Egypt’s popular putsch

It is too early to write off Egypt's revolution. Unlike in the past, politics is now a live issue across the country, and that popular force is a difficult one to control or stop, and even the steps that have been taken now seemed impossible just over a year ago.  

It is too early to write off Egypt's revolution. Unlike in the past, politics is now a live issue across the country, and that popular force is a difficult one to control or stop, and even the steps that have been taken now seemed impossible just over a year ago.

In 1952 Egypt had a coup, which turned into a permanent revolution. Now Egypt has had a revolution that has turned into a coup. So goes a quip doing the rounds in Cairo. It is a line that sits nicely with the refrain heard in the West about Egypt a year after millions of protesters drove Hosni Mubarak from his pharonic throne of power. With the Egyptian military in charge, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the emergence of the once-hidden Salafists and the fragmentation of the broad-based liberal-minded alliance that pushed the Egyptian strongman from power, there is plenty of sand if not grist for the pessimists’ mill.

Echoing the change in mood, in an interview with The Times the British Foreign Secretary William Hague predicted that the Middle East would face “a lot of problems and even convulsions” in years to come. The BBC reporter I ran into on my last visit to Cairo six months ago, was clear he thinks the British government was naïve when it backed the upheavals. Knowingly, he suggests the Foreign Secretary “may finally be listening to SIS.” Having pronounced on the matter, the BBC’s star reporter returned to his Blackberry. Perhaps he is right. 

But then you would not expect the Secret Intelligence Service to say anything else, would you? Their job is to look for dangers not hopes. And what should the government have done differently? Taken to the airways and said the protesters should back off? Or that their revolution would bring more danger than freedom?

As I drove through Cairo in late summer 2011, my car edged past throngs of Salafists who had been bussed into the centre of the city to show that they too could have a say in Egypt’s future. That day, the Takbīr — Allāhu Akbar –- rang through the world-famous Tahrir Square. The multi-coloured image that dominated the 18-day revolution earlier in the year – where a million protesters wore jeans, t-shirts and bandanas – were on that day six months ago replaced by a monochrome picture. Nearly all the Salafists had donned plain white-washed garments not unlike those worn during the pilgrimage to Mecca. They lit up the square. If one ever needed an image of the transformation of a liberal spring into a summer of Islamism, one needed not look further.

Yet this view is too simple, too neat an image. For it is too early to write off Egypt’s revolution. Egypt has been fundamentally changed in the last year. A country where people never talked about politics – because there was no point – has come alive with debate. In cafes, aboard the large ships that are moored on the Nile, on TV and in newspapers every issue is being argued over, debated and debunked. People who previously lived in the shadow of Mubarak’s state have emerged, seeing each other – and themselves – for the first time. The light, in a sense, has come on. What people see is both good and bad.

Tahrir Square, the iconic centre of the revolution and a must-see destination for European politicians, had been re-occupied by protesters unhappy with the pace of change in Egypt. Hoping to revive the spirit that shook the country at the start of 2011, they argued long into the night. Like Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park — but with fewer gimlet-eyed fanatics – people gather around speakers, listen to arguments or just hang out, comfortable in the sense of solidarity and hopefulness that the place still emits. Here they felt free.

It is this outburst of debate, a hallmark of a free society, that will be difficult to temper and impossible to stop. It may move from the pavement to the newly elected parliament. But it will not easily disappear – even, if Islamists forge a de facto, case-by-case alliance the new legislature. For once you have seen something, turning off the light again does make you forget what you have already seen. Egyptians, subjects for 5000 years, have now become citizens.

But at the same time, the British Foreign Secretary is on to something. The easy part is over, especially for the liberals. The re-occupation of Tahrir Square six months after the ouster of President Mubarak turned out to be a strategic blunder by a frustrated and increasingly fragmented set of liberals who could not but revert to using the one tool they know has worked before – direct pressure – rather than join forces across divides and build up an election-wining party or set of parties. In his ramshackle office a mile away from Tahrir Square, one protester is clear that going back to the square is the right thing to do. “Only pressure works”, he told me while we sipped tea. The weekend before I arrived in Cairo, a group of protesters depart the reoccupied Tahrir Square for the Ministry of Defence, where the military junta, the SCAF, is headquartered. They are met by rent-mob reminiscent of the thugs that attacked Tahrir Square on the Charge of the Camels, the regime’s last stance.

The situation was eventually contained, but not before many protesters were injured in the battles. Having been attacked, the protesters seemed to expect a popular outcry. But none really came. Because it was by then no longer clear that they were speaking for the country. The military, cloistered off from society for decades and run by an old-style elite who seem ill-prepared for the role they have taken on, nonetheless seems better attuned to a poor and conservative nation that has tired of traffic-blocking demonstrations than the young, liberal-minded protesters. Skilfully exploiting the media and the internet, the SCAF have managed to define the revolution as the day that Hosni Mubarak was toppled, nothing more. That, to the military, was the revolution. And many ordinary Egyptian look as if they agree.

