Disembarking from my Egypt Air flight and walking toward passport control in Terminal 3 of Cairo International Airport, I was struck by a bank advertisement that referred to a “new” way of doing business in post-revolutionary Egypt.
Other signs carried a comment from former Italian President Silvio Berlusconi about Egyptians “writing history” anew and a statement from U.S. President Barack Obama referring to the Egyptian youth as “a source of inspiration” for their American counterparts.
These ghostly reminders of the January 25, 2011 revolution seem intended to convince visitors they have arrived in a new, post-revolutionary Egypt.
President Mohamed Morsi’s November 22, 2012 constitutional decree, granting himself sweeping powers, as well as mass popular resistance against the decree’s symbolism– namely, its suggestion of the rise of another authoritarian ruler–demonstrate that Egypt’s revolution is far from over.
The period between these two critical moments, January 25, 2011 and November 22, 2012, reveals the multifaceted and nonlinear nature of the Egyptian revolution. Events during the intervening period have shown that a multiplicity of actors claim to speak and act on behalf of the revolution, ascribing many varied meanings to it.
For the youth who helped spark the first moments of revolutionary zeal, the revolution meant a complete reformation of existing state power structures. Atop the ashes of the Mubarak regime, the youth hoped to erect an inclusive and democratic social contract between the state and Egyptian society.
For the Muslim Brotherhood, the revolution was an instrument for capturing state power. Initially, the group hesitated to join the uprising, but threw in its support later as the movement gained momentum. Once in power, the Brotherhood had no intention of expanding the social contract to include larger segments of Egyptian society.
For the felul, remnants of the Mubarak regime, the revolution threatened their privileged position. They rejected the revolutionary movement and have continued to oppose its course ever since.
Under the pressures of electoral politics, these players have been forced to enter into uneasy and ever-changing alliances. Amidst these political power struggles, the military, one of the oldest state institutions in Egypt, attempted to remain neutral in order to maintain its political hegemony. However, as the Brotherhood proved to be the stronger political player in this struggle, an alliance between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood began to develop.
January 25, 2011 and November 22, 2012 Compared
The regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was based on three pillars. The first was one of hierarchical corporatism that weakened the social contract between citizen and state, and placed the Egyptian people under the control of familial and sectarian communal powers.
The second was a pragmatism that placed the interests of the powerful above everything else.
The third pillar was one of neoliberal economic policies that created an increasingly wide gap between the rich and the poor.
This trinity of oppression increasingly marginalized large sections of society including the Islamists, of which the Muslim Brotherhood was the most mobilized and organized group.
January 25, 2011 brought the masses together against this oppressive and autocratic government. Despite ideological, religious, and class differences, demonstrators at Tahrir Square united against oppression.
Mubarak’s ouster on February 11, 2011 left a significant power vacuum in Egyptian politics. Even after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed the reigns of power, this power gap continued. In different ways, the revolutionary youth, the Islamists, and the felul fought to fill the vacuum.
The revolutionary youth took to the streets to oppose attempts by the felul to remain in power. The Muslim Brotherhood participated in street politics alongside the revolutionary youth and against the continued power of the felul. At the same time, members of the Muslim Brotherhood struggled against each other in party politics.
Initially, it appeared that the January 25 revolution would reform the existing power structure by establishing civilian control over the military. Morsi’s victory in the June 2012 presidential election, in a way, seemed to assure the end of enduring military power in Egypt and its replacement by civilian rule.
This radical shift had the potential to genuinely reform the existing power structure in Egypt. However, Morsi’s November 22 constitutional decree and the passage of Egypt’s new constitution only a few weeks later have left little hope that these reforms will become a reality.
Revolutionary Processes: Reforming the State or Capturing It?
The emerging alliance between the militaryand the Muslim Brotherhood marginalized the revolutionary youth. Evidence of an alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military is clear in Articles 197 and 198 of the new constitution. The ambiguous wording of these articles seems to grant significant power to the military to try civilians in military courts for “committing crimes that harm the military.” The recent arrest of Mohamed Sabry, a photographer, for filming border guards at security checkpoints in the Sinai is a vivid example of the application of these articles.
In a similar vein, human rights activists criticized a law Morsi recently issued, Law 107/2012 of December 9, 2012, which was intended to guarantee security at polling stations during the constitutional referendum. The law was criticized for its vagueness and for not limiting, or even defining, the boundaries of power granted to the military.
Morsi’s November 22 constitutional decree could not have happened without this military alliance. While the military is the most powerful state institution that could have challenged Morsi’s consolidation of power, for two reasons the decree did not pose a threat to its status. First, the Brotherhood had already assured the military that its privileges would continue during the new era of supposed civilian rule. Second, with Morsi at the helm, the military would no longer bear the burden of delivering economic, social, and political reforms.
The decree itself is important for two reasons. First, it reflected the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to use the revolution to capture state power. Second, as a result of the Brotherhood’s blatant power grab, youth activists had a second chance to reclaim the zeal of January 25, and start a genuine revolutionary process, this time against the Brotherhood’s political ambitions.
Together with many other Egyptians, the youth responded to the November 22 decree with mass demonstrations. Various television channels and newspapers held general strikes and certain judges refused to supervise the constitutional referendum.
This popular resistance spurred the Brotherhood to increase its suppression of dissidents.
This included the torture of protesters at the Presidential Palace and the violation of press and media freedoms through the harassment of journalists and top television personalities. Most recently, Bassem Youssef, a political satirist and the producer of the satirical news show “The Program,” was officially charged with insulting President Morsi.
Morsi’s decree has harmed the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to gain popularity and to consolidate power, and increased widespread resistance in both the streets and party politics. Mass demonstrations took place in the aftermath of the decree’s announcement, and inspired the divided opposition to unite as the National Salvation Front (NSF).
The NSF suffered from leadership problems and was slow to agree on a common strategy toward the constitutional referendum held in December 2012. For example, the group’s decision to vote “No,” rather than boycott the referendum, came only four days before the first round of voting on December 15.
Nevertheless, the NSF is the only means through which popular resistance to the Muslim Brotherhood will transform into party politics. It is important to refer here to recent talks between the NSF and the Strong Egypt Party, which is headed by Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, a moderate Islamist, for a possible alliance during the elections.
Although such an alliance seems unlikely at the moment, as Egypt prepares for parliamentary elections in April, it is profoundly important that the NSF and other political actors aspiring to revive the January 25 revolution use the opportunity unintentionally created by Morsi’s November 22 decree to continue reforming the Egyptian state.
This chance to realize the goals of Egypt’s revolution is a crucial one that should not be missed this time around. Yet we are left to wonder which revolutionary vision will prevail: an inclusive and democratic regime or the replacement of one autocratic regime for another. Perhaps the size and persistence of demonstrations expected on January 25, 2013, the revolution’s second anniversary, will help answer this question.