On January 25, 2012, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians flocked to Tahrir Square for the first anniversary of their country’s revolution. How would the day be commemorated? Would Egyptians celebrate the occasion and the achievements the revolution brought, or would they ignite a second revolution as the core revolutionaries dreamt? The answer that day was a mixture of both. The Muslim Brotherhood stage was in a celebratory mood and who could blame them. The Egyptian revolution had been more than kind to them. From a banned organization, they won 47 percent of the seats in parliament and very soon will form a new government. On the other hand, the young radicals were there for Round 2: They attempted, again, to launch a second revolution to finish what had begun one year before and bring down the ruling military council. By the end of the day the atmosphere was tense. Accusations of betraying the revolution and its martyrs were hurled at the Muslim Brotherhood. In the next few days, verbal insults would turn physical and the Brotherhood would decide to leave the square to the few hundreds who, by now, had been practically living in it for the past year.
A one year anniversary is hardly the most appropriate time to reflect on the momentous events that took Egypt and the world by storm—not least because this is not a story that has been fully told, with various pieces of it still clouded in mystery, nor has its last chapters been written yet. But hazy as the world’s vision may be, it is still worthwhile to look at not only what has happened, but at how the initial assessments have fared under the test of reality. As is obvious for observers, they have fared quite poorly.
A Dwarf in the Seat of Giants
As is expected, the focus right now when it comes to Egypt is on the future. How will the Islamists govern? Will the military relinquish power? And what will the young radicals do? All of these are certainly important questions, but to draw a more accurate picture it is necessary, and indeed proper, to reflect not on the future or present but on the past. Why did Hosni Mubarak’s population rise up against him, and why did they succeed? Such questions naturally lead the discussion to how Mubarak managed to rule Egypt for nearly 30 years.
Mubarak was no Stalin. He was, as Fouad Ajami described him in his 1995 “Sorrows of Egypt” article, “a civil servant with the rank of President.” Lacking not only the grandiosity of his two predecessors but also their imagination, he took the task thrown upon his shoulders on that fateful day in 1981, as a bureaucrat would. He immersed himself in details and, lacking any vision for his country, moved forward with great caution. His was the middle road, the safe bet. Realizing the actual limitations of a country whose views of itself far exceeded its reality, he seemed but a dwarf sitting in the seat of giants. The Egyptians, ever the sarcastic people, accurately compared their three presidents by saying “The first fed us sour, the second taught us how to steal, the third moves not a muscle, lifts not a finger.”
For a while Mubarak’s formula worked. Egyptians were tired of grandiosity and the plight it had brought them. A return to normalcy was more than appealing and with the Islamist threat looming large over the horizon, Egyptians were willing to tolerate a dwarf; especially one who seemed focused on bettering the country’s collapsing economy. Better the clumsy ruler, than the Blind Sheikh.
But the formula could not function forever. True, he had succeeded in defeating the Islamists, restored relations with the Arab World, and built an infrastructure, but every success was simply one less reason to tolerate what was at best a mediocre man by a population that had grown weary from stagnation and decline. As memory of the previous catastrophes of grandiosity seemed to fade, their appeal returned. As Ajami again brilliantly noted, “At the heart of Egyptian life there lies a terrible sense of disappointment. The pride of modern Egypt has been far greater than its accomplishments.” Egypt was a country in decline and, outside of a few football victories, there was nothing to be proud of. Egypt had started modernization before Japan, Egyptians noted. Nowadays it was being threatened in the source of its very existence, the Nile, by Burundi.
The sense of disappointment was profound. The state propaganda machine had stopped functioning. In reality, the tools were there, but the message was missing. The best argument given was that Mubarak had kept Egypt out of war, but Egyptians were expecting more than that. Contradictory messages were sent. Anti-Semitism remained the only coherent message that was shared across the political spectrum, from the regime to the self styled liberals, the left, and the Islamists. But even the state media’s anti-Semitism was awkward. Israel would be bashed day and night and the international Jewish conspiracy would be blamed for all that was wrong in Egypt, and in the middle the newspaper would print a picture of Mubarak meeting with an Israeli leader. No wonder people didn’t understand what the regime believed; it is doubtful the regime itself knew.
