Walking through the alleys of Ramlat Bulaq, an old working-class neighborhood in northern Cairo close to the banks of the Nile, I encountered an 11-year old girl playing in front of her house with other children her age. She stopped me and said, “Do you know ‘Amr, the man who was killed? He used to get us candies. They said he was a criminal but he was not. He was angry because of ‘Ammar’s death.” I knew she was referring to ‘Amr al-Buni, a local youth shot by police in the course of this district’s long struggle against the encroachment of wealthy developers backed by the Egyptian state.
Over five tumultuous years in Egypt, the independent human rights community moved from a fairly parochial role chipping away at the Mubarak regime’s legitimacy, one torture case at a time, to media stardom in 2011, and from fielding a presidential candidate, who won over 134,000 votes, in 2012 to facing closure and the risk of prosecution two years later.
For 20 years leading up to the uprisings of 2010-2011, Egypt and Tunisia suffered the ill effects of neoliberal economic reform, even as the international financial institutions and most economists hailed them as beacons of progress in the Arab world. For ten years preceding the revolts, workers and civil society organizations led a burgeoning protest movement against the liberalizing and privatizing trajectories of the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes. Then came the uprisings, which brokered the possibility of not only new political beginnings but also alternative economic programs that would put the needs of the struggling middle, working and poorer classes first and at least constrain, if not abolish, the privileges of a deposed ruling class.
The beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts working in Libya, as shown in video footage released by the Islamic State on February 12, 2015, made headlines across the world. The story was variously framed as one more vicious murder of Middle Eastern Christians by militant Islamists, one more index of chaos in post-Qaddafi Libya and one more opportunity for an Arab state, in this case Egypt, to enlist in the latest phase of the war on terror. What was left unaddressed was the deep and long-standing enmeshment of the Libyan and Egyptian economies, embodied in the tens of thousands of Egyptian workers who remain in Libya despite the civil war raging there.
In early February 2011, shortly after the beginning of the January 25 revolution that toppled Husni Mubarak, I made a phone call to a friend in an informal area of Cairo. I wanted to check on her wellbeing, and was interested to hear her perspective on reports that some of the thugs hired by the government to harass protesters in Tahrir Square were coming from her neighborhood. The first thing my friend wanted to talk about, however, was the dramatic rise in the price of tomatoes. “Twelve pounds a kilo! Can you imagine?”
For a moment, four years ago, it seemed that dictators in the Middle East would soon be a thing of the past.
Back then, it looked like the United States would have to make good on its declared support for democracy, as millions of Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Yemenis, and others rose up to reject their repressive leaders. Many of these autocrats enjoyed support from Washington in return for providing “stability.”
Yet even the collapse of multiple governments failed to upend the decades-long U.S. policy of backing friendly dictators. Washington has doubled down on maintaining a steady supply of weapons and funding to governments willing to support U.S. strategic interests, regardless of how they treat their citizens.
Ultras, or organized groups of football fans, represented an influential faction of the Egyptian revolutionary multitude in 2011. The ultras’ long experience of street fights with police at stadiums aided the revolutionaries in achieving many victories over riot cops in the early days of the January 25 uprising and subsequently. And the ultras’ combat prowess was not their only contribution to the uprising. More important was the carnivalesque character of their resistance, which transformed the protest scene into something more colorful, vital, choreographed and performative.
“We live in a country where liberals renege on democracy, Islamists harm Islam and human rights activists champion oppression,” an Islamic television producer cynically remarked three months after Muhammad Mursi was ousted from Egypt’s presidency in July 2013. That summer, the televised images of multitudes of flag-waving protesters were uncanny in their resemblance to those of the 2011 revolution that forced Husni Mubarak from power. The arc of the unfolding political drama, it seemed, was also strikingly similar: The people took to the streets peacefully; the president was unmoved, vowing to complete his term and threatening chaos if removed; the military decided to side with the people; the revolution was saved.
