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Varied Disciplines, Perspectives, and Narratives

We gathered academic scholars from fields as diverse as law, cultural studies, literature, media studies, political science, and migration studies. We brought together journalists, historians, and education specialists to also join in the discussion. We tried to gather Egyptians who have lived inside the country, as well as those from the growing ranks of the Egyptian diasporas, which constitute an enormous Egyptian brain drain—those who are both living and working in the West. It must be noted that meeting in Canada, as opposed to in Egypt, was mandatory at the time of our workshop to have the kind of fruitful and frank discussions, on such sensitive issues that are reflected in the chapters of this volume. For some of our contributors, discussing these topics in Egypt in 2014 would be an unacceptable risk to them and their families. The political and security climate in Egypt was not conducive to having the kinds of conversations we held as a group, which is itself worthy of note.

In the first 3 chapters, we explore the key issue of whether Egypt truly experienced a revolution. Did the events in Tahrir Square represent the birth of a revolution or were they simply a moment in time, a gathering of millions of people with no clear path to real change? We begin the book with three chapters that take three very different perspectives: literary-historical, philosophical, and political- economic. In chapter 1, Belal Fadl and Maissaa Almustafa revive historical and literary memories of events that have taken place in several societies that have witnessed political revolutions. This chapter compares the development of historical revolutions, including the French and American revolutions, to the revolution of January 25, 2011, in Egypt. While some Egyptians have begun to see the revolution itself as the cause of their suffering, and others have even blamed the January 25 revolutionaries for the destruction of their sense of national stability, Fadl and Almustafa contend that these critics have misplaced their anger, situating it in the moment of turmoil rather than seeing the revolution as part of the usual ebbs and flows of Egypt’s political and historical circumstances. Not surprisingly, Fadl and Almustafa hold that the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to ensure stability and order in the aftermath of the revolution “has even created a kind of nostalgia among many Egyptians for the days of relative calm under Mubarak.” The authors find similar themes, views, and arguments across past Egyptian revolutions, including the view that external and conspiracy forces were always at play. They suggest that when analyzing Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, we need to privilege the view of the longue duree and search for structural changes rather than focusing on particular events.

In chapter 2, Mohammad Fadel also reflects on the literary history of Egypt and compares the January 25 Revolution to successful transitions outside Egypt. He also asks why Egypt’s revolution failed to materialize into a full and true democratic consolidation under Morsi and beyond. By putting revolutionaries into three broad categories, Fadel suggests that idealistic revolutionaries held demands that were too pure and argues that they wanted nothing less than a complete transition to an ideal democracy. Their lack of pragmatism ended the revolutionary course of events and ushered in a coup. The revolutionaries made strategic mistakes because they did not pay enough attention to Egypt’s institutional, economic, political, and social circumstances. These idealists were generally politically liberal and did not want to compromise. Pitting the military forces against the Islamist-led government, the idealists were able to sway public opinion against the Islamists and force the downfall of the Morsi government. However, Fadel argues that the liberal idealists were unreasonable in their expectations of what could be achieved in the short period of time under Morsi’s rule.

In chapter 3, Sahar Aziz concurs with many of the same observations made by Fadel, particularly regarding the judicial, legal, and, most importantly, institutional limitations imposed on Morsi’s time in office to achieve substantive changes. Both Aziz and Fadel are most critical about whether Egypt experienced a political revolution in the first place. Aziz reaches beyond the philosophical questions posed by Fadel and argues further that the Morsi government failed to enact any substantive socioeconomic changes because he was stymied by the entrenched political interests that formed the Mubarak regime—namely, Mubarak’s deeply rooted patronage network—and because the military effectively used the revolutionary moment to seize power for itself. Both Aziz and Fadel suggest that the military had its own grievances with the Mubarak regime, especially for consolidating too much power in the hands of the presidency and for shifting economic and business interests to the private, neoliberal sector. Aziz examines Egyptians’ continued grievances with the unequal distribution of wealth and power and suggests that as these political-economic grievances continue to grow under the firm grip of military rule by President Sisi, Egypt is bound to experience another revolutionary moment. Here Aziz shares some of the views of Fadl and Almustafa, who beseech us to take the longue duree view of Egypt’s history.

