Peter Beaumont: The Bits that Don't Fit

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Revolutionary hallucinations

I covered a large part of the “18 days” – the Egyptian revolution of 2011, arriving in Cairo from Tunisia, where I had reported on that revolution too. In the London Review of Books Hugh Roberts has written a piece provocatively titled The Revolution that Wasn’t. While I don’t disagree with his argument that the recent coup in Cairo was far from a “second revolution” as some of its proponents claimed, I can’t agree with his depiction of the earlier upheaval.


Cairo skyline 2013 looking towards Zamalek copyright Peter Beaumont

Here’s Roberts:

Western opinion has had difficulty working out what to think, or at any rate what to say, about Egypt. It now seems that the pedlars of hallucinations have been cowed and it is no longer fashionable to describe the events of 3 July in Cairo as a ‘second revolution’. But to describe them as a counter-revolution, while indisputably more accurate, presupposes that there was a revolution in the first place. The bulk of Western media commentary seems still to be wedded to this notion. That what the media called ‘the Arab spring’ was a succession of revolutions became orthodoxy very quickly. Egypt was indispensable to the idea of an ‘Arab spring’ and so it had to have had a revolution too.

The difficulty with Roberts’ analysis is that it starts from a misconception. As modern theorists of revolution have consistently pointed out the reality is that most occurrences that we think of us revolutions actually fail in their objectives. Even revolutions that are ultimately successful are often characterised by long periods of competition and set backs – think of the French revolutionary period. He sets up a series of straw men – “the journalism of attachment” with his implicit criticism of that – but then confines his critique to the western media’s presentation of the Egyptian revolution, setting that up as the standard by which we should judge its ultimate success or failure in the narrowest of terms.

He may be right that, in the long term, the Egyptian revolution was a failure, but I believe it is too early to tell. To deny it was a revolution at all, however, is the real ‘hallucination’.


2 comments on “Revolutionary hallucinations

  1. David Rose
    September 11, 2013

    Well done for resisting the temptation to quote Chou En Lai’s probably apocryphal remark that it was too early to tell whether the French Revolution had been a success. But it was a revolution: it did mark the end of the absolutist state. However, one might also argue that this did not become certain until 1830, 1848 or even 1871. Forces long stifled in Egypt were all unleashed at once, and it is, I am sure you are right, much too soon to be passing final judgements. As for attacking the journalism of attachment: fuck Hugh Roberts.

    • petersbeaumont
      September 11, 2013

      Not quite apocryphal. He was actually referring to the events of ’68 not the French revolution!

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