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Bessma Momani and Eid Mohamed

On January 25, 2011, the world’s eyes were on Egypt’s Tahrir Square as millions of people poured into Cairo’s city center, demanding “freedom, bread, social justice and human dignity” and defiantly calling for then president Hosni Mubarak to step down. After a successful overthrow of Tunisian longtime autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, it seemed as though the entire Arab region would be reshaped by a domino effect of falling Arab dictators. The Egyptian people also felt empowered like never before and believed this would be the moment for real revolutionary change. After camping out in the square for weeks, most Egyptians hoped that through a sheer determination to bring about change, they could uproot and address Egypt’s ailing socioeconomic conditions and political institutions. The uprisings in Tahrir soon spread nationwide to cities across Egypt. Mubarak and his notorious police responded violently, with tear gas, batons, and arrests of peaceful demonstrators. On January 28, 2011, the embattled police force collapsed, and army tanks entered the scene to play the role of the popular savior of a revolution. On February 11, 2011, Mubarak relinquished all powers to the military, which, two days later, dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution. In fewer than twenty days, it seemed the authoritarian regime under Mubarak had come to an end. The military’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (scaf) rode into power on a wave of popul ar support as it appeared to usher in a transition toward democracy.

Welcomed by the masses as a caretaker government, the scaf managed to supervise successful parliamentary and presidential elections. On March 19, 2011, and in the first post-Mubarak vote, Egyptians cast ballots on constitutional amendments sponsored by the military, setting the framework for the transition to democracy, including scheduling the first parliamentary and presidential elections. Islamists backed the amendments as they were eager to hold elections and take advantage of their widespread grassroots support built during the years of repression under Mubarak and his predecessors; in contrast, smaller and newly founded parties had less time to prepare for elections and cried for more time. Many liberal revolutionaries pushed for a “no” vote on the military-written constitutional amendments and argued that a constitution should be written from the bottom up and not rushed. Despite liberals’ objections, the constitutional amendments were overwhelmingly approved as people anxiously waited for presidential and parliamentary elections.

In the meantime, the ruling scaf made plenty of enemies along the way. After churches were sacked and burned in Upper Egypt, peaceful Egyptian protesters, mostly Coptic Christians, called for the dissolution of the scaf, the resignation of Chairman Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, and the dismissal of the governor of Aswan Province. On October 9, 2011, the mainly Coptic protesters were attacked outside the state news and radio building, known as Maspero, by military police that killed dozens. Under pressure from the Coptic protesters and the continued nationwide demonstrations against what was called the “Maspero massacre,” the military announced parliamentary elections. Parliamentary elections were held in stages from November 28, 2011, to February 15, 2012, and lead to the victory of Islamist parties. The Muslim Brotherhood, which ran under the banner of the Freedom and Justice Party, won the majority of seats while Salafists, under the banner of the Nour Party, took another quarter of the parliamentary seats. The remaining parliamentary seats went to liberals, leftists, independents, and secular forces. In the Shura Council (consultative council), few voters bothered to cast their ballots, ushering in an Islamist takeover of nearly 90 percent of the seats. The disappointed military, Egypt’s scaf, eventually handed power to the democratically elected Islamist government of the Muslim Brotherhood, and plans for the presidential election were set in motion. On May 23-24, 2012, Egypt witnessed the first round of voting in the presidential elections, with a field of thirteen candidates. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister under Mubarak, emerged as the top two contenders and would face each other in a runoff. On June 14, 2012, a few days before the second round of voting in the presidential elections, the Supreme Constitutional Court ordered the dissolution of the Islamist-dominated People’s Assembly on grounds that a third of its members were elected illegally. The military swiftly closed down the parliament while the presidential elections continued. On June 16-17, 2012, Egyptians voted in the presidential runoff between Morsi and Shafiq. The military issued a “constitutional declaration” giving the scaf sweeping authority and limiting the powers of the next president. Morsi won the presidential runoff, with 51.7 percent of the vote, and took his oath of office before the Supreme Constitutional Court a day after reading a symbolic oath in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the revolution.

Under Morsi, no new economic or political ideas were brought to the political table. Yet, the Egyptian “deep state” of Mubarak-era cronies prevented change, particularly in the judiciary and elements of the public sector. To make matters worse, Islamists had no real solution to the everyday problems of Egyptians, such as traffic, garbage, lack of effective policing and crime prevention, unemployment, and the sheer chaos that characterized the lives people have long led. Like his pre?decessors, Morsi tried to court foreign capital, international donors, and international creditors such as the International Monetary Fund. In essence, Morsi’s economic policies were business as usual. Undoubtedly Morsi inherited an economic mess and a system rife with corruption that would take more than a year to weed out. Moreover, in the early years after the January 25 protests, Egypt saw its economy tumble, a depreciating exchange rate, a decline in tourism revenue, a growing population with increased demands, and rising debt burdens.

