The Arab Spring
Following the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi on December 17th, 2010, a fruit seller whose fruit cart has been confiscated by Tunisian officials, protests against poverty and inefficient government sparked the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia. Inspired by Tunisia’s experience, similar sentiments in Egypt about socioeconomic and political conditions prompted the organization of a mass movement leading to large demonstrations across the country. The subsequent chain of revolutions against governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa is known as the Arab Spring.
On January 25th, 2011, the National Police Day in Egypt, a mass demonstration, named the “Day of Rage” (or the Tahrir Square Revolution), resulted in 18 days of protest nation-wide that ultimately ended the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak. Like many Tunisians, Egyptians hoped for a fairer distribution of wealth, enhanced economic opportunity, and justice by calling for drastic changes to the political structure of the country. During the 18 days of protest, approximately 840 Egyptian civilians were killed and more than 6,000 injured by Egyptian security forces who used snipers, water cannons, and shotguns to disperse the crowds.
The importance of the military
It was not until February 11th that Mubarak stepped down. Thereafter, control of the government was transferred to the military under Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi who initially called for a six-month transitional government to set up a new election. The general response to such news was mixed as a segment welcomed the military, remembering the days of the military era of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s, while the majority saw it as the perpetuation of the cycle of authoritarianism. They wanted drastic societal changes beyond a new head of state as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces historically did little for the lay-people in terms of socioeconomic opportunities.
To understand the reaction of Egyptian citizens regarding such a power shift, one must understand the historical role of the military since the colonization of Egypt by the French in 1798, then by the British in 1882 until 1922. Until Nasser threatened the position of the British as a colonial power in 1952, both the British and Egyptian military forces were responsible for stabilizing and normalizing British-Egyptian relations. The British controlled the Suez Canal that opened up the maritime trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, which was key to Britain’s economy as it allowed safer and direct access to the Asian continent, and therefore. Because of this strategic importance, British troops defended British assets in Egypt until Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. The ensuing Suez Crisis (1956-1957) culminated in a partial victory for Egypt against Britain, France, and Israel, and similarly helped boost Arab and Egyptian nationalism.
Unfortunately, Nasser’s success was short-lived: the Six-Day War in 1967 against Israel, in which Egypt suffered a humiliating defeat, resulted in the annexation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights by Israel, hindering Nasser’s popularity and his message of Arab socialism and unity. This negative shift in Nasser’s popularity would not only impact his position as an individual political figure but would affect the military’s credibility as a whole.
In the post-Nasser era, Egypt, under the newly appointed president Anwar Sadat in 1970, became divided between multiple political factions as Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were allowed to re-enter the political arena after years of exclusion under Nasser. The Egyptian military forces under Sadat, Mubarak’s predecessor, focused on stabilization at home due to political tension arising from cultural and religious frictions in a rapidly changing political structure exacerbated by harsh economic conditions.
After the assassination of Sadat in 1981, Mubarak, then Sadat’s vice-president, took over the country’s governance, becoming increasingly intolerant of political dissent and groups enjoying special status such as religious groups. For 30 years, the military under Mubarak maintained its role of stabilization but was driven by new objectives which were to maintain Mubarak’s grip on power. Challenged by the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, the military ultimately abandoned Mubarak because of the growing pressure from protesters advocating for regime change and to avoid being associated with corruption and nepotism.
The democratic experience
The transition to democracy, completed 16 months after the Arab Spring, was tumultuous as the possibility of a permanent military take-over was impeding its implementation. Among the many changes in Egyptian politics following the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to run in the election of 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood won the election and became not only the first Islamist party to rule over an Arab state, but its leader, Mohammed Morsi, also became the first freely elected Egyptian president. The ascent of an Islamist party to power revived age-old tensions between secularist and religious factions in which the military sided with the former – a trait that can be understood as a legacy of secularism during the Nasser era. Morsi’s reign was short-lived as in the 2014 election the Muslim Brotherhood party lost against the former Marshall General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. This election and the subsequent referendum have been criticized as being unfair due to Sisi’s fear campaign in the media and the lack of transparency.
The re-emergence of the military
As Deputy Prime Minister after the July coup in 2013, Sisi curtailed public demonstrations with a law passed banning unauthorized protests as a way to jail the voices opposing his political ambition including leftists and liberals coupled with his exploitation of religious tensions while running for election to round up his critics. After officially grabbing power in 2014, Sisi’s regime has been criticized by many world leaders for human rights violations such as repressing freedom of speech, absence of due process, and unjustified detentions. Moreover, Sisi passed a constitutional amendment that allowed him to stay in power until at least 2030, paving the way for cementing an authoritarian regime.
Egypt under Sisi is in part poisoned by the colonial legacy of the military who historically sought to maintain political stability at all costs. The military engages in widespread disregard for human lives as was made evident by the three-fold increase in judicial executions of political opponents and critics – mostly belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. It is through slow but meaningful changes to Egypt’s legal framework that Sisi maintains the status quo. For instance, legal amendments passed in 2017 gave the courts the power to refuse to hear witnesses brought by the defense and to reject the defense’s appeal.
The military has been omnipresent in Egypt’s modern history in which it has held the primary role of stabilizing the sociopolitical realms – albeit for everchanging motives. This is not to say that the hopes of drastic societal changes from the Arab Spring are crushed -the legacy of the revolution is still unfolding. It is, however, safe to assume that the military will play an important role in shaping the outcome.