Five years after Egypt’s democratic revolution triumphed, the country is once more ruled by a military office. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power in July 2013, and he is even nastier than his predecessors.
More than six hundred Egyptians were sentenced to death last year, mostly in mass trials, and three-quarters of the cases involved people who had gone to pro-democracy protests. An estimated 41,000 people are in jail for supporting pro-democracy movements, and many of them will be there for years to come.
When Hosni Mubarak, thirty years in power, was forced to resign the presidency on 9 February, 2011 by nationwide non-violent demonstrations, there was an explosion of joy. It ended an unbroken 59 years when thinly disguised military dictators – Gamal Nasser, Anwar Sadat and finally Mubarak – ruled the country and their cronies looted the economy.
When we speak about non-violent revolutions, what we are really saying is that the people who are demanding a revolution are not using violence. The regime’s forces will generally use as much violence as they think they can get away with, but so long as the protesters remain peaceful there is a limit to how much violence the state can use.
It’s mostly a question of whether the killers will be caught on camera or not. The Mubarak regime’s police and hired thugs killed over 800 people during the weeks of constant demonstrations, but the victims were almost all murdered in one and twos on their way to or from the squares where the protesters gathered.
When the protestors were actually in the crowd on the square, video cameras were everywhere and the regime’s henchmen generally did not dare to use violence. So in the end Mubarak resigned and the revolution won.
Egypt’s democratic revolution followed closely in the footsteps of the Tunisian revolution that triggered the “Arab Spring”, but it mattered far more because the country’s 90 million people account for almost a third of the world’s Arabs. Despite the disaster in Syria, we would still count the Arab Spring as a success if the Egyptian revolution had survived, but it was never going to be easy.
The protesters who drove the revolution in the cities were mostly young, well-educated and secular in outlook, but most Egyptians are rural, poorly educated and devout. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist party, had for decades been providing free social services to poor Egyptians who were neglected by the state. They were grateful and they were pious, so of course they voted for the Islamists.
The young revolutionaries should have understood that the Muslim Brotherhood was bound to win Egypt’s first free election, but they didn’t really know their own country. Most of them were horrified when “their” revolution actually ended up making the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president.
Morsi had his own problems, trying to balance his own party’s expectation of rapid Islamisation with the reality that the army and much of the urban population were committed to a secular Egypt. He had little experience in politics and he was not good at tightrope walking, so what he probably saw as reasonable compromises were viewed by his opponents as forcing political Islam down people’s throats.
If his opponents had more political experience themselves, they would have calculated that nothing Morsi was doing was irreversible, and that the Muslim Brotherhood was bound to lose the next election. The Egyptian economy was a disaster and the Brotherhood had no idea how to fix it, so in four years’ time they would be deeply unpopular. Wait them out, and then vote them out.
Instead, the secular revolutionaries panicked. In June 2013, just one year after Morsi became president, they launched mass demonstrations demanding a new election – and called on the army to support their cause. The army, of course, was only too happy to oblige. General Sisi, whom President Morsi had trustingly appointed as defence minster, led a military coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood leader.
Pro-Morsi protesters were massacred in the streets in Cairo, Morsi was sentenced to death, and the Muslim Brotherhood was banned as a “terrorist” organisation. Sisi took off his uniform and had himself elected president. The army is back in power, and the number of secular political activists in jail is now probably greater than the number of Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
“The level of repression now is significantly higher than it was under the Mubarak regime,” Egyptian investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat told The Guardian last month. “People from older generations say it is worse than even the worst periods of the 1950s and 60s.”
It is too soon to conclude that a modern democracy cannot thrive in the Arab world. Tunisia, after all, is still managing to hang on to its revolution, and the sheer number of people that Sisi has jailed suggests that his regime is far from secure. But nobody in Egypt is celebrating the fifth anniversary of the country’s democratic revolution.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries