On January 25, 2011, thousands of Egyptians angered by police brutality, among other state abuses, took over Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, setting off the exuberant upheaval that unseated a dictator of 30 years’ standing and inspired democrats the world over. Spellbound observers (including us) predicted that January 25 would never again be known in Egypt as Police Day.
As January 25, 2014 approached, ‘Adli Mansour, Egypt’s interim president, told the state-owned al-Akhbar newspaper what to expect of the day’s gatherings. “We are celebrating both the anniversary of the revolution and Police Day. We must not forget the martyrs of the revolution, who were killed by deceitful bullets from the revolution’s thieves and thugs, and those who hate Egypt and don’t want to see it be safe and secure.”
How did this happen? How did the Egyptian state so effortlessly, almost casually, slip its authoritarian agenda into what should have been a quintessentially democratic commemoration? How was Mansour able to erase the police from the memories of 2011, as if the Ministry of Interior was the guardian angel of the protesters, and not the demon that fought them tooth and nail? How could he speak as if the martyrs’ killers were miscreant fellow revolutionaries, and not agents of the very order the uprising aimed to overthrow?
The answers are sobering. The removal of Husni Mubarak, as we have written before, was half-revolution, half-coup. The army high command seized the opportunity of the Interior Ministry’s defeat in the streets to shoulder aside a ruling claque that had encroached on the military’s turf. The generals saw their own star fade over the next year and a half, when they proved as clumsy and heavy-handed as Mubarak at the tasks of direct government. So the senior officers reshuffled their ranks, and oversaw elections that ushered a new set of civilian faces, the Muslim Brothers, into the legislature and presidential palace. The Brothers discovered, however, that political office was not synonymous with political power, that electoral majorities did not obviate the need for compromise. They reacted in precisely the wrong way, issuing decrees that their foot soldiers tried to enforce with fisticuffs and worse. The backlash was swift and severe, culminating in the mass rally against the presidency of Muhammad Mursi on June 30, 2013. Again, the military brass spotted a chance to play champion of the people. The army toppled Mursi, shot hundreds of his supporters dead, installed a puppet cabinet and rammed through a revised constitution by referendum. Now Tamarrud, the same organization that claimed to collect 22 million signatures against Mursi, has leaked the news that Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi has bowed to the popular will and decided to run for president.
What is remarkable about these events is not so much the cult of personality around al-Sisi or the rapidity of the military’s return to center stage. In the chaos of revolution, and in a country with economic shock absorbers as thin as Egypt’s, it is not surprising that the majority would welcome a strongman. That is not to mention how badly the Brothers alienated liberals, Copts, many women and rival Islamists, to name a few constituencies. The army, its depredations since 2011 notwithstanding, remains the most potent national institution in the eyes of most Egyptians. Nor, in the history of revolutions, is it unheard of for “the people,” united against a hated foe, to splinter into factions that brand each other as traitors to the cause once the lowest common denominator defining the cause is gone.
What is more striking is that al-Sisi does not promise Egyptians anything of substance that is new. The police state, on vacation for a while after Mubarak’s fall, is back on its beat, lighter on its feet but all sinew and bone. The fuloul, the sycophantic circles of Mubarak and his cohort, return from their leave of absence to finance the public relations campaign in favor of the army-approved constitution. The national charter itself, while more liberal than the Brothers’ version on mosque-state relations and women’s rights, guarantees the army’s budgetary autonomy and other privileges. Beyond the mantra of “stability” — the state’s pledge to keep citizens “safe and secure” — Egypt’s new rulers offer no original solutions whatsoever to the problems that vex the population daily, such as the dearth of decent jobs, the spiraling cost of living and the abysmal level of public services.
Yet we do not share the opinion that Egypt has come full circle. The state is leaner and meaner, yes, but weaker, despite the adulation of al-Sisi and the conspicuous lack of outrage over state violence against the Brothers and other dissenters. Mubarak was an autocrat, but one who knew how to coopt thick slices of the elite and control critics without immediate recourse to brute force.
In the coup against an elected president and the stage-managed constitutional referendum, the military has done serious damage to the credibility of formal democracy as a mode of participatory politics. Mubarak’s elections were rigged to one degree or another, but genuine opposition parties, like the Muslim Brothers running as independents, perceived an interest in taking part. The referendum passed with 98 percent of the vote, amidst a turnout of 38.6 percent, but the crushing margin was due to the extensive boycott urged by the Brothers. Such totals, reminiscent of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or even Saddam Hussein, are not markers of durable consent of the governed. They hint, rather, at extraordinary coercion. In the not-too-distant future, Egypt’s masters are likely to find themselves forced to choose between shedding more blood and loosening their grip. As time passes, and whichever of these two options the “deep state” selects, the army’s monopoly on nationalist sentiment will dissolve and politics will reemerge. The question is what form those politics will take.
In 2011, as in 2005, the heyday of the Kifaya movement, there was much talk of psychological barriers that had been broken and walls of intimidation that had crumbled. For some time after the ouster of Mubarak, and regardless of the depressing tenor of national politics, it was clear that ordinary people had indeed lost their fear of authority, in part because at Tahrir Square they had tasted victory. In 2012, for instance, there were more work stoppages than in any year of the strike wave of the preceding decade. Newspapers were full of reports of “little Tahrirs” at workplaces and in neighborhoods where residents organized to slow down speeding traffic or to keep rapacious developers at bay. It seemed from these quotidian success stories that whatever Egypt emerged would at least be modestly more socially just than under Mubarak. People would have a little more dignity and a few extra pounds in their pockets. Even that circumspect view now seems overly optimistic. Egypt is in for some hard times.
In nearby Tunisia, whose insurrection fired the imagination of Egyptian activists, the journey away from dictatorship took a different route. As with Mubarak, the jettison of Ben Ali was half-revolution, half-coup. As in Egypt, there was considerable turmoil as Islamists won at the polls, only to find their program resisted, and fuloul bade their time for a comeback. But in Tunisia the professionalized military halted its intervention after the first blow. The generals did not try to manipulate politics at every turn to safeguard their prerogatives. And second, the entire Ben Ali apparatus was dismantled, the offices of the former ruling party occupied by vigilant citizens. The political arena was not wide open, but at least rid of the contestants who have been most ruthless in Egypt.
Thus far this alternate road has not led Tunisia to social peace and prosperity. But it has allowed the constituent assembly to reach consensus on the framework of the post-Ben Ali transition in the form of the draft constitution approved in late January. Tunisia’s path is evidence that politicians of very different persuasions can work together for the common good.
Back in Egypt, barriers were shattered in 2005 and, more so, in 2011, but there is an ebb and flow to the militancy that spilled through. The tide is now out. Nonetheless, we suspect that the state’s stubbornly paternalistic style and the country’s economic woes will eventually lead to more contention, not less. Our hope is that the spirit of Tunisia and Tahrir Square in 2011 will reassert itself. Our fear is that the horrors of the intervening years will repress that spirit for a generation or more. Our expectation is that Egyptians will defy expectations, for good, ill and everything in between.