Change Through Perception
For a brief moment, it seemed the Mubarak regime could be saved by a young man named Gamal Mubarak, former President Hosni’s son. As shocking as it may seem today, Gamal’s entry into Egyptian politics ignited a brief moment of enthusiasm. He was young, had no military background, and brought with him the dream of economic prosperity. Here was the man who would finally make Egypt catch the train it had so painfully awaited for decades. The moment was brief. The man was advised to look and act presidential. The result was that he never connected with Egyptians. More importantly, the dreams of prosperity never materialized. True, the country achieved remarkable growth rates, but as with every economic transformation, the pains were huge. The technocrats followed the World Bank/International Monetary Fund handbook, but Egyptians, long accustomed to the nanny state, never understood why this road was taken. To add insult to injury, the state media insisted that the regime was working for the benefit of low-income people.
The political arena was boiling. At that time, President George W. Bush’s wind hovering over Iraq was turning into a tornado in the region and creating a firestorm in Egypt. Ironically, it was opposition to the Iraq war that sparked the first protest movement in the Egyptian street. Soon after, pressured by the U.S., the regime started opening up and reforming politically. The opposition centered on the rejection of Gamal Mubarak as successor—they refused to be inherited, they proclaimed. The oddest of figures gathered together; Islamists, fascists, communists, and self styled democrats, but there was hardly a new face. All of them had been involved in politics and none of them excited the people.
Then came the Internet. A lot has been written about the effects of social media and how it created the revolution. Most of it is hype, but the Internet performed an important task. It created a perception and forced people to make a moral choice. Two issues stand out in this regard: police brutality and election forgery.
Any regular Egyptian could ignore the regime’s police brutality without a moral question being asked, unless one experienced such treatment. The brutality was after all nearly natural. Every Egyptian regime’s police had treated prisoners badly. If anything, the brutality had decreased from the torture chambers of Nasser. The Internet changed all that. Bloggers uploaded videos of police torture. Pictures of victims were everywhere. It is for this reason that Khaled Said—the 28-year-old Egyptian brutally murdered by police in June 2010—mattered. His tortured picture thrown in people’s faces, they could ignore it no longer. One could certainly choose the side of the regime, and some did, but doing so required a moral choice. It weighed heavily on one’s conscience.
Election fraud witnessed the same transformation. While the 2010 parliamentary elections were certainly one of the worst in recent history, what mattered was the fact that everyone had a mobile phone with a camera. Videos were uploaded in minutes and shared in even less. On both issues, perception mattered the most.
A State in Decline
It has been often proclaimed that Tunisia ignited the spark of the Egyptian revolution. This is certainly true. Tunisia not only gave people hope that it could be done, but it was also a textbook model. Little blood was shed, the regime completely collapsed, the army sided with the people, and the dictator fled the country. Had Libya happened before Egypt, with all the blood that was spilled, it is doubtful that the same enthusiasm for a revolution would have existed. More importantly, however, is the question of why the regime fell and why so easily. It is but natural that a people would rise asking for freedom and justice, even if both terms are quite ambiguous in their minds. What is shocking, what should give analysts pose, is how little resistance the regime offered. Tahrir Square was no Tiananmen. Instead of tanks rolling over protestors, the last hurrah of the dying regime came in the form of horses and camels.
Mubarak had presided over a declining state, but what escaped many is the fact that the regime itself was not untouched by such decline. The state bureaucracy had stopped functioning years before February 2011, as the state was stretched beyond its limits and tasked with duties beyond its ability to deliver. The police force was not itself immune to such collapse. At the critical moment, the whole intelligence apparatus could not understand the unfolding events, and it took the demonstrators a mere four hours to bring the police to its knees. If this was a powerful police state, one does not know what a weak one would look like. The Egyptian State appeared from the outside as a strong building, but in reality insects had eaten away at the foundations for years. It only needed some wind to collapse in such a spectacular form.
What of the military, some might ask. Wasn’t the military the essence of the regime? Certainly, there was never in reality a Mubarak regime. The officers that took power in 1952 had never left. That the military was for all practical purposes the regime escaped the protestors who chanted, “The Army and the people are one hand,” but ironically it also escaped the military. Having become nothing more than a bureaucracy tasked with the management of the defense sector, the officers no longer saw themselves as the backbone of the regime.
Today Egypt again finds itself at a moment of enthusiasm. The hopes and dreams that the revolution has aroused are sky high, but soon they will be crushed by the reality of Egypt. For in truth, “the sorrows of Egypt” were not of Mubarak’s making. Mubarak himself and his generation were very much the outcome of those very sorrows. Today the Islamist dream dominates the horizon, but Egypt has been plagued with false prophets before, and its previous dreams have all turned into nightmares. In time, this too shall pass. What will remain is the reality of a country that is still grappling with the idea of modernity.
Samuel Tadros is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.