became president through legal and fair elections and still had time on his term. In one of those simple, direct expressions of powerful folk wisdom he said: “So I bought a can of tuna. I opened it and the tuna was rotten. Do you think I should eat it?”

Another said to me: “They have done enough damage in one year, and I am not going to wait to see how much more damage they can cause in three more years.” A third (an intellectual) said to me: “So what? Hitler came with free elections. If the Germans had deposed him and his Nazis after one year, the world would have been a much better place.” A fourth said, “We are the ones who voted him in, and now we are telling him to step down.” A fifth, also an intellectual, said “By definition, the legitimacy of the ruler is based on the consent of the governed. Periodic elections are a means to ensure that consent is regularly expressed. He has lost the consent of the governed. They have overwhelmingly expressed their will. He should just go.”

The message of the protesters was clear, and I think that the “can of tuna” sums it up best!


This was a spectacular revolution that no one, repeat no one, has seen the likes of. Bigger and larger than the crowds that ended the Mubarak regime, this movement, organized (again!) by unknown youthful leaders, mobilized all of Egypt.

The movement drew its legitimacy from individual papers signed by millions and millions of individual citizens. And on the date of the rendezvous, the crowds were in every city, and the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters could only marshal two (relatively) small crowds in two squares in Cairo after busing their followers from all the provinces. This was an unprecedented display of “people power” in largely peaceful demonstrations, holding up national flags and demands for freedom and democracy. Today, no one can say any more – as they tried to say after the Mubarak ouster – that the huge crowds were only due to the Islamists joining the revolution.

Once more, the army refused to fire on the people, and this time refused to allow any private militias to do it either. This was no coup. This was the Egyptian revolution getting its second wind, correcting its path and ensuring a new birth of freedom on this ancient land.

We can only hope that this time, we all take the time to draft a proper constitution first and then proceed to new elections in the light of that constitution, rather than rushing to new elections while still contesting the current constitution and the way it was “rammed through.” We can only hope that the supporters of the deposed president do not resort to violence to try to turn back the clock.

It is also time that all, repeat all, Egyptians come together in national reconciliation and work together for a better future. Whatever happens, it is clear that having taken matters in to their own hands twice, the Egyptian people are not willing to let anyone ignore their wishes anymore… and the actions of every Egyptian in these crowds today exemplify the words of Henley’s Invictus:

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.