Palestinian intellectual and ex-Knesset member Azmi Bishara followed Egypt’s 25 January Revolution minute by minute from the Qatari capital Doha where his think tank — the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Study — is based.
"It was crucial for me," he told his audience at Cairo University’s Faculty of Political Science Tuesday morning. He emerged as crucial for the revolution too — at least in the eyes of many Egyptians who found in Bishara, 54, an ideologue of sorts during the uprising.
Four months after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, Bishara who was banned from entering Egypt after criticising Cairo’s stand during Israel’s war on Gaza in December 2008, ventured to visit the new Egypt. His name was still on the traveller’s blacklist when he arrived at Cairo Airport Monday. The intelligence official who put his name on the list was the very same person who removed it upon his arrival. This was Bishara’s first direct experience with the new Egypt: he is no longer banned, but the powers that be that deemed him unwelcome earlier haven’t changed. It says a lot about the revolution that Bishara came to talk about.
Bishara’s visit comes at a sensitive time in post-revolution Egypt. There is uncertainty prevailing about the future, as the deeply polarised political spectrum appears to have taken Egyptians away from the spirit of Tahrir Square and the goals of the revolution itself. It’s a far cry from the "genius" of the first days of the revolution, as he describes it.
Nonetheless, Bishara continues to describe the revolution as a "great event" and "historical". "Very few revolutions in history were more organised than the Egyptian revolution," he said. "The genius of the Egyptian revolution was that the people could have dispersed on 25 January, but they continued and realised that this is bigger than a ‘Day of Anger’ (on 28 January); that they have something in their hands they can’t let go of." Suddenly, they "held their destiny in their hands and they heard the wings of history flapping. There can be no turning back."
The Egyptian people’s participation in the revolution, he said, exceeds any other revolution in history where participation is almost always only one per cent, with the exception of the 1979 Iranian Revolution where seven per cent of the population took to the streets. In Egypt and Tunisia (which began the season of Arab revolutions when it ousted its president on 15 January), a massive "unit" which is "the people" moved and dreamed as one. "It’s such a major progress in the history of mankind," said Bishara.
Moving on, Bishara noted what both Egyptians and Tunisians know: in both revolutions, the revolutionaries didn’t take over power; they "knocked on its door" but "didn’t assume it". This, he said, "will have massive consequences on Egypt’s history in the future and on other Arab regimes." In Egypt, like in Tunisia, the military is in charge. "These are not new elites in power," he said. What happened, Bishara added, is that a part of the outgoing regime’s ruling elite practically sided with the revolution’s demands and were forced to reform.
But if the Egyptian revolution was spontaneous, he warned, building a democracy can’t be left to spontaneity too. "The revolutionaries are the primary people entrusted with the revolution. And whether they like it or not, they have to articulate the objectives of the revolution." In other words, decision-making can’t be left to remnants of the regime who were part of its decision-making process but are practically running the country.
But what are the tools for change, he asked? "The regime remains the regime and the revolutionaries continue to plan the next Friday demonstration." Despite his admiration of the revolution, Bishara voiced concern over the flood of foreign aid pouring into Egypt for "development".
Moving forward can’t be done with the help of foreign aid, he said, alluding to the $3 billion loan the IMF extended to Egypt earlier this month. "They don’t help you, they hamper and handicap your economic and social development." Egypt has to make a choice, he said.
On elections, Bishara said there should be consensus first on a number of principles to safeguard democracy, "which isn’t about the rule of the majority… it’s about a majority ruling under the principles of democracy." Furthermore, he added, there’s "no democracy" without an independent judiciary, separation of the state’s branches of power, and an elected legislature.
Bishara wouldn’t say whether Egypt is stumbling in its first attempts at democracy. On 19 March, 77.2 per cent of voters said yes to proposed constitutional amendments in a referendum, easing restrictions on presidential nominees and obliging the coming parliament to elect a 100-member assembly to draft a new constitution. But less than three months later, many of the political forces and figures who opposed the amendments are now pushing to ignore the referendum result, arguing that the constitution should be drafted before any election.
Bishara is "aware" of this debate. He described the March vote as very democratic. "The people didn’t participate in the revolution in such massive numbers to replace one despotism with another," he said in an implicit criticism of the "constitution first" camp. In his words, the resulting polarisation — secularists versus Islamists — is nothing but the legacy of the outgoing regime, which fed the divide. Today, these very same forces are replaying their old battle. "This is an insult to the blood of the people who lost their lives in the revolution, and is definitely a diversion from its goals."
"I’m almost certain this isn’t the battle or concern of the diverse groups who were in Tahrir Square," Bishara said.
Amira Howeidy writes for Al-Ahram, where this originally appeared.