Some Comments on the ‘Egyptian Revolution’ 2011 (ARI)


Some Comments on the ‘Egyptian Revolution’ 2011 (ARI)
Cairo © babelmed

: As in other Arab countries, the rift between the regime and the young people living in the major cities was what sparked the historic events in Egypt in early 2011. The change was not propelled by the Islamists, but by a middle-class youth yearning for freedom that was able to connect with a society worn by misery and corruption. The social tensions accumulated over the years coupled with the autistic exercise of power were the driving force of a popular revolt using social networks as weapons. Now, the question is whether this youth will be able to give rise to a political option that expresses its ideals and balances the influence of the other two major political forces in the country: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.


The Rupture Between the Regime and 20 Million Young People

Many people were aware of the demographic and cultural transformations in Egyptian society and their effects on the loss of trust in the State, especially among the young. The odd best-seller entitled Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution (John R. Bradle, 2009) predicted a revolution based on the observation of day-to-day life. The UNDP had also published a number of reports on human development that warned of a potential conflict (see research by Azza Karam and Heba Handoussa). The most recent of these analytical works highlighted the labour market’s precariousness and referred to the 20 million Egyptians aged between 18 and 29 as ‘the best candidates to act as agents of change’.

It is a youth whose cry is far from those attributed to them by many observers blinkered by the distorted perceptions that have hampered the understanding of the southern shore of the Mediterranean (see the study published by the Anna Lindh Foundation: ). Their ideals are not so different from those of young people in other countries: they want work and more freedom, they hate corruption and they demand to be listened to and respected. These are values that did not fit well neither with the regime’s behaviour nor with the stereotype of the sceptical and fatalistic Egyptian person, detached from the collective fate of his country.

For 18 days, Tahrir Square in Cairo and the streets of Alexandria presented another youth, frustrated but dynamic, more interested in talking about citizenship and democracy than about religion. This urban youth is the weak link in the conflict between modernity and archaism that is overrunning the Arab world. These young people consider themselves to be the children of globalisation but at the same time excluded from its benefits. Many of them are middle-class urban youths who ignited the flame of uprising. They are young people whose families escaped rural poverty under Nasser and whom the Mubarak regime provided with an education that often lead to a dead-end when it came to finding work. They grew up in a conservative and Darwinistic environment, from which they have only managed to escape by inhabiting virtual worlds where they create more human futures for themselves. Today, they may still be a minority in Egypt, which is still a country of rural workers and deprived classes, but they were able to express the aspirations of the majority and win the support of an entire generation for the uprising. Their audacity and the prodigious ‘digital guerrilla warfare’, with weapons such as Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones, did the rest.

These young people surprised the world with their self-assured language and their cosmopolitan style. They revealed an Arab society that was completely different to the one we had coded and pigeonholed. Who would have predicted that the first break in half-a-century long autocracy would not come from the feared (or venerated) Islamists but (at least initially) from this new generation? They are, of course, a religious youth in a country like Egypt where nothing is conceivable without Islam or eastern Christianity. However, they are bearers of a more diffuse, individual and trivialised version of religion than that of their parents and one that is less State-sponsored. The headquarters of their plots were virtual networks and not mosques. Their slogan was neither Allahu akbar (‘God is Great’) nor al-islam huwa al-hal (‘Islam is the Solution’), the Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan during the 1995 elections, which in 2011 was only used by the Salafists who joined the uprising when Mubarak had already lost the struggle. On the contrary, the most popular slogans were kifaya (‘Enough!’) and irhal (‘Go!’), secular expressions that we can attribute to the youth in any Paris banlieue. Their heroes were neither Sayid Qutb, nor Nasser and certainly not Ayman al-Zawahiri or Osama Bin Laden, conspicuous for their absence in this uprising. Their heroes were rather persons like Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive who ran a decisive Facebook page following the death of an Internet user in Alexandria in the hands of the police.

The uprising has brought to evidence the important individualisation of these new generations certainly fostered by digital communications. In fact, it was impossible to bring together the mass of young people who took the streets during the early days of the protests under any ideological flag that have mobilised the Egyptians since the fall of King Farouk. With the exception of the Islamists, who joined the movement later (albeit playing a decisive role), most went to the protests without slogans or rallying cries, rather adapting songs learned in football stadiums. They were not answering the prayers of any Imam or the orders of the stale political opposition, but the call of the Internet, in which they unflinchingly believe.

This tenacious behaviour aiming to oust Mubarak, is almost post-modern in the formulation of a diffuse and fluid programme, raises many uncertainties and questions regarding the consolidation of democracy in Egypt. However, its social and cultural scale reveals a highly significant underlying current. So much so, that if we can predict anything at all it would be that Egyptian society will not revert to the way it was for more than half a century. Besides the political outcome of the ‘revolution’, which is still to be seen, there has been such an appropriation of the streets and such a freedom of thought that it would make it very difficult to go back to how things were before. Overcoming their fear of the ruling powers, millions of Egyptians have adhered to this youth conquest. In this context, the uprising has been a collective citizenship experience that could even become the source of a new national identity, more anchored upon future challenges than upon past glory. Without doubt, this cultural change is the most significant event of all.

