The legacy of Egypt's Arab Spring

Ten years after a popular uprising overthrew a dictator, Egypt largely appears to be back where it started. Why were Egyptians' democratic hopes dashed, and can they still be realized?

Protesters against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi wave national flags in Tahrir Square in Cairo July 3, 2013. Image used for illustrative purpose.

Protesters against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi wave national flags in Tahrir Square in Cairo July 3, 2013. Image used for illustrative purpose.

Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

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A transcript of this podcast follows:

Elmira Bayrasli: Welcome to Opinion Has It. I’m Elmira Bayrasli

Archive recording: It was the year of people power, of revolution ...

Archive recording: From Tunisia to Egypt, from Libya to Syria.

Archive recording: We’re in this ’til the end, even if it means we’re going to die ...

EB: The Arab Spring. A decade ago, the phrase evoked a sense of hope and renewal. But the anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions it described left many countries in the Middle East worse off. Nowhere is this truer than Egypt.

Archive recording: Egyptians filled Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo.

EB: Of course, tens of thousands of protestors did not flood Tahrir Square in early 2011 without reason.

Archive recording: For 18 straight days, millions of Egyptians demonstrated in the streets and squares of the country’s cities ...

Archive recording: In Tahrir Square, the liberated zone, the anti-Mubarak protesters will tell you fear has been defeated. There’s no turning back.

EB: Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year presidency had been built on strong-arm tactics, cronyism, and an alliance with the West. When the protests erupted, Mubarak’s regime initially responded with violent repression.

Archived recording: Consequently, the demands and chants shifted to a simple and very clear one: “...the people demand the fall of the regime.”

EB: Mubarak’s position turned out to be weaker than he thought.

Archive recording: Breaking news out of Egypt that the vice president of Egypt, Omar Suleiman, has just announced that President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down.

Omar Suleiman and translator: President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak has decided to waive the office of the president of the Republic and instructed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to run the affairs of the country.

EB: After parliamentary elections in November 2011, a democratic future is seen as within reach, but ten years later, with the military firmly back in charge, are Egyptians any better off?


Michael Wahid Hanna: Hello?

EB: Hi, Michael. 

EB: Here to discuss Egypt’s situation and prospects is Michael Hanna.

MWH: I’m on my phone right now because I need ...

EB: Michael is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a non-resident fellow at the Reiss Center on Law and Security.

MWH: There we go. Okay.

EB: He joins us from Brooklyn. Michael, I want to start by talking about the situation in Egypt back in 2011. Hosni Mubarak had been in power for nearly 30 years and he survived multiple assassination attempts. What conditions made his rule vulnerable?

MWH: Well, you know, people have since thought the conditions that could lead to an uprising were obvious all along, you know, growing inequality, an economy that wasn’t providing for its people, severe repression, our rising tide of Islamist sentiment. I mean, all of these things existed more or less for, you know, many, many, many years. So, all of those vulnerabilities were not new in 2011. You know, in 2010, if you asked most people, “Is Egypt on the cusp of a revolution?”, the answer would have been no. We had all become somewhat inured. We would sort of, in pro forma fashion, talk about all the ways in which Egypt had vulnerabilities. But the assumption really, I think for most people, was that Egypt would muddle through.

EB: You’ve said that Mubarak created a controlled opposition as a safety valve to ensure stability. What did that look like and how did it help bring about his downfall?

MWH: Well, you know, there, there have been forces, obviously trying to open space for dissent and opposition for many years. The goal of the Mubarak regime was to sustain their regime. And this was an approach that was adopted, which was essentially to have many of the trappings of democratic life, but obviously not an actual democracy. So, there was a parliament, there were elections, opposition candidates won some of those elections. So, you have this constellation of parties that engaged in politics, but obviously they didn’t hold real power. And so this was the sense of a controlled opposition. Most of these parties were co-opted. We wouldn’t call them a true opposition. You also saw the rise in those, you know, those ten years, really prior to the uprisings, you saw the rise of a semi-free press. The press started to expand its boundaries a little bit. We saw more direct dissent and criticism, but within red lines, you know, you didn’t go near the president’s health. You didn’t talk about his son. You didn’t talk about succession and the very obvious plan to install Gamal Mubarak as his father’s successor. You know, if you stayed away from those very sensitive topics, you could say some things. You could engage in criticism of other aspects of the government. And so you had these kinds of, what I have called, safety valves. You also had different kinds of safety valves in the sense that the regime would let people protest about things like the Iraq War or in support of Palestinians during the second intifada. But all of these things that the Mubarak regime adopted as ways to control, co-opt, and manage opposition, I think in the end laid many of the building blocks that eventually helped propel the uprising forward.

EB: One reason the protests were so effective is that they had support from such a broad swath of the population, but this was, in Michael’s words, a bond of the lowest common denominator. And once Mubarak was out of power, it quickly crumbled. So, too, did the foundation on which a stable democracy could be built.

MWH: You know, you did have this broad cross section of the Egyptian people out in the streets, but that tactical alliance was pretty shallow. You know, what is it exactly that they agreed upon? There were slogans. “Bread, Freedom, [and] Social Justice” was one. Another slogan focused on “Dawla Madaniyya,” a civil state. This was a kind of ineffectual rapprochement between Islamists and non-Islamists, because civil state doesn’t mean a whole lot. And so, you know, you could all tout this very shallow expression about support for a civil state in distinction to a military state, a military-led state. And that’s something that comes to prominence immediately after Mubarak’s fall. But the relevant, salient issue here is that these groups didn’t agree on a whole lot. And some of these groups, more importantly, didn’t have programmatic political ideas, you know, beyond the aspirational, beyond the hope of getting rid of Mubarak and chanting slogans. It’s a very different thing to translate that into political life and, even more so, to translate that into governance. These were things that became very clear over time as, as massive failings. And they laid bare the kind of autocratic trap that had really gripped the Arab world, in which, you know, civil society, other kinds of institutions like political parties that could support a healthy functioning political space, had been repressed for many, many decades. And so when the time came for these kinds of organizations to try to fill this huge vacuum, they couldn’t. They didn’t exist.

EB: This contributed to a messy transition.

Archive recording: The defense minister, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, heads the High Military Council, which is in charge.

EB: The High Military Council, which rules Egypt’s powerful military, is officially called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or the SCAF.

Archive recording: It’s expected to dissolve both houses of parliament soon and manage a transition to elections with a civilian head of the constitutional court.

EB: The SCAF promised to rule for six months, or until general elections were held, whichever came first, but protesters continued to push back and face brutal repression.

Archive recording: Reports from Cairo’s main morgue say at least 33 people have been killed. More than 1,500 have been wounded in the military government’s crackdown. Some of the dead were reportedly killed by live ammunition fired by Egyptian forces. Protestors have also been attacked with rubber bullets, tear gas, and physical abuse.

EB: Meanwhile, Egypt’s Islamist liberal and secular nationalist groups continue to argue. Finally, in November 2011, parliamentary elections gave voters the chance to pick their side.

Archive recording: Nine months after their revolution pushed dictator Hosni Mubarak from power, millions of Egyptians returned to the streets today, but this time to vote.

Archive recording: Over 50 political parties are contesting the elections, along with thousands of candidates running as independents.

EB: The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party, came out on top.

MWH: The Muslim Brotherhood had a robust political organization that existed throughout Egypt. It had a political party that had for many years engaged in electoral politics and contested parliamentary elections. It wasn’t new to them. And the Muslim Brotherhood were the only true opposition party, effectively. Most of the other parties that engaged in parliamentary elections in the Mubarak era were co-opted opposition parties. When Mubarak fell, they had this massive organizational advantage that they used and, you know, they have a base, they have a real constituency within Egyptian society. Then, many other Egyptians were willing to give them a shot. They had seen them oppose Mubarak previously. They thought that they would, as they had campaigned on many years previously, you know, that they would combat corruption and they were something different. And so there was another segment of society that was not members of the Muslim Brotherhood, not even Islamists, but were willing to give them political support in this first post-Mubarak election.

EB: That support persisted through the 2012 presidential election, which was won by Mohamed Morsi.

Archive recording: Egypt has a new president this evening, Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Archive recording: This is the first time modern Egypt will be headed by an Islamist. Morsi is also the first in modern times not to come from the military.

EB: As Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, Morsi promised inclusive reforms.

Mohamed Morsi, archive recording (translated from Arabic): We will work to ensure that the Egyptian value system, in its civilized tradition, incorporates universal values that pertain to freedom.

EB: The dawn of a new age of Egyptian democracy appeared to be coming, but that age never arrived. Michael, you’ve written extensively on the failures of both the Muslim Brotherhood and of its leader, Mohamed Morsi, whose choices, you have argued, drove the transition off course. What were their biggest mistakes and why were they so disastrous for Egypt’s democratic prospects?

