Alain Badiou on the Egyptian Revolution, Seven Years Later

Tahrir_square_29_jan_2011-
Tens of thousands demonstrate in Tahrir Square, 29 January 2011. Photo: Ramy Raoof. via Wikimedia Commons.

First published at openDemocracy.

The seven-year anniversary of the 25 January Egyptian Revolution, an event that captured global attention and inspired countless movements, provides an opportune moment to reflect on the state of politics today. French philosopher Alain Badiou was among the first major intellectual figures to theorize the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings and articulate their historical significance in his book, The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings (Verso, 2012). Badiou bore witness to the unfolding of May 1968 in France, an event to which he maintains fidelity. Badiou acknowledges that with Egypt, movement based politics entered a new phase in the historical process. It remains to be seen if and how the event of the Egyptian revolution can reveal clues and unlock ideas about the changing nature of politics and organization, the meaning of revolution, and notions of failure and success.

The event of 25 January 2011 has been challenged to its core, to put it mildly. Seven years on, the promise, openness, social solidarity, explosive creativity and social experimentation exemplified by Tahrir Square, but by no means limited to it, has for many been supplanted by cynicism, if not despair, crackdowns, further hardships, and retreat. Whatever the situation and mood today, the movement offered, in the words of Badiou, “a new proposition,” even if fleeting and obscure. At the same time, the movement has been supplanted by “the circle,” a cycle whereby entrenched organized groups — the Muslim Brotherhood, the military, the economic elite — fall from power only to rise again. Does this mean, as Badiou asks, that “finally, there is no novelty?”

This encounter with Alain Badiou is not an interview in the traditional sense, but rather a set of reflections, propositions and questions. He reflects on the significance of Egypt for the region and the world, of the meaning of politics, revolution and social movements. He poses questions to “us” — not only us in the small group who travelled to Paris to meet and engage in discussion with him about Egypt and broader questions about movement building, but to all of us searching for a form of progressive politics in these precarious, volatile, and unpredictable, “times of riots and uprisings.”

Part I: On the importance of Egypt for Global Movements

For me, the sequence of the movement in Egypt has been a very important one for many reasons. First, I think that in the general Middle East, Egypt is a very important point. In my opinion, a decisive point in some sense. So, what happened in Egypt is very important for me and at the level of the global political movement in the world.

The movement as such was a new proposition

Secondly, it is important because the form of the movement was in some sense something new. It was a new form. A new form which was to take the power somewhere. Not at the level of the state, but to organize some form of collective decision [making] which takes a long time for a movement to formulate. [The movement created] a new space which is between a real position and a symbolic position. This can create something which is a symbol, a political-symbol for many people. And finally, [it unified] some important differences inside the people, between the Copts and the Muslims and so on. All of that was very interesting for me. And I don’t think it was the product of old politics.

Naturally, old politics was also present. But the movement as such was a new proposition. I have called that “The Rebirth of History.” So, the destiny of all that, the becoming of all that was for me a very important question, not only the question of victory and failure. In fact, my question is:

What was exactly the possible concept of victory for that sort of movement?

This is a very profound and difficult question. Because it is very difficult to imagine that you have a new form of a movement eventually resulting in the classical form of the movement, that is, to seize the power, or something like that.

In some sense, when we have a very strong experience, for me, for example, in May 1968, and for you, the movement in Egypt, very often after that you have something like a reactive situation. In France too, some years after May ‘68, the situation became in some sense ordinary, not extraordinary.

[The Egyptian uprising] is an extraordinary history in some sense because after this extraordinary movement you have something like the return to the [old] situation. And so, it is really a question for me … why there is the sort of cycle: Mubarak, a big movement, an extraordinary movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the return to the dictatorship, the military dictatorship. It is for me a very interesting and terrible story.

But I think we must always think that something important [happened], even if in the end, there was something like a failure, something like a deception. And so, what is very interesting and important to find out is: What are the lessons of the movement many years after the event?

We must have clear lessons concerning the movement. Why was there the failure of the movement? What are the reasons? And, was it a point of departure for something new? [It’s important] to go beyond the difficult term of failure of the movement, to overcome the purely negative feeling at the end. It is very bad to have a purely negative feeling concerning a movement. Naturally, we must be lucid, we must explain: Why the cycle, the repetition?

