From the January revolution to Sisi. How and why? (English version)

On June 30th 2013 hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the street in protest against the first freely- elected president Mohamed Morsi. Those were probably the biggest mass protests in the country’s modern history. On July 3rd, the military stepped in deposing the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president and appointing supreme justice as an interim president. In the following months, the military and police unprecedentedly cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies. The peak of the crackdown was the violent dispersal of the Rabi’a sit-in in August 2013, which resulted in the death of around a thousand protestors and retaliatory violent attacks against police stations and churches, especially in Upper Egypt. Military dominance was translated a year later in official terms by the rise of Field marshal Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to presidency in June 2014. The country’s worsening human rights situation, political closure and ban of demonstrations and strikes all suggested a great reversal from the January revolution.

Two years have passed since the military takeover in mid-2013. Even though the new political regime is still in formation, some basic features could stand out. The current regime is not a simple reincarnation of Mubarak’s authoritarian order. This time, the military is at the center of the ruling bloc and not merely a member of a broad coalition. Moreover, the current political order is clearly much more oppressive and authoritarian than Mubarak’s order. Economically, the regime seems to be resuming the same old neoliberal reforms (privatization, austerity measures, attraction of foreign direct investment and the reintegration into global financial markets and the suppression of labor activism). However, this has been happening in the presence of considerable support from broad social constituencies that are still hoping for stability, economic recovery and are quite afraid of the rise of terrorism and state-breakdown throughout the Middle East in the wake of the Arab revolutions of 2011 such as the case in Libya, Syria and Yemen.[1]

This article aims at answering the question of how could the January revolution end up with the re-institution of authoritarianism in Egypt amid considerable popular support?

The article does not aim at answering the question of whether the revolution has failed or not. Revolutions are long-term processes of social and political transformation. It is not possible to decide when and how exactly to hold a revolution successful or not.

The argument this article attempts to develop is that the revolution in Egypt had a relatively clear liberal democratic political project. Revolutionary groups and political opponents of the Mubarak regime managed to mobilize substantial social strata in 2011 asking for the respect of basic human rights and for the representation of the will of the people. Conversely, socio-economic demands were never successfully interwoven or made organically related to the question of human rights and liberties or to democracy. The strong presence of disaffected laborers, impoverished middle classes and urban poor in the protest movement never evolved into a political project aiming at social and economic change. Their demands conversely remained by and large stuck in the Nasserist moral economy, where economic and social demands are largely apolitical and definitely dissociated from the democratization of society-state relations. The absence of a project of socio-political change deprived the revolutionary process of a solid and broad social coalition.

This also helped in creating a socially and economically conservative political arena after the revolution that was predominantly based on identity polarization between Islamists and non-Islamists to whom social change was no integral element in their communication or in the mobilization of constituencies. A conservative political system with no organic link between democratization and social change for the majority lacked sustained and broad popular reform. These two factors enabled old state forces, namely the military, to garner enough popular support in time for the reestablishment of order even at the expense of the liberal and democratic gains achieved after the 2011 revolution.

The inability to formulate a revolutionary discourse that comprises socio-economic transformation together with political demands for freedoms and democratization was by no means inevitable or structurally predetermined in Egypt. In cases of Venezuela and Bolivia socio-economic demands were deeply and organically interwoven within political power projects. In Brazil a more reformist project took place with the rise of the Workers’ party since the late 1990s. There, democratization served hand in hand with programs and promises for the redistribution of wealth and income. This is not even confined to leftist political projects, radical as well as reformist. This may well apply to center right conservative projects as well. For example, in Turkey under the Justice and Development party since 2002, the push for democratization (namely the minimizing of the military political power) was not separable from market reforms that supported the rise and expansion of a middle bourgeoisie in inner Anatolia.

It is thus an anomaly that throughout Egypt’s transformation since 2011 socio-economic transformation has never constituted an integral part of the various elite’s projects, be they Islamist, statist or secular. This article claims that this un-integrated nature of the revolutionary process was detrimental and thus may help in explaining how the revolution was derailed and undermined.

The January revolution: liberal democratic but not social

The January revolution was a massive popular protest movement that irrupted in predominantly urban areas in Lower Egypt and that demanded the removal of Hosni Mubarak regime for being corrupt and oppressive. The revolution had no vanguard party or any nation-wide organization. It was rather based on rallying ordinary citizens who subscribed to the protest discourse once formed by small, fragmented and loosely- organized revolutionary groups. What we may call the revolutionary discourse combined various elements that could create a broad cross-class solidarity against the Mubaraks, their business cronies and their police force.

