Following 30 years of autocratic rule, the Egyptian people, inspired by the successful ouster of former Tunisian President Ben Ali, carried out a popular revolt in the name of greater rights and freedoms, Government transparency and accountability, and social and economic security, inter alia. The Egyptian uprising was long in the waiting, with different factions representing all walks of Egyptian life expecting and, therefore, planning for the opportunity to express their discontents and exert their political agency openly and freely for the first time in decades.
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak’s dilatory measures were met with an equally intransigent multitude of protesters, for whom an end to his reign was on the top of their list of demands. After 18 days of protests, centred in Tahrir Square, Mubarak finally announced that he would step aside, allowing for a reversal of the emergency laws that once buttressed his one-man rule, and permitting a reform to the constitution and the possibility for democracy to enter the fray of Egyptian public life.
Mubarak’s abdication is only the first phase of many in a new era for Egyptian politics and society. Egypt’s political system remains fragile, and prospects for democracy are tenuous. Thus, while concerns that democracy might breed instability are as apocryphal as they are counterintuitive, circumspections over the dangers that lie ahead on the road to a democratic Egypt are acute. Measures to wrest power from the military and bestow power to the people are indeed in motion. Yet the likelihood that the protesters, unified in their dissent against their former dictator, will fracture into partisan politics, when competing for control over their republic, remains palpable.
The evolution of the Egyptian revolution: Taking Mubarak down from the bottom up
The Egyptian uprising began on 25 January 2011 in response to a plethora of popular discontents: police brutality, low wages and corruption, the longstanding state of emergency law, and plans for Mubarak’s son to replace him as despot of Egypt, to name a few. The Egyptian Ministry of Health reports that 5,500 people were treated for injuries thus far. At least 365 people were killed during the 18-day uprising, and the toll is expected to rise as the figures are tabulated on a running basis. Human rights groups report that hundreds of people are missing, though many suspect that they could be detainees still held by the military and/or police.
Unlike the Tunisian case, wherein the military quickly abandoned support for Ben Ali, those nearest to Mubarak exhibit an obdurate loyalty to his National Democratic Party (NDP) and regime. Furthermore, despite the fact that the parliament was dissolved and the constitution frozen, old mechanisms in place to maintain Mubarak’s rule within the military establishment are proving difficult to dismantle. The same centres of power remain since Nasser led the Free Officers Movement of 1952. Thus, though most Egyptians are steadfastly hopeful, a free and democratic Egypt is still afar. The saving grace of the revolution secures prospects for democracy into the future: Egypt took Mubarak down from the bottom up.
Protestors carry on indefatigably as the Egyptian military plans for the institution of constitutional reforms. Mohammed Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, met with the “panel of trustees” entrusted with the task of overseeing the reforms on Tuesday, and he will continue to monitor their success. Many are weary as to whether the 75-year old Tantawi is the right person for the job. Tarek Beshri, a little discussed retired Egyptian judge, is chairing the panel. Following the outlining of the plan, a referendum to legitimise the proposed measures is set to take place within two months; the army recently announced that a national election would convene within six.
Wael Ghonim: The Face(book) of the Egyptian revolution
Wael Ghonim is widely credited with leading, if not reinvigorating, the revolution in Egypt through his Facebook page. Citing a “personal problem,” the 30-year old Egyptian-born Google marketing exec left his Dubai-based position for Egypt in January 2011 in order to play a more integral role in organising opposition on the ground. For all his efforts and influence, Ghonim was secretly incarcerated in an Egyptian prison for a gruelling 12-day period beginning on 12 January 2011.
The timing of his release from police custody could not have been more propitious, however. As the protests were reportedly plateauing, Ghonim’s return to Egyptian consciousness on an emotional TV interview on 7 February 2011 was met with widespread fervour. Hundreds of thousands of protestors resumed their posts on the streets of Cairo as proud and committed dissidents of the autocratic state. Bloggers Chris DiBona and Habib Haddad, opposition figure Mostafa Alnagar, and Amnesty International were indispensible in advertising his unexplained absence and in subsequent demands for his discharge. For his part, Ghonim credits social media as the spark and sustainer of the protests: "If there were no social networks it would have never been sparked… Without Facebook, without Twitter, without Google, without YouTube, this would have never happened." Touting pro-democratic revolution par excellence, Ghonim’s Facebook page was host to 400,000 Egyptian followers. On 9 February 2011, Ghonim asseverated: "This is not the time for individuals, or parties, or movements. It's a time for all of us to say just one thing: Egypt above all.”
