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Whither the Arab Spring?

There is no question that Egypt still possesses a special sort of influence that far exceeds its financial and economic resources. While Tunisia played the role of first domino in the winter of 2010-2011, it was only when Egyptians rose up en masse that the Arab world’s concatenation was truly unleashed.2 Egypt remains a key marker for the Arab Spring today. Nowhere is this clearer than in the interests and actions of other regional powers. Wealthy Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia spent much of the past few years engaged in a high-stakes proxy contest of diplomacy and dollars. Recently released documents confirm that the United Arab Emirates acted as a major supporter of the June 30 protests that ended Morsi’s rule. Other leaked files illuminate Saudi reservations about the Shia presence in Egypt during the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, and exhibit the Riyadh government’s fear that the revolution opened a space for Iranian influence in the country. The Saudi regime also supported Sisi’s ascension to power and Egypt’s vocal opposition to Iranian interference in the country. That they have provided similar support in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere indicates that the Saudis are enjoying a good return on their investment.3 How Egypt will use all this Gulf money remains to be seen, but there is troublingly little indication that the necessary reforms are being undertaken to make resource- poor Egypt the manufacturing hub that its growing labor force requires.

Aside from their tricky involvement in the ongoing Syrian and Libyan conflicts, Turkey and Qatar’s fortunes in foreign policy have largely run parallel with those of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their resulting relations with Egypt (and its

Saudi and Emirati supporters) are today marked by tension. The Qatari-Egyptian struggle over Al Jazeera reporters Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy drags on into its third year, and diplomatic relations between Ankara and Cairo have been all but severed amid the hurling of insults and accusations. Indeed, the region’s pro-brotherhood axis has been on the defensive since Egypt’s hot summer of 2013.

Unlike Misrata or Aleppo, where the chants of peaceful demonstrators have been muted by mortar and machine-gun fire, Egypt remains relatively stable. But while the Nile valley has thankfully been spared large-scale violence, Sisi’s critics argue that earlier calls for democracy, dignity, and social justice have gone largely unanswered and the old order has effectively returned. Opposition figures highlight the rise in forced disappearances of political activists, and the small protests that do break out often turn deadly, as the state continues to brook no opposition. The media and entertainment sectors in Egypt seem similarly besieged, and the numerous journalists killed during the revolutionary period partially explains why the press appeared unready for the independent, oppositional role recommended by Elmasry and Nawawy. While news editors have formally agreed to curtail their criticism of the military and government, Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers decry the government’s ban on the Islamist group’s newspapers, satellite channels, and radio stations. Bassem Youssef, a star critic during Morsi’s presidency, is now off the air, and other comedians in Egypt are too afraid to poke fun at the political establishment. Echoing the argument of Abouelnaga’s chapter, we can conclude that subservience to the state is a near necessity for Egyptian artists, journalists, and intellectuals. Similar waves of repression can be found in other Arab states.4

Supporters of the Sisi regime defend recent crackdowns as necessary steps in Egypt’s escalating war on terror. The enormous Egyptian military and security apparatuses strain as they struggle to contain threats coming from its western border with Libya, the North Sinai militants discussed earlier in this chapter, and a growing number of attacks in the Nile valley. Hence, with barely faded memories of the Upper Egyptian insurgency of the 1990s, Egyptians are again becoming accustomed to sporadic outbreaks of political violence. Although respect for and confidence in the Egyptian military remains high among many Egyptians, the challenge of how the armed forces will deal with the increasingly bold isis affiliate Province of Sinai is a perplexing one. Indeed, Egypt’s new enemies have brought it into “uncharted territory.”5

Yet Sisi’s critics argue that this fight is precisely what gives the current regime its raison d’etre, and some political scientists go so far as to argue that the reverse is simultaneously true as well, framing Egypt’s government as a “gift to the Islamic State.”6 Robert Fisk articulates Egypt’s choice as one between “a megalomaniac president [and] the madness of ISIS”—hardly the two options Tahrir demonstrators dreamed of in 2011. The “new” dynamic, however, is in fact not new at all, and echoes Asef Bayat’s critique of the old authoritarian-Islamist binary.7 More troublingly, there is evidence that the post-2013 repression of the Muslim Brotherhood has driven elements within the Islamist organization to reconsider their disavowal of political violence.8 This is especially clear on brotherhood social media platforms, and hints at a generational divide that has been apparent since the earliest days of the uprising. Ironically analogous to how Fadel criticizes young activists for not being pragmatic enough, some young brotherhood members now denounce their leadership as being too pragmatic.

It would be misleading, however, to portray Sisi’s government purely in terms of national security, repression, and terrorism. Many Egyptians support the Sisi regime for reasons other than stability. Egyptian secularists, liberals, and Christians nervously celebrate the apparent recession of Islamism in the country, even as they have mixed feelings about aspects of the Sisi regime, as Mosad suggests. Moreover, Egyptians of various political stripes view the state’s new economic projects with favor. The military has invested heavily in a General Electric power generation plan, a one-million-unit housing project with the Emirati urban developer Arabtec, and the New Suez Canal. Some observers, affirming the view expressed in Rashed’s chapter, consider these expenditures as proof that Egyptians now enjoy a less corrupt, more accountable government after the revolution. The result could be sustainable, long-term economic growth. Conversely, others question the source of the military’s income in the first place, claiming that the projects are costly ploys akin to Mubarak’s disastrous Toshka land-reclamation project.9 Time will tell, and Egypt’s citizenry (half of whom are under the age of twenty-five) wait uneasily amid ongoing unemployment and worsening inflation.

Ultimately, the postrevolutionary persistence of Egypt’s political and socioeconomic problems forces us to ask what the Arab Spring has really accomplished. The Middle East’s other revolutionary states are also largely in disarray. Tunisia, the most lasting success story of the uprisings, has been rocked in 2015 by two terrorist attacks on Westerners that have frightened away vital tourism dollars and renewed calls for the surveillance and repression of Islamists. Beyond Tunisia, the specter of isis looms essentially everywhere in the region. In the cases of Libya (where Egypt now intervenes militarily), Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, the chaos of civil war reigns, and one wonders if the continued decline of these countries will leave them fractured and destitute like the failed state in Somalia.

With these concerns in mind, how can the fateful uprising best be conceptualized today? Was it a revolution, a coup, a rebellion, or a moment? Was it really an Arab Spring, or did an Islamist or Authoritarian Winter dictate events more forcefully?10 Judging by the diverse perspectives found in this volume, answers vary depending on one’s disciplinary or political perspective. What can be agreed on is the fact that the ripples caused by Egypt’s revolution affected developments well beyond Cairo and the country’s borders. For a younger generation, the revolution was a time of hope and change that will not be soon forgotten. Yet the uprising also brought its own threats and anxieties. Surveying the region today, trepidation abounds: civil war, state repression, democracy, terrorism, economic crisis; the possibilities and perils of Tahrir extend out into a most uncertain future.

 
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