In a display of determination and anger, thousands of Egyptians flocked to the streets on January 25, 2011 to participate in what has come to be known as the ‘Day of Wrath’ against the last thirty years of corruption, torture and poverty in their country. The extent and range of these protests, while not unheard of in Egyptian history, have been unprecedented since 1977. While demonstrations occurring in the country over the last 5-10 years have focused on discrete problems, such as labor or economic issues, the current mass protests bear little resemblance to these past events. Though many have noted the unique circumstances and characteristics of these current protests, they have nonetheless attempted to dissect and understand these developments in terms of recent Egyptian history. By contrast, in order to fully appreciate the significance and potential effects of these protests, what is needed is an examination of events that took place further back in Egypt’s past. These events, which have come to shape and define Egyptian society, provide a deeper understanding of the character, breadth, government response and implications of the January 25 uprising, which more short-term comparisons have failed to do.
Facts and Figures: The Factors Inspiring and Defining the Egyptian Revolt
For Egyptians, countless reasons exist to justify revolt, a reality reflected in the variety of factions that have participated in the January 25 demonstrations. Corruption at all levels of government, unemployment, poverty, poor healthcare, an unreliable law system coupled with police brutality and the absence of political and civil freedoms have all conspired to bring Egyptians out onto the streets. While the government has made claims to ‘unprecedented’ economic growth over the past ten years, the stark deterioration in the social, economic and political circumstances of Egyptians has cast a grim shadow on the government’s exuberance. As is clear to most, Egypt’s economic ‘growth’, if it can be called that, has benefited only a small segment of the population, which has controlled the economy and supported the political status quo since Egypt first began pursuing privatization and other neoliberal economic policies over thirty years ago. These prominent tycoons, who have greatly benefited from the dismantling of the public sector, are now among Egypt’s main political players and regime supporters.
While protests may be nothing new in contemporary Egypt, the country’s ongoing uprising has certain unique aspects, setting it apart from other events in Egypt’s recent history. Foremost among these is the sheer magnitude and breadth of these protests. While Cairo’s Tahrir Square witnessed the largest demonstration, ranging between 10-20 thousand protestors, people in nearly all major Egyptian cities participated in the revolts. That the protests were initiated and carried out without the guidance of any specific political party represents another crucial aspect of these events. As such, in many ways, the demonstrations have served more as an expression of a middle class awakening and less as a vehicle for any specific party agenda. Galvanized by social networking sites, which have played a critical role in both the planning and spread of the revolts, the majority of participants reportedly have no history of political involvement or particular party affiliation. And while the protests have undoubtedly been inspired by recent developments in Tunisia, they have also been fueled by years of oppression and injustice inside Egypt.
The government’s reaction to the Day of Revolt, which has continued for the last thee days and may last for even longer, revealed much about its current strategy towards the demonstrations and the implications this may have on the future of the protests. Between downplaying the magnitude of the demonstrations, ignoring protestors’ demands and branding participants as criminals, the government’s behavior has been nothing short of patronizing. At the same time, the regime has placed full responsibility for the uprising on the Muslim Brotherhood, in the hopes of accomplishing several goals. First, these accusations have been aimed at undermining the popular nature of the movement. Secondly, by associating the demonstrations with the Brotherhood, the government has hoped to dissuade many potential protestors, who do not want to act under an Islamic umbrella. Finally, in its coverage of the events, the government’s media arm has been careful to exclude any reference to protestor demands for the government’s complete removal, including the expulsion of President Hosni Mubarak and the end of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif’s government, as well as their call for the democratic reforms. Perhaps appreciating the unprecedented nature of these demands, official media news reports have claimed that protestors have called for better economic conditions, more freedoms and better educational opportunities, without mentioning their demands for a completely new system of government.
It is perhaps the magnitude of the protests’ messaging and more importantly the popular support they have received, which has kept the government wary of making any concessions. Instead, the government response has been characterized by feeble tolerance on the first day of demonstrations and violent suppression thereafter. In the end, however, the government’s decision to turn a blind eye to the protestors’ demands may do little more than further fuel the uprising and turn a unique moment in Egyptian history into the dawning of a more democratic Egyptian state.
