Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt and the Arab Spring

Historians and commentators continue to discuss the effects and direction of the Arab Spring revolutions, focusing their attention on the case of Egypt, writes Al-Sayed Amin Shalaby

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In the view of a number of scholars and analysts, it is difficult to discuss the events and interactions of the Arab Spring without pondering several issues resulting from it and closely related to its future.

Among these are the role gained by mini-states within the Arab inter-state system, among them Qatar and the United Arab Emirates; the role assigned to non-state actors, among them the Islamic State (IS) group, the Houthis in Yemen and the armed Libyan militias; and the restructuring of military-civilian relationships.

There is also a subtext, namely the need for security and stability in the wake of the Arab Spring, which might be attainable at the price of democracy, human rights and other freedoms. Moreover, there is the question of the destiny of political Islam, especially after what happened to regimes such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Al-Nahda in Tunisia.

From consideration of these issues, it is possible to state that the Arab revolutions have produced four major effects. The first is the Islamisation of political relationships, which has bestowed on politics a sectarian, religious and ethnic colouration and deepened differences for centuries. Throughout history, the most intractable and sustained conflicts have been of the religious sectarian type.

The second is the re-invention of the state, leading to questions of its identity, and the third is the fact that most of the Arab uprisings and the reactions to them have led to the militarisation of the Arab world.

In the Arab republics, they have led to militarisation in Egypt, more military support for the authorities in Algeria, and preparations for the Tunisian military to play a larger role in the future. In the Arab monarchies, the ruling families have bolstered their military forces with a view to confronting the militias produced by the uprisings.

The fourth effect is that following upon these developments one of the most important regional consequences of the Arab revolutions has been the introspection of Arab states and societies and the enhancement of the Qatari factor at the expense of larger Arab issues such as the Palestinian cause.

This has not been lost on observers, who have noted that in spite of the broad human and material destruction brought by the Israeli aggression of 2014 on Gaza not one demonstration against it was held in any Arab country.

It should also be noted that the developments attending the Arab Spring in several Arab states included the issue of political Islam and its consequences. Many analysts, researchers and commentators on the Middle East arrived at the prediction that the Islamists would lay claim to the Arab uprisings, which would be seen as an “Islamist moment” par excellence.

These predictions soon became reality, but after less than one year of the Islamist electoral victories in Egypt and Tunisia, the Islamists, like low-hanging fruit, fell in both countries. The outcome was a substantial sea change in various societies in the Middle East.

This outcome of the Arab Spring commenced with the Islamists scoring electoral victories, notably in Tunisia and Egypt. They also secured a leading role in Libya and Syria. But these victories ended with a major setback in Egypt and with regression in Tunisia due to their poor performance when in power, as well as their involvement in the destruction of Syria and Libya.

The perception has grown and taken hold that groups such as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and Al-Nusra Front, together with the atrocities perpetrated by IS, had their roots in Islamism, which led in turn to a questioning of the destiny of the Islamists and of political Islam in general.

The UK magazine The Economist, for example, wrote: “The Islamists are left without a role, and their mantra of ‘Islam is the Solution’ no longer provides what the Islamists claim.”

Nonetheless, these perceptions are not expected to cause the Islamists to abandon their opposition to the new regimes. They are not likely to abandon their role as a source of instability and fear. Nor does this mean that Islamist extremism will for now recede.

This leaves us with the following questions: have the hurricanes attending the Arab Spring signalled its end? And was the situation of the Arab countries that were buffeted by its winds better under the old regimes than at present?

Such questions might find some justification were we to limit our gaze to the present. But this would mean ignoring a central reality, namely that the Arab revolutions ended regimes about which there is unanimity about their corruption and misrule. Such a conclusion might therefore be too hasty from the perspective of historical experience.

History demonstrates that revolutions by and large do not attain their initial goals. Francis Fukuyama, the Japanese-American historian, posits the following in his most recent book. He asserts that due to its attendant problems, critics of the Arab Spring forget that the “European Spring” also took a long time to succeed and was complex and, at times, chaotic.

Settling the issues of democracy and its taking root in Europe took an entire century, beginning with the popular uprisings of 1848.

Fukuyama goes on to conclude that a long and perhaps chaotic period will be needed before democratic values can be established in the Arab world.

During that time, Arab societies will internalise the importance of free elections, respect the views of their majorities, and concretise “democratic culture.” A democratic culture, Fukuyama asserts, is more than holding elections, but involves the creation of a democracy-incubating environment.

Such a democracy-friendly environment is characterised by a strong economy, an absence of poverty and unemployment, and a robust and cohesive political system. Such as system should be marked by diversity, a progressive educational and scientific base and a culture that is open to the world.

