When masses of people assembled in Egypt’s public squares and succeeded in toppling President Husni Mubarak in 2011, the world went a little bit mad. That an urban uprising unseated one of the contemporary world’s most favored autocrats became freighted with symbolism.

Anti-corporate demonstrators in Oakland, CA, take part in a march in support of protestors in Egypt, November 2011. Protesters in Oakland proposed the march after their Egyptian counterparts marched on the US Embassy in solidarity with the Occupy Oakland movement, according to a statement released on the Occupy Oakland website. Kim White/Reuters

The two-week occupation of Tahrir Square was not unprecedented in world politics; Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was methodically held by student-led demonstrators for six weeks in spring 1989 until the military violently dispersed them on June 4. But though Tiananmen received ample international television coverage, it paled in comparison to the attention lavished on Tahrir. One week into the encampment, Egypt’s protests had become the biggest international news story in the US media, surpassing coverage of the Iraq war, the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the US war in Afghanistan.

Less than a week after Mubarak was deposed on February 11, public sector workers in Wisconsin protesting an anti-union bill surrounded the governor’s home and camped out at the capitol, holding up signs imploring, “Egypt, Save Us” and “Walk like an Egyptian!” In May, demonstrators decrying Spain’s two-party duopoly and high unemployment began an occupation of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square, organizing Tahrir-style committees for food distribution, cleaning and communications. A week later, partly provoked by the Spaniards, Greek protesters occupied Syntagma square, protesting decisions made within the nearby parliament building. In September, protesters camped out in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park for eight weeks, inaugurating the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement that spread to more than 1,000 cities and college campuses across the United States. Two Egyptian activists from the April 6th Youth Movement conducted a teach-in at the Zuccotti occupation, then led an impromptu march down Wall Street.

With Tunisia as the Arab uprisings’ first mover and then Egypt with the Tahrir Square encampment, the image of the Arab world suddenly changed. From an unspoken but dominant perception of a region plagued by fanaticism and a hidebound culture, it was now a setting where heroic peoples hankered for liberty. Cultural particularity faded and an attractive universalism took center stage. “The uprising was universal,” declared celebrity philosopher Slavoj Žižek. “It was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognize what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society.”[1]

Interviewing Zuccotti Park protesters, reporters marveled at their taken-for-granted references to Tahrir. “A movement born in a Muslim country is seen neither as threatening nor as exotic but simply as universal.”[2] Some Egyptian intellectuals had a more pointed take on what was fast becoming a discursive contest over the meaning of Egypt’s uprising. “The children of the revolution taught the West a lesson on the beloved notions of cosmopolitanism and democracy,” wrote sociologist Mona Abaza. “The application of these two claims has been denied for so long to the Global South under the infantilizing excuse that it lacked maturity. These values proved to be no longer exclusive to the West.”[3]


Iconizing Tahrir


Portrait murals depicting revolutionary martyrs (left to right) Gaber Salah “Gika,” Alaa Abdelhady, Mina Daniel. Downtown Cairo, Egypt. December 2014. Mashid Mohadjerin/Redux

The spread of mass uprisings across and beyond the Arab world was quickly folded into a narrative of a global zeitgeist of citizens’ resistance against the depredations of transnational finance capitalism and authoritarianism. The highly portable repertoire of political performances—occupations of central squares, pithy branding slogans circulated on social media, improvisational forms of collective organizing and a carnivalesque yet vigilant encampment atmosphere—inspired theories that crossed borders and transcended national political cultures.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri took the 2011–2013 encampments in Tahrir, Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Gezi Park in Istanbul to be a new mode of resistance generated by a new phase of capitalist development. Sustained occupation of public space represented a prefigurative politics, they argued, where “activists seek to rid themselves of the relations of domination imprinted in them by the ruling social order to create democratic and egalitarian relations among themselves.”[4] Yet merging the Arab uprisings that catalyzed regime changes with European protest movements that renewed democratic structures understates the radical potential of the former to upend world politics, and is a poor guide to understanding the global counterrevolution that emerged to roll back the uprisings.

The highly portable repertoire of political performances—occupations of central squares, pithy branding slogans circulated on social media, improvisational forms of collective organizing and a carnivalesque yet vigilant encampment atmosphere—inspired theories that crossed borders and transcended national political cultures.

Vaguely gesturing to the risk of idealizing the Tahrir encampment, Judith Butler nevertheless portrayed it as a space of equality among protesters, in contrast to the “entrenched hierarchies” of the Mubarak regime. The idea that Tahrir was a counter-society of equality and nonviolence, “encouraging people to resist the mimetic pull of military aggression and the aggression of the gangs,” is an odd rendition of how protesters protected their encampment.[5] The protesters’ detention and beating of police infiltrators, the raw hand-to-hand combat with the camel- and horse-riders who charged into the square, leaving 13 dead and 915 injured, the ripping up of pavement to throw at government thugs—airbrushing these out of the frame misconstrues the extraordinary work it took to sustain the occupation in the face of continuous government violence and intimidation. Tahrir as “prefigurative politics” blurs the actual politics of mass protest against police states.

By contrast, informed accounts were attuned to the ever-present sense of danger gripping the occupiers, their recognition that they could very well lose life and limb on account of their actions. Sociologists observed how protesters fraternized with soldiers in the square, a time-honored tactic to neutralize repressive forces. Without idealization, they conveyed the extraordinary Tahrir repertoire, yet also the fragility of the occupation and its vulnerability to homogenizing nationalist flag-waving. They captured the dilemma endemic to open-ended protest: how to sustain the momentum for change over time, against the countervailing forces of relentless government infiltration and disinformation and generalized disenchantment.[6]


Democracy’s Fourth Wave?


Where “radical” democratic theorists saw in Tahrir an avatar of global resistance to neoliberalism, mainstream political scientists slotted the Arab uprisings into their own global conceptual framework of “waves of democracy.” The Arab world was long cast as a stubborn exception to the third global wave of democracy from 1974–1994 and further pathologized after the 2003 Iraq War debacle as a region where democracy stood no chance against ostensibly deep-seated sectarianism and durable authoritarianism. The 2011 uprisings were initially greeted with enthusiasm, as a potential fourth wave of democracy that would counteract the global decline of democracy in the aughts.[7]

By the autumn of 2011, scholars and journalists were enumerating the weaknesses of democratic forces in Arab countries, the resilience of authoritarian structures and the unfavorable international conditions for Arab democratization.
Yet, the frame of Arab exceptionalism was not to be easily dislodged. By the autumn of 2011, scholars and journalists were enumerating the weaknesses of democratic forces in Arab countries, the resilience of authoritarian structures and the unfavorable international conditions for Arab democratization. As one political scientist wrote in 2011, Arab autocracies “retain the coercive and diplomatic resources that have kept their regimes in place for so long.”[8] In a different vocabulary but a similar thrust, historian Perry Anderson deemed the uprisings too tame to challenge US-Israeli-European hegemony over the region. The Islamists, as the largest civilian forces, were too domesticated and enamored of the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP), “loyal to NATO and to neoliberalism,” to pose any real upset to the regional balance of power.[9]

In this emergent consensus of change-but-no-change, Tunisia was constructed as the exception to the exception. Months after former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s departure, and as the political conflict in Egypt confused order-minded commentators, Tunisia was cast as the most promising candidate for democratization due to its “relatively advanced economy, an educated populace, little in the way of sectarian or ethnic divides, and a fairly moderate brand of Islam.”[10] But the idea of democratization as a list of ideal attributes showed its limits by early 2013, when post-Ben Ali politics had experienced the first political assassination, the rise of both Salafi groupings and ancien regime holdovers in the Nidaa Tounes party and continued demonstrations in the provinces of the interior that had sparked the revolts. Two prominent authors in the political science democratic transitions literature attempted to account for the course of both Tunisian and Egyptian political struggles after dictatorship, settling on a makeshift categorization of Egypt as an “authoritarian-democratic hybrid state” and Tunisia as still exceptional but with caveats, exhibiting “hopeful trends and disturbing realities.”[11]

By 2012, the hectic politics of revolution in Egypt demoted it from an inspiring beacon to an object lesson in disillusion. Slavoj Žižek stopped speaking of “the sublime” in Tahrir and was penning a requiem for a revolution extinguished by a purported pact between the military and the Islamists. He wrote, “The Islamists will tolerate the material privileges of the army and will be assured of ideological hegemony in return.”[12] However, the point here is not that foreign observers mangled Egyptian realities, since the notion of a deal between the military and “the Islamists” (always cast as a unified bloc) was also an article of faith among segments of the Egyptian and Arab left.[13] Rather, it is to note that there was a flight from analyzing the revolution’s politics in favor of jeremiads and hoary tropes about opportunistic politicians betraying revolutionary purists.

