Egypt as a role model: an opportunity lost

The January 25th uprising offered Egypt the opportunity to become a role model for peaceful transition in the region and beyond. But with the hijack of the will of the people almost completed, Egypt is moving further away from realising democracy.

Rawia M Tawfik Amer
10 February 2014

The 25th of January 2011 revolution was not only about promoting the freedom and dignity of Egyptians at home, but also restoring the pre-eminence of Egypt regionally and internationally. Protestors who took to the streets for eighteen days were expressing their grievances against Mubarak's domestic policies, and disappointment at their country's declining role in regional politics. On the third anniversary of the revolution, Egypt seems to have lost its way towards democracy, and the opportunity to present a model of peaceful transition in the Arab world and Africa.  

The uprising promised to usher in a new phase in Egypt's contribution to the struggle for democracy and socio-economic rights in the region and beyond. Leading Arab and African intellectuals and activists, including Khair El-Din Haseeb, Azmi Bishara, Larbi Sadiki, Mahmoud Mamdani, Horace Campbell, to mention a few, celebrated the revolution emphasizing the symbolism of Tahrir Square as a space that brought together Egyptians from different religious, political and social backgrounds to defend a common cause. In her keynote speech at the 4th European Conference on African Studies in Uppsala in June 2011, the noted African scholar Oyeronke Oyewumi criticised the media and academic labeling of the revolution as an ‘Arab spring’ insisting that it was also an ‘African spring’.

The mass demonstrations in Egypt triggered an ‘African Awakening’ that manifested itself in subsequent unnoticed protests in other African countries. In Cameroon opposition figures led demonstrations to contest Paul Biya’s life-time presidency a few days after the toppling of Mubarak. More than a year later, on the 30th anniversary of Biya’s rise to power, another wave of protests emerged, though on a more limited scale. Further north in West Africa, young activists in the Mauritanian opposition parties formed a coalition that organized protests to force the government of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to introduce political and social reforms. The demands raised by the coalition included restructuring civil-military relations, reforming the electoral law, and introducing measures to combat corruption and nepotism. In Sudan, in spite of police crackdown against political activists, the new youth movements moved from pressuring for social justice to mobilizing for toppling the ruling National Congress Party.  In South African townships participants in service delivery protests referred to the site of their protest as Tahrir Square.

These examples, among many others, indicate that Egypt became a role model for nations seeking peaceful political and social change. In this sense, the revolution promised to help Egypt restore its regional role as an exemplar; a role that it had lost since the 1970s. For almost four decades, Egypt’s subsequent economic crises, coupled with mismanagement and bad governance, left it in an unfavourable position compared to oil exporting countries of the Gulf. Its role in conflict resolution had increasingly been challenged by other regional actors (Qaddafi’s Libya in the African continent and Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Middle East). It was only through attempting to revive its soft power that Egypt could have stood a chance to improve its image. The January 25th revolution provided such a chance.

But where does Egypt stand three years after the revolution? To the frustration of revolutionaries who waited so long for change, democratic transformation was aborted by conservative forces at home and in the region. Young activists who inspired the world with their peaceful uprising are now targeted by the police and defamed in the media. Instead of promoting freedom and dignity, Egypt, especially after the 3rd of July 2103, is steadily moving along a ‘Roadmap to Repression’, to borrow the title of a recent report by Amnesty International.

At the same time, with an economy struggling under conditions of political instability, Egypt has become more reliant on loans and grants from Arab Gulf countries. The flow of cash from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, estimated around $17 billion in the last 6 months, has provided a temporary relief to the military-backed government. It has also meant that these countries have successfully contained the Egyptian revolution and sustained Cairo’s dependence on Gulf money.  

As far as Africa is concerned, the post-Morsi transitional government has been struggling to resume Egypt’s participation in the activities of the African Union which suspended Egypt two days after the 3rd of July military coup. According to the Union’s principles, the overthrow of a democratically elected president is an ‘unconstitutional change of government’ that entails the suspension of the country until constitutional order is restored. For the first time in fifty years, Egypt, one of the founders of the Organisation of African Unity and the AU, was not allowed to take part in the annual continental summit that took place in the last week of January. Moreover, the transitional government was not invited to attend the first African- American Summit that takes place in Washington in August this year. Egypt’s confrontation with the AU may get further complicated with the expected running of Field Marshall Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the Minister of Defense, and the key figure in the 3rd of July coup, for presidency. According to the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, ‘the perpetrators of unconstitutional change of government shall not be allowed to participate in elections held to restore the democratic order or hold any position of responsibility in political institutions of their State’. Even if the new government manages to influence African governments to reverse Egypt’s suspension, it would do so in breach of the organisation’s principles. Thus, instead of presenting an exemplar in respecting AU’s principles and developing Africa’s international relations, Egypt is losing opportunities and tools for relating to the continent and representing it in multilateral fora.   

Interestingly, it is not only African governments that are having a problem understanding and accepting what happened on the 3rd of July and its aftermath, but also some African scholars and civil society organisations. South African trade unions that supported the move of the Egyptian masses on the 25th of January 2011 wondered how the same masses now celebrate the erosion of democracy and welcome the domination of militocracy on Egyptian politics. The Nigerian scholar Adekeye Adebajo described the coup as the ‘worst form of mob rule’. A few days after the coup, Horace Campbell rightly anticipated that the military and its allies would be ready to use ‘the excuse of violence and security to hijack the will of the people’.  

With this hijack almost completed, Egypt moves further away from realising democracy and, subsequently, loses an opportunity to be the model in regional politics. 

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