Dina Shehata. Foreign Affairs. Volume 90, Issue 3. May/June 2011.
For almost 60 years, Egyptians have celebrated Revolution Day on July 23, to commemorate the day in 1952 when Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers overthrew the monarchy to establish a republic. Next year, the country will celebrate Revolution Day on January 25-the first day of the mass protests that forced Hosni Mubarak, the country’s president for 30 years, from power.
For the 18 days from January 25 to February 11, when Mubarak finally stepped down, millions of Egyptians demonstrated in the streets to demand, as many chanted, “isqat al-nizam,” “the fall of the regime.” The Mubarak government first met these protests with violence, but its vast security apparatus soon crumbled in the face of an overwhelming numbers of protesters. Then, the state attempted to use propaganda and fear-mongering to scare the population back into its embrace, but this, too, failed. Finally, the Mubarak regime resorted to making concessions. However, these were too limited, and the death toll from the protests had already grown too high. Fearing that more violence would hurt the military’s legitimacy and influence, the army broke with Mubarak and forced him to leave office.
The immediate trigger for the outbreak of protests in Egypt was the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia in mid-January, which demonstrated that sustained and broad-based popular mobilization can lead to political change, even in a police state such as Tunisia. But other factors had long been at work in Egyptian politics and society. In particular, Mubarak’s downfall was the result of three factors: increasing corruption and economic exclusion, the alienation of the youth, and the 2010 elections and divisions among the Egyptian elite over questions of succession. When these currents came together, they inspired a broad cross section of Egyptian society to achieve the unthinkable: removing Mubarak from power.
But the revolution did not lead to full regime change. Instead, it has achieved partial change: the military and the state bureaucracy remain in control and are likely to dictate the terms of the country’s political transition over the coming months. What follows this transition will depend on whether the forces that staged the revolution can remain united and organized or whether some groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, strike a separate deal with the military. If this were to happen, the secular and youth movements that were the driving force behind the January 25 revolution would be effectively marginalized.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Nasser regime, which was at once authoritarian and populist, forged a ruling bargain with labor and the middle class. All political parties were banned and all civil-society organizations, including trade unions, came under the direct control of the regime. In return, the state provided social and welfare services in the form of government employment; subsidies for food, energy, housing, and transportation; and free education and health care.
In the early 1990s, a looming economic crisis caused by unsustainable levels of external debt forced Mubarak’s government to sign an agreement on economic reform with the World Bank. Over the next two decades, the Egyptian government undertook a series of structural adjustments to the economy that reduced spending on social programs; liberalized trade, commodity prices, and interest rates; suspended the longtime guarantee of government employment for university graduates; privatized a number of public-sector companies; and suspended subsidies for many commodities. As state expenditures declined, public spending on social services-including education, health care, transportation, and housing-stagnated, and the quality of these services deteriorated.
Factory workers, landless peasants, government employees, and those who produce goods for the local market (as opposed to for export) suffered most. They depended on government services and subsidies, as well as on market protections, and many saw their fortunes fall as a result of the economic liberalization. At the same time, a new Egyptian business elite emerged: some people exploited the period of economic reform and openness to turn their contacts with the regime and international markets into vast fortunes. Just below this newly minted business aristocracy, a well-off middle class also began to develop. Thus, there soon emerged a two-tiered society: the majority of the Egyptian population was increasingly marginalized, while a small minority prospered like never before. Moreover, economic reform and liberalization led to the emergence of an unholy alliance between the ruling elite and the business elite. A select few-those closely aligned with the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)-found themselves with special privileges to buy up public lands and public companies or put on a fast track to obtain state licenses and contracts.
Over the past five years, many workers- both blue-collar laborers and educated professionals-took to organizing strikes and other protests to show their anger at their economic disenfranchisement. These protests took place outside the control or leadership of the country’s labor unions and professional syndicates, which were constrained by laws that limited their freedom to strike or carry out any protest. In 2008, property-tax collectors established Egypt’s first independent trade union since 1959, the year that all such unions were brought under the control of the state. In 2010 alone, there were around 700 strikes and protest actions organized by workers across the country. However, these protests tended to focus exclusively on labor-specific demands and to shy away from political issues.
