Egypt’s Revolution That Was

(This article was first published by the European Council on Foreign Relations)

The semantic battle over Egypt’s upheavals of the past three years have been as fierce as the conflict on the ground: was it a revolution or an uprising, was it “stolen” by the Islamists or did they claim their rightful place at its helm, was June 30/July 3 a revolution or a coup? This week’s referendum on the post-Islamist constitution is not only intended by the military regime to consecrate their removal of elected president Mohammed Morsi but bring to an end the entire period of uprising, to begin to draw a line under the revolution itself – a process that will be completed in stages via subsequent presidential and parliamentary elections. Three key institutions of the Mubarak era have reasserted themselves with a vengeance, the military, the security apparatus and the judiciary. Through forms of mass media manipulation born in the early Nasserist years of the military republic and perfected under Mubarak’s police state, the regime has been able to impose a sort of moratorium on revolutionary activity – demands for social, economic and political justice, often made via protests and strikes.  

We may come to look upon on the military’s intervention as a useful breathing space that allowed progressive forces time to recover from two years of intense conflict with the military-security complex as well as the Brotherhood, and the Sisi interregnum could also emerge as a new lease of life for the Islamists as they slowly win sympathy in the face of brutal repression and regain ground after their disastrous year in office. According to statistics gathered by activists of Wiki Thawra (, 21,000 people were detained by the Sisi regime up to December 31, a figure higher than most of the Mubarak’s 31 years in office; 2,665 had also been killed by mid-November, a higher number than any other period of rule since January 25, 2011. For the moment, the state feels confident it has put the “revolutionary” forces in their place, their powers waning and their true size exposed.

However, had the ousted president Mohammed Morsi allied with revolutionary forces during his presidency, or even just towards the end, he may well still be in power today. For a good two years the social-political faction variously referred to as youth activists or revolutionaries had a prestige and mythic aura power as the authors of a revolution that Morsi could have tapped into it rather than bet on his improbable effort at wooing the pillars of the military republic. It was an act of incredible naivety on Morsi’s part to imagine that he had succeeded in winning them to his side, if only temporarily, and that they would not suspect a long-term plan to overhaul them ideologically and bring them under Brotherhood control. As part of this gamble, the Brotherhood ignored the youth activists and allowed the ministry of interior carte blanche to war with them on the streets.

Now with the Brotherhood out of the way, those deep state institutions are coming after the activists that Morsi catastrophically shunned. The state has presented them with a stark choice: cooption or jail. Thus Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, members of the April 6 Youth Movement, and Ahmed Douma, were sentenced in December to three years in jail for unlicenced gathering according to the recent protest law. Thus activists Mona Seif and her brother Alaa Abdel-Fattah and ten others were this month given suspended one-year jail sentences on accusations of torching the campaign headquarters of presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq (Seif and Abdel-Fattah also face charges related to the protest law).

The military-security complex has been able to do this because of their belief that the youth element among the revolutionaries were a limited socio-political phenomenon lacking roots beyond the small middle class that they emerged from. (The organized political forces among them – the Nasserists, liberals and the traditional Egyptian Left – were familiar faces and easily cooptable.) Removed from the unique historical context of the early uprising and a populist force with which to ally like the Brotherhood, they form little more than a nuisance to be swept aside by repressive measures. In this thinking, the revolution was never a truly popular, nation-wide movement with an extensive base, but the work of emerging younger generation with too much education for its own good.

To a large degree they may be right. There were many factors that provoked the uprising, but one key reason behind its staying power once Jan 25 kicked off was the entry into the arena of the Brotherhood at a second stage of the street upheaval. The subsequent use of the phrase thawrat al-giyaa, a “revolt of the hungry” that has often been predicted but never yet emerged, can be read as an implicit recognition of the weakness of the original movement and an attempt to identify the social class from where a mass uprising could come.

While the regime tends to understand the middle class activists as small fry and irrelevant, Brotherhood mobilization is largely framed in terms of foreign intervention and this indicates Qatar and Al Jazeera: the Gulf emirate uses its pan-Arab channel to promote the Brotherhood. Al Jazeera offered immediate, massive coverage of what it deemed a revolution before it ever even looked like one. This revolution expressed itself via the milyoniyya – “million-man protests” that the channel incessantly plugged in Tahrir Square, although the space can only pack around 250,000 people. So many were prepared to overlook these exaggerations because of hatred for Mubarak, a desire for change, and rejecting a sense of neo-imperial remote control and attendant Orientalist stereotypes about passive Egyptians who wouldn’t dare overturn the existing order.

Manipulation was indeed alive and well in the Egyptian uprising and despite the military’s determination to stamp out intervention it remains so today: Qatari patronage has been swapped for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But the revolutionaries, taking a movement with little popular base a long way, retained a certain elan that the Brotherhood made a historic mistake in failing to harness. The pillars of 1952 military republic correctly assessed the Brotherhood-led Islamist movement was a threat to the institutions that festered within it because of its popular base and organizational reach, but the Brotherhood failed to recognize the potential for change in allying with those who had the smarts and the guts to start Jan 25. As a result, the draft revolution still awaits implementation.

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