The revolutionary discourse borrowed some elements from the global political liberal ideology. Human rights abuses and especially police brutality and systematic torturing in stations and prisons were strongly present since the murder of Khaled Said in Alexandria in 2010. Anti-corruption talk was strongly present as well. Protestors blamed impoverishment, mismanagement of public resources and high unemployment among the educated youth on the Mubaraks’ gang that was involved in asset- stripping, looting and capital flight. The corruption discourse interestingly has always been part and parcel of the global liberal discourse, even the one produced by International Financial Institutions, which blamed underperformance following neoliberal measures on corruption and bad implementation of policies rather than on the neoliberal model of development itself.

There was also a democratic element in the revolutionary discourse. Many protestors were furious because of the systematic falsification of parliamentary and presidential elections and referenda under Mubarak. The regime was so unrepresentative. The scandalous 2010 elections, in which the then ruling National Democratic Party won almost 98 percent of the total number of seat of the lower house proved to have delivered the final nail into the regime’s coffin. Both elements of proper popular representation, fighting corruption and sustaining human rights and liberties were well -interwoven into the discourse produced by revolutionary students, activists and intellectuals since they became outspoken against Mubarak in 2003/2004.

Labor protest: stuck in the Nasserist moral economy

However, there was another visible social element in the January revolution that fitted neither into the democracy nor liberal discourses. This element had to do with the masses of workers and the impoverished middle classes after two decades of neoliberal policy reforms together with the urban poor. Those were the ones that strongly participated in the January 28th demonstrations that brought down police forces and literally take over the Tahrir Square together with many other squares in major cities and towns across Egypt. This kind of activism was no sudden development or unexpected move. Egypt had been witnessing a wave of labor strikes and protest unprecedented since the late 1940s between 2004 and 2010. Two thirds of these strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations were concentrated in the public sector, be it the state bureaucracy or state-owned enterprises. Only a third of such protests happened in the private sector. The public sector has been historically the most unionized and it could utilize its functional importance to squeeze out economic concessions from the state under Mubarak.

The fact that public sector workers were at the forefront of labor protest in Egypt has had implications for the articulation between demands for democracy and socio-economic demands. Public sector workers are on average of an older age as compared to their private sector counterparts. Most jobs in the last decade were created in the informal sector where labor relations are neither organized by contracts nor include benefits or social insurance. ILO Estimates put the share of informal jobs in youth employment as high as 90 percent. Needless to say of course that informal jobs are almost never unionized.

Public sector workers have usually had more job security. However, they have usually operated within the Nasserist moral economy that was set in the 1950s and 1960s. Under Nasser job security and other social and economic benefits were given in return for giving up political rights, including the right to independently associate and the right to strike. This may explain, at least partially, the dynamics of labor protest throughout the period 2004 through 2013. The demands were basically for narrowly defined economic gains, higher wages, better working conditions and more job security. Interestingly enough, they were never developed into a political agenda asking for the freedom of association or the rewriting of the labor codes. The law on labor unions, proposed by independent unionists in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, was never passed. The old Mubarak-time highly restrictive laws and state-controlled union structures were obstinately kept by the military, the Brotherhood and later on by Sisi.

The labor and employee’s protest movement was driven by many factors including intensifying privatization since 2004, soaring oil and food prices and other developments that led to the virtual erosion of the real incomes of millions of laborers and middle class Egyptians. However, labor strikes could hardly subscribe to the liberal or democratic discourse that was being developed at the time by movements like Kefaya[2] or by figures like Mohamed El-Baradei. They were conversely focused on getting narrowly defined economic gains in the form of higher wages; better working conditions, more job security and others. One could claim that labor strikes were generally operating within the Nasserist moral economy were economic entitlements were given in return for giving up political rights. Workers consciously refrained from politics as a strategy to secure concessions from the state and its representatives.

The two kinds of protest, economic and political, did merge occasionally. On April 6th 2008, what started as a labor strike in the strong industrial center of Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra soon developed into riots that witnessed for the first time an on the tape burning of Mubarak’s picture. The merge of the two kinds of protest happened again in February 2011 when massive nation-wide strikes on February 10th were the final blow delivered to the Mubarak regime forcing him to step down eventually.

However, this “social” or “socio-economic” presence in the revolt has hardly had a clear presence in the revolutionary discourse, which remained largely liberal and at best democratic. Chants and slogans for “social justice” and “dignity” did of course exist during the revolution. However, they were too vague to mean some concrete social or economic change. It is hence far fetched to claim that the social element in the January revolution was necessarily anti-neoliberal not to mention anti-Capitalist.

