Two Years After Tahrir Square: The Battle for Egypt's Identity Is Far From Over

The Egyptian revolution began with a big dream. Disappointments and chaos have punctured the hopes of the uprising, but the possibility of establishing a democratic regime has not yet been lost. This second year of the revolution will be crucial.

Elie Podeh.
Elie Podeh
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Elie Podeh.
Elie Podeh

Two years ago, on 25th January 2011, it began with a big dream: Millions of people went into the Cairo streets with the aim of toppling the dictatorial Mubarak regime and establishing a democracy in Egypt. All the groups participating in the demonstrations – whether Islamists, liberals or secularists – shared a vision of a different Egypt.

On the occasion of the second anniversary of the Tahrir Square revolution, the interim assessment of the Egyptian people can be described in six words: disappointment, disillusionment, dissatisfaction, despair, distress and distrust. Disappointment from the current outcome of the revolution, disillusionment from the (in)ability of the revolution to achieve its lofty aims, dissatisfaction about the current internal instability and economic deterioration, despair that little can be done to dramatically change the situation, distress that the prospects seem bleak for ordinary Egyptiansand distrust of the current Morsi regime, which seems unable to deliver its promises. As much as the hopes for a change were big, so was the disappointment.

These feelings are shared not only by the opposition groups, who are frustrated by the fact that the Islamists in general – and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular – managed to seize the presidency and win the controversial referendum over the constitution. They are shared by the large Coptic Christian minority (some 10% of the population) who fear the Islamization of society and the further marginalization of their role in Egyptian society. The fears are also shared by the Salafis (Islamic fundamentalists), who managed to pull an impressive 28% vote for the parliament immediately after the revolution, but later had to give in most of their demands during the battle over the constitution. These feelings are also shared by some Muslim Brotherhood members, who realize that - in contrast to their own ideology - they would have to adopt a more pragmatic policy vis-à-vis the West, the U.S. and Israel and their desire to Islamize Egypt.

All these negative perceptions of the revolution were reflected in the referendum to the constitution in which only 32% of the vote participated, while 36% objected to it, and in the center – Cairo – the majority even rejected it. The prevalence of these negative feelings is not uncommon in post-revolutionary societies. Often enough, when the dust of the revolution is settled, the various groups which had united for the sake of changing the regime become embroiled in protracted ideological, political and personal disputes which might bring uncertainty and even chaos. Egypt has not reached that point yet, but the worsening economic situation and the continuation of the political stalemate might further antagonize the Egyptian people and lead to renewed cycles of demonstrations and violence above and beyond those which accompanied the presentation and passing of the constitution recently.

Yet, in historical terms not all is bleak: Egypt might become more democratic than before. The fact that Egypt has become more Islamic does not mean it cannot become a democracy, as attested by other Islamic regimes like Turkey and Indonesia. On a scale in which dictatorship is at one end of the spectrum, and full Western democracy is at the other, Egypt is getting closer to the center, as attested by the free elections, little censorship and the ability of the masses to affect public opinion and decision-making by the oft-used tool of street pressure. Yet, there is still much to be done in the realm of safeguarding minorities, civil rights and women's rights.

The battle over Egypt’s identity is far from over. The next round – elections to parliament scheduled for April – will demonstrate whether the non-Islamist, more secular opposition – which is more an amalgamation of different groups rather than a united front - has managed to learn the mistakes of its previous runoff when it received less than 25% of the vote. The coming third year of the revolution is crucial. Either the Egyptian people will continue to actively attempt to affect the revolution’s course by different means in order to improve their living conditions as well as their civil liberties or whether state intimidation, public indifference and fatigue will take hold.

Elie Podeh is Professor in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A young Egyptian boy waves a national flag from his mother's shoulders, as protesters chant slogans in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, December 4, 2012.Credit: AP

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