In a bold move, newly elected President Morsi ordered the retirement of the top Mubarak-era leadership of the military scaf and canceled the military’s last constitutional decree, taking back the presidential powers that the generals had granted themselves. The move was seen as a way to curb the military’s role in political affairs, but it also gave Morsi the power to legislate unilaterally in the absence of a sitting parliament. Meanwhile, a one-hundred-member constituent assembly, previously created by the dissolved parliament and tasked with writing the postrevolutionary constitution, had continued to work until the members belonging to liberal parties and representatives of Egypt’s churches withdrew in late 2012. Those who withdrew from the constituent assembly protested the Islamist-dominated body and voiced their suspicions that Islamists would impose their will on Egyptian society through the constitutional draft. The Mubarak-era appointed judiciary entered the national debate and opposed President Morsi’s monopoly on power and authority over the drafting of the new constitution. The stage was now set for a conflict between the presidency and the judiciary, which still held elements of support for the previous regime.

Following the decrees enacted by Morsi, some opposition and revolutionary figures began to characterize him, as well as the brotherhood at large, not just as flawed democrats but as militants, terrorists, and fascists—the old stereotypes of political Islam. Opposition and revolutionary forces were reenergized to protest against the monopolization of power under Morsi and the Islamist- dominated constituent assembly. The constituent assembly approved the 2012 constitution, and it went to a national referendum. Despite liberals and secularists protesting the referendum on the constitution, it was approved amid low voter turnout and increased political apathy.

The military, now lead by General Abdul Fatah el-Sisi, had continued to claim that Morsi and the Islamists were pushing the country toward a civil war. While in power, the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to falter along the way with controversial policies while it also continued to cry foul, claiming that the deep state of the military generals thwarted their efforts to implementing real change every step of the way. Morsi and the brotherhood claimed that there were a number of conspiracies laid out against them. It had become routine for the group’s officials to insinuate that an opposition figure had been bought, held bias, or had a “foreign agenda.” The visceral debate in Egypt over hidden agendas was at an all-time high as protests against the Morsi government took on a new life. In the summer of 2013, the people returned to Tahrir Square to call for the military’s return to power and to end the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule under President Morsi. General Sisi claimed that millions came to Tahrir Square to call for the overthrow of Morsi and that he was responding to the desire of the people for political transformation. The technical term for the military’s intervention is a coup, but for many Egyptians in Tahrir Square this was an attempt to “reset the revolution.” After the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Rabaa Square, in the middle of Cairo, which led to the death of hundreds and perhaps thousands, Sisi and the military cemented their power over the political organs of the state once more and the scaf was back in charge of Egypt. As one of its first political moves, the military rewrote the constitution in January 2014 to block religious parties from participating in politics and to strengthen the military’s budget and powers.

In May 2014, a highly controversial election was held that saw that General Sisi was sworn in as a “civilian president.” Meanwhile, the military and Sisi continued to vilify the Muslim Brotherhood and all those who supported it and the deposed president Morsi. The brotherhood refused to accept the outcome of the June 30 protests, organized by Tamarod (Rebellion) against then-president Morsi, denouncing all those who marched against their leader. The Egyptian military was riding on a high of populism and hypernationalist fervor that Egypt had not seen in decades. Since the 2013 coup, the Egyptian airwaves have been filled with anti-brotherhood rhetoric. In the name of protecting the integrity of the Egyptian state, the army promised to “clean the streets” of the brotherhood. Draped in nationalist symbolism and comparing the brotherhood to rodents, the Sisi government has painted all Islamists as an internal security threat with global tentacles that feed off connections and money coming from Turkey, Qatar, and even the United States. It is these fears, created by media, that have been used by some Egyptians to justify the massacre committed against the pro-brotherhood Egyptians during the security force’s dispersal of their Rabaa sit-in. Meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State (isis) since 2014 in Sinai has been used by the military to paint all Islamists with one brush. As the military conveniently calls for the destruction of terrorists in Sinai, the Muslim Brotherhood is caught up in the same antiterrorist rhetoric. Throughout the summer of 2015, low-grade violence between the military and Islamist forces overtook Cairo. While the brotherhood cried its innocence, the military effectively tarred violent Islamist forces and the brotherhood with one brush. Morsi and hundreds of members of the brotherhood were convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to prison and death by the military-backed judiciary.

