Hope in the Face of Disappointment: The 2011 Egyptian Revolution and Its Aftermath

Has it all been in vain?

Ten years after the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt, little seems to be left of the hopes it engendered. The sense of joy, camaraderie, and power that sustained the protesters during the months of revolution has given way to a profound disappointment, as the oppressive regime has doubled down on its repressive policies in the wake of the uprising. Has it all been in vain? The troubling political implication, as Nesrine Malik writes, is that the Arab Spring has become not only a symbol of the failed revolution but that “it is now held up as a repudiation of the very notion of protest.”

But what if disappointment did not necessarily translate into hopelessness and fatalism? What if, in contrast, disappointment held the potential to keep open a space of resistance? In this paper, I explore this possibility. Specifically, I examine how resisters can engage with disappointment in a politically productive manner and reshape their horizon of hope toward a sober recognition and negotiation of the complexities of resistant action within oppressive conditions.

The politically transformative potential of disappointment

To explore the transformative potential of disappointment, I draw on Ernst Bloch’s notion of educated hope and recent interventions in the field of utopian studies. Building on these insights, I explore how hope informed by past disappointments—what I call disappointed hope—can help resisters creatively confront the complexities of resistance. I propose three ways in which resisters can productively engage with disappointment and reconfigure their horizon of hope in response to it. First, they can unhinge the utopian impulse from the pre-defined goal and direct it towards a persistent, ever-reborn striving for greater freedom and justice. Second, they can redirect energy towards a practice-oriented negotiation of the concrete possibilities for political action. And third, they can cultivate an openness towards the genuinely new that is predicated upon the willingness to bear the risk of failure.

This exploration is normatively significant given that the way we perceive the political value of disappointment affects how we may be able to negotiate it in concrete contexts of political action. Revealing how disappointed hope can keep alive the radical promise of resistance in the wake of failure can upend the dominant perception of disappointment as a demobilising affect and contest the fatalist readings of concrete contexts of failed resistance, such as the Arab Spring.

The 2011 Egyptian Revolution

I develop the political relevance of this examination through a practical articulation of disappointed hope in the selected first-hand account of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed. The memoir was written by Ahdaf Soueif, a prominent Egyptian writer, cultural commentator, and activist well-known for her advocacy of democracy and social justice in Egypt.

The memoir unearths the political potential of disappointed hope as articulated by the protestors of a leftist, pro-democracy bent who pursued a radical transformation of society—in terms of both a democratic redesign of institutions and the demands of social justice—and who found their ideals profoundly betrayed. In the paper, I tease out how they translated their disappointment into creative efforts to face up to the complexities of resistant action. In addition, I read Cairo not only as a representation of disappointed hope but as itself a performative investment in persistent, grounded hope that contests the fatalist narratives of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Tracing how the resisters refused the lure of fatalism, constantly reconfiguring the forms of revolutionary praxis in response to disappointment, the memoir seeks to inspire the readers to learn from past failures and amplify the possibilities for future revolutionary engagement. 

Why is this important?

My argument about the transformative potential of disappointment should not be seen as prescribing a moral duty, chiding resisters who give in to despair as somehow morally deficient, or as a panacea in response to a failed revolution. There are limits to what the resisters’ grappling with their disappointment can do in the face of overwhelming repression, and sometimes disengagement or capitulation are unavoidable. Acknowledgement of the limits of disappointment as a transformative affect is especially pertinent in light of the ongoing crackdown on resisters in Egypt, which has all but extinguished the political space for protest. Nevertheless, an exploration of the potential positive value of disappointment is politically significant, given hegemonic attempts to misuse disappointment to instil in resisters or the general populace a sense of despair and fatalism. In such contexts, disappointed hope can open a political space of possibility that gets foreclosed when viewing disappointment as a demobilising affect.

Revealing how resisters can productively engage with disappointment and reframe their aspirations towards persistent, grounded hope in response to it is important in complicating the overly idealised visions of resistance as immediately effective, without however abandoning the possibility of change. Recognition of the many complexities and failures of resistant action may easily lapse into a reformist politics of compromise or a withdrawal from political engagement altogether. Disappointed hope, in contrast, keeps alive the radical potential of resistance, exploring the however limited possibilities for expanding the sphere of freedom and justice within the constraints of the existing system. The resisters’ disappointed turn to persistent hope draws the inspiration to continue the struggle in the bleakest of circumstance not from the confidence of success but precisely from the unfulfilled hopes inherited from past failures. Grounded hopefulness, in turn, pushes the boundaries of the possible while remaining aware of the flawed character of oppositional action within oppressive conditions. The resisters’ changed relationship to failure, finally, offers the resources for braving the risk and unpredictability of the future, appealing to future generations to continue their struggles in their own time and context.

This blog piece is based on the forthcoming Journal of Politics article “Disappointed Hope: Reimagining Resistance in the Wake of the Egyptian Revolution” by Maša Mrovlje.

About the Author

Maša Mrovlje is a Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on theories of resistance and resistance movements. For more information about her projects, visit her website.