North Africa, West Asia

Egypt’s spring and following autumn: the revival of the military-civil social contract

Public support for the revolution was not based on strictly rational grounds. It was an act of sympathy with utopian dreamers fighting a tyrant regime.

Hesham Shafick
24 January 2014

Approaching its third anniversary on January 25, 2014, the Egyptian Revolution has proved to be a failure. The sole democratically-elected president in the country's history remains kidnapped and hidden from the public. Emergency laws have been re-instated. State-led propaganda is defending the old regime and rebranding the Revolution. Above all, the military establishment has returned to fully controlling the public domain and its bureaucratic positions. Large sections of the population welcome and support the coup's leader - Field Marshall Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

History must be understood as a comprehensive process, so only considering the last three years' development of events in Egypt is insufficient. We should instead explore the social contract upon which the first reign of the Arab Republic of Egypt was founded and under which it subsequently stagnated for 60 years. This will shed light on the termination of this contract in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, only for it to be revived three years later.

The social contract, obedience and stability

The foundation of the Egyptian Republic through the 1952 coup against King Farouk entailed an implicit social contract between the military and the civilians of the infant republic. Under this contract, civilian obedience to a life-long president who bequeathes the crown to his chosen Vice President was exchanged for economic stability and security. This was highly effective and rewarding. Comparing Egypt to its surrounding newly founded nation-states (Syria, Libya, Sudan, Iraq, Algeria, etc...), Egypt was the new republic most successful at maintaining growth, stability and security for 60 consecutive years, during which time the military ruled.

In 2010, when the Arab Spring sparked off in Tunisia, the conflagration spread rapidly, and activists started to promise a similar future for Egypt. On the basis of the aforementioned social contract and the stability it seemed to have conferred since 1952, various political thinkers argued that no comparison could be drawn between Egypt and Tunisia or any other Arab republic. Since then, there might has been political turbulence aplenty, yet it never did manage to overthrow the status quo. Above all, the military regime had kept its promise; the Egyptian economy progressed steadily, and state social welfare guaranteed a safety net that rendered Egypt the region's most stable state. 

But the Revolution did come to Egypt. Writers have highlighted many reasons that might have led to the breaching of the social contract. However, there was less literature on the probability of an uprising against the well-established sixty-year-old ruling regime ex ante. The truth is that the revolution took place for reasons rather different from the variables considered by the commentators, and by forces whom these theorists had overlooked.

Egypt’s new critical mass

The masses that sparked the Revolution in January 2011 were not the traditional beneficiaries of the social contract. Neither were they in need of an economic safety net, or driven by security concerns. Their thinking was prompted by something other than the traditional state-led and oppressive media. In parallel, they rarely if ever benefited from the growing economy that yielded most of its fruits to the upper-class. Precisely: the traditional contract was a deal between the country's upper-class political elite (military officials, civil statesmen and businessmen) and those lower-classes who benefited from security and safety-nets.

Why did the military-civilian contract omit the upper middle-class from its initial calculations? Simply because this class did not exist at the time that the contract was drawn up.

In 1952, Egypt was a feudal state. In July of the same year, 11 military men of varying  ideological backgrounds formed the Free Officers’ Movement and overthrew the King and the feudal system. Colonel Nasser, the coup's leader, prompted by a socialist agenda, nationalised the economy, re-distributed landownership, expropriated private-ownership, and established a welfare state. Free education combined with wealth redistribution resulted in the rise of the middle-class. However, due to high taxes and import substitution, it was impossible for them to accumulate wealth. Egyptian society was divided into three traditional classes: the upper class made up of army officials, the middle class encompassing the majority of the population, and the poor who relied on government welfare.

On the death of Nasser and the inauguration of Anwar El-Sadat (a former member of the Free Officers with a right-wing inclination) the state structure radically transformed, from its leftist model, to a capitalist one. Landlords had their wealth reappropriated and returned to the traditional bourgeoisie. Sadat’s Open-Door policy impoverished the poor, while enriching the rich. Yet, social welfare programmes remained in place, maintaining a safety net. This policy shift was mostly detrimental to the middle-class. Inflation, unemployment, privatisation, added to diminishing access to government welfare, reducing the living conditions of this class.

