Much has been written about Egypt’s revolution in 2011. Given that the military retook power only two years later in June 2013, the widespread view is that this revolution failed utterly. However, the protests of 2011 and 2013 left an enduring legacy—and elements of this legacy have influenced the postprotest pathways that Egyptian activists have adopted. No longer are Egyptians’ national and international outlooks shaped primarily by the 1952 coup, the Arab-Israeli wars, or even the fall of the World Trade Center in 2001, but rather by the 2011 revolution. Today, Egypt is living in the “generation of Rabaa”—a reference to the military’s infamous intervention in 2013 that left hundreds of protesters dead and shaped the views of an entire young generation.
The 2011 revolution still resonates in the hearts and minds of Egyptians. The current military-led regime, whatever the discourse it has spun about its own popularity, does not enjoy widespread support. Despite the creeping brutal repression the regime metes out, public opinion is growing against the various authoritarian measures that have taken hold since 2013. All this means that an underground ethos of resistance persists and a reshaped activism is struggling to take root as and where it can in a highly repressive political context. In Egypt, the most significant factor is that a division between secular and Islamist activists heavily conditioned postprotest pathways—ultimately to the disadvantage of both these groups.
The Protests of 2011 and 2013
The Egyptian protests of 2011 were, at their heart, not only leaderless but “idea-less.” As is common in other large-scale protests across the world, anger was a far more powerful driver than hope. In 2011, protests broke out because the levels of frustration and hopelessness reached peak levels across a critical mass of the population.1
Civic activists worked smartly and quietly in the months that led up to the breakout of protests in January 2011. They coalesced against specific regime measures, and different groups across the civic space reached a consensus on the aims of their actions. The purity of Egypt’s uprising was not that it was led or organized by one group; rather, it was brought together by core ideas: bread, freedom, and social justice.
The action in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was organized by well-known groups, versed in civic space and activism.2 As ordinary citizens filled the square, these established groups came together to impart advice, put forward manifestos for change, and support smaller groups that were born within the square itself. More senior leaders formed political entities, such as the Revolution Youth Coalition and the Revolutionary Socialists, as political negotiations unfolded during the protests. As 2011 wore on, new political parties emerged from the square, and some movements splintered while others merged. Disaffected young Islamist youth abandoned the Muslim Brotherhood and its wider project. As is natural among such an eclectic mix of people, different ideologies spawned differing opinions over what was the best pathway to realize democratic gains and fulfill the hopes of a promised transition. These differences became more prominent as the resoundingly successful protest moved into a fractious postprotest period.
Egypt’s protests continued throughout 2011. It was not the case that all citizens returned to their homes as the military council moved to control the transition. However, soon after the announcement of a transition roadmap by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the protest movement split. The target of the mass mobilization had been removed, and the unity of the protesters evaporated. Moreover, the protests were disrupting daily life, and civilian support for the movement gradually fell away.
As the transition progressed throughout 2011 and 2012, support for the protest movement ebbed and flowed as the target of the protesters’ anger shifted from the ruling military council to the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood—whose chosen candidate and senior leader, Mohamed Morsi, became president in 2012. Targeted clashes ensued, and Egyptians witnessed mass civilian-on-civilian violence for the first time in living memory. The Brotherhood mobilized its supporters to take on the civilian protest movement, while its political leadership pursued supra-constitutional amendments to stifle opposition. This situation opened the way for the military, then led by major general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to become the key peace broker and kingmaker in the failing transition.
As anger grew, a small petition movement named Tamarrod (Rebel) took over the protests and engineered a petition calling for fresh elections. The Egyptian security apparatus ultimately coopted this movement, enabling the coup that took place on July 3, 2013. The coup effectively aborted Egypt’s democratic transition, resulting in a military takeover and an ensuing crackdown on the civilian protest movement. It appeared that activists’ postprotest choices had rebounded dramatically and cruelly against them.
Even during the eighteen days of the 2011 protest, realpolitik and a misunderstanding of the deep interests of the security apparatus became apparent, as activists in the square were omitted from important negotiations. High-profile personalities in business and politics appointed themselves as leaders of the revolution, despite a lack of core, legitimate support from the street.3 This exclusion persisted through the rule of the SCAF during 2011 and 2012.
