The Egyptian Revolution was a social revolution. Discuss.
Since December 2010, beginning with demonstrations in Tunisia, an unprecedented social movement interested the Middle Eastern and North African countries. On the 25th of January 2011, demonstrations spread in Egypt as well. Hundred thousands of people gathered in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. As a result of 18 days of demonstrations, the powerful former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down. Consequently, on the 11th February 2011, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces took power. The army is now leading Egypt towards democratic elections. Moreover, pushed by the efficacy of Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, demonstrations spread in many other countries of the region, namely Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
Nevertheless, the process of transition to democracy appears still long and uncertain. Firstly, these countries have different historical backgrounds. Secondly, these movements were brought about by heterogeneous reasons. Finally, it is difficult to predict the long term political consequences of the revolts in the aforementioned countries. For these reasons, many analysts cannot reach an univocal definition of the ‘Arab spring’ movement. On the one hand, many academics undoubtedly consider it a ‘revolution’. On the other hand, several scholars and activists are still concerned about how to define this movement. In the Egyptian case, a question may be raised as to how the army is managing the time of transition to democracy and what will be the relation between the Egyptian armed forces and the political power.
This essay will explain that the Egyptian Revolution was a result of different factors. The most important was a chronic lack of a homogeneous distribution of social and economic rights within the country. However, the need to get rid of an anti-liberal law of emergency, enforced 30 years before, the lack of an official representation of political Islam and the support to demonstrations given by the army were other factors that helped the revolts to be successful. At the beginning, I argue that the Egyptian Revolution was a social Revolution. Furthermore, I outline how also liberal, religious and military behaviors contributed to a deep change in this country. A better analysis of the etiology of the Egyptian Revolution can permit a better comprehension of the path towards next November’s scheduled first democratic elections.
The 2011 protests in Egypt did not start suddenly. In 2003, there were several demonstrations against the war in Iraq. Later, in 2005, the reelection of Hosni Mubarak for the sixth time caused numerous uprising organized by activist and opposition movements, named ‘Kifaya!’ (Enough!). Those groups were asking for a new constitution and free elections (Shehata and Stacher 2006). Moreover, due to an increasing unemployment rate, between 2007 and 2008, the country was interested by several strikes. One of the most important groups involved in these uprisings was ‘6 April’ (the day of the biggest 2008 strike in Cairo). Nevertheless, the former President Mubarak was not strongly affected by these movements and he was even ready to leave the power to his son Gamal at the end of his mandate (El-Amrani 2006).
On the 25th of January 2011, the Egyptian uprisings against the regime started with a mass demonstration, supporting the Tunisian movements. Although the regime harshly reacted, killing demonstrators and imposing a night curfew, the president Mubarak was forced to resign. Nowadays, he is under house arrest in Sharm el-Sheikh and he is facing a trial, where he risks a death sentence for ordering of shooting on demonstrators as well. Furthermore, the Mubarak’s ‘National Democratic Party’ (NDP) was banned, the former ministers and NDP’s members arrested or summoned by the court. Moreover, the State Security, ‘Amn el-Dawla’, was partially dismantled and the public administrations were dissolved. Despite all the mentioned achievements, it is still uncertain whether these purges are favoring the Egyptian transition to democracy or not.
The Egyptian Revolution was a social revolution for current and structural reasons. It is evident that the fluctuations in food’s prices were one of the most important reasons that led to the last January’s demonstrations. In other words, the prices of tomatoes and meat per kilo tripled in a few weeks (El-Amrani 2011). Secondly, the distribution of the richness within the country has been structurally unequal. Consequently, the absolute poverty rates had increased in recent decades. According to the IMF, one third of the Egyptian population is still living with less than one dollar per day. Many economists argue that those are consequences of wrong policies promoted by the former president Mubarak’s party (NDP) and the IMF. Put simply, during the nineties, national and supranational institutions enforced a large reduction in public expenditures. Those economic policies caused a “structural lack in social rights and low salaries” (El-Amrani 2011).
Egypt suffered of a chronic absence of worker’s rights. For instance, the low wages, the nonexistence of a welfare state and irregular employments have been, for decades, common practices of the Egyptian work market. For these reasons, in an interview, the blogger and left wing activist Essam Hamalawi argued that the effectiveness of the Revolution will be measured on the formation of new syndicates and unions, replacing the unique syndicate allowed during the Mubarak’s presidency (2011).
Nevertheless, socialists were not able to transform demonstrator’s requests in political programs. For instance, the oldest Egyptian Socialist Party El-Tagammu did not participate in the demonstrations since their beginning. Subsequently, many young activists accused the leader Refat El-Sayd of being part of the previous regime. As a result of those critics, many young activists abandoned the party, forming new small political left wing groups. Exactly the same occurred among Communists. After the revolution, the harsh conflict between the old generation of politicians, more or less near to the NDP, and the young activists, who occupied Tahrir Square for 18 days, suddenly exploded (Telima 2011). To sum up, even if social reasons were among the most relevant factors that pushed Egyptians to demonstrate, socialists were not able to monopolize the protests, defining clear political programs, a leadership or an agenda.
