The Egyptian revolution is stuck

Almost three years after the Arab Spring, the Egyptian revolution seems to have become stuck, and may even have devolved to its starting point.

Morsi in first trial appearance 370 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Morsi in first trial appearance 370
(photo credit: Screenshot)
Almost three years after the Arab Spring, the Egyptian revolution seems to have become stuck, and may even have devolved to its starting point.
This observation first emerged after the events of June 30, 2013, in which the masses that captured the city’s streets were once again assisted by the military establishment, which led a de facto coup against the regime of Mohamed Morsi, the president chosen by the Muslim Brotherhood.
It currently appears that many of the revolutionary goals have not been achieved.
It is difficult to define the revolution’s goals precisely because it fused social elements with a different, and possibly contradictory, agenda. In general, the revolutionaries’ main goals were to topple Hosni Mubarak; remove the authoritarian regime and replace it with a pluralistic political system; and improve economic conditions, especially employment.
Mubarak was indeed overthrown, but his regime – based on the state’s “deep-seated” institutions (such as the military, the civil courts, bureaucracy, and al-Azhar University) and political elites – remained in place.
The new political system failed to maintain stability or entrench itself after the dissolution of the parliament elected in January 2012. The economic situation in Egypt grew worse as political instability discouraged investors and led to the collapse of the tourist industry, which made it more difficult for the new regime to take action to improve the national economy.
The elements involved in the second “revolution” on June 30, 2013, emphatically claimed that they were redirecting the revolution to its original course, from which it had been deviated during Morsi’s term. However, events since have fanned widespread concerns that the revolutionary train is not yet back on track, for several reasons.
First, the military, which functioned as of the “guardian of the revolution,” has now become a party in the political struggle, with an unmistakable interest in maintaining the status quo. Second, Brotherhood activities were outlawed and its leaders thrown into prison. Third, human rights activists and media professionals who “crossed the line” by criticizing the ruler (whether Morsi or the army’s Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) were thrown in jail or had their programs canceled. Fourth, Mubarak was acquitted and public funds probably smuggled out of the country were not recovered.
All these developments indicate that while Mubarak may have been deposed, Mubarakism is alive and well.
Disconcerting signs of the future of the Egyptian revolution are also expressed in its new constitution, to be ratified in a referendum in January. A 50-member council of experts (which markedly failed to include representatives of the Brotherhood) submitted a draft constitution to the provisional president, Adly Mansour. The new draft is more liberal and social than previous constitutions, but can hardly be called “revolutionary.”
It does protect the rights of children and of Jews and Christians (but not members of non-monotheistic religions), prohibits torture and discrimination against women, and assumes state responsibility for citizens’ health and education.
However, the constitution also reinforces and institutionalizes the autonomous status of the military establishment and the civil judiciary. For example, the military budget is determined according to the military’s needs, as defined by the National Defense Council, and is not subject to parliamentary review. The National Defense Council is also in charge of appointing the defense minister (for the next two presidential terms, at least). Moreover, the constitution permits military trials of civilians prosecuted for offenses in “military areas,” while the president of the Supreme Constitutional Court (which examines the constitutionality of all proposed legislation) will now be elected by the court rather than an external body.
The constitution remains vague in many places, leaving the final decision open to legislation, and dependent on the composition of the to-be elected parliament. In other words, as Nathan Brown and Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have stated, the new constitution appears to be a victory for the country’s “deep-seated” institutions.
After the June 30 revolution, the liberal-secular forces unexpectedly found themselves in an impossible situation: After joining forces with the military to oust the Brotherhood, they now see that the military has retained its authority in the political system and has reduced the potential for instituting changes in alignment with the original goals of the revolution.
Despite their deep ideological differences, the secularists and the Brotherhood now paradoxically have a common interest in reducing the military’s involvement in politics. Their collaboration recalls the early days of the revolution, when ideologically diverse groups came together to topple Mubarak, with a significant difference: Then, the military stood on the sidelines and did not intervene, but now the military is a major player with an unmistakable agenda of its own.
Three years after the January 25 revolution, the passions that characterized its protagonists appear to have been replaced by despair and frustration resulting from the understanding that a significant change in the foundations of the political system is difficult, if not impossible. In view of the strong desire to restore stability and safety on public streets, the recent personality cult surrounding Sisi is not surprising. This cult recalls the rituals surrounding mythological president Abdel Nasser.
Where, then, is Egypt headed? Is the January 25-June 30 Revolution, the continuation of the historical revolutionary process that began on January 25, or do the events of June 30 mark the beginning of the end of the revolutionary cycle? From the limited historical perspective available to us, it is difficult to decide with certainty, but the Egyptian revolution does appear to be “stuck.”
Armed with the lessons of their recent past, the masses may take to the streets once again to protest against military involvement in politics, but no civil alternative is visible on the horizon.
Under the current circumstances, the revolution will only proceed from the top down, and will be dependent on the goodwill of the military elite.
The writer teaches at the Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.