Egypt's Revolution Turns Two

January 24, 2013 Topic: Politics Region: Egypt

Egypt's Revolution Turns Two

Tahrir Square was united when it had Mubarak as a common enemy. Now it's divided, and the future is unclear.

The Egyptian revolution turns two on Friday. On January 25, 2011, Egyptians defied expectations by turning out en masse in Cairo and other major cities to protest the ruling regime’s abuse and corruption.

Over eighteen days the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square grew larger. “We will not leave, he should leave,” Egyptians chanted, referring to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, as Egyptian Muslims and Christians, soldiers and civilians, stood as “one hand” in the streets. He left on February 11.

Egypt has gone through a series of twists and turns ever since. Its transition from the Mubarak regime to what comes next technically ended with the adoption of a new constitution on December 25, 2012. However, what comes next is still up in the air.

By the tenth anniversary of the revolution, will Egypt have returned to an autocratic system, under the Muslim Brotherhood? Will it be what the Washington Institute’s Eric Trager calls a “competitive theocracy”? Or will Egypt have successfully institutionalized a relatively liberal democracy?

The January 25 Revolution itself is a reminder of the pitfalls of predicting events in the Middle East. Yet the actions of the transition’s main forces over the past two years leave hints and raise questions about Egypt’s future.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Immediately following Mubarak’s ouster, the Muslim Brotherhood launched a national and international public relations campaign to soothe fears that, as the most organized opposition force, it would rush to take over the country.

The Brotherhood said all the right things and pointed to its Guidance Bureau’s decisions not to run for a majority of parliamentary seats or nominate a presidential candidate. Decisions made by the Guidance Bureau, the Brotherhood’s executive body, may be binding on the organization; but they are only binding until decided otherwise.

Given this, the Brotherhood’s pledge to honor Egypt’s “international obligations”—that is, the peace treaty with Israel—must be recognized as a pledge for only the time being. Both external and internal leverage will be necessary to ensure that “for the time being” lasts as long as possible.

The Egyptian Military

For the past two years, Egypt’s military establishment has shrewdly maneuvered to maintain its interests, going so far as to sacrifice individuals (Mubarak, for one; but also long-time defense chief Mohamed Tantawi) for the sake of the whole.

The military has tolerated the presidency of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi because the group—as was made clear in the new constitution—has allowed the military to carve out its own place in Egypt’s economic and national security spheres.

A long-predicted clash between the Brotherhood and the military has failed to materialize. However, if the Brotherhood intends to fully liberalize the economy or eventually cancel the peace treaty, it will need to step into the military’s territory.

How will the Egyptian military react if its economic empire or relationship with the United States were pressured? A move on this front would show what will happen if Morsi challenges the military's prerogatives—but perhaps also dissuade him from doing so. The same could be said about the unreformed interior ministry and intelligence services.

The Salafi Political Parties

Perhaps the most surprising outcome of the Egyptian revolution has been the rise of hard-line Salafi Muslims as political actors. During the Mubarak regime, Salafi groups avoided politics, but the non-violent organizations were allowed to thrive. Their administration of social services created networks that were turned into campaign machines; and their proselytizing efforts provided them with a substantial constituency.

The Nour Party of Salafi Call, along with its Islamic Bloc allies, won 25 percent of the seats in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections. The Nour Party may not do as well in the next election: the party itself has split, while new Salafi parties have been established. However, there is clearly a sizable, mobilized voting bloc that supports uncompromising Islam in governance.

Egypt’s current state of polarized politics encourages the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party to move to the right in order to pick up Salafi support. It also discourages Salafi parties from compromising on issues of importance to their constituents.

The Non-Islamist Opposition

In March of 2011, non-Islamist groups led by Mohamed ElBaradei insisted that elections should be delayed because civil forces were unready and Islamist groups would dominate. Elections were held off for several months, but during that time these new political parties struggled to make inroads with the population.

More than two years later, with another election upon it, the civic opposition—especially the National Salvation Front, led by ElBaradei—is splintering and still unable to describe its vision for Egypt, instead of simply being opposed to an Islamist-controlled state. Many of the young revolutionaries still see their power and their place as in the streets, not in politics.

Egypt’s post-revolutionary constitution leaves a lot of ambiguities, especially in family law and basic freedoms, which will be defined by parliamentary action. The ability of non-Islamist parties to gain seats in the new House of Representatives—unlikely to achieve a plurality, but perhaps enough to be a vocal opposition—will go a long way to determining if Egyptian law will support women’s rights, free speech and a permanent democracy.

This weekend, Tahrir Square will again fill with Egyptians celebrating what they accomplished so far, remembering their martyrs and voicing remaining demands. Two years later, it may still be the most recognized public space in the Arab world. But the revolutionary unity once shared there is long gone.

Zack Gold is a Washington-based Middle East analyst focusing on U.S.-Egyptian relations.

Image: Wikimedia Commons: Mariam Soliman. CC BY-SA 2.0.