In chapters 4 through 6 we examine the dynamics of political identity and key protagonists of Egypt’s revolution. After decades of political repression marked the political sanction and control of political parties and professional syndicates, juxtaposed against social movements that were not co-opted by the autocratic Mubarak regime, the January 25 Revolution unleashed new dynamics of political identity. The role of the Egyptian intellectual, media, religious leaders, youth, elites and state officials were thrust into the limelight. Having unseated the regime, the ways in which these actors negotiated with new political powers and the ways they portrayed their “struggle” or “narrative” in the context of the revolution(s) to the Egyptian people were in constant flux.

In chapter 4, Shereen Abouelnaga challenges readers to appreciate the role of cultural intellectuals in Egypt’s tumultuous years. She argues for a reconsideration of the very definition of the intellectual in Egypt in light of the disrupted and disruptive intersectionality between regime complicity and revolutionary politics. It is in that space between the two that Abouelnaga examines the decline of the intellectual in Egypt, particularly under the decades-long regime of Mubarak. According to Abouelnaga, the precipitous fall in the production of academic research in a country in which fear, repression, and complicity had blunted all real attempts at critical scholarly work leads her to conclude that “none of the definitions of the intellectual advanced by philosophers, critics, or politicians are applicable to the intellectuals who ‘ruled’ the cultural scene in Egypt prior to the revolution.” Echoing the view of other authors in this volume, Abouelnaga argues that it is the interplay between religion and culture that has become a potential site of conflict in identity politics in Egypt. This leads her to call for a reconsideration of the very definition of the intellectual as it is understood in the Egyptian case.

Abouelnega, like Fadl and Almustafa of chapter 1, also uses a historical and literary approach to show how the goals of justice, freedom, and dignity have inspired people to break out into the streets, protesting against those in power and demanding rights for themselves. Abouelnaga, like many other contributors, argues that the path of revolution is not always easy and that revolution is best understood as a process that comes in waves, not through a single, radical—or final—break with the past. Moreover, Abouelnaga agrees with Fadl and Almustafa that the root causes of the social and political crises in Egypt remain present. Indeed, most contributors agree that many of the same conditions that precipitated the revolution on January 25, 2011, were further exacerbated by the Brotherhood’s blatant attempts to manipulate the political process, and have contributed markedly to the pol itical and social turmoil in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood.

Both chapters 5 and 6 examine the institutional relationship between organized religious movements and the Egyptian state during the years of political revolution and upheaval. Dalia Fahmy’s exploration of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mai Mogib Mosad’s examination of the Coptic Church both take an institutional approach to understanding the groups’ successes and failures in negotiating with the regime and the larger Egyptian society. In both cases, the authors show how these groups, which each pursued the politics of identity in its own way, quietly worked within regime structures to carve out pockets of political power and legal rights within the regime’s monopolization of political, legislative, and judicial power. Both chapters trace the rise and fall of religious identity politics in the face of revolutionary upheaval.

In chapter 5, Fahmy illustrates how even with Mubarak’s ouster and Morsi’s election, a repressive state still managed to absorb the Muslim Brotherhood into its corrupt institutional machinations. She does not excuse the Muslim Brotherhood for its own repressive tactics and tendencies. Rather, she underscores the extent to which the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has been due to its ability to adapt to the changes brought on by the fall of Mubarak’s regime, the political space afforded them by the transitional military rule under the scaf, and then finally the democratically elected Islamist government of Morsi. Fahmy also shows how the brotherhood’s ability to leverage its various ties to the state helped it rise to power, and how, in the end, it managed to overplay its own hand and precipitate its downfall.

Fahmy points out that in Egypt, social movements with set ideological positions, long perceived to be the agents of social and political change, failed to bring about the revolution that they had envisioned, a point that concurs with that of Fadel in chapter 2 regarding the role of liberal idealists. Fahmy breaks down the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the political dynamics of revolutionary Egypt and, like both Fadel and Aziz, she finds elements of the deep state at work against the Muslim Brotherhood. Fahmy, echoing Aziz’s political economy arguments, compares Egyptian society’s high expectations of economic revival and reforms with the reality of entrenched business and military elites who continued to thwart the brotherhood’s efforts. Fahmy, like Fadel, argues that the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood’s power was unpredictable under the circumstances of contemporary Egypt.

