Egypt is well-known for its exceptionally rich history. For many, the country is synonymous with ancient wonders such as the pyramids of Giza and the royal tombs of Luxor. However, in January 2011, modern Egypt suddenly leapt to the center of the public’s imagination. Over a period of 18 days, millions of Egyptians engaged in sit-ins, strikes, and demonstrations as well as pitched battles with the security forces. Their efforts led to the removal of the country’s long-standing dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and the start of an experiment in democratic government. Egypt’s first freely-elected president, Muhammad Mursi, assumed office in July 2012. However, after a tumultuous year in power, the experiment came crashing down amid large protests and a military intervention that removed Mursi from power.
Was the January 2011 uprising an aberration, and has Egypt now returned to its historic norm of autocratic rule centered on the military? Or, was the uprising the first wave of a process of change that will resume and continue to shape Egypt and the region?
The uprising in January 2011 was rooted in long-standing grievances among the general population regarding brutality by the police, lack of civil and political rights, and deteriorating economic conditions. The catalyst for the uprising was activists calling for public protest combined with a new public perception that large-scale demonstrations could produce meaningful political change. This positive view of the efficacy of demonstrations was due to events in nearby Tunisia, where mass protests in December 2010 triggered the removal of that country’s dictator just a few weeks earlier. Finally, Egypt’s military permitted the demonstrations to unfold and facilitated Mubarak’s departure.
Each of the three broad areas of grievances that led to the 2011 uprising remain and, in some areas, have worsened. Human rights abuse by the security services are a substantial and growing problem. Civil and political rights have been further compromised by new legislation that expands the state’s surveillance powers, tightens restrictions on NGOs, and limits freedom of expression. The economic situation is also very difficult, with many Egyptians in dire straits. Inflation rose to over 30%in June 2017 while wages did not keep pace, leading to a decline in the standard of living for most Egyptians. The official unemployment rate is over 11% and youth unemployment is estimated by the World Bank at 34%. The tourism industry remains weak due to attacks by militants and the threat of continuing violence.
Despite these pressures, another uprising is unlikely in the near term. Much of the public has a less positive view of street protest than in 2011. The regime and its supporters have undertaken an extensive media campaign to shape the public’s perception of the 2011 uprising and, particularly, to link the country’s subsequent economic decline and security challenges to this event. Egyptians are also acutely aware of the costly civil wars that unfolded elsewhere in the region after the uprisings of the Arab spring, particularly in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Many seem prepared to accept a strengthening of the security state in order to avoid such a fate.
The regime has ensured that protest of any kind is very risky. It has sharply increased the penalties associated with dissent and has allowed the security forces to target potential opponents with impunity. Over 1,800 people were forcibly disappeared in 2015 alone, meaning they were abducted, held incommunicado, and usually tortured by security forces before they were released or their bodies appeared. Another 22,000 were imprisoned awaiting trials that same year, prompting the European Parliament to censure Egypt for human rights abuses.
Finally, the military is likely to steadfastly defend the regime rather than support protestors. In 2011, the military had grown distant from Mubarak and feared that he was engineering a succession to his son that did not fully protect their interests. The generals played a key role in allowing the demonstrations to grow and in orchestrating Mubarak’s exit. In contrast, the military in 2018 remains closely tied to President al-Sisi and the regime. Al-Sisi has gone to considerable lengths to expand the military’s authority, defend its interests, and allow its economic power to grow. Furthermore, there is not yet a major policy issue—such as succession or economic reform—that divides the military and the president, as was the case in 2011.
For the near-term, then, the regime is likely to endure. However, the demands for change that sparked the uprising in 2011 persist. The economic and security institutions that produced the public anger of 2011 remain unreformed. Al-Sisi has calculated that improved economic growth and greater security will be sufficient to retain the public’s support. However, if the regime stumbles in either area, the public’s quiescence could turn quickly to anger. The uprising of 2011 provided tangible proof of the power of the people to change the status quo, if only for a short period. Continued economic hardship, combined with growing repression, could spark renewed calls for change. The uprising of 2011 was the first step on a long and difficult path of transformation that has only just begun.
Featured image credit: “Egypt Uprising solidarity Melbourne protest, 30 January 2011 018” by Takver. CC0 via WikiCommons.