Egyptian Protesters Contemplate What Went Wrong

The heady days of revolution in Egypt have been replaced with the cold light of political reality.

Yesterday, Egypt’s highest court, made up entirely of members who were on the bench when Hosni Mubarak was the authoritarian ruler of the country, dissolved the newly elected Parliament. This was only the latest in a number of developments that have taken place in the sixteen months since Hosni Mubarak was deposed from office after a month of street protests. In that time, we’ve seen the military consolidate power in its hands while simultaneously cracking down on the renewed protests that have occasionally risen up from people upset that the promise of the February Revolution has gone unfulfilled. Additionally, the political choice that the Egyptian people face in the Presidential election this weekend is between the man who was the last Prime Minister to serve under Mubarak and the candidate of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. This mirrors the outcome in the Parliamentary elections where the parties that won the most seats were the ones that backed the military and the ones that backed the Muslim Brotherhood, with the Brotherhood getting the advantage, while the parties representing the liberal/left coalition that led the revolution in February 2011 were left in the dust largely because they were disorganized.

Now, the people who were part of those protests are beginning to realize where they went wrong:

CAIRO — They toppled a pharaoh, but now the small circle of liberals, leftists and Islamists who orchestrated Egypt’s revolution say they realize they failed to uproot the networks of power that Hosni Mubarak nurtured for nearly three decades.

They were naïve, they say, strung along by the generals who seized power in their name.

“The system was like a machine with a plastic cover, and what we did was knock off the cover,” said Islam Lotfy, back then a rising star in the Muslim Brotherhood who had predicted that if they ousted the head of state its body would fall. The roots of the ruling elite were “much deeper and darker” than they initially understood, he said.

Even before Egypt’s highest court dissolved Parliament on Thursday, and its military rulers reimposed martial law, the once close-knit team of young professionals who guided last year’s uprising had been pushed to the sidelines of a presidential runoff between two conservatives: Ahmed Shafik, Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister, and Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that was Mr. Mubarak’s main opposition.

Some said they had become too taken with their own fame, distracted by the news media’s attention, and willing to defer to their elders in the Mubarak-era political opposition. They failed to build a movement that could stand against either the Muslim Brotherhood or the old elite.

“We are the spark that ignites the world; we know how to inflame things,” said Ahmed Maher, 31, a leader of the April 6 Youth Movement and one of the early organizers. “But when we have a strong entity that can stand on its own feet — when we can form a government tomorrow — then we become an alternative.” He said his group was embarking on a five-year plan to start building such a movement.

Some said they almost welcomed the rise of Mr. Mubarak’s former protégé, Mr. Shafik, because his return could help them rally the public once again.

“When you think about it, the revolutionaries were never in power, so what kind of revolution is it?” said Sally Moore, an Irish Egyptian leftist who was at the forefront of a movement to boycott the elections.

Many of the young leaders say that in those early days they were too afraid of appearing to grab power for themselves. Some say they were just intoxicated by their victory over Mr. Mubarak. “You could say we just wanted to be happy,” said Asmaa Mahfouz, another early organizer.

Activists like her became celebrities overnight, she said, and some wrongly believed that appearing on television would spread their ideas and mobilize the public. “We didn’t understand that the media isn’t an alternative to the streets.”

All now say they were successfully manipulated by the military leaders.

In all honesty, that was apparent to many of us who were viewing the events of February 2011 from a distance at the time that the were occurring. Shortly after Mubarak was deposed, Steven Taylor made this observation:

[T]he removal of Mubarak and the transfer of power to the high command has to be understood as a coup d’etat.  Indeed, I will not be surprised if we learn at some point in the future that Mubarak did not “decide” to “step down” and to then “transfer” power to the military but rather that he was told by the military that that was what he was going to do.  The lack of a statement from Mubarak, and his removal from Cairo seems to support this notion (as did the dour pronouncement of the Vice President about the resignation—a stark contrast to his more defiant statements after Mubarak’s speech last night).

The constitution has been set aside as there are no provisions for a military takeover of this type.  And I would expect to see other extraconstitutional moves in the days to come (like, perhaps, a dissolution of parliament and/or the cabinet).

It is worth noting that while the protestors prompted these events that the state is under the control of the military, not the protestors.   The real question now is whether this abrogation of the constitution will lead to its replacement with a more liberal system or whether the military will consolidate power in its own hands.