Even the Muslim Brotherhood, who went back into the square in late summer quickly left again, judging that the public’s patience was wearing thin with traffic-blocking protests and worried about a confrontation with the military. So for a week the protesters were stuck. They could leave the square until their demands are met. But the military could give in to the growing desiderata of demands either. On Tahrir Square the image of Hosni Mubarak in a hangman’s nose was joined by pictures of Field Marshall Muhammed Tantawi, the head of the SCAF.

The military can accept many things and seem willing, compelled even, to yield when faced by broadly-supported demands, such as prosecuting those who killed the protesters in January 2011. Though they have not been ready to change the sequencing of political events that they laid out – parliamentary elections first, then a constitution and only then presidential elections –they are open to some adjustments. However, having deposed one boss they are not about to remove another.

Faced with a direct challenge, the military upped the ante by denouncing key members of the revolutionary movement – like the 6 April Movement and Kafuya – as foreign-funded agents. A patently absurd charge, it raised the atmosphere in an already broiling city. Given the military’s record – since taking power they have already put more than 4000 people through summary trials in military courts – people became scared. “Marching on the military was just stupid”, says a European diplomat while we lounge on his imperial porch and soothe ourselves with a Gin & Tonic. “The military had to react.” If he was running the revolution, he seemed to be saying, he would do things differently.

To make matters worse, the Salafist looked ready for a confrontation on Tahrir Square too. “They are fed up with ceding the ground to the liberals and so they have declared, in effect, a protest against protests”, say another diplomat. Given the historical links between the Mukhabarat, Egypt’s security service, and the Salafists many also saw in their move an attempt by the military to create further divisions among the protesters, allowing them, in the case of violence, to intervene and be seen as the guardians of stability not as a partisan actors.

In the end, everyone pulled back. The military gave in to a number of demands. And by the time Friday came, the protests were peaceful and dominated by the Salafists. Even the Muslim Brotherhood left Tahrir Square. The military was also not to be seen anywhere near the centre of town. Six months after the elevation of Tahrir into a liberal and ecumenical altar, it became a Salafist place.

Earlier that day I had found myself in the smallest but liveliest newsroom I had ever seen. Behind piles of papers and a PC screens bigger than themselves sat the three girls –- two in a niqab, one without but all in stylish clothes — who put out the Daily News, one of Egypt’s three English language newspapers.

One reporter had just come from a meeting where a number of activists were debating what would be enough to declare victory. They had a clear set of demands: expediting Hosni Mubarak’s trial, purging the Ministry of Interior, and compensating the families of the victims of the regime’s crimes. None of these demands had been met. But the reporters were hopeful. Six months after the revolution, they said, the country is in a far better shape than many feared – especially compared to Syria, Libya or Yemen. Why would the protesters they not succeed now when they had succeeded against all the odds and everyone’s expectations only six months earlier, the reporters ask.

It has now been another six months – a full year since the events that saw President Mubrakak – the man who ruled Egypt longer than all but two people in the country’s 5000 year history – removed from power. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have crowded back into Tahrir Square, which during throughout a day of celebrations saw a bigger turnout than on 11 February of 2001 – the day that the Egyptian strongman actually stepped down. Though the mood has remained celebratory, from speaking to people on the scene this is clearly tinged with a dose of trepidation and a drop of fear.

Liberals and left-leaning groups were trounced at the elections, which saw Islamist parties control around two-thirds of the seats in the assembly. With only ten percent of the vote, they also remain riven by factions and fissures. Most crucially, the liberals and the Islamist still disagree on the issue of the ruling military. True to their moniker, the  revolutionaries want the generals to surrender power to civilians immediately, accusing them of perpetuating Egypt’s authoritarian system, undermining the transition to democracy and committing large-scale abuses. The Islamists, on the other, hand, says the military should step down, but are willing to accept their promise to step down formally in six month and for them to continue playing some kind of politico-economic role afterwards.

So far there is no resolution in sight. Much will depend on the next couple of days. Will the liberals try to stay in Tahrir Square and, like a year ago, bring people with them? Or will it be more like six months ago, when the liberals tried to retake the revolutionary touchstone only to see their support hemorrhage and the military remove the protesters forcefully while the Islamist stood by while preparing their own path to power. Until now, the military has been emollient: Field Marshal Tantawi released around 2,000 civilian prisoners sentenced under military-controlled laws, including prominent activist Maikel Nabil.  But their patience is famously exhaustible and the anti-regime liberals are weak. So what to make of the revolution, one year on? French writer Victor Hugo once said, “No one can stop an idea whose time has come.” That is true also in Egypt. However, the idea that has come may not be democracy, but citizenship. People now feel that they are citizens, not subjects. Democracy will come, that’s clear, but it may take a little while longer. That is cause for some despair but also relief. For even the steps that have been taken now seemed impossible just over a year ago.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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