Five years after the 2011 uprising: Egypt’s scene in metamorphosis?

In the following impulse-article Nadine Abdalla reflects on the current situation in Egypt and the country’s prospects for a democratic transformation. She concludes that despite the recent negative developments which restrict society’s space for political participation, there are positive prospects for political change in the long run. Furthermore, she gives a number of recommendations for external actors who aim to assist partners in strengthening political participation in Egypt.

Five years after the 2011 uprising, the slogan “bread, freedom, and social justice” that ignited the uprising seems, today, to be marginalised in the context of what could be described as an experience of revolutionary fatigue. If I have the right to name the uprising of 25 January 2011, I would call it “The revolution of missed opportunities”! Unfortunately, the political actors that emerged in the post-revolutionary period were unable to build a consensus about the rules of the game. In the aftermath of the presidential elections of June 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood has exploited this vacuum to shape the rules in a way that only serves their organisational interests. Consequently, on 3 July 2013, large segments of the Egyptian society have supported the military intervention that ousted President Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader. They had thus, implicitly, accepted to confer the new military-led regime the upper hand on shaping the rules governing the public and political sphere. 

Willing to consolidate its power, the new/old regime has definitely built an exclusionary order which was based on two pillars. On the one hand, the construction of a sort of "legal authoritarianism": a series of decisions and laws or amendments to existing laws were thus issued to close the political space such as for instance, the promulgation of the interim President Adly Mansour on 24 November 2013 of a law imposing a series of restrictions on peaceful demonstrations and imposing sanctions of several years in prison. Similarly, the law 128 for 2014 was issued on 21 September 2014. The latter constrained not only internal but also external funding to NGOs. In addition, on the beginning of September 2014, several universities, like the University of Cairo, forbade political activity and thus banned students’ groups (al-usar al-tulabia) who were affiliated to oppositional political parties. On the other hand, the security forces exploited their influence on some of the private media in order to deter those who may adopt oppositional voices or critical stances. Furthermore, the use of repression against potential activists has returned on a larger scale.

However, the most dangerous evolution occurred on the societal level. Almost in harmony with this authoritarian governance, negative attitudes – which are hindering a transition toward a more democratic or inclusive order – emerged amongst a society that is experiencing fatigue and fragmentation. While the 25 January uprising was the clearest manifestation of the unification of the Egyptian society, the current moment is the obvious manifestation of its fragmentation. The “revolutionary” appears today to be more and more disconnected from the wider society which is increasingly becoming indifferent toward politics. Due to the failure of the political transformation process, several segments of the society arrived at the conviction that “politics” is “useless” and that the political elite that led the political scene in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising are inefficient. Similarly to the situation in Europe, Egypt has witnessed the emergence of a conservative extremist right. The latter – which has emerged in the aftermath of 30 June – is not a political group (or political party), but can be considered more as an intellectual current among the Egyptian society. It overstates nationalism and underestimates the necessity of political modernisation or reforms. Unfortunately, the state of stalemate of the political transformation and the growing threat of terrorism both internally and regionally consolidate such ideas and double their supporters among the society.

This analysis shouldn’t lead us to wrong results though! Indeed, one can say that due to the absence of a viable alternative to the Al-Sisi regime and because of the helpless regional climate, the current Egyptian regime appears to be stable in the shorter term. Nevertheless, it is far from being sustainable in the medium or longer term because of several reasons. Firstly, it lacks entities that can conduct social or political mediation. The closure of the political sphere is preventing the regime from having entities that can mediate between it and the society either on the social/syndical level or on the political/partisan level. This is dangerous for it as, similarly to any other regime, its sustainability depends on the existence of a social and political class whose role is to sometimes absorb political and economic shocks. Secondly, the internal contradiction that is inherent to the regime is hindering its capacity to introduce reforms either on the bureaucratic or executive level. Courageous institutional reforms can hardly be achieved as on the one hand the current power considers the state’s employees as one of its main pillars of support. On the other hand, it lacks an organised political supporter, a role that was played, for instance, by the National Democratic Party (NDP) in the Mubarak era. This dilemma became obvious for example through the crisis of the civil servant law which was rejected by the Egyptian parliament on 21 January 2016. This law was supposed to reform and modernise the state’s bureaucracy and to decrease the state’s expenditure on its employees’ salaries (by decreasing the latter’s annual rate of growth). Thirdly, the internal rift which seems to appear among the coalition of power that forms the current regime is weakening it. This coalition includes state bodies such as the military, intelligence, police, and judiciary as well as networks of private media. While these bodies have unified following Morsi’s ouster, they seem today to be competing for political influence.

