Egypt's Broken Revolution

Egypt has had quite a tumultuous year. The Arab Spring protests of 2010 ignited the ire of the Egyptian populace, with first hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands gathering to protest the regime of then-President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. The movements were hailed in the West as progressive and democratic, with much of the revolution Tweeted, rather than televised, through several media blackouts. The recent “Occupy Wall Street” protests even claim to draw upon the sit-ins at Tarir Square in Cairo for inspiration. Youtube and Facebook were buzzing with stories and imagery of the horror inflicted on individuals by Mubarak’s security forces, sometimes at the cost of the posters’ freedom.[1] Following eighteen days of protest, Hosni Mubarak stepped down after nearly thirty years of autocratic rule. A new provisional government, led by the military, took power and, despite immediately pruning unpopular laws, continued to denounce the protests as illegal. However, in March, new constitutional amendments were passed via a country-wide referendum.[2] The West declared a victory for freedom and democracy, and Twitter turned its attentions elsewhere.

Despite this progress, one could be forgiven for mistaking recent news headlines for reruns. “Egyptian Forces Roust Tahrir Square Sit-In,”[3] “Frustrations with Egypt’s Military Rulers Grow,”[4] “Democracy Leaves Egypt’s Protest Square,”[5] “Panetta Urges Egypt to Lift State of Emergency,” and so on. Despite parliamentary elections coming in November, the emergency law mentioned in the latter article gives the military and government forces broad powers to arrest and detain civilians–exactly the sort of behavior that Egyptians had fought against when Mubarak was in power.[6] Egypt is under new management, but the new management is acting suspiciously similar to the old. Instead of democratic rule and justice for all, people are still imprisoned, protests are still quashed, and few feel that justice has been done. Everything seemed to be going well; what went wrong?

Revolution can be compared to building a new home where an old, decrepit one once stood. First, the old house–both literally and figuratively–must be pulled down. Egypt accomplished this admirably quickly, with Mubarak stepping down only eighteen days after the protests began in earnest, despite large-scale internet blackouts. Next, one must clear the rubble from the demolition. This is the first step where progress slowed. Instead of fully wiping the governmental slate clean, the revolution lost momentum, and it was a simple thing for the military to quickly maintain control. As Shadi Hamid said in March, “the euphoria of the Egyptian revolution might be premature…[military takeover] is not the same as democracy.”[7] The military was a major player in Mubarak’s autocracy over the years, and while his resignation was a step forward, all it did in formal terms is to turn the autocracy into an oligarchy, with the Egyptian military command at the top.

To finish the construction metaphor, since the rubble was never cleared away, a new house could never truly be built. A new exterior–like the upcoming parliamentary elections–certainly looks nice, but it doesn’t fix the problem of a crumbling foundation and cracked support beams. The French revolution failed in a similar fashion; in political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, she makes the claim that “the French Revolution failed namely in the task of foundation,”[8] and as history tells us, it led to one of the most violent revolutions in history.

The continued presence of protests clearly means that the spirit of revolution has not died in Egypt. However, it has certainly been derailed. A major component of the original protests was the anger that many felt at unemployment and poor economic conditions. Consequently, labor groups were supporters of the revolution. Despite this support, as The Atlantic‘s Thanassis Cambanis notes in his article, there is a large chance that labor unions will “repeat modern Egyptian history, breaking ranks with political dissenters to negotiate a separate deal with the regime.”[9] The government has recently caved to public sector employees and raised wages, and private firms, such as the firm that runs the port of Ain Sokhna, a major Suez Canal port, have made deals with labor. These concessions, however, amount to little more than bread-and-circus appeasement of a sector of the angry masses in the grand political scheme. If China’s regime has taught the West anything, it is that money is an excellent gag. If the Egyptian people truly wish to have political change, they must divorce their monetary and political motives from one another. To do otherwise would be to condemn the country to a cycle of eternal deprivation of liberty with few real advances made in the quality of society.


[1]http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/10/2011101104439444685.html

[2] http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/egypt/index.html?inline=nyt-geo

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/02/world/middleeast/02egypt.html?ref=egypt

[4] http://www.cnn.com/2011/09/29/world/meast/egypt-frustrations/index.html

[5] http://www.cnn.com/2011/09/28/world/africa/egypt-campaign-elbaradei/index.html?iref=allsearch

[6] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204612504576610462200535354.html

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/02/10/what-will-the-egyptian-military-do/the-us-should-use-its-leverage

[8] Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. 1990. pp 134 < http://books.google.com/books?id=C8GoV3xOVbIC>.

[9] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/09/egypts-revolution-could-hinge-on-labor-groups/245674/#.ToHEdeUyOLo.reddit

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