With the fall of president Hosni Mubarak came opportunity and openness. The immediate years that followed, from 2011 to 2013, were a flourishing opportunity for all quarters of society: civil society, politics, arts and culture, and entrepreneurship. There was almost too much for activists to do in 2011. Such diversity of choice for postprotest pathways should have been an advantage, allowing different activists to pursue their own paths and their own roles in society. However, for Egypt’s Tahrir movement, it had a detrimental effect. It meant that activists failed to develop united political roadmaps to steer the transition in a durable direction. As the country prepared for elections and citizens returned home, the majority of those civic actors stayed where they felt most comfortable: the street.
Fewer activists than expected moved into new political parties, as many of these parties formed after 2011. When elections were held in November 2011, more than 190 parties registered and almost seventy won seats in the first post-2011 parliament. More than 125 domestic and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were accredited in 2011–2012 to observe the elections, while hundreds more civic actors participated in programs that supported political party engagement. However, the vast majority of civic activists stayed away from party politics. Indeed, tensions grew between new politicians and the activists.
By not engaging in mainstream politics, the protest movement lost support from among the general population and the opposition parties who wanted to advance the transition. Instead, large groups who had successfully organized in the past remained in the street, while the “revolutionary” political actors were swept aside by the Muslim Brotherhood.
For those who did move into the political space, the ruling SCAF soon hindered their activities. The military leadership moved ahead so quickly with elections that the liberal, secular, nonpolitical strand of Tahrir had little to no time to organize. Most of the new parties born out of the activism in the square had no financial or grassroots means to make inroads beyond small clusters of activists who were looking for political representation. This included a mix of young Islamists who had abandoned the Brotherhood’s political project, socialists and Nasserites, and those groups considered to be on the fringes of the mainstream. Some activists did found new parties, such as the Social Democrats, the Justice Party, and the Free Egyptians. The Social Democrats were the most successful in bringing in activists from the square but quickly became labeled the “protest party” as a result and failed to gain high levels of support.4
A further reason for the protest leaders’ lack of momentum from “street to ballot box,” or to political groups, was that the protest movement adopted a suggestive language of betrayal and abandonment. Some prominent activists rejected fellow protest leaders or participants who chose to explore politics or engage in the political bargaining and horse-trading that dragged on through the transition. They accused those who showed interest in politics of betraying the revolution by helping the Muslim Brotherhood or by allying with the SCAF.
The country continued to think in terms of a binary political and social landscape: a strongman or Islamists. The protest movement and its offshoots proved to be no less immune to the dangers of such a trap. Activists did not develop new tactics, and security actors soon coopted and overtook the tried and tested tactics that had been so successful during the eighteen days of the Tahrir protests. Violence between the state and protesters became a regular part of daily life in downtown Cairo. As the Brotherhood came into power, the vengeful police force disappeared from the streets, creating the highest levels of insecurity across the country, particularly in rural areas, as petty theft and crime raged.
Even though activists eschewed political activity, they explored other postprotest pathways, most notably local activism and community-level organization. This approach was most successful within academia and state syndicates across the country. Elections were held in a number of areas, and activists largely supported them for their transparency and fairness. New candidates were sworn in, student unions changed by-laws and organizational structures, and the state was forced to do away with its heavy control on aspects of academic and social life from the selection of university deans to the sermons delivered at Friday prayers.
As the military council focused primarily on wider political movements, and controlling the country’s coffers (fast running out of money), little notice was given to day-to-day activities, including universities. Furthermore, over the years under Mubarak’s rule, the Muslim Brotherhood had amassed both a huge number of members and significant support within syndicates—notably the powerful ones, including the engineers’, pharmacists’, and doctors’ unions—and swept to simple and easy victory once free and fair elections were held. The journalists syndicate shifted significantly to represent the activist movement and citizen journalism.5 Arguably, it was the full transparency of the processes in these smaller, localized elections that proved so successful for the wider movement. In addition, there was no security presence at the time. The military has no representation in syndicates or academia beyond its own institutions (for example, the military academy).6
As the Brotherhood took control, however, a narrative of anti-Islamism took root within the protest movement. The Brotherhood cadres undoubtedly did not help their cause, evidenced by their choice to endorse various extremist views from the religious Salafi movement and even engage those extremists responsible for historical terrorism in the country. The peak of confrontation came with the attempts by Morsi to place presidential powers above constitutional norms. The confrontations were violent and terrifying to the public. Images of Egyptian civilians fighting each other, resulting in the death of dozens of protesters, filled television screens in living rooms, and the beginning of the end of the transition was set in motion. The military stepped in to settle the differences among civilian parties, carving out their position as “protectors of the constitution and the country.”
