During the first months of 2011, the Egyptian political system was shaken by a veritable political earthquake, as the almost 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak was brought to an end by a popular uprising. Despite uncertainties regarding the country’s future – whether a fully democratic system will be implemented or whether the army will retain a “special” role within the polity – it is impossible to overstate the significance of the “Egyptian Revolution” and its impact on the Arab region and the Mediterranean neighbourhood as a whole.
Mohamad Bouazizi’s self-immolation on 17 December 2010 sparked not only the Tunisian revolution, but a string of uprisings across the region, the best-known and thus far most successful of which was Egypt’s “January Revolution.” There, independent labour and civil society organisations called for a demonstration on 25 January – opposed by the regime, ignored by traditional parties, and spurned by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) – which turned out to be successful beyond anyone’s most optimistic expectations. Much like in the Tunisian protests, and echoing the “First January Uprising” of 1977, ordinary Egyptians’ anger was rooted in a combination of pauperisation and political repression that had become the hallmark of regional “façade democracies.” Although Egypt’s revolution was a surprise to many, few careful observers missed the increasing frustration of ordinary people over the past decade or the increased civil society and trade union activism since 2006 that were the result of this marginalisation. On 25 January, and even more significantly on Friday the 28th, Egyptians’ frustration and desire for change outweighed the fear the regime had ended up relying on, and a combination of popular pressure and regime factionalism resulted in Mubarak’s ouster. The Egyptian revolution’s potential regional impact should not be underestimated, as subsequent revolts in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and latterly Syria show – not to mention significant protests in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Protesters in Tunisia and Egypt are now struggling to consolidate their gains. Others hope to emulate their success. While it is far from clear what enduring changes these uprisings herald, some important lessons on the roots and significance of Egypt’s revolution can already be drawn.
Roots of the Uprising: Economic Stagnation and Police Repression
The causes of the uprising lay in a combination of three kinds of factors: ongoing trends towards the impoverishment of poorer sectors of society and the pauperisation of the middle class, the façade of democratic institutions masking a reality of increasing political repression since the 2005 “Cairo Spring,” and a series of trigger issues, primarily Mubarak’s attempt at having his son Gamal “inherit” the Presidency (tawreeth), state security forces’ torture and assassination of Khaled Said for wanting to expose corruption, (global) food price spikes, and, of course, the success of the Tunisian revolution itself.
Long-term economic trends belied Western optimism – particularly the IMF’s – in the health of Egypt’s economy: while certain macroeconomic indicators were very positive (e.g. showing a steady increase in GDP and decrease in the current account deficit), others – particularly increased youth unemployment, a population bulge, and middle class pauperisation – ought to have sounded alarm bells. While privatisation policies may have helped increase GDP, they clearly favoured narrow, politically connected business elites, the enrichment of whom caused considerable popular resentment. Certainly, they were of little benefit to the nearly 40% of Egyptians who live on or under $2 per day, particularly since the (already abysmally low) minimum monthly wage of LE400 ($68) was never enforced. The rise in food prices combined with pressure to cut subsidies on staples such as flour – which had already sparked “bread riots” – over 2010 further exasperated ordinary Egyptians.
Both workers and wider sectors of society were increasingly irritated by Mubarak’s blatant attempt to anoint his son Gamal as successor. Amongst the army as well, attempts at “succession” proved irksome
In parallel, certain sectors of Egyptian society saw a marked increase in political activism. In particular, technically illegal independent trade unions organised an increasing number of (increasingly effective) strikes from 2006 on. In 2010, there were more strikes than in the previous four years combined. These strikes not only boosted these unions’ popularity, but also provided valuable experience with organising and mobilising. Moreover, civil society groups, such as Kifaya! (Enough!), Shayfeenkum (We See You), the April 6th Youth Movement and a range of important human rights groups – the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, etc. – increased in activism and popularity. Particular mention should be made of groups like the Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services, the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre and the Egyptian Organisation for Economic and Social Rights, which straddled civil society and labour.
Although some of these groups’ leaders were themselves sceptical about the degree to which such activism could translate into a broader political movement, it was clear that both workers and wider sectors of society were increasingly irritated by Mubarak’s blatant attempt to anoint his son Gamal as successor. Amongst the army as well, attempts at “succession” proved irksome; personal loyalties did not extend to Mubarak’s son.
