Today marks an important date in the Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath. Nicola Pratt, Reader of International Politics of the Middle East and the current recipient of a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship, looks at progress so far.
25 January is the third anniversary of the beginning of the revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. For many of the activists who participated in the 18 days of mass protests that forced out a dictator, this year’s anniversary marks the failure to achieve the revolution’s goals of bread, freedom and social justice. Since 3 July 2013, when Egypt’s first elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was deposed by the army, following huge demonstrations against his inept rule, activists have been concerned about the return of military dictatorship and the police state in the name of fighting a ‘war on terrorism’ against the Muslim Brotherhood. A report by a group of human rights organisations, released on 4 January, states that the number of people killed in political violence since July 3 exceeds those killed in the 2011 revolution. Most of these are supporters of the deposed president, who have continued protesting against the July 3 coup despite official repression and their designation as a ‘terrorist group’.
The legitimacy of the post-June 30 political road map created by the military relies upon the demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood and popular fears of their return to power. Many Egyptians have simply accepted repression of the Brotherhood, including the massacres at the Rabaa Adawiya and al-Nahda square sit-ins in August, not just because of the Brotherhood’s awful performance in power but also because officials accuse them of acts of violence around the country. More than 300 security personnel have been killed, and there have been security and civilian deaths in a bomb attack in the provincial city of Mansoura in December and in Cairo on 24 January. The Muslim Brotherhood has not claimed responsibility for these attacks nor is there evidence to support the allegations. Yet, the hatred of the Brotherhood is so intense that respect for judicial process has disappeared: many consider it an obstacle to implementing the will of the people.
The demonisation of the Brotherhood has involved a populist-nationalist discourse that borders on the xenophobic. The narrative is based on the struggle between good and evil, between Egypt and its enemies; in this version, the Egyptian military saved Egypt from the Brotherhood, which was threatening Egypt’s culture and identity and conspiring with Hamas against Egyptian interests and with the support of the US. The hero is General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, head of the Egyptian armed forces, whose face is seen on posters hanging on many buildings and in shop windows. There is a campaign calling on him to stand for president and rumours that he will announce his candidacy on 25 January.
This discourse not only demonises the Brotherhood but also discredits dissent against the military’s road map. Those calling for reconciliation with the Brotherhood, denouncing human rights violations or opposing the new constitution are vilified in the media. Moreover, since November, when the government outlawed protests without a permit from the Ministry of the Interior, a number of high profile activists associated with the 25 January Revolution, including Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Ahmed Maher and Mahinoor El-Masry, have been arrested and tried for involvement in protests. These youth activists, who were once celebrated as heroes of the 25 January Revolution, are now being called traitors for refusing to support the military against the Brotherhood.
Whilst it is easy to become pessimistic about Egypt’s future, I believe that the recent referendum on the 2013 constitution shows that Egypt’s revolution continues. It is true that the constitution passed with over 98 per cent approval and that it enshrines military power, including allowing military trials of civilians. Yet, the voter turn-out was less than 40%, which, whilst higher than the turn-out for the referendum on the 2012 constitution (drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood), is lower than expected, given the media barrage from early December urging people to vote, for ‘the sake of the 25 January Revolution’, for ‘the sake of the 30 June Revolution’, for ‘the sake of security’ and stability and for ‘the sake of fighting terrorism’.
The low voter turn-out is significant because this referendum was not just about text of a new constitution; it was a referendum on the military’s efforts to construct a new political order. The low turn-out can be partly attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s campaign for a boycott of the referendum, reflecting continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, as with the referendum for the 2012 constitution, it is likely that many stayed away because they are disengaged from the political process, or because they support neither the military nor the Brotherhood. These Egyptians, who constitute over 60 per cent of eligible voters, do not find themselves represented in the post-June 30 political order. Yet, that does not mean that they have abandoned the goals of the 25 January Revolution.
The military and its allies hope that the new constitution will end the unrest and political instability that followed the ouster of Mubarak. There have been strikes by workers for better pay and conditions, protests against despotism and calls for accountability for past regime crimes, as well as almost daily protests by Muslim Brotherhood supporters. As Rabab El-Mahdi has argued, this ongoing unrest is a manifestation of the failure to create new forms of governance that meet the aspirations of a newly empowered citizenry. Since Mubarak stepped down, no group has achieved the legitimacy that would enable them to rule with consensus, rather than coercion. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power on 11 February 2011, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, which won a plurality of seats in parliamentary elections at the end of 2011 and the presidency in June 2012, quickly squandered the goodwill of many Egyptians, as a result of their attempts to repress dissent, and failure to hold the former regime to account or to address the lack of social justice.
Nationalism and xenophobia cannot in the long-term guarantee the legitimacy of the current political order and have clearly failed to win over a majority of the electorate. A legitimate government must be based on a new relationship between the state and citizens – a relationship that is reflected in the text of a constitution AND in the practices of state institutions. There must be accountability for crimes committed by previous regimes, not only by the Brotherhood. Most importantly, there must be a fundamental change in government leadership to enable the socio-economic transformations that Egyptians need and deserve. The current coalition, dependent upon the military and subordinate to its interests, is unlikely to meet these aspirations. At some point—maybe not tomorrow or next month—the legitimacy of the current political order will melt away and the revolution will continue.
You can read more of Nicola Pratt’s research on this topic in Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Arab World. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2007, and ‘Identity, Culture and Democratisation: The Case of Egypt’, New Political Science, 27: 1, March 2005, pp. 69–86.