Tahrir Sq 10 years on

It is easy to be wise in hindsight. But it would have been virtually inhuman not to be carried away by the euphoria that Tahrir square was at its centre in Jan 2011.  What a naïve thought that must have been to think that Egypt could have thrown off millennia of despotism in 18 days.

The Jan 25 uprising failed to put Egypt on the path to democratic transformation because it was doomed to fail.

The reasons for success weren’t simply there.

 Foremost among which was the absence of a strong and well-organised democratic movement embedded in a culture of democracy with a firm belief in personal freedom, equality regardless gender and religion, and the sanctity of freedom of expression. People who believe in such ideals do exist in Egypt,  but their numbers are small, and they are fragmented and lack solid platforms.

On the other hand, all the reasons for failure were there. Foremost among them is the powerful presence of a totalitarian and well-organised religious-political movement – the Muslim Brotherhood and other religio-fascist allies – which was (still is) by no means less totalitarian than the regime it sought to replace. Such movement was   embedded – both horizontally and vertically—in society and within the machinery of the state (education and the judiciary are two prominent examples). It sought – and almost succeeded – to hijack the uprising to create its own version of the Mubarak regime but with a beard and a prayer rosary. Sadly, the patriarchy has deep roots in Egyptian society.

Further, although the uprising “succeeded” in decapitating the regime, its entire body remained intact. I use the quotation marks to highlight the fact that it was the intervention of the military that sealed the fate of Mubarak. On its own, the street protests may never have   managed to dislodge the man and his inner circle.

However, there’s no doubt that the Jan 25 uprising has succeed in one fundamental thing: perhaps laying to rest the tradition of dynastic succession, i.e Mubarak handing over to his son. Reneging on that republican principle could have set Egypt on course similar to that of Syria or North Korea.  If that success endures,  2011 will prove to have been an important milestone in Egypt’s long history. I say “if” because President El-Sisi has three sons, all of whom have been given key positions in the security and intelligence apparatus.

The reasons behind the January 25 uprising have not gone away.  If any, they have become even more pressing with the dramatic increase in repression and the stifling of the public space. Add to that the economic dire straits that impact the vast majority of Egyptians.

Although the regime has ruthlessly re-established the barrier of fear against any potential rebellion,  it is not beyond the realm of the possible that we will see a second wave of the Jan 25 for the following reasons : 1) The youth bulge – that was the dynamo of the uprising and the repository of changed consciousness —  may have been cowed for now. But This cannot go on for ever.  The tectonic plates that were once rattled in 2011  have not quite settled back yet.  The patriarchy has responded with a vengeance to the challenge of the youth.  Yet the rapid technological change that enables social and economic change has not gone away either.  The regime is still terrified of social media and its ability to mobilise opinion and create alternative narratives.

It’s hard to predict the exact sequence and consequences of such a wave if and when it happens.  It’s safe to assume that  it’s chief target would be to send the soldiers back to their barracks, thus ending the infamous legacy of the 1952 coup that has installed the army at the top of the executive for more than half a century and destroyed the possibility of politics and representative form of government.

There are no guarantees of course where Egypt might go from there.   Dictatorship criminalises politics and destroys the civic space to ensure that people have no other options than the strong man at the helm or else, chaos.  Look at Libya or Syria,  president El-Sisi never fails to remind his captive audience and the justifiably fearful public. This is his strongest card – fear of chaos.  This could buy him some time. But you cannot hold people in fear for ever, especially the young when the prospects of “bread, freedom and social justice” — the slogans of Jan25 – are dwindlingly  small.  

Meanwhile, there are those in Egypt who — fearful that the pressure cooker that El-Sisi has turned Egypt into is unsustainable — are trying to appeal to the sound and moderate elements within the regime – if they do exist – to voluntarily embark on reform, open up the public sphere and allow for legitimate dissent and to free political prisoners, otherwise, they warn, the avalanche of a second wave could be far worse for the ruling clique and for the entire society.  


  • Attached to some gates near Tahrir Square in 2011
    there was a hand-written banner in English:


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