Egypt ten years on: was the revolution worth it?

By Mike Phipps

Today, January 25th marks the tenth anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, a central event in the ‘Arab spring’ a decade ago.  The date was chosen by opposition groups – mainly of young people – to coincide with the annual Egyptian ‘police holiday’.

Demonstrations, occupation of public spaces, strikes and other acts of civil resistance drew massive support, demanding the overthrow of President Mubarak, who had ruled the country for 30 years. Mubarak was forced out after 18 days, but the underlying causes of the uprising remained: police brutality and torture, the absence of basic civil liberties, rampant corruption, electoral fraud, unemployment, high prices and low wages.

Unlike recent revolutions in eastern Europe and elsewhere, which the US and its allies fully supported, the overthrow of Mubarak was the last thing the west wanted. President Obama, asked in 2009 if he regarded Mubarak as authoritarian, replied “No”.  Tony Blair called him “a force for good”.

Mubarak fell due to a combination of widespread popular anger – but also senior military chiefs deciding to dump him in order to preserve their privileges. As the late Robert Fisk observed at the time:

“Of course, the millions of courageous Egyptians who fought the whole apparatus of state security run by Mubarak should have been the victors. But… it was the senior generals – who enjoy the luxury of hotel chains, shopping malls, real estate and banking concessions from the same corrupt regime – who permitted Mubarak to survive. At an ominous meeting of the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Defence Minister Mohamed Tantawi – one of Mubarak’s closest friends – agreed to meet the demands of the millions of democracy protesters, without stating that the regime would itself be dissolved.”

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces dissolved Egypt’s parliament and suspended the constitution, promising new elections in six months.  As the revolution subsided, the government passed laws criminalising the protests.  Protests re-intensified, demanding a faster dismantling of the old regime and free elections. Late May 2021 saw the biggest demonstrations across the country since the fall of Mubarak. Mass protests continued throughout the summer and were met with deadly violence by the state.

Between November and January 2012, elections to a People’s Assembly took place. Within months, the laws governing these elections would be ruled invalid by Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, which also overturned a law banning former regime figures from running for office. It was thus the military which issued an interim constitution, giving itself the power to control the prime minister, legislation, the national budget and declarations of war without oversight, and chose a 100-member panel to draft a permanent constitution.

Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, narrowly won the presidency in June 2012. In November, he issued a declaration effectively giving himself unlimited power, provoking widespread protests by a largely liberal and secular opposition. Popular opposition to his authoritarian line and his protection of the hated Egyptian police intersected with fears by military chiefs that their own power was being challenged.

Morsi was a polarising sectarian ruler. In June 2013, he appointed Adel el-Khayat, an Islamist thought to be linked to the 1997 Luxor massacre, where at least 58 tourists were killed by terrorist gunmen, as governor of Luxor, a move which provoked outrage. At the same time, his room for manoeuvre was limited by the hostility of the Mubarak-appointed judiciary and administration officials.

Gilbert Achcar, who has written extensively about the region, is scathing in his assessment: “In Egypt, the Brotherhood’s aim was to hijack the protests, take advantage of the democratic opening, and take over the state. Their program, which combines neoliberalism with religious authoritarianism and sexism, offers no solution to the country’s real problems. It can only make them worse.”

In July 2013, the Egyptian military overthrew Morsi and suspended the constitution. Demonstrations organised by his supporters were met with live ammunition from the military, killing hundreds. It was a far cry from the early days of the revolution in January 2011, when senior tank commanders, ordered to fire on the protestors, tore off their headsets and disobeyed, while the crowds shouted, “The army and the people stand together.”

The military crackdown following this coup –a term US officials could not bring themselves to use – was brutal and thorough. In one day alone, the Muslim Brotherhood estimated that 2,600 people were massacred. Morsi and other high ranking members were charged with terrorism and by May 2014 over 16,000 supporters would be in jail.

In the same month, former Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president in a poll boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood and some secular and liberal groups.