Arab researchers espouse the concept of democracy regardless of the attendant problems that have overwhelmed the failed states.

They draw attention to the role of the Arab intelligentsia, which should be the reinforcement of the concept of democracy and its alignment with the existing Arab situation.

The goal should be to avoid copying non-Arab liberal democracy or importing it into societies where inequality and political exclusion still prevail.

The case of Egypt: In my capacity as an author writing from personal experience, I now focus on the case of Egypt. The country took part in the Arab Spring from its inception in January 2011 until 30 June 2013 and beyond.

There were conceptual fallacies or inaccuracies surrounding the 25 January Revolution, which was cast as a sudden and unexpected uprising. But in fact the preceding period from 2000 to 2010 was replete with manifestations of rejection and refusal of the regime and various protest movements.

On the political level, these manifestations were nurtured by the high-handed nature of the Mubarak regime, which began to lay the groundwork for bequeathing the Egyptian presidency to ousted former president Hosni Mubarak’s son.

Coupled with that, the economy saw corruption at all levels, and there was a widening gap between rich and poor, a decline in the level of goods and services, and a manifest alliance between capital and government.

Regardless of the varying assessments of the nature of the uprising, whether dubbed as a revolution or an intifada (uprising), as it was later called, and especially after the precipitous decline in the political, economic and social spheres, nobody can deny that the uprising toppled the former Mubarak regime along with its ruling party and legislative structures. With these went the personalities and symbols associated with it.

No observer could delink Mubarak’s abdication, a hugely popular demand for millions of Egyptians, and the vital declaration by the leadership of Egypt’s Armed Forces, an integral part of the Mubarak regime, that they supported “the demands and aspirations of the Egyptian people” and declared that they would not open fire on the demonstrators.

Arguments among historians of the period will continue to focus on the behaviour of Mubarak himself, including his decision to step down and his appointment, in the course of his last days as president, of Omar Soliman, one of the stalwarts of the regime, as his vice-president.

These developments also included Mubarak’s transfer of power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and his moving to the resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, which he made his official residence. To these moves should be added his refusal to leave the country, touted by his supporters as indicative of his nationalism.

Arguments by historians are also likely in respect of the period of governance by the SCAF led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the then-defence minister and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. They are likely to include Tantawi’s performance up until his handing over of power to the newly elected President Mohamed Morsi, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, in July 2012.

One of the measures detracting from the SCAF’s performance while governing the country was the establishment of the Commission for Constitutional Amendments. The commission’s head was known to belong to the Islamist current and to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership.

Moreover, the SCAF also sought to hold parliamentary elections before the drafting of a permanent constitution, which was met by vociferous opposition from a broad spectrum of political forces. Alarms were raised about holding elections during such turbulent circumstances and at a time when political parties were not yet organised.

It was strongly felt that by putting the elections ahead of the drafting of the new constitution the Muslim Brotherhood and other movements within the Islamist spectrum would exercise undue control over the outcome, leading to the installation of a parliament dominated by the Islamist parties.

These expectations turned into reality in the parliament of 2012, by which time the control of the Muslim Brotherhood over the government was complete. This was made abundantly clear after it drafted a constitution of its own making and, on the basis of which, rushed into holding the constitutional plebiscite of 15 December 2012.

During the full year of its rule in Egypt the motto of the Brotherhood was “empowerment,” meaning bringing about complete control over the state’s institutions in which its adherents were strategically ensconced.

Inexorably, this state of affairs led to a collision between the Muslim Brotherhood and the state institutions, including the judiciary and the media. Tensions also arose between the Brotherhood and the police and Armed Forces.

This was especially the case when it was discovered that the Islamists had embarked upon the creation of their own structures paralleling the intelligence apparatus, as well as a Brotherhood National Guard replacing the Presidential Guard and in imitation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

These tensions came to a head when on 20 November 2014 the president issued a “Constitutional Declaration” by which he placed his decisions above judicial decisions.

This executive immunisation, combined with the Brotherhood’s supporters besieging the Supreme Constitutional Court and preventing its judges from access to it, signalled the climax of the collision between the state institutions and the Morsi regime. It was a graphic challenge to the country’s judicial authority by the regime.

But this was not all. These momentous events were followed by Morsi’s declaration of 8 December 2012 dismissing the head and members of the SCAF and appointing one of the SCAF’s youngest members, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, as the country’s new defence minister.

This historic rapprochement with Al-Sisi, who was previously head of military intelligence, was said to be attributable to Al-Sisi’s known religiosity. The regime seems to have expected him to be a pliable defence minister who would bend the Armed Forces to its wishes.

