Egypt’s durable Arab Spring: fear explains revolution’s failure?



Today’s anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution—which led in quick succession to the overthrow of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, the election of the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated candidate Mohamed Morsi, and the ouster of Morsi by the Egyptian military—is haunting sitting President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Wilson Institute analysts Marina Ottaway and David Ottaway write for Foreign Affairs:

Confronted with another social media campaign urging Egyptians to take to the streets on January 25, the president is worried that the kind of popular uprising that brought him to power may also come to unseat him. He is responding to the challenge with all the tools of repression at his disposal, including (paradoxically for a president determined to expunge the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt) mobilizing religious authorities to prevent demonstrations.

From the perspective of the security services, the date — Jan. 25 — is itself a danger, as a reminder of their catastrophic, if momentary, loss of control, The NY Times adds.

“There is kind of a trauma that is highly attached to this date,” said Amr Abdul Rahman, the director of the civil liberties unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. For the police, a particular focus of protester anger in 2011, “this is a black day — a day of defeat, and something they cannot swallow.”

Over 40 civil society organizations used the occasion of the anniversary to call for renewed efforts to ensure the release of Egyptian political prisoners.

NPR’s Robert Siegel talks to Amr Hamzawy, visiting scholar at Stanford University, about the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. He describes a political climate similar to five years ago.

Despite all this, all the difficulties and setbacks and the denials by those who support the regime, Egypt before Jan 25th is not like the one after. This change is not going to be deleted, Hamzawy wrote in today’s Al Shorouk, a leading, independent Egyptian newspaper:

There is a high possibility that the status quo will be long term: The regime will continue to oppress people and prevent them from participating in the public life. The Muslim brotherhood will remain fragmented and suffer from more internal fights. The human rights defenders will keep searching for heroic roles. But then the real hero’s will rise from the people – the ones who were victims. The desire of change will return. It must return. 

After five years of turmoil that has decimated the country’s economy and sparked a violent insurgency in the Sinai peninsula, there is little popular appetite for a repeat of the 2011 uprising, say analysts:

Nonetheless, the authorities went to extraordinary lengths to forestall any popular eruption of anger to mark the events of five years ago, which started out as a protest against police brutality. In recent weeks activists from secular youth groups at the forefront of the 2011 revolt have been arrested, along with the administrators of Islamist Facebook pages opposed to the authorities. Several cultural venues popular with young activists in downtown Cairo were raided by police in what appeared to be a warning ahead of the anniversary. Hundreds of apartments in the city centre were also searched and the papers of their inhabitants checked.

The authorities had several reasons to be wary, said Mostafa Kamel al-Sayed, professor of politics at Cairo University.

“The reasons for popular anger are still there. Maybe last year they thought the high popularity of the president was enough to discourage any desire to protest, but now there are signs his popularity has dipped. On the other hand the parliamentary election has shown that the people remain unconvinced,” he said.

Political observers said the lack of any open defiance on Monday wasn’t unexpected, The Wall Street Journal adds.

“In the eyes of many Egyptians, they have undertaken two uprisings that led to the overthrow of their president and, in the end, neither has produced improvements in their quality of life,” said Timothy Kaldas, a Cairo-based fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “It’s unsurprising that many would lose faith in mass protests as a tool for positive political change.”

The Sisi regime is fracturing, argues Eric Trager, the Esther K. Wagner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

It is difficult to assess the depth or urgency of these intra-regime rifts. The Sisi regime’s inner workings are barely visible to outside observers, and even members of the core power centers find the current situation confusing. “There is definitely a power struggle,” one well-connected businessman told me. “But who are the key actors? You had a system in place [under Mubarak] where the interests were balanced. Then it collapsed during the [2011] revolution, and it’s still up for grabs.”

For the time being, however, those who are close to the regime don’t expect any significant political shake-up, let alone regime change.

“Jan. 25th changed the course in Egypt permanently. These people who are saying that the revolution failed — it is total nonsense. We have an ex-president who is a convicted thief. And another president who has been charged with treason,” said journalist and analyst Hisham Kassem:

Mubarak recently was convicted of spending presidential palace funds on his family’s villas; Morsy awaits execution for various crimes committed during and after the revolution.

“The lessons have been learned,” Kassem said. “If you are the president of Egypt, don’t steal because you will be hunted down. Look at Mubarak. … The second lesson is from Morsy: when the masses go out, beat it, scat.”

He believes support for Sisi remains high — “not as high as it was a year ago, but still, say ‘revolution’ and see how people react.

“The main problem with the country is that the security services run everything,” he said. “It is much worse now because it is the rule of 100 rats. … This is a collapsed autocracy, and the strong man who had all the security services under his control, who didn’t allow them to breathe without him — Mubarak — is gone.”

Observers say that freedoms under the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the architect of Morsi’s ouster, have backslid to levels similar to, if not worse than, what existed under Mubarak. Opposition groups have been sidelined, while tens of thousands of suspected political opponents have been rounded up, The Washington Post reports.

“In today’s Egypt there is no real opposition,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the Middle East Eye website. “None of the groups that are part of the current political process such as those in parliament can be called opposition.”

There’s no shortage of data and analysis—for example, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy just released a thorough and damning report – on the political and economic state of the country, The New Yorker adds:

But then there’s the fifth-anniversary survey that was recently conducted by Baseera, an independent organization also known as the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research. As part of the survey, Baseera asked the question “Do you think that the country is doing better, the same, or worse than it did before the January 2011 revolution?” Of the respondents, only nineteen per cent responded “worse.” Nearly seventy per cent were positive—thirty-nine per cent responded that the country is “better,” while twenty-nine per cent said “much better.” Meanwhile, the New York Times and other publications have reported on a heavy-handed crackdown on journalists and cultural organizations in preparation for Monday’s anniversary.

There was some hope that a new parliament, elected at the end of last year, might act as a check on Mr Sisi’s ruthlessness. But that has already been dashed, The Economist writes:

Most lawmakers have pledged their support for the president. Egypt’s liberals, meanwhile, are riven by infighting and lack broad appeal. Many activists have been locked up, along with thousands of Islamists. Egyptians now have few outlets for their grievances.

Fear explains the failure of Egypt’s revolution, say analysts Ellen Lust, Jakob Mathias Wichmann and Gamal Soltan. For example, Islamists aroused fear among their opponents, but they were also motivated by their own fears, write for The Washington Post:

The instrumental role that liberal youths played in bringing down the Mubarak regime alarmed the Islamists, particularly the ultra-religious Salafis, who feared uncompromising secularism. Two days after Mubarak stepped down, the leading Salafi Sheikh Saeed Abdel Azim called upon his followers “to come to the rescue of article 2 of the constitution against the fierce secularists attempt to undermine Egypt’s Islamic identity.” Moreover, Islamists feared prosecution. The Brotherhood didn’t join the anti-Mubarak revolt until it became too costly to continue sitting on the sidelines. But once they accepted the risk of joining the protest, the Brotherhood was certain that “their necks will be put at stake if their attempt at power fails.”

In letters and interviews from jail, youth activists charted their journey from the hope and exuberance of the 18-day revolt of 2011 to their new battle against despair, Reuters adds.

“I have nothing to say: no hopes, no dreams, no fears, no warnings, no insights, nothing, absolutely nothing,” Alaa Abdel Fattah, who is serving a five-year sentence for taking part in a small protest, wrote in the British Guardian newspaper.

Today is the fifth anniversary of the overthrow of Mubarak, but also the tenth anniversary of the Palestinian legislative elections that were won by Hamas, notes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams.

In both cases high hopes were crushed by events. Egypt today is more repressive than it was under Mubarak, and Palestine is divided between Gaza, ruled by Hamas without a scintilla of democratic practice, and the West Bank, ruled by Fatah just as it was when Yasser Arafat lived, argues Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

So on January 25, 2016, these fifth and tenth anniversaries are a reminder (among many other things) of the importance of building democratic political parties, or put otherwise of the impossibility of achieving democracy when no such parties exist. Efforts to promote democracy in Arab and other lands that count solely on NGOs and “civil society” will not succeed if this crucial ingredient—democratic political parties—are absent.

Security officials “turned renegade” during the “lapse between Mubarak stepping down and Sisi coming to power. … So in lots of cases, they take decisions on their own,” said Kassem, an editor and demoracy advocate.

To rein them in “would be like fighting a swarm of mosquitoes, (and) Sisi can’t do that.”

“I am someone who had no illusions that overnight we would become a Scandinavian democracy,” Kassem said, recalling a moment of wild hope five years ago when most Egyptians believed everything was about to change.

In his opinion, “It will take a long time.”

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