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Moving beyond Semantics

Labeling the eighteen days between January 25 and February 11, 2011, as an uprising is more than merely an exercise in semantics. To the contrary, admitting that Egypt did not experience a revolution has profound implications for our understanding of the nature of the Abdul Fatah el-Sisi regime—that is, the similarities and differences between it and the previous Mubarak government—and, in turn,

Egypt’s social and political future. In assessing the outcome of the January 25 uprising, I use three specific criteria to measure the extent of revolutionary change: (1) a sudden, radical, or complete political, social, or economic change;4 (2) a fundamental change in political organization; and (3) the overthrow of a ruler or government. Based on these criteria, this chapter argues that Egypt experienced neither a political nor a socioeconomic revolution. Wealth and power alike continue to be concentrated in the hands of the pre-January 25 elite but for a reshuffling of the elite hierarchy.5 The military now sits at the helm, followed by the domestic intelligence and police, and the economic elite just below them. While the country underwent a revolutionary moment6 that contributed to the country’s present state of political uncertainty, the long-term impact of this revolutionary moment turned uprising remains unknown. As such, I ask the following question: Did the events of January 25 trigger long-term political change that will eventually lead to popular sovereignty and representation, or were the past four years a temporary period of instability within a long history of authoritarianism? At the writing of this chapter, the latter appears to be the case.

The moment the Egyptian military declared it would not follow Mubarak’s orders to shoot demonstrators in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, the days of the Mubarak regime were numbered. But as soon as General Mohamed Tantawi became the chief executive of the state, supported by a council of generals, it became clear that the outcome—at least the initial outcome—of the mass protests was merely a return to the status quo. Though the unpopular head of state was deposed, the military establishment that brought him to power and remained the source of his elite coalition’s strength and legitimacy remained in place.7

For more than half a century, the military was the bastion of power and political legitimacy for Egypt’s successive authoritarian regimes—a defining feature of Egypt’s postcolonial state. But the institution’s grip on power, which peaked during General Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency, was gradually reduced by both Anwar Sadat and Mubarak. Sadat began eroding the military’s power by reshuffling elite coalitions to offset the questionable loyalties of military officials from the late Nasser’s regime. Mubarak continued the demilitarization of politics by replacing military elites with domestic security forces housed in the Ministry of Interior. By 2010, only 8 percent of Mubarak’s ministerial appointments came from the military’s ranks.8 An aggressive economic liberalization program that reduced the role of the state in Egypt’s economy further eroded the military’s role in it as well. For example, defense expenditures decreased from 19.5 percent of the gdp in 1980 to 2.2 percent in 2010.9

This redistribution of power from the military ranks to other members of the country’s elite created tensions between Mubarak and the military, with the latter seizing the moment on January 25 to reassert its control over the country. Not surprisingly, some scholars have described January 25 as a soft coup10—an assess?ment corroborated by the military-friendly 2014 constitution, not to mention the events that led up to the country’s revolutionary moment and the those that followed.11

January 25 was a moment filled with tremendous optimism, not only for many Egyptians but also for a large number of political analysts who believed— naively as it turned out—that the scaf’s assumption of power was a temporary and transitional necessity.12 But the scaf wasted no time in amending the constitution and issuing executive decrees that aimed to reverse the decades-long erosion of their power and in turn guarantee their long-term political dominance.13 The military’s efforts were ultimately successful, culminating in the overthrow of the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi government in July 2013, followed by General Sisi’s ascension to the presidency in June 2014. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that Egypt has entered a new phase of authoritarianism controlled by the military.14 The question remains, however, as to whether Egyptians who experienced political freedom, even if only for a brief historical moment, will accept another decades-long dictatorship. That the same factors leading to the 2011 uprisings still exist does not bode well for Egypt’s long-term political stability.

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