Another trigger issue was the increase in routine abuse of power by the security forces. Khaled Said’s case is exemplary: his assassination in Alexandria on 6 June provoked an outcry, not just for its sheer brutality, but because Said was not a political activist, but rather merely seeking to expose a case of police corruption of which he had evidence. Opposition groups organised mass protests in his native Alexandria, the largest of which was also attended by Muhammad El-Baradei on 25 June, but Said became a powerful symbol of regime corruption precisely because he was an “ordinary” citizen.
The “El-Baradei Effect” and the Parliamentary Elections
February saw considerable political ferment as former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Muhammad El-Baradei decided to return to Egypt and effectively committed publicly to running against a Mubarak candidacy – père or fils – in the presidential elections expected for 2011. Initially embraced by many, and feared enough by the regime to smear him and his family, El-Baradei won few friends by being frequently away from Egypt. Indeed, he missed the beginning of the January uprising, only returning three days after protests began, on the eve of 28 January, or “Friday of Anger.” A side effect of this loss of credibility was that when he proposed what could have been a boycott of the parliamentary elections planned for the end of November and early December, he was first backed but then abandoned by every major political group, including the “reformists” within the Muslim Brotherhood. Such a boycott could have been very effective in depriving the regime of the fig leaf of democratic legitimacy that has been one of the primary functions of elections ever since Nasser and, particularly, ever since Mubarak came to power.
The elections themselves were widely expected to provide the regime with an excuse to crack down on the MB. In the event, they resulted in a farcically large majority (93.1%) for Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Brazen statements such as ex-Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif’s claim that “it was a shock [to people] that the NDP won the majority of seats, while the Brotherhood won none, because it wasn’t expected” fooled no one outside Egypt, and certainly no one within it. The result was even more grotesque than the sheer majority: during the second round, the NDP attempted to rig elections in favour of complacent – if not complicit – members of the opposition, producing surreal scenes in certain constituencies in which NDP candidates complained that the party had rigged elections in favour of their opponents. Thus, the elections revealed one of the regime’s fundamental weaknesses: as a key tool to access patronage, the NDP proved attractive to the “official opposition,” buying its pliability to authoritarianism, but precisely this feature eventually made it difficult to impose party discipline. This became clear in 2005 during the first attempt to marginalise the “old guard” opposed to Gamal and his “businessmen” allies, when sidelined NDP incumbents ran and won as independents, only to rejoin party ranks. In 2005, roughly half the NDP parliamentary party was elected as “independents.” In the 2010 elections, the NDP often ran two candidates – sometimes up to four – in the same constituency, emphasising what was by then a three-way split between “Gamalites,” the “old guard” and the undecided.
Most attention was on the 2011 presidential elections and the growing fear of tawreeth, but while they did not quite provide a breaking point, less than two weeks before the start of the Tunisian revolution, the elections’ farcical result certainly reminded ordinary Egyptians of the regime’s hypocrisy – to the extent that was even necessary.
Another key factor in the maintenance of Mubarak’s regime was Coptic-Muslim tensions. Surprisingly, protests were assertively anti-sectarian, despite marked increases in tensions throughout 2010, epitomised by the explosion of a bomb outside a Coptic church in Alexandria on 1 January, killing 24 and injuring 97. Sectarian tensions had been increasing steadily throughout the year, but just before the elections some Coptic activists started holding the regime responsible for their situation, rather than “Muslim extremists” as usual. The Alexandria bombing broke this new atmosphere and worsened the tensions considerably. The state did nothing to allay such fears when, for example, it took unwarranted action to “combat” avian flu by destroying all pigs, a crucial source of income for Coptic zabaleen, traditional garbage men. In the aftermath of the revolution, documents have been found that seem to corroborate what most observers already suspected: that the regime was exacerbating sectarian tensions, either directly through such actions or indirectly by allowing extremist Salafi groups to flourish as part of a conscious strategy to divide – and therefore more easily control – Egyptian society. Indeed, such manipulation was effective enough that at the outset of the revolution all religious elites – the Copts, the Azhar, and the MB – emphatically opposed the protests.