Egyptians are internalizing contrasting versions of what has happened to their country since Mubarak fell. And with each impassioned telling, reconciliation recedes further into the distance. Islamists and liberals alike attempted to use democratic participation as a means to secure political gains. Meanwhile, detractors of each camp pointed to ways in which the other is in fact “undemocratic.” For many analysts and academics, Egypt appears to be on an unpredictable path. Ardent supporters of the military suggest that the Egyptian revolution is continuing and momentum is being built toward democratic change; in contrast, critics, activists, and opposition movements suggest that Egypt has returned to its autocratic path under a new quasi-military-led regime. How do we assess these past few years of rapid and unpredictable change in revolutionary Egypt? Who were the key stakeholders in Egypt’s revolutionary moment(s), and what explains their actions and reactions to the tumultuous post-2011 years?

When canvassing the many books written about the Egyptian revolution, we noticed a striking theme: complete disagreement on many aspects of the events, from who the lead protagonists were to what was (not) achieved after several tumultuous years had passed. That, combined with the reality that Egyptian scholars and analysts alike could have such varied perspectives on the future trajectory of their beloved homeland, prompted us to gather an interdisciplinary group of academics and analysts with direct links to Egypt to discuss, share, and articulate the philosophical, political, and legal perspectives on the volatile years after Egypt’s January 25 Revolution. To filter out the noise of external analysis coming from Western and Eastern capitals that have strong geostrategic and political interests in the future of Egypt, we sought to gather authors who perceive themselves to be Egyptian.

The contributors to this volume have an “inside” perspective on Egyptian events, with friends and family in Egypt and personal connections to the country; and yet, they all have an “outside” perspective as well, as academics with ties to the transnational world of scholarly debates and communities. A key goal of this book was to get as close as possible to a bottom-up Egyptian reflection—while recognizing the epistemological differences we professionally hold—on how and why the post-January 25, 2011, events discussed in this volume have unfolded. Despite the contributors’ common ties to Egypt, we achieved little in the way of a common interpretation of the 2011 “revolution.” Indeed, one of the great strengths of this collection of authors is the diversity of their perspectives on Egypt. Our disciplinary boundaries and our different readings of events shape some of these differences of opinion and perspective. We highlight these differences throughout the collection, not just to showcase the variety of views that are held in Egypt itself, but to acknowledge that many of the authors’ views on Egypt are deemed to be very personal.

We do not shy away from the reality that for many of the volume’s contributors, there are still open wounds, at times emotional and at times intellectual, when speaking about the changes that Egypt has undergone in the few years since the Tahrir Square uprisings. We did not want our contributors to disregard their particular perspectives, which are also being shaped by their professional paradigms. Instead, we see this collection as a conversation among Egyptian scholars and do not pretend that a common narrative is necessary. This of course poses a natural challenge to devising any edited collection. But the scale of the challenge should not prevent us from presenting the wide range of scholarly views that define Egypt’s intellectual landscape.

Taking advantage of the opportunity to physically meet in the same room for several days in Waterloo, Canada, in May 2014, the authors of this book had heated debates about some of the most pressing issues facing Egypt today. For instance, our contributors could not (nor should they be forced to) agree on whether Egypt had undergone a revolution, a rebellion, an uprising, or simply a brief democratic moment. These are not just semantics, but rather have powerful connotations about the depth of (potential) change in Egypt. Prior to the fall of communism, academic theory had privileged the notion of armed conflict as a precursor to revolution.1 Many theorists heralded the relatively nonviolent crumbling of the Soviet empire as a contemporary revolution. Taking this cue, academics may argue that Egypt experienced a contemporary revolution that did not necessitate an armed struggle. If we take Mehran Kamrava’s insight2 that the various groups that usurp the political order to acquire power and authority can lead a revolution, then perhaps Egypt experienced a revolution. This insight is buoyed by the work of Ted Gurr and Jack Goldstone,3 who have argued that a revolution may not need to be defined by the violent overthrow of an existing regime. Again, theorists taking cues from the relatively nonviolent overthrow of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe point out that these may have not been revolutions per se, but rather elite forms of negotiation and cooperation in the transferring of power from one regime to another.4

While the theoretical literature is mixed on whether violence is a necessary component in the definition of a movement as a revolution, there is a relative consensus that the social structure must change in reaction to the movement in order for it to be labeled a revolution. Hence, the ultimate return (or continued stay) of the political order under the Mubarak-era regime leaves further doubts as to whether the events of January 25, 2011, sparked a genuine revolution. Structural transformations can be class based,5 values based,6 or involve deep social reforms,7 but all are equally important precursors to identifying a revolution. The role of the military can be revolutionary, as was the case in the 1952 Free Officers revolt against the Egyptian monarch, but if the military simply assumes power for itself without effecting regime change, it comes to resemble a coup d’etat. Theorists who have traced revolutions to forms of mass psychological grievances8 have often been criticized by fellow political theorists, and yet many Egyptians have self-identified their struggles precisely as such. At the very least, then, we must recognize such explanations as being theoretically valuable in Egypt.

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