Ten Years Later: Reflections on Egypt’s 2011 Uprising

Ten years have passed since the January 25, 2011 uprising that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Although the revolution failed to establish a free, fair, and democratic state for all Egyptians, many of those who participated in the protests still have pride in what they consider to be a historic achievement. Over the course of the past few weeks, the hashtag #Jan25 has been circulating across social media accounts of Egyptian youth and political activists who participated in the revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime in 18 days. But on the 10th anniversary of the revolution, many questions remain unanswered. Among the most prominent are: who is responsible for the failure of the revolution? Was this failure inevitable? These questions require a thorough reflection on the outcomes of the Egyptian revolution that once deeply inspired many across the globe.

Different Interpretations of a Failed Revolution

The answers to these questions vary depending on who offers them. Egyptian secularists will say that the revolution failed because of the Islamists’ greed and their desire to seize power and exclude their secularist and liberal opponents. Islamists will opine that the revolution failed because of the secularists’ shortsightedness, hatred for and desire to exclude Islamists, and alliance with the military to incite the coup. For their part, the revolutionary youth will state that the revolution failed because it did not consolidate its principles, priorities, and demands in a timely fashion and was unsuccessful in protecting the latter. Yet, in reality, the full answer is much more complicated. It is true that there is immense distrust and possible hatred between Islamists and secularists in Egypt, but this did not prevent them from forming a tactical political alliance during Mubarak’s rule. In fact, this alliance was one of the main drivers of his ouster in 2011. To be sure, such fragmented answers reflect the scale of the polarization and political divisions within Egyptian society which, collectively, constitute one of the primary reasons for the revolution’s failure.

There is another vital question that must be asked: could the events of January 25, 2011 really be considered a revolution in the first place? Rather than an abstract or theoretical question, it is one that relates more to the present and the future than to the past, and it holds both political implications and pragmatic relevance. In the popular imagination, the events following January 25, 2011 marked a revolutionary period in history, as millions of Egyptians from nearly all parts of the country turned to the streets to demand Mubarak’s departure. It was only 18 days after demonstrators occupied the country’s major squares that their demand became a reality.

When Mubarak resigned on February 11, the revolutionaries did not take power. Rather, power was handed over to their greatest adversary, the Egyptian army, resulting in what can be viewed as half a revolution and half a coup.

However, when Mubarak resigned on February 11, the revolutionaries did not take power. Rather, power was handed over to their greatest adversary, the Egyptian army, resulting in what can be viewed as half a revolution and half a coup. Stepping back and not pushing for sharing power after toppling the Mubarak regime was perhaps the protesters’ gravest mistake, one that led to others that ultimately wiped out the revolution and ushered in a new chapter of military rule.

In order to pacify demonstrators and quell their anger, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took over the political process after Mubarak’s departure. The military’s grip on the political landscape blocked the path for the realization of any genuine revolutionary demands, the most important of which were freedom, dignity, and social justice. The military instituted certain political reforms such as amending the constitution, facilitating the establishment of political parties, and dissolving Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP). It also manipulated Egypt’s political factions—Islamists, secularists, liberals, and leftists—in order to thwart the democratic process and make way for the coup against the elected government in 2013. Such a measure was already expected, as it would not make logical sense for the military to implement revolutionary measures that could result in reducing its own power and privileges, especially in a country that had a six-decade-long tradition of military rule. Thus, the eventual outcome of Mubarak’s overthrow hewed very far from its intended consequences and contrasted greatly with the January uprising’s revolutionary spirit, representing a large gap between expectations and reality.

A Full-Fledged Counterrevolution

One of the political ironies that burdens Egypt today is that although it did not witness a complete revolution, it has been grappling with a full-fledged counterrevolution over the last few years. Noted sociologist Asef Bayat points out that “If revolutions are about intense struggle for a profound change, then any revolution should expect a counterrevolution of subtle or blatant forms.” Thus, Egypt’s fundamental problem is that its revolution was not “revolutionary” enough to ward off the counterrevolution that no doubt started with the January uprising. In this regard, it is important not to forget the Battle of the Camel that the supporters of the late President Mubarak waged against the demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo, where dozens of innocent people were killed. At the same time, it became clear that deep state institutions such as the army, Ministry of Interior, and Supreme Constitutional Court—in addition to Mubarak’s business class and the NDP’s network of supporters—would not allow the revolution to threaten their interests and their future. Therefore, they placed many obstacles before the revolutionary and political forces in order to block the transition from authoritarianism.

