Eight Years after the 25 January 2011 Revolution – Back to Square One

Today the Egyptians are marking the eight-year anniversary of the 25 January 2011 Revolution. It seems that the narrative of the revolution, which constituted one of the most exciting political events in the history of modern Egypt, is being deliberately purged from the collective memory by state institutions. The demands of this revolution for bread, freedom and social justice have been obscured and replaced by a message of stability as a supreme value. In the current official narrative, the revolution was an Islamist plot and the revolutionary youth are presented as a misguided force that unintentionally opened the gates of hell, leading to chaos and to an existential threat to Egypt. Instead, the 30 June 2013 Revolution, which led to the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood, is presented as a popular revolution that freed Egypt from the destructive ambitions of the Islamists.

Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s regime brought an end to Egypt’s brief period of representative politics. Under al-Sisi, Egypt is experiencing new dimensions in state repression, which is not limited to the members of the Muslim Brotherhood. All the institutions and forces that flourished during the transitional period after the overthrow of Mubarak, whether political figures, civil society, the press or the social networks, are under unprecedented attack, which has led to the elimination of every sign of resistance, opposition or criticism, and thereby to the destruction of political life.

At the center of the new version of authoritarianism is the military, which has significantly improved its political and economic standing. In contrast to Mubarak’s period—in which it was a secondary actor alongside stronger actors such as the security services, the police and the neo-liberal economic elites that flourished under the patronage of Gamal Mubarak—the military has now assumed the role of managing the affairs of Egypt’s capitalist class, and determines the terms of participation in the economy and politics for other parts of the Egyptian elite. Reinforcing the central role of the military in Egyptian politics contributes to the stability of the regime, but it undermines and weakens the legitimacy of civilian institutions. The expansion of the military’s economic influence and its transformation into an economic contractor for al-Sisi’s programs—from large infrastructural projects such as the Suez Canal to the provision of subsidized services and food to the public—constitutes a substitute for government ministries and thus undermines their already weak legitimacy among the public.

            In the new version of authoritarianism, no effort is made to mobilize political power by building a ruling party. Al-Sisi is not acting to establish an alternative to the National Democratic Party, which in the past helped maintain the coalition of civilian elites that supported Mubarak’s regime. The establishment of a party is not an immediate need, especially since the parliament is largely composed of representatives of a-political economic elites that support the regime. Like Gamal Abd al-Nasser, al-Sisi is seeking to establish his legitimacy and his alliance with the people on the basis of his personal leadership and his responsibility for order and stability. As such, he does not need political parties or civil society organizations as mediators between him and the people. Based on the direct relationship between the heroic savior and the people and in the name of the essential role of the military, the authoritarian rule and the abandonment of the promise for democracy made by the January 2011 Revolution are justified.

             The purging of the achievements of the January 2011 Revolution is also reflected in the current campaign to amend the 2014 Constitution in order to extend al-Sisi’s term beyond the statutory two terms of office. The arguments in favor of the amendment are that the 2014 Constitution does not address the challenges faced by Egypt and that there is no alternative to al-Sisi for defending the stability of Egypt. At this stage, opposition to the attempt to amend the constitution is minor and limited to statements of opposition parties and leftists, liberal and Nasserite public figures, and to social media—all of which are completely ignored by the mainstream media.

            However, the suppression of the legacy of the January 2011 Revolution and the restoration of authoritarianism does not necessarily guarantee stability. The 25 January 2011 Revolution changed the way citizens regard authority, and no less importantly, influenced their expectations regarding their leaders’ accountability. The post-revolutionary leader should be in the service of the people. The Egyptian public do not reject the role of the military in leading the country. However, a legitimate military leader is a successful one, and al-Sisi has not been successful in two major issues that affect the lives of the ordinary people: the struggle against terror and the economic issue. Al-Sisi has established a security pact between himself and the public on the basis of a shared sense of threat, in light of other Arab states that have become trapped in civil war and live under the threat of Islamic terrorism. However, despite the large-scale counter-terrorism campaign against Islamist insurgents and criminal activity in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt’s success is limited, and terror attacks continue to take place in the mainland as well. Moreover, al-Sisi’s ambitious economic infrastructure projects which were meant to revive the economy—including the expansion of the Suez Canal and the construction of the new administrative capital—have done little to improve the lives of millions of ordinary Egyptians. Furthermore, although the Egyptian regime is aided by billions of dollars from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, this aid has not reduced Egypt’s reliance on billions of dollars from the International Monetary Fund, which has forced it to cut subsidies on food and fuel. The short-term ramifications of these reforms are deepening the distress of the ordinary Egyptian citizen, who must deal with the rising price of food and the lack of employment opportunities.

In fact, similar to other Middle Eastern semi-rentier states, Egypt is trapped in a need to secure external economic aid in order to maintain its stability. Any radical change in the old pact between the regime and society—a pact based on welfare expenditures and the allocation and distribution of social services—which increases economic pressure on the public, has the potential to undermine public trust and to harm the regime’s legitimacy. Even if the grievances are not translated into actual and immediate political action, they are simmering beneath the surface and await the opportunity to break out and again destabilize Egypt.