And on this precise point, I have no clear vision, no clear explanation. Maybe you have?

The difficulty of the movement has been on the side of organization. [To recap], the military on the one side, the Muslim Brothers on the other side. [These groups] were in a position to really take the power. But the movement as such, the revolutionary part of the movement, was not in a position to really be a candidate to the power.

We must have an understanding of what is the goal of the movement, but not only in purely negative terms

And so, the question of the movement and the question of the power was in dissymmetry. Yet, there’s something paradoxical in the result of the movement, in the form of the Muslim Brothers taking the power. It’s a very sad thing because it’s a question of organization. After all, it is a historic lesson. When we have no new form of organization, if the movement cannot create some new form of organization at the level of the state power, the result is that something which is an organization like the Muslim Brotherhood, finally takes the power. And after that we have the return to the old situation. For the military camp [this] is a lesson too: never again should something like that happen [again]!

Part 2: The Big Questions: Vision, Change and Affirmative Ideas

My question, at the level of the thinking of the people, is: What was the goal of the movement?

Because you have a clear negative point: “No Mubarak!” In some sense, the unity of the movement was fixated on a negative demand which is against the existing power. But naturally, we cannot conclude that the [result] of all that will be, “no Mubarak,” but instead el-Sisi! So, when there is a new movement, we must have an understanding of what is the goal of the movement, but not only in purely negative terms — No Mubarak!, and not in classical terms, we seize the power as it is. Rather, the question is: What is the idea of real change? What is the affirmative idea?

I was really passionate for the Egyptian movement [which I saw] as something new in the historical sequence of today — at the level of the world, not only for Egypt. After that event, we have movements everywhere, but all of these movements are in some sense less interesting than the Egyptian movement, which was big, which was long, which had many complex compositions. So, we have a new movement [in Egypt], but we have the negative dimension of that movement which is clearly against the power, against Mubarak. And we have the circle which seems to suggest that there is no novelty, that there is not something new. My question is: The birth of something is always an obscure process. What was the vision inside the movement itself? What was the vision of [what should become] of all of that?”

What is clear is you have something like a new form of movement at the level of the novelty of the movement itself. A question for everybody, a question of universal interest, finally, is: What is a revolution today?

A big question. Was this question present in the movement? What were the discussions concerning certain points? All details are of importance about that sort of question, because the birth of something is always an obscure process.

What is clear is that you have something like a new form of movement which is not insurrectional, which is not of the classical type of fighting to seize power. It’s not something like that. It is also not purely localized, even if it took a place in Tahrir Square, it is a symbolic place. Personally, I was interested by the idea “We are the true Egyptians here.” “Egypt is here.” Not only for some thousands of people, but that we are, symbolically, the possibility of a new Egypt here. Yes, but beyond this symbolic vision, what were the discussions inside the movement concerning the question: What is the truly political vision?

Have you not a solution? (laughs) 

The authors would like to acknowledge and thank Allison West and Ibrahim Mahfouz who were fellow members of the Badiou reading group in Berlin, participated in the meeting with Alain Badiou in Paris, and helped transcribe the text of the two-hour encounter with him. We also thank Isabelle Vodoz for her hospitality and keen intellectual engagement during the Paris meeting. The authors have abridged and edited the transcript for better flow of ideas and clarity, while taking care not to alter the meaning.

Linda Herrera, a social anthropologist, is professor in the department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of the Global Studies in Education program. Her work deals with the politics of education, critical democracy, media, and youth policy and movements in North Africa and West Asia.

Dina El-Sharnouby is a DRS honors Post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the Free University (FU) in Berlin. She obtained her PhD from the department of Political Science at FU. Before her PhD, she obtained her bachelors and masters in Anthropology and Sociology from the American University in Cairo. She has published in form of journal articles and occasionally writes opinion pieces in English for openDemocracy and in German for Die Zeit. Her research interests are on youth, revolutions, the Middle East and Egypt in specific, political participation, and processes of democratization.