With the 2011 Arab uprisings, “revolution” reentered the lexicon of Arab politics. Intense public debates ensued over this essentially contested concept, one among many perplexing terms that Clifford Geertz, writing of culture, captured as “multiply defined, multiply employed, ineradicably imprecise. It is fugitive, unsteady, encyclopedic, and normatively charged.” A glimpse into how Arab publics, activists, politicians, and governments mobilized the wildly divergent meanings of revolution refreshes our understanding of language as a form of social power, an argumentative resource in the battle to construct political reality. Looking at Egypt, I argue that delineating the substance and stakes of these debates is a form of translation, and its cousin, interpretation, an attempt to recall meanings that have been lost to time and the disfigurations of counterrevolution.

In a forthcoming book, I retrace the conflicts that developed after the ouster of longtime president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. A constellation of seemingly antique concepts came alive as contenders honed them to advance competing claims to ultimate authority; sovereignty (siyada), constituent power (al-sulta al-ta’sisiyya), and majesty (hayba) moved from the pages of dry legal tomes to heated press conferences and television talk shows. In translating the politics of Egypt’s defeated revolution, I felt less like a conduit for the transfer of “local” meanings or the transcriber of representative Egyptian voices, and more like an interested intervener, piecing together an archive out of the scattered fragments, state documents, ephemera, and reams of newsprint produced during a confounding interregnum. I was selective, sifting through the staggering mounds of material to construct a defensible interpretation of the greatest political happening of my lifetime, working against what Edward Said in a different context identified as “the invidious disfiguring, dismembering, and disremembering of significant historical experiences that do not have powerful enough lobbies in the present and therefore merit dismissal or belittlement.”

Revolution, thawra, had a checkered career before 2011. It was a marquee concept of the anticolonial movements of the 1950s and 1960s, swiftly appropriated and yoked to the vanguardist claims of post-independence leaders, who repressed social divisions and independent political organization in the name of the national unity needed to battle imperialism, Israel, and the conservative monarchies in Iran and the Gulf. This is not to say that Arab politics was a void with no meaningful impetus for change before 2011, as implied by the metaphors of rebirth and awakening. Rather, the heterogeneous movements demanding change before 2011 did so in the name of democracy and human rights. As Asef Bayat argues, this was part of a global shift in the meaning of revolution from a byword for liberation and new foundings to an emblem of failures of the communist bloc. These were political times when “Revolution became a dirty word,” and it was democracy that carried the mantle of emancipation and the restoration of human dignity.

When revolution gained a new lease on life through the spectacular mass uprisings that felled four Arab autocrats in 2011-12, and two more in a second wave in 2019, what happened was not the rehabilitation of an essential meaning of the concept, but an explosion of the many meanings it had soaked up over centuries of human political experience. The pre-1789 denotation of revolution as revolt, the “attempt to turn over, to turn upside down, to make topsy-turvy, a normal political order: the low putting themselves against and in that sense above the high,” was the first to be put into play. The uprisings’ keystone chant, al-Shaʿb Yurid Isqat al-Nizam (“the people want the downfall of the regime”), first crowdsourced in Tunisia in 2011 then diffused throughout the region, most recently in the 2019 Iraqi and Lebanese uprisings, communicated this inversion. Both protesters and authorities were keenly aware of the radical potential of such upturning, which helps explain the protracted struggles over control of public spaces and the security forces’ use of lethal force to disband the mass sit-ins and encampments. Where protests succeeded in toppling the presidents-for-life, the inversion of the oppressive political relationship was made real, and became the fulcrum of post-dictatorship political contention. “People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people,” warned an English-language sign in Tahrir Square in February 2011. A variation was the Arabic-language graffiti that cropped up repeatedly on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria in 2011-2012: Khafi Minnina Ya Hukuma (“Fear us, O Government”).

Revolt was not the only connotation of revolution to enter Egypt’s suddenly expanded political vocabulary. As Alexander Motyl reminds, the concept is situated in at least three semantic fields—those of upheaval, change, and turmoil, each holding a family of sub-concepts. The anti-Mubarak coalition embodied in the Tahrir Square sit-in and branded “revolutionaries” (thuwwar) after his ouster mobilized the meaning of revolution-as-change, organizing a continuous series of “million-man” demonstrations (milyuniyya) to pressure the military generals who had seized power from Mubarak to dismantle the lineaments of his rule. Milyuniyyas compelled the generals to dismiss the cabinet Mubarak had appointed, as well as provincial governors and municipal councils, and put the former president and his sons and police commanders on trial for corruption and the killing of protesters. When the generals decided to extend the six-month timeframe of their governance to two years, more milyuniyyas and public outrage at further police killings of protesters compelled them to backtrack. Pro-revolution activists and even middle-of-the-road politicians repeatedly clashed with the generals over the pace and nature of change, correctly suspecting that the master strategy of the surviving state elites—not only generals but police chiefs, judges, and top bureaucrats—was to slow down rates of change and reimpose obedience to state authority.

