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Tahrir: A Project(ion) of Revolutionary Change

Tahrir: A Project(ion) of Revolutionary Change

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Published by Brecht De Smet
This is a chapter from the book on the interdisciplinary concept of “collaborative project”, edited by Andy Blunden. The goal of the article is to reflect on the events of Tahrir as a form of project(ion), and, conversely, to look at the notion of project through the lens of the 25 January Revolution. Please contact me if you have any remarks, comments, or criticisms regarding the text.
This is a chapter from the book on the interdisciplinary concept of “collaborative project”, edited by Andy Blunden. The goal of the article is to reflect on the events of Tahrir as a form of project(ion), and, conversely, to look at the notion of project through the lens of the 25 January Revolution. Please contact me if you have any remarks, comments, or criticisms regarding the text.

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Published by: Brecht De Smet on Mar 20, 2014
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07/13/2014

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© 󰁫󰁯󰁮󰁩󰁮󰁫󰁬󰁩󰁪󰁫󰁥 󰁢󰁲󰁩󰁬󰁬 󰁮󰁶, 󰁬󰁥󰁩󰁤󰁥󰁮, 󰀲󰀰󰀱󰀴 | 󰁤󰁯󰁩 󰀱󰀰.󰀱󰀱󰀶󰀳/󰀹󰀷󰀸󰀹󰀰󰀰󰀴󰀲󰀶󰀱󰀲󰀲󰀸_󰀰󰀱󰀵
008
􀀱 Interview with Haisam Hassan, Cairo, 7 March 2011.􀀲 Interview with Ahmed al-Gourd, Cairo, 24 March 2011.󰀳 Interview with Salah Abd al-Azim, Cairo, 22 March 2011.
󰁃󰁨󰁡󰁰󰁴󰁥󰁲 󰀱󰀲
Tahrir 
 A Project(ion) of Revolutionary Change
 Brecht De Smet 
 The Project of Revolution
On 25 January 2011 a diverse group of Egyptian social media activists, leftists,  youth organizations, political opposition forces, human rights proponents, Islamists, and hardcore football supporters (the so-called Ultras) had called for a demonstration in Tahrir Square. The demands of the organizers were rela-tively modest: “…the sacking of the country’s interior minister, the cancelling of Egypt’s perpetual emergency law, which suspends basic civil liberties, and a new term limit on the presidency that would bring to an end the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak” (Shenker, 2011). No-one expected the protests to attract tens of thousands of ordinary Egyptians, let alone become the harbin-ger of revolution. “Before the revolution it was a success to have 100 people demonstrating in the street. So we were laughing: tomorrow we will have a revolution,”󐀱 leftist journalist Haisam Hassan recalled. “We wanted to chal-lenge the cops by protesting that day. A lot of people were surprised to see that  we had more than 25,000 people at Tahrir that day and things escalated from there,”󐀲 shrugged youth activist Ahmed al-Gourd. Political cartoonist Salah  Abd al-Azim had originally planned his wedding on 22 January. When he heard of the protest organized on the 25th, he decided to postpone his marriage to the 26th, so he could participate in the demonstration: “I imagined it would only be one day of protests as usual. So I delayed my wedding to 26 January. So on 25 January we went to the protests. No one of my guests could make it to my  wedding on the 26th, because half of them was protesting and the other half  was escaping the police!”􀀳The security apparatus was surprised by the massive turn-out and followed the events rather passively at 󐁦󰁩rst. In the afternoon, Central Security forces tried to break up the protests with water cannons, sound bombs, batons,
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󰁔󰁡󰁨󰁲􀁩󰁲 
008
rubber bullets, and tear gas, and the peaceful demonstrations turned violent as protesters retaliated with rocks and bricks. Central Cairo became a war zone  with continuous street battles between police forces and tens of thousands of demonstrators. The protests in Cairo sparked o􀁦f massive demonstrations in  Alexandria and in cities in the Delta, the Canal Zone, and Upper Egypt. The next 18 days saw an ebb and 󰁦󰁬ood of mass protests and violent counter- measures, throughout which the original tame demands were transformed into the revolutionary slogans of “the people want the fall of the regime,” and “bread, freedom, and social justice,” Tahrir Square in Cairo was occupied, and in the whole country police stations and the party o􀁦󐁦󰁩ces of the ruling National Democratic Party (󰁮󰁤󰁰) were burned down. Suddenly people realized they  were making a revolution and that there was no way back. Their mass uprising eventually pressured Hosni Mubarak, who had been Egypt’s President since 1981, to step down.In this chapter I investigate the process of the 25 January uprising as a collaborative project. On the one hand, by deploying the concept of project, I hope to disentangle some of the theoretical knots in the study of revolutions and the understanding of the current Egyptian revolution in particular. On the other hand, by confronting the concept of project collaboration with a speci󐁦󰁩c case, I wish to explore the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to the study of revolutionary movements. From this perspective, my discussion of the 25 January Revolution is guided by 󐁦󰁩ve important theoretical questions.Firstly, I address the
