Would Egypt be in the same place today?
Three years ago, the streets of Egypt were filled with joy at the news of Mubarak’s resignation. People set off fireworks and listened as solidarity statements poured in from people and leaders from around the world.
The enthusiastic revolutionaries felt triumphant, calling this monumental event the “new dawn.” Many of those who were not supportive of the revolution during the 18 days leading up to the ouster of Mubarak chose to join the celebrations, and even the most cynical observers were cautiously optimistic.
Unfortunately, one form of “celebration” was the general haste to “clean” Tahrir Square and erase the graffiti of the revolution, much of which told of the government’s past excesses. Many former protestors stood for pictures with army tanks in commemoration of the military’s apparent role in helping to take down Mubarak. However, it wasn’t long before a new round of crackdowns on dissent started, and bloodshed and chaos took over the streets as discontent rose against military rule. By August 2011, there were 12,000 civilians awaiting trial before the military court system. It was becoming clear from the sweeping crackdowns on NGOs and activists that all of the tenuous gains in the arenas of freedom of expression and of the media were slowly deteriorating. The hopes that followed with the first civilian elected president were soon gone as Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood did not show any signs of serious economic, social, or political reforms.
Three years on, the situation in Egypt has not much improved, as we see continuous persecution of journalists and activists, a deteriorating economy, and an evident narrowing of the political space. Egyptians have been left with yet another military leader, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as seemingly the only viable option for a future ruler.
Would it really have been better for the passionate revolutionaries to listen to the “wiser voices” who attempted to persuade the activists to wait for the September 2011 elections (in which Mubarak had declared he would not run)? Could such a move have spared the country from all the lost lives, imprisonments, and extended periods of economic malaise that have not delivered on the original demands of bread, freedom, and dignity?
In most cases, these are sarcastic questions asked by those who were the initial adversaries of the revolution (no matter their personal reasons for their opposition). They are also asked by those from the original pro-revolution camp (who are currently in a state of despair) and by all those who hurried to clean away the evidence of the 18 days of protests once February 12, 2011 had dawned.
Would it have been better to spare us all the pain?
The short answer is no. Before we dignify this question with an elaborate answer, though, it is important to ask another question: “did either Mubarak or the revolutionaries really have a choice?”
Those who try to portray the current situation as the outcome of the juvenile adventures of irresponsible revolutionaries who were not able to provide any positive alternatives to Mubarak’s rule are certainly mistaken. However, neither the ouster of Mubarak nor the start of the revolutionary movement itself were decisions taken in the moment—they were rather the inevitable outcomes of amassed decades of corruption, bad governance, and increasing inequality. Moreover, the only solutions presented to dealing with these deeply rooted socio-economic problems consisted of unfailingly enforcing a dual policy of repression and superficial remedies (one of the many being the maintenance of poorly distributed and high subsidies). As for the political sphere, it was completely void both of serious political parties (a category in which Mubarak’s National Democratic Party did not fall) and of functional accountability mechanisms. In light of these facts, the most often recurring statements among analysts nowadays are that: 1) the revolutionaries did not provide an alternative solution for the state; and, 2) their negligence and irresponsibility is what brought back the military and its deeper involvement in the political scene. These assertions suggest that the revolutionary current has somehow swept the country into a state worse than that of the Mubarak era.
First, people who focus on the lack of alternatives seem to believe that there were actually effective government institutions and functional political parties under Mubarak that the revolutionaries opted to replace. In fact, those who make such claims have very little idea of both how miserable the state institutions were and how pathetically weak the NDP itself was. For example, while I was working with Egyptian government, I was tasked to evaluate five-year development plans proposed by the ruling NDP in 2007. The plans were a joke, with no resource mobilization or allocation strategies and no real data, let alone viable implementation schemes. They completely failed to address the top challenges of health, education, and unemployment. In short, these so-called plans would not qualify as even a draft script for an advertisement for a development campaign. Any form of foreign development assistance received (which I was tasked to evaluate as well) was depleted due to the complete absence of accountability mechanisms. So it is inaccurate – to say the least – to claim that the revolutionaries who spent the past three years trying hard to remain out of prison and to challenge the military (and later, an authoritarian government led by members of the Muslim Brotherhood) failed because they did not provide an “alternative.” Rather, the revolutionaries laid bare the shortcomings of an inept system of governance in the hopeful first step of an arduous process of democracy-building.
In reality, the events unfolding in Egypt now are part of the extended version of what we would have seen if Mubarak had stayed in power from February to September 2011. Shortly after Mubarak stepped down, the attempt to re-focus power within the military was clearly underway. When Mubarak fled to Sharm el-Sheikh, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was not planning to actually try him on any charges, and it was not until mid-April 2011 that Mubarak and his sons were prosecuted. Additionally, no trials were originally planned for Mubarak’s cronies, and there was no plan to push them out of the political system. Given this blind-eye approach and the series of acquittals of the regime’s affiliates, it was only a result of continuous demonstrations and pressure that they were finally put behind bars. Regrettably, when Egypt’s first truly elected president, Mohammed Morsi, came to power, he made no attempt to try to change the status quo. Except for replacing some figures in the government, there was no real reform. Even the interest groups with whom he tried to forge alliances outside the Freedom and Justice Party/Muslim Brotherhood circles were Mubarak’s old friends in the NDP.
As for the claim that the revolution has led to a reinvigorated presence of the military in government, this is certainly not the first time the military has been present in politics since the coup of 1952. If the September 2011 elections were to have taken place, Mubarak might have kept his promise not to run for the presidency—but his son Gamal would certainly have run. Al-Ghad party leader Ayman Nour would functionally have played the role of opposition candidate (now apparently taken by Hamdeen Sabahi). The military may well have promoted a candidate of its own in order to preserve its interests, thus pushing their political engagement into the limelight. Consequently, the political situation would not have been significantly different compared to what we are seeing today.
But is the situation today worse than it would have been? Not necessarily. Admittedly, the losses are grave: thousands of people have died, with even more having been imprisoned; the crackdown on journalists and the media in general is unprecedented; and the economic conditions are dire. But this would all have happened – maybe not rising to the same level – but just in a shorter period of time. This possibly higher cost of the present day has been accompanied by gains that may not otherwise have materialized: the at-first momentary space of dissent that was opened wider over the past three years; the battles won against the security apparatus; the extensive engagement of a wider part of society in political debate; and the ability to challenge or even mock the rulers are not gains to be minimized. These gains have reasserted people-power in the national equation, even if the gains have been tenuous and there are continuous attempts to repress dissent by force or to manipulate the public through media propaganda. People-power is now an integral part of the game.
Finally, exposing the regime and seeing things for what they are (or were) is an important accomplishment. There was no functional institutional governance with a strategic agenda under Mubarak, and no one else on the political landscape then or now can be regarded as offering one. The myth that voting someone into power guarantees stability is as ludicrous as the belief that the ouster of one person—Mubarak—was the cause of instability.
If Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (or anyone who comes to power) does not implement radical reforms to improve state institutions, the economy, the educational system, and other of Egypt’s social ills, and instead relies on the same policy tools of repression and cosmetic reforms, he will guarantee neither stability nor the preservation of his position. Mubarak tried to preserve a dwindling regime and failed; a similar failure awaits anyone who tries to reconstruct his regime on a foundation that has long been broken.