Column: Was it a revolution?

Without meaning to, I ended up writing three related columns on the Egyptian revolution and Edsa 1986, and the light they shed on each other. This first column was published on February 15, 2011. 

PREPARED a second column on the daang matuwid as the standard by which we should measure the Aquino administration’s performance, especially where it comes up distressingly short (working title: “Crooks in the daang matuwid”). But the sweep of history in Egypt and some sweeping remarks in this newspaper and in several comment threads online about the nature and legacy of Edsa 1986 force me to leave that for another day.

Where to begin? The lead in yesterday’s editorial suggests a stance all Filipinos can assume as we revel in the triumph of people power in Egypt and anticipate next week’s 25th anniversary of people power in Edsa: “For a Filipino to recall the glory days of the Edsa revolution in 1986 is not to claim credit for the triumphant 18-day revolution in Egypt that ousted Hosni Mubarak the other day. It is to understand the events in Egypt on our own terms, using our own categories, through the prism of our own history. And it is also to claim Edsa all over again.”

Consider this column, then, as an experiment in recovery.

As far as I can tell, nobody hesitates to call the Egyptian uprising a revolution. The word is used repeatedly, and in many senses: in the technological (in a very practical sense the anti-Mubarak protests were organized through Facebook and broadcast through Twitter); in the social (the leadership of tech-savvy college-educated youth and the presence of very many women and quite a number of children in the protests were largely unprecedented in the experience of the so-called Arab street); not least, in the political (the ouster of Mubarak, who controlled Egypt since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, was the only demand that all protesters agreed on—and the main achievement of the protests).

Above all, it was a revolution in the factual sense. The Egyptian protesters poured into the streets (not just of Cairo, but of Alexandria and other cities too) in the growing conviction that they were in fact making a revolution. Various interviews with Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who helped organize the protests and whose detention and dramatic reappearance gave the protests its second wind, testify to this self-identification. (Ghonim, appropriating the language of his industry, called the Egyptian uprising “Revolution 2.0.”)

But it is only a matter of time before someone, perhaps with a political science background or underground political experience, will point out that whatever the Egyptians did, it wasn’t, strictly speaking, a revolution. It wasn’t a revolution in the accepted dictionary sense: “the forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favor of a new system” (from the Concise Oxford). Or at least it doesn’t appear that way yet; after all, Mubarak’s immediate replacement was not his civilianized, hastily appointed vice president, but a military junta. And it wasn’t a revolution in the Marxist sense: the rise of a new ruling class out of the ashes (or on the unbleached bones) of another.

But the Egyptians who took to the streets, and the media organizations who covered it live and in full, all saw it as a revolution. Who, really, is to say they got it wrong?

Recent Philippine history is a cautionary guide. The people power uprising that forced the Marcoses and their cronies to flee in 1986 was seen at that time as a revolution. It was a revolution in the technological sense: to the old medium of radio was added the then-new medium of cable news (for many months after Edsa, videotapes of CNN’s hourly broadcasts during those four days in February continued to sell briskly, prized souvenirs of new media). It was a revolution in the social sense: the unprecedented use of civilians to protect the military, at first suggested by Butz Aquino (to the consternation of many), and then perhaps less than an hour later by Jaime Cardinal Sin (and then everyone thought, what a great idea!), seized the global imagination. It was a revolution in the political sense too: It aimed to oust Marcos—and succeeded gloriously.

Above all, it was a revolution in the factual sense. The millions of people who took part in Edsa (and in various town plazas or public squares throughout the country) saw themselves as part of a revolution, and the journalists who covered it described this self-identification.

Who is to say they got it wrong? But very quickly the revolutionary bloom came off the Edsa rose. Observers noted that there was no change in the ruling class; the infighting in the new government consumed our attention; the series of attempted coups sapped our morale. I have not yet traced the first instance when Edsa was downgraded, first to a revolt, then to a mere uprising, but it must have been said a mere month or so after.

But this seems to me to be all wrong. Should we deny the revolutionary character of 1789 because it led to the imperial ambitions of Napoleon, or that of 1776 because it led to George W. Bush?

The near-universal consensus that the Egyptian uprising of 2011 was a revolution comes at the right time then; it reminds us that there is more than one way to define a revolution. This reminder is an unexpected gift that allows us, 25 years after Edsa, to reclaim that sustained act of massive, unexpectedly successful non-violent resistance as the revolution we and the local and global media then understood it to be.

It was very different in 1896. When Bonifacio launched what he called ang “huling pakikipaglaban” (the final conflict), the Katipuneros saw themselves as waging a revolution. But I cannot think of an international newspaper which called it as such. Whether it was the New York Times, or the Nieuwe Tilsburgsche Courant in Holland or even the sympathetic Hong Kong Telegraph, it was always an insurrection, less often a rebellion. We, and the media, have certainly come a long way since then.



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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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