9 Lessons from Egypt

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Egypt's latest protest outbreak has surprised almost everyone, but look a little deeper at reactions and you'll find that the lessons of 2011 have still not been absorbed.
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Last week we saw the first major protests in Egypt since 2013. Despite cynicism from Egypt watchers about whether they’d continue and whether we’d see the promised Friday protests, (we did) – large numbers of them spread across the country. Here are some things we can say we’ve learned from the events, both about Egypt and the region:

1 People are desperate, and furious. Sisi took power in 2013 by committing the biggest massacre in modern Egyptian history, killing at least a thousand peaceful protestors in the streets. Since then he’s jailed over 40,000 political prisoners, building 19 new prisons to house them. Egyptian prisons are massively over-capacity, and prisoners have died from torture, mistreatment and neglect, and their family members are suffering retaliation. With Egypt in this state, protesters would not put themselves at risk and take to the streets unless they were desperate and unable to put up with things anymore. The fact that people are shows the extent of their disillusionment, resentment and desperation.

2 The Sisi regime is terrified. In the last week alone, over 2250 people have been rounded up and jailed – including retired politicians and political leaders, activists, and lawyers, but even people as young as 19. Soldiers have been on the streets in a massive show of force, shutting off roads – including all access to Tahrir – and have been stopping people and searching their phones for evidence of dissent or intentions to protest. The government feels incredibly threatened by the protests and is determined not to let them get out of hand, indicating that they think this is a real possibility – they understand point 1.

3 Nobody saw these protests coming, and even after they started everybody wrote them off as small, isolated, unlikely to spread, unmotivated, too repressive. This shows a disconnect between people outside the country analysing what’s going to happen and how the people really feel. 2011 should have already taught us this lesson: predict things at your peril. Just as nobody thought in December 2010 that within nine months three Arab leaders would be deposed and others toppling, Egypt has gone from the political equivalent of the twilight zone – with all dissent and activism annihilated and nothing happening – to 100 degrees within a single month. The fragility of these regimes will spend years creating an impression of strength before suddenly collapsing after a black swan event. Do not write anything off.

This is the same with other regional countries too. The Hirak movement has been going on for over a year in Morocco. Mass resentment is boiling over into periodic protests in Jordan, and the government had to resort to brute force earlier this month to shut down a teachers’ protest against the cost of living. The region is a tinderbox, and these frustrations – and aspirations – have not disappeared. They can re-emerge at any moment. People claimed that the Arab spring was over or that it failed – but, Sudan and Algeria this year have already told us everything we need to know about that.

Anyone betting against the reemergence of a widespread popular movement for Arab democracy anywhere in the region will end up looking foolish sooner or later. 

4 There will always be more young protesters. The generation which led the 2011 protests are not those at the forefront of dissent this time. They’re either dead, in jail, in exile or broken by trauma and torture – many of them wrote this second round off too. These protesters are younger, a new generation many too young to have even participated in 2011. Over 50% of Egypt is under the age of 25 and it’s getting younger, not older. There’s a demographic bulge on the side of this movement – what can Sisi do? Kill half of Egypt’s population? Imprison an entire generation? No matter how much repression they use, they can’t squash these resentments forever – they’ll always boil back up. How long can he fight? Particularly now that the fear barrier has gone. The fight will go on indefinitely.

That kind of repression is unsustainable. There is no civil society that can relieve the pressure, or even absorb people’s anger and provide a cushion, or even provide warning signs. The regime can make itself look strong and powerful, but on the inside it’s hollow, having destroyed many institutions that are essential for the health of the state, and it can fracture in an instant. 

5 These regimes keep creating their own problems. The current crisis began with a former military contractor, Mohamed Ali – who was himself involved in massive corruption – making a series of videos exposing it. The regime’s own greed and avarice, in other words, was so intense that it caused a backlash among its own base. 

What they’ve done with Wael Ghonim is another example. As the creator of the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook group which helped start the 2011 uprising, he is one of its biggest and most recognisable names. Ghonim has been in retirement since then, burnt out by the failure of the movement, he is now living in the US and keeping out of politics. The regime has dragged him, kicking and screaming, out of that retirement – they tried to coerce him into becoming an informant, then raided his family’s home in Egypt, confiscating the entire family’s passports, terrifying his mother and kidnapping his brother Hazem Ghonim (who is by all accounts apolitical). Now Ghonim is on a mission, drawing the attention of the world’s media and seeing no choice but to resist the regime with all his abilities. There was no need for this – they created a headache for themselves.