Past as Prologue: Mass Protests in Egyptian History
From the overthrow of Egypt’s monarchy in the early 1950s until demonstrations in the 1970s against subsidy cuts, protests have been a force for change in the country’s past. While this circumstance has changed in the last thirty years, the effects of these past successes has remained a deep part of Egyptian identity and serves as a profound reminder of the power of mass mobilization to achieve deep political change in the country. While these events may not hold the key to predicting how the January 25 protests will end, they do provide some reason to believe that today’s protestors may be more successful in reaching their demands than policymakers, commentators and Egyptian officials may currently believe.
The circumstances surrounding the events of January 26, 1952, usually referred to as ‘The Burning of Cairo’, arguably share many core similarities with the January 25th revolts. Often considered as the beginning of the end of Egypt’s monarchy, the Burning of Cairo took place at a time in Egyptian history, which was characterized by extreme social stratification and an economic system transitioning from feudalism to capitalism. During this period, a handful of nobles controlled most of the Egyptian economy, not unlike the business elite that currently dominates Egyptian economic and political life. Unemployment was rampant, and the majority of Egyptians had little recourse but to accept positions as migrant laborers. While the British colonial presence had officially ended in 1922, British interests continued to control Egypt’s political and economic trajectory, a circumstance that had long compromised the legitimacy of the monarchy in the eyes of many Egyptians.
The Burning of Cairo was the main event in a series of protests and skirmishes that defined this period. Mobs of Egyptians took to the street to burn down the symbols of their exploitation. Landmarks like the Groppi and Shepherd Hotel, luxurious sites frequented by the elite classes, were vandalized. While these events did not yield instant change or reform, they did signal the end of an era of submission and the beginning of a sustained pattern of revolt against the status quo.[i] With the revolutionary potential of these events rising, the Burning of Cairo and its associated protests may have laid the road for the bloodless revolution carried out by a group of military officers on July 23, 1952, which ousted Egypt’s King Farouk and brought an end to the popular uprising.
The Revolution, led by army colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser (ruling from 1954-1970) dismantled the existing monarchic structure and instituted rigorous economic policies of land reform, nationalization and industrialization. This system remained intact until the regime’s defeat in the 1967 War.
The second instance of mass protest in Egypt came in 1967, after the country’s defeat by Israel in the 1967 War. On June 9, 1967, President Nasser declared his intention to assume full responsibility for the loss, as well as his decision to resign from his post as president. Shortly thereafter, nearly three million Egyptians flooded the streets of Cairo chanting “No imperialism! No dollar! No leader but Gamal!” While there is little doubt of Nasser’s popularity, concerns with the possible negative consequences to Egypt’s economic reform program, as well as neocolonialist threats to the country’s sovereignty, played a role in generating popular support for protests calling for Nasser to remain in office.
The protests also reflected a desire amongst Egyptians to hold their leader accountable for his actions and promises. Protest participants by and large wanted Nasser to take responsibility for his shortcomings not through resignation, but through continued action, reform and resistance in office. The three million protestors that gathered on June 9, 1967 sought to hold their leader to the promises he had made to the Egyptian people, to have him face the shortcomings of his regime and to work towards achieving the economic prosperity and equality that had inspired and justified the Revolution. [ii]
The Bread Riots
The final and most recent instance of mass uprising came ten years later in January 18-19, 1977, after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat announced an end to all subsidies on flour, rice and cooking oil as well as any upcoming state employee pay raises and bonuses, all of which had been established under Nasser. This policy shift came in response to conditions placed by the World Bank on its contemplated loan to Egypt, aimed at relieving the country’s bloated deficit.