Fahmy responds to some of the critiques leveled by Abouelnaga and by Fadl and Almustafa about the complicit failure of the brotherhood to take the reins of power. Fahmy traces the changes and adaptations made by the brotherhood during key political moments, and argues that contrary to the views of others in the book, the brotherhood used ideological moderation as well as a political strategy of inclusion through limited electoral participation to gain political power. Fahmy notes that the Muslim Brotherhood, overextending its reach, ultimately failed because it abandoned some of its traditional political strategies, such as seeking only limited political influence, and thus upset entrenched power interests. This stands in contrast with Fadl and Almustafa’s argument that the military’s coup resulted from Egyptians’ nostalgia for social and political stability.

In chapter 6, Mosad examines the political participation of the Christian community and the Coptic Church prior to and after the Egyptian revolution. Using an approach similar to that of Fahmy, Mosad traces the historical institutional ties formed between the Coptic Church and the autocratic Mubarak regime. The Coptic Church and its pope were treated as a homogeneous Christian bloc, which empowered the Coptic Church under Mubarak’s rule. Nevertheless, Christian participation in the revolution that overthrew Mubarak in Tahrir Square was visible and created a striking moment of Egyptian unity. After successfully deposing Mubarak, many Christian Egyptians continued their revolutionary position, but new identity politics influenced the position of many Copts: the rise of political Islamic tendencies and frequent sectarian attacks against Copts destroyed their sense of security and discredited the church as a broker between them under the ruling regime. As the church’s political brokerage role no longer ensures their security, Copts have increasingly taken to independent political organization. Mosad takes up the question of the interrelated and complicated rapport between religion and politics in contemporary Egypt. Like Fahmy and other authors in this volume, Mosad undertakes a historical overview in order to contextualize the current events in the modern Egyptian state. Unlike the other contributors, however, Mosad speaks directly to the failure of the Egyptian state to continuously protect Coptic Christians.

Mosad details how unspoken arrangements between the state and the church, in which the Mubarak regime held up the claims of Copts as victims of “religious (Islamic) violence,” and which led to the Mubarak regime offering a certain degree of autonomy to church leaders—notably to Pope Shenouda III—can be seen as an outcome of Egypt’s long-entrenched and endemically corrupt authoritarian regimes. However, Mosad also points out that the events leading up to and following January 25 have encouraged a nascent political awakening among Coptic youth in that “the unity expressed in overthrowing Mubarak gave Copts a new sense of participation in the rebuilding of Egypt.” Moreover, the scaf’s continued lack of interest in the violence perpetrated against Copts by the police and by the Muslim Brotherhood eventually led many Copt youth to challenge existing power structures. Like Fahmy, Mosad argues that the tumultuous years before and after the events in Tahrir Square have reshaped religious identity politics. New narratives of victimization and repression at the hands of the regime in power and the limited societal support for the military’s heavy-handed approach to returning stability and order will continue to shape and alter the identity politics of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Coptic Church. Both Mosad and Aziz indicate that Egypt’s youth are still not satisfied with the current Sisi regime, which hints at the possibility for continued calls for change on the part of these groups.

In witnessing and chronicling the Egyptian revolution, Mohamad Hamas Elmasry and Mohammed El-Nawawy examine the political role of Egypt’s media in chapter 7. While the chapters on the Muslim Brotherhood and the Coptic Church examine these groups’ attempts to preserve or gain privilege within the established political structure, Elmasry and El-Nawawy look at the long-term failures of the media in shaping its own voice. Much like Abouelnaga in chapter 4, the authors of chapter 7 discuss a lack of professionalism in Egypt’s media and among its journalists. Whereas both Fahmy and Mosad contextualize events by unearthing the institutional structures of authoritarianism that shaped the political dynamics and interactions of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the Coptic Church with the regime, Elmasry and El-Nawawy see a complicit failure of the Egyptian media to create a professional and oppositional role to authoritarian powers. Whereas Abouelnaga shows more sympathy for the intellectual, Elmasry and El-Nawawy argue that even during periods of relative freedom from the dictates of the authoritarian regime, the press has shown itself unready for the burdens of responsible and impartial reporting, choosing instead to employ practices that the authors at one point call “biased.”