Not everyone succumbed to dramaturgical rhetoric. In an early comparison of Egypt and Tunisia, the historian Roger Owen eschewed lamentation and moralizing for a lucid analysis of the vying political actors and their factional struggles in each country. Rather than pathologize such conflict and dissensus, Owen underscored the “whole logic of a process that necessitates that the unity required for the overthrow of an old order gives way to the political divisions that a pluralist party system requires.”[14] Ellis Goldberg challenged the canonical rendition of Tunisia as a model and Egypt as a failure, arguing that Tunisia’s democratization was indeed a historic compromise, but not between elements of the democratic opposition as Tunisia exceptionalists had framed it. “Democratization succeeded in Tunisia because the old elite was neither excluded nor subjected to the threat of political or administrative marginalization,” he wrote. “The old elite, not revolutionaries or Islamists, proved to be the pivotal actor.”[15]


Hapless Egyptians


If by 2012 iconizing Egypt was passé, the July 3, 2013, military coup against the Muslim Brother president Mohammad Mursi and his government extinguished global frameworks altogether. From avatars of revolution and democracy, Egyptians were now examples of how not to make either revolution or democracy. A Time magazine cover story ran under the headline: “World’s Best Protesters, World’s Worst Democrats: The Street Rules.”[16]

If by 2012 iconizing Egypt was passé, the July 3, 2013, military coup against the Muslim Brother president Mohammad Mursi and his government extinguished global frameworks altogether. From avatars of revolution and democracy, Egyptians were now examples of how not to make either revolution or democracy.
The defeat of the democratic revolution was particularized as a failure, a product of Egyptian absences and dysfunctions. Enumerating seven “preconditions” for democracy that Egypt lacked, political scientist Robert Springborg argued, “Comparative experience indicates that the Egyptian population was just too young, too rural, too poor, too lacking a middle class, too materially insecure, too dependent upon government and too poorly educated and trained to perform the political organizational tasks required to construct a democracy.”[17] Law professor Noah Feldman resuscitated a unitary, Rousseauian notion of the “people’s will,” insisting that the June 30 mass demonstrations against Mursi intentionally invited military dictatorship. Thus, “Sisi’s autocracy is different from almost any other autocracy in the world, including Mubarak’s.” It violates human rights, to be sure, “but it stands, for the time being at least, as a legitimate expression of Egyptian popular will. The people wanted the army back. Now they have it.”[18]

Such judgments would have startled the thousands of Mursi supporters camped out in Rabaa and al-Nahda Squares for 47 days in summer 2013, explicitly to demonstrate that the anti-Mursi demonstrations had no monopoly on embodying “the popular will,” and that fairly cast votes ought to be respected, even in a beleaguered infant democracy bereft of the right preconditions. It was to eradicate these understandings and abort post-coup foreign mediation efforts that the military used bulldozers, helicopters, armored personnel carriers and snipers to demolish the encampments on August 14, killing over 1,000 people in 12 hours. The basic fact of Egypt’s revolution was that “the people’s will” was claimed by all contenders, including the military. It cannot be taken as a transparent analytical concept removed from political contention.

A poster of Egypt’s ousted president Mohammad Mursi in the pro-Mursi protest camp in Rabaa Square, Cairo, that was violently demolished by the military. August 15, 2013. Nameer Galal/NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images

The notion that Egyptians en bloc scuttled their opportunity for democracy finds ample articulation in the narratives of US policymakers who worked on Egypt. In their telling, every Egyptian they encounter is either inept, venal or in the grip of anti-American conspiracy theories. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not conceal her frustration at youth activists’ unabashed inexperience and lack of interest in electoral politics. “I came away worried that they would end up handing the country to the Muslim Brotherhood or the military by default, which in the end is exactly what happened.”[19] Former Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns, on returning to Egypt one year after Mubarak’s fall, finds it “a pretty confused place,” with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) “uncertain,” the youth activists “a frustrated and politically disconnected bunch” and the untrustworthy Muslim Brothers reversing their promise not to contest the presidency, “supported in no small part by Qatar, and to a lesser degree Turkey.”[20]

No one comes in for more censure than deposed-president Mursi. “If he had been a more competent and sophisticated leader, he might have been able to handle them [the military] more effectively,” declared Anne Patterson, the US ambassador from 2011–2013, on the occasion of Mursi’s 2019 death during one of his many trial sessions.[21] Echoing this judgment with the same lack of specifics, Burns writes that “Morsi…got nowhere on the economy, and was a disaster at inclusive governance. He and the [Muslim Brotherhood] had no experience running public-sector institutions, and little interest in sharing the burden with other politicians or technocrats.”[22] In this morality tale, we are encouraged to see the coup as a natural result of poor leadership, not a preemptive strike by a politicized military to avert future civilian control. Underlying this worldview, popular among not only American diplomats, is that military rule is the natural state of affairs and the enduring hard reality for Egypt. The revolution, concludes Burns, “failed to redefine the military’s grip on the country, and as a result, it was inevitable that the generals would reassert their authority as soon as their interests were threatened.”

