Four years ago, a populist spectacle in Egypt riveted the world to its TV screens. A country long written off as moribund and on a sort of cruise control under the dictatorship of Hosni Mobarak spontaneously erupted in a massive outburst of rioting, demonstrations and marches, culminating in a protest encampment in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. After several weeks of drama, which included gang rape, tear gas, tepid speeches from Mobarak, a visibly uncomfortable Barack Obama and a desperate release of violent thugs from prison, Mobarak was overthrown. The crowds in Cairo, along with most onlookers, reacted with ecstasy. At long last, a hated dictator was cast off, and a long-suppressed people could breathe free again.
Egypt today is a very different place. What happened? How did one of the most inspiring sagas of the last decade degenerate back to cynical dictatorship and repression? What became of the “Arab Spring?”
Egypt has a long, long, long history, longer than any other country* in the world, in fact, stretching back at least 5,000 years. It’s a fascinating story, but it’s not really relevant to this blog post, so let’s skip to the important part — the last 100 years. Egypt was a colony of Britain. Britain ruled it through consuls, with khedives/sultans/kings as puppet monarchs. (Don’t worry about the distinctions; they were all basically authoritarian monarchs.) Egyptians quickly grew tired of British rule, which was oppressive and military-dominated, so they revolted in 1919. Britain responded by “declaring Egyptian independence” in 1922, which meant scaling back its presence in Egyptian politics without removing it entirely, so it became the power behind the throne.
Egypt gained a constitution and a parliament dominated by the Wafd party, a liberal, secular, European-oriented group who had been prominent in the revolution and had earned widespread popular support. Unfortunately, Egyptian politics in this period amounted to cantankerous 3-way bickering between the Wafd, the king, and the British overlords. The Egyptian people’s social and economic problems went unaddressed, and the Wafd’s elitist, foreign-influenced ways alienated the commoners. Instead, a new group trended in the ’30s: the Muslim Brotherhood. A sort of political party-labor union-social organization-religious revival mashup, it emphasized Islam as the solution to Egypt’s problems, while also conducting social welfare provision the government was neglecting, starting weavers’ and construction guilds, railing against the Britishers, promoting a mix of secular and Islamic education, and setting up a support network for conservative, religiously minded Egyptians that the Wafd and the mosques weren’t.
The uninspiring mix of ineffectual democracy, oriental despotism, and colonial overlordship didn’t last long after World War II. In the ’50s, a coup — usually considered Egypt’s second revolution — overthrew the king and wiped away Parliament. One of the junta’s members, Gamal Abden Nasser, turned out to be amazingly charismatic, handsome, and inspiring, and his policies — strident Arab nationalism, socialism, lavish public works projects, sponsorship of Egyptian culture, secularism, and an aggressive foreign policy — won him more public approval than any other Arab leader in the 1900s.
Nasser also built a monolithic state apparatus with a powerful role for the army and significant parts for the police, security forces, and government bureaucracy. The courts were under his thumb; opposition parties were outlawed; the British were thrown out. He and his successors, Anwar es-Sadat and Hosni Mobarak, created a “deep state,” a network of uniformed officers, compliant judges and civil service officials who maintained the stability of Egyptian society and kept the violent upheaval that sometimes tears up Arab societies at bay. They also reworked the economy to orient it around the state and oriented the state around themselves and their patronage networks. As they were all military officers, the armed forces remained the power behind the throne and controlled up to 40% of Egypt’s economy.
Sadat’s main contribution was to shift Egypt’s foreign policy allegiance away from the Soviet Union and towards the US. Mobarak mainly continued his course, achieving peace and stability at the cost of economic stagnation and social malaise.
While many foreigners appreciated Egypt’s security and relatively moderate culture, discontent started to fester. Egypt has a huge population (about 88 million as of now) and half of it is under 25. With the pool of economic opportunity and gainful employment shrinking and the chances for advancement in a strictly regulated society slim, Egyptians were losing their patience. Too many live in cramped, grubby apartments in overcrowded Cairo or in rustic farms along the Nile. When combined with the possibilities available to the young and enterprising in other countries advertised online and the police’s penchant for brute force and torture, it was an explosive formula.
This discontent erupted in Egypt’s third revolution in 2011. Although the protests drew participants from all walks of life in Egypt, revealing just how narrow Mobarak’s base of support was, their driving force was the youth, mobilized by Twitter and Facebook and eager for more jobs, more freedom, and more opportunity. Amazingly (and unprecedentedly), the protests were spontaneous: although January 25 had been set as the day of reckoning, the marchers lacked a clear leader, organization or even goals beyond getting rid of Mobarak. Wael Ghonim, a Google executive, emerged as the movement’s main spokesman and Mahammad el-Baradai, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (a UN arm that hassles countries trying to build nukes), tried to dignify the movement with an internationally prestigious face, but the protesters were still much too disorganized and argumentative to make any real progress.
Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood, driven underground by the dictators’ oppression but never really extinguished, gained the most. It had a battered and faded but still active network and support from around 15% of the country. A sizeable minority in Egypt want a more Islamic country instead of the glumly secular dictators they’ve gotten, and while there are some more zealous and religious Muslim organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood had the most support and name recognition. Any young, secular, entrepreneurial parties had 1 year to get their acts together to face off with the Brotherhood in elections. They failed, and Mahammad Morsi, the Brotherhood’s candidate, was elected president.
Finally in power after decades of haranguing from the sidelines, the Muslim Brotherhood messed up big time. Morsi kept his distance from the military, absolving it of any responsibility for the repression it had unleashed up to that point. He rammed through a constitution that seemed to recast Egypt as an Islamic state, much to the chagrin of other parties in Parliament. These parties were routinely ignored in general, leading to fears that the Brotherhood intended to erect a new, more religious tyranny a la Iran. Worst of all, the economy tanked. Government debt and unemployment zoomed up, foreign reserves dwindled. Fuel became scarce, and even basic provisions like power and water were cut. Violence went from sporadic to endemic, as riots, protests and crime killed hundreds and tourists stayed away.
After 1 measly year in power, Morsi’s goodwill was up. Another massive protest in 2013 demanded his resignation. And then the other major force in Egyptian politics stepped in — the army. The army had never really gone away after the revolution. It was the one that had overthrown Mobarak, and it ruled the country until the election in 2012. It continued to arrest and torture protesters and did little to contain the violence during the Morsi era. Despite Morsi’s overtures, it never really trusted him or the rest of the Brotherhood. Convinced that Morsi was ruining the country, it launched another coup and brought back the dictatorship.
The crowds in the streets cheered this news at first, seeing the army as a guarantor of stability and rectitude in tumultuous times. But it became clear within weeks that Abdel Fatah es-Sisi, the new dictator, was bringing the old order back. The Muslim Brotherhood was arrested, suppressed, and when it fought back in street battles, slaughtered. Elections last year were swept (97%) by Sisi. The media was quickly brought back into line with Sisi’s stances, and the revolutionary populist culture that had sprouted over the last few years was swept away.
Stability and efficiency have been restored in Egypt, but the repressive dictatorship of Mobarak has been revived. Yet this time, the military is even more cynical and strict. Fully aware of the consequences of permitting dissent and open discussion online, Sisi has outlawed protests, political parties and insulting public officials and started to police social media. Foreigners, who largely cheered the democracy movement, have come under increased scrutiny and harassment. Al-Jazeera, a major Arabic news network with democratic sympathies, had 4 of its journalists arrested, supposedly for carrying spent ammo.
The army and Muslim Brotherhood were the only viable institutions beside the state security apparatus and bureaucracy. It seemed inevitable that the Brotherhood would win elections, but it wasn’t inevitable that it should sideline the opposition and rule so high-handedly. Its behavior led to its own overthrow, and the military intervention led to the reimposition of dictatorial government. If the Brotherhood had tried to accommodate other groups more and adopted some of its ideas, it could have probably stayed in power and maybe even keep the army at bay. Instead Morsi behaved as if he would reorient Egyptian society in an Islamic direction and disregarded his opponents.
Cultivating democracy takes time. It isn’t just a matter of holding elections and writing constitutions; a proper democratic culture is essential. Unfortunately, some countries lack that culture. Egypt, as this blog post has hopefully shown, has gone from autocrat to autocrat, with any group that could possibly rival the autocracy smashed. (Mosques were given freer rein, but not enough to pose a serious threat.) Arab culture, or perhaps Muslim culture, is also hostile to compromise and emphasizes the superiority of One Truth. Finally, the tensions in Egyptian society — upper vs. lower class, secularists vs. the religious, Christians vs. Muslims — are tense enough that violence is never far from the surface. It’s impressive enough that Egypt managed to avoid civil war.
For these reasons, it seems unlikely that for the time being a viable democratic movement will re-emerge in Egypt. As long as the army and deep state remain so firmly anchored, true reform will be tough. But the Arab Spring and its dynamism are fresh memories, and as long as the underlying tensions and discontent are left to fester, they will make a comeback someday.
Actually, you could also make a case for Iraq being the oldest.