This is a dynamic that’s common across the region. One example that stands out is Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). When he started his Yemen intervention in 2015, the Houthis were a tribal secessionist movement with AK47s based in the northern mountains. After 4 years of his campaign to eliminate them, they’re in possession of ICBMs and drones capable of striking airports and oil facilities across the length of Saudi Arabia – jeopardising the Aramco IPO and this Vision 2030, the entire foundation of MBS’ rule. A problem he created entirely for himself by creating ungoverned spaces for the Houthis to spread into. He destroyed the country, creating grievances which helped further radicalisation, and created fertile space for Iran’s influence to spread and grow.. 

Likewise the Jamal Khashoggi tragedy. Khashoggi never wished to be an icon – he was a loyalist who rejected the label of dissident, and simply wanted to write his columns, which contained only the mildest of criticism couched in reaffirmations of loyalty. MBS had him brutally chopped up and murdered in a Saudi consulate, rendering him without even plausible deniability, turning himself into a pariah and Khashoggi into a worldwide symbol for the repression of journalists, the free speech crisis in the Arab world specifically, and the monstrous viciousness of MBS.

Bottom line: These regimes are their own worst enemies. They continue to create problems for themselves, with every countermeasure they put in place backfiring. But they can’t stop, it’s what they are.

6 The regime, and others like it, are structurally unstable. Sisi’s regime, like many others in the region, is facing a crisis of legitimacy. They are entirely incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities required of them in order to be regarded as legitimate governments. Sisi promised a strong Egypt, stability and livelihood, but all he’s doing is looting from the already poor to line the pockets of generals and their cronies as the economy spirals. He has decimated the middle class and even the elites have turned against him because of how difficult he’s made the economic climate.

7  Sisi’s personal legitimacy seems mortally wounded. He’s never minded being called a dictator – to him that’s just synonymous with “strong ruler” – but he does mind being called a thief. And that’s what Mohamed Ali’s videos have done. They are so damaging because they have turned his own base against him at last – they have galvanised not educated liberals but the poor, who are out on the street shouting “how can he be building palaces whilst we’re eating out of dumpsters?!”

8 For all of their wealth and power, the UAE and Saudi Arabia cannot stop this. They have been spearheading the counterrevolution – the regional movement to fight the possibility of the emergence of a large stable Arab democracy – since 2013/14. They bankrolled Sisi’s coup and provided billions in aid afterward. They prepared aid packages to stabilise Jordan and Kuwait when they were threatened with protests. They intervened in Yemen, and backed a warlord in Libya. They propped up Omar al-Bashir with billions in vital cash injections in Sudan, and yet he fell anyway. 

The gulf regimes are far from omnipotent, despite the credit many give them. They’re swimming against the tide of history, and cannot deter the region from the path it is taken way the region will end up – only delay it with their destruction. 

9 There is still hope for something different. Using fears of a “Syria scenario” as a bogeyman have failed – the regimes have been using it as a threat against the idea of protests for years now, but Algeria and Sudan showed that it doesn’t work anymore, and Egypt emphasises that. Massive sectarian civil wars aren’t caused by protests, they’re caused by massive intolerant government crackdowns against dissent. 

Tunisia just held the first round of its democratic elections two weeks ago, and Tunisians got to watch presidential debates on live television. They got to see their candidates grilled on on policy priorities and challenged by interviewers. They got to discuss them freely, criticise them and choose between them. That is what people want, and asking for it will not turn a country into Syria. That’s on the government.

We can only hope that we’ll see some signs of responsibility on the part of the government. A good outcome from these protests would be them loosening their stranglehold on society, and give people some breathing space in order to lower the political temperature. They must allow more freedom of speech, reduce restrictions on NGOs, stop detaining people based on crimes of conscience, release political prisoners, cut down on the corruption and ease the repression. 

If they do that, you might even get out of this unscathed. Nobody wants to see the military destroy its own country to hang on to power.