El-Sisi pledged to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood, denouncing its over 13 million voters in the 2012 election as traitors, terrorists and foreign agents. Western governments showed not the slightest moral outrage at the overthrow of an elected government.  As Glen Rangwala observed at the time, the only objection the then US Secretary of State John Kerry was prepared to raise, in a meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister, was “a concern about ‘decisions within the judicial process’ – a euphemistic reference to how, earlier that day, an Egyptian court had sentenced 683 political opponents of the military-led government to death after a brief trial with no evidence presented to court.” (‘Fake elections in Egypt’, Labour Briefing, 2014).

Fierce repression continued after the election. Unsurprisingly, el-Sisi was re-elected four years later and was able to amend the constitution to increase his term lengths.

Richer countries breathed a sigh of relief to see the crushing of resistance and the return of ‘order’. Today el-Sisi is feted across the west – just last month, he received France’s highest award, the Legion d’Honneur. French President Macron went on to declare that French arms exports to Egypt were not conditional on human rights, because of the importance of the military regime in the fight against terrorism.

Last year, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights said as many as 3,185 civilians had been extra-judicially killed by Egyptian security forces since July 2013. This included 766 who died in detention centres. Egypt has an estimated 60,000 political prisoners. Amnesty International describes the situation regarding freedom of expression to be “at its worst in the country’s modern history”.

Britain too is deeply committed to a regime which the UN says practises torture on a systematic basis. Since July 2017 the UK has authorised £26 million worth of export licences for military goods to Egypt, including for items such as crowd control ammunition. With British firms currently investing $48 billion in the country, the last thing Britain – and other western countries – want to see is a new Egyptian revolution.

So was it worth it? Today there is a tendency to dismiss the ‘Arab spring’ of a decade ago, for creating the bloodbath that is Syria and the failed state that is Libya. The high human cost – around 1,000 people killed in the overthrow of Mubarak alone, which was dwarfed by later massacres – means that Egypt also fits into this paradigm, in the eyes of some.

But it was nonetheless astonishing that a young, popular uprising, finding common cause with some of the armed forces, could bring down one of the most well-financed (by the west) regimes in the world and possible the most long-standing dictatorship of significance on the continent.

Furthermore, this was a movement that initially cut across religion and other allegiances and enshrined a national and social consciousness. Secular and inter-faith forces played a significant role and, unlike previous protests, women were hugely involved, constituting up to 50% of the protestors in the capital and taking leading roles. The role of social media in the organisation of the protests was extensive and vital and provided inspiration for Paul Mason’s book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere.

In many ways, the political actors lagged behind the popular struggle, in ideas and organisation. Toufic Haddad argues:

 “Revolutionary movements too often lacked sufficient individual or collective organisation with the kinds of robustness, inclusivity or independence that might have allowed for the generation of cross-sectoral strategies and tactics around specific – as opposed to general – revolutionary demands and leadership. They also lacked independent financial lines, making them susceptible to acceptance of funding and support from conditional allies with ulterior agendas.”

Ulterior agendas and a hijacking of the revolution are frequently mentioned in relation to Egypt. There is a lot of truth in this observation.

But the fact is that not all revolutions succeed, and failure is often less about the qualities of the revolutionaries than the enduring nature of corrupted institutions. Mubarak was deposed after 18 days, but his thirty year rule had repressed every party or civil society group that might be a challenge to him. He had also corrupted the judiciary, the public service and the military. The institutions he left behind could not sustain a transition to democracy, just as the country’s economic distortions – IMF-dictated austerity, futile national projects and a parallel military economy – left no easy path out of spiralling inflation and high unemployment.

The ‘Arab spring; might be better understood as the start of a process rather than a finished event. A second wave was already underway in many countries last year until COVID intervened.

The injustices that sparked the 2011 uprisings have not disappeared and in many countries the structures remain intact, notwithstanding some personnel changes. As one analyst concluded, “A generation of tyrants has fallen, and the next generation of tyrants is on notice.”

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Man holding Egyptian flag during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Source: Egyptian Revolution (Day 16) – Not giving up.. Author: Mariam Soliman from Cairo, Egypt, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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