Through their comparative analysis of the performances of the Egyptian press during the rule of Mubarak, the scaf transitional period, and the brief Morsi period, Elmasry and El-Nawawy argue that standards in journalistic practice and education remain sorely absent in Egypt. Journalists in Egyptian media have not cultivated an identity as a fourth estate—an oppositional critic to the powers that be—even during times of a relative freedom of the press. Elmasry and El-Nawawy make their point very clear: in order to pave the way for a full transition to democracy, Egypt’s press must be granted a significant degree of independence from the state. This includes independence from media owners whose close ties to various government institutions continue to hamper journalistic professionalism in Egypt.

The final chapters examine the relationship between the Egyptian state and its judiciary, police, and military. The rule of law, or the lack thereof, in Egypt’s turbulent transition to democracy both before and after the historic January 25 Revolution is examined in this final section. There has been a great deal of external scholarly focus on constitutional matters, including the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression, women’s and minority rights, freedom of the press, and the separation of powers among the branches of Egypt’s government. Our final chapters consider some of the questions and broader concerns raised earlier by both Aziz and Fadel.

In chapter 8, Dina Rashed looks at the relationship between the Egyptian military and the presidency over forty years of republican rule. Using a comparative historical approach, Rashed finds a common pattern of growing presidential frustration with the encroaching power of the military. Like Aziz, Rashed points out that Mubarak shifted economic power away from the military to civilian cronies of his inner political and financial circle. Rashed explains that the Egyptian military supported the eventual overthrow of Mubarak because of the fiscal cuts to its budget. Whereas Aziz argues that the military supported the revolution because the neoliberal cronies surrounding Mubarak were taking economic wealth from the military’s industrial complex, Rashed suggests it was the simpler cuts to military expenditures that unearthed the military’s resentment of Mubarak. Rashed proposes that Morsi’s failures stemmed from not according more economic discretion to the military and from long-standing military suspicions of the Muslim Brotherhood’s loyalty to the Egyptian state.

Rashed, unlike others in the volume, suggests that historical experience shows that the Egyptian military does not want to intervene in civil affairs and was quite happy to transfer power to the presidency. The rift between Mubarak and the military had motivated the military to intervene on behalf of the people’s demands for a regime overthrow in Tahrir Square. Echoing the findings of Fadel, Rashed explains that the military favored a minimalist or cosmetic overthrow of the regime by removing Mubarak from office while insulating the entire institutional structure that underpinned his regime from the protesters’ demands for change. Unlike Fahmy, who emphasizes the interventionist role of the military in the Morsi period of rule, Rashed argues that history shows that Egypt’s military prefers minimal intervention in dealing with domestic matters; it prefers to leave those matters for the hated police, which is discussed in the subsequent chapter.

In chapter 9, Hesham Genidy and Justine Salam tackle the role of the police in Egypt’s revolution. They note the pervasive use of brutality and rampant corruption in the police force and discuss some of the root causes behind the failure of the institution. The police, subsumed under the hated Ministry of Interior (Mol), came to symbolize everything that was wrong with the Mubarak regime, to the point that officers who simply acted in self-defense were overzealously victimized. Like Aziz, who traces the consolidation of power and authority under the MoI and the police, Genidy and Salam show how the police further securitized prerevolutionary Egypt for Mubarak’s gain. The call for the fall of Mubarak often included a call for the police, as an institution, to follow suit. Taking advantage of Genidy’s unique position as a former employee of the Mol, the authors challenges the idea that legal reforms could fix Egypt’s broken judicial and policing system. They suggest that there is a need for more tangible reforms in the daily procedures and methods of policing.

