North Africa, West Asia

A tale of two revolutions: Egypt 2011-2013

Someday, someway, somehow, somebody will do something stupid similar to Mubarak and his "crown" inheritance project - (maybe El Sisi running for president?) - and this could result in a return of the initial uproar.

Hesham Shafick
1 November 2013

After 60 years of military rule, Egyptians took to the streets on January 25 [i]to make their statement: “The people want the fall of the regime.” On the eve of February 11, 2011, Silvio Berlusconi asserted: “Egyptian people made history as they usually do,” while Obama asked the citizens of the world “to learn from the Egyptian youth.” Hundreds of world leaders, thousands of political commentators, and millions of advocates and activists around the world gave their ovations. The pessimists at the time were in awe at how effective and rapid the process was.

The military-led transition period (February 2011- June 2012)

Planning to pass the “crown” on to his son Gamal, Mubarak was determined to eliminate all civil society potential political rivals to the gradual introduction of Gamal Mubarak nationally and internationally as the first “civil” president. There were three factors that played into this. In December 2010 parliamentary elections took place in which the ruling party won 97% of the seats; these forged elections coupled with the Tunisian uprising added fuel to the fire. The second was that this revolution did not present a civilian candidate capable of winning over the masses to lead the transition of power. The third was that the military generals could not accept Gamal Mubarak as their commander-in-chief. These three factors combined to yield a peculiar tacit accord between the army and the revolting masses; delegating the former to managing the transitional period.

It was widely accepted that the failure of the army would result in the failure of the State and unprecedented chaos. The result was a transitional political structure that was extremely odd. In contrast to normal political structures in which the state is held accountable by the people, it was the other way round. The military generals often threatened to step-down or step-back and asserted that the people (especially the revolutionary youth) should be “reasonable” in their demands. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) - afraid of a 1954 scenario (the banning of the MB by the military President Gamal Abdel Nasser) and eager to pin down the transitional period - took the side of the military. The Brotherhood gave the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) legitimacy through regular protests in support of their decisions. Given this alliance, secular politicians and revolutionary youth alike were afraid of being left out, and had no other option but to adhere to the military. Whenever the military committed a fatal blunder, a number of revolutionary key speakers would assert the need for this kind of leadership despite its drawbacks. The few protestors who took to the streets were labelled terrorists and extremists by the political elite, and were crushed ruthlessly by military troops.

The voting paradox

As the 2012 presidential elections approached, the revolution’s political players were very eager to draw the transitional period to a close. They had been tolerating the yoke, hypocrisy, humiliation, and genocide throughout the military-led transition in anticipation for the elections and were ready to take any position that would result in a civil president being elected.

Although candidates who supported the revolution scored 51% of the top 5 candidate votes in the primary round, the votes were scattered across three candidates - Hamdeen Sabahy (left), Amr Moussa (right), and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (Islamist revolutionary). Morsi (25.31%), Shafick (23.75%), Sabahy (21.6%), Aboul Fotouh (17.94%), Amr Moussa (10.97%). Thus, an organized minority embodied in the old regime supported Gen. Ahmed Shafik (Mubarak’s last Prime Minister), and the MB supported Mohamed Morsi, who both scored higher than the “revolutionary” majority and made it to the final round. “The revolution had to choose between its enemies” as Minister Kamal Abou Eita, a popular labour activist put it. To choose a military figure responsible for “killing” protestors throughout the transitional period and vividly representing the old regime, was not an option. Voting for the MB who were always in support of the military was not a favoured choice, yet necessary. 

A 'half-legitimate' president (June 2012 - June 2013)

On June 22, 2012 leaders of the MB - headed by Morsi - and representatives of the revolution’s political powers signed an agreement popularly known as the “Fairmont Accord” to join their support against Shafik. In return for this support six conditions had to be met. These related to the division of power, the adherence to revolutionary demands and discarding the “old” military regime. Even after all this, Morsi could not get above 51.7% of the total votes. This simply means that he did not have popular support.

In order to avoid a popular uprising or a military coup, Morsi had to either stick to the Fairmount Accord and keep the anti-military momentum on the rise (and risk losing the equilibrium of only 2% of swing supporters), or shift to the wide alliance that supported Shafik. Being traditional conservatives, the MB picked the safer choice – the military. 

Explaining Morsi’s disposition towards the military solely through game theory and rational choice is unfair. Being a representative of the 85-year-old MB organisation, Morsi inherited a very complicated legacy of organizational, political, and cultural components, which confined  his choices. The Brotherhood is not a political party, but simply- a Brotherhood. They tend to inter-recruit, intermarry, inter-partner, inter-neighbour, and meet in secret closed groups. A recent study highlighted that more than 70% of the MB leadership comes from six extended families.  Therefore, this interlocked community could better interact with another interlocked community - the Egyptian Army - than with the scattered revolutionary forces.