MWH: Yeah. You know, one thing that I would tell lots of people often in that period of 2011, 2012, was that, you know, these elections were a reflection of what remained at the end of the Mubarak era. This was a reflection of the end, more so than a reflection of where Egypt was necessarily going. And so it wasn’t surprising that the Muslim Brotherhood were where they were at that time. My argument to the Brothers and others looking, and from the outside, trying to help, and Egyptian political actors was that the landscape you see now is going to change. If you look at other post-autocratic transitions, politics looks incredibly different five, ten, 15 years down the road. Don’t assume that this is what it’s going to look like. You know, I think the Brothers basically assumed that they were Egypt. They were the opposition, they were going to run the country and now was the time to really grab all of the levers of power. And in so doing, they, I think, they fundamentally crippled the trajectory of politics, because they sowed a huge amount of distrust. A lot of my focus on that period and on the Brotherhood’s role is because there was an opening in 2011 after the fall of Mubarak. It was genuine. It was an opening that had transformational potential and as opposed to trying to create the framework to both sustain civilian-led politics and to begin a process of reform and, crucially, linking up with other civilian actors in a way that could build trust, such that civilians would push politics forward and not turn to the military, which, you know, I think is the kind of original sin of the transition from the start after Mubarak fell. And the Brotherhood didn’t choose to do that.

EB: This failure proved lethal for Egypt’s democratic transition. On July 3, 2013, amid widespread protests, the military staged a coup.

Archive recording: Jubilation erupting on Tahrir Square as the news spread that President Morsi had been deposed.

Archive recording: In a speech to the nation, the head of the military said they were responding to the calls of the people. The military also blamed Morsi for failing to unite Egyptians.

Archive recording: Millions of citizens have taken to the streets in Cairo, but is this a people’s coup or one strong-armed by the military?

EB: Morsi was arrested, a new interim government was formed, and the Brothers were outlawed. General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Morsi’s own minister of defense, led the coup. A year later, he became president and has ruled the country with an iron fist ever since.

Archive recording: Sisi has gone after free expression, civil society, and rivals both in the political and military realms.

EB: With the consolidation of Sisi’s military-backed regime, Egypt’s uprising appeared to have failed. Michael, many have argued that Egypt’s politicized and overreaching military was a major structural barrier to democracy. Given its historical role in the country, was a coup inevitable?

MWH: No, definitely not. You know, I think it’s the product of decisions and decision-making and myopia on the part of all of Egypt’s political actors, you know, the generals, the Brothers, the other non-Islamist opposition who thought also that they could, you know, strike their own deal with the military. A lot had to happen for a coup to take place. You know, ironically, when Sisi came into power as defense minister, it was widely seen as a sign that the Egyptian military wanted to step back, that they didn’t want to be a kind of frontline political actor and that they were, you know, happy to let, at least on many, many issues, let civilians rule as long as they stayed away from the kind of issues of sovereignty and national security and national defense. And, of course, that’s not what happened at all, but it took steps. It took decisions. It took certain actions to lead the Egyptian military back directly into Egyptian political life in a way that was, you know, that Egypt hadn’t seen for many decades, since the heyday of the free officers under Nasser, when Egypt was rightly described as a military state. When Morsi is elected president, there are inbuilt tensions and suspicions between and among these groups. You know, the military is traditionally quite suspicious of the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, believing it to be transnational, believing it to be, fundamentally, a danger to Egyptian national security, and of course, a long history of friction. So, you know, so that is an underlying reality, but I don’t think it is, or was inevitable at the time, that Egypt would so quickly see a military coup. I think that that took a lot of doing.

EB: So forces within Egypt are only part of the story. If you take a look, Egypt’s neighbors have also had an impact. How have regional players influenced recent political developments in Egypt?

MWH: Egypt has been a declining regional power for many decades. There's no question about that. The Gulf states have obviously come to fill some of the void left by the collapse of the old Arab state system. I mean, if we look at, some of the pillars of that system are Egypt and Iraq and Syria. It’s not surprising that the Gulf has stepped in and Egypt has been quite reliant on the Gulf. Its Gulf patrons enabled the coup of 2013. The financial-aid package that effectively was $20 billion of assistance from Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Kuwait made the coup possible. Without the reassurance of that financial assistance. I’m not sure that the coup would have happened. And, you know, since that time, there have been serious frictions between Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. It hasn’t been a particularly seamless relationship, and that’s not surprising, because Egypt doesn’t see itself as a kind of secondary inferior power. And it’s a very difficult position for Egypt to be in, this position of reliance.