Police corruption and brutality are an undeniable reality in Egypt, and Gen- idy and Salam’s chapter parallels the descriptions by both Mosad and Fahmy of how state-sanctioned violence incited Egyptians to protest against the country’s authoritarian regime. However, as Genidy and Salam demonstrate through descriptions of Genidy’s own experiences and through their interviews with former police officers, Egyptian police forces have always been in the difficult and precarious position of upholding the regime’s legitimacy, which, as many officers have been cognizant of all along, was simultaneously undermined by the brutal and arbitrary acts they were ordered or incentivized to commit against civilians. It will be difficult, as it was even before Egypt’s 2011 revolution, to reform what many Egyptians see as the police’s execution of “selective justice” on behalf of Egypt’s corrupt leaders, and while they in no way deny this, Genidy and Salam outline various practical initial steps toward effective police reform. Mubarak’s rule relied on maintaining a ruthless police state capable of crushing political or social challenges to the regime’s power. But by January 28, 2011, the police were defeated across the country and had rapidly retreated. Evidently, army leaders were prepared to sacrifice Mubarak to save the country, but the police had no such luxury of simply switching allegiances, as the institutional underpinnings of the Mol rested with the Mubarak government itself.

Throughout this book, the authors unpack the complicated and multilayered interactions between the people, the state, and entrenched institutions prior to and in the aftermath of the revolution. Ismail Alexandrani and Isaac Friesen wrote our conclusion chapter with these themes in mind. Friesen, as an inside/ outside academic with ties to Egypt, spent years in the small town of Beni Suef in Egypt to learn Arabic and teach English, and Alexandrani is a freelance journalist and researcher from Alexandria. Together, they offer important outsider perspectives on the revolution in Tahrir Square. They provide a glimpse into important dynamics that have, true to this volume’s title, taken place beyond Tahrir Square.

Friesen and Alexandrani reflect on the book’s findings, but also add to them in important ways. The authors conclude the volume by bringing our attention to some of the most important dynamics in Egyptian politics that are often ignored by the international media and even in academic discussions: the role of Egypt’s ethnic minorities and of autonomous protest movements in regions and cities beyond Cairo and Tahrir Square. The authors survey environmental activism in the city of Aswan, radicalization in Egypt’s North Sinai region, and the significant gains made by the long-marginalized ethnic Nubians—the Fadjiicka and the Matocka (the Kenuz) peoples. The Sinai and Nubian activism serve as important counternarratives to the Tahrir Square story that we often hear. Providing an important juxtaposition to the image of a victorious military leadership in Aziz’s chapter, Friesen and Alexandrani’s description of the deteriorating security situation in the North Sinai region shows weaknesses in the military’s reconsolidation of power after the ouster of President Mubarak. The narrow focus of Nubian activists on securing nationality rights, rather than joining the January 25 movement in demanding systemic change, demonstrates that not all significant political constellations in Egypt were pushing for change.

The book provides a wide range of views on the extraordinary events in Egypt that caught the world’s attention. It gives us myriad ways of looking at the causes and outcomes of the mass protests that exploded on January 25, 2011. True to the various authors’ intentions, the volume shows us how the daunting complexity of Egyptian politics eluded not only international observers but also the very Egyptians who fought for change in the streets. Our contributors reflected honestly on the nationwide moment of transformation that was embodied by the

Egyptian revolution; naturally, there were both great disagreements and shared views on the way that the post-January 25 events have unfolded. Our goal was to bring their voices to the world in an English-language academic collection and to let them tell their stories from their own perspectives. The book’s diversity of views and approaches is a testament to the diversity of Egypt today.


  • 1. April Carter, People Power and Political Change: Key Issues and Concepts (Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2010).
  • 2. Mehran Kamrava, “Causes and Leaders of Revolutions,” Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies 15 (2010): 79-89.
  • 3. Jack A. Goldstone and Ted R. Gurr, Revolutions of the Late Twentieth Century (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991).
  • 4. See Timothy Garton Ash, “1989!,” New York Review of Books, November 5, 2009.
  • 5. Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).
  • 6. Samuel Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968).
  • 7. Anthony Giddens, Sociology (Cambridge: Polity, 1989).
  • 8. Goldstone and Gurr, Revolutions of the Late Twentieth Century.
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