Workers and students rioted regularly from 1971 to 1977, signalling this class' determination to challenge the ruling regime. In fact, the 1977 riots largely mirrored, in numbers and opposition strategies, the 2011 riots that overthrew Mubarak. In a similar environment, Sadat too had risked being deposed.

Simultaneously, the oil-boom occurred in Gulf neighbouring countries. In his last three years, Sadat firmly supported middle-class emigration. His emigration strategy succeeded, as it reduced the insurgency, reinstated class equilibrium, and yielded economic prosperity. Not surprisingly, it continued under his successor – General Mubarak.    

Emigration to the Gulf continued despite the oil-boom crush, as Egyptian communities were established demanding yet more Egyptian labour. The newcomers were embraced. In 2010, Egypt counted 8 million people who had emigrated to the Gulf. The offspring of these middle-class emigrants did not belong or relate to the traditional Egyptian middle-class. They grew up with greater social and educational opportunities compared to those of preceding generations. Yet, the latter distinguishes them from the traditional Egyptian bourgeoisie, whose position rests on high rank. This complexity resulted in the formation of what we might call a 'new bourgeoisie' -  the upper-middle class.

Neo-revolutionaries: challenging the social contract

The demands of this newly-formed class clashed with the agenda of the traditional social contract. For them, freedom, political participation, national pride, and human dignity were legitimate aims worth risking a decline in security and a slowdown in Egypt’s economy.

Their unexpected entry onto the stage of history protected them from state negative propaganda and name-calling. Indeed, the regime was busy investing its efforts in defaming two other social circles it greatly feared: the Islamists and the poor. Through the media, through its policy and security arms, the regime quarantined public space from Islamists, and created a divided society with broken bonds between all classes.

Ironically, this played perfectly into the hands of the neo-revolutionaries in 2011. Within this classist society, widespread empathy was directed towards the system's victims. Neo-revolutionary media discourse proved this to be the case when one of its leaders, Wael Ghonim – a Dubai-based top manager - put it in words, “I do not need this revolution. I have sufficient wealth to secure my future…But you [referring to ordinary citizens] need it!’’ In addition, the Islamists' boycott of the protests during these early phases boosted their legitimacy and portrayed the civil movement as more dependable because of their absence. Islamists were labelled militant and aggressive. As the knee-jerk accusations of treason, westernisation, and cultural deviance were urgently invented to combat this emergent force, the neo-revolutionaries had already mobilised people onto the streets, attracting international media attention and fiercely combating state-led disinformation. 

President Mubarak and his vice president, Omar Soleiman, repeatedly highlighted the trade-off between security and the protestors’ demands. Mubarak told Egyptians (in two of his three speeches during the 18 days of protests) that they were heading towards a failed state. Omar Soleiman concurred in his CNN interview, warning that “Egyptians are not ready for democracy.’’ Moreover, state-owned media spread rumours about foreign infiltration. However, these claims were quickly dismissed, as the Egyptian public was fully determined to challenge the status-quo, though unsure of the final outcome in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall. Military generals were no longer capable of opposing popular demand, and thus on February 10, 2011 announced their support for popular demands and urged Mubarak to respond positively (implicitly requesting his abdication). A day later, VP Soleiman announced Mubarak’s stepping down and handing over of power to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).

Egypt’s autumn: losing the support of the revolution

Public support for the revolution was not based on strictly rational grounds. It was an act of sympathy with utopian dreamers fighting a tyrant regime. The offer accepted by the Egyptian masses and political elite was that of a “free-ride,’’ in which they would enjoy a liberal democratic state, the price having already been paid for by the neo-revolutionaries. Upon fuller realisation of the true costs of the concessions, investment in the revolutionary journey shrunk.

