Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, historian Assem El-Dessouki discussed the definition of a revolution as opposed to other forms of social change, identifying the main features of Egypt’s 1919, 1952, and 2011 revolutions.
From the viewpoint of history, what determines whether an event is called a revolution, an uprising, or a rebellion?
A revolution is a radical political, economic, and social change in society. It is a change that does not take place quietly or in a simple manner but involves violent acts or measures because it means the overthrow of one regime and its replacement with a new one.
Changing the head of a regime alone does not constitute a revolution, as is clear from the 1789 French Revolution. Not only in France, but also across the whole of Europe, a semi-feudal system was in place before 1789 based upon the king’s ownership of most of the land. However, a new class was emerging, the bourgeoisie, a class of city-dwellers who did not belong to the aristocracy or landed gentry but owned industrial capital and wanted to protect their interests.
They were determined to overthrow the previous rule. Thus, when you mount a revolution, you are really uprooting a whole tree. When you just trim its leaves, you are carrying out reform but not revolution.
In Egypt, we often talk about the Orabi Revolution in the late 19th century and the 1919 Revolution, but these events did not overthrow the respective regimes. Would it be better to call them uprisings?
Yes, they were uprisings because the Orabi Revolution did not dethrone the then khedive Tawfik and put Orabi in his place, and the 1919 Revolution did not result either in the evacuation of British troops from Egypt or a change of the regime. The British deceived the Egyptian people after 1919 and said that Egypt was a sovereign constitutional kingdom, while in reality the country remained a British protectorate until 1936.
However, we can label the changes that took place in July 1952 a revolution because a group of officers overthrew the then ruler of the country and they did not stop there. Had they done so, they would have simply carried out a coup. Instead, the country’s political, economic, and social situation began to change, its foreign policies changed, and the monarchy was abolished and a republic declared. Egypt started a new era in 1952.
In 1919, the slogan was used that “Religion is for God and the Homeland is for All.” In 2013, 94 years later, the people went out into the streets and once again asserted this slogan.
Why do we have to have a revolution and why do martyrs have to fall again just to assert simple, clear ideas that people should live together in peace?
There was a predominance of Islamist discourse in the country after former president Anwar Al-Sadat made a famous speech saying that “I am the Muslim president of a Muslim country.” From this point onwards, sectarian strife began. People started to defend themselves. Generations of Christians chose Christian names for their offspring. They wanted to confront the religious speech of Al-Sadat and say that they were Christians.
In Egypt’s modern history, both Ali Pasha Mubarak in the late 19th century and Mustafa Kamel, founder of the Nationalist Party at the beginning of the 20th century, were against such strife. During the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, sectarian strife did not occur. But the religious discourse that Sadat instigated was responsible for such strife. Thus, we were in need of renewing this slogan from 1919.
Perhaps the credibility of the Muslim Brotherhood among the general public has collapsed, but within the group itself this credibility persists. Are you concerned about the existence of the group’s organisational remnants?
On the organisational level, the group is still working and has branches abroad. There are fugitives in Turkey and Germany. However, within Egyptian society itself, there is no longer any mention of the group because people know that they are bigots and use religion in order to rule. Egypt’s experiences with the group, particularly under Mohamed Morsi’s rule, made it unacceptable for the Muslim Brotherhood to rule ever again. But there is a concern that the Muslim Brotherhood continues to spread antagonistic propaganda against the current regime.
Both the 25 January and the 30 June revolutions took place fewer than 10 years ago. Should they be included in the school curriculum?
When I was invited by the Ministry of Education in 2014 to participate in writing a history textbook for the final year of secondary school, I said that the book must stop in 2011. The school history syllabus cannot continue up until the present day. This is important, as judgements are still being made.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly