What Happened to the Egyptian Revolution?

By Erika Brady
Columnist, PhD Student at the Handa Center of Terrorism and Political Violence

Almost five years on from the outbreak of the Egyptian Revolution, it is an interesting time to ask what has changed in the country? The casual observer might think not a lot. If you were to look at Egypt in 2010, and again today, the country’s government is run by a former military strongman. The primary aim of the Revolution was to overthrow the corrupt government of Hosni Mubarak and to bring democracy to the country. However, to say that nothing has changed, for the better or for the worse, would be incorrect and the result of only superficial analysis. For the casual observer, it may appear that the Revolution, which held such hope for democracy, failed in its aims. But did it?

For the casual observer, it may appear that the Revolution, which held such hope for democracy, failed in its aims. But did it?

The revolution in Egypt arose out of a need for change which had been fermenting for many years. President Mubarak, a former member of the Egyptian Air Force, had come into power in the early 1980s, and was just one thread in the tapestry of military dictatorships that developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s across North Africa and the Middle East.

These dictatorships were to last for decades and gained a foothold primarily in reaction to unpopular regimes established following World War II, many of which were seen to be ‘puppets’ of the West. It seems unlikely that anyone expected these dictators to stay in power quite as long as they did. Flexibility was not a word commonly used to describe these regimes, and change was slow to non-existent in the countries. Twenty first century problems required twenty first century leaders.

At the time of the Egyptian Revolution, the main economic issues requiring attention included youth unemployment, high levels of poverty, low wages and continued population growth which was moving to urban areas and creating significant pressures on cities. Political issues such as state-of-emergency laws, a highly questionable electoral process and rampant corruption contributed to the volatile situation, and in January 2011, the occupation of Tahir Square in Cairo by largely peaceful protesters began. Western attention was drawn to this Revolution above others for many reasons, including its historically strong relationship with the West and the hope that democracy could be established. The result of the Revolution was the fall of Mubarak’s government, ironically with the help of the military.

In its first ‘free’ elections, a plethora of new and old political parties came to the fore. A clear frontrunner was Mohamed Morsi, who was selected to represent the Freedom and Justice Party. A leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation that had been deemed illegal by the former President Mubarak, he was seen as the opposite of what the previous regime had represented.

On the wave of optimism espoused by the ‘successful’ Revolution, there was a huge voter turnout and the world seemed to be on the brink of witnessing the first dictatorship turned democracy in the region. 

On the wave of optimism espoused by the ‘successful’ Revolution, there was a huge voter turnout and the world seemed to be on the brink of witnessing the first dictatorship turned democracy in the region.  Morsi won the election with a 51.7 percent majority and was the first elected president of Egypt in decades. However, all of this optimism could not completely obscure the many difficulties and weaknesses which plagued the election, and protests would continue throughout Morsi’s presidency. 

These came to a head in July 2013, when after only being President of Egypt for little over a year, the military stepped in and removed President Morsi from power. He was arrested and would later be put on trial. Protests continued as Morsi’s supporters demanded he be released. The military coup was led by the then Minister of Defence Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, who claimed that the military only stepped in at the request of the Egyptian people. Al-Sisi installed an interim government, and in March 2014 he retired from the military in order to enter politics. By the end of May 2014, al-Sisi had been elected President with only one legitimate opponent. Egypt was once again under the leadership of a military strong man.

Of course, this factual overview omits significant important details. The process of democratisation has never been smooth or perfect, and Egypt’s first interaction with it led to three years of hardship and instability. Just as Mubarak’s government brutally curtailed freedoms and those it considered opponents, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, so too did Morsi’s government imprison and restrict the freedoms of its opponents. Morsi also tried to give himself unlimited powers through the newly developed constitution, a process plagued with problems in every aspect. This action ultimately led to his demise.

Having analysed the problems which plagued Egypt at the time of the Egyptian Revolution in January 2011, can we say that anything has changed? In short, yes. The changes have been subtle, and whether they are permanent or not remains to be seen. Egypt’s credit rating has improved, with Moodys raising Egypt’s rating from negative to stable. According to the The World Bank, Egypt’s GDP growth has gone from 1.82 percent in 2011 to 2.2 percent in 2014. Recent polls have been generally positive of his leadership ability, but it remains to be seen whether or not the country has become truly democratic. Will Al-Sisi give up his presidency at the end of his term? At this time, it is anyone’s guess.

Will Al-Sisi give up his presidency at the end of his term? At this time, it is anyone’s guess.

Another interesting perspective on the changes which have taken place in Egypt since 2011 can be found in the recently published Global Peace Index. A wide number of indicators were taken into consideration in creating a picture of the state of peace in the various countries of the world. In 2011, Egypt ranked 85 out of 162 countries evaluated. In 2015, its rank has dropped to 137 out 162 countries. Issues such as ‘political instability’ and ‘internal conflict’ have improved since 2011, but equally, issues such as ‘violent demonstrations,’ ‘violent crime’ and ‘political terror’ have worsened. Interestingly, the issue of ‘security officers and police’ has maintained a very high level of concern, with a score of 4.5 out of 5 (5 being the highest concern) in both years.

The situation in Egypt is not the same as it was before the Egyptian Revolution. The people have stood up to two governments and succeeded in having them overthrown. The ominous aspect of that scenario has been the involvement of the military in both cases. But that being said, the situation is constantly shifting, and is certainly showing more signs of progress under the current government than that of President Morsi. Opinion polls are overwhelmingly positive, but this smacks somewhat of selective samples.

Egypt has a long and difficult path ahead of it, but there is a modicum of hope that reforms can be made for the betterment of the population.     

Either way, opinion on any leader is going to be mixed. It is very early days yet to see whether or not the Egyptian people are better off than they were five years ago. But as to the question of whether or not anything has changed, the answer has to be a resounding yes. Egypt has a long and difficult path ahead of it, but there is a modicum of hope that reforms can be made for the betterment of the population.

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Feature image courtesy of Al Jazeera English,  WikiMedia Commons

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