Egypt’s Headless Revolution

Omar Ashour
Omar Ashour زميل سابق في بروكنجز

November 21, 2011

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

“The man who taught me to sacrifice my heart for Egypt is dead,” said Vivian Magdi, mourning her fiancé. Michael Mosad was killed in the Maspiro area on October 9, when an armored vehicle hit him during a protest called to condemn an attack on an Egyptian Church in the southern Aswan region. The protest left 24 dead and more than 200 injured – a higher toll than that taken by the so-called “Battle of the Camels,” when former President Hosni Mubarak’s security forces and armed thugs attacked pro-democracy protestors in Tahrir Square at the height of the revolution.

Now, Tahrir Square is once again the scene of clashes. “This is January 25 all over again!” screamed a friend, as he barricaded himself in the square. Others were helping him to set up tents. More than 20,000 Egyptians filled Tahrir Square on November 19, with at least 3,000 staying overnight. Intermittent clashes with Central Security Forces erupted throughout the day, just as they had on January 25. “They are back and we are not leaving….down with Military Rule….down with the Marshal (Tantawi),” another protestor told me.

The latest wave of protests reflects increasing frustrations with the management of the country’s political transition by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). But the Tahrir clashes highlight another problem. Unlike Egypt’s revolts of 1882, 1919, and 1952, the revolution of 2011 is leaderless. That was a source of strength during the overthrow of Mubarak’s dictatorship; now it is a source of weakness.

The unity of opposition is usually a critical factor in successful democratic transitions, as in Poland, Chile, and South Africa, for example. In Egypt, the political unity was maintained – just barely – during the struggle against Mubarak, but began to splinter once the SCAF took over. Ideological polarization, leadership struggles, inflated egos, and inexperience in coalition management and negotiations caused serious rifts within the ranks of opposition politicians. One leading activist summarizes the pattern: “If a leader emerges, other opposition figures are very willing to take him down, rather than join him up.”

The lack of leadership characterizes even the Islamists, arguably Egypt’s best-organized political force (amid a field of more than 70 parties and coalitions). Lately, an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to dominate the Democratic Coalition for Egypt (DCE) backfired. The DCE, formed to contest the coming parliamentary election, shrank from 34 parties to the FJP and a handful of tiny groups. Most of the other Islamist parties left.

Those parties have similar complaints. “The Muslim Brotherhood members dominate most of the proportional representation lists, and therefore have a higher chance of entering the parliament,” says Tamer Abd al-Khaliq, a leading activist in Asala. Safwat Abd al-Ghani, an Islamic Group leader and co-founder of its party, had stronger words for the FJP: “This is opportunism….They are using our supporters in Upper Egypt where they have no support…then putting us at the bottom. They want to monopolize the [parliamentary] seats.”

In the midst of a leaderless revolution, with elections forthcoming, the SCAF finds itself caught in multiple paradoxes. Patterns observed in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere suggest that a military establishment that holds power in a transitional period will attempt to enhance its political influence. But that effort can range from the Algerian model (near-total control) to the Argentinean approach (limited influence).

In Egypt, the initial understanding was that the military establishment would demand constitutional and legal immunity from prosecution for its leaders; continuation of its off-budget, tax-free investments; and a veto on “high politics,” including national security and critical foreign policy issues. Almost all credible Egyptian politicians have been ready to grant the first demand and negotiate the second and third.

“If they want legal guarantees, we should give them,” says Essam Sultan, the deputy leader of al-Wasat Party, the closest Egyptian political entity to the Turkish Justice and Development (AKP). Presidential candidates and other party bosses have made similar statements.

But the SCAF now seems to have realized that, in a leaderless situation, no civilian politician can grant immunity without becoming vulnerable to attack by rivals. Moreover, the SCAF has carefully weighed the politicians and dissected their relative weakness, limited capacity, notorious opportunism, and general inconsistency. As a result, there is a growing belief within the SCAF that its three “minimum” demands have become both unnecessary and insufficient. In the last two months, the SCAF’s behavior towards civilian politicians, civil-society actors, and, more recently, the Coptic community, has clearly reflected the change in attitude: “You need immunity, guidance, and protection from us – not us from you.”

The political polarization, sectarian incidents, weak economy, and absence of security have dimmed Egypt’s prospects for a successful democratic transition. But, surveying the younger generation, the gloom starts to dispel, at least a bit. Observers of Egyptian politics are stunned at the quantity and quality of youth initiatives, which range from lobbying for a successful democratic transition to providing a system for garbage collection and supporting the bread industry.

The persistence of these initiatives over the past seven months, and their relative success in dealing with multiple crises, could turn gloomy expectations on their head. Indeed, I recently asked a group of young activists for their views about possible negative scenarios in the transition period. They answered with a long list. Then one of them smiled and said: “Oh, don’t worry about it. We will depress depression.”