Young Man’s Burden
Egypt, like much of the Middle East, is in the middle of a dramatic and growing youth bulge. Today, more than half the total population of the Arab countries is under the age of 30; in Egypt, more than one-third of the population is between 15 and 29.
This demographic group faces a particularly frustrating paradox: according to the World Bank, the Middle East has both the fastest-rising levels of schooling and the highest level of youth unemployment in the world (25 percent, compared to a global average of 14.4 percent). Youth unemployment is highest among those with more education: in Egypt in 2006, young people with a secondary education or more represented 95 percent of the unemployed in their age group. Those who do find jobs often work for low pay and in poor conditions. This combination of high unemployment and low pay has kept many young Egyptian men from marrying and forming families. Approximately half of all Egyptian men between the ages of 25 and 29 are not married.
As a result of constraints on political life and civil society, youth in Egypt have been denied outlets for political and civic participation. Most cannot remember a time before the country’s emergency law was last imposed, in 1981, which allowed the regime to freely persecute its challengers. Less than five percent of young people in Egypt belong to political parties, and less than 45 percent have ever participated in elections.
Partly because of such limitations, religious groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood were able to capitalize on widespread social grievances to recruit and mobilize young people in large numbers during the 1980s and 1990s. But after the state’s harsh persecution of Islamists in the 1990s, youth activists began to express their grievances through a new generation of protest movements open to members of all ideological backgrounds and to those without any particular ideology at all.
One such movement is Kefaya, which has attracted legions of previously apolitical youth. In 2004 and 2005, it organized a series of high-profile protests calling for the end of Mubarak’s presidency and the country’s emergency law. In 2008, youth activists from Kefaya formed the April 6 Movement in solidarity with textile workers who were planning a strike for that date. The movement attracted 70,000 members on Facebook, making it the largest youth movement in Egypt at the time. Members of both the April 6 Movement and Kefaya were behind the creation of another popular Facebook group, one supporting Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who returned to Egypt in February 2010.
Perhaps the most important Facebook group would arise some months later when, in June 2010, activists associated with the ElBaradei campaign created a Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said” in memory of a young man who was beaten to death by police officers in Alexandria. Their page attracted more than one million supporters and became the focal point for a number of large protests against state abuses in the summer of 2010. By the end of 2010, Egypt’s youth activists had succeeded in bypassing many of the longstanding constraints on political and civic life in the country. Although they may not have fully realized it at the time, all they needed to see their mission to the end was a final, triggering event-and that was gathering momentum some 1,300 miles away, in Tunisia.
The Edifice Cracks
As labor and youth unrest grew, another struggle was taking shape between Egypt’s old guard, representing the military and the bureaucracy, and the new guard, representing Mubarak’s son Gamal and his supporters in the business community and the ruling party.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, in an attempt to bolster his legitimacy both at home and abroad, then Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat began to liberalize the political system. He allowed opposition parties and movements to gain some representation in the country’s elected assemblies. As long as the ruling NDP maintained its two-thirds majority and its control over the real levers of power, the Egyptian opposition could contest elections and maintain a limited presence in parliament and in civil society. When Mubarak came to power, he continued to follow this same formula with few adjustments.
However, over the last five years, the Mubarak regime began to violate this implicit agreement, by imposing renewed constraints on the ability of political parties and movements to organize and to contest elections. Moreover, the state heavily manipulated the 2010 parliamentary elections in favor of the NDP, effectively denying all opposition groups any representation in parliament. (With opposition groups represented on the ballot but prevented from winning any races, the NDP won 97 percent of the seats.) For some in the opposition, the fraudulent elections of 2010 marked a departure from the limited political pluralism instituted by Sadat. The New Wafd party and the Muslim Brotherhood, among others, began to reconsider the utility of participating in elections under such conditions.