By early January there was a considerable amount of tension in Egypt, and an increased presence of security forces in the streets, but no clear sense that this would translate into an uprising – much less a successful one. Indeed, there were several attempts to emulate Bouazizi’s gesture, not least in Cairo, but none sparked the same outrage in what was widely perceived as a politically apathetic population. The 25 January demonstration was called by independent civil society and trade union groups, but shunned by established political elites, including the Muslim Brotherhood, underscoring the gulf separating them from ordinary Egyptians. Most observers, and the organisers themselves, hoped the protest would be significant, but did not expect much. Noted commentator Issandr El-Amrani, for example, tweeted “if you get a tenth of the 80,000 people or so who support the initiative online, it will be a success.” In the event, more than ten times that number took to the streets across Egypt, with protests in Cairo and Alexandria, but also Ismailiya, Mahalla El-Kubra, Aswan, Suez, Port Said and many others.
The 25 January demonstration was called by independent civil society and trade union groups, but shunned by established political elites, including the Muslim Brotherhood, underscoring the gulf separating them from ordinary Egyptians
The protest went through several phases and played out on different levels. First, surprised by the sheer scale of demonstrations, the security forces failed to confront protesters. This allowed demonstrators to control public spaces, particularly Cairo’s Liberation (Tahrir) Square. By evening, the security forces had entered a second, confrontational phase. Attacking reduced numbers of protesters with water cannons, teargas, rubber bullets, taser bats and clubs, they re-took Tahrir Square in the early hours of 26 January. With newly unified opposition forces planning demonstrations for Friday the 28th, Internet and mobile phone services were cut and over a thousand people arrested. The most spectacular failure of this confrontational tactic, however, came on the 28th itself, when protesters across Egypt took back public spaces, simply overwhelming security personnel. Notably, protesters were extremely disciplined in avoiding initiating violent confrontations: the targets of protesters’ anger were police stations and, in particular, the NDP headquarters, which was set ablaze. By evening, the security forces had withdrawn and the Army moved in and, having apparently refused orders to shoot protesters, were welcomed by crowds across the country.
The regime then adapted its tactics to mix repression with co-option, announcing reforms and threatening harsher crackdowns. On 29 January, Mubarak appointed Ahmed Shafiq Prime Minister, announcing the new government’s remit to control inflation, increase employment and fight corruption. Two key appointments signalled struggles within the regime itself: General Intelligence Service Chief Omar Suleiman filled the post of Vice President, vacant since 1981, and Army Chief and Defence Minister Muhammad Tantawi was also appointed Deputy Prime Minster. Suleiman was reputedly closer to Egypt’s (reviled) security forces, while Tantawi could use the armed forces’ reputation amongst ordinary Egyptians as leverage – on demonstrators, but also on Mubarak and Suleiman.
Direct confrontation having failed, security forces attempted to sow chaos – in particular by carrying out random attacks and freeing and sometimes enlisting prison inmates. On 2 February, protesters holding Tahrir Square were subjected first to a daytime assault by plain-clothes security forces and hired thugs in the so-called “Battle of the Camel,” and then to an all-out night-time assault, with pro-regime thugs throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at protesters both from outside the square and from on top of buildings, as well as using birdshot ammunition. Close to collapse, protesters were apparently saved by the intervention of “heavies” from the MB and football “ultras.” The following days saw demonstrations grow even larger across Egypt in response.
The fate of the uprising was being played out on two parallel “tables”: the streets and squares of Egypt, and the back-door negotiations between elements of the army and intelligence services, parts of the old regime, and a series of would-be “leaders” of the revolution, from the Brotherhood itself to a self-proclaimed group of “wise men” including business tycoon Naguib Sawiris and political scientist Amr Hamzawy. The result was three-way brinkmanship between the army, the regime and the opposition, in which the protesters’ refusal to compromise and sheer will to face down regime repression was the sine qua non of change. Ultimately, the army seems to have “blinked” first, calculating that protesters would not go away and that their pressure could be used to maintain the Army’s privileges under a new “guided” regime.
Protesters themselves represented many different forces in Egyptian society, and it should be noted that while the relative strengths of and differences between organised groups such as unions, parties and Islamists are significant, most protesters were unaffiliated, even without any political experience. The bond holding them together was in a sense “negative,” protesting the current state of affairs, with little agreement on what kind of change was necessary. It is, however, important to underscore the Brotherhood’s absence: many of its young members took part in protests against the wishes of their leadership. Indeed, in the aftermath of the revolution, protesting the leadership’s conservatism, its willingness to compromise with the (new) regime, and its own internal authoritarianism, these groups have repeatedly challenged the MB’s “old guard,” and some have split to form their own parties.
