The Dignity Revolution

Egypt scholar Paul Sedra tells Sawiris to get serious about the social forces driving the revolution.
By: /
November 21, 2011
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On the evening of Thursday, Nov. 17, the Canadian International Council honoured Naguib Sawiris as Globalist of the Year. Frankly, I was disappointed with the CIC’s decision to honour Sawiris. In these days when the Occupy movement – springing forth from the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York’s Zuccotti Park – is so much in the news, the choice to honour one of the wealthiest men in the world seemed rather “tone-deaf,” to say the least. After all, one could hardly question Sawiris’s credentials as part of the “one per cent” now bearing the brunt of the critique of the Occupy protesters. Forbes ranks 57-year-old Sawiris at number 310 among the world’s wealthiest people, with his current net worth standing at $3.5 billion. He is the second-wealthiest Egyptian on the list – but second only to his own brother, Nassef Sawiris, whose net worth amounts to $5.6 billion. The Sawiris brothers came into such wealth through their family’s involvement with Orascom Telecom, one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies.

However, both the CIC and Sawiris point to the fact that the honouree supported the Jan. 25 revolution in Egypt, and that he has now developed the Free Egyptians Party, currently gearing up for parliamentary elections, the first round of which is scheduled for Nov. 28. I can only assume that it is Sawiris’s presumed involvement in the Arab Spring that is behind the CIC honour.

As a historian of modern Egypt, it was with great interest that I listened to Sawiris’s account of the Jan. 25 revolution and his own involvement in it. That account was a selective one at best – a reading of history that, not unlike that of the popular media, positions young people bearing smartphones at the centre of Egypt’s revolutionary movement. Of course, it comes as no surprise that a man so integrally involved in the telecommunications industry should point to telecommunications technology as having played an essential role in fostering the rise of the revolution. But this reading of history rings about as true as that proffered by the “instant analysts” of the Arab Spring – that Mark Zuckerberg should take credit for the revolution.

Egypt’s revolution was not a Facebook revolution. Nor was it a Twitter revolution, a BlackBerry revolution, or a laptop revolution. To argue such is fundamentally to obscure the social forces that were at work in the revolution. For if Facebook, Twitter, the BlackBerry, and the laptop were the revolutionaries’ chief weapons, then what of those without a smartphone or internet access? Were they relegated to the sidelines?

Regrettably, Sawiris’s remarks on receiving the CIC honour reeked of the condescension that is so common among Egypt’s wealthy. Among the principal targets of criticism in the speech were the “passive” Egyptian masses that have purportedly allowed “extremists” to seize the political initiative. I would have thought that the myth of the passive masses had received a fatal blow back in February when millions upon millions of Egyptians flooded into the streets, at great personal risk, to stand up and protest the injustices of the Mubarak regime. But, like British colonial officials of the 19th century, who insisted that the Egyptian peasant was congenitally apathetic, Sawiris suggests that the Egyptian masses are either “hoodwinked” by extremists or so unconcerned with politics as to not care about their country’s future.

What is so insidious about this rhetoric is that it casts aside the millions and millions of desperately poor Egyptians, whose primary concern in the revolution was not the freedom of speech and democracy that Sawiris made so much of in his remarks on Thursday. Their primary concern was social justice, and dismantling the neo-liberal economic order that permitted a man like Sawiris to amass such an obscenely large fortune, in a country where 40 per cent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. As Roy Prosterman has argued, the leadership of former president Hosni Mubarak led to six million rural Egyptians losing their farms and becoming sharecroppers. To grasp the impact that the Mubarak regime had on the Egyptian working class, one need only read Hossam el-Hamalawy’s moving profile of textile worker and labour activist Kamal el-Fayoumi: “After 25 years of service, Fayoumi’s basic salary as a skilled worker stands at LE500, amounting to LE950 with the allowances and bonuses.” LE950 amounted to roughly $170 monthly for Fayoumi.

As I write these words, revolution has returned to Tahrir Square. A million-Egyptian march is in the works for Tuesday, Nov. 22, after a weekend of brutal violence in which the military has once again attacked peaceful protesters. While the world media focus their attention upon Tahrir and interview the young urban activists who have contributed so much to the movement, take a moment to think of the millions of Egyptians beyond the frame, in places like Suez, Mansoura, and Mahalla al-Kubra – Egyptians Sawiris regards as passive, but who are no less anxious for change than the smartphone-wielding protesters in the square. What separates these millions from Sawiris is that they want much more than the freedom of speech and democracy of which he spoke on Thursday. They want their dignity acknowledged – a dignity that will only come with social justice.

Photo courtesy Reuters.