The regime’s tactics in the 2010 elections were part of a broader plan to ensure a smooth succession from Mubarak to his son Gamal during the upcoming presidential election in 2011. This plan was the pet project of a group of businessmen closely associated with Gamal—such as Ahmed Ezz, a steel tycoon and a leading figure in the NDP—who had come to assume greater influence over the ruling party and the government in recent years. Not only did the country’s opposition strongly oppose the succession plan, but many important factions within the state bureaucracy and the military were also skeptical. As 2010 came to a close, the country’s ruling edifice was beginning to crack.
These underlying forces in turn spurred on the groups that participated in the mass protests in January and February: youth movements, labor groups, and the political parties that were excluded from joining parliament in 2010, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Youth activists agreed to hold protests against state brutality on Police Day, January 25. This demonstration begat others, and as the size and momentum of the protests grew, these activists formed the Coalition of January 25 Youth to present a series of demands to the regime: the resignation of Mubarak, the lifting of the state of emergency, the release of all political prisoners, the dissolution of parliament, the appointment of a government of independent technocrats, the drafting of a new constitution, and the punishment of those responsible for violence against the protesters. Egypt’s youth activists refused to negotiate with Omar Suleiman, a Mubarak confidant who was appointed vice president on January 29 as a means of appeasing the protesters.
At the outset, Egypt’s opposition was divided over whether to participate in the demonstrations. Some groups, such as Kefaya, the National Association for Change, the Democratic Front Party, the Tomorrow Party, and the New Wafd Party, endorsed and joined the January 25 protests, whereas other groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the leftist Tagammu Party, did not officially join the protests until January 28 (although many of their younger members participated on January 25).
Many of the political groups taking part in the uprising disagreed over their demands and over how best to achieve them. Groups such as Kefaya, the National Association for Change, and the Democratic Front Party and individual leaders such as ElBaradei and Ayman Nour endorsed the demands of the youth coalition and refused to negotiate with the regime until after Mubarak stepped down. Others, however-the Muslim Brotherhood, the New Wafd Party, the Tagammu Party, and a number of independent public figures-agreed to enter into negotiations with Suleiman. These talks turned out to be short-lived: the regime refused to make any real concessions, and the protests on the street continued to escalate.
For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood threw its full weight behind the protests but purposefully kept a low profile. Its young members were an integral part of the coalition that had organized the protests, and according to some of the organizers, Brotherhood supporters constituted about one-third of the crowd occupying Tahrir Square. Muslim Brothers made up a large share of the protesters in those cities where the group has long had a large following, such as Alexandria and El Mansura. However, throughout the protests, the Brotherhood was careful not to use religious slogans or to overshadow the secular, pro-democracy activists who were driving the demonstrations.
During the first two weeks of the revolution, labor movements and professional groups did not play a visible role, partly because the regime had shut down all economic activity during this time. However, during the final week, as economic activity resumed, workers and professionals began to organize strikes. In the two days preceding Mubarak’s resignation, the country was approaching a state of total civil disobedience, with workers striking en masse in the transportation, communications, and industrial sectors. Judges, doctors, university professors, lawyers, journalists, and artists also organized protests. According to Shady El Ghazaly Harb, a leading Egyptian youth activist, it was this development that finally convinced the military to oust Mubarak and assume control.
Last Days of the Pharaoh
During the three weeks of protests in January and February, groups that had previously competed with one another—Islamists and secularists, liberals and leftists—joined forces against the regime. There were fears that the opposition would fragment and that some factions would strike a separate deal with the regime, but such a turn of events never happened- although this had more to do with the Mubarak government’s refusal to make any concessions and its apparent willingness to use violence. In the end, it was the unity of the opposition and broad-based popular mobilization that forced the military to oust Mubarak.
Unlike the opposition, the regime suffered from multiple divisions during the crisis. In the first week, the state tried to defuse the protests by sacking Gamal Mubarak as assistant secretary-general of the NDP and purging the businessmen closely associated with him from the ruling party and the cabinet. This effectively aborted the much-despised succession scenario and removed the new business elite from its privileged economic and political position.