Since its foundation in 1928, on the basis of “moderate Islam”, the MB’s founding fathers highly valued maintaining a middle ground. They were capable of maintaining their position at the centre of the opposition, simultaneously appealing to seculars as well as Islamic grassroots movements. As the group came to power, for the first time they had to make choices publicly; they were forced to take one side over another, which resulted in a rapid loss of credibility. Accordingly, they understood that their popularity was no longer guaranteed.

For the sake of survival, Morsi was forced to break many of the basic principles of the Brotherhood. He had to give up their long-standing opposition to Israel, address President Perez as his “loyal friend” in a letter of October 18, 2012, recognize the Camp David Accords and condemn Islamist militias. Accepting the end of this hostility, set the Brotherhood’s grassroots movement at odds; making an alliance with traditional internal enemies - seculars, liberals, Nasserists, and several other components of the revolutionary powers - an unbearable risk. Within the MB culture, it was inevitably easier to accept the President’s alliance with conservative state institutions like the army, police, and Al Azhar.  

This failure to “maintain the equilibrium” was predicted to the extent that the decision to run for presidency was taken by a majority lower than 51% in the Brotherhood’s Shura Council. Alison Pargeter, Sana Abed-Kotob, Carrie Wickham, Mona Makram Ebeid, and Hazem Kandil are a few among many scholars who asserted that the exclusivity of the MB’s composition would limit their ability to govern. Kotob and Ebeid asserted that the Brotherhood’s inclination for gradual change “within” the status quo would halt their construction of a well-built vision of a State. Wickham highlighted that the MB’s fragility makes them incompetent to maintain internal order to formulate a political regime. Most recently, Pargeter and Kandil predicted their failure once confrontation with State institutions became necessary.

The confrontation

After a revolution, institutional collision with whoever comes to power is innate. In Egypt the surprise was not the institutions’ resistance to the new ruler, but the rulers’ passivity. As explained above, the new regime had no choice but to abide with the old regime’s rules of the game. Loss was guaranteed if there was an attempt to play against those rules. The MB's bet was to neutralize international communities and the masses first, then start the gradual ousting of the old regime.

Within his first few weeks, Morsi attempted to reinstate the parliament dissolved by SCAF. While other actors remained impartial; state institutions went on strike ferociously and the media questioned his legitimacy. Military troops surrounded parliament in a ceremonial declaration of their readiness for the battle. Morsi had no other option but to retreat and retaliate later by ordering Egypt’s two top military generals to retire. This is when the ping-pong game kicked-off.

The confrontation began. Civil youth were mobilized and started collecting signatures for the “Tamarod/Rebel” campaign to remove Morsi from power. Morsi, on the other hand, tried to appeal to the masses through revolutionary and anti-“old-regime” rhetoric. But he had to be careful not to lose all those within the old-regime’s pool (particularly the military and police). To the masses, it was too little too late. The MB then changed their approach and tried to appeal to the international community. However, the international community was busy with Syria’s crises and austerity in the US and EU, and their support for Morsi’s legitimacy was marginal and ceremonial. It then became obvious that the military/Tamarod coalition was winning.

June 30 was no more than a ceremony commencing the re-inauguration of old state institutions, where the police, army, and civilians shared the same cheering support for the military, “Overthrow him Sisi, Morsi is not my President.” The military appeared perfectly prepared; within less than 24 hours they announced a 48-hour time-limit for Morsi to agree to early presidential elections – to which he did not. So the coup was declared on the dot.

The relapse

Gradually but assertively, the military started to break down all revolutionary taboos, and re-establish the old status quo. With a median rate of 17 martyrs a day during the 30 days between August 14 (first day of the dispersal of the two sit-ins) and October 14, 96 journalists and bloggers detained, above 4000 MB members imprisoned – 11 sentenced to life in prison by military courts and 36 killed in prison; it has been clear that the “partly liberal” era had been dismayed. Although the military did not assume power officially after the June 30 coup, it has been widely confirmed within the Egyptian public that Gen. Abdel Fattah El Sisi - the leader of the coup, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence - is the one in charge. Especially after the masses took to the streets, upon his request on July 26 to give him a mandate to fight “terrorism” and the MB. Two days later, the President issued a decree that authorizes the Prime Minister to grant arrest powers to security forces in “cases of emergency”. Moreover, a curfew and state of emergency have been in place since August 14.

Is it over?

Understanding the complicated narrative between 2011-2013 is necessary to reinstate the January 2011 momentum. Throwing the blame on the MB or any single actor is not only unfair, but also insufficient. The aim here is to approach this relapse from a realist perspective and to give an internal scope and for the sake of simplicity the focus has only been on the two regimes - as main actors - without other variables. Several other approaches, phases, and agencies – including international actors - need to be considered for a fairer account.

Someday, someway, somehow, somebody will do something stupid similar to Mubarak and his "crown" inheritance project - (maybe El Sisi running for president?) - and this could result in a return of the initial uproar. If we learn from our mistakes, the second revolution will be more mature and miles closer to freedom.


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