On January 25, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians packed Cairo’s Tahrir Square to mark the one-year anniversary of an uprising that ended nearly three decades of rule by Hosni Mubarak in less than three weeks. Numerous people now camping in the square call for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has ruled Egypt since last February, to hand over their power to civilians.
Egypt’s military leadership, posing as a revolutionary government, has tried to co-opt the day by presenting the anniversary as a celebration without protest and rhetorically lifting the “emergency law” — with exceptions so vague that the move actually restricts the government very little.
While the SCAF has invited political parties to work with them in crafting a more permanent political order, the months since Mubarak’s fall have seen military detentions and brutal crackdowns against dissent continue. Tear gas from the United States, which many medics have said is of higher potency and health risk than usual, has been used extensively. While the top figure of the old regime is out of power and on trial, much of the regime that he headed remains intact.
The military leadership has presented a timetable for handing over power, but this does not solve the issue. Political pressure from the streets is probably needed just to hold them to the letter of their promises. It is unclear what kind of role the military leadership intends to play in managing the transition. And behind closed doors the Council will try to safeguard their political and economic privileges, which would keep Egypt’s economy serving the elite recipients of political favor at the expense of those who produce.
The experience of Egypt should drive home the fact that it could take more than a couple of weeks and a change at the top to make a substantial revolution that actually improves the lives of average people. This brings up the question of how a mass movement against the establishment can create the arrangements that replace it. Or is filling the gap left by the downfall even the movement’s role, or is it the role of smaller networks of affinity and interest to put the new society in place and work out differences? And how does one define who is in the establishment or draw the line between siding with the old regime and siding with the people?
A substantial revolution might see the rise of neighborhood and workplace assemblies, and alternative networks that displace the state by empowering cooperative individuals. This process is being worked out on the ground in Egypt with the growth of cooperatives, renewed grassroots labor organizing, and mutual aid in the face of government violence. Whether or not this activity is part of the same movement as mass rallies really depends on how “movement” and “the Revolution” are defined. Knowledge gained in the revolutionary experience can be put to use in the evolution of new social relations.
What the Egyptians are teaching us is that substantial political change will be a long process, but worth the trouble if we’re willing to see it through to the end.