Everything You Think You Know About the Egyptian Revolution is Wrong

tags: Egypt, Egyptian Revolution



James L. Gelvin is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He received his B.A. from Columbia University, his Master's in International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University.

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Image via Wiki Commons.

Today, February 11, marks the third anniversary of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s forced departure from office.  Since Mubarak’s toppling, some of the biggest cheerleaders for the unfortunately named “Arab Spring” have become some of the biggest critics. The uprisings throughout the Arab world failed to reach quick resolution and -- with the possible exception of Tunisia -- failed to result in significant progress toward democratization. Since none of those uprisings has fulfilled their initial promises perhaps it is time to re-examine what really happened in Egypt.    

In the popular imagination, the Egyptian uprising conjures up a number of associations: tech-savvy youths who played the starring role in bringing down Mubarak; non-violent resistance, similar to that employed by the people-power uprisings of the 1980s that led to democratic transition in Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere (this was the model President Obama used to understand the uprisings); the appeals lodged by protesters for their long overdue civil and political rights; the standing-down of the “people’s army” and the supreme command’s decision to defuse the crisis by removing Mubarak themselves; a victorious popular movement that overthrew an entrenched autocrat in eighteen days. 

These associations are powerful -- so powerful, in fact, that observers could not but apply them to the uprisings that followed. This has not been unproblematic: For the past two years, the international media, along with Syrian opposition groups, have commemorated the anniversary of the outbreak of the Syrian uprising on March 15 -- the date in 2011 when a group calling itself the “Syrian Revolution of 2011 Against Bashar al-Assad” staged a demonstration in Damascus. The group modelled itself on the Egyptian April 6 Movement, which organized the Egyptian uprising two months earlier. Like its counterpart, the Syrian group consisted of educated youths who aspired to bring down the regime employing social media and nonviolent protest. Unlike its counterpart, however, its efforts were in vain. The demonstration attracted a mere two hundred protesters and was easily broken up by the security services.

The actual Syrian uprising erupted four days later when protests erupted in the provincial towns Dar‘a and Banias over local issues. The protest in Dar‘a alone attracted more than 20,000. Unlike the Egyptian uprising, then, the Syrian uprising was spontaneous and lacked a core leadership that could define its goals and tactics -- a state of affairs that goes a long way in explaining why the Syrian uprising became what it became. Using the Egyptian model to understand events in Syria merely leads us down a blind alley. 

Viewing the Arab uprisings through the lens of the Egyptian one is misguided because that lens is distorted. None of the aforementioned associations reflect what really happened:  

1. The idea that tech-savvy youths brought down Mubarak is wrong on two counts:  First, data collected after the fact indicate that 59 percent of Egyptian protesters were between the ages of 25 and 44 -- a rather expansive definition of “youth.”  Furthermore, in Egypt (as in Tunisia and Yemen) labor played a critical role -- perhaps the critical role -- in the uprising. It is probably no coincidence that the army forced Mubarak to step down only days after a strike wave brought the Egyptian economy -- of which the military is the largest stakeholder -- to a standstill.

2. The uprising was hardly peaceful either, as the so-called “Battle of the Camel” -- the televised attack on Tahrir Square protesters by hooligans mounted on donkeys and camels -- confirms. 

The fact that the protesters held their ground had less to do with what Obama called “the moral force of nonviolence” than it did with street-fighting “ultras” -- football thugs -- who rumbled with the hired goons, shielding those within the square.  Away from the cameras -- in Suez and elsewhere -- protests were violent from the start, and throughout Egypt arsonists torched hundreds of police stations and buildings housing offices of the ruling National Democratic Party. Overall, the newspaper al-Masri al-Yawm tallied about 850 fatalities and 6,000 injuries during those eighteen days. 

3. In contrast to the slogan, “The army and the people are one,” an official government report later charged the army with “disappearing” about 1,200 Egyptians -- many permanently -- in the lead up to February 11. More were to follow.

4. According to polling data, nearly twice as many protesters cited the economy as a principal factor in their participation as cited their quest for civil and political rights. The ratio was even higher among protesters who supported the July 3, 2013 military coup against the elected president, Muhammad Morsi.

5. The removal of Mubarak did little to transform the institutions and structures of the “deep state” -- the military, the security services, and the judiciary. As a matter of fact, Egypt’s new constitution enshrines their power and autonomy. 

These were not the only reasons viewing the Arab uprisings through the lens of the Egyptian one is misguided:  The Egyptian experience was atypical for a number of reasons:

Unlike the uprisings in Libya or Syria, but like those in Tunisia and Bahrain, the Egyptian uprising never got a chance to play itself out.  It was interrupted by a military anxious to preserve its privileges and to defend allied elements of the old regime. 

Egypt, along with Tunisia, is the only state in the Arab world that experienced over two hundred years of continuous institution-building, even when under foreign control.  There was, in other words, a permanent and unyielding state apparatus—the deep state—that would prove impossible to dismantle with a single blow. Now compare Egypt with other Arab states: Since both Libya and Yemen were relatively new creations ruled by despots who personalized power, neither had a deep state.  Eliminating despots there meant eliminating whole regimes.  On the flip side, in both Syria and Bahrain rulers and the inner circles of the regime—including military leaders—are interconnected through ties of kinship and membership in minority sects.  Unlike in Egypt where the deep state was autonomous enough to cut the executive loose, in Syria and Bahrain it would be suicidal for one part of the regime to turn on another. 

In Egypt a popular mass-based Islamist opposition was waiting in the wings.  That opposition had been tolerated so long as it did not overstep designated bounds.  In Libya, Syria, and even Tunisia, on the other hand, the Islamist opposition had been mostly obliterated during the anti-Islamist campaigns of the 1980s-90s.  In Yemen and Bahrain, it was conjoined with other opposition elements.  Thus, in Egypt there was an organized, independent Islamist bloc that could co-opt anti-regime sentiment.  As a result, what began as a secular/Islamist alliance against autocracy devolved into an Islamist/anti-Islamist struggle for power.

To be sure, the Arab uprisings shared common grievances, tactics, and symbols, and organizers of later uprisings—those that had organizers, that is—naturally modelled theirs on earlier ones, particularly Egypt’s.  But circumstance must be given its due, not just intentionality.  Sugar-coating events in Egypt leads only to disillusionment and diverts us from appreciating what is truly remarkable about the uprisings: Day after day, tens of thousands of ordinary Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, Libyans, Yemenis, Bahrainis, and others risked everything to rid themselves of  their tormenters and to topple the regimes those tormenters built.   


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