It might be argued that the Egyptian Revolution was a liberal revolution. Since he moved back to Egypt in 2009, Mohammed El-Baradei, Nobel price and former director of the International Atomic and Energy Agency (AIEA), has been considered a suitable political Mubarak’s opponent in democratic elections. El-Baradei, leader of the political movement ‘National Association for Change’, represented the aspirations of many demonstrators: those who were asking for new rights of citizenships, for Christians and women (El-Elaimy, 2011). Moreover, many Egyptian liberals were fighting for the abrogation of the emergency law, that had given to Mubarak the power to build a strong State Security’s system, ‘Amn el-Dawla’, in charge of controlling political opponents’ daily life. However, firstly, many activists accused El-Baradei of being only an external participant in the Egyptian political life. Secondly, after the Revolution many other divisions appeared among liberals as well. The oldest liberal Egyptian parties, namely Wafd and Ghad, were uncertain about new political alliances. Thirdly, Naguib Sawiris, former director of the Orascom Telecom, founded the ‘Party of the Free Egyptians’, gathering a new generation of liberal activists.
On the 19th March 2011, the Council of Armed Forces promoted a referendum on several amendments to the constitution. If they were approved, those reforms could give only to the new Parliament the right of rewriting the constitution. Socialists and liberals endorsed the campaign for a new constitution, rejecting the amendments. Rather, the 77% of the Egyptian electors voted ‘yes’, as suggested by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the army. For this and other reasons, many analysts argue that the revolutionary impulse in Egypt was primarily rooted to political Islam.
The Egyptian Revolution was a religious revolution, led by the Brotherhood. According to Kepel (1993), when Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in 1952, the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious movement founded by Hassan Al-Banna, “was the most popular organized group in Egypt’’. However, in 1954 and 1965, the regime arrested and expatriate hundreds of Islamist militants. In addition, since 1977, Anwar al-Sadat went on repressing the Brotherhood. Those policies contributed to radicalize the political behaviors of a minority inside the Egyptian Islamists. So, a group of activists formed the ‘gama’at islamiyya’, Islamic youthful associations. Otherwise, during the eighties, the MB was a conservative movement. The strong repression, promoted by the regime, decreased its mobilization’s capacities. Finally, during the nineties, the MB and the Mubarak’s NDP were competing with the regime providing social facilities, e.g. schools, hospitals and charitable associations (Kepel 1993).
In the 2000, as a result of their social engagement, the Muslim Brotherhood was supported not only by the poorest, but even by the urban middle class and the religious intellectuals (Kepel 2001). At this time, they were financed by Islamic banks, charitable associations and professional syndicates. So, during the Mubarak’s presidency, although Islamists were not allowed to form a legal political party, they got 88 seats in the Parliament on the occasion of the 2005’s elections. Likewise, they were facing a new wave of repression. For these reasons, the Muslim Brothers did not take advantage of a new religious sentiment, grown up in Egypt after the 2003’s war in Iraq and the victory of Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2006.
The same happened during the 2011 uprisings, when the old leaders of the Brotherhood did not participate to the demonstrations from their beginning. Nevertheless, in Tahrir Square, young MB’s activists were the most active in organizing demonstrations and they were using their political experience for motivating and controlling demonstrators (Ramadan 2011). Moreover, the political divisions among Islamists were even more evident after the revolution. They formed three or more different political parties, namely ‘Wasat’ (Centre), an old moderate movement born during the nineties; ‘Freedom and Justice’, the only formal party accepted by the Brotherhood; the ‘Reform party’, supported by Abdel Fotuh and the young activists of the movement.
It might be argued that Islamists are weakened and fragmented. In addition, many activists outline the new alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Armed Forces. In other words, they argue that the army is using the Islamists as the Mubarak NDP’s party was doing in the recent decades. Those who criticize the Brotherhood assume that this alliance is blocking the efficacy of the revolution and impeding a deep change in the Egyptian society (Abbas 2011).
Undoubtedly, the decision of the Marshal Hussein Tantawi to not shoot on the crowd was decisive for the success of the revolts. In addition, this neutrality of the army gave to military personnel a huge popularity. Nevertheless, after months of being in charge of current affairs, the army appears divided as well. In many episodes, the young militaries supported openly the demonstrators, while officials tried to dialogue with the soldiers and the Council of Armed Forces, who, rather, has been accused to act in continuity with the previous regime.
On the contrary, those who criticize the army outline how the Egyptian revolution is primarily a youthful revolution. Firstly, the aforementioned groups, born in 2005 and 2007, namely ‘Kifaya!’ and ‘6 April’, were composed by young militants, who were among the most active during the demonstrations. Secondly, this new generation was using new means of mobilization, for instance, social networks. In addition, they were helped by the 24-hour images displayed worldwide by the cameras of the International television channels. Thirdly, the Egyptian youth grew up in a new and ‘westernized’ cultural environment. Certainly, a huge number of rappers, graffiti and movie makers, writers and directors were working on the Egyptian Revolution in the recent months (El-Shafee 2011).
To conclude, the revolts in Egypt were a complex phenomenon. Social, liberal, religious and military factors have been all decisive for the current success of the demonstrations. Nevertheless, the path towards a democratic transition is still uncertain. It could lead to a new Egypt with a powerful army. Those who support this possibility indicate the Turkish model as a positive example.
Definitely, the ‘Arab Spring’ has been an important page of the contemporary history, like the collapse of the Soviet regimes in 1989 and the fight for national independence in Europe in 1848. Therefore, the consequences of those revolts in the aforementioned countries are still unpredictable. Furthermore, these movements could have relevant effects on those countries’ foreign policies, affecting the Israel-Palestine conflict.
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