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Egypt’s Fleeting Arab Spring: How to Kill a Revolution

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Opponent of Egypt's Islamist President Morsi hold a large Egyptian national flag during a protest outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt. July 2, 2013
Opponent of Egypt's Islamist President Morsi hold a large Egyptian national flag during a protest outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt. July 2, 2013.Credit: AP
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea
Khaled Diab

A decade ago, a spark of hope lit in Tunisia ignited a political wildfire that swept across the Middle East, consuming the old guard in its flames. One after another, many of the Arab world’s long-reigning republican autocrats fell: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and Muammar Gadhafi in Libya.

Then, for a glorious moment in which history seemed both to speed up and slow down, all the eyes of the world were on Egypt, where millions took to the streets, not only to topple a dictator but also to demand bread, freedom and social justice.

The day Hosni Mubarak was overthrown was the greatest event of collective euphoria and elation in Egypt in living memory. For that joyous moment, Egyptians discovered that everything they had been taught about their apathy and obedience was a myth, that they possessed the collective will and fortitude to move and remove mountains.

Sadly, a decade on, it all appears to have been in vain - at least at first sight. Rarely have so many people sacrificed so much for so little. At a certain level, Egypt has come more than full circle over the past 10 years, with a full-blown tyrant taking the place of a semi-authoritarian dictator.

Since seizing power in 2013, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi has been on a single-minded mission to slay the genie of revolution and make his people regret ever having rubbed that lamp to wish for freedom. 

Children pose for photographs in front of the Egyptian Museum near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the day after Mubarak’s ousting. February 12, 2011.Credit: REUTERS

In his bid to seize back control, the former director of military intelligence has shown little intelligence or sophistication. Instead, he has preferred to use overwhelming force and violence, including the murder, in a single day, of over 1,000 citizens. The Sissi regime has detained, jailed or disappeared untold thousands of activists, dissenters, revolutionaries and journalists of every political stripe, making Egypt’s prisons its most democratic institution. 

The people who had once pursued the dream of freedom in Tahrir (Liberation) and other squares up and down the country are either behind bars, or have packed up their shattered dreams of liberty and are trying to piece together their broken lives either in exile abroad or in the soul-destroying metaphysical exile of disengagement.

For an expatriate Egyptian like me, it is difficult to watch what is going on in Egypt and not feel saddened, not to mention powerless and guilty

Saddened, because of the shattered lives of millions and the missed opportunity to transform a country with so much potential into a place that serves its citizens rather than reduces them to servitude. 

Powerless, because there is nothing I or others can do except express our opposition to the Sissi regime’s brutal behavior and our outrage with the countries arming, enabling and supporting this criminal enterprise.

Guilty, because people I respect, including friends of mine, continue to stand in the line of fire while I observe the situation from a safe distance.

Anti-government activists clash with riot police in Cairo, Egypt, challenging President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule. January 28, 2011.Credit: Ben Curtis / AP

The overwhelming success of the counterrevolution in crushing the revolution has caused many to revert to the old idea that democracy does not work in Egypt, or the wider region. But Tunisia is the convention-defying exception that proves that despotic rule need not be the rule in the Arab world.

However, in Egypt, as in much of the region, it is not the people who do not understand democracy, but the country’s leaders who refuse to accept it. When confronting a heavily armed military that refuses to retreat from politics, and faced with a leadership vacuum created by decades of repression, the people desiring freedom and dignity did not stand a chance – at least, not for now.

The idea, which is enjoying a revival inside and outside Egypt, that Egyptians only understand the language of repression and need a "pharaoh" to govern them is as inaccurate as it is insulting. This profoundly misreads the moment and history. 

A man walks past candidates posters for Egypt’s first democratic parliamentary elections since Mubarak’s ousting. Cairo, November 28, 2011.Credit: AP

Sissi is no pharaoh. He is wildly unpopular and, despite being an authoritarian, he enjoys remarkably little authority. His regime’s heavy reliance on violence is actually a sign of weakness rather than strength. 

If Egyptians really did desire and were cut out for autocratic rule, then one would presume that Sissi would not have required such a show of monumental force to gain command of the country: the people would have just placidly rolled over rather than mount a spirited resistance that cost them so heavily.

And Egyptians are not by far the most deferential to authority in the region or the world, and there are plenty of leaders who behave more like a Biblical pharaoh than any Egyptian leader ever did. Moreover, authoritarianism is, sadly and troublingly, putting down deep roots in some long-established democracies.

So what does the future hold for Egypt?

Although the ideas and aspirations awakened by the Egyptian revolution have taken a battering, they are still alive, and they now appeal to a larger segment of the population than when Sissi rose to power. Even many of his one-time supporters no longer see him as their hero or savior. Although the political revolution has been defeated for now, a social revolution is in full swing.

Egyptian demonstrators rally in Cairo in support of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decree allowing military trials for civilians suspected of attacking state infrastructure. November 4, 2014.Credit: AFP

However, there is currently no space in the political landscape for any positive change. Insecure on his throne, Sissi not only tolerates no dissent but is also terrified by any potential challenge to his authority. The clearest reflection of this is how he intimidated or jailed everyone and anyone who planned to run for president in the previous "election," which he unsurprisingly "won" with 97 percent of the votes cast. 

This is very worrying for the future. Although Egypt has not yet plunged off the side of the cliff like Syria or Libya have done, that grim possibility is not off the table. The more Sissi ups the ante of violence and repression, the higher the likelihood of the regime sparking widespread conflict. 

Though not yet completely failed, the Egyptian state is certainly on the path to failure. Preoccupied with enriching the military, it consistently fails to provide the services citizens expect from their government. In fact, for the majority of citizens, the state’s presence in their lives has become almost entirely oppressive.

Without any real change, and soon, Egypt will end up in a very dark place. But ten years after the Arab Spring, the attempts of Egypt’s ruler to crush dissent has not yet managed to kill the ideas it awakened.

Khaled Diab is a journalist and writer. He is the author of two books, "Islam for the Politically Incorrect" (2017) and "Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land" (2014). Twitter: @DiabolicalIdea

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