But such expectations turned out to be ill placed, and Al-Sisi’s personality in his role as defence minister and then as SCAF chief of staff proved otherwise. Closely watching the country’s political developments, he took heed of the situation as it reached boiling point. The youth movement Tamarod (Rebellion) was able to collect a claimed 22 million signatures calling for the holding of early presidential elections.

When the Morsi regime refused to heed this popular call and denigrated its significance, the Armed Forces intervened to defuse the over-charged situation. In this threatening atmosphere, the new defence minister was compelled to enter into discussions with the Morsi regime and its backers, the objective being to urge them to undertake the measures necessary to defuse the crisis facing the country.

These actions were summarily rejected by the regime, forcing Al-Sisi to issue on 1 July 2013 what amounted to an ultimatum. This call for a solution was addressed not only to the Morsi regime, but also to the country’s other political forces, all of which were called upon to seek an agreement to rescue the country from the impasse within 48 hours.

Millions of people poured out into the public squares in Cairo, in provincial capitals and even down to small towns and rural villages, demanding that the country be saved from the spectre of civil war and surpassing in size even the demonstrations on 25 January 2011.

With the military’s ultimatum disregarded by the Brotherhood regime, the minister of defence had to coordinate with the symbols and leaders of political and religious forces outside of the Brotherhood, producing what came to be known on 3 July 2013 as the “road map” for the country’s future.

This led to the appointment of Adly Mansour, the president of the Supreme Constitutional Court, as interim president and preparations for the drafting of a new constitution and the holding of parliamentary elections. These measures were followed by the appointment of a distinguished Egyptian economist, Hazem Al-Beblawi, as prime minister of a government of technocrats.

Al-Sisi kept on repeating, especially after 3 July and the intervention of the Armed Forces, that in his contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood he had offered them consistent advice.

As a means of ending the stalemate, he urged them to accept the holding of a plebiscite and early presidential elections. There is no reason to doubt the credibility of his counsel to the Brotherhood. But his advice was met by refusal by the Brotherhood and by a manifest disdain for the popular demand for change.

The reaction by the Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathisers was predictable. The group now embarked upon a wave of terror by mobilising hundreds of thousands of its supporters for sit-ins at two central locations: Rabaa Al-Adawiyah Square and the Nahdhet Misr Square in Giza.

Despite repeated appeals by the authorities to the demonstrators to disperse peacefully, with guarantees of safe exit, these sit-ins lasted for 55 days. The repeated entreaties by the government were to no avail. By mid-August, the government had to put an end to this situation, unfortunately resulting in the loss of some 600 to 1,000 lives.

This then led to an explosion of violence that engulfed the entire country and in which the Brotherhood perpetrated various types of destruction. No institution was spared, from government establishments to civilian targets, from police stations to churches and museums. The railway network was also targeted.

This spasm of violence was particularly accentuated following the arrest of leaders of the Brotherhood, including the deposed former president, and their being put on trial.

Fall of the Brotherhood: The fall of the Brotherhood from power has given rise to various arguments as to its root causes. Some attribute it to the Brotherhood’s failure to create structural changes in its organisational methods, its ideological advocacy or its political behaviour in the post-revolutionary period after 25 January.

In fact, the Brotherhood had missed the pulse and the direction of the changes in Egypt’s political infrastructure after the revolution.

Thus it continued to treat it in the spirit of the “business as usual” that the Brotherhood had followed throughout prior decades.

But other interpretations have also arisen with regard to the Brotherhood’s posture and performance internally and externally.

According to such views, the Brotherhood regime, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, did not follow the Iranian Islamic Revolution model. The Brotherhood, so this argument goes, was inclined towards the espousal of the Turkish model of Islamic democracy.

Issuing from this premise, weight is placed on what is termed the adoption by the Brotherhood during the Morsi regime of a policy of “realpolitik” based on a balance between the internal order and the external order.

Among other explanations advanced by researchers regarding the fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt is that it lost the support of the two largest demographic sectors in the country: those living under the poverty line, accounting for at least 40 per cent of the population, and the middle classes.

Add to these losses the group’s negative stance towards the Copts, the principles of Egyptian citizenship and its position on women, and it can be seen how distant it was from the upper middle classes and the elite. In summary, the Brotherhood alienated very important sectors of Egyptian society.

It is no wonder, therefore, that 30 June and 3 July 2013, which ushered in the end of Brotherhood rule, also marked the beginning of a new phase in Egypt’s political history. The new regime entered upon this phase saddled with huge challenges. There was the security challenge imposed by the violence waged by the Brotherhood and causing destabilisation in various parts of the country.

