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Riding the revolution

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Ahmed Arafa

Ahmed Arafa

Ever since reading Khaled Al Khamissi’s Taxi a few years ago, I’ve been striking up conversations with taxi drivers in Egypt at almost any chance I get. One of my cousins, also a fan of the book, has a neat trick: Go for a random topic, x, and simply ask the driver: “What is your view on x, yasta?” Then sit back and listen to what the man (where are these elusive female taxi drivers I’ve heard about?) has to say.

More often than not, you’ll be treated to a delightfully lengthy and meandering diatribe/paean/mawal with perhaps as many twists and turns, irrelevant tangents, and abrupt stops as the driving itself. Egyptian taxi drivers, once you start them talking, possess a wonderful, almost pathological inability to stick to one subject, so this usually makes for an entertaining ride.

I remember one driver (how can I forget this guy?) who was definitely either on amphetamines or clinically insane, and whose trigger-happy conversational inventory (which he showcased after my innocent “What’s your view on x” question; I can’t for the life of me remember what x was in this case), included topics as disparate and diverse as weight-loss; smoking; why Tawfiq Okasha should be our next president (this was in 2011); how “the inventor of Facebook” (Wael Ghonim) is currently “drowning in a sea of money”; and, “one of my life’s biggest regrets”, not looting, as many had done, the abandoned police stations during the post-Friday of Rage security vacuum (“Ya basha, I’m telling you, the cops had all the best stuff there and all the best weapons, too”).

I was in another taxi recently (this guy was a little less talkative) and the driver and I started a conversation that is no doubt being repeated in every cab across the country these days. Mid-way through, I asked: “So what do you think is the way out of all this mess we’re in, ya hag?” (He was an elderly fellow, and very sweet, so I gladly broke one of my own rules and threw in an honorific).

“Look, ya bash-mohandes,” he said. “There will be a lot of blood spilled, a lot of blood, before any of this gets solved. Believe me, the Brotherhood won’t leave power. They’ve ridden the revolution; killed it. And now that they have what they want, they won’t let it go.”

It’s a demoralising, if not chilling answer, and one that was appended (by both of us) with a heavy sigh and a “rabena yostor” (“may God protect us”).

But this “rivers of blood” prognostication got me thinking, and more about the “riding” part than the “blood” part (maybe I just don’t want to go there right now).

The phrase “Riding the revolution” has become widespread ever since SCAF and then the Muslim Brotherhood took the reigns in Egypt one after the other. Both have been accused of taking a ride on the revolution’s back (the Brotherhood no doubt riding side-saddle), each in turn exploiting it for their own nefarious purposes.

Revolutions are tumultuous and wild creatures. But revolutions can also be controlled. As history is only too keen to remind us, revolutions can be hijacked and even killed. And like wild horses they can eventually be tamed, ridden and told where to go.

The Iranian Revolution had the Ayatollahs; the Cuban Revolution had Castro (Che is spinning in his grave right now, Fidel); The Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks; and so the wheel of history keeps spinning.

But if we want to talk about riding a revolution, it’s really the French one, that most promiscuous of uprisings (no surprises there), that merits special attention.

La Révolution Française had a whole roll-call of groups and individuals who were just itching for a ride: From the Jacobins and Maximilien de Robespierre, who initiated the period known as “The Terror” when tens of thousands of suspected Ancien Régime sympathizers, the nobles, the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie (feloul?), were hunted down and off-with-their-heads guillotined forthwith; to the corrupt, profiteering five-man Directory;  all the way to that short Corsican fellow grabbing the crown from Pope Pius VII during his coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral and declaring himself Emperor Napoleon I.

(And we’re only on two so far.)

Now, between the storming of the Bastille in 1789 (where historians traditionally place the start of the revolution) to the end of the rule of the Directory in 1799 (where historians traditionally place its end), is a period of ten years, either side of which you have an ineffectual absolutist despot (Louis XVI) and a tyrannical, megalomaniacal one (Napoleon I).

You could, then, perhaps be forgiven for thinking that after those ten agonising and chaotic years, complete with more wars, violence and changes of government than most countries can pack into a century, that the French hadn’t really achieved all that much.

And while it took until the next century for the demands of the revolution, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, to begin to materialise, the French had indeed achieved something incredible during that decade; nothing less than seismic, in fact. As the contemporary French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville put it: “The French made, in 1789, the greatest effort that has ever been made by any people to sever their history into two parts … to tear open a gulf between their past and their future.”

This “severing of history” was so drastic at times that it bordered on the comical. All symbols of the “dark past” were summarily, indeed almost clinically, purged. France, which could easily have challenged Spain at the time as the most staunchly Catholic nation in Europe, effectively abolished the religion, with Robespierre creating an alternative “Cult of Reason” as a kind of official atheistic state religion.

The Gregorian Calendar was dumped, replaced by a new calendar with twelve new names for the months, and with each month divided into three ten-day weeks, or décades, and beginning on 22 September 1792, “Year One” from that time on; the date of the formation of the French Republic.

And let’s not forget, executing Le Roi. No longer would the French be “subjects” to a divinely-ordained King backed by the Catholic Church, they would be free Citoyens of an aggressively secular republic.

Tocqueville may be right that this cultural and ideological upheaval is without historical precedent. But it does have heirs.

During the build-up to 25 January, I must admit I scoffed at those organising the protests online: Egyptians will never revolt, I said; we are too docile, too fatalistic, too submissive to whichever ruler happens to be wielding the whip. 7,000 years of accumulated bad habits meant that the ruler has been regarded more-or-less as a god; from the Pharaohs (in their case, literally), all the way to Mubarak.

The revolution has indeed been ridden, hijacked, and, if you’re of a pessimistic bent, killed. But I just don’t buy that last part.

I recently read an article where an interviewee claimed the only thing the revolution had achieved thus far was tearing down that seemingly impregnable barrier of fear. I agree wholeheartedly with that statement; though not the tone.

On 25 January, we saw how Egyptians, like the French, severed their own history in two: the crippling, humiliating barrier of fear was broken. That most Egyptian of all Egyptian taboos (and there are many), “blaspheming” against the Pharaoh, our baba, was unceremoniously dumped into the dustbin of history.

At this critical impasse we have, really, only two choices: We can become deflated, docile and submissive once again, or we can look reality squarely in the face.

And the reality is simple: Dissent is now very much in our blood, “fear” is now a word that has been violently excised, French-style, from our collective dictionary; and, there is simply no way back from here; no Pharoah-cum-god, no “divinely-ordained” Roi, no Supreme Guide, even, will ever change that. Finis.

“Egypt is not France”, certainly, but nor is it Iran or Cuba or Russia.

And when this revolution does eventually achieve its goals of “Bread, freedom and social justice” (“The revolution continues” is no longer a protest slogan; it’s a truism), the gulf between our past and our future will have become truly unbridgeable.

I just hope we don’t have to wade through rivers of blood in order to get there.

Rabena yostor.

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