The closest definition possible for “social justice” amongst laborers and middle class protestors was some ambiguous invocation of Nasser and Nasserism: a strong developmental role for the state, a large public sector (against privatization), social security policies towards workers, students and employees. This Nasserist imaginaire of social justice was no coincidence for labor protests as mentioned before were concentrated amongst state-workers since 2004. However, such stance was conservative in many senses as it was primarily fighting against further neo-liberalization and for the conserving of the remnants of the Nasserist political economy. It was hardly related to the new left movements that were looking for alternatives to neoliberalism through contentious politics, especially in Latin America. Moreover, the Nasserist imaginaire of social justice was aloof to democracy altogether. The issue was getting rid of a “corrupt ruler” like Mubarak and his gang but not necessarily for the democratization of state-society relations.

An interesting observation would be the absence of virtually any “Islamist element” in the revolutionary discourse of January 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood has been part and parcel of the mobilization against Mubarak regime since 2006. The Brotherhood youth participated visibly in the demonstrations of January and February. However, they kept a low profile and subscribed to the broad liberal/democratic discourse of the revolution that was good enough for the creation of a broad base of solidarity against Mubarak. This may explain why the Islamist-secular division did not surface clearly till the March referendum of 2011.

The Nasserist ethos of the January revolution

For many lay protestors, the revolution in its social content was a Nasserist critique to the Nasserist state. It was a form of Nasserist opposition, whose ideas about social justice and national independence borrowed heavily from the experience of the authoritarian populist regime under Nasser (1954-1970). Even though the political regime, being authoritarian, security-oriented and based on a single party system, did not undergo any significant or qualitative change from the time Nasser through Mubarak, the content of socio-economic and foreign policies shifted considerably to the right under Sadat (1970-1981) and Mubarak (1981-2011). However, for many Nasserist intellectuals as well as the masses_ albeit not professedly Nasserists_ the problem did not necessarily lie in the authoritarian character of the state vis-à-vis society (and thus the question concerning democracy). It rather lied in the corruption and abuse of power together with foreign dependency and rising inequality.

Identity politics takes over

With no clear ideological content or a political project for social and economic change, questions of the distribution of wealth and income, the role of state in the economy and labor-capital relations were soon sidelined.

Egypt’s burgeoning political arena was divided along two axes: the first was identity-based polarization between Islamists and secularists that treated mainly with how the state and public order would be related to Islam. The other axis was that between the foloul _ literally the remnants of the Mubarak regime_ and the revolutionary camp.

The first axis displaced the second gradually. As the Brotherhood emerged triumphant from the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011 and 2012, they tried to appropriate “the revolution”. However, given their largely conservative economic and social agenda, which was in line with economic liberalization and privatization, their appropriation of the revolution was quite hollow. It meant primarily the replacement of the former elites within the state apparatus by new ones recruited from the ranks of the Brotherhood and their allies. On the opposite end, the increasingly alarmed constituencies of the prospect of a religious dictatorship provided the basis for the merger of the two categories of fouloul and secular. This was most apparent in Ahmed Shafiq’s claim before the second round of the presidential elections that he was the candidate of the “civil state”_ that is the non-religious one. Soon enough, the fouloul category faded away together with the diluted meaning of the revolution and the revolutionary giving way to the dominance of the Islamist-secular polarization.

The Islamist-secular polarization was void of any social content. The dominant powers in both camps were socially and economically conservative. The fact that this polarization was the one that eventually led to the breakdown of the post-revolutionary order in Egypt is only a manifestation of the diluted presence of the “social” in the revolutionary discourse and process from the outset.

Political Nasserism from below

Apart from political groups and citizens that got politicized in the wake of the January revolution, broad social constituencies in cities were not clearly for or against the revolution. They were rather generally indifferent to Mubarak and thus it was hard for such depoliticized groups to be mobilized for regime conservation. They waited on instead until Mubarak stepped down and gave the benefit of the doubt to demands for political change. The military takeover from Mubarak was a relief to virtually all non-Mubarak forces and groups. Mubarak was deposed but state authority was safeguarded.

What we may call apolitical or apathetic social constituencies that were either aloof from the revolution or gave it the benefit of the doubt in January 2011, were gradually mobilized against the revolution as a whole. This move culminated in the June 30th protest and the subsequent popularly- supported military takeover. Continuous economic deterioration, low growth rates, dwindling foreign reserves and high unemployment, all resulting from political turmoil, made political stability and economic recovery the priority. This lowered the expectations considerably for a sizable percentage of the population. It also made any talk about structural transformation in economic relations irrelevant.

