Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt in revolution

Bernard Rougier & Stéphane Lacroix, L’Egypte en révolutions, Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2015, pp322.  Reviewed by David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

The three years from 2011 to 2014 were hugely eventful ones both for Egypt and the Arab world, bookended in Egypt’s case by the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak in the 25 January Revolution and the election of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as the country’s new president in May 2014.

In the interim the country saw a period of military rule under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over the government after Mubarak’s fall, followed by the election of Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, as president in June 2012. One year later the 30 June Revolution ended Brotherhood rule and led to new elections.

Young people became involved in public life in unprecedented numbers, with political decisions that included the fate of presidents being decided at least in part by massive street demonstrations. The liberalisation of the media led to new kinds of public debate, some of it highly polarising, and workers across the country staged protests, as many as 4,000 in 2011-12 alone, to demand higher wages or better working conditions.

Historians and social scientists are sure to be studying this extraordinary period in Egypt’s history for many years to come, but a first attempt at investigating what can be learned from these revolutionary years has recently appeared in French, bringing together the contributions of many mostly young researchers.

While the book, L’Egypte en révolutions, has been written for a mainly academic audience, interested laypeople cannot fail to learn a great deal from it.

Following a scene-setting introduction by Bernard Rougier, co-editor with Stéphane Lacroix and director of the Centre d’études et de documentation économiques, juridiques et sociales (CEDEJ), a French research institute in Cairo, there follow sections on the experience of Muslim Brotherhood rule, institutions and popular consultation, and revolutionary and other actors. A final section includes biographies of leading figures, among them Morsi, Salafist leader Yasser Bourhami and left-wing presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi.

Patrick Haenni, Marie Vannetzel and Amr Adly, the authors of articles in the book’s first section on Brotherhood rule, all make valuable observations. According to Haenni, a French political scientist, the failure of the Brotherhood to establish itself during Morsi’s year in power can be accounted for by its failure either to identify its own real constituency, consistently clamping down on protests, or to build bridges with civil society and Egypt’s political and administrative class.

For Vannetzel, also a political scientist, the Brotherhood’s striking loss of support during its year in power can be explained by uncertainties over policy, translated into the effective abandonment of many of the group’s grassroots social programmes.

However, perhaps Adly’s is the most rewarding of the essays in this part of the book. Starting with an analysis of the Brotherhood’s economic policies, the so-called “Nahda Project,” Adly describes the kinds of contradictions these led to. The Brotherhood has long been associated with free-market economics, underlined by the prominent businessmen that make up its leading ranks, and this caused it to pursue neo-liberal economic policies when in power in something like an Islamist version of Thatcherism.

However, such policies, also followed under the previous Mubarak regime, degenerated into crony capitalism rather than the construction of a genuine market economy. The Brotherhood, wanting “the policies of Mubarak without the corruption of his regime,” was led towards neoliberal economic policies that were at odds with the social welfare emphases elsewhere in its programme. The result of such contradictions was that the group lost much of its support base when it was in government, isolating it from the rest of society.

Popular consultation: The book’s second section on institutions and popular consultation after the 25 January Revolution contains material by Clément Steuer, Nathan Brown, Zaid al-Ali and Bernard Rougier and Hala Bayoumi.

The essay by Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University, looks at the role played by the judiciary in the three years after the Revolution, noting that the full independence of the judiciary and the end of military and other special tribunals was a key demand of the young revolutionaries. The judiciary also played an important role in shaping events, notably when the courts ordered the dissolution of the constituent assembly in April 2012 followed by that of the parliament later in the same year.

Zaid al-Ali, a researcher on constitutional questions, provides a detailed reading of the 2013 constitution, approved by referendum in January 2014, suggesting that one problem it raises is how far the generous socio-economic rights it mentions can be translated into services claimable on the ground. Another problem may be the extensive powers the constitution grants the president, underlining Egypt’s presidential system possibly at the expense of greater parliamentary oversight and decentralisation.

However, the essays by Steuer and Rougier and Bayoumi may be the most interesting in this section. In his contribution, Steuer, presently at the Prague Academy of Sciences, notes that at least five sets of elections have taken place in Egypt since the 25 January Revolution. Some of these count as “founding elections,” he says, in other words elections that, coming shortly after the end of an authoritarian regime, reveal important features of the political terrain to come.

Such elections, in Egypt’s case the first free-and-fair popular consultations to take place in perhaps half a century, can reveal the true nature of the faultlines structuring the political landscape. They force established political parties to reposition themselves, and they encourage the formation of new political parties competing for the popular vote on the basis of genuinely differentiated programmes.