At that critical moment, in late 2012, public opinion began to sway back in favor of the protest movement. As the Muslim Brotherhood grew to present a perceived threat against the secular nature of the country and a physical threat to the sizeable Coptic Christian minority—and also attempted to bypass constitutional norms hard-won through the protests—new life was breathed into the movement. As criticism and protest continued to grow, the Brotherhood became even more entrenched and insular in its efforts to defend the changing nature of the state under Brotherhood leadership. As the protest movement began to mobilize again, it showed itself to be quite different than it had been in 2011. In 2011, young Muslim Brotherhood members had been a pivotal part of discussions and engagement in Tahrir about the nature of a future state, but, this time, the lines were drawn into “pro-Islamist” and “anti-Islamist” camps. The new wave of activists generated revisionist accounts of events in and since 2011 to suggest that the Brotherhood had always been to blame for violence and problems with the democratic transition.7
The Brotherhood itself did not help change the narrative, nor did it make efforts to appease protesters. The leadership pushed forward on a roadmap that became inherently isolationist, ignored protest demands in order to implement their “Grand Renaissance Project” to establish an Islamic state, and continued to leave Christian communities vulnerable to growing sectarian attacks. The supraconstitutional reforms that Morsi put in place in November 2012 would be the final nail in the coffin. Protests at centers of Brotherhood control, including the presidential palace, culminated in a series of clashes spearheaded by a more organized and streamlined leadership—which unintentionally provided an opportunity for the security forces to infiltrate the movement. Liberal activists sided with the military in the belief this would aid their return to the forefront of politics. As a consequence, the door opened for Egypt’s security apparatus to take control of the opposition protests to the Brotherhood’s leadership and pave the way for mass mobilization once again. Protests took place on the first anniversary of Morsi’s presidential inauguration. By then the protest movement had been fully suborned and had begun to call for an open return to military rule.
Predictably, the military’s removal of Morsi in July 2013 did not result in new gains or freedoms and certainly did not reset the transition or put the country back on a path toward a liberal democracy. Indeed, the opposite happened. In particular, interim president Adly Mansour’s move to enact the harsh security measures of the new Protest Law officially and legally killed off the protest movement. Since 2013, restrictive laws and targeted security attacks have destroyed what remained of the movement.
Were it not for a growing, empowered, and plainly stubborn young population, shaped by the spirit of 2011 and the trauma of 2013, nothing of the Tahrir spirit would have survived. Even though the state has sought to crack down on all kinds of opposition or dissent, small openings continue to exist, as groups move away from the physical street to occupy online spaces. The student movement, for example, continues to press for change. Even with increased monitoring of online social media platforms, and new legislation that has brought new dangers for bloggers and social media users, pressure has been exerted through hashtag campaigns and the use of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to support viral campaigns and uncover regime abuses.
Some protests continue as one-off spontaneous events in reaction to state policies. There is no longer one unifying symbol that can galvanize the movement. The movement cannot insert itself into a polarized society, one which many Egyptians insist that they were “saved from the Islamists” by the current leaders.8 The movement exists more in spirit than tangible reality. Still, the experiences of 2011 and 2013 continue to galvanize those activists, NGO workers, rights actors, journalists, and the few political representatives who aspire to a future democratic state.
Outcomes of Postprotest Activity
Between 2011 and 2013, different activists took different paths and remained committed to them throughout the transition period. Some took on the work of documenting those who were arrested or killed during protests, preserving their path in the struggle. Others committed to supporting human rights cases through to the present day. In the moments of violent clashes, however, activists distanced themselves from other sectors of society, and in their effort to preserve the Tahrir spirit they undermined potential alliances with other reformers. The protest movement itself began to cast out those who chose to run in elections, who endorsed the military’s transition roadmap, or who had supported working with the Muslim Brotherhood.