Different visions of what counts as meaningful change caused recurrent splits in the anti-Mubarak coalition. A major rift developed between advocates of elections as the pathway to democratic control of state institutions, and proponents of milyuniyyas as the only way to defeat the state’s unreformed security fiefdoms. The Muslim Brothers and Salafis led the former camp, though they were by no means a united Islamist bloc, and various leftist, nationalist, and nonpartisan currents embraced street politics as the midwife of thoroughgoing change. This familiar rift between reformists and revolutionaries should not obscure an irony: the reformists, especially the Muslim Brothers with their nationwide organization, were the ones capable of filling streets with their cadres to pressure the generals and occasionally did so; secular groups’ forte was not sheer numbers, but effective use of print, social, and visual media to influence public opinion. The flux of revolutionary politics overturns our conventional understandings of relative political weights, revealing that seemingly unequal groups commanded different kinds of equally potent political resources.

The military generals on the self-constituted Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) first paid tribute to “the greatest revolution in Egypt’s history” and positioned themselves as siding with the people and “adopting the revolution.” At the same time, they consistently disseminated the meaning of revolution-as-turmoil, bringing into play the kin concepts of anarchy, chaos, and riot. In their extensive media interviews, decrees, and policing, after uttering platitudes of praise for “our great Egyptian people,” they framed the milyuniyyas and labor protests as a destructive force that imperiled the economy and intensified crime and public insecurity. They issued decrees criminalizing labor strikes and sit-ins, referred thousands of civilians accused of petty crimes to military tribunals, and when military personnel fired on and mowed down unarmed protesters, they denied the evident footage and asserted that a spectral “third party” (taraf talet) was responsible for the violence.

Before and after the July 3, 2013 coup that deposed the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brothers, defense minister-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi framed the military intervention as a necessary action to avert civil war and national ruin. Egyptian military generals’ definition of revolution in terms of breakdown and impending chaos is not an anomaly. As Arthur Stinchcombe states in an insightful obiter dictum, “The conservative tone of military thought on civil contention or riot, for example, comes from surrounding contentiousness with visions of doom.”

In encountering the maze of meanings of revolution in Egyptians’ public discourse, I was made aware of a basic truth that had long eluded me: that political action must also be understood as linguistic action. Political reality is constituted by deeds and words, or as Quentin Skinner insists, “words are also deeds.” How much more apt this is for junctures of intense political volatility where contenders vie for material power, to be sure, but by way of struggles to impose their definition of the situation. The positivist and Marxist separation of political argument from political action, the one dismissing it as mere rhetoric, the other subordinating it as epiphenomenal, misleads us into ignoring how political actors during times of uncertainty build their claims to recognition and authority.

An example may help illustrate the point. One of the most baffling episodes of Egypt’s revolutionary politics were the mass protests against President Morsi on June 30, 2013 calling on him to resign only one year into his term. Observers then and since were appalled by how “Egyptians” greeted the military’s removal of Morsi; as the Time magazine cover chided, “Egypt: World’s Best Protesters, World’s Worst Democrats.” Yet Egyptians were deeply divided between those who clamored for the ouster of the president, and those who filled streets en masse to defend his democratic legitimacy, even after a military-led massacre killed hundreds of them. Morsi came into office with precarious political capital (he squeaked by over his rival, a Mubarak crony, by just 882,751 votes), and was widely seen as “a president without power,” given the military’s seizure of significant executive powers shortly before he assumed office. In an attempt to block obstructionist courts, he issued a controversial executive decree that he rescinded two weeks later after a huge public outcry. His opponents seized the opening and launched a concerted campaign portraying Morsi as a power-grabbing dictator, a dopey front for his sinister political organization, and a traitor to the revolution. The point is not that these were contradictory claims, but that the president’s opponents engaged in rhetorical and material political work to create a reservoir of support for the idea that he was unfit to rule.

In search of a way to express the inseparability of political action and political argument in Egypt’s revolutionary uprising, I rummaged through the compendious archive of revolution, and came upon a niche concept: revolutionary situation. An idea with a curious RussianAmerican lineage, it makes sense of contenders’ mobilization of revolution’s multiple meanings by depathologizing such conflicts, placing them within a wider framework of revolution as a juncture of extreme political volatility. It helped me focus on the ambiguity and cacophony of Egypt’s 2011-2013 interregnum, not as a dysfunctional deviation from what real revolutions are, but as what happens when state authority comes under unprecedented challenge, but does not collapse.

While in the metaphorical archive, I learned anew some basic lessons about where concepts come from and how they travel. Because they rarely shed their prior meanings as they absorb new ones, there is an irreducible internal complexity to the historical social sciences’ master concepts. To our careless tendency to affix a single definition to a concept, often the most popular or recent one, Norberto Bobbio somewhat irritably admonishes, “Let it be said once and for all that the meaning acquired by the term ‘revolution’ after the French Revolution must not lead one to forget that the term was already being used in political language . . . even before, albeit in the weaker sense, of ‘mutation,’ or that seemed so after the big event.” John Dunn sounds a similar cautionary note, one counseling epistemological humility that I find deeply edifying, and with which I conclude. Brimming with a surfeit of meanings, revolution “comes close to condensing within a single term the full instability of modern political understanding.”