The decision to leave your country, especially when you leave for political or ideological reasons, can be gut-wrenching. My parents made that decision for me when they left Iran in my early adolescence. Unlike some Iranians forced to flee, my parents were not members of a persecuted religious minority. Nor were they high-profile political activists at immediate risk of arrest. But as people who had demonstrated against the Shah’s dictatorship, and had hoped that the 1979 revolution would bring democracy and social justice to Iran, witnessing their country plunge into authoritarianism and turn into a theocracy was more than they could bear. It was like the country they knew and hoped for no longer existed.
Mohamed Elshahed is a young, dynamic architect and researcher who is documenting changes to urban space in Egypt at his highly popular blog Cairobserver. Elshahed completed a doctorate in Middle East studies at New York University and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien. He also holds a MA in architecture studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His dissertation is titled, “Revolutionary Modernism?
On January 25, 2011, like most of the rest of the world I watched the uprisings in Egypt on television. I was struck by the consistent vantage point: a reporter speaking from a balcony or rooftop overlooking the masses in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. There was an occasional interview with a member of the crowd. Sporadic reports appeared from the streets of other cities — Alexandria, Suez or Port Said — where people were demonstrating.
“We should make it up to the peasants,” Muhsin al-Batran, erstwhile head of the economic affairs unit in Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture, told the official daily al-Ahram two months after the toppling of Husni Mubarak in 2011. “Make it up” — why? And what is it that needs to be made up?
This week ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi paid his inaugural visit to the United States as president of Egypt. The occasion was the annual meetings of the UN General Assembly. We asked some veteran Egypt watchers and MERIP authors for their reactions.
“The system of fear is back,” whispers an Egyptian political activist. “It is showing its teeth, saying ‘I’m baaack.’” The protest veteran speaks sotto voce even though he is sitting in his living room. And that, he points out, is the biggest change since the heady days of 2011, after the fall of Husni Mubarak, and even since the more somber times of 2012 and 2013.
In Cairo this summer, there is scant appetite for anniversaries. The passage of one year since the critical events of the 2013 coup d’état scarcely attracts the public’s attention. There are few official ceremonies or rallies to mark the huge demonstrations on June 30 against Muhammad Mursi, the July 3 military takeover or the July 26 marches summoned by ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi to give himself popular cover in his self-styled fight against terrorism.
A campaign opposing coal imports would seem unlikely to attract much attention given the political upheavals and deepening social polarization that Egyptians have witnessed over the past three years. Yet since 2012, a loose coalition of environmental and human rights activists, government officials and voluntary organizations have led a sustained campaign to contest the government’s decision to import coal to supply Egypt’s cement plants. Making use of new and old media, and drawing upon the “Tahrir networks” forged in street protest, the anti-coal coalition challenged government and business assertions that importing coal was the only way to meet Egypt’s energy needs.
On June 3, the day that the Elections Commission announced the victory of ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt’s presidential race, television announcer Radwa Ruhayyim covered the festivities in Tahrir Square. Surrounded by ululating revelers, she noted that, amidst the celebrations, several women had been assaulted.  Live coverage of the June 8 inauguration festivities also included references to assaults that day. Tragically, the story of mass sexual assaults at large political gatherings is nothing new. Between November 2012 and August 2013, over 200 women were assaulted at political events including celebrations of the second anniversary of the January 25 uprising against Husni Mubarak and protests against President Muhammad Mursi in 2012 and 2013.
Over three days in late May, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, the retired field marshal and former head of military intelligence, was elected president of Egypt with 96 percent of the vote. This tally was far higher than the 51.34 percent recorded in 2012 by the man Sisi helped to depose, Muhammad Mursi, and higher than the 88.6 percent racked up by Husni Mubarak in the rigged contest of 2005. Since the only other candidate, Hamdin Sabbahi, scarcely disagreed with Sisi on matters of policy during the campaign, a Sisi victory was a foregone conclusion, even if the margin was not.
In a recent Slate article, Anne Applebaum makes the case that Egypt’s presumptive president-to-be ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi should look to India, Brazil or South Africa, rather than the United States or other industrialized states, for examples of how to “do” democracy. She rightly notes that Sisi’s argument that Egypt isn’t ready for democracy is an old standby for authoritarian regimes.