Egyptians have always been ill-served, at best, and brutalized, at worst, by their leaders, whether Ottoman, British, Nasserist or under President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. So instead of asking why Egypt’s revolution of five years ago failed, let’s point a finger at the sorry parade of post-revolutionary leaders who have presumed to lead but failed just as their predecessors did.
Egyptian citizens were ill-served by their first democratically elected leader, President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Overweening and prone to clumsy power grabs that appeared to have less to do with Islam than stupidity, Morsi was more incompetent than he was evil. He was certainly no “terrorist,” as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has labeled him and all other Muslim Brotherhood members.
Egyptians were also failed by the liberal and secular politicians whose self-interest took precedence over the hard work of developing strong alliances, parties and platforms. They espoused pluralistic democratic values but applied them selectively — in 2013, for example, they chose to back the violent overthrow of Morsi rather than let him be voted out of office.
Consider Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who played the coy politician for two years, tweeting his fatuous aspirations instead of rolling up his sleeves and building the political process. He then joined Sisi’s interim government, only to resign a month later after the Rabaa massacre, in which some 800 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed by security forces.
Egyptians have even been let down by a generation of their own sons and daughters. These young activists often seemed more adept at online organizing and protesting — no matter the cause — than protecting the gains of their protests. After fighting the military throughout 2011 and 2012, many joined the military-backed effort to remove Morsi in the spring of 2013, even protesting when Sisi called for a show of support. Familiar with this pattern, it was inevitable that they would eventually sour on Sisi, which they have.
That said, none of them deserved to be put in prison, where many of them languish.
While covering the protests in Tahrir Square in 2011, I was inspired to leave my television job, move back to Egypt and be a witness to what looked like a promising future. I had lived happily in Cairo as a student studying Arabic in the 1990s and looked forward to working at the American University in Cairo, a campus infused with post-revolutionary energy and potential.
When I arrived in September 2011, the romantic slogans (“The army and the people are one hand”) and alliances forged in Tahrir Square were already fraying badly. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the interim military body that replaced Mubarak, was cracking down on protesters with impunity, most egregiously during what came to be known as the Maspero massacre, in which armored personnel vehicles were caught on camera mowing down fleeing Coptic protesters. When the Muslim Brotherhood swept the parliamentary elections of 2011 and 2012, political demonization become the preferred platform of the feckless secular opposition groups.
Closer to home, I found a giddy array of empowered and politically vocal citizens, a liberated media and a class of public intellectuals sporting shiny new revolutionary personas, and the clothes to match (“revolution chic”). One professor-turned-politician sported long hair, corduroy sport coats and appeared to do a little teaching (sometimes from his car by calling in to a student’s phone that would be set on speakerphone). One former ambassador-turned-dean embodied the values of civil liberty and democracy in elegant suits, then promptly joined the post-Morsi interim military government. A cadre of denim-clad, gel-haired Tahrir activists secretly cooperated with the military to foment a “grass-roots” movement against Morsi.
Even the revolution-anointed leaders were failing Egypt’s citizens. By the time I left Cairo in June 2013, most people I knew at the university supported a return to military rule and seemed to accept as a given the violent and illiberal measures it would take to do so. One self-aware pundit coined the phrase “Egypt’s illiberal liberals.”
Egypt’s current regime, led by Sisi, makes the Mubarak regime look benign. Harsh repression is justified in the name of security and stability, protests are against the law, political groups are banned or emasculated and polarization is promoted by a subservient media.
Sisi’s hold on power has been aided by widening regional chaos. Libya, Syria and Yemen loom conveniently large in case Egyptians forget what premature democracy movements can yield. A spate of recent house arrests and “enforced disappearances” has targeted journalists and civil-rights activists, which has forced the government to acknowledge that hundreds are being illegally detained.
The discovery last week of the body of Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old Italian PhD student, who was left by the side of a road and appeared to have been tortured, was considered particularly unsettling because the Egyptian security forces typically reserve their brutality exclusively for Egyptians. In spite of continuing efforts by Italian authorities, Regeni’s family will almost certainly never find out what happened to their son, just as tens of thousands of Egyptians never learn the truth about the extrajudicial deaths of family members.
Not much is likely to change in the short term. Sisi will probably continue to perform better outside of Egypt than domestically, and he’ll maximize his role as a line of defense against Islamic State in the Sinai. He will likely maneuver for a place in whatever regional coalition is formed to manage the crises in Libya, Syria and Yemen. He will continue to receive international support and military aid in spite of his authoritarian measures. Ninety million Egyptians will continue to struggle with rising food prices, high unemployment, impossible daily commutes, poor healthcare, worse education and an entirely unaccountable government.
Where is the bright side? It is the simple fact of Egypt’s revolution — not its much-debated outcomes. Egyptians have shown that they can depose leaders who serve them badly, whether they’ve done this righteously, cynically or fickly. Egyptians have also shown their capacity for political accommodation and transient loyalties — bad for democracy but useful for getting rid of governments.
With time, as Sisi’s excesses continue, new alliances of convenience and cooperation will form among unexpected allies. Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers may once again align with secular groups; military factions may find the Brotherhood a useful ally against a rogue president. Voices in the media will begin to speak up. Criticism on social media will begin to build up a revolutionary head of steam. One day, Sisi will be replaced — probably not democratically.
I hope whoever replaces him will finally serve Egyptians better.
Stephanie Thomas served as associate director of the Adham Center for Television and Digital Journalism at the American University in Cairo and managing editor of Arab Media and Society from 2011 to June, 2013. She was a senior producer for PBS’ “Charlie Rose,” specializing in the Middle East and politics.