Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution of 2011 was the beginning of a renaissance in the region and an undeniable source of inspiration. However, it was the 25 January Revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that provided the impetus for a series of revolutions across the Arab world from east to west; the only thing that could and did stop it were unprecedented levels of brutality and ferocity on the part of the deep state. We had never seen anything like this in all of Egypt’s history.
The slogan of 25 January – “Bread, Freedom and Social Equality” – did not only pose a threat to Arab regimes but also threatened many economic and political systems around the world. Arab and other systems do not allow freedom of thought and expression, or the development of an independent and functioning political system.
One cannot assume that the groups involved in the revolutions knew the political depths of all of these factors; however, a person who revolts against the system understands the difficulty of rising up for the sake of having a piece of bread on the table. They understand the nature of the systematic oppression and subordination was imposed on the people by their respective regimes, which is often expressed in the form of rising food prices. The small uprisings that took place in Egypt over the course of three decades were ignored by the regime; this is true of the 1977 bread uprising as well as the protest strikes of 2008, which resulted in arrests and the loss of jobs. The question of national security is often used as an excuse by the regime to maintain the status quo. Moreover, a citizen’s understanding of national security and citizenship is tied to what the government claims is in the nation’s best interests.
When it comes to the uprising in Tahrir Square, the people were not only threatening the status quo in Egypt through their demand for social equality and basic human rights; they were also threatening the status quo of the Arab regimes as a whole and the specific role that the US and Israel have required Egypt to play since Camp David. Thus, any change in Egypt threatened to bring about changes on a greater scale in the Arab world and would also have changed the balance of power in the fight against Israel. Egypt’s role has to been to deter any pan-Arab conflicts with Israel and any changes to the Egyptian regime would require the US to reconsider its allies and options in the Middle East.
The people of Egypt have long been tormented by a loaf of bread and yet, the citizens’ right to have this loaf of bread would require the country to distance itself from the conditions that have been imposed by global financial institutions, especially the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The slogans and chants created in Tahrir Square were a threat to the elite and the regime, and served as a red line for the world’s financial establishment. The idea of freedom and social equality in a single slogan was considered to be a danger in itself even though some members of the elite could accept the concept of liberation and freedom in a very narrow liberal sense. Western governments, for instance, love certain aspects of freedom and social justice provided that they do not threaten the nation’s economic and political interests.
Social justice is not merely a beautiful slogan filled with sunshine and hope but a serious demand that requires radical political changes, primarily the dismantling and rebuilding of the current system from the top down. These changes would be reflected in a new constitution and certain laws and regulations that we could hear echoing in the squares of western and Arab capitals alike. The 25 January Revolution placed the people in front of a force that they were not prepared to fight despite the fact that their powerful calls for social could be heard loud and clear around the world. These aspirations have since been targeted by a counter-revolution that has been justified by the fear of Islamists; while some may understand those fears, it is imperative that we return to our demands for “Bread, Freedom and Social Equality”.