What Is Egypt’s Revolution Really All About?

The stirring, iconic scenes of courage and national unity, sacrifice and magnanimity, have long since faded, like a discarded bouquet of lotus and jasmine.

They have been replaced with endless strikes; attacks on churches; countless, sometimes bloody, demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square; growing radical Islamist (Salafi) control of Sinai; cross-border attacks on Israel (and Israel’s inevitable response); and, finally, the sacking of a sovereign embassy with the ruling military’s apparent complicity. For the first time in Egypt’s five thousand years of Pharaonic-style rule, the people have put the top man on trial, but the exercise somehow seems cheap and tawdry.


Meanwhile, tourism has all but died and investment has retreated as chaos reigns and foreign currency reserves shrink to a memory. There is even talk of imminent mass famine, as Egypt can no longer afford to import staple foods and can’t even effectively get subsidized bread to those who actually need it.

By almost any measure, things looked better for most people under the reviled ancien regime. While violent crime (bag-snatchings, burglaries, petty thefts, domestic murders, kidnappings, and muggings) were on the rise in Mubarak’s last years, they have surged since his fall. One novelty of the new Egypt is an epidemic of attacks on police stations in which guns are stolen and people often killed. That simply did not happen under Mubarak.

Add the siege and destruction of state security headquarters around the country since Mubarak resigned in February and the growing boom in baltagiya (gang thuggery), and it all reinforces the impression that Egypt really is a country where mobs and criminals roam at will. That is true even if many places still seem more or less as safe as before. The reality hardly reaches the international media, whose representatives savor the still-thriving local bar scene. Yet even alcohol and Western beachwear may soon be banned if the Muslim Brotherhood, that they were praising only yesterday, and more openly radical Salafis, get their way.


According to activist/filmmaker Amr Hussein, in his new documentary, The Road to Tahrir, the January 25 Revolution actually began in September 2000, with the start of the Second Palestinian Intifada. That event drew mass protests all over Egypt. Passions were whipped up by the state-controlled media as well as by the opposition.

The “pro-Palestinian” (anti-Israeli) and anti-Mubarak elements brought together then, Hussein notes, later coalesced in 2008 in the April 6 Movement (itself aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood against Mubarak and the peace treaty with Israel). From this group arose the initially Facebook- and Twitter-driven 2011 uprising. So from the start, this movement was not just about the Egyptian state but also the Jewish one next door. Its major Islamist element’s appeals apparently provided most of the demonstrators after the first two days of protests in January. But that’s not what we were told at the time.

Given that the Mubarak regime banned me from entering the country last December, after twenty years of living there, I should have no reason to eulogize his rule. Yet I will — up to a point.

Of course, while some of Mubarak’s key polices were wise — notably, keeping the peace with Israel and reforming the economy — both done imperfectly, the uprising and military coup reacted to his rule’s worst aspects. The police were corrupt, as they had been before Mubarak and will be after him. Yet at least they were often there to protect people from crime.


The decline in tourism — down more than one third the second quarter of this year from the same period in 2010 — has been catastrophic. There has also been a total halt to building starts, at least in that sector. And there will likely be an Islamist plurality, if not majority, when elections are held. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has said it will permit no international monitors to ensure their transparency. Political parties are able to form more freely and media are less restricted than before, but bloggers and television have both seen crackdowns, and book censorship continues. The hated emergency law, in force almost continuously since 1967, has just been renewed for another six months. And twelve thousand citizens have been held for military trials since February — more than during the whole three decades of Mubarak’s arguably milder tyranny.

Of course, things could turn around; the Islamists, radical nationalists, and criminals could be defeated; an honest police force could be created and put on the streets; and democracy could bloom on the banks of the Nile. But is any of that really happening now?

Some years ago, I asked Egypt’s Nobel laureate in literature, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), about his feelings on the demolition of his favorite Alexandrian haunt, the Hotel San Stefano, with all the memories he had there. But he just laughed and said, “There are memories coming!”


Let’s hope that the memories now coming aren’t some we’d all just rather forget.


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