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Egypt Unwrapped

The Revolution Continues

Activists mark the second anniversary of deadly violence outside the Cabinet headquarters two years ago in Cairo on December 16, 2013. (Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Activists mark the second anniversary of deadly violence outside the Cabinet headquarters two years ago in Cairo on December 16, 2013. (Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

At the end of 2013, Egypt is not where it was expected to be at the start of the year. This has been the case for three years running now. From being the lynchpin of regional stability and an apparently reliable partner for foreign actors in their policies toward the Middle East, Egypt seems to continue to lurch from one dramatic development to the next.

Such a climate of continuing and unpredictable political turbulence begs the question as to whether 2013 marked the betrayal of Egypt’s revolution. But the task of reflecting on this claim is not an easy one. It means starting at the beginning by asking the question: was Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011 a revolution? Even this simple question is debated because, narrowly defined, a revolution is the overthrow of one order in favor of a new one, whereas in Egypt the change came more in the leadership than in the order. Perhaps this is why for many Egyptians the slogan “Al-Thowra Mostamerra”—“The Revolution Continues”—is still chanted nearly three years on.

The rule of the Muslim Brotherhood that gradually emerged from January 25 and dominated the transition until July 2013 could perhaps be described as a new order, but it was not necessarily the one that many protesters imagined when they gathered in Tahrir Square to call for the resignation of Mubarak. Even though he had been elected, the disappointment of Mursi’s presidency and his Islamist project did indeed represent a betrayal of January 25 for many.

There lies the complexity of Egypt’s “revolution.” While there was increasing opposition to Mubarak’s regime, there was no definable revolutionary movement with a specific agenda for change behind the uprising in 2011. This enabled the surge of demonstrations to be transformed into a sudden popular uprising and was a key part in its success. But it did leave Egypt without a clear alternative and little unity of purpose beyond ousting Mubarak and creating a better Egypt; a noble but ill-defined goal.

As a result, Egypt’s uprising means different things to different people. This was never more obvious than with Mursi’s ouster, which—as in Mubarak’s case—was brought about by popular protest and pressure from the army. Both supporters and opponents of this dramatic twist in the Egyptian transition claimed to be defending the revolution and safeguarding democracy. This makes it difficult to measure the success or failure of Egypt’s uprising or to judge definitively whether the revolution is indeed continuing or has been fatally betrayed.

In my view, Egypt’s uprising can become a full revolution in time but it will be a gradual process. It is also fragile, and those in power must be vigilant with themselves and each other if they are to avoid creating a Frankenstein of their ‘new Egypt’ out of a combination of revolutionary fervor and lack of a long-term vision.

The events of 2013 have placed this balancing act in the hands of the head of the Egyptian Army and Minister of Defense, Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. He is widely seen as the architect of Mursi’s ouster and so far retains the adoration of perhaps a majority of Egyptians. But Egyptians have shown that they can turn on seemingly untouchable leaders, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s support base will not simply melt away. It seems, then, that instability will persist into 2014 and for years to come, especially if the transition continues to be consumed by security concerns or a war over Egypt’s national religious identity.

As things stand at the end of 2013, Egypt remains socially, ideologically and economically divided. If we take the slogan “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice” that was popularized during the January 25 protests as representing the essential goals of the revolution, it is clear that the success or failure of the revolution is to be measured in addressing inequalities in all areas of Egyptian life. Since achieving this is inevitably a long-term process it’s still too early to judge if Egypt’s revolution was betrayed by 2013.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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Elizabeth Monier
Dr Elizabeth Monier is a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick where her work focuses broadly on democracy, human security and citizenship in the Middle East. She specializes in Egyptian affairs, sectarian conflict and identity politics. She holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and has held fellowships at LSE and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies.

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