Egypt’s Uprising: Still Talking About a Revolution


Street graffiti, “Tantawi is Mubarak”. Photograph by Gigi Ibrahim

by Andrea Teti

One year after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, it is difficult to conclude that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military junta which took over from the former President, are anything but the hard core of Mubarak’s regime, fighting for its own survival.

Just as it was in Tunisia and elsewhere across the Arab world, one of the key slogans of the Egyptian Uprising, was ash-sha’b yurid isqaat an-nizaam: the people want the downfall of the regime, not just of Mubarak. On February 11th, 2011, crowds across Egypt rejoiced at the President’s downfall as a token of the entire clientelistic, authoritarian system they wished to be rid of. These ranged from the corrupt business leaders led by the President’s son to the mafia-like intelligence and police services, from the President’s National Democratic Party, which selectively channelled its patronage, to the vast economic and political power of the armed forces. But since last February, the military remains in power, and despite their rhetoric, show no signs of wanting to let go in favour of a democratic civilian government. On the contrary, they are systematically attempting to consolidate their grip.

Perhaps the true turning point of the uprising will prove to be the moment in which Mubarak’s first reshuffle was announced. On January 29th, 2011, the day after unprecedented protests broke out throughout the country, the then President appointed a new government, headed by Air Marshal Ahmad Shafiq, and a Vice-President, the powerful intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. But the most important appointment was Field-Marshal Muhammad Tantawi, who in addition to retaining his post as Minister of Defence, was also appointed Deputy Prime Minister: close enough to the centre of power, but not directly in the firing line. The army rolled into the streets and squares of Egypt, but did not intervene, carefully poising itself between Mubarak and the protesters, using its leverage with one against the other. On February 11th, when Mubarak was deposed, Shafiq and Suleiman were eventually sidelined, and it was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces headed by Tantawi that took power.

Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff greets Hussein Tantawi,  June 8, 2011. Photograph by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Since then, the military have acted on three fronts.

First, they have succeeded in engineering the appearance of a liberal transition by holding elections (albeit delayed) in order to gain a degree of ‘revolutionary legitimacy’. At all points, the military have been careful to retain for themselves the final say on key issues, from the election law, the powers of parliament and even the writing of the constitution itself. These issues are normally heralded as victories for pro-democracy forces, and they show that if the opposition remains relatively united and prepared to take on the military they are capable of great pressure. However, these issues remain as concessions which were extracted with considerable difficulty, after even more egregious attempts to trump popular will, and which in any case the military neutralised through ‘technical’ measures such as retaining veto power over the new parliament’s legislation or indeed over its constitution-to-be, or appointing the government.

What is the epitome of this skin-deep ‘transition’ is the fate of Mubarak himself. Having ‘escaped’ to the holiday resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, he was eventually put on a nationally televised trial with much pomp and circumstance in September, only for the trial to be first to be taken off-air, then to see key witnesses change their testimonies in Mubarak’s favour, and eventually to hear lawyers declare they were going to run in this year’s presidential elections. Had the trial been conducted seriously, efficiently and under the eyes of the nation, it would have made sure debate on corruption – political and economic – was virtually inescapable. Even the least skeptical cannot but suspect that many in Egypt’s new and old elite had wished to avoid this.

Street graffiti, “You can wear a suit or wear a boxer, and we will still say down with military rule”. This refers to Tantawi’s visit to down town wearing a suit attempting to appear as a “civilian” rather than a military dictator. Photograph by Gigi Ibrahim

Second, the military junta has engaged in a paranoid and xenophobic media onslaught against pro-democracy groups. These began almost immediately with vague allegations about ‘foreign hands’ and plots to destabilize the country, and eventually developed into outright attacks on trade unions, NGOs, and particularly left and liberal activists. In doing this, the military broadened their remit and use of the controversial emergency law to extremes unheard of even under Mubarak, arresting between 10,000 and 14,000 people on mostly trumped-up charges. Since the summer, the crackdown on pro-democracy groups – from unions to NGOs to political parties – has accelerated, led publicly by the only civilian minister to survive the Mubarak government purge, Faiza Aboulnaga. The climate of xenophobia stoked by a subservient state media has already resulted in several incidents of foreigners being attacked. Perhaps more importantly, focused national attention on the supposed ‘plots’ to ‘sow chaos’ in Egypt by the US and Israel – through, of all things, democracy and human rights funding – while entirely avoiding the topic of funding for Islamist groups from the Arabian peninsula, not to mention the $1.5bn the military itself receives from the US alone.

Third, the military has aimed to divide the opposition, and did so by encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood in particular to believe that it would share power in the new order if it avoided siding with pro-democracy groups. The junta could reasonably expect success here, as all the main religious leaders – from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Salafis, from the Grand Mufti of al-Azhar to the Coptic Pope – had tried to dissuade their followers from taking part in protests in the first place. The Brotherhood has thus far appeared to go along with this arrangement, although its largely octogenarian leadership must well remember the similar ‘offer’ made by Gamal ‘Abd el-Nasser’s Free Officers, promptly swapped for persecution once power had been secured for the military.

The real question concerning the junta was always whether they simply wanted to secure their own interests (which, economically, are vast), or whether they wished to avoid subjecting themselves to a civilian administration which might – as Mubarak’s son Gamal had – attempt to sideline the military. One year on, the actions of the military junta seem to have provided the answer: they will not yield to the possibility of democracy, or indeed of any true opposition. In public, the junta has been committed to a ‘transition’ towards a ‘civilian state’, but in practice the pattern of their actions points unambiguously towards the attempt to consolidate its grip on Egyptian public life.

Protests continue in Tahrir Square, November 2011. Photograph by Gigi Ibrahim

Nor should the project of the Uprising have led one to expect anything less. The Uprising can perhaps best be summarised in its two best-known slogans. The first is ash-sha’b yurid isqaat an-nizaam: the people want the downfall of the regime. The second is ‘aish, horreya, adala igtema’eya: bread, freedom, social justice. This is nothing short of a critique of the oligarchic, authoritarian kleptocracy which has ruled Egypt to date, and the invocation of a more inclusive social, economic and political system. This is also the reason why the Egyptian Uprising, like its Tunisian predecessor and many others across the Arab world, are not just a challenge to the power structures of those countries, but to Western elites also. After all, ‘democracy and shared prosperity’ is the promise on which hangs the not just the credibility of Western governments as promoters of democracy, but, as Greece so aptly and dramatically illustrates, the legitimacy of these governments in their own homes.

The story of the momentous 18 days of Egypt’s uprising has two parts. In the first, on the streets and squares of Egypt, young men and women, Muslim and Christian, wrote a page of unprecedented courage and determination in their country’s history by opposing a notoriously brutal regime. But in the second, which took place in the halls of power, hidden from the public eye, the military began a purge which first claimed Mubarak’s job, and which now is attempting to silence Egypt’s democratic voices.

About the Author:

Andrea is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Aberdeen, and Senior Fellow at the European Centre for International Affairs. His research focuses on Mediterranean politics and post-structuralist political theory. He is also a regular contributor to OpenDemocracy, where he has written about Egyptian and Italian politics.