EB: Today, Egypt largely appears to be back where started. In fact, it may even be worse off. More Egyptians live in poverty, are unemployed, or languish in prison for their political beliefs than ten years ago.

Archive recording: Many Egyptians welcomed President Sisi’s military coup in 2013, but he has produced a rule that is far more repressive than anything that happened even under President Mubarak.

EB: As long as these conditions persist, the possibility of another uprising can't be ruled out. But Michael says that the transformational openings witnessed in 2011 are rare and difficult to predict.

MWH: You know, the conditions exist that could produce uprisings in many places and in many, in many times, but they are the state of exception. They are not the norm. You know, we don’t see revolutions, we don’t see uprisings. And of course, it is such a complex and unpredictable coming together of various factors that produces these events. And so we can note risk factors. We can say, here are all the reasons why instability could happen, but I don’t think we can go too far beyond that, because, you know, I can note all of the various risk factors that exist in many countries in the region. And more often than not, they don’t give rise to instability in a sense.

You know, repression is quite powerful. It’s not a predictor of good governance by any stretch. In fact, usually it is the opposite, but if you hold all of the course of power, and you have at least the grudging acquiescence and support of the state and the security sector, you can do a lot. You see that in Syria, where violence has destroyed the state, but it has maintained the Assad regime in place, you know, at unfathomable costs. There are reasons to think that another uprising isn’t as likely. People are scared and tired. A lot of people became quite jaundiced about the experience and saw the instability ushered in by the uprising and the toppling of Mubarak as a setback to their own personal security and wellbeing. So, there’s some alienation with the experience, you know. The capacity to organize and to engage in political life is very limited at the moment. There isn’t Egyptian politics at the moment, and those who engage in and try to engage in politics do so at great risk, because the state has made clear that it is willing to use violence and repression to squelch that kind of activity.

EB: So, given the issues you mentioned, another Egyptian revolution seems pretty unlikely anytime soon. Still, there are many that say that the country’s Arab Spring was less of a failure and more of an ongoing process. Did the uprising lead to any positive political or social changes that can still be seen today?

MWH: Yeah, I mean, was it a failure? Well, I think if when we were in Tahrir Square ten years ago, if we were told that this is where Egypt would be ten years into the future, I think we all would have thought that was failure. You know, there’s, there’s no reason to be definitive, to say that it’s done nothing, it has had no impact. It’s not to say any of those things, but ten years on, the aspirations that really animated the uprising, those have been dashed. They haven’t come to pass. You know, that being said, of course, the uprising and its aftermath have led to much reconsideration. I think people have gone into introspection about what went wrong. So at that level of political experience, I think there is value. Perhaps in the future, if there are political openings in terms of people being better equipped to deal with that possibility. And of course, I think discourse changed. You know, I think we saw that period of openness and dissent and vigorous political contestation also had reverberations elsewhere on women’s rights, on movements against sexual harassment, on LGBTQ rights. Things that, you know, didn’t really exist in any meaningful way in Egyptian discourse. You know, I think some of those things have gotten traction among some segments of Egyptian society over time. And we see this now with, you know, effectively, a renewed campaign against sexual violence and sexual harassment happening right now. It’s not that it has had no impact or left no imprint, but in political terms, in terms of what it produced structurally, of course, it’s been a disappointment. It is an ongoing process. It will have reverberations many years henceforth. But as we look at Egypt, now it’s hard to be anything but dismayed at where it has ended up ten years since.

EB: Michael, thank you so much.

MWH: Thanks for having me.

EB: That was Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and that’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening. We’d love to hear what you think about it. Please rate and review our podcast. Better yet, subscribe on your favorite listening app. You can also follow us on Twitter by searching for @prosyn. That’s P R O S Y N. Until next time, I’m Elmira Bayrasli.

Opinion Has It is produced and edited by Kasia Broussalian. Special thanks to Project Syndicate editors Whitney Arana and Jonathan Stein. Opinion Has It is supported by listeners like you. Thank you. 

Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a non-resident senior fellow at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law.

Elmira Bayrasli is the co-founder and CEO of Foreign Policy Interrupted and the author of From The Other Side of The World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places.

© Project Syndicate 2021