The Arab Spring revolution was, literally, a changing of Egypt’s Old Guard. Or was it?

10 February 2021 By Paul Martin

To get into Tahrir Square the evening that President Mubarak was toppled from power – February 11 2011- I crawled under a tank. Later, smiling soldiers on that same tank allowed jubilant crowds to clamber on board. 

But within a year, a lot of water had flowed under the Nile’s bridges. And to cininue the metaphor, it was looking increasingly muddy. 

There was optimism at first. The armed forces, who had effectively deposed their long-serving president under popular pressure, chose to stage a democratic presidential election.

A few hours before Egyptians were to go to the polls, I was in an upmarket Bedouin-style café in Digla, on the southern outskirts of Cairo. Some young men of the Revolution debated and speculated into the small hours,  puffing at hubbly-bubblies, their coals glowing and smoking as the water-pipes burble. 

The discussion was all about election statistics.  “I’m very very nervous,” says Saged Hamdy. “It feels like watching the Chelsea versus Bayern Munich penalty shoot-out.”

No-one precisely representing his liberal point of view was running, and in any case, that candidate would not have had a chance of winning. “We know democracy means we’ve become a small minority – the educated comprise two million out of ninety-million, and well over half our country cannot even read and write,” Saged continued.    

So, surprisingly, he had decided to vote for a relatively moderate Islamist, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.  His sister Yusr was doing the same.  Abul-Fotouh has earned the admiration of many of the revolutionary youth because in late January 2011 he had defied his own Muslim Brotherhood and went out protesting in Tahrir Square even as Mubarak’s thugs cracked down.  The Muslim Brotherhood joined the revolutionaries only later, when they (correctly) saw an opportunistic chance to propel themselves from a semi-persecuted group of outlaws to the biggest force in the land.

“If Mohamed Morsi, the official Brotherhood candidate, wins, Egypt will be like a jail,” Saged told me.  He feared that the well-funded and superbly organised Islamists, who wield laptops outside many polling stations to muster their supporters, have been handing out oil and cheap cooking utensils to encourage support. “They may gain a monopoly of power, “ Saged lamented. The Brotherhood  already dominated the Legislative Assembly alongside the even more hardline Salafists.

Ironically, this short period since the Assembly began work had been damaging to the Islamists’ cause: they were being exposed as bickering power-seekers rather than idealists, and they had failed to take significant measures to alleviate growing joblessness and industrial decline – the key issues in this high-birthrate country — at that time of 82 million.

Even more frightening to Saged would have been if the populace, craving stability and economic progress, were to elect one of the “feloul,” or “remnants”.  There were two Old Guard presidential candidates – a cover, Saged thought, for continuing control by the ruling military council. “Especially if Ahmed Shafiq wins, we’ll be filling every inch of Tahrir Square again, in a second revolution,” he said.

Saged considered that his greatest revolutionary achievement so far had been to convince his own mother, Mona, that it was time for the removal of her previous hero, President Hosni Mubarak. As her son and daughter demonstrated in Tahrir Square early last year she had even declared the carpet in her lounge to be “an indoor  Tahrir Square”, where any family member could speak his or her mind freely and without repercussions. Revolutionary indeed.

‘Madame Mona’ and her husband, a doctor, had joined over a million Egyptians who had gone to oil-rich Arab states to earn better money: they spent years in Saudi Arabia.  Now she was running a small cake-making business in the upmarket southern Cairo suburb of Maadi.  

In February 2012 she had done a good trade icing her cakes with the word “Mabruk!” (“Congratulations”) – to mark the revolution’s first anniversary.  But not today. “No-one feels like celebrating any more,” she says.  She too is voting for Abul-Fotouh, “with a heavy heart”.

Near Tahrir Square I met one supporter of the revolution – a bespectacled jeans-wearing young woman called Shorouk el Attar — who decided not even to bother to vote. “No-one represents my liberal views,” she told me.  “Many of us feel the revolution has been stolen.” 

She had just started work in public relations when a local television crew hired her as a fixer.  Her apartment overlooked a street where late last year youths clashed with the much-derided police.  She soon became a reporter-presenter for Channel 25, doing live video reports from her balcony, then down in the conflict-ridden streets.

While reporting she got separated from her cameraman in the crush. Beltegeya (“thugs”) sexually molested her for a horrifying twenty minutes as they dragged her through the streets into Tahrir Square.  Two days later, battered and bruised physically and mentally, she was bravely reporting from those streets again.

The Channel 25 satellite network was staffed only by young revolutionaries who had sparked off Egypt’s dramatic Arab Spring and the ouster of President Mubarak.  The loss-making channel’s boss, founder, creator and sponsor was a still-dynamic 62-year-old media veteran called Mohamed Gohar.  When I met up with him in his office, he was brandishing an order delivered to his office overlooking the Nile. “The government has suspended our broadcast licence,” he said, “but we’ll defy them.  The days of state diktats are over.  At least I hope so.”

His personal credo was simple. “We who support the revolution can work with most candidates – including even the Muslim Brotherhood. But if they try to impose hardline religion on this traditionally tolerant county we will fight them like hell.”

There were already some ominous signs of big trouble ahead. On the day that the presidential election result was to be announced, a huge crowd had gathered again in Tahrir Square.

This time, there was an air of menace.  Hundreds of thousands of Islamists were assembled, nervously confident that they would have their chance to seize power.   

A young flag-seller near Tahrir Square during the Revolution.

Would the army dare to deny the Islamists victory at the polls, by announcing that the secular rival had won? That could risk an explosion of anger, nationwide strikes and likely violence by angry Islamists.

No. Mohamed Morsi’s win was announced by a bumbling election official on live TV and radio, carried by a series of massive audio-speakers. The Square almost literally shook with a huge and sustained roar. a confrontation was avoided.  

“Down with the Army!” was the chant being stirred up by Islamist cheerleaders.  “You are going, we are staying,” echoed the crowd. They were to be proved wrong.

President-elect Morsi put in an appearance, to huge cheers. Already, though, he showed he was not a natural leader.  In a wooden and uncomfortable-sounding speech he made only a passing reference to the real heroes, the nearly 900 protesters killed in the previous year’s uprising.

“I wouldn’t have been here,” he said, “as your first elected president without the blood, the tears, and sacrifices of the martyrs.” That was all.

To ascend to presidential power the Muslim Brotherhood had ridden on the backs of the real revolutionaries.  Within a few weeks of tis victory, it even had the cheek to name its new TV station “25″ – referring the day, 25 January 2011, when the regime’s thugs first cracked down bloodily on protesters. 

Game over Mubarak’. Tahrir Square slogan during the 2011 Revolution.

A cheek, because the Brotherhood wasn’t even there, mostly, though its youth wing had decided to defy their elders and had joined in the struggle.  But only when Hosni Mubarak’s regime was tottering did the Brotherhood – a wily organisation that had slithered through sixty years of on-off state repression – give its members an official command to join in.

When the Muslim Brothers did so, they ensured – in concert with the Army — that the liberals and the idealistic youth would soon be shunted aside.

But things started to go wrong for the new rulers. An engineer trained at a US university, and with two sons holding US citizenship, Morsi was hardly a man of the people. His smart recently-built villa, guarded by suited Islamist security men with walkie-talkies, nestled in a large new gated suburb for the country’s elite, away from the hustle and bustle of Cairo.  The loudest noises were the swishing of water-sprinklers and the occasional clip of a golf-ball at an immaculate private club nearby.

When he ran the small group of Muslim Brotherhood MPs in the largely powerless pre-revolutionary Egyptian parliament, Morsi had a reputation within his caucus as an enforcer of hardline Islamism.  That line included supporting bans on Christians or females as candidates for the country’s top job.    Having just resigned as the Brotherhood’s party chief, he promised an inclusivist government.  But this did not quell widespread worry.

“I feel fear,” said Demiana Saad, a Coptic Christian. She was a reporter for Channel 25, whose staff was made up mostly of young people who had taken part in the Revolution. She said she feared the Islamists would inexorably bring in sweeping social changes. These might include stopping her from wearing her blue jeans and a short-sleeved blouse.  And much more.