Reading Rougier and Bayoumi’s essay on the sociology of the post-2011 elections it is easy to feel that important faultlines have indeed been revealed, some of them perhaps counter-intuitive. The authors identify seven separate sets of elections, two up from Steuer’s five, including two parliamentary (People’s Assembly and Senate), two presidential (the first and second rounds of the 2012 elections) and three referendums on constitutional issues. These reveal both new forms of active citizenship, with participation rates more than doubling from what they were before Mubarak’s fall, and the mapping of political choices onto the geographical landscape.

Rougier and Bayoumi analyse particularly the results of the two rounds of the 2012 presidential elections, breaking them down by region – major cities, the Delta, the Nile Valley, and the Sinai and desert areas – and by constituency or even neighbourhood. This reveals that not only did the major cities vote for Sabbahi or Shafiq in the first round of the elections, with Sabbahi doing notably better than the other candidates in poorer areas, but that had it not been for Morsi’s support in rural areas Egypt could well have had a secular left-wing president rather than an Islamist.

Poorer areas in Cairo such as Ain Shams, Bab al-Sharqiyya, and Bulaq al-Dakrour all voted for Sabbahi in the first round. Imbaba voted for Shafiq. The industrial city of Mahalla al-Kubra voted for Sabbahi, and Asyut, Sohag, Qena and Beni Sweif all voted for Shafiq. It was only in rural areas, or ruralised urban areas, that Morsi enjoyed an advantage, suggesting that voting patterns divided at least in part along urban-rural lines.

Rougier and Bayoumi’s conclusion is that many rural voters saw their interests reflected neither in Sabbahi, whose appeal was to industrial workers and the poorer urban classes, nor in Shafiq, who was associated with the previous regime. There may also have been cultural factors at work, but if so these were not evident in the Delta, where rural voters turned out for Sabbahi, or in the Nile Valley cities where Morsi was not the most popular candidate in the first round of the elections.

Revolutionary actors: The third section of the book on revolutionary and other actors contains essays by Stéphane Lacroix and Ahmed Zaghloul Chahata on revolutionary Salafism, Ismail Alexandrani on events in Sinai, Nadine Abdalla on workers’ movements, Gaetan du Roy on the Copts, and Roman Stadnicki on the urban character of the Revolution.

It is kicked off by Lacroix and Chahata who write on the emergence of the Salafist Movement, whether Salafo-Qutbist or Salafo-leftist in inspiration, particularly in the run-up to the 2012 elections when the independent Salafist Hazem Abu Ismail emerged as a major political contender. Abu Ismail, Lacroix and Chahata write, though successful in bringing together an ad hoc constituency of often young and previously non-politicised supporters (the “Hazimoun”), operated on the margins of the political system, presenting himself as immune to the compromises made by the Brotherhood or the Salafist Al-Nour Party in their quest for power.

Ismail Alexandrani, responsible for the Sinai Unit at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, a Cairo think tank, reviews the role played by Sinai in the years following the 25 January Revolution, noting that the Peninsula’s traditional distrust of central government, exacerbated by its marginalisation under the Mubarak regime, has got worse since 2011 with Islamist and other groups taking up arms against the state.

The contribution by Nadine Abdalla, a researcher at the Arab Forum for Alternatives in Cairo and the Stiftung Wissenschaft and Politik in Berlin, looks at the activities of Egypt’s workers and labour unions after the Revolution. Noting that at least at first both workers and unions kept their distance from the young revolutionaries who led the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, she explains that the Revolution led both to the formation of new unions, with two independent federations emerging in 2011, and a blurring of the line between economic demands and political protests.

There was a new readiness among Egypt’s workers to join the young revolutionaries in challenging the regime, sometimes in the form of sit-ins and street protests. While the unions have in most cases continued to keep their distance from the political parties, they have not hesitated to ally themselves with the slogans of the Revolution or act in solidarity with it. However, their task has been complicated by the uncertain legal status of the independent unions, with the new legal framework negotiated after the Revolution having been quashed by the then Muslim Brotherhood government.

In his contribution on the role of Egypt’s Copts after the Revolution, Gaetan du Roy reminds readers of the inter-religious solidarity of the 2011 demonstrations and the alarming signs of conflict seen after them, notably in the wave of attacks on churches that took place in 2013. Roman Stadnicki writes on the urban character of the Revolution, marked by the mass occupation of city space, and on the urban-related demands of the young revolutionaries who wanted to see both more and better city housing and improved urban transportation.

Taken as a whole, L’Egypte en révolutions provides enormous food for thought. Tahrir Square was and is not the same as Egypt, Rougier notes in his introduction, and the 25 January Revolution, “led by a minority of activists, was later taken over by two fundamentally conservative institutions, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Yet, by dislodging Mubarak and his regime after 30 years in power and challenging the parameters of a system set up in 1952, the Revolution had a genuinely electrifying effect. It sparked revolutionary movements across the Arab world, acting as the catalyst of the Arab Spring, and it led to irreversible changes in Egypt. 

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