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Egypt's lost revolution: Can it be reclaimed?

Pro-revolution groups must unite the masses and explain to them what went wrong with the January revolution if they are to avoid past mistakes

One of the main challenges that faces the groups who led the 25 January, 2011 revolution in Egypt is the need to find a common judgment regarding how their revolution was stolen, and how to reclaim it.

Very often, religious activists, like those belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, blame secular and youth groups who supported the 3 July, 2013 military coup. On the other side, youth activists often see Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as too ideological and partisan, blaming them for the failed revolution.

The two groups may unite in criticising the negative role of the military and regional states since the revolution. In this regard, Muslim Brotherhood activists will place most of the blame on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel for supporting the military coup politically and financially. On the other side, youth groups will criticise Qatar and Turkey for supporting Morsi, despite his polarising policies.

Yet, the lack of shared understanding regarding how Egypt's revolution initially won and then failed is clear and represents a fundamental challenge to any efforts to steer Egypt back toward the goals of the revolution.

Putting all the blame on new political forces will only serve to deepen the political divide, dilute public awareness and misguide any efforts seeking to reclaim the principles of that struggle.

In this regard, I would argue that Egypt's revolution - like many other modern revolutions - is made up of six factors.

First, revolutions often occur under authoritarian regimes who are suffering from strong political or economic crises. Egypt united to remove Mubarak from power because of his crony capitalism, deteriorating public services, rising poverty and unemployment, police brutality, and lack of democratic institutions.

Many of these factors remain today under the rule of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The country's economic conditions remain almost the same, if not worse, after four years of political and economic instability. Thousands of political activists are in jail amid a wave of what many see as unprecedented repression, surpassing the conditions even during the worst years of Mubarak's rule.

Yet, despite widespread suffering, the masses who revolted against Mubarak seem reluctant this time to stand up to Sisi. Fear may be a reason, but factors that made the January revolution a success are lacking today.

Second, revolutions unite around a shared general vision or ideology for the future. The January revolution succeeded because it was leaderless and it raised non-partisan shared slogans, such as bread, freedom and social justice. It was neither religious nor secular. It united people around a vague vision of Egypt without Mubarak, his sons, crony capitalists and oppressive police.

Yet, only a few weeks after Mubarak stepped down, the ideological divide was paramount and defeating. The revolutionary camp was divided across religious versus secular lines. Despite holding several votes, both religious and secular camps were deeply divided internally, polarisation swelled, leading to deadly street clashes between the two camps, who eventually resorted to the security institutions - who were hardly reformed since Mubarak stepped down - to intervene.

Third, the revolution witnessed deep divisions within the ruling regime. The massive protest wave that engulfed Egypt in early 2011 forced many in the ruling elite to switch sides. Many believed that the Mubarak regime was ailing and failed to keep the right balance between its internal factions, especially between the rising business and political elites centred around Mubarak's son, Jamal, and the military, whose leaders felt sidelined politically and economically and feared for their future if Jamal succeeded his father (considering that Jamal, unlike his father, does don't come from the military). Therefore, when the military leadership reluctantly sided with the protest wave in January 2011, Mubarak could not stay in power.

At this moment, it is not clear how united the military is and how cohesive Egypt's political and economic elites are under Sisi. Recent widely-circulated audio leaks from Sisi's office, (when he was a defence minister and after ousting Morsi), have caused many to believe that competing forces inside the military are in conflict with one another. Some also believe that the military's rising political and economic role is perceived by the business class with lots of suspicion. Others believe that parliamentary elections were postponed several times when the Sisi regime couldn’t find dependable political allies.

On the other hand, Egypt continues to be deeply divided between those who support the Sisi regime and those who support the return of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Sisi regime also enjoys strong support from the bureaucratic, security, business, and judicial elites, who fear vengeful consequences if the Brotherhood returns to power.

Fourth, revolutions succeed if they find regional and international support. After Mubarak stepped down, the Obama regime was widely criticised by some Gulf states for not giving up on Mubarak, who was America's ally for 30 years. Increasingly, the Middle East was divided between a pro-revolution camp, mainly Turkey, Qatar and the political religious movements across the Arab world, versus a counter-revolutionary camp, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, old regime loyalists and some secular and minority groups who feared the rise of Muslim groups to power.

When Morsi was removed from power, Gulf countries rushed to send about $11 bn to support the new regime and later, an extra $5-9 bn. Further polarisation was felt across the region and inside the other states that witnessed similar revolutions. It also deepened the crises inside countries like Libya, where political groups turned into fighting militias, and Yemen, which witnessed an armed takeover of the state by Houthi militias.

The fall of Yemen under Houthi support made some analysts think that Saudi Arabia, especially under new leadership, may change policy and try to lead a more conciliatory approach toward the Arab Spring in order to gain needed grassroots support for a new policy toward Iran, Yemen, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State, as militant groups encroach on its borders.

Fifth, revolutions need leaders capable of making strategic decisions in an uncertain transitional period. Egypt's revolution was initially praised for being leaderless, post-ideological and widely influenced by new media. But soon the lack of unity among its competing factions was seen as a primary reason behind its failure. Many Egyptians today are frustrated with all political groups. Such frustration may explain their reluctance to protest against Sisi's oppressive rule.

Finally, peaceful revolutions like Egypt's need full participation from all segments of society. Security forces fail to crackdown on revolutions mainly when they fail to categorise them into this or that group. The January revolution was an unprecedented show of unity among Muslims, Christians, religious, secularists, Cairo and the peripheries. Yet, such unity is long lost and polarisation is paramount.

Therefore, Egypt's pro-revolution groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and youth activists, may continue to protest and call for the fulfilment of their revolutionary goals, but these demonstrations will stop short from achieving their aims until a more comprehensive understanding and approach toward revolution is adopted.

If pro-revolution groups want to reclaim the revolutionary momentum, they must develop a shared vision and a united leadership. They must create allies inside the ruling elites, the military, and within regional and international forces. More importantly, they must reach out to the masses, unite them, calm their fears, and explain to them what went wrong with the January revolution and how to avoid the mistakes of the past. One-sided views of the past will not help.  

- Alaa Bayoumi is an Arab journalist and researcher interested in US and Middle East politics

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: The fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution is marred by bloodshed (AFP)