Comparing ‘populist’ revolutions: Ukraine and Egypt


By Vladimir Ivlev

“The ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder.” – Slavoj Žižek, “First As Tragedy, Then As Farce” (2008)

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the overreaching Soviet social and political structure was replaced with swift liberalization of the markets and a bright promise of democracy. Yet, ironically, the Soviet structures of corruption and authoritarianism remained, giving the elite free reign over the new national civil and economic playgrounds. Two countries, Ukraine and Egypt, both having history in socialist policy, revolted against corruption at more or less concurrently.

The 2011 Egyptian Revolution

Up until the ’70s, under Nasser Egypt maintained a socialist economic policy, transferring all industry to the public sector and engaging in land reforms, abolishing political influence of major land owners. Sadat, however, allowed what he called “Infitah”, or “opening the door” to private investments. While, to the USA’s relief, the policy liberalised the economy and created free markets, its overzealous abolition of securities granted to the poor negated socialism to the system that we see today, “socialism for the rich”. Sadat’s government rewarded its allies creating a loyal power base that monopolised land, goods and commodities. The lower classes that had benefitted from Nasser’s regime, were now stuck in an increasingly “marginalised, stagnant and low-paying public sector” (Tarek Osman, Egypt on the Brink). Whilst most critics pinpoint Infitah’s shortcomings on its rapid deployment, at this point it should be obvious what happens when political power becomes the jockey of economic freedom.

This oligarchic structure was sustained with ever increasing military foundation till Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. Mubarak, following the tradition of military authority under Sadat, enacted a series of bureaucratic enforcements suppressing political freedoms and freedom of speech, as well as regulations that allowed him to accumulate substantial personal wealth through bribes and corruption, approximating $70 billion. Together with increasing unemployment and police brutality consolidating administrative control, this fuelled the January 2011 revolution, harbingered by youth groups and labor unions from different socio-economic and religious backgrounds. The revolution ended with 900 dead and 6000 injured and in February 2011 Vice President Omar Suleiman announced the official resignation of Mubarak, leaving administrative control to the military until a new government was formed 6 months later.

The results of the revolution are debatably unsatisfactory. While the main mantra of every protester was “bread, freedom, social justice and dignity” (note “dignity”), very little was achieved. Whereas minimum wage was increased, curfews were ended and Mubarak was removed from power, most reforms are still disputed, even though claimed officially to be enacted. For one, the Ministry of Information, despite having its minister Anas el-Fiqqi fired, still uses mass media for propaganda purposes. And, most importantly, the political structures that allowed figures like Mubarak and his sons to accumulate wealth and power through corruption and lobbying are still in place. Even though the next president was the first ever democratically elected head of state in the history of Egypt, Muhammed Morsi continued the tradition of the Egyptian elite by abusing power and unlimited control over the state, allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to have a big say in Egypt’s constitution. He was then ousted and replaced by another member of the Egyptian military elite, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who is facing economic turmoil. Not much has changed and it would do a massive injustice to the hundreds dead to call this revolution a failure, but we must learn from the mistakes of the past. Did the issue lie in how well-established the elite was in Egyptian politics? To the point that even the most incremental reform can only be achieved with the most violent of coups? Or was the movement itself at fault?

The 2014 Ukrainian Revolution

Not unlike Mubarak’s, Yanukovych’s presidency in Ukraine was riddled with cronyism, nepotism, abuse of police forces, and election frauds. Yanukovych, having served as governor for Donetsk, had numerous close ties to the tycoons in the Donbas region – the region surrounding Donetsk. He appointed successful business people exclusively from that area to work in his administration as police, judiciary and tax services. The horrifying result was that almost 46% of the government’s development budget went to that area. The entire Ukrainian political structure was controlled by a few “elite industrious tycoons” from Donbas. The wealthiest of them being the president’s own son, Aleksandr Yanukovych. The president had an official estimated net worth of $12 billion, with $70 billion more being transferred to foreign banks. His immense and grossly extravagant mansion has been appropriated as a museum of corruption by the Ukrainian people.

For years, Ukraine sought to fix its economy and government through the application for membership in the European Union and the enactment of EU standards. By 2013, that dream was reaching reality with a looming association agreement with the EU that would provide funds in return for liberalising reforms. Unfortunately, Ukraine has the geopolitical disadvantage of neighbouring Russia and Belarus, who saw the agreement and the subsequent NATO integration as a threat to their interests. While President Yanukovych promised to go through with the EU agreement, he backed out of it at the last moment and instead pursued a bail-out loan from Russia against the wishes of his constituents. This would have left Ukraine in debt to the Russian government, which in turn would have generously “puppeted” the Ukrainian oligarchic system as it did with Belarus and Georgia. In response to this very real threat, peaceful demonstrations ensued outside of the parliament on the night of 21st November 2013, demanding resignation of the president and enactment of the EU agreement. The protests were named the Euromaidan and lasted 9 days until police special forces or “Berkut” dispersed protesters with violent impunity. The police brutally beat the protesters during the night, per witness testimony from some of my participating relatives. This unjustified action caused larger protests that lasted until 16th January 2014, when the government reacted with anti-protest laws (rightfully dubbed the Dictatorship laws) and organised pro-government rallies. This desperate attempt to maintain authority enraged the Ukrainian population, who started riots all over the country, officially jump-starting the revolution – or revolution of “dignity” (note “dignity”). From 19th January until 22nd February, the day when Yanukovych fled the country and was immediately impeached by the parliament, there were over 200,000 protesters in the centre of Kiev. The revolution resulted in 100 people dead (now called “The Heavenly Hundred”), most of whom were killed by Russian-trained snipers, along with 2000 injured. Russia protested the results of the revolution by illegally annexing Crimea and backing pro-Russian forces fighting in Donbas, the region where the ex-president had his close ties in.

The results, however, are worryingly similar to those of the Egyptian revolution. The previous corrupt administration was ousted out, authoritarian laws like the anti-protest legislation were repealed, communist symbols were brought down as a complementary gesture and Ukraine is on its very slow and rocky path to NATO and EU integration. Notwithstanding this, just like in the Egyptian case, the same political structures that allowed Yanukovych to consolidate so much power and wealth are still in place. This is clearly evidenced by the current president, Petro Poroshenko, ex-owner of the confectionary empire “Roshen”, also involved in the “Panama Papers” for setting up an offshore account at the height of the war in Donbas. It doesn’t take much to figure out that the only way he got elected is because he could fund his political campaign, as he was one of the richest people in Ukraine. The issue no longer becomes about how the elite retain power, but rather how they attain it.

Comparatively, Egypt and Ukraine are strikingly similar. Post-socialist corruption and misuse of authority led to populist revolutions that resulted in incremental change, only a bump until more members of the elite could assume power once again. Turkey would have been one of them hadn’t the coup failed. Does the issue lie in the centralisation and consolidation of power? Or are the revolutionaries at fault? Society, being as politically apathetic as it is, seems to be no longer capable of rising behind an emancipatory cause. Citizens stay complacent until the government crosses the proverbial line, merely reacting to it with the fundamental emotion of panic, rallying behind a movement that seeks to overthrow the old regime, but that has no idea of how to replace it. History doesn’t just repeat itself. The Ukrainian and Egyptian revolutions will remain tragedies of democracy, and their likely future incarnations will be seen as a farce.

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