developmental 
 and
historical 
 dynamic of revolutionary collaboration. Where does a project “begin,” where does it “end”? Revolutions are not created ex nihilo: they are the continuation, expansion, replacement, or transformation of collaborations that came before, and, in turn, constitute the building blocks of new projects. I explain that the 25 January Revolution  was not only a project of revolution, but it also represented a revolution of existing projects. Secondly, I investigate the
boundaries
 of a project. What is internal and external to a speci󐁦󰁩c collaboration? How can we distinguish the object of investigation from its context? I suggest that the notion of a
unit of analysis
 o􀁦fers a way out of this problematic. With regard to the Egyptian upris-ing, “Tahrir” is taken up as a unit of analysis of the whole process, a “nested” project within the wider project of revolution. Thirdly, how is the life-process of projects organized? Projects are not static “things,” but they grow, degener-ate, and/or die in the course of their development. Some projects remain brief, ad hoc collaborations, while others may exist, in one shape or another, for hundreds of years. The project of Tahrir saw a rapid and non-linear sequence of “
leading collaborations
” – demonstration, occupation, festival, and governance – which each determined the further development of the whole
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󰁄󰁥 󰁓󰁭󰁥󰁴
008
process. Fourthly, Tahrir was not only a project, but also a
 projection
, in the sense that its saliency interpellated and shaped other collaborations. Tahrir  was able to step outside its own boundaries – the physically shared social space of hundreds of thousands people – because it was literally projected in the liv-ing rooms of the whole world, inspiring movements from Occupy Wall Street in New York to the Indignados in Madrid. Fifthly, how are the
activities
 and
 goals
 of a project interconnected? With regard to the 25 January Revolution, it  was the original goal of contesting the corrupt regime that brought together tens of thousands of people. However, it was the development of the various actions interpellated by this goal that created new, revolutionary goals, which in turn constituted new forms of collaboration. As goal-driven collaborations, projects are found to exist at the crossroads of
teleology
 and
immanence
. Finally, I discuss how the conceptual limits of using Tahrir as the cell-form of the whole revolution also illustrate the real developmental pathologies of and challenges for the revolution.
 Past and Present
Seeing that little had changed over the course of two years after the fall of Mubarak, labor historian Joel Beinin claimed that: “The January 25 Revolution is not over. Rather, it has not yet occurred” (Beinin, 2013). The authoritarian state apparatus was largely untouched by the mass protests and there was no fundamental transformation of the political and economic relations of power in Egypt. Beinin rightly pointed out that revolutions are “…social, political, and economic transformations involving social movements and political mobiliza-tions, one or more moments of popular uprising, and a longer-term process of reconstructing a new socio-political order involving the replacement of the former ruling coalition with new forces of a substantially di􀁦ferent social char-acter and interests” (Beinin, 2013). The popular uprising of 25 January did not represent the whole process of revolution, and the palace coup by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (󰁳󰁣󰁡) was all but the end of the reconstruction of a new order. As the
outcomes
 of the uprising at the level of state power were not (yet) revolutionary, Beinin refrained from categorizing the whole process as a revolution. This outcome-centered approach echoed the works of Theda Skocpol (1979) and Samuel Huntington (2006), who emphasized rapid trans-formations in the structure of societies as a key element of revolutions. This perspective turns a particular outcome of the revolutionary process into a pri-mary determinant of its categorization, rendering the notion of a failed revolu-tion problematic, as its success – i.e. the conquest, break-up, and transformation
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