In Egypt the elite may have changed, but the revolution continues
Jack Shenker in Cairo
An opponent of President Morsi argues with his supporters near the presidential palace in Cairo. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP
Every government institution in the world boasts high levels of security, but here the sensation of being an unwelcome trespasser in the vicinity of power struck a chord with something deeper.
The vast majority of Egyptians have been told throughout history that they are little more than interlopers in the closed rooms where decisions over their lives, community and environment are made; this is a nation where the political elite has always viewed the wider population as so many static pieces, devoid of agency and in need of being controlled and pacified through a fluid web of top-down munificence and brutal repression.
That authoritarian conception of the state remained entrenched regardless of the differing ideologies and motivations of those who ruled, from colonial officials to the post-1952 military dictatorship, from Hosni Mubarak's kleptocrats to the army junta that managed the so-called "transition" to democracy.
And it remains today, under the rule of a Muslim Brotherhood whose critique of Egypt's problems is moral rather than structural, whose vision of power is exclusionary instead of pluralistic.
All these regimes have variously claimed the mantle of revolutionary legitimacy and attempted to seize a narrative of progressive change. All have deployed crude symbolism – nationalistic and religious – to turn Egyptian against Egyptian in an effort to solidify their power and maintain the status quo. And all have resorted to raw violence when faced with opposition.
It is that authoritarian state that the Egyptian revolution has been ranged against since January 2011. Some well-intentioned commentators have bemoaned how the utopia of the original "18 days" in Tahrir Square has given way to bloodshed, how the unity of so many Egyptians in rejecting Mubarak has sadly dissipated into internecine strife.
But they forget that this has never been and never could be a pacifist revolt: more than 100 police stations were burned to the ground on 28 January 2011 as revolutionaries met state violence with resistance of their own and sought to beat the regime's security apparatus off the streets. And although the "Islamists v secularists" faultline is not irrelevant, it is also not the primary lens through which to understand the latest scenes.
There never was a golden struggle that came to a glorious conclusion when Mubarak relinquished power, only for civil warfare to subsequently blot the copybook of "New Egypt". There is one ongoing struggle, against a state that seeks to deny Egyptians any genuine empowerment and a voice in their own futures, and its latest iteration is playing out on the streets of Heliopolis this week.
Unlike his predecessors, Mohamed Morsi was elected democratically at the ballot box, but like his predecessors his notion of government is narrow, conservative and anything but democratic. Despite his rhetoric about the revolutionary martyrs, the security apparatus that killed them remains virtually intact under Brotherhood rule.
In Morsi's first 100 days as president, rights organisations recorded 88 cases of police torture, resulting in 34 deaths. Opposition, be it official or on the street, is viewed as a conspiratorial enemy to be blitzed, not a legitimate element of political life.
For evidence just look at the draft constitution, not the content (though that is alarming enough) but the process. Written almost exclusively by old, Islamist men, the document is now being rammed through via the ousting of dissenting voices and Morsi's unilateral constitutional decree that puts a metaphorical gun to the heads of the electorate: vote yes to my constitution, or reaffirm my extra-judicial dictatorship.
Democracy is about more than just a single ballot paper every four years, and Egypt's revolution is about more than just formal, institutional democracy. Since early 2011, ordinary Egyptians have messily, heroically and relentlessly muscled their way into the arena of political power. Never mind Tahrir – from Nile Delta villages to Bedouin tribal lands and urban slums, communities are tearing down the outdated suffocating contours delineating who gets to have a say, who gets to make a dynamic choice about the world around them.
The old elite game of making decisions at the top and allowing access to state resources only through an extensive patronage network, the flipside of which is violent repression, no longer works; the only problem is that those wedded to a moribund vision of the authoritarian state, including the Brotherhood, don't seem to have noticed yet.
An Egyptian acquaintance of mine recently compared the Brotherhood's ascension to political dominance to a man who has fought his way, bloodied and bruised, to the bridge of the Titanic and triumphantly lays his hand on the wheel – just as the whole edifice is beginning to sink.
The ship is no longer fit to navigate a fast-changing ocean, and the Brotherhood's refusal to acknowledge that the old political toolkit is broken is what has brought us to where we are today.
This political elite lacks both the capability and willingness to genuinely pursue revolutionary justice and open up the country's mechanisms of power, from the local to the national, to ordinary people. And that means that for many – including millions who voted Morsi for president, and don't share the current leadership's rigid authoritarianism and neoliberal orthodoxy – expectations have not been met and the grassroots revolution continues.
Any social upheaval always consists of one no and many yesses, and it is partly that panoply of yesses that has prevented a coherent, formalised pro-revolution and anti-Morsi opposition current from establishing a presence on the national stage.
Many revolutionaries on the ground are rightly suspicious of elder opposition grandees – some of whom are tainted by association with the politics of the Mubarak era – and argue that such figures from the past can only ever jockey for position inside the existing structures, rather than engage in the radical re-imagination of Egypt that some are striving for.
But, however limited, the arrival this month of something resembling a unified platform of formal dissent, now led by Mohamed ElBaradei – the conditions for which have only been made possible by the courage of those fighting for their lives on the street – could be a significant step forward.
It makes it more difficult for Morsi's regime to credibly dismiss street protests as wild, isolated acts of treason, especially when combined with growing evidence of unrest within the ranks of officialdom (presidential advisers resigning, foreign ambassadors refusing to preside over constitutional referendum voting in their embassies).
The convergence of mass demonstrations and establishment disquiet, feeding off each other and gaining momentum with each passing day, is a powerful game-changer, reminiscent of how things felt during those hallowed 18 days. For Morsi, the option of doing nothing and sitting it out now appears increasingly untenable.
On Tuesday I walked with Mariam, the woman who grew up in Heliopolis, as she moved freely along the wall of the presidential palace, right down the same street which she remembers from her youth as a place of state intimidation. An hour or so earlier protesters had broken through police lines. Now Mariam posed for photos by the main door of the palace, underneath a huge emblem of an eagle – the nation's coat of arms – on to which someone had scrawled "Fuck Morsi" and "ACAB" (All cops are bastards).
Many Egyptians would be horrified at such sentiments, but their very presence on the palace wall indicates why this revolution is not disappearing any time soon. Times have changed and, both figuratively and literally, the country's population is at the gates of power. No elite that ignores this fact can expect to survive for long.