A man waves an Egyptian flag in front of riot police
This article was originally published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on 25 January 2016.
Five years ago, the leaders of Egypt’s protest movement shocked themselves by successfully bringing down President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power since before many of them were born. In those days, it was not unusual to hear talk of a new dawn for Egyptian politics and the Arab world. It is difficult to find many leaders of that movement who are so cheerful today. And their disappointment is broadly shared in academic, policy, and media circles around the world. Young and disaffected Egyptians, the story goes, revolted against a stultified regime and demanded a democratic government, a freer society, and more economic rights. They won the battle but lost the war, as the military, initially along with the Muslim Brotherhood and later without it, gained the upper hand and defeated the revolutionaries.
But there is a very different way to tell the story of 2011. This tale is not one of high but disappointed hope, but one of threatened chaos and rescue. From the perspective of Egypt’s security institutions—its military, police, and intelligence forces—the uprising threatened to bring down not only Egypt’s president but its entire social and political order. Averting such an outcome was an arduous task, one that the Egyptian armed forces still see themselves as undertaking.
US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter with Tunisian President Caid Essebsi at the Pentagon, 21 May 2015.
Tunisia’s transition process remains one of the few bright spots of the Arab Spring. While the transitions initiated in Egypt, Libya and Yemen have experienced numerous setbacks and repeated outbursts of violence, if not outright civil war, Tunisia appears to be well on its way to securing a genuine democratic space for itself. This view is shared, for example, by the latest Freedom in the World Report, which ranks Tunisia as the first ‘free’ country in North Africa since Freedom House began its worldwide assessments of political rights and civil liberties in 1972.
Although there is a fast-growing body of research that attempts to explain Tunisia’s comparatively smooth democratic transition, the Western media has not been as upbeat. Most analysts have focused on the challenges Tunisia faces, including the instability being generated by neighboring Libya and the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. As a result, other important aspects of Tunisia’s external relations, particularly those that have had positive implications for its transition, have gone unnoticed.
Most importantly, Tunisia’s new political order appears to have benefitted substantially from the staunch support of those external actors who have the most leverage over the country. In contrast, those with a more critical attitude towards the transition have largely lacked the ability to influence the trajectory of the transition in less positive ways. These circumstances are far from accidental, by the way. They’re the consequence of the country’s history. » More
Tank in Cairo. Photo: Jonathan Rashad/flickr.
On October 24, the ISN co-hosted a roundtable discussion with the Cordoba Foundation on the recent political turmoil in Egypt and on the possible ways to resolve it. Today, we present some of the discussion’s highlights, with a particular emphasis on the observations made by Dr Maha Azzam.
The discussion started off by focusing on the ‘narratives’ that the Western media has used to both bound and characterize the Arab Spring. In the following response, Dr Azzam focuses on the term ‘Islamism’ and how it has been misused, often with negative consequences, by media outlets, politicians and others.
Egypt's Mubarak is in a Cage. Photo: ssoosay/flickr.
It goes without saying that Egypt has seen a revolutionary political change. Its new president is a leader of an organization that a little more than a year ago was still banned and feared. Since February 2011 Egyptians have voted four times. Yet, people-oriented policies are nowhere to be found and ordinary Egyptians feel little change for better in their everyday lives. Few dare to say this out loud: big part of the problem is the Egyptian society itself. It is still authoritarian: at work, at home and in the Arab street.
The notion of an authoritarian Arab society is not new. Brian Whitaker, a British columnist at the Guardian, in his book “What’s really wrong with the Middle East” (Saqi, 2009) talks to an Egyptian journalist who explains that not the single Mubarak is the problem but the fact that “Egypt has a million Mubaraks”. » More
Tawakkol Karman, the women who sparked the Yemen protests into life. Change Square, Sanaa, Yemen, 15 April 2011. Photo: Kate B Dixon/flickr.
The final outcome of the political unrest that continues to shake the Middle East remains far from certain. With that in mind, on 11thJune more than 140 young scholars and students met at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Middle East Centre for the Annual Graduate Conference of the British Society of Middle Eastern Studies. Change and Continuity in the Middle East: Rethinking West-Asia, North Africa and the Gulf After 2011 – sponsored by the International Relations and Security Network (ISN) and other donors – provided a forum for their views on a number of key issues. » More