The police withdrew from the Egyptian streets on 28 January 2011. All the jails were broken open, the inmates set loose, and a total absence of law and order characterised the Egyptian scene. For the most part, government bureaucracy was shut down. The economy was crippled. Public opinion shifted against the revolution, embodied in the revolutionaries’ loss of three immediate battles.

First, the military attacked protestors who remained in Tahrir demanding the overthrow of the cabinet on the March 9, 2011 with the encouragement of the media. The public remained passive in the face of this military operation, although many revolutionary figures called for people to voice their dissent and defend freedom of expression. In fact, video-recordings of the dispersal showed bystanders cheering the officers who attacked the protestors.

The second defeat was the constitutional amendments referendum of 19 March 2011, in which Mubarak's regime and the Islamists supported the amendments while progressives demanded a new constitution. The result showcased approval for the amendments by 77% of the votes. Most commonly, voters stated the incentive behind their 'yes' vote as a desire to see “stability restored to the state.’’

The third battle was lost in the parliamentary elections that followed, in November-December. Not only did the ballots only secure seats for eight deputies from the revolutionary coalition and the Continuous Revolution block, too, but the opinion polls reflected a systematic decline in the coalition's popularity. The daily, Al Ahram's time-series survey showed that in July 2011, 17.2% stated that they endorsed “the revolutionary youth,’’ while only “0.4%’’ concurred a mere four months later.

Additionally, the final rounds of the presidential election in 2012 saw two enemies of the revolution go head to head, Mubarak’s last Prime Minister - Ahmed Shafik - and Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood. Fearing the revival of the military regime, revolutionaries joined forces with the Islamists in supporting Morsi. This move represented yet another flip, losing them what remained of their popularity.

The race to the bottom: Islamists vs. the military

There is little to say about the course of the revolution in the battle that ensued between the Islamists and the military. It was intuitive that any civilian force coming to power would be fiercely challenged by the traditional military rulers. A dual political game was sparked on the day of the announcement of Morsi as President, between well-established entities with huge economic networks, international support, and a popular groundswell. Revolutionaries were no longer part of the game. The terms of the competition revolved around stability and security. Freedom, equality, and the Revolution’s progressive demands had fallen out of the public discourse.

Confrontation escalated between these two conservative powers, and the co-optation of neutral actors appeared to be the key to breaking the stagnant stand-off between them. Civilian conservative masses were mobilised through the states’ instruments, varying from media to intelligence. By 2013, the initiative of Tamarod (Rebel) sought to gather signatures for the removal of President Morsi. Over the course of two months (May-June), the campaign gained tremendous momentum and made the headlines on a daily basis. It became easy to assume that the military-Tamarod coalition was winning the battle. Tamarod scheduled a day of mass protests on 30 June 2013, which resulted in no more than the re-inauguration of the old social contract, where the police, army, and civilians raised a united cheer for the military commander, Field Marshall El Sisi. The military appeared perfectly prepared. Within less than 24 hours they announced their 48 hours ultimatum, and then punctually declared the coup and Morsi's removal.

The traditional social contract on the rebound

The coup's propaganda returned to the old rhetoric; continuously frightening the public with scenarios from the country's unstable close neighbours. War on terror was declared against the former rulers, and several public speeches by Field Marshall El Sisi and his spokespersons warned that failing to maintain order would result in the fall of Egypt either into the hands of Islamic militias or foreign invaders. Former VP Soleiman’s statement regarding Egyptians' readiness for democracy was echoed in the minds of the ruling forces. With public support, emergency laws recommenced and the opposition faced fresh military trials.

No doubt the traditional social contract has once again reoccupied the political stage, perfectly summed up in the chant “Save us Sisi.’’ A new round of petitions is now taking place, to plead with Field Marshall El Sisi to become a candidate in the upcoming presidential polls. In such a context, it is safe to argue that the contemporary Republic has fully returned to its norm following three years of attempted deviance. In fact, the Egyptian revolution never gained “real” support (beyond sympathy). The old military-civil contract appears to make more sense to your every day, rational Egyptian. 

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