A Social and Cultural Upheaval

Wikipedia closed the debate about whether it should be called an uprising or a revolution. Before Mubarak flew to Sharm el-Sheikh, Wikipedia published more than 10 pages of information regarding al-thawrah al-misriyyah sanat 2011 (the Egyptian Revolution of 2011), the third revolution in the country after those of 1919 and 1952. Based on the political nature of the change, Wikipedia has certainly got beyond itself, but if we look at the historic significance of the fall of the rais (president) together with the awakening of Egyptian society, we are certainly dealing with more than an uprising.

Besides being gagged, Egyptian society had been decimated by a culture of survival and petty scheming. In no other Arab country had the State been quite lax with regards to the demographic and urban explosion. Mahfouz, al-Aswany, Khamissi and other Egyptian novelists evoked the underworld that proliferated in the major cities, to which people from Cairo and Alexandria responded with sacrifices, humour and by abandoning all collective responsibility aside from those prescribed by Islam itself. For those of us who thought we knew Egypt a little, this has been the biggest surprise of all: seeing that in those circumstances society was able to activate a transforming energy.

We still have to see whether this social experience will give way to the emergence of a culture of citizenship, necessary to the consolidation of democratic regime. The youth’s behaviour is reflecting a new awareness of the community, and other urban population groups are joining in. ‘Don’t throw rubbish on the street, don’t cross when the light is red, don’t pay bribes: this is your country now’, reads a sign in a middle-class district where the traffic lights haven't worked for years. The loss of fear and renewed confidence in their own capacity also reached the lower classes, where a number of strikes have been organised to claim wage increases and actions to end the impunity of local political leader and the police.

What is at stake are the relations of power, hitherto hegemonic among the elites that will now have to learn to share the decision-making with a civil society that is increasingly less tame. This is a change that puts the unwritten pact that has prevailed for almost 40 years among the elites (civilian and military) into question. The same elite who monopolised political and economic power, and religious leaders (Muslims, but also Christians) who have tended to monopolise control of the population from a welfare and moral standpoint.

Diversity management and the place of women in this new society will be put to the test of this change. In a country where Muslims and Coptic Christians have lived in a climate of cold co-existence for 14 centuries, where both Islam and Christianity are conservative, Tahrir Square was the scene of unprecedented exchanges between Christians and Muslims, with significant moment like that of the young militant girl, member of the Muslim Brotherhood, hugging the feminist Nawal el-Saadawi. The Coptic Church calls for prudence, but the question is whether the transition will give way to a new climate of peaceful co-existence, or if the political scenario that will emerge after the next elections will fuel suspicions. In any case, in a more democratic society, Muslims and Christians should build a new kind of relationship, based on co-habitation rather than simply co-existing.

When it comes to the plight of women, the uprising also brought about tales and images of hope. In a country where sexual harassment is the main social scourge, the challenge of street promiscuity accompanying all revolutions was successfully overcome, according to many Egyptian women. If this new climate is confirmed, there will be more reasons to talk of a ‘revolution’, since this is without doubt, the main unresolved issue in Egyptian society. In the long term, education reforms will play an essential role; more immediately, it will all depend on the unwritten pact between public powers and religious leaders.

The Uncertainties of Political Change

Now that the initial euphoria has faded, important questions regarding the political future are emerging. Is this the prelude of a regime change, as many young people suggest, or just a change at the heart of the regime? The scale of the challenges, youth’s inexperience, the role of the Army and time itself all contribute to a measured response.

It would be daring indeed to try and anticipate the shape that the Egyptian transition will take. We do not have the experience of the transition to democracy of an Arab country following a popular uprising of this extent. The fact that almost everything is to be done raises a number of questions. Is it useful to draw on transitions like those of Spain or Portugal? These experiences can help remind us that, when a radical break with the previous order does not take place, as in Egypt, everything depends on the kind of agreement those promoting change and those resisting it are willing to reach. Finally, assuming there are no major disruptions that precipitate the process in one direction or another, what will be the result of this commitment in Egypt? We will have our first answer in six months’ time, if things follow the plan and if free elections are held.

For the time being, both sides are still hesitant; the sides have yet to be properly defined. The forces of change will emerge from those who occupied Tahrir Square for 18 days: the urban youth, the traditional opposition parties and the Muslim Brotherhood; a heterogeneous melting pot indeed, combining different generations, political views and religions, unified by the challenge of ousting the rais and by having achieved that aim. As expected, this unity has already started to show some failures. As a matter of fact, the transition from the uprising to the establishment of a political agenda will inevitably trigger divisions and misalignments among all parties involved.

The debates are already underway, especially among the youth who are the most active, the most prestigious but also the most anomalous component of the movement and credited with the most prestige. Some of them dream of setting up a ‘youth party’ that would be the genuine upholder of the 25th January ideals. However, they lack both a structured programme and visible leaders and they continue to use the Internet to promote a debate on the future that is fascinating but disordered. Facebook and the demonstrations on Tuesdays and Fridays in Tahrir Square continue to be their weapons, but they do not seem be sufficient instruments to organise a mass political party in a country of 80 million inhabitants. Their future will depend on their capacity to find a leadership that goes beyond the scope of urban youth. This task has as many potential suitors as presidential candidates.

The debate has also begun among the Muslim Brotherhood. They know they are strong, but they are isolated from the rest of the movement, and they need to review their archaic philosophy that is incompatible with the spirit of this revolution. Their youth have stated that democracy should begin at home. Some people take Turkey as an example and others think that Egyptian society and Islam are too conservative to follow the same path. As for their electoral space, one can only speculate. It seems most reasonable to believe that it will depend on the course of events, although their record in Parliament between 2005 and 2010 is not glorious. This was not their revolution. An expert like Olivier Roy even called it a ‘post-Islamist revolution’, after having proclaimed the limits of political Islam no less than 20 years ago.

It is not easy to imagine the role of those who sustained the regime. Will the National Democratic Party, with its more than 3 million members survive, extricating itself from corruption, changing its name and presenting itself as the secular bastion versus the Muslim Brotherhood? This is quite unlikely give the disrepute it earned in the last elections, when it won more than 90% of seats in Parliament.

What about the Army? It was also present in Tahrir Square, protecting the demonstrators. Its overwhelming deployment in all the country’s main cities for more than one month, confirmed the exceptional osmosis with the civilian population, unique in the Arab world. The army could be a guarantor or a player, depending on the circumstances. The military abhor power vacuums and disorder and that is why they have courted the Islamists in the short term. However, the Muslim Brotherhood are still their main concern for the future. Their support for the youth seems to be sincere, but it will not be unconditional and the first disagreements have already emerged. Their concept of power is anchored in Egyptian traditions whereby everything goes through the upper echelons of power. That is why their approach will depend on the confidence they have in the presidential leadership instated after the elections.

For the time being, Egypt is enjoying a well-earned celebration of democracy. The events were so large-scaled and the resonance abroad so immediate that few Egyptians doubted they were experiencing a revolution. However, retrospectively, the term does not properly reflect what happened. When looking back at the amazing month from the ‘long-term’ perspective used by Braudel to interpret Mediterranean history, the historian Robert Zaretsky concludes that the fall of Mubarak may be another stepping stone in the millenary process of the loss of the ‘Pharaoh’s influence. If in six months’ time Egypt has its first democratically elected president then this would be a historical milestone.


A change in understanding the Arab World

The rapidly unravelling events in various North-African countries have shifted the focus of the debate related to the Arab world. Approaches focusing on the religious identity and/or on Middle-East conflict’s pre-eminence are gradually giving way to a renewed interest in social and cultural transformations. In other words: the focus has shifted from mosques to society in general, from the veil to women and from the Koran to youth; from what is (supposedly) Arabic to the Arabs themselves. If this change consolidates, this would mean transforming a way of thinking anchored upon excessively ideological concepts into another one based on a more empirical reflection, able to engage with processes of change.

The lack of focus that has prevailed in the last few decades was based on an idea that is now revealing its limitations, namely that the status quo is inevitable because the only alternative would be the triumph of political Islamism. Underpinned by the need to access fossil fuels, the region’s status quo theory was armour-plated in 1945, when Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud on his return from Yalta. The creation of the State of Israel three years later, coupled with the Cold War could afford this paradigm political legitimacy. Barack Obama was the first to question it in his speech in Cairo in front of 2,000 Egyptians with a majority of young people. He tackled the themes of youth, women, freedom and modernity without making too many concessions to the established alliances. In one of the most significant articles written on the Tahrir Square events, Thomas Friedman rightly observed that, for 18 days, no one burned a single US flag (nor, apparently any Israeli one). This may have been the first revolution in the Middle East whose epicentre was not located in Islam or the larger pan-Arabic causes, but in society itself.

In the past few years several studies on political Islam have certainly promoted a better understanding of the Arab world. However, some time ago, the debate on Islam reached a dead-end. This debate was nurtured by the false dilemma that presented political Islam as the less worse of two evils, or the magic word able to bring the democratic genie out of ‘Aladdin’s Lamp’. It was a seemingly endless, circular, sterile debate until the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Robert Malley and Hussein Agha described the 18 days leading to the fall of Mubarak as an opportunity for the ‘rebirth of the Arab world’. This might be premature. However, in any case, what happened does represent an opportunity to change the way we apprehend this world (which is not a single world, but a highly diverse combination). It is also an occasion to put an end to an era shaped by ‘orientalism’ and by status quo upholding. How could these societies remain immune to the changes unleashed by the fall of the Berlin Wall? Why should the rise of Islamism be the only consequence? Why should young Arabs oppose globalisation, rather than share its benefits as others do? Why should they back dictators or aspire to new caliphates, instead of aspiring to more freedom? In the light of the waves of change spreading through Egypt and other countries in the region, it should be easier to answer these questions. If the current events help to change the way we perceive Arab countries and their societies, and hone our understanding of them, this would be one of the most significant outcomes of the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

Andreu Claret
(Executive Director of the Anna Lindh Foundation (Alexandria, Egypt) and member of the Scientific Council of the Elcano Royal Institute)

Published by the Elcano Royal Institute on the 21st March 2011

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