ABOVE: Demiana Saad, fearful, over Tahrir Square on the day Morsi won.
Copyright Paul Martin/Correspondent.World
BELOW: Demania using a satellite dish to transmit events live to her TV studio.

Many liberals said they deliberately had spoiled their ballot papers in the run-off between two men who had come top in the Presidential election’s previous round.

Air Force ex-General Ahmed Shafiq found considerable support for his vow to restore law and order.  But the young revolutionaries rejected General Shafiq, parachuted into office as Prime Minister days before Hosni Mubarak’s fall in 2011. They feared that if he won it he would restore the same type of rule they had battled to eliminate. 

Given his link to the toppled dictator, it seemed surprising Shafiq got as much as 48 per cent of the vote. Also, he had had little or no organisational support  – the headquarters of the now-dissolved former government’s political party, close to Tahrir Square, remained a burnt-out hulk.    

With its long-term food and medical support for poorer communities across the country, largely funded by Saudi and Gulf money, the Muslim Brotherhood commanded an in-built loyalty and an unrivalled organisation for corralling its supporters to the poll, and bribing others with much-needed food and cooking gas. For its big demonstration, over 250 buses drove demonstrators to Tahrir Square from the Egyptian hinterland.

Even in the square outside Shafiq’s campaign headquarters there was only one huge banner. Not of him. It showed his rival, Morsi. 

On it were depicted one person from each sector of society: a woman with a total black head-covering on the one hand, to a woman whose hair is visible, on the other, as well as a Coptic Christian priest.

“There’ll be a large exodus of the well-educated and the better-off,” predicted businessman Mansour Hassan, a relatively liberal former minister in President Anwar Sadat’s cabinet — as he watched events unfold from his elegant apartment’s Nile-side balcony.

Hassan had briefly announced he would run in the presidential election, then withdrew. He pointed out that while 40 per cent of the 83 million Egyptians were officially below the poverty line already, the last year-and-a-half of turmoil was rapidly plunging another huge chunk of society into penury.  Many factories were idle, exports were down, and most tourist resorts, a mainstay of the Egyptian economy, were eerily empty.

Islamists, he noted, had a very poor track record in neighbouring Sudan, to Egypt’s south, where under Islamist rule the country had been at war in Darfur, had repressed civil liberties and had a president wanted for war crimes in the International Criminal Court. 

Likewise, he said, to the east an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, had continued to torment its own political rivals in the Gaza Strip and was running a repressive, unpopular mini-state. It was a model of Brotherhood role he did not want to see repeated.

Five days later the Armed Forces (which had deposed Mubarak) officially handed over some, but not all, of its powers to the President. 

“The revolution was completed today,” a young army officer told me, as he helped prepare a Saturday hand-over ceremony.  But he confided that there was skepticism inside the Army over the Muslim Brothers’ fitness for office. 

That was a widespread view.

“Morsi does not have the experience to run anything, let alone a country,”  a 65-year-old scuba diving instructor complained, sipping freshly-squeezed mango juice near the Square.

“But we are Egyptians – and we have one big thing: hope.”

It turned out to be hope against hope.

The struggle behind the scenes intensified. Ostensibly, it was over who would design a new constitution. It also manifested in a row over civilian efforts to have oversight or control of the Armed Forces’ budgets, its perks and its untaxed cash-cows: factories, petrol stations and hotels. 

Morsi’s rule was short — just over a year — and very unsuccessful. It was marked by fuel shortages, cooking gas shortages, spiralling bread prices, and a high-handed autocracy.

It got even more repressive when he was overthrown in an army coup the next year, 2013, with around eight hundred of his defiant supporters mowed down by gunfire in one morning. Morsi was arrested and died later in jail of ill-health.

The extent to which Morsi had simply been a fall-guy is another story.

Meanwhile the army’s rule has brought Egypt stability but little else. And the starry-eyed idealists are either lying low or have been cowed into submission.

Egypt’s Arab Spring has become an Arab Winter.