By Al-Sharif Nassef
Having revolutionary momentum pulled from under their feet twice, Egyptian revolutionaries face an increasingly upward battle against the tides of the establishment
With the world watching, Egypt’s long-time intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, announced the ousting of Hosni Mubarak from his presidential throne on 11 February 2011. The epic eruption of cheers, tears, song, and dance that ensued in nearly every street in Egypt reverberated across the globe. Its boom sent chills of awe and waves of hope to pro-democracy advocates and observers alike.
Three years ago, on 25 January 2011, millions of brave men and women banded together in Tahrir Square to embark on a national journey to assert their rights. Egyptians rejected despotism, failed governance, corruption, economic exploitation, and police abuse, demonstrating what can be achieved when people unite to march towards a single goal with selfless, wholehearted dedication.
The revolution marked a new chapter in Egyptian history as the people collectively called out the state’s failures, embraced their rights, and took collective action to change their country. Once united, the Egyptian people held high hopes for a seamless democratic transition and a significant government reform.
After the 11 February announcement, power was transferred from Mubarak to the nation’s top military cadre, the Supreme Council of Armed forces, who was supposed to merely oversee a peaceful transition period to civilian democracy where Egyptians would work together to draft and approve a constitution, elect a parliament, and vote for president.
Back to square one
But three years later, the nation is back to square one, having scrapped its first trio of elected institutions (constitution, parliament and presidency) while the military maintains a firm hold on power.
Revolutionary mandates for the broad government reform and redefinition of civil-state relationships necessary for Egypt to realise democracy and tackle society’s challenges have not taken hold.
Instead, two subsequent waves of regression, first by the Muslim Brotherhood, and now by the old state led by the military, have derailed the revolution’s trek forward.
The old state establishment that held power for generations—the military institution, former members of Mubarak’s NDP, bureaucratic stalwarts, and the corporate elite that for years collaborated with such power holders—seeks to preserve its unchecked economic privilege and institutional power in the face of the revolution’s mandate for broad change and government accountability.
Its actions, especially following the 30 June popular uprising and subsequent military coup against former President Mohammed Morsi, have solidified such entities’ hold onto power.
Egyptian society is still gripped by a toxic environment, economic turmoil, educational crisis, political stagnation, and infrastructural deterioration, among a laundry list of domestic ills. The governing institutions that have failed year after year to address such problems show no signs of improvement under the military-backed government.
To throw salt on sore wounds, a nation which rejected authoritarianism en masse is getting ready to elect a general from the antechambers of the elite military-intelligence establishment that capitalised on authoritarian rule for the entirety of the existence of Egypt as a modern state.
Revolution hijacked… twice.
Those most poised to seek power after the start of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood—whose neoliberal economic policies favoured its wealthy top ranks, among whom are several prominent millionaire businessmen—sought to gain the economic privilege of their Mubarak-era predecessors and monopolise political power.
The group’s brazen Islamist platform, designed to attract both conservative and poorer segments of society, swept up huge numbers into its political machine. The Muslim Brotherhood provided the financial backing for long-standing Islamic charities that provided key services and social safety nets for the poorer segments of Egyptian society. They also funded an electoral mobilisation strategy in 2012 strongly encouraged by food staple handouts.
The Brothers’ mantra of “Islamic state” alongside irresponsible, inflammatory rhetoric by top Brotherhood officials at massive rallies across the country scared much of Egypt’s moderate middle class and secular-leaning aristocrats.
The allure of Egypt’s Islamist tide emboldened retrograde Islamist factions like Salafists and jihadists, creating the perception of a hyper “Islamic” climate. While such attacks were likely not coordinated by the Muslim Brotherhood, multiple instances of such factions resorting to violence against Coptic Christians and Shi’a Muslim minority groups further polarised Egyptian society and increased anti-Brotherhood dissent.
Despite the strength of their political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood failed to promote the core Islamic values of justice, knowledge, hard work, and love that Egypt desperately needs. Instead, the “religious” climate, and the vast divisions it sewed into Egyptian society, pushed many moderate Muslims further away from core religious creed.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood cast grassroots revolutionaries, liberals, and union workers aside and hijacked the revolution that they started. The Brotherhood utilised their political machine to defeat the liberal revolutionary current, still in its organisational infancy, in the first election rounds in the post-Mubarak era.
They proceeded to lay the foundations of a post-revolutionary Egypt without the original revolutionaries and alienated liberals from the 2012 constitution drafting process.
Morsi’s year as president was marked by the undemocratic mode of governance of its authoritarian predecessors. First it collaborated with the old state establishment to solidify their mutual power hold, offering them broad concessions in the first constitutional drafting process that retained their power and privilege.
Then the Brotherhood began prosecuting activists, raiding NGOs and trying its members and intimidating journalists. They alienated the revolutionary fronts that could have worked with them to address Egypt’s social needs, and excluded civil society from a policy development dialogue.
Such exclusionary policies and lack of progressive or reformist initiatives lost them public support early on in Mohammed Morsi’s administration. This culminated in the Brotherhood’s demonisation by local media and wide-rejection by the masses after the Revolution’s second uprising, organized by the grassroots Tamarod campaign which called for Morsi’s ouster and early elections on 30 June 2013.
With the old state’s most formidable and well-organised political opponents cast away, the road was paved for it to fully reclaim its power, and groom General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the “hero” of the 3 July military coup that officially ousted Mohammed Morsi, for president.
“The Empire Strikes Back”
Now, the military-backed establishment (which, once Al-Sisi is elected, will merely replace a uniform with a suit) continues to suppress the essential freedom of assembly and freedom of the press that the martyrs of the revolution died for.
