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The Revolution in Egypt

As this is my first post I would like to start by expressing my thanks to my learned friend Mr Oldfield and to Mr Pike for this opportunity to post meaningful commentary and to be part of such a prodigious project.

I would like to start with a short introduction. I hold a Masters degree in Middle East Politics with Merit from the University of Exeter and a 1st class honours degree from the University Of Wales Institute Cardiff (UWIC) in Modern History and Politics. I have studied a variety of topics and haven’t specialised in a certain topic, but have mainly studied British, US and Middle East history and politics. Therefore I have been given the remit of foreign affairs for this project. I am also the author of the 2010 Lambert Academic Publishing book: ‘Oman and Britain: Oman’s Changing Military Relationship with Britain: Dependence or special relationship?’, available here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Oman-Britain-Relationship-Dependence-relationship/dp/3843362734/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1297120254&sr=8-1


Now is one of the most interesting and exciting times to be looking at the Middle East Region, with the regime change in Tunisia, the mass protests and regime change in Egypt and the smaller scale demonstrations in Jordan, Iran, Yemen and Algeria. In this vein I thought I would offer a mix of academic considerations and observations from my October 2010 visit on the situation in Egypt. These are my own thoughts and understanding only.

Some Background

Why are the events of January and February 2011 so important in Egypt? Those unaware of the circumstances of Egypt’s history and politics could well be asking why these protests are so significant. The reasoning behind this significance lies in the nature of the Egyptian regime. Since the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in the 1950s by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt has been dominated by the army and authoritarian rule. From the 1950s to the present day Egypt has lived under a dictatorship under three separate leaders – Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and, for the last 30 years, Hosni Mubarak. These regimes established their own power bases by a mixture of carrot and stick. Under Nasser for example, Egypt initially prospered and Nasser gained status all over the Arab world for outfoxing the Western powers and Israel during the Suez crisis. This gave Nasser incredible popularity and his own cult of personality. This was coupled by a brutal coercive system with freedom of speech limited and a brutal, effective secret police. To a large extent this internal situation continued during Sadat and Mubarak’s rules. Sadat however, initially ruling in the same manner by attempting to lead the Arab world with the Yom Kippur war, was forced into a corner. His army surrounded on the Sinai and his country bankrupt, he was forced to make not only a cease fire with Israel, but peace. This benefited his country in two ways, he was able to reduce spending on the armed forces, and it gained him a substantial subsidy from the US. This made Egypt much more pro-Western, but this was a decision that cost Sadat his life, when he was assassinated in 1981 by anti-Israeli elements. This brought to power Mubarak, himself a former general. Due to the nature of his accession to power it was necessary to increasingly crack down on opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned, press freedoms were limited and the sham democracy that was practised was increasingly difficult for opposition groups to be elected. Every time opposition groups looked to gain some sort of toehold in the parliament, the law was changed to exclude them. This was coupled with a ruthless security apparatus that frequently arrested without trial, brutally tortured opponents and ransacked opposition offices. In these circumstances any sort of formal protest was unthinkable. This led to less formal methods of protest, for example there is a fascinating anthropology article on the use of political jokes as a form of political protest in Egypt.

Why Protests Now?

A simplistic explanation as to why the protests have occurred in Egypt is to trace them to the events in Tunisia. A simplistic reasoning would be to suggest that Egyptians saw the events in Tunisia and realised they also could bring down their government. There is some truth in this but it does not provide a full enough explanation. To me, the protests are all about identity.

The Egypt that I visited in October 2010 was a shock to me. It was not the Egypt that I had read about and studied. I found the country to be poor and suffering. The Egypt as the leader of the Arab world and as the cultural and historic Mecca (as in hub, not the city) of the Middle East was nowhere to be seen. Instead I saw an Egypt desperately trying to survive and wholly dependent on its tourism industry. In Cairo, the streets were strewn with rubbish and dust and wholly engulfed in swarms upon swarms of what seemed to us to be unfinished tower blocks. These were vast slabs of the cheapest concrete slapped together, with no colour and no windows. If this was part of the building process, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but there were people living in these structures. Living in these hollowed out blocks with no windows and jammed in like sardines. If you thought the tower blocks of London or Sheffield were bad, you would be astonished by the squalor of these buildings. These structures stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see, with seemingly no end. Cairo, a vast metropolis unlike no other. The story does not end there. Whilst sitting in Cairo airport, I stumbled across an English language newspaper and one of its stories was shocking to a well off Westerner like myself. It was an article stating that due to the rising cost of food, most households could no longer afford vegetables and were having to eat rice and rusk and other cheap staples. We later found out that a well to do shopkeeper in Luxor said that his salary was something like 2000 Egyptian pounds a month, or £250 and this was one of the richer people. Egypt has an incredible “us” and “them” situation, with the well off not wanting to be associated with the poor and even encouraging tourists to not buy their products (on several occasions we were whisked past market stalls by tour guides with them telling us cock and bull stories about the poor quality of the goods and aggressive hassle. In Khan al-Kalili bazaar in Cairo, we were even accompanied by a security guard and were hurried on anytime we stopped to look at anything.) Added to this we found a undercurrent of dissent and dissatisfaction. A Christian shopkeeper in Sharm el-Sheikh, a well educated man, expressed to us his upset that he could not get safe drinking water except in the big cities of Cairo and Aswan. He also said that he was disappointed with the standard of healthcare on offer in his country. Another man in Luxor expressed the difficulty in getting overseas travel visas and how infrequently Egyptians travelled outside the country or, even, went on holiday in their own country.