These particular inflection points allowed the movement to regalvanize for a period of time, as noted above. However, by shedding potential allies and supporters, it progressively lost the swell of favorable public opinion it had enjoyed during the 2011 revolution. Although the second round of mass mobilization in June 2013 undeniably was genuine, it was built not on reformist discourse but on a security narrative that pitted the Muslim Brotherhood against non-Brotherhood civilians and drew people out in the thousands. A hardening of postprotest tactics foreclosed activists’ options and influence as time unfolded. In the end, those actors who did engage politically but did not have the financial underpinnings, heavyweight political backing, or decades of grassroots organizing that the Brotherhood enjoyed were left playing catch-up behind the 2011 political elite. The protesters who came out of the square hampered their own cause through their constant infighting and ideological splits over constitutional roadmaps, economic systems, and social issues, preventing them from gathering targeted support from the electorate. As a result, a few dozen nearly identical political parties were formed simultaneously, diluting the liberal political space as politics vied for the attention of the Tahrir protestors.
As the transition disintegrated, the protest movement was temporarily buoyed by political support through the creation of the National Salvation Front—a group of almost all liberal and generally secular parties and figureheads who had been staunchly anti-Brotherhood during the transition phase. It included many important political actors who had emerged as possible opposition leaders during the post-Tahrir protest period. Driven by the growing protest movement, and not wanting to seem out of step with powerful activists who now had a platform, the National Salvation Front formed largely in response to a growing backlash against a number of political parties, both from within and from the street. However, the move proved disastrous, as the disconnect between politics and protest emerged at the most ill-fated time. Yet again, the liberal movement had coalesced around a single idea—in this instance, the removal of Morsi—and the binary nature of Egyptian politics reared its ugly head. Many protesters, who at the same time were members of political parties, lamented the actions of their leaders, and those same leaders urged their members to simply “sit tight and wait,” claiming that “the military is coming.”9 Yet after the 2013 protests, activists failed to take to heart the lessons of 2011 and were coopted by the state. As anti-Islamist sentiment has swept through society, activists’ postprotest strategies have reinforced Egypt’s polarization.
The complexities of Egypt’s politics, the treatment of Islamists, and the dangers of getting involved in any type of activism now are all factors that have fostered a stronger and more rejectionist younger generation. This generation witnessed more violence and fewer gains than their elders. This emerging movement appears to be a more socialist, purely secular movement that fundamentally rejects any and all religious engagement. It is also emerging as inherently a-political, at least in how it defines itself. This puts younger activists at odds not only with their elders, who have worked in more moderate ways, but also with the general social trends of the country. This appears to have brought activist choices full circle back to the polarized conditions of the long years before 2011.
However, this movement nevertheless draws on the sentiment and ambition of 2011, and in that sense, it continues to espouse the original demands of Tahrir Square. The drive and success of the original protest movement still propels many actors who continue to force their way into the civic space, working for and advocating change on sensitive issues. These new civic actors are still motivated by the spirit of 2011, with the violence of 2013 remaining their biggest obstacle and their biggest point of division. The protest movement both lives on and struggles to adapt to the country’s more polarized conditions.
Egypt’s protest movement succeeded where it was never meant to: it overthrew a president and a regime. With the success came questions, responsibility, and new complications: with every problem solved, others emerged. Protesters took on the task and the ill-placed responsibility of fixing the country, demanding accountability, and writing the future—a state of affairs that was neither feasible nor desired. Owing to its success, the people placed a level of accountability on the protest movement, a burden that simply was too great to bear.
Alongside the failures of the protest movement, Egypt’s postprotest period suffered further problems that eventually would kill off the transition. These problems included the actions of embedded security forces that were loyal to the state architecture and were unwilling to allow real progress or development. The infamous counterrevolutionary forces created a landscape that civilian actors—including the ill-fated leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, who made their own fatal mistakes—could not successfully navigate, not least because they were unwilling or unable to capitalize on their temporary strength: people power. As the protest movement failed to create a holistic roadmap that provided participants with buy-in for renewed political engagement at both points of Egypt’s turbulent transition, the pressure and momentum of the street protests came undone. In response, the security apparatus, which was able to capture the essence of the movement, capitalized on the protesters’ political mistakes and instilled fear across society about an uncertain future. The protest movement thus found itself weakened as it lost its capital with the people who had trusted the reformers to help improve their daily lives and create a better future. As civilians became impatient, so did the protest movement.
After every political door closed, the resurgent security apparatus became the only reliable partner, and it skillfully infiltrated the liberal, eclectic, and nurturing civil society movement. New leaders moved their supporters away from core goals of self-determination for the people and toward inserting the violence of the street directly into a fight for the country’s identity. To this day, it is the identity of the state and of its people that consumes the civic space and the wider political debate.
Hafsa Halawa is a political analyst and development specialist working in the Middle East and North Africa and Horn of Africa regions.
1 A key piece of literature that explains the dire situation felt by the people across the region can be found in the data and conclusions in the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Arab Human Development Report 2002 (New York: UNDP, 2002), http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/rbas_ahdr2002_en.pdf.
2 Such activity is reflected in the Anti-Iraq War protests of 2003, the April 6 and Kefaya movements, and the 2008 Mehalla labor strikes.
3 Famous names here include Naguib Sawiris, Mohamed el-Baradei, and Amre Moussa. Despite calling for protests in the square since 2010, providing strong physical and financial support for online and physical civic activism, and producing activists who became an integral part of the 2011 protest movement, neither el-Baradei’s National Association for Change nor the man himself were at the forefront of the protests that filled Tahrir Square and the surrounding streets with people.
4 A label that has hindered them to this day and resulted in major fractures within the party, which has seen most of its centrist, senior leadership quit the party, as younger activists installed left-wing, less prominent actors into the party’s leadership. While support peaked for the party during the protest movement, it has fallen away significantly since 2013, although they do still enjoy four seats in the current parliament (2015–2020).
5 Egypt has never acknowledged digital/online media as journalism, and as an extension of the corruption, few new media outlets are registered, which is a requirement for journalists to gain their own syndicate registration. This discriminates mainly against young and emerging journalists, who were a major part of the 2011 protest movement.
6 Notably, most, if not all of these gains, have been reversed under the leadership of Sisi. Even where the military had no presence or control, the post-2013 landscape has seen major inroads in all aspects of civilian life, as the military encroaches on social life. This includes laws that order the presidency to deliver Friday sermons in mosques, laws that remove university deans and install new ones appointed by the president’s choice, and security control over membership in syndicates.
7 These events were pivotal inflection points during 2011 and 2012. The Maspero Massacre of October 2011 was the first time that the military had used violence to quell street protests, which, in this instance, had erupted over the destruction of a church in Upper Egypt earlier that month. The Port Said football riot in February 2012 killed over seventy people, mainly young male supporters, though the blame for the incident would be placed on the police forces who failed to secure the stadium or quell the riots and allowed a stampede to ensue. The original verdicts, released under Morsi’s rule, exonerated the police leadership, and outrage against the decision allowed violence and protests to rage across the Delta and Cairo for days. As the Egyptian leadership blamed the violence on the Muslim Brotherhood, a military-enforced curfew and security zone allowed the narrative and language to shift in favor of the SCAF and further entrench negative views about the Muslim Brotherhood. The clashes in Mohamed Mahmoud street near Tahrir Square in November 2011, occurred mere days before the country went to the polls. The Brotherhood’s refusal to support the protests and join them in Tahrir so close to election period helped developed a strong narrative that heaped further blame upon them as the protest movement grew more hostile.
8 Interview with Egyptian politician, 2018.
9 Interview with a prominent protester and political organizer. The overarching subject of the interview was the continued messaging from high-level National Salvation Front leadership meetings in the months following the Port Said verdict through to the June 30 protests. Some lower-level aides predicted violence during the protests. Others even discussed provoking violence in order to allow the military to move in and take over leadership of the country: “if the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t bring their militias, we will find our own and start the war” (interviews, National Salvation Front, June 2013).