Egypt’s revolutionary confusion

Egypt itself has come full circle these past three years – from military régime to short-lived democracy and back again.

Protest in Tahrir, Cairo, Jan. 25 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protest in Tahrir, Cairo, Jan. 25 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The history of revolutions demonstrates that they are essentially a process, often lasting several years, not an isolated event.  Academic studies, such as The Anatomy of Revolution by Crane Brinton, or Uprising by Mark Almond, have shown how revolutions tend to follow certain recognizable patterns. Perceived injustices perpetrated by the government spark a popular uprising which then catches fire and spreads. Factions within the pro- and anti-revolutionaries arise, fostering new conflicts, then often fade away. Leaders of this or that faction come and go. Finally a demagogic figure often emerges above the chaos and seizes power – a Cromwell as in the English revolution, a Napoleon as in the French, a Lenin as in the Russian.
Or, as in Egypt, a General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, newly elevated to Field Marshal on his way to the presidency.
Revolutions, as Almond points out, are 24-hour-a day events – they require stamina and quick thinking from both protesters and dictators. An elderly, inflexible, or ailing leader contributes to the crisis. Almond cites the cancer-stricken Shah of Iran, the debilitated Honecker in East Germany and Indonesia's Suharto. In all cases decades in power had encouraged a political sclerosis which made nimble political maneuvers impossible and left the revolutionaries dominant.
Almond might just as well have pointed to Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, thirty years in power and rumored to be seriously ill at the moment the Egyptian revolution erupted, just three years ago.
Revolutions, asserts Almond, are made by the young – a thesis equally borne out by the Egyptian experience. 
Back in 2008 workers in an industrial city in the middle of the Nile Delta were organizing a strike, set for April 6, to protest against low wages and high food prices.  A group of young activists, determined to support them, dubbed themselves “The April 6 Youth Movement”. Consisting of  predominantly secular and well-educated young people, the group employed tactics so far unprecedented in the Middle East. They used Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, blogs and other new media tools to report on the strike, alert their networks about police activity, organize legal protection and draw attention to their efforts.
The group's leaders included a young woman, Esraa Rashid, and 27-year-old Ahmed Maher. On April 6 thousands of workers did indeed riot. Egyptian security police struck back, killing four and arresting 400. Rashid was arrested and jailed for more than two weeks. A new demonstration on May 4, 2008 – President Mubarak's 80th birthday – resulted in Maher’s arrest.  He was questioned and beaten for about 12 hours. The next three years saw a succession of protests by the group, followed by other arrests, but the movement went from strength to strength. So it is not surprising that the April 6 Youth Movement, with their demands for free speech and democratic government, led the protests in 2011 aimed at removing President Mubarak from power.
Perhaps it is also not surprising that, following Egypt’s brief flirtation with democracy that resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood gaining control of the government and the presidency, the April 6 movement was among the first to protest at the abuse of that power.  Young and secularist as they were, members of the movement had no desire to see Egypt shackled to the rigid Islamist rule at the heart of the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda. They felt that the high hopes voiced by many young, Western-inclined people in Tahrir Square in January 2011 had been dashed.
So the youth movement supported the popular uprising against the rule of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi and, with the help of the army, helped to topple him.  The Muslim Brotherhood immediately commenced a program of violent opposition to the new régime, and in the ensuing street violence over a thousand of Morsi supporters were killed, mostly on the streets of Cairo, and thousands more jailed. 
The leaders of the military coup, headed by General, now Field Marshal, al-Sisi, were determined to demonstrate that it was in earnest in its total opposition to the Brotherhood.  The new interim government ruthlessly crushed all demonstrations of dissent, proscribed the Brotherhood as an illegal organization, and have put Morsi on trial.  However the April 6 Youth Movement, no friend of the Brotherhood, is instinctively against the use of force by government, and was active in opposing al-Sisi’s strong-arm tactics. As a result, a number of their most prominent figures have been detained for months or sentenced to prison amid a campaign to silence even secular voices of disagreement.
There could scarcely be a better example of the confusion inherent in on-going revolutionary situations.  Within the space of a few years April 6, the leading populist movement, had opposed the existing government (Mubarak’s), had opposed the elected government that succeeded it (the Muslim Brotherhood’s), and was now opposing the administration that had succeeded both (al-Sisi’s).
A movement consisting of young people seeking a secular, democratic future for their country cannot be expected to take a long view.  That was expressed by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, as supporters of ousted President Morsi organized and carried out terrorist attacks across Egypt and the Sinai peninsular. “The Egyptian government and people are navigating their political transition in a challenging security environment, and violence aimed at undermining this transition has no place in Egypt.”
The clashes between Islamists and government forces contrasted with scenes of celebration in Tahrir Square and other major squares in provincial capitals, marking the third anniversary of Mubarak’s overthrow. Long queues of demonstrators lined up to enter the tightly secured squares through metal detectors. Some wore paper masks with al-Sisi's picture, and their rallies exhibited a ferociously anti-Islamist tone.
Like the youth movement, Egypt itself has come full circle these past three years – from military régime to short-lived democracy and back again. But the revolution is still running its course; the story is not fully told.  A future containing within it a spark of hope lies ahead.  A new constitution has been approved by popular, if somewhat manipulated, vote, and presidential elections – which will certainly see Field Marshal al-Sisi voted into office – are to be followed by parliamentary elections, bringing with them the possibility of a non-Islamist régime, and real democracy. 
The Egyptian government and people are, in Harf’s words, “navigating their political transition”, and are certainly encountering some choppy waters en route.  All the same there is hope that the voyage could end in a happier and more stable future for the whole nation.
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (