25 January 2012

Jane Kinninmont

Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


This evening, Egyptian embassies around the world will be hosting receptions to celebrate the first anniversary of the 'January 25 Revolution'. Meanwhile, protestors will be gathering outside to tell them the revolution isn't finished. 

When a popular uprising overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Egypt's political transition was just beginning. The overthrow of the president, thirty years into his rule, was achieved by a wide-ranging coalition of social movements, political groups and individuals, which managed to overcome the usual boundaries of class, ideology and religious affiliation that had traditionally divided the Egyptian opposition. January 25 is 'Police Day' in Egypt, and protestors initially gathered with limited demands, demonstrating against police brutality and calling for the overthrow of the interior minister.

In a pattern that was repeated in several other Arab countries, the brutal repression of the protests did not make people go home; it made the protestors' numbers swell. It soon became clear that a critical mass of Egyptians wanted to change their leader, who had been in office for thirty years, and that change did not mean simply replacing him with his son.

It is hardly surprising that this unusually unified coalition has fragmented in the months since then. Different political groups are contesting the extent to which, and the ways in which, Egypt's political transition may involve structural changes to the distribution of power and wealth. It is presumed that the military council now ruling the country, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), is seeking to preserve as much of the existing political and economic structure as possible. Earlier this month, the Nobel laureate Mohammed El Baradei, announced he was withdrawing from the presidential contest saying the military council was ruling 'as if a revolution never happened and a regime never collapsed'.

Today's anniversary highlights the delicate position that the military is in, as it seeks to claim credit for the revolution while maintaining as much of its pre-revolution position as possible. On one hand, the military enjoys a special place in Egyptian society and has traditionally commanded a great deal of respect. Children are brought up celebrating its role in the 1973 war with Israel. Conscription means many families have a direct stake in the army. Moreover, under Mubarak, the state's repression and brutality was mainly carried out by the internal security forces, not by the army. Last February, the scenes of Egyptians thanking the military were genuine. 

Since then, however, the military council has squandered some of that political capital, by taking a heavy-handed approach to protestors, rounding up political prisoners, and by its generally opaque approach to managing the timetable for transition to an elected government. Protestor Ahmed Harara is a symbol of the deficit of change: he lost one of his eyes to a rubber bullet in a protest against Mubarak last January, and lost his other eye the same way in a protest against continuing military rule in November. 

Today, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are marching back to Tahrir to call for resignation of the leader of the military council, Field-Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. This is a divisive issue; a large constituency of Egyptians is troubled by criticism of the army (I've heard, for instance, the conspiracy theory that the CIA is paying Egyptian activists to call for Egypt's army to be disbanded, despite the fact that the US spends far more on direct assistance to the army than it does on civil society projects). Most Egyptians still watch state television rather than using Facebook, and state television has continued to push a pro-regime line. 

But the events of the last year have shown the power that street protests and mass political movements can have. It is hard to overestimate the profound psychological impact of this empowerment of a public that has long been dismissed as apolitical, apathetic or fatalistic.

The military council has clearly felt under pressure to deliver some apparent progress in the run-up to the anniversary. Last week they announced the release of nearly 2000 political prisoners, including Maikel Nabil, a prominent blogger – though thousands of other civilians remain in jail after military trials. Last night, Mr Tantawi said that the country's 31-year state of emergency would be lifted from today onwards – though, he said, it would continue to apply to 'thugs', a vague term that gives the military leeway for a very broad interpretation. 

Expect to see a host of hasty, half-hearted 'reform' measures across the Arab world as the season of anniversary uprisings begins.