Egypt’s Revolution: Understanding What Went Wrong in Four Years

The success of the popular uprisings and revolutions which peacefully demanded dignity, freedom, and social justice will be measured by the extent to which they are able to build new legislative, executive, and judicial institutions and political parties to manage the affairs of citizens, the society, and the state. Their success will also be judged based on whether they can push existing institutions to leave behind their authoritarian ways, abide by the rule of law, protect the rights and freedoms of the people, and exercise rotation of power – and thus gradually allow for the creation of a democratic system of governance.

Taking account of the current situation in Egypt reveals that, several years on, the January 2011 Revolution has yet to succeed in changing the nature of the system of rule, which has maintained the control of the executive branch over the legislative and judicial branches since 1954.  Under this system, the military and security establishments dominate centers of power, decision-making, and influence within the executive.  Moreover, this system of rule marginalizes the principles and requirements of rule of law as well as guarantees for the rights and freedoms of Egyptian citizens.  Citizens are required to submit to the will of the rulers and to comply with these rulers’ unilateral definition of “national interests.”  Should they express any resistance to submission or refusal to comply, citizens face the constant threat of systematic repression and punishment.

As is clear from the current realities in Egypt, the January 2011 Revolution was not able to set out a course for democratic transition for the medium- and long-term. Such a transition should have been supported by the principles, mechanisms, and processes of transitional justice, in order to achieve accountability for violations to rights and freedoms and to bring such violations to an end. Electoral campaigns should have been similarly free of the catastrophic use of religion for political purposes, as well as the reliance on campaign financing, which always promotes the interests of wealthy and powerful elites.  The transition should have considered the principles of justice, impartiality, fairness, and transparency as the bases of the work of state institutions.  However, the centers of power, decision-making, and influence within the executive branch took it upon themselves to combat transitional justice, and those who sought to ally themselves with these centers of powers turned against the ideals of transitional justice, tolerating accumulating injustices and violations for the sake of being allowed to participate in the system of rule. These included the Muslim Brotherhood, which was allied with the system of rule in 2011-2012, as well as the political currents and parties that falsely claim to represent democracy and liberalism, which have been allied with the system of rule from 2013 until now.  Moreover, the elections distorted the will of citizens as the result of interventions by state institutions, the use of religion, and the interference of the rich and powerful via their money, influence, and media networks.  Meanwhile, the principles of justice, rule of law, impartiality, and transparency continue to be sacrificed for the sake of remaining in power, drawing closer to the existing system of rule, or maintaining the privileges and protecting the benefits of those affiliated with this system of rule.

As Egypt enters its fifth year following the January Revolution, we must not overlook the fact that the effects of popular pro-democracy uprisings and revolutions continue to be felt over much longer periods than the four years that we have experienced. As such, the absence of successes as of now does not in any way portend perpetual failure or signify the definitive end of the revolution. At the same time, we must ask ourselves about the main reasons that have prevented the January 2011 Revolution from leading to the formation of a democratic system of governance.

1.  The January Revolution did not succeed in expanding the popular base for its democratic demands following the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak.  Those who acted in its name failed to address the fears of many Egyptians about an uncertain future. Nor did they dispel the conviction held by many Egyptians – first silently, but later expressed publicly – regarding the false notion that freedom and security are incompatible.  As such, no one prevented the people from abandoning calls for democracy, preferring the restoration or renewal of the traditional system of rule while overlooking the fact that it had destroyed their dignity and failed to achieve development and progress.

2.  The January Revolution did not succeed in maintaining the appeal of its demands for democracy.  Those acting in its name failed to show that there is a positive correlation between the concepts of justice, rule of law, human rights, and rotation of power and achieving development, progress, and improved living conditions for the people. Nor were they able to ignite optimism about the present and hope for a better future, or to assure public opinion that the economic, social, and security crises facing the country could be quickly contained.

3.  The January Revolution did not succeed in dispelling the false notions that democracy is essentially linked to reduced cohesion among the institutions and agencies of the nationalist state, and that democracy would increase the risk of the fragmentation of the state amid successive regional crises. This is because some of those who acted in the name of the revolution, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, failed to appreciate the centrality of the state’s cohesion for ensuring a successful democratic transition, instead stirring up fears among broad sectors of society regarding the fate of Egypt’s identity and the ramifications for Egypt’s diverse citizenry.  Meanwhile, others acting in the name of the revolution, including various groups on both the right and the left of the political spectrum, failed to effectively link their talk of change, transitional justice, and building democracy to a full articulation of an alternative system of governance that would ensure that the nationalist state would remain intact and that its strength would arise from its fairness and progress.

4.  The January Revolution has not succeeded because those acting in its name failed to develop essentially democratic alliances with the centers of power, decision-making, and influence within the executive branch – specifically with the military and security establishments – in a way that would assure them that a cohesive, nationalist state would be preserved.  This is a primary concern of those within these centers of power, particularly in the midst of the explosive situations seen across the region.  Nor did those acting in the name of the revolution offer any assurances that some of the privileges of those in these centers of power would be maintained, in order to motivate them to support a gradual transition to democracy and a reformulated relationship between the military and civilian leadership under the framework of rule of law, the rotation of power, and the professionalization of the military establishment and the security apparatus.  Indeed, the matter never moved beyond seeking immediate gains for the sake of drawing closer to the system of rule, even at the expense of the principles, mechanisms, and processes of democracy and transitional justice. This is just as true of the political currents and parties which falsely claim to represent democracy and liberalism as it is of the religious right.

Amr Hamzawy joined the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo in 2011, where he continues to serve today. He is a former member of parliament, former member of the National Salvation Front, and founder of the Freedom Egypt Party. 

This article originally appeared in Shorouk  

Image: Photo: Ahmed Abd El-Fatah (Flickr)