This anecdotal evidence helps me to prepare my point, identity. Egypt it is clear sees itself as the leader of the Arab, Islamic (although it has a sizeable, about 20%, Christian minority) and African worlds as the place where they all meet. A tour guide expressed this very sentiment to me in Cairo after he found out I had studied Middle East Politics. He said to me, to learn about the Middle East this is where you need to be, this is the centre of the Middle East, forget Saudi Arabia or Iraq, Egypt is the most important. This gives an important insight as to how Egyptians see their identity. They see themselves as at the forefront of the Middle East, the cultural, historical and political leader. Until recently debatably this was true. What seems to me however is that Egypt’s current poverty challenged the Egyptian’s perception of their identity, they had lost the pride in their country. We saw this when visiting the Egyptian Museum, a place of outstanding artefacts and history but filthy and poorly displayed. It can also be seen in the streets of Cairo, dusty, ill-repaired and littered with rubbish. Egyptians felt that the country wasn’t theirs anymore and felt they didn’t have the means to express it. This occurred to me on a dreary drive through wet Wiltshire last week, a drive I have been on a thousand times. Wherever I go, and for how long, whenever I come back to Wiltshire I will always feel that it is my home and part of my identity. In Egypt I feel they had felt that reality had differed from their perception of this identity.

The timing of the protests does come down to Tunisia. Egyptians saw what was happening there and felt they could do the same, that it gave them the opportunity to get the freedoms they wanted to restore their identity. Also however I wonder if there was a bit of one-upmanship in that Egypt did not want to be seen to be outdone by Tunisia, as it saw itself as the leader of the Arab world and therefore in this vein the protests happened both to restore and because of Egypt’s identity.

The Nature of the protests

It is clear the protests were popular in nature and not designed to advance a religious or any other form of agenda. As a friend of mine who is an expert on Iran commented on my question about the  continuity between the Egyptian and Iranian revolutions there is a large difference between them. Whilst both to an extent were popular revolutions with many different aspects, the Iranian revolution had a larger religious flavour with people dressing up as martyrs and Allahu Akbar (God is the greatest) being a slogan for change. In Egypt it is remarkable that the people who took part in the demonstrations were often young and remarkably few were in religious or traditional dress. This is especially surprising as despite Egypt’s pro-Western orientation, the scene greeting one at Cairo airport is an amalgam of traditional Islamic dress (hijab, head scarf etc) for women, traditional Arab dress for men and modern Western dress such as suits. It is mainly but not exclusively older people in the traditional dress and younger people in the Western garb. Furthermore it is clear from youtube videos and statements from demonstrators that this was intended to be a revolution for all.

This gives an indication of who took part in the revolution. It was mainly the younger populace of Egypt who were not content to have their identity of Egypt challenged and hadn’t got stuck in a rut like the older people. For me, getting rid of Mubarak was clearly a key aim of the revolution, but the revolution was also about regaining a sense of community, a sense of identity and a sense of belonging. The proof for this is the fact that Egyptian were seen cleaning the streets of Cairo (anyone who has been there will tell you how dirty the streets usually are) as they finally felt they had reclaimed the city, and by extrapolation the country, for themselves. The revolution then was not an Islamic one, but one designed to be a people’s revolution, to reclaim the country for the people (the essence of which is democracy) and to reclaim a sense of Egypt for Egyptians. It is also clear that the demonstrators had to get rid of Mubarak both to do this and to ensure their objectives of democracy were met. This was both due to a mistrust of his government and to avoid what Brumberg called “the trap of liberalised autocracy” in which a regime grants limited liberalisation which actually increases its hold on power.

The West and Israel

The West was caught in a quandary with regards the situation in Egypt. Whilst it is clear that Western governments supported the movement towards democracy (if they had not they would have been hypocrites of the highest degree) there was also the strong possibility of a new government not being in their favour. The reasoning for this is simple: Egypt and by inference Mubarak’s government were a key ally for the West in the Middle East, both as an ally of Israel and as an ally in the war against terror. At best the overthrow of Mubarak could lead to the establishment of a democratic government but there is no guarantee that this government will remain pro-Western. The Mossadeq incident in Iran provides a blueprint for this where a popularly supported leader was overthrown by MI6 and the CIA for nationalising Iran’s oil (a move definitely in the country’s favour). The worst case scenario was/is a civil war for power. In short the question (to borrow from another friend) was of stability versus freedom. This can help explain the US’s rather watery statements that the Egyptian regime should grant concessions itself and Mubarak wouldn’t necessarily have to leave. Several American academics signed a petition to try and persuade the US government to put pressure on Mubarak to leave but without success, at least publicly. Several academics disagreed with this viewpoint in any case, such as Augustus Richard Norton who said on his blog that the fact of the matter was that the US is very tied up with Israel and needed Mubarak to help safeguard the alliance.

Why didn’t Mubarak leave earlier?

The answer to this isn’t clear but seems likely to be one of two things or a combination. It is possible that Mubarak through a form of the military industrial complex and an extreme arrogance felt that he was the only one able to lead Egypt successfully and the country would be lost without him. In this view Mubarak could have been acting from a perverse form of patriotism. Another view I have briefly considered but that seems unlikely is another patriotic view that Mubarak was acting as the only buffer to prevent the army from coming into power and that he was trying to protect the country. As the protestors seem to trust the army and due to the autocratic nature of his regime, this seems highly unlikely. The second possible explanation is that Mubarak was trying to weather the storm and that he expected by promising limited reforms, via the trap of liberalised autocracy to hold onto power in much the same way that has happened in a lot of the Gulf States. It is also possible that Mubarak meant to hold onto power in order to ensure the position for his son, Gamal.

What next?

On Friday came the news the protestors have been waiting for, Mubarak has gone and Egypt will have a new regime. It is also the case that in Mubarak’s cabinet reshuffle, much of the old guard has gone and been replaced, including Mubarak’s son, Gamal. In some rather pessimistic views this guarantees that the next leader will be a military one, as the only available civilian candidate has left. Another viewpoint suggests that the appointment of Omar Suleiman as Vice-President paves the way for Gamal to be appointed as the next leader as this was previously blocked by the old guard of the army, and Suleiman as an outsider did not hold these objections.

I think both of these views are incorrect. The army has for the minute taken over the country for the interim period but has pledged democratic elections, a referendum on a new constitution and to uphold Egypt’s international treaties. I think this is likely to happen and that the army will act as guarantors of democracy in much the same way as they do in Turkey. It is clear the people will not accept anything else and no matter how strong a security apparatus is it is impossible to hold a country by force alone indefinitely.

The biggest question and worry for the West is who will come to power. The biggest opposition group in Egypt has always been the Muslim Brotherhood (who are officially banned but were recognised in the recent Suleiman led peace talks, progress in itself) and as an organisation it is sceptical of democracy and would likely use democratic elections to establish an Islamic State. The problem is that the Muslim Brotherhood is not just a political opposition group but also a civil society organisation that has operated for many years like a charity, being the only organisation that has provided many people with food and basic amenities. Therefore the group is very popular and would stand a good chance of winning if it ran for election. The situation is very similar to what occurred in Gaza where Hamas, an anti-democratic group, was elected in a democratic election. Hamas’ position in Gaza has been enshrined by Israel’s blockade of it, establishing Hamas as the only group able to provide anything to the people creating a vicious circle.

There is good news however. The Muslim Brotherhood has announced it won’t run for the Presidency and doesn’t really have a strong enough leader to be able to do so in any case. Furthermore Egypt does have several prominent democratic candidates for the Presidency. Therefore I am optimistic that Egypt will become a democratic nation.

What does this mean for the region?

It is unlikely that a democratic government will renege on the peace with Israel as it brings in $2 billion annually in US aid but it may have to be stronger in its rhetoric against it, only time will tell.

What is clear is that the effect on the other autocratic regimes in the region will be massive. The peoples in the countries will see that it is possible to overthrow their regimes, even one as repressive and brutal as Mubarak’s and they will therefore demand freedom, or at least concessions. Egypt has once again reasserted itself as the leader of the region and will spread both a desire for and a sense of possibility of democracy throughout the region. This will cause issues for all of the regimes in the region and may result in other regime changes or at least freedom concessions. The Gulf states due to their rentier status may survive, but the non-rentier states will likely face unrest. This situation has already started with protests in Algeria, Jordan, Iran and Yemen. To put my optimistic head on, this could be the event and time that finally brings democracy and peace to the Middle East.

Categories: The Middle East
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