Back to Square One
The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 was aimed at overthrowing an authoritarian regime and ushering in democracy. Three years later, the country has all but moved on.
Three years after the Lotus Revolution that aimed to establish a democratic state, Egypt seems to have shown little progress.
Asa revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests in the name of democracy swept through the Middle East in 2011, Egypt underwent its own ‘Lotus Revolution’, a popular uprising that saw millions of protestors, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds and religious affiliations, protest on the streets and demand an end to a myriad of grievances. Street protests, acts of civil disobedience, marches and riots – all ensued in an attempt to reconfigure the status quo and usher in a new era marked by freedom of speech, free and fair elections, a stable economy and a peaceful future. Demanding an end to high unemployment, inflation, police brutality and economic woes amongst other legal and political issues, demonstrators emerged, united in their desire to overthrow the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak which they accused of plundering Egypt and plunging its people into despondency.
By Arsla Jawaid According to media reports, violent clashes between protestors and police forces loyal to Mubarak led to 850 people being killed and more than 100,000 injured.
As international media corps descended to cover what they labelled a historic turn of events, the west readily supported the wave of revolutions that were sweeping North Africa and the Middle East at that juncture. With slogans of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’, it seemed that ‘change’ was inevitable. Three years later, however, the country is back to square one with little improvement and only sacrifices to show for its heroic struggle for democracy.
Democracy is not an event. It is a process; perhaps one that the Egyptian people were not quite ready for yet. Democracy requires time to root itself, structures to uphold it, a series of democratic transitions to establish it and, above all, patience to sustain it. However, ushering in democracy after three decades of Mubarak’s draconian regime is not an easy feat and has been made particularly difficult in the presence of powerhungry, corrupt politicians. Mubarak was declared President in the wake of Sadat’s assassination in 1981. Having held onto power since then, Mubarak increasingly became an autocratic ruler, curbing freedoms, maintaining an emergency rule, crushing dissent and suppressing all opposition groups (notably the Muslim Brotherhood), while arguing that such measures were necessary to control imminent threats from Islamist terrorist groups. As domestic unrest escalated, protests swept the nation. In a televised address, Mubarak dissolved his government and agreed to hand over power to the Head of the Intelligence Directorate. A day later, Vice President Omar Suleiman forced Mubarak to resign and announced that the Supreme Council
of the Armed Forces ( SCAF) would run the country in the interim. The new head of state, Hussein Tantawi, promptly giving in to the demands of the demonstrators, suspended the constitution, dissolved the parliament and declared that elections would be held within six months.
While the SCAF attempted to run an interim government and introduce reforms, resentment with the political structure once again heightened. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood emerged on the streets and protests ensued against the SCAF that many accused of harnessing presidential powers. In March 2011, close to four thousand demonstrators filled Tahrir Square and demanded faster dismantling of the previous regime. Others accused the SCAF of planning a coup and bringing the country further under military rule. For those who had strived to overthrow the Mubarak regime, the sacrifices they had made were too great to abandon for a return to the status quo. Protestors clashed with the military in different parts of the country, leading to severe casualties, attacks on official buildings and a subsequent breakdown of law and order.
While Egypt’s military rulers awarded themselves increased legislative powers, the country’s first presidential elections took place and ushered in Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, making him the first Islamist head of an Arab state. However, his rule was short-lived as Morsi tried to usurp all state powers and issued a declaration immunizing his decrees from any challenge or forced revision. Many of Morsi’s advisors resigned and judges spoke out against his actions. The move marginalized liberal and secular groups as Morsi attempted to impose strict Islamic rule in an effort to appease his Brotherhood backers.
Close to a year after he was sworn in, millions of protestors called for Morsi to be removed and new presidential elections to be held. The Egyptian Movement of Change claimed to have collected 22 million signatures, demanding Morsi’s removal. Many believed that the Brotherhood had rigged the votes and as violent clashes occurred between supporters of both camps, once again Egypt plunged into uncertainty and violence. After being given a 48-hour warning, the President was removed from office by the military. The Chief Justice was designated the new head of state. Regardless of the civilian front, the military continued to wield considerable power and used its influence to crush pro-Morsi demonstrations and riots in what has been termed by international human rights groups as a “massacre.” The military has also forced the closure of public media and arrested journalists from media groups deemed as proMorsi, including Al-Jazeera.
Three years after the Lotus Revolution that aimed to overthrow a military dictatorship and establish a democratic state where the people reigned supreme, Egypt seems to have shown little progress. Expecting a return to authoritarian rule, Egyptians are fast losing hope. Protestors are brutally targeted and the revolution fever seems to have receded as quickly as it caught on. Egypt’s move towards a peaceful democracy may be unattainable at the moment but the country is showing signs of moving towards some political arrangement. Perhaps mesmerized by the mantra of “democracy,” Egypt’s new election commission has announced the first round of voting for the country’s new president to be held on May 26 and 27, with results expected to be announced by June.
Though Egyptians remain seriously divided over Morsi’s ouster, the country’s powerful former military chief Abdul Fattah El-Sissi has emerged a strong favorite to win the upcoming presidential elections.
Having comfortably settled within the military leadership, Sissi received foreign training at prestigious war colleges in the US and UK after which he returned to Egypt to form close connections within the military ranks. A deeply controversial character, while deputy head of Military Intelligence (MI), he was recruited by Tantawi to join the SCAF after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. It was during this time that he was assigned to build critical contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood on behalf of SCAF. Using his reputation as a devout Muslim, he set out to dramatize his performance by quoting Quranic verses and conducting the controversial “virginity tests” on arrested demonstrators in an effort to convince the Brotherhood of his Islamic views while at the same time maintaining a level of strong popularity within the military ranks. As a result, President Morsi appointed him commander-inchief and defense minister, replacing Tantawi. While Sissi attempted to toe Morsi’s line on domestic issues, on the security front he protected the interests of the military, thus guaranteeing the institution of his true loyalty. He also played a critical role in granting more powers and privileges to the military class in the formation of the 2012 constitution.
Sissi successfully deceived the Brotherhood and after Morsi’s removal, appointed a special division to crack down on the Brotherhood’s supporters. A strong nationalist dedicated to addressing Egypt’s economic woes and a shrewd personality with the ability to seamlessly deflect blame to other political actors, Sissi could prove to be a manipulative president; someone who will ensure that the military is able to expand its influence in the political, economic, social and foreign policy arenas.
If Sissi is able to usher in political stability, this may be the temporary price Egyptians would pay for a democratic future that they desperately seek.
The writer is the Managing Editor for Strategic Studies at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.