This covered not only Cairo and the interior provinces but also extended to the border regions, particularly Sinai. In the latter, terrorist organisations raised the violence to a crescendo, and groups such as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and Al-Nusra Front were said to have links, first with Al-Qaeda, and then with IS.

 The terrorism perpetrated by these organisations reached a peak on 24 November last year with attacks resulting in the loss of 31 members of the Armed Forces. The attacks showed that the terrorists had acquired new levels of military, logistical and intelligence support. This led to the conviction that their acts must have benefitted from cooperation and coordination with regional powers, availing them of various types of support.

The economic situation was another major challenge faced by the new regime. Since the 25 January Revolution Egypt has witnessed an economic decline; foreign currency reserves have fallen from $36 billion in 2010 to $16 billion in 2014.

The number of tourists visiting Egypt also plummetted, going from 12 million tourists in 2010 to only one million in 2013. Thousands of factories ceased production, and the unemployment rate dramatically increased. For three years, the situation was made worse by protests by various professional and labour groups clamouring for improvements to their condition.

Overall, it seemed that the Egyptian economy was in free fall. But economic collapse was averted through massive cash injections amounting to $20 billion from the three Gulf States of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Such Arab support had its own justification.

These three Arab states realised that the surge of the Brotherhood in Egypt could result in a regression in moderate Islam. It might also have led to the rise of other

political Islam groups which have targeted the regimes in these countries.

To this should be added the fact that the Gulf and other Arab states recognised that allowing the Egyptian situation to worsen further would have negative repercussions on the peace and security of the entire region. The danger of insecurity on the eastern Egyptian borders, caused by Hamas, and on the western borders, caused by extremist Libyan organisations, was enhanced by support deemed to be coming from Qatar, Turkey and Iran.

In this mix of challenges facing the new regime, reference should also be made to the issue of Egyptian water interests in the Nile Valley. The Great Renaissance Dam, currently under construction in Ethiopia, began to loom as a challenge to Egyptian water rights over the Nile.

The challenges that faced the new post-Brotherhood regime should also include the reactions of the outside world to the events in Egypt since 3 July 2013 and the removal of the Brotherhood regime. The new regime has been confronted by harsh criticisms from the West and from the US in particular.

These criticisms also emanated, of all places, from Africa, where the African Union (AU) reacted by suspending the membership of Egypt in the organisation. Ironically, Egypt was a founding member of both the AU and its predecessor the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The basis for such sanctions was that the 30 June Revolution was not perceived as a revolution but instead was seen as a military coup carried out by the Egyptian Armed Forces.

Such perceptions had adverse consequences for Egypt. US military aid was withheld and bills were introduced in the US Congress linking the resumption of that aid to the degree of progress achieved in Egypt toward democracy. However, a thaw followed when the reality of the motivation behind the military measures undertaken by the Armed Forces began to dawn.

The army had intervened to save the country from civil war. With these misconceptions melting away, Egypt’s membership in the AU was reinstated. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, as he now was, was welcomed to address the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly in September 2014, and he was invited to undertake official visits to major European powers (Italy, France and Russia) and to China.

But despite the partial thaw, reservations about the regime still lingered in certain US and other Western circles. Now the winds of criticism in these circles shifted to other directions and particularly the measures undertaken by the Egyptian government in the realm of human rights and freedoms.

These attacks followed upon the expansion of the jurisdiction of the military courts and the promulgation of a law regulating public demonstrations. Criticisms focused on claimed concerns about apprehending Brotherhood members. Such actions, critics reasoned, could lead to increased violence and instability.

This reasoning by the regime’s critics posed a challenge to the regime, which was searching for a formula reconciling the need for law enforcement and respect for freedoms and the constitution. Governmental measures in both directions were seen by opposition voices as contradictory.

Internal as well as external arguments swirled around core questions such as what would become of the Muslim Brotherhood. What was the regime going to do about the group? Did it intend to dissolve it, or would it continue its confrontation with the resulting persistence of violence and accompanying instability?

Would the regime make peace with the group? If so, would the Brotherhood be amenable to peace overtures? This last question evoked more disagreements as to the meaning and importance of reconciliation.

Observing the debate: The public wanted to abandon any attempt at reconciliation with the Brotherhood. This attitude represented the adoption of the official government stance, which asked whether reconciliation was possible with those who had blood on their hands. The more the Brotherhood persevered in its course of violence and destruction, the more ingrained became the refusal of reconciliation on the part of Egyptian society.