Revolutionary street art and slogans have been washed out of public spaces in favour of giant posters of General Al-Sisi. The police unabashedly abused campaign freedoms in the first round of elections following the 30 June uprising, jailing campaigners against the establishment-backed constitution.
Meanwhile, a massive state-advocated and corporate-sponsored propaganda campaign to win the support of an exhausted and vastly undereducated mass public takes hold of the Egyptian mind, with disconcerting success.
Aside from banning Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist organisation” and wide-scale imprisonment or killing of its members, the military-backed government’s intimidation tactics include the arrest of activists, union workers, journalists, civil society leaders and critical academics.
Old state proponents in the media defame the youth movements and activists at the core of the 25 January Revolution. They stir elaborate conspiracy plots to distract the people from Egypt’s real enemy, the unchecked authority by the long-standing establishment and its inability to address the needs of the Egyptian people. Such suppression of dissent is a waste of government resources and energy when so many of the country’s central challenges remain unaddressed.
With “security and stability”—a Mubarak-era mantra—as justification, pre-revolutionary authoritarian habits continue with a reinvigorated fervour. Clearly, Egypt is undergoing a counterrevolution led by those institutions and factions who had the most to lose from the broad government reform, transparency, and accountability called for by the 25 January uprising in 2011.
While the mass media and wider public is preoccupied with an alleged “war against terrorism” – used by the government to justify the crackdown – government entities profit from billions of dollars of Gulf aid money spent on face-lift projects which are contracted out to companies owned by military and Mubarakite economic elites—the same ones the people rose up against in the first uprising.
Egypt does face a threat of insurgency, especially in the Sinai, but military’s Islamist crackdown has seemingly strengthened the resolve of the insurgents. Its closure of the tunnels to Gaza has cut a vital economic lifeline for both Palestinians and Sinai Bedouin communities and increases discontent with the military government that has long oppressed and neglected communities in the Sinai. The military fights fire with fire instead of addressing the structural roots of discontent—lack of infrastructural development and economic opportunity in Sinai that edge many Sinai residents to turn to smuggling in the first place.
Millions are spent repaving already drivable roads and repainting sidewalks, or billions are spent purchasing arms from Russia. Meanwhile, slums, villages, and schools are seemingly forgotten, and the popular plight of the people remains unaddressed.
Instead, the establishment’s neoliberal agenda seeks to perpetuate an economic status quo that sustains the wealth and prestige of the nation’s top cadre.
Constitution of the old guard
Egypt’s institutions of power are further emboldened by the new constitution, which was overwhelmingly approved by the masses. Many voted under the pretext that a vote for the constitution is a vote for Egypt, Al-Sisi, and stability, whereas a vote against it favours the “terrorists”.
The constitution passed following a massive corporate-funded Yes campaign spearheaded by Tarek Nouri, the head of Mubarak’s last presidential campaign. Those who campaigned against it were rounded up and jailed.
The failed system that sparked the revolution lives on, embedded in a constitution that perpetuates the economic interests of those in government without provisions to keep them accountable to the Egyptian people.
The passage of the constitution means that the military’s autonomy is further enshrined, while maintaining broad jurisdiction to try civilians in military courts. As the law stands, the military is not subject to civil laws or any electable mechanism of check or balance. Its economic empire lacks any semblance of oversight.
Constitutional provisions strengthen the police and intelligence services that for years have done the establishment’s dirty work and sustained the corrupt status quo.
The constitution’s maintenance of autonomy for the state’s numerous fiefdoms, or taifas, dims prospects of good governance. These fiefdomes “[establish] their own economic interests… in partnership with private sector actors. They will fight to preserve and possible expand these interests. As a result, all possible checks on the taifas state, including free media, the transparent flow of information, independent auditing, assertive labour unions, strikes, and demonstrations, will be restricted,” according to Ashraf El-Sherif, a resident scholar for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Such a system, an echo of Egypt’s past, increases the likelihood for institutional infighting and competition rather than coordinated progressive action.
As my former professor, resident fellow and Egypt law expert Nathan Brown wrote recently: “Egypt has replaced a single dictator with a slew of dictatorial institutions.” These institutions lack the key mechanisms of civilian oversight—a staple of democracy that prevents corruption while ensuring that the popular will is adhered to.
Hope never dies
Little indicates that the military’s shepherding of the current “democracy” will bring about change for the better. They will continue to govern to favour those who have been at society’s helm for generations. Deep state corporate interests make it unlikely for Field Marshal Al-Sisi to adopt a Nasser-esque populist or socialist agenda for the nation.
Egypt’s main hindrance is its lack of a strong, organised, progressive alternative to the military. The revolution itself lacks a shepherding ideology or solid vision that channels efforts of progress-minded Egyptians forth with concrete, achievable aims.
Civil society groups have yet to coalesce into an effective network for popular advocacy and coordinated mass action. Luckily, the only way from here is up.
Al-Sisi’s likely presidency—with the same institutional flaws that have failed the country year after year—is already set up to fail. This means revolutionaries, progressives, democracy advocates, and youth movements, have another shot planning a vision for Egypt’s future and organising a grassroots base that can win both the confidence and the votes of the people come the next election cycle.
Efforts to rekindle the participatory spirit of 25 January and channel its momentum to massive volunteer efforts that make impacts on the lives of struggling Egyptians could be a start.
If one thing is for sure, so long as Egypt’s young generation has not lost hope, prospects to revive the revolution and achieve its aims remain.
Al-Sharif Nassef is an advocate for democratic development, civic engagement, and legal reform in Egypt. He is an associate with the Egyptian-American Rule of Law Association and Middle East contributor to Fair Observer. Follow him on twitter @alsharifpasha & @EARLAEgypt.
This article was also published on Fair Observer , an international news analysis journal.