The removal of the primary figures of the old regime is the first step of structural reform that protesters have called for. It is still too early to tell whether this is what the result of the revolution will be or whether elements of the former regime – NDP, security forces, military and complacent figures among “opposition” parties and religious elites – will manage simply to adapt the old regime’s modus operandi and isolate key opposition groups.
Having effectively removed Mubarak and Suleiman, changed the government, and suspended parliament, the military, or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), now rules in a state of exception, part executive, part legislative and – thanks to the widespread use of military courts – more than a little judiciary. It is also clear that, with the single exception of elections, which serve the military’s interest in restoring a semblance of normality and “reform” in Egypt, measures of “real” reform have not come either swiftly or spontaneously from Egypt’s interim leadership, but only in response to continued pressure, particularly from independent unions and civil society groups such as April 6th.
The one measure taken with considerable speed – the push for elections – has been opposed by most independent groups, as it makes it easier for established groups close to the old regime to control Egypt’s post-uprising parliament
Parliament was suspended, media laws relaxed and elements of the former regime arrested and prosecuted, and the military eventually replaced PM Ahmad Shafiq with the more popular Essam Sharaf and Interior Minister Muhammad Wagdi with Mansour El-Essawy in early March, but only after considerable popular pressure. A Constitutional Panel was appointed to amend the Constitution in only ten days, rather than entirely replace it. Its decisions limited presidential terms but not powers and did not make a Constituent Assembly compulsory, but rather afforded the new parliament the “option” of electing one from its own ranks within 100 days. A referendum was called on the proposed amendments in which around 75% of voters – a massive 41% of the electorate compared to paltry turnouts during the Mubarak era – approved the amendments. Some have interpreted this as a “victory” for Islamists and remnants of the NDP, although most voted “yes” in a bid to secure some gains for the revolution and prevent the military from staying on.
The one measure taken with considerable speed – the push for elections – has been opposed by most independent groups, as it makes it easier for established groups close to the old regime – especially the NDP and MB – to control Egypt’s post-uprising parliament. Finally, the much-hated emergency law, which suspends many civil and political rights, has still not been repealed. Such resistance by the military is slowly eroding its support amongst core protesters, just as the military attempts to erode protesters’ popularity by accusing them of increasing “instability.” Friday, 8 April, saw the first protests in which the military and Tantawi were directly accused of dragging their feet.
Beyond the Uprising
The only certainties seem to be that in post-uprising Egypt there is a flourishing of political activity – not only the formation of new parties, but also splits within Islamist movements, particularly the MB – and that central to Egyptian politics is still a complex game between the military, the security forces, elements of the “old guard” (the NDP, but also the MB and other “decorative opposition” groups), and the independent civil society and labour groups that called for the uprising.
The position of outside powers will also be crucial. Saudi Arabia supported Mubarak and was quick to try to secure a foothold in the “new” Egypt by offering investment. The US and the EU turned to support for reform during the uprisings, but have mostly seen “change” through the lens of the very (neo)liberal template that contributed to bringing about the revolution in the first place. Their response will depend at least partly on the positions taken by Egypt’s (potential) new leadership(s) on questions such as relations with Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Palestinian groups.
Egypt’s “Second January Uprising” provides a timely reminder that authoritarian systems can be frail as well as strong and that the economic and political causes of the uprising must be addressed with longterm structural reforms
Egypt’s “Second January Uprising” provides a timely reminder that authoritarian systems can be frail as well as strong and that the economic and political causes of the uprising must be addressed with long-term structural reforms. The risk of not doing so is not simply the failure of Egypt’s uprising, but also of missing an unexpected window of popularity for non-sectarian forms of democracy and ultimately discrediting the notion of democracy itself. The uprising has at least temporarily shown the potential limits of Islamist popularity: failing to take this opportunity risks playing into the hands of ultra-conservative and Salafist groups. Key to this opportunity will be meeting protesters’ demands not just for the formal trappings of democracy, but also for its social, economic and political substance.
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