Mubarak hoped that by removing Gamal and his business cronies, the protests would begin to lose steam. Indeed, these measures seemed to satisfy the majority of Egyptians; many observers in the media and even some opposition figures predicted that the revolution would come to a halt. However, the next day, after Mubarak announced that he would step down in September, security forces and hired vigilantes violently cracked down on the protesters-11 were shot and killed in Tahrir Square alone-turning the momentum back against the regime. Demands for Mubarak’s immediate resignation intensified, and at that point, many new groups, mainly workers and professionals, joined the protests in large numbers.
The military, which until then had backed Mubarak while refraining from using force against the protesters, began to show signs of sedition. Throughout the crisis, the protesters had welcomed the presence of the military on the streets and urged it to side with them against Mubarak, as the military had done in Tunisia just weeks earlier. But until the last days of the crisis, the military seemed to back Mubarak’s plan to remain in power until September and oversee an orderly transition to democracy. It took new groups joining the protests and the rising prospect of a confrontation between the protesters and the presidential guard for the military to finally break with Mubarak. On February 10, a spokesperson for the High Council of the Armed Forces delivered a communiqué that stated that the council supported the legitimate demands of the people. Mubarak was expected to resign that same night, but he did not. The next day, the military ousted him. The High Council of the Armed Forces assumed control of the country, and one week later, it announced the suspension of the constitution and the dissolution of both houses of parliament.
Democracy’s Unfinished Business
The revolution that pushed Mubarak from office has resulted in only a partial dissolution of his regime. The primary victims of this turn of events have been Mubarak’s family, the business elites closely associated with it, leading figures in the state bureaucracy and the NDP, and members of the much-despised state security apparatus. The regime’s basic structure remains largely intact, however: the military and the state bureaucracy are still in firm control of the country and in a position to dictate the course of the transition in the coming months. As of this writing, the High Council of the Armed Forces rules Egypt. The state bureaucracy, which comprises some six million people, remains in place, with state ministries and agencies largely unchanged and still responsible for managing day-to-day affairs.
Two scenarios seem possible. The first scenario involves speedy elections held over the summer, both parliamentary and presidential. This option appears to be favored by the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is rejected by most of the groups that took part in the revolution. Such a schedule would benefit only those individuals and groups that are already positioned to achieve electoral success in the near future-namely, those associated with the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood, the only two political organizations in Egypt with long-standing networks and bases of support that could be mobilized on short notice. Were such elections held, the outcome would probably be a power-sharing arrangement between the regime (or some new incarnation of it) and the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving little representation for the secular and youth groups that drove the revolution.
The second scenario would see the appointment of a three-member presidential council made up of two civilians and a military figure and the formation of a new cabinet composed of technocrats not affiliated with any one party. This option has been put forward by ElBaradei and is the apparent preference of the country’s secular political parties and youth movements. The next step would be to hold presidential elections, followed by direct elections for an assembly that would then draft a new constitution. Until these elections were held, the presidential council would lift all constraints on political parties, the media, and civil-society organizations, which would allow secular forces the chance to organize themselves and attract voters. Parliamentary elections would follow the new constitution and the creation of new political parties, likely within one or two years. Such an arrangement would level the playing field and would allow secular parties and movements to compete more effectively with the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood.
There are fears that if the first scenario prevails, the democratic revolution will be aborted and the old regime-under the guise of NDP loyalists in an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood-will reassert itself. A new parliament, dominated by former NDP members and the Muslim Brotherhood would guide the drafting of the new constitution and would set the parameters of a new political system. Some important liberalization measures might be adopted to quell popular discontent, but full democratization would be unlikely.
If, however, Islamists and secularists remain united, the street stays mobilized, and international pressure is applied to the military, the second scenario may prevail. In this case, the various groups that drove the revolution would have the time to organize themselves into viable political parties-and only that can produce genuine democratic change.