Such constituencies were looking for a conclusion of the revolution rather than the fulfillment of its goals. This bloc lost its apathy after the revolution. However, they did not lose their conservatism. The idea was to bring to power those who can end the turmoil caused by the revolution. The bet of such constituencies was first put on the military during the transitional period. It then shifted into either supporting the bringing back of the old regime or the voting in of the Brotherhood. By the presidential elections, the divide was all the clearer. Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister and former army general, together with Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate made it to the second round with a total number of votes of around 50 percent of the electorate. Morsi won with a 1.5 percent margin.

The Brotherhood’s strategy aimed at reaching an agreement with the state, namely the military, instead of building consensus around Egypt’s post-revolutionary constitution. Egypt’s first post-revolutionary constitution was passed amid violent clashes and deep political and sectarian divisions. This was an excellent moment for the further elimination of the category of the fouloul (and of course of that of the revolutionaries as well) in favor of a broad anti-Brotherhood block that found little interest in the resumption of the game dominated by the Brothers.

The intense conflict between the Brotherhood and their rivals created also a ripe context for the maximization of the military power and autonomy. Both Islamists (led by the Brotherhood president) and their secular rivals were more than willing to give all the concessions possible to the military The seculars wanted the military back into the scene as a means of balancing the Brothers or possibly toppling them. Conversely, the Brothers were desperate keeping the military from intervening by giving up all the concessions possible in terms of the military’s economic empire and independence from the newly- elected civilian authority. All were enshrined in the 2012 constitution.

The Brotherhood failed to deliver the long awaited stability and economic recovery because of many factors. One of them was their lack of control of the state apparatus, from which they faced considerable resistance anyway or at least lack of cooperation. Another is that they pushed the conflict over religion-state relations to the limit by taking all steps possible to solidify the Islamist block, which actually pushed them closer to Islamists to their right. The political struggle over the constitution developed into a fully-fledged existential conflict over the identity of the state and society. This was hardly the precondition for consensus building. Elections and referenda in that context proved into to make divisions more concrete and to deepen the conflict and to higher the stakes of power transfer.

June 30th came in these circumstances. It was the final political act against politics altogether. Mass mobilizations, through a youth revolutionary group “Tamarrud” occupied the very Tahrir square. However, those massive protests were actually made of the most conservative constituencies that were either anti-revolutionary (the January revolution) from the outset, or anti-Islamist or those who became fed up with the unending turmoil and the incapacity to deliver stability after transition. For the first time, the conservative constituencies that have garnered indifference or even despise towards politics and political plurality were mobilized.

This time they were not willing to tolerate any more uncertainty like the one they tolerated when Mubarak was removed from office. They took to the streets to close down the dysfunctional political arena created by the revolution after the temporary hampering of the police state and to bring the military back to power. This was political Nasserism expressed by society this time. Political Nasserism is in eseense the hostility towards political pluralism and politics in general as being too divisive and too inefficient. This requires the closing up of the political arena and the policing of the public sphere di novo. This was of course the perfect match for state Nasserism, represented by the military, which shared the same contempt to politics in general and to whatever is civilian in particular and had serious concerns about public tranquility, national security and state integrity with Egypt under the rule of the Islamists.



[1] One credible poll was held by the independent Basseera center in December 2014 about how Egyptians thought of Sisi’s performance as president after six months of his election. Eighty-six percent expressed their satisfaction. The random-stratified sample was made up of 2030 and covered all governorates and was reflective of gender and age population composition. For more details:استطلاع-بصيرة–86-من-المواطنين-راضون-عن-أداء-السيسى-فى-6-أشه/1988076#.VT8K9Es0ods

[2] Kefaya _ meaning enough in Arabic was an informal political group formed in 2004 by opponents of different ideological leanings including Nasserists, Islamists, liberals and leftist. It called for an end to the “succession project” aiming at passing power from Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal and for Mubarak not to run for a new election round.

Adly Amr

Détenteur d’un doctorat en économie politique de l’European University Institute de Florence, il est actuellement consultant pour Carnegie-Middle East. Il est l’auteur de State Reform and Development in the Middle East: Turkey and Egypt in the Post-Liberalization Era (Routledge, 2012), ainsi que d’articles parus dans Business and Politics, Turkish Studies, et Middle Eastern Studies. Son article « Entre populisme social et conservatisme pragmatique » a paru dans Égypte en révolutions dirigé par Stéphane Rougier CEDEJ 2015.