Professor Fouad Ajami writes: “No turbaned ayatollah had stepped forth to summon the crowd. This was not Iran in 1979. A young Google executive, Wael Ghonim, had energized this protest when it might have lost heart, when it could have succumbed to the belief that this regime and its leader were a big, immovable object. Ghonim was a man of the modern world. He was not driven by piety. The condition of his country—the abject poverty, the crony economy of plunder and corruption, the cruelties and slights handed out to Egyptians in all walks of life by a police state that the people had outgrown and despaired of—had given this young man and others like him their historical warrant.”(2)
Over 130,000 people and counting support the Facebook page entitled "I delegate Wael Ghonim to speak in the name of Egypt's revolutionaries.”(3) A simple Facebook search of Ghonim’s name is more powerful than words can describe. Rolling pages of seemingly endless reference to his name elucidates the magnitude of Ghonim’s influence and veneration. In spite of all this, men identified as bodyguards of the famed Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qardawi, the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, barred Ghonim from taking the stage at Tahrir Square on 18 February 2011, perhaps portending one among many power struggles to ensue. A sermon that Qardawi delivered that day brought Egyptians together in the hundreds of thousands to hear the cleric demand that Arab leaders heed the calls of their people for greater freedom. Qardawi is banned from the United States and Britain as a result of what is considered his radical take on Islam and politics. Across the Arab and Muslim world, he garners tens of millions of loyal fans and religious followers.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s role in post-revolutionary Egypt: Contending democracy or democratic contender?
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), though hitherto outlawed as a political party, is a highly respected religious-cum-political faction. In recent elections, the Brotherhood ran its candidates as nominal independents and took 20% of parliament’s seats. The Egyptian MB’s recent policy proposals included detailed analyses of political, social, and economic reform “that called for a higher council of religious scholars to evaluate Government decisions according to Islamic law.”(4)
For fear mongers, dilettante pundits, and any number of ideologically-driven commentators, the Brotherhood’s freedom of movement in Egyptian politics poses a danger to the republic, not to mention Western interests. Yet there is scant indication that these jejune predictions are accurate. Assam al-Aryan of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau states: “We want a civil state, based on Islamic principles — a democratic state, with a parliamentary system, with freedom to form parties, press freedom, and an independent and fair judiciary.” Ostensibly in direct response to alarmists’ concerns that the Brotherhood’s possible accession to power would bring about a “radical” politics of the state, a BBC report commenting on a discussion between the news agency and al-Aryan notes: “the [MB] movement would not put forward its own candidate in any forthcoming presidential election, and that instead it wanted the opposition to nominate a consensus candidate.”(5)
Indeed, the MB renounced violence decades ago, and after nearly a century of providing social services and relief to the impoverished and disenfranchised, the movement continues to represent a considerable constituency of opposition to the reign of dictators in Egypt and throughout the region. Their vision of democracy and the relationship between religion and state may differ from Western liberal conceptions. Yet it is very much representative of the attitudes towards democracy held by many aspiring democrats among Muslim-majority states.(6) The notion among neo-conservative and neo-liberal circles that democracy will breed instability is absurd. If anything, regional authoritarianism heretofore only masks the instability that it creates, and with the complicity of Western Governments all the more. To wit, initial US reactions were to condemn the revolution in favour of Mubarak. Realpolitik prevailed over the hypocrisy of the politesse that “promotes” democracy and human rights in the region. The respected journalist, Robert Fisk, intimated on al-Jazeera English midway through the protests that the US likely provided pro-Mubarak military factions with tanks and vans from its personal cache. These same vehicles are responsible for mowing down and murdering Egyptian democratic aspirants in failed attempts to suppress the will of the people. Of course, the US reversed its position only once the Obama administration realised the self-seeking and face-saving benefits in doings so. It behoves those who seek to support Egyptian, Arab, and Muslim democracies to reach out to the MB and any and all organisations and parties with legitimate aspirations to democracy, however it may be authorised, articulated, or understood.
The Egyptian economy: Taking a hit for popular sovereignty
Hundreds of Suez Canal workers joined their brethren on strike recently to speak out against poor working conditions and to demand reasonable wages. The Suez Canal, one of the world’s most trafficked waterways, is a major resource for Egyptian state funds. The Canal remains open for the time being. Though Cairene streets have returned to a measure of normalcy—motorists honk frustratingly at pedestrians and at one another, businesses are open and running, and shops and street vendors accost passers-by—an underlying tension over Egypt’s strained economy is keenly felt. Mixed messages and sentiments mark the passing days.
The Government recently announced a 15% pay increase for its civil servants. The army told the banks to remain closed this week (14-20 February 2011). Egypt’s tourism industry, which accounts for roughly 10% of its overall economic output, is in peril. The economy, like the streets, is in deadlock. Egypt’s military, concerned for the wellbeing of its people and in attempts to control the chaos, has strongly condemned the protests as deleterious to the economy and national interests. Of course, a speedy return of the funds that Mubarak and a number of high-profile members of his inner circle pilfered could allay some of these economic strains, yet there is no indication that a restoration of the embezzled monies will take place expeditiously. Watchdog groups report that Mubarak’s family stole as much as US$ 70 billion from his countrymen. His wages as President should amount to no more than US $3,400. Swiss banks froze his assets, and travel bans and asset freezes are also imposed on a number of other former cabinet ministers and businessmen under suspicion of robbing their fellow Egyptians.
Egypt’s credit rating is plummeting, and the reverberations of its economic stagnation may be felt ubiquitously throughout the international community. As for domestic economics, one news source reports: “investors had felt comfortable with the country's former finance minister, Youssef Boutros Ghali, who was credited with implementing economic reforms even as he was blamed in Egypt for unemployment that is likely above 20%. The investors say they are more sceptical of the new finance minister, Samir Radwan, despite his professed understanding of the protesters' grievances.”(7)
Prospects for Arab/Muslim democracies: Towards the post-Islamist turn
Rachel Maddow was, as always, on the mark when she identified the events that transpired in Egypt as a “Berlin Wall moment.” Egypt is widely revered in many parts of the Arab and Muslim world as the epicentre of religious, cultural, and political inspiration. While the round of Egyptian protests that led to the nation’s exultant revolution were catalysed by the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor, and though Wael Ghonim and the role of social media must be lauded for their part, any report that neglects to consider the intricate and dense history of Egyptian politics and dissent is remiss.(8) The April 6 Movement, Kefaya, and the many and diverse social and political movements in Egypt that stand for change; the bloggers, the picketers, and protestors; those willing to stand in the face of torture, imprisonment, and death; none of these people or organisations should go overlooked as seminal participants in Egypt’s history, as well as its future.
This “Berlin Wall moment” to which Maddow alludes is evident in the ongoing mass popular protests across the region. Solidarity marches and protests for change in Libya, Tunisia, Western Sahara, Algeria, Barhain, Yemen, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, and Iran (though not Arab) are deserving of the moniker “2010-2011 Arab World Protests.”(9) Rami G. Khouri avers: “Axiomatically, democratic governance in Egypt, at the heart of the Arab world, must reflect the four principal value systems and social configurations that define the Arab world to various degrees: Arabism, Islamism, tribalism and cosmopolitanism. Such a system that faithfully reflects public opinion is likely to trigger changes in policies around the region and the world.”(10)
To this fourfold bastion of identities and values that are likely to legitimate democracy throughout significant pockets of the Arab/Muslim world to come, it is necessary to look to the emergence of “post-Islamism” as a consequence of the tearing down of the despotic walls that divide these denizens from their ultimate freedom. Fusing a rights-based discourse with religious legitimacy, post-Islamism “has opened up a productive space where pious sensibilities are able to incorporate a democratic ethos… [in] an attempted fusion of elements hitherto often seen as mutually exclusive: religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty. The daring logic is to turn the underlying principles of Islamism on their head by emphasising rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice, ambiguity instead of certainty, historicity rather than fixed scripture, and the future instead of the past.”(11)
The Arab world protests bespeak the turn to post-Islamist discourse and politics. Calls for freedoms of speech and association, democracy, and human rights abound. Post-Islamism (though by no means identified as such in the Arab/Muslim world) is exceedingly regarded as a legitimate and authentic movement, one that has moved away from the rhetoric of the Islamist state towards a democratic state conceived of by way of tolerance and pluralism. For our part, whatever shape these potentially incipient democracies take on, by virtue of democracy qua democracy, it behoves Western regimes to extol and support legitimate indigenous expressions. Ruptures with colonial pasts and authoritarian, post-colonial presents foretell luminous and promising futures for Egypt, the Arab World, and our shared, global community.
(1) Contact Matt Gordner through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit (
(2) Fouad Ajami, ‘Egypt’s “Heroes with no names”’, Wall Street Journal Online, 12 February 2011, http://online.wsj.com.
(3) ‘Profile: Egypt’s Wael Ghonim’, BBC News Middle East, 9 February 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(4) Wittes, T.C., 2008.Three Kinds of Movements. Journal of Democracy, vol. 19(3), pp. 9-10; Hamzawy, Amr and Brown, Nathan J., 2008. A Boon or a Bane for Democracy? Journal of Democracy, vol. 19(3), pp. 54.
(5) ‘Profile: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood’, BBC News Middle East, 9 February 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(6) Gordner, Matthew J., ‘Islam and Democracy in Africa: Beyond the Compatibility Problem and Towards Islamist Participation’, Consultancy Africa Intelligence, 2 February 2010, http://www.consultancyafrica.com.
(7) ‘As protests continue, Egypt’s economy severely affected’, Voice of America, 1 February 2011, http://www.voanews.com.
(8) For a history of Egypt’s democratic and liberal bents and experiments, see Gordner, Matthew J. ‘Egypt: Caught Between Democracy and Naught, Part II’, Consultancy Africa Intelligence, 16 February 2010, http://www.consultancyafrica.com; Gordner, Matthew J. ‘Egypt: Walking a Regional Tight Rope Between Domestic Democracy and Naught’, Consultancy Africa intelligence, 2 December 2009,http://www.consultancyafrica.com.
(9) ‘2010-2011 Arab world protests’, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org.
(10) Khouri, R.G., ‘Egypt’s likely to impact the Middle East’, 19 February 2011, http://www.dailystar.com.lb.
(11) Bayat, A., ‘Democracy and the Muslim world: The “post-Islamist” turn’, Open Democracy, 6 March 2009, http://www.opendemocracy.net.