As in colonial narratives of yore, US diplomats present themselves as fair-minded, neutral brokers constantly stymied by the incomprehensible, unfortunate intrigues of the natives (and some members of Congress). The decades-long US material and symbolic investments in Arab autocracy are mentioned, but as external to and separate from the failures of Arabs to change how they are governed. This faulty reasoning makes for tautologies, non sequiturs and contradictions on nearly every page, a feat of evasiveness and mythmaking passing itself off as hard-won wisdom. “Despite our efforts to play a neutral and constructive role, many Egyptians viewed America with distrust,” sighs Clinton. In the same breath, Burns acknowledges the negative impact of the Obama administration’s refusal to call July 3 a coup yet asserts “there was little we could have done to alter the military’s calculus.”[23]


A Normal Dictatorship


With the coup and its aftermath, the Egypt story lost its international cachet, becoming another local entry in the world’s expanding roster of dictatorships. By 2016, a new zeitgeist was in the making. The Arab uprisings were now narrated as a catastrophe, with proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, the rise of ISIS astride Iraq and Syria and the mass deaths and population displacements of the Syrian civil war precipitating refugee movements across central Europe and the Mediterranean. The election of Roderigo Duterte and Donald Trump; the United Kingdom’s vote to withdraw from the European Union (Brexit); and the subsequent rise of right-wing strongmen and xenophobic parties in Brazil, Hungary, the Netherlands, India and Poland led to a new spate of anxious commentary about global right-wing populism and the crisis of democracy. But Egypt had at best a cameo role in this discourse, a vassal state run by a reliable strongman.

Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi earned his normalization by purchasing French jets and German submarines, blocking migrants from overrunning Europe’s southern shores and quashing domestic dissent against his Gulf-Israeli-US overlords. “Where’s my favorite dictator?” Donald Trump called out at a G7 summit as he waited for Sisi’s arrival. Despite Egyptian security forces’ kidnapping and murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in 2016, an act for which no one was held accountable, in June 2020 the Italian government approved the largest-ever arms transfer between the two countries. In the same year, Germany and France added symbolic validation to their embrace of the Sisi regime. Germany, “for no discernible reason,” awarded the Egyptian ambassador its highest award, the Federal Cross of Merit, and France bestowed on Sisi its highest award, the Legion d’honneur.[24]


Demythologizing Revolution


The oscillating global reception of Egypt since 2011 is about more than Egypt or the other Arab uprisings. It has its roots in the phenomenon of revolution. Ever since the French Revolution of 1789, the mass mobilization of peoples has inspired stylized accounts in the prophetic mode by both champions and adversaries. From Thomas Carlyle’s epic dramaturgy on the right, to Vladimir Lenin’s quip of revolutions as “festivals of the oppressed” on the left, the magnitude of revolutions invites grand philosophizing and vivid metaphor-making. Historians are consigned the task of narrating mere “events,” while philosophers and dramatists see themselves as decoding the “meaning of events.” The British historian Eric Hobsbawm memorably challenged this specious division of intellectual labor. In a lacerating review of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (1963), he critiqued the philosopher’s flight from concrete analysis into soaring declamations. Arendt’s insights “occasionally illuminate the horizon,” Hobsbawm wrote, “but leave the scene in darkness between their flashes.”[25]

In the rush to graft meanings on to the Arab uprisings, to proclaim their failure, rue their tragic results or assert their open-endedness, there are momentary flashes of insight. But to illuminate the terrain, careful observers must demythologize revolution, removing it from the overheated rhetorical plane of transcendence and tragedy and back into the world of political contestation. This stance runs up against the popular, commonsense equation of revolution with the extraordinary and the sublime, the “heroic exit from the political routine of intimidation and subjection.”[26] Ten years on, the discussion of the Arab uprisings offers an opportunity to de-link the concept of revolution from its mythological haze and see it anew, bringing out its lost connections to another form of political inversion: democratization.[27]

Narratives that construct the uprisings as awesome spectacles, prefigurative communities or Greek tragedies conceal a hard core of contempt for the thrust and parry of coalition-building, factionalism, confrontation and cooperation that constitute democratic revolutions.
Narratives that construct the uprisings as awesome spectacles, prefigurative communities or Greek tragedies conceal a hard core of contempt for the thrust and parry of coalition-building, factionalism, confrontation and cooperation that constitute democratic revolutions. Alternative narratives are possible. In a reflection on the urgency of such narratives, technologist and democracy activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah begins, “Perhaps it’s better to start with the not-so-recent history, in an attempt to understand how we arrived at the moment of revolution in the first place, before agreeing on an understanding of how we lost it.”[28] Imprisoned from 2014–2019 for participating in a protest that lasted minutes, then placed on probation for five years, then imprisoned again in “preventive detention” as of this writing, Abd El-Fattah embarked on a journey of introspective writing about his own and his country’s transformations over the past decade.