However, the picture is not so gloomy! Five years after the uprising, one should mention that positive changes have also occurred. On the one hand, social networks that believe in democracy were built, especially among the youth. Those networks, which are more similar, today, to latent structures, can be ignited again as soon as any political opportunity arises. On the other hand, revisions among the political groups (including the youth) emerged. They realised that for their revolution to succeed, they need to construct sustainable structures and build some social capital among the wider society. Hence, they decided to focus on local elections (whenever they take place) or to work on local and developmental initiatives. The latter are thus perceived as an opportunity to build the political structures from below and as a chance for the youth members to build societal networks and communicate with state officials. However, to be able to capitalise on the regime’s gradually decreasing popularity and form a viable alternative, those networks and structures need more time, maybe years and years, to consolidate themselves. In this perspective, the new generations (such as the university students) that have participated in the 2011 uprising and believed in its values should be considered as plausible protagonists of a future but more mature political change. Those young people had the privilege not only of taking part in these revolutionary events but also of learning from the mistakes of their predecessors. Indeed, the collective memory of those manifestations is still powerfully existent among this generation that believes, until today, in the dream of a democratic and modern Egypt.

Finally, in a globalised world, the European policy makers have to positively influence their neighbours and the European civil society organisations have to actively assist them. Thus, they both have to work on three angles. Firstly, identify the areas of cooperation which can lead to a trickle-down effect in terms of domestic reforms. Providing training for the judiciary sector or even the state administration can be considered as a concrete example here. Hence, the mutual transfer of know-how and technical capacity building is supposed to lead, in the longer term, to a deeper political, yet gradual, reform. Secondly, focus more on extending the infrastructure of democracy in Egypt rather than on promoting an elitist human rights agenda. Hence, developmental projects linked with a rights-based approach should be one of the main targets of the EU. Therefore, the target groups should not only benefit from funds that develop their capacities and empower them but should also learn to ask for their rights and push the government to be more accountable. Finally, European policy makers and civil society organisations should focus on actors among the civil society (in its wider definition) that can be catalysts of change in the longer term such as young scholars in universities, youth groups or leaders of developmental initiatives. However, in the current situation where actors cooperating with foreigners are discredited internally, European policy makers need to avoid direct contacts with activists but keep on exerting pressure to facilitate the work for European and German civil society organisations. The later can thus offer the Egyptian civil society and Egyptian youth leaders technical knowledge, exchange of experiences and programmatic support.

Dr. Nadine Abdalla is an EUME Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center of Middle Eastern and North African Politics of the Free University of Berlin.

Links & Literature

Egypt’s Resurgent Authoritarianism: It’s a Way of Life
Nathan Brown | Carnegie Middle East Center | 9 October 2014

Egypt's Workers – From Protest Movement to Organized Labor
Nadine Abdalla | Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik | October 2012

Low-Cost Authoritarianism: The Egyptian Regime and Labor Movement Since 2013
Amr Adly and Fatma Ramadan | Carnegie Middle East Center | 17 September 2015

Sisi’s Fracturing Regime
Eric Trager | Foreign Policy | 22 January 2016

The Youth Movements in the Egyptian Transformation: Strategies and Repertoires of Political Participation
Nadine Abdalla | Mediterranean Politics | October 2015

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