Notwithstanding the fact that the military quickly affirmed the primacy of civilian rule in the days after Mubarak’s departure, this really isn’t all that surprising. Ever since the 1952 Revolution, the Egyptian military has maintained a role at the top of the county’s society and culture. Every President of Egypt from 1952 until Mubarak’s departure, with the exception of the man who served as interim President for eight days after Sadat’s assassination, has been a member of the Egyptian military. Indeed, at the moment, Wikipedia (yes, I know hardly a definitive source), lists the current “President of Egypt” as the Supreme Council Of The Armed Forces.  When it came time for Hosni Mubarak to leave, it didn’t happen because the crowds in Tahrir Square were about to lynch him a la Nicolae Ceaucescu, it happened because the Egyptian military told him that it was time to go because they could not continue to tolerate the disorder and unrest that his place at the top was creating. After he left, they took over immediately and they’ve been consolidating power ever since.

The protesters also seem to realize that they were duped, and out-organized, by the Muslim Brotherhood:

Others fault the Muslim Brotherhood, the 84-year-old Islamist group, Egypt’s best-organized political force. Before Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, the Brotherhood lent its full support to a united front pushing for the presidential candidacy of the Nobel Prize-winning diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, an inspiration and mentor to the young organizers. During the revolt in Tahrir Square, the Brotherhood became a pillar of the protests, its leaders taking their cue from the youth.

But since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, Brotherhood leaders have shown little interest in listening to the younger leaders or consulting with Mr. ElBaradei. Instead, the Brotherhood almost immediately began preparing for elections. With the generals, it backed a referendum scheduling parliamentary elections before the drafting of a new constitution.

“They betrayed us at the first corner and continue to betray us,” Ms. Moore said. The resulting timetable killed any hope of unity against the military among those mobilized by the revolt.

The reality, of course, is that after 30-odd years of Mubarak’s dictatorship, and another 20-odd years of authoritarian rule by Sadat and Nassar on top of that, there apparently wasn’t much of an organized opposition in Egypt beyond the Brotherhood and while protesters had passion, they lacked unity or any real experience in politics. So, again, it wasn’t surprising that they got outplayed here as well.

In some sense, Egypt appears to be a metaphor for what has happened with the Arab Spring as a whole. With few notable exceptions, the protests of the winter and spring of 2011 have either faded away as in the Gulf States, devolved into something approaching anarchy as in Syria, or slipped back into authoritarianism. That seems to be the direction Egypt is taking and, given that it is both the most populous Arab nation and in some sense the culture leader of the Arab World, that doesn’t bode well for the future.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. DRS says:

    Henry Kissinger to Zhou En Lai (mid-1970’s): “What do you think of the effects of the French Revolution?”

    Zhou En Lai: “It’s too soon to tell.”

    Not an exact quote but close enough. The Arab Spring isn’t even 2 years old and it’s way too soon to tell where all the countries will find themselves in 10, 20 or 30 years time. History requires patience.

    I will always remain in awe of the courage of ordinary citizens who took to the streets to protest, usually putting their lives at risk. Whether it was Tehran, Cairo, Tripoli or Damascus, that is what real protest is all about, something Americans haven’t experienced since the 1770’s. This is what putting it on the line really means, and both the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers can dial down the whining about their great courage.

    By the way, love that phrase – “doesn’t bode well for the future”. When has anything in the present ever boded well for the future? Maybe we should just cancel the present?

  2. Ben Wolf says:

    Is the military willing to do what’s necessary to maintain power? Juntas typically don’t last all that long, and rely on extreme brutality to keep the civilian populace in check. Would the Supreme Council be prepared to kill whatever numbers are necessary? I think that would be more problematic than in a country like Syria: Egyptians are a proud people and may not be willing to go back into the box Mubarak had them in for thirty years.

  3. Ben,

    The military has been in power since the 1952 coup, I doubt they’re going to go away quietly.

  4. Ben Wolf says:

    @Doug Mataconis: The military may not roll over and accept total civilian control, but I think there’s a significant difference between wielding significant indirect influence over the government and seizing direct control of the machinery of state. If anything I think we might see an Egypt headed down the road of Turkey after Ataturk, where the military regularly intervened to prevent Islamist control but civilians wielded nominal power. Things aren’t necessarily headed back into a draconian authoritarianism.

  5. DRS says:

    A few weeks ago Egyptions watched a televised debate between the major presidential candidates where the candidates sounded just as petulant, short-sighted and not-very-bright as any debate between American politicians.

    And they say this isn’t progress!?!?!??!?