Egypt’s fundamental problem is that its revolution was not “revolutionary” enough to ward off the counterrevolution that no doubt started with the January uprising.

Even as parliamentary and presidential elections were held during the transitional period, there was no genuine power transfer to the revolutionary forces; indeed, the deep state remained the ultimate authority with monopoly over all power centers. The late President Mohamed Morsi (2012-2013), the first and only democratically elected president in Egypt, was fully manipulated by the deep state and had no real power. At the same time, the military had adeptly exploited the serious political and ideological differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and liberal, secular forces in order to defuse the revolution. The deep state also dominated citizens’ day-to-day lives and increased economic and social grievances by fabricating fuel, bread, and electricity crises in an attempt to incite mobilization against the Morsi government, eventually succeeding in toppling it.

Meanwhile, regional players such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia intervened in the Egyptian crisis and sought to preemptively abort the revolution, as they feared its contagion could threaten their own thrones. They supported and financed some youth movements such as Tamarrod to mobilize people against the Morsi government and raise political tensions in the country, thus paving the way for the military takeover on July 3, 2013. From then on, Saudi Arabia and the UAE pumped billions of dollars into Egypt to bolster the rule of General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and prevent another uprising that could lead to the establishment of a democratic polity, one that could threaten their influence and stability.

Political Blunders

The role that political and revolutionary forces played in bringing about the revolution’s failure cannot be overlooked. Indeed, had it not been for their recklessness and ineptitude in establishing a clear road map for democratic transition, the deep state and external players would not have succeeded in intervening and thwarting the revolution. The revolutionary forces did not transition from a social movement to organize themselves into political parties competing for power in the post-revolutionary period. Their political behavior fell victim to a degree of romanticism and idealism that made them unable to keep pace with more organized groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the Mubarak regime. The revolutionaries also believed that the street, and not the political process, was the solution; they emphasized that the revolutionary state must remain in place to ensure that the demands of the revolution were fulfilled, despite the population’s economic and social struggles. Likewise, the revolutionary forces lacked a unified, coherent leadership able to negotiate either with the deep state, especially the army, or with the well-coordinated Muslim Brotherhood, to enforce their demands. Rather, they experienced many internal divisions that led to their disintegration and weakened their political weight in the post-revolutionary period.

The revolutionary forces lacked a unified, coherent leadership able to negotiate either with the deep state, especially the army, or with the well-coordinated Muslim Brotherhood, to enforce their demands.

Likewise, political forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal and leftist parties did not set aside their political and ideological differences during the transitional period and agree on a political agenda that would lead the transition from authoritarianism to a pluralistic democracy, one that would be respectful of all. Instead, they were too consumed by identity politics and matters related to the relationship between the state and religion. While the Brotherhood chose to side with ultra-conservative forces such as the Salafis, the liberals and secularists took the military’s side. As a result, they both paid dearly. Regardless of who bears responsibility for the failure of the January revolution, the consequence they all share is the return of authoritarianism under the rule of the military.

A New Authoritarianism

The events in Egypt illustrate that, in the end, a half revolution is doomed. The Egyptian experience of the past decade reveals that the revolution’s failure has led to the emergence of a new, unprecedented authoritarianism in the country. It is one that creates and utilizes new tools of repression and control in order to prevent any future uprising. Over the past seven years, Sisi has built a brutal and repressive dictatorial regime not only to silence and suppress his opponents but also to terrorize the population and deter them from even thinking about revolution again. His rule began with the worst massacre in the history of contemporary Egypt, at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, in which nearly 800 people were killed in cold blood and in broad daylight. The aim of the massacre was not only to get rid of the peaceful protesters backing Mohamed Morsi against the July 3rd coup, but also to terrify and prevent all other political opponents from challenging the military. Since assuming power in 2014, the Sisi regime has committed horrific human rights violations with the arrest of thousands of political activists and opponents, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, medical neglect in prisons, as well as mass death sentences issued by a partisan judiciary. Sisi also tightened his grip on the media until dissent became nearly nonexistent in the Egyptian press, which now labels all opponents as “terrorists” seeking to destroy the state.

It is thus not surprising that celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the January 25 uprising were absent this year. Egyptian security forces even arrested cartoonist Ashraf Hamdi merely for publishing a video about the military’s crackdown on dissidents. It is as though the Sisi regime wants to remind Egyptians that the main grievance that prompted the January revolution—the brutality of the Mubarak regime’s security measures—still exists today, thus reinforcing the failure of the January 2011 uprising.

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. To learn more about Khalil al-Anani click here

Photo credit: Flickr/Hossam el-Hamalawy