Mona El-Ghobashy, Bread and Freedom: Egypt’s Revolutionary Situation (Stanford University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Mona El-Ghobashy (MEL): I wanted to reconstruct what happened in Egypt’s uprising. Soon after Hosni Mubarak was ousted on February 11, 2011, explanations focused on why it was bound to happen. Then they shifted to ample critiques of Egypt’s dysfunctional transition. When elected president Mohamed Morsi was deposed by a military coup on July 3, 2013,  it was normalized as the  logical outcome of the ostensibly chaotic transition. This  tendency to quickly assimilate rapid and unexpected changes into analytical frameworks that make them less surprising is part and parcel of explanatory social science, but it leads to a subtle kind of forgetting. We forget how improbable the Arab uprisings were, how precarious and fragile from the outset, and that they came about through a confluence of many distinct actions and interactions that could not be anticipated—but can be reconstructed. I wanted to recover the indeterminacy and uncertainty in Egypt’s uprising from the very first planned protest event of January 25, 2011, to political dynamics a decade later, when the uprising had been defeated by a full-fledged counterrevolution.

When you look at it this way, you immediately run up against the staggering number of events that constituted the uprising. These were so numerous, compressed in time, simultaneous and not only sequential, and involving so many social actors, groups, and demands. The biggest challenge was that of selection: how do I select what to focus on? After all, between the initial January 25 protest action and the counterrevolutionary offensive three years later in 2014, Egyptians heatedly debated and fought over police reform, constitution-writing, privatization and economic restructuring, the efficacy of sustained protests, election laws, repatriation of national assets, foreign policy, municipal politics, civil-military relations, Coptic-Muslim relations, legislative-judicial relations, center-periphery relations (Cairo and the provinces), and lustration (holding Mubarak regime officials to account). No coherent account can take in all these issues, at least not within the covers of a non-encyclopedic book. So I had to choose, and my choices were governed by the book’s anchoring concept of a “revolutionary situation,” a juncture when state power comes under serious assault but does not collapse.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MEL: I engage with the scholarship on the Arab uprisings published after 2011. The sociological literature on revolutions and the political science literature on democratic transitions were also a great aid and inspiration to me. But these two academic literatures on revolution and democracy exist in separate universes, having more to do with the disciplinary division of knowledge in the Anglo-American social sciences than with any fundamental difference in their outlooks. At first I was confused because I thought had to choose one corpus and go with it, but that kept creating problems. If I used the political science literature on democratic transitions, which is dominated by the idea that democratization happens through negotiations and sagacious compromises, then Egypt’s revolutionary politics looked bizarre, disorderly, and completely dysfunctional. If I went with the sociology of revolution, then I could explain the causes of revolution and its outcomes— that is, what came before the revolution and what came after—but not so much the stakes and struggles of revolutionary politics.

Late in the research, I abandoned the idea of having to choose and made use of both literatures, especially works that I had never read (Vladimir Lenin’s lesser-known writings) or had read many years ago and did not appreciate (Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter’s Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies). I realized that they were grappling with the same issue of indeterminacy and high-stakes conflict in times of political upheaval, but using different vocabularies and concepts. The most satisfying hours of research were when I encountered phrases and analyses in these two literatures that mapped uncannily well onto events in Egypt, or helped dispel my confusion or incomprehension about why something happened as it did, or how it connected to something else that I thought was separate. This recursive process is how I came to the book’s master concept of a “revolutionary situation,” an idea originally coined by Vladimir Lenin, honed by Leon Trotsky, then resuscitated by American political sociologists Charles Tilly and Arthur Stinchcombe. A revolutionary situation is a shift in power over the state that generates both exceptional threats and opportunities to old and new groups, including surviving elements of the old political elite.

The book’s argument is that Egypt’s uprising, and I would venture the Arab uprisings as a whole, are productively characterized as revolutionary situations where ruling elites disintegrated, but were not swept away in toto. Their remnants faced off against new claimants to state power, with mobilized publics and foreign actors entering the fray, now supporting new forces and now siding with the reconstituted elites. The concept of revolutionary situation makes sense of the simultaneous mass protests, elections, legislative maneuvers, political violence, and judicial actions that make the uprisings seem so chaotic. It brings together revolution and democracy, long separated in the social sciences but integrated by historians investigating “democratic revolutions.” I use the concept to argue that revolutions do not transcend politics but grow out of a country’s existing conflicts, and that democratization is not only a matter of reasoned compromise, as dominant views in the political science literature would have it. Democratization is just as dangerous and ambivalence-inducing as revolution; it poses an existential threat to stakeholders in the status quo, and generates mixed feelings among various publics.

J: How does the book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

MEL: While researching and writing the book I made explicit what I had implicitly done in prior research: construct a relational account of political conflict. Very broadly, approaches to democratization and revolution are classified as either top-down or bottom-up. Top-down approaches focus on elites (within the state but also within society such as business networks) and bottom-up approaches follow the actions of specific sectors (labor, women’s groups, advocacy networks). Both obviously tell us much, and my work is often categorized as bottom-up, even though state actors are very visible in it, constantly acting and responding to bottom-up pressures. The complex nature of revolutionary politics demands that we keep both sets of actors in view: various state elites, and various popular forces. Bread and Freedom is my conscious attempt to demonstrate this interactionist methodology, to write a text that shows how social outcomes are rarely the doing of only elites or only social groups.