Perhaps this was an assessment of a short-run type. In the long run, reconciliation might be feasible, but on a conditional basis. It has to be linked with the political transformation of both the ideology and direction of the Brotherhood.

Such a transformation might entail the arrival on the scene of a new generation cognisant of the errors committed by its predecessors that had led to the historic setbacks while in power.

Coupled with such a generational possibility, there must also be an admission of the realities on the ground following the 30 June Revolution. Were such an acknowledgement to occur, this rehabilitated generation of the Brotherhood might become an integral part of the country’s political fabric.

But this could only proceed on the basis of a complete separation of religious advocacy and political involvement. Another facet of such reconciliation, as the arguments about it goes, especially outside of Egypt, is the meaning of inclusiveness. In this connection, inclusiveness would mean the participation of all Egyptian political forces within the country’s political panorama.

The new regime continues to reiterate its stance on these issues. It points out that at its inception it reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, calling on both to join the national march on three seminal occasions.

These three opportunities for inclusiveness, on which the Brotherhood turned its back, included to participate in the national dialogue organised by the presidency to which all political forces were invited; to join the secular government declared by the road map headed by Hazem Al-Beblawi; and to take part in the Committee of Fifty established to draft the 2014 Constitution.

The Brotherhood rejected these overtures, rejected participation and partnership, and opted instead for conflict and confrontation.

The road map announced on 3 July 2013 by Al-Sisi, in his capacity as defence minister and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, set out an important measure. Its text, arrived at in a consensus with the country’s political forces, provided for the holding of parliamentary elections.

Other measures promised by the document were implemented through elections, which were conducted in a free and transparent environment. The remaining pledge of the road map that is yet to be fulfilled, namely the parliamentary elections, is regarded by observers as the most critical in the country’s electoral history as it will determine the future political direction of Egypt.

This hugely important step is made more critical by two factors. The first of these is the fact that the 2014 Constitution, while reining in the powers of the president, expands those of the House of Representatives.

The second is the present disorder of the political parties. Most do not yet possess a popular base, giving rise to worries that they might not be able to constitute a cohesive future parliament. Such a state of affairs might impede legislation by the block approval of bills sent to parliament by the head of state.

Egypt and the uprisings: In summing up, this article has dealt with the Egyptian Revolution in the context of the Arab uprisings.

These revolts began with the Tunisian Revolution of December 2010, followed in succession by the revolts in Egypt, then Libya, then Syria and then Yemen.

All these intifadas were called the Arab Spring, which then turned into an Arab autumn, and then into a stormy Arab winter threatening the very fabric of these states. But grouping all these revolts together, regardless of the seasonal name that might be given to them, misses the mark. Egypt and Tunisia did not collapse. These two states did not descend to the lower strata of violence and destabilisation seen today in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

In Egypt, our special case, the institutional structures and national fabric remained intact. This was despite the instability, the violence and the economic deterioration that followed the 25 January Revolution, and the attempts at Brotherhoodisation that threatened Egypt’s very identity for a while.

That national cohesion, seemingly built into the country’s DNA, was a historic rebuff for sectarian aberrations enhanced by the arrival of the Brotherhood at the helm of power.

The protestations of some regarding the so-called army intervention in Egyptian politics notwithstanding, the following must be admitted: Egypt’s cohesive national fabric, which saved it from the unhappy fortunes visited upon Libya, Syria and Yemen, has as one of its main characteristics the role and character of the Egyptian Armed Forces.

Throughout the fray, the Egyptian army was not co-opted by any political or sectarian movement. Its fidelity to its traditional role as a bulwark of Egyptian patriotism remained unblemished. This can be attested to by the Orabi Revolution of 1882, the 25 July 1952 Revolution, the October War of 1973 and now the 25 January Revolution.

Thus a neutral observer is on the right side of history when he or she assuredly says: on 30 June 2013, a pivotal moment in Egyptian history, the role of the army was not to covet power. Instead, it acted as a protective shield for the country’s security and national cohesion.

Finally, it could be said that the role played by the Egyptian Armed Forces on 30 June 2013, leading eventually to the assumption by Al-Sisi of the presidency in June 2014, produced a dialogue expressed by three schools of thought: the school that says the army saved Egypt from civil war; the school that measures events by the yardstick of democratisation and the observance of human rights, though it believes that the removal of Morsi from the presidency could not have been achieved without the role played by the Armed Forces; and the rejectionist school, which is still convinced that the measures adopted on 3 July 2013 constituted a military coup and not a revolution.


The writer is executive director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs. This article was translated into English by Yassin Al-Ayouty, professor of law at Fordham University, New York.

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