A Revolution Undone

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H M Hellyer was both witness and participant in the momentous events that shook Egypt in 2011 and the subsequent developments that finally led to the military coup of July 2013. From visiting and staying in Tahrir Square to helping form one of the numerous local committees that sprang up to guard and look after local communities when the regime sent out its thugs, Hellyer was joyously drawn to the revolution and his world outlook was transformed.

For him the 18 days from the first demonstration on 25 January 2011 to the fall of Hosni Mubarak represented the high point for post-colonial Egypt and its people; a noble and life reaffirming task was at hand to rebuild a country and a people so long downtrodden and degraded by years of dictatorship — a task to be undertaken and made by the people of Egypt, democratically and inclusive of all.

What makes Hellyer’s transformation all the more impressive and his account of events nuanced and refreshing is not only his starting point, and his honesty about the failure of his own analysis, but his ongoing fidelity to the revolution and its aims — even if they seem a distant dream in the dark place that is Al-Sisi’s Egypt.

He is the first to admit that he had not seen the revolution coming or indeed known if one was desirable. On 24 January 2011 he penned an opinion piece in a Middle East newspaper, the National, which ends with, “It’s not that these young people are rejecting a vision. It’s worse: no one has a vision to give them.”

In this he was not unique — the vast majority of Western advisers did not see (or wish to see) events unfolding in Egypt in the years prior to 2011. However, Hellyer quickly reassessed the situation and admits that much of his views were in part formed by only looking at the top of society and ignoring or not thinking that those outside the elites had the power or ability to substantially change the power structures that dominated all aspects of life.

Yet for all his honesty, enthusiasm and support for the revolution and the revolutionaries who made it, his thoughtful analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its role in the events as they unfolded after the fall of Mubarak he does not develop an analysis that can put at its heart the self-activity of the masses as the agents of change.

For him, “nearly all of what was to become the ‘revolutionary camp’ departed the squares of Egypt on 11 February after celebrating Mubarak’s removal. That was a choice they made — and it would be one that would come back to haunt them.”

His explanation of events post Mubarak tends to slip back into a comfort zone of discussing the electoral strategies of the MB and the groups that sprang up post-11 February. The huge surge in self-activity of the Egyptian people that erupted across the country between 2011 and June 2013 is given passing mention or dismissed as unable to deliver what the country needed.

Hellyer’s book is worth reading to see how individuals can be transformed in a revolutionary situation. However, if you are looking for an analysis that can explain the complex situation that developed in the period that followed the fall of Mubarak, I suggest Phil Marfleet’s Egypt, Contested Revolution would be more rewarding.