Attuned to the smoldering mutual hatreds of Egypt’s political factions, Abd El-Fattah confronts head-on the problem of constructing alternative narratives that will not “reinvigorate the animosity,” but at the same time will counter the state’s phony story of “unanimity devoid of any dissenting opinion.” His is a frame of mind unseduced by sectarian mythmaking or self-indulgent despair, a sensibility that “seeks to take in the excluded voices, to document the missed opportunities and the aborted ventures. The alternative narrative is not ashamed of defeats, for it is not the story of the strong and the victorious.”[29] The alternative narrative looks unflinchingly at Egypt’s realities and keeps in view its inscrutable possibilities.


[Mona El-Ghobashy is a clinical assistant professor in Liberal Studies at New York University.]





[1] Slavoj Žižek, “For Egypt, This is the Miracle of Tahrir Square,” The Guardian, February 10, 2011.

[2] Anne Barnard, “Occupy Wall Street Meets Tahrir Square,” The New York Times, October 25, 2011.

[3] Mona Abaza, “Revolutionary Moments in Tahrir Square,” Global Dialogue 1/4 (April 2011) p. 5.

[4] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Assembly (Oxford University Press, 2017) pp. 274–75.

[5] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018) p. 90.

[6] Neil Ketchley, “The army and the people are one hand!” Fraternization and the 25th January Egyptian Revolution,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 56/1 (2014). Ahmad Shokr, “The 18 Days of Tahrir,” Middle East Report 258 (Spring 2011). Atef Said, “The Rise and Fall of the Tahrir Repertoire: Theorizing Temporality, Trajectory, and Failure,” Social Problems (2020).

[7] Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain, Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[8] Lucan Way, “Comparing the Arab Revolts: The Lessons of 1989,” Journal of Democracy 22/4 (October 2011), p. 14.

[9] Perry Anderson, “On the Concatenation in the Arab World,” New Left Review 68 (March/April 2011).

[10] Marc Plattner, “Comparing the Arab Revolts: The Global Context,” Journal of Democracy 22/4 (October 2011) p. 7.

[11] Alfred Stepan and Juan Linz, “Democratization Theory and the “Arab Spring,” Journal of Democracy 24/2 (April 2013), p. 24.

[12] Slavoj Žižek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (London: Verso, 2012), p. 74.

[13] Sameh Naguib, “The Islamists and the Egyptian Revolution,” Socialist Review 359 (June 2011).

[14] Roger Owen, “Egypt and Tunisia” in Fawaz Gerges, ed., The New Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2013) p. 260.

[15] Ellis Goldberg, “Arab Transitions and the Old Elite,” Monkey Cage Blog, December 9, 2014.

[16] Time, July 22, 2013.

[17] Robert Springborg, Egypt (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2017) p. 19.

[18] Noah Feldman, The Arab Winter: A Tragedy (Princeton University Press, 2020) p. 74.

[19] Hillary Rodham Clinton, Hard Choices: A Memoir (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014) p. 290.

[20] William J. Burns, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal (New York: Random House, 2019) p. 307.

[21] Quoted in Jonathan Guyer, “Mohamed Morsi: A Postscript,” The American Prospect, June 20, 2019.

[22] Burns, The Back Channel, 307.

[23] Clinton, Hard Choices, 291; Burns, The Back Channel, 313.

[24] Joe Stork, “Can Prosecuting Regeni’s Alleged Killers Weaken European Support for Egyptian Repression?” The New Arab, December 19, 2020.

[25] E. J. Hobsbawm, “Reviewed Work: On Revolution by Hanna Arendt,” History and Theory 4/2 (1965) p. 253.

[26] Armando Salvatore, “The Elusive Subject of Revolution,” The Immanent Frame, February 16, 2011.

[27] Frédéric Volpi, Revolution and Authoritarianism in North Africa (Oxford University Press, 2017); Mona El-Ghobashy, Bread and Freedom: Egypt’s Revolutionary Situation (Stanford University Press, 2021).

[28] Alaa Abd El-Fattah, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated: Selected Works 2011-2021 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021), p. 425.

[29] Abd El-Fattah, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, 426.


How to cite this article:

Mona El-Ghobashy "Egypt From Icon to Tragedy," Middle East Report 301 (Winter 2021).

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