To say that events are the product of multiple agencies is not to say that the agencies are equal. For example, the military commanders on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that edged out Hosni Mubarak had far more power (not least in the form of foreign support) than virtually any other single actor in Egypt’s post-2011 politics. But they had to confront, contain, and repress other parties with potent sources of social power of their own. It was not a foregone conclusion that the uprising would end in a military dictatorship, as many retrospective accounts would have us believe.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MEL: I wrote the book with two audiences in mind. The first are readers who were too young to live through the Arab uprisings, but also those who lived through these years but have only a hazy recollection of what happened, and would like to know more about what the concrete issues of contention were. The second audience are those who followed and lived the uprising and its aftermath day-by-day, and sometimes hour-by-hour! These are the Egyptians, Egypt-watchers, and Egypt-lovers who are still reeling from the sheer rapidity and pile-up of events, and are stricken by the catastrophic state of Egypt’s political repression today. I count myself in this second audience. My hope is that these groups will see with fresh eyes events and episodes with which they are familiar, but look different in my analytical reconstruction. Perhaps they can find a strange solace in the book, even as I am certain they will experience some very painful emotions and memories.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

MEL: One of the things I learned anew in the course of research was how central constitution-making was in Egypt’s revolutionary politics, and there is plenty in the book about how fights over the constitution intersected with and drove other political collisions. But I want to zero in more directly on constitutional contention and its distinct phases, the multiple actors it pulled in, and the range of issues that were at play. Unlike what is often assumed about constitutional politics in Egypt (and Tunisia), the role of religion in state and society was hardly the sole crux around which constitutional contention revolved. There were other bedrock issues besides religion, principally the question  of who would write the constitution, or in other words, who had constituent power. So I am conducting research on constitution-making in the revolution, both in Egypt and more abstractly. If a revolutionary situation is by definition a fragmentation in control over the state, it is bound to feature competing claims to sovereignty, or ultimate political authority. Constitutions spell out where sovereignty lies. So there is an organic connection between revolutions and constitutions that I am beginning to understand.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1, “Narratives of Egypt’s Revolution,” pp. 27-32)

The 2011 uprising was the biggest accident in Egyptian political history, anticipated neither by its champions nor its adversaries. Every step during the Eighteen Days was marked by uncertainty. If on the evening of January 24, some imaginative soul had suggested that in four days’ time, masses of people would vanquish the police and army tanks would roll onto streets, he would have been dismissed as a dreamer. If on February 2, an observer believed that the Battle of the Camel would eventually be won by the unarmed demonstrators, his judgment would have been impugned, and impugned again if he had forecast that on February 6, the return to a precarious normalcy would also bring the resumption of labor strikes. The uprising began as a familiar protest action within an established repertoire of opposition politics, then developed into something much bigger, not in the manner of a growing snowball hurtling down a slope but as an assortment of local incidents, miscalculations, extraordinary cooperation, escalation, and the sheer unpredictable logic of social interaction.

Knowing how things turned out makes us flatten and forget the many contingencies making up grand happenings. What if the Sidi Bouzid community protest a day after Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation had remained a hyperlocal Tunisian disturbance? What if January 25 had not been a public holiday that freed up citizens for political demonstration? What if Suez police had not killed three demonstrators on that day, breaking from the violent but nonlethal pattern of protest policing that had developed under Mubarak? What if civil servants had stayed at their desks and industrial workers at their machines, ignoring the Tahrir opposition movement as irrelevant to their concerns?

By the standards of statistical probability and expert analysis, the uprising was not simply contingent but highly improbable. Analysts have found that undemocratic regimes collapse more often through elite intrigue and palace coups than popular uprisings. Before 2011, one scholar of Egypt considered that mass mobilization was the least likely scenario for regime change. The revolt also departs from historical precedent. Egypt’s nationwide anticolonial rising in spring 1919 had strikingly similar features to 2011—mass marches in Cairo and provincial capitals, use of lethal force by British-controlled police, torching of government buildings, a crippling strike by civil servants, and rousing nightly gatherings in al-Azhar mosque, the era’s Tahrir Square. But the early twentieth century movement pursued a comparatively modest goal: protesting Britain’s deportation of Egyptian politicians seeking an audience at the Paris Peace Conference to negotiate Egyptian independence. In 2011, the demand was nothing less than upending the system of rule. “People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people,” read the English-language graffiti on an incinerated police-truck-turned-dumpster in Tahrir Square.

My central purpose in this book is to show how the unexpected uprising opened up several possibilities for how Egypt would be governed. It destroyed Hosni Mubarak’s dynastic ambition to transfer power to his son, clearing other untrodden paths. Most observers expected a fledgling multiparty democracy with a lively civil society and culture of street demonstrations, essentially an unfettered version of Egypt’s contentious politics that had developed during Mubarak’s three-decade rule. Unknown was the precise constitutional form this would take; parliamentarism and a mixed regime had their impassioned advocates, and virtually everyone valorized the judiciary and supported granting it more independence. The corollary unknown was the position of the military high command that had responded to the growing Tahrir protest by edging out Mubarak on February 11. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) declared themselves dictators, in the Roman sense of a temporary executive, and pledged to organize free elections and hand over power to elected civilians within six months.