From the 1952 Revolution until the 1977 subsidy cuts, much had changed within Egypt’s political and economic scenes. Nasser had long passed and with him Egypt’s state development and industrialization project. New policies of economic openness had taken center stage. While these changes brought progress and economic growth, their effects were felt less within the productive sectors, such as manufacturing, and more in the areas of petroleum and tourism. An increase in remittances from Egyptians working abroad also contributed to the country’s supposed economic growth. While the Sadat period also saw an increase in trade and exports, the increase in luxury imports was unparalleled, reaching over 300 times the level of exports during Sadat’s rule.[iii] With the establishment of these free trade policies and increases in imports, the government sunk deep into a budget deficit. At the same time, sovereign debt, which had increased both during and after Nasser’s presidency, had accrued significant interest, putting Egypt in dire need of immediate financial assistance.
Subsidies, which had been established under Nasser in an attempt to contribute to economic equity and development, had now become a burden on the state budget. In order to control its increasing deficit crisis, Egypt looked to the World Bank for financial help. As part of the conditions for its assistance, the World Bank demanded that Egypt cancel its subsidy program. This was a potentially destabilizing move for the Egyptian government, as millions of Egyptians could ill afford to live without these subsidies.
In response to these developments, Egyptians protested in the hundreds of thousands, invoking Nasser’s name and chanting “Oh hero of the crossing, where is our breakfast?” To this day, this event is known in Egypt as “The Bread Riots,” attesting to the extreme pressures these World Bank conditions placed on daily subsistence needs in the country. While the government managed to curb these riots with an iron fist, it nevertheless succumbed to the people’s will by maintaining the subsidies, raises and bonuses. In many ways, the neoliberal policies that began under Anwar Sadat, which continue to this day, played as much of a role in inspiring the January 25th Day of Wrath as they did the Bread Riots over 30 years ago.
Undoubtedly, much occurred in the 25 years between the Burning of Cairo and the Bread Riots, including changes in the country’s political climate, economic policy and international circumstances, which had profound effects on Egyptian society. Nonetheless, concerns regarding Egypt’s economic and political trajectories lay at the heart of the three uprisings that defined this period.
Similarly, while there exist major differences between the January 25, 2011 Day of Wrath and past instances of Egyptian revolt, there are also similarities to be considered and several lessons to be learned. Egypt’s political and social situation on the eve of the 1952 Revolution parallels much of what the problems currently facing the country. In terms of substances, the neoliberal economic policies fueling the 1977 demonstrations have also brought Egyptians to the street in 2011.
By contrast, the number and demographic diversity of today’s protestors give the January 25 demonstrations a more popular feel as well as a heightened sense of importance. At the same time, it is precisely the popular character of the January 25 movement, which may make these uprisings vulnerable to co-opting by one political faction or another, a result that would likely skew the demands and aims associated with the uprising. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had initially opposed the demonstrations, changed its position to one of limited but symbolic support, and is now fully-committed to participating in the demonstrations. To this end, the Brotherhood has issued a statement encouraging people to participate in protests planned for this Friday, January 28th, which have already been dubbed “The Friday of Anger.” Mohamed ElBaradei has also displayed more support for the protests in recent days, issuing a statement calling for Mubarak to step down as president and expressing his willingness to lead an interim government. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood, ElBaradei or other political factions can exert control over the trajectory of these revolts (or whether new developments will alter the course of events in the meantime) is yet to be seen.
The levels of social, economic, and political desperation experienced by the Egyptian people, coupled with the inspiration of Tunisia, have created an atmosphere for the January 25 revolts to materialize and grow. It is still too early to tell just how far this uprising will go and what practical implications it will have. As Egyptian history demonstrates, however, these protests will likely have far reaching effects upon Egyptian society, even if they do little more than break the shackles of fear and hopelessness that have imprisoned Egyptians for so long. A new era of political awareness and action awaits.
[i] Wilton Wynn, Nasser of Egypt: The Search for Dignity, (Arlington Books, 1959)
[ii] Anouar AbdelMalek, Egypt: Military Society, (Random House, 1968)
[iii] Galal Amin, Egypt’s. Economic Predicament, (E.J. Brill, 1995)