The two and a half weeks between January 25 and February 11, 2011 proved that in Egypt there is a strong demand for social, political and economic justice, and that the established political elites – religious or secular – are badly out of step with those aspirations.
Two years after Egypt’s ‘January 25th Revolution’, the pro-democracy groups that were instrumental in bringing about the demonstrations find themselves isolated, both domestically and internationally. Their isolation is an indication of just how radical a threat the uprising represented.
The threat to Egypt’s established order by the protesters can be summer up in two of its most popular slogans. The first was ash-sha’b yurid isqaat al-nizaam, the people want the downfall of the regime. Changing the nizaam, the ‘system’, doesn’t just mean the removal of Mubarak as head of state or preventing his son Gamal from ‘inheriting’ the presidency: the slogan symbolized the rejection of the parasitic corruption and abuse of power that permeated every aspect of life, from ordinary people to the highest echelons of public life.
The second slogan was aish, horreya, adala igtema'eya: bread, freedom, social justice. This slogan outlines the kind of society protesters wished to see the nizaam replaced by: protesters wanted a more inclusive social, economic and political system to replace the oligarchic, authoritarian kleptocracy which has ruled Egypt and continues to do so to this day.
The contemporary incarnation of the nizaam is founded upon an at least temporary compromise between the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces, in which the former are allowed to front state institutions – but in key senses not control them – while the latter retain their vast economic privileges, thanks to a constitutional guarantee of inscrutability for their budget and presence in the government. Key to this compromise is the shared – if not common – interest in growing their economic influence through a privileged access to and control over state resources (whether as material assets or as legislator).
Still today, these slogans epitomize the root causes for the protests against the Muslim Brotherhood-fronted nizaam. They also help explain democratic forces’ isolation from the groups closest to power in Egypt today and from their international backers, the Gulf states and their western counterparts.
For the Brotherhood’s leadership – although not for its more progressive youth – January 25 came as a shock. In the days before the demonstrations, and indeed even after the first protests up until the evening of January 28, leaders like Essam El-Erian were disassociating the MB from the protests and encouraging Egyptians to stay at home. The Brotherhood preferred negotiations with Mubarak both before and during the protests, just as they negotiated with the military that removed Mubarak.
Brotherhood youth were on the streets, but, just like progressive leader Abdel Moneim Aboul Futouh, they were either silenced or expelled. The Brotherhood’s strategy was the result partly of its long-standing strategy of negotiating with Egypt’s authoritarian rulers, and partly of the economic empire the Brotherhood has built up, driving it far from the ideas of economic rights and social justice protesters were – and still are – calling for: its most powerful leaders, like Khairat el-Shater, are businessmen who made their fortune in precisely the oligarchic capitalist system which the Mubaraks represented.
Abdel Moneim Aboul Futouh. Wikipedia/Toulan11. Some rights reserved.
For a time, it was unclear whether the armed forces intended to protect their interests by intervening in politics directly, or by striking a bargain with part of Egypt’s political elites. But eventually it has become clear that a deal had been struck with the Brotherhood in which the army would keep its privileges, the Brotherhood would be allowed to govern, and the ‘deep state’ would remain essentially untouched. Given their financial interests, the fiscal privileges and the labour exploitation these involved, the armed forces were always unlikely to side with protesters.
Khairat el-Shater. Demotix/Mahmoud Khaled. All rights reserved.
At an international level, Gulf states – above all Saudi Arabia and Qatar – have also opposed the attempt to turn the 2011 uprising into a revolution. For example, when, on February 8, US Senators John McCain and Patrick Leahy stated publicly that part of the US’ $3bn total annual aid might be made conditional on human rights conditions, the following day the Saudi government announced its willingness to replace all that aid if the US acted on its threat. Since then, the Saudis have invested billions in Egypt, acting systematically to oppose any radical change in Egypt’s domestic or foreign policy.
Finally, Europe and the United States were initially over-cautious, perhaps understandably, since they feared the consequences of losing Mubarak as an ally and the potential political and economic destabilization radical change could have. Their reaction to the fall of dictators, however, has been disappointing. The EU, for example, has published several new policies, which for the most part reproduce the mistakes of the past: while Egyptian citizens call for social justice and a fair economic system, EU policy relies on ‘Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas’ and the neoliberal economic policies which led to the enrichment of Gamal Mubarak and his friends, and the impoverishment of millions of Egyptians.
The January 25th Revolution and all the Arab Uprisings, from Tunisia to Bahrain, Yemen to Syria to Libya, reminded us of important lessons. First, that dictatorships can be brittle and fragile even when they are fierce and violent. Second, they have shown that neoliberal policies which lead to the enrichment of the few eventually cause a backlash. Third, the initial opposition to the revolution by religious elites shows that there is a demand in Egypt for social justice and for political participation beyond religious parties. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Coptic Church, the Azhar, and Salafis all joined the revolution only when it was clear they couldn’t stop it.
Until now, the Muslim Brotherhood, the armed forces, and their international supporters have been willing to pay the price of continuing to repress the opposition or just frustrate Egyptians’ expectations. Mostly, this is because these disparate groups – civil society, trade unions, NGOs, splinter Islamist groups and new parties – have been unable to unify and build a truly national movement. For the moment, the influence of these groups is largely limited to major urban areas – particularly Cairo and Alexandria – where the Brotherhood has often struggled to mobilize the same support as opposition groups, and where it has been repeatedly defeated in polls.
The factors which led to the January uprising, the forces which took part in it, and the post-Mubarak reactions all take place in a complex economic and political landscape. Liberal and particularly leftist groups which took part in the Uprising are increasingly under attack by the security forces, former elements of the regime (felool), and by the Brotherhood.
The vast organisational and financial resources these different groups can draw upon far outmatch any resources pro-democracy groups can muster, as recent controversies over ‘foreign funding’ and the military’s effective use of state-controlled media show. From this point of view, prospects are far from optimistic. The basic, long-term issues which led to the uprising, however, are not being addressed by the dominant forces of the post-Mubarak landscape, and in this respect there remains a space to build an effective opposition movement, much like independent trade unions have managed to do over the past decade.
The two and a half weeks between January 25 and February 11, 2011 proved that in Egypt there is a strong demand for social, political and economic justice, and that the established political elites – religious or secular – are badly out of step with those aspirations. For these elites the risk is considerable: continuing to frustrate and repress a newly mobilized population, particularly in the face of coming economic reforms which will hit the poorest hardest, could be a dangerous strategy. But for the uprising to become a revolution, opposition groups must build on this demand, reach out to all parts of the nation, and unify in their struggle against the old regime’s new mask if they are to remain relevant.
This article was originally published in ExploringGeopolitics in March 2013.