Few seriously expected the generals to gallantly step aside and hand power to civilians without rigorous guarantees, but even fewer believed that the military wanted to or would be able to rule directly. Between these limits lay several possibilities for a civilian-military settlement, some form of a tutelary democracy. It could have been a constitutional veto role for the generals, on the model of Turkey before 2002; a presidential regime with a dual executive, one a transient civilian politician and the other a conclave of generals; a parliamentary regime with rigorous military reserved points, placing entire policy areas and public offices under exclusive jurisdiction of the armed forces. Three years after Mubarak’s ouster, in February 2014, Egypt had gone through a sixteen-month period of interim military rule; one crisis-filled year under a civilian president; then a popularly supported military coup where the leading general was about to become president in plebiscitary elections. By 2019, the same general had built a personalized dictatorship, a counterrevolutionary regime dedicated to the erasure of practices of revolution using the state’s ample resources of force, myth, and law.

How did this happen? The events constituting this juncture are so interlocking and multivalent that the overwhelming impulse is to evade them as noisy details and embark on a quest to uncover “what went wrong.” Works in various genres repeatedly invoke “tragedy” as the lens to make sense of the Arab uprisings as a whole, the staggering state violence, population displacements, impoverishment, and regional realignments that continue to unfold ten years after the Tunisian revolt that started it all. Of Egypt in particular, as soon as the 2013 coup occurred, perspectives shifted and the regime changes of 2011 to 2013 were forgotten, replaced by a determinist argument that the military was plotting to rule all along and merely engaged in strategic deception until their swift strike. Some lamented the pitifully divided state of the civilian opposition as the enabling condition for military intervention. My study starts from a different premise: many-sided complexes such as uprisings are irreducible to the actions of single or even a handful of collective actors. Egypt’s uprising is not well characterized as an epic misfortune, failed revolution, dysfunctional democratic transition, or master class in military planning. Moving away from dramaturgical tropes of hopeful beginnings and calamitous endings, I reexamine the uprising in the largest Arab state as a concrete political phenomenon, an example of what happens when, to paraphrase Vladimir Lenin, rulers and ruled cannot go on as before, but a new political order is by no means assured. I resurrect the forgotten concept of a “revolutionary situation” to illuminate the conflicts that ensue when state authority comes under fierce assault but does not collapse.

Democracy’s New Pioneers

At this point, ten years after the Tuesday protest that started it all on January 25, 2011, it is worth revisiting the heady international reception of Egypt’s uprising to see why political analysis fell by the wayside as impassioned outpourings of acclamation took over, then gave way to expressions of consternation. In February 2011, celebrity philosopher Slavoj Žižek enthused, “The uprising was universal. It was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognize what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society.” Citizens the world over who felt alienated from their own political institutions felt genuinely inspired by Tunisian and Egyptian protesters’ revival of the power of mass politics. Representations of Arabs went from stubborn exceptions to the “Third Wave of Democracy” to “Democracy’s New Pioneers.” Marxist philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt saw in the teeming public plazas of Arab countries an instantiation of their concept of multitudes, creating “original experiments that open new political possibilities, relevant well beyond the region, for freedom and democracy.” Political economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson opened their influential treatise with the Tahrir protesters’ insistence that Egypt’s economic ills were the outcome of misrule. Judith Butler waxed philosophical about “the way a certain sociability was established within the square,” announcing new relations of equality and nonviolence. Less than two weeks after Mubarak’s fall, American public workers protesting an antiunion bill in the state of Wisconsin held up signs that said, “Egypt, Save Us” and, in the words of the pop song, exhorted “Walk like an Egyptian!”

The exultant mood left no room for or interest in reliving the precariousness of the days leading up to Hosni Mubarak’s fall. A commemorative genre began to develop, featuring stories of the uprising and experiences of its participants, including a whole subgenre of Tahrirana recalling the ambience and civic spirit of the square. Soon precariousness was expunged entirely and improbability forgotten, replaced by compelling stories of an expertly designed uprising. A dramaturgical storyline imputed shrewd planning and creative leadership to a core group of attractive protagonists. Not surprisingly, the leading role was assigned to social media-using youth. A Time magazine cover featured seven young highly privileged Egyptians under the headline, “The Generation Changing the World.” Sociologist Jeffrey Alexander used a performance metaphor to portray the Eighteen Days as an expertly choreographed drama:

The agents who were at the core of this performative project formed the revolution’s “carrier group.” It was they who projected the symbols, and after they made the connection with audiences, directed the revolutionary mise en scène. The “scene” of the revolutionary drama was peopled by the hundreds of thousands of protestors, but this unfolding mise en scène was directed, not by the mass of people, but by movement intellectuals who tried to work out the script and choreograph street actions in advance.