The January 25th revolution has brought about a new era in Egypt. But, while many things appear to have changed, it seems like much has stayed the same.

While Mubarak is gone, a military-backed authoritarian regime remains in place, now with President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood at its helm.

The police state remains in tact with a massive security apparatus that continues to terrorize, detain and torture Egyptian civilians with impunity.

Neoliberal capitalism holds sway over the country’s economy, as confirmed by Morsi’s determination to accept an IMF loan that bodes harsh structural changes and more economic depression for Egypt.

What has changed, seems to have changed for the worse. There has been a notable lack of security around major Egyptian cities, which has led to increased crime and a general feeling of insecurity. There appear to be deepening rifts within social groups in the country, based on competing visions about Egypt’s future. While this is to be expected and is not necessarily negative, continuing authoritarian practices on the part of Egypt’s elite mean that these competing visions are used to divide and rule, leading to false binaries such as secular vs. religious and liberal vs. Islamist, which tend to simplify more complex ideological realities.

Within this seemingly gloomy narrative, however, there are bright rays of light that hint at positive changes emerging from the on-going revolutionary struggle. Among the most important transformations is the opening up of Egypt’s public sphere.

The Egyptian public sphere is a space within which multiple understandings of political and social issues are projected. It is also a highly contested space, over which the regime has traditionally had strong control before the 2011 revolution.

Starting in the early 2000s, changes in communication technologies began to impact the nature of the public sphere in Arab countries. The first was the introduction of satellite channels, which became an alternative source of information to then-dominant state-controlled channels. The Al Jazeera network, which had been founded in the 1990s, represented a particularly direct challenge to authoritarian states, creating spaces within which differing ideologies could compete.

The second influential technology was social media. Blogging, in particular, was an important tool used by Egyptian activists during the last decade of former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, and rapidly became a space within which free discussions and debates could occur between Egyptian activists. Facebook groups such as Kolena Khaled Said and Twitter accounts provided yet another layer of debate and dissent to the expanding public sphere.

By the start of the 2011 revolution, it had become clear that new technologies had succeeded in changing the terms of the debate. The public sphere was no longer strictly controlled by the Egyptian state but had slowly been pried open and was hosting numerous competing ideas.

During the revolution, graffiti emerged as another direct challenge to the state from within the public sphere. Graffiti quickly became a means through which revolutionaries countered dominant state narratives. During events such as the Maspero Massacre in November 2011 or Ittihadeyya (the massive demonstrations that were held in front of the presidential palace starting December 2012), graffiti regularly emerged as a tool with which revolutionaries could share their perspective on events.

For example, one of the most well known graffiti murals was one with Mubarak’s face shifting into the face of military commander and head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Hussein Tantawi—a statement that demonstrated a widespread suspicion among activists that SCAF and Mubarak both belonged to the same corrupt state framework.

More recently, social media, satellite television, and graffiti have also been used to address major social issues. The problem of sexual harassment, for example, has been the subject of numerous talk shows, articles, tweets, and graffiti murals.

This attention has allowed sexual harassment to become an important and electrifying topic within the Egyptian public sphere. More importantly, these tools have allowed women’s voice to emerge more clearly and defiantly.

Much of the discussion around sexual harassment centres on the state-sponsored sexual assaults that have been happening in Tahrir Square, which that have led to harsh criticism of the state and the president. This discussion has also shone a spotlight on major problems in Egyptian society that many believe are causing a high incidence of sexual harassment, including gender inequality, unemployment, and general apathy and frustration with a broken political system.

These types of debates are new in the sense that they are overtly and unashamedly politicized—as any discussion of sexual harassment should be.

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Another example is the re-purposing of a mural that appears on Mohamed Mahmoud, a street near Tahrir Square that has become a central location for revolutionary graffiti.

The original image contained a homophobic message which was painted-over with the statement: “homophobia is not revolutionary.” Pictures of the image, “before” and “after,” were widely shared on social media, and sparked numerous conversations about homophobia in Egyptian society.

Again, one wonders if these discussions would have been permitted as part of the public sphere five years ago, or whether the state would have clamped down on debate that challenged political or social norms.

The re-painting of the homophobic mural and public discussions about the seriousness of sexual harassment both represent debates within Egyptian society that are finally being allowed to take place publicly. These types of contestations are essential to the revolutionary process, and are a means by which controversial— and often painful—discussions can be had in creative ways.

When the state exercises complete control over public spaces, political and social issues fester under the surface, threatening to explode at any moment. The revolution has allowed many of these issues to emerge into the public. This is unlikely to have happened without the increasing prominence of art, music, social media, and satellite television, all of which challenged the state in public spaces, and to some extent democratized the public sphere.

January 25 managed to bring about an important psychological, social and political shift in consciousness that has had dramatic effects on public debate and the public sphere in Egypt. This, at least, is something to be thankful for.

2 Responses

  1. Anne Quillet

    While your article is interesting, please stop perpetuating the false notion that “The January 25th revolution has brought about a new era” there is no such thing and you know it well as your following sentence goes”while many things appear to have changed, it seems like much has stayed the same.”
    It just about managed, as you very rightly conclude “to bring about an important psychological, social and political shift in consciousness that has had dramatic effects on public debate and the public sphere in Egypt. This, at least, is something to be thankful for.”
    Although “dramatic” should be understood in a theatrical context….it would be closer to the truth.
    PS : I live in Egypt and have done so for over 30 years.

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  2. Sara Salem

    Anne,

    I stand by my claim that it has brought about a new era. The fact that we speak of pre and post Jan 25 is enough proof of that. A new era doesn’t mean a complete break from the past, or even significant changes, as I made clear in the article. It means a shift in politics, which I think is exactly what happened in Egypt – even if the shift is not what we wanted.

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