A Hunger Revolution May Be Imminent
It will be years before historians can provide an accurate picture of what caused Egypt’s revolution to fail. Some of them will argue that the Muslim Brotherhood and former president Morsi shoulder the blame for pushing Egyptians back into the arms of the military. Others will blame the dysfunction of Egypt’s secular, liberal groups and their incompetence in effectively campaigning in parliamentary and presidential elections. Still others will revert to Orientalist stereotypes that Egyptians are not ready for democracy and thus incapable of living in a pluralistic society without a strong military man as their leader. Surely, while many interrelated and complex factors contributed to the inability of Egyptians to topple their authoritarian government, Egypt’s military had never ceased to control Egypt. When it deposed Mubarak, the military had no intention of succumbing to a civilian government. As such, the military seized a golden opportunity to regain the power it had incrementally lost since the death of former president Nasser.
To the dismay of Egyptians, the authoritarian regime was so deeply entrenched and the wide-reaching networks of elite patronage were so deeply rooted in the state’s institutions that the events of January 25, 2011, promising as they may have been, failed to overthrow them. While the system may have been shaken, and the top leadership sacrificed to appease popular discontent, the sources that have perpetuated authoritarian rule in Egypt for decades remain in place. That Egypt successfully held relatively free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections is no small feat. It signifies Egyptians’ desire to transform their political system into one that is based on the will of the people, not the arbitrary rule of an entrenched military elite.
Despite such gloomy assessments, it remains to be seen whether Sisi’s regime is sustainable in a post-January 25 Egypt. A vast majority of the grievances that led to the January 25 uprising have not been addressed, and in some ways the situation has worsened. Unemployment stood at over 13 percent in 2014, and among youth it was as high as 25 percent—both higher than the rates recorded in 2010.138 Current wages, especially for unskilled workers, are stuck at 1990s levels, leaving the labor struggle almost exactly in the same place that it was before it joined the 2011 uprising.139 Annual inflation continues to hover near 10 percent. Egypt’s gdp dropped to 2 percent in 2014, down from 5.1 percent in 2010, just before the uprising.140 Electricity shortages are at unprecedented levels, Egypt’s population of ninety million is growing at a rate of 1.7 percent, and 5.6 million housing units are vacant despite an annual housing shortage of 3.5 million.141
In addition to increasing economic hardships, Egyptians are also facing an increased suppression of political dissent. Soon after Morsi was deposed from office on July 3, 2013, the police systematically cracked down on the groups that triggered and sustained the January 25 uprising.142 The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters were the first targets of what appeared to be an orchestrated vendetta by the police. After killing over one thousand people protesting in Rabaa and Nahda Squares against the deposal of Morsi, the police directed its crackdown at anyone suspected of being a sympathizer of the Muslim Brotherhood.143 Next in line were those—secularists or Islamists—claiming that the July 3, 2013, overthrow was a military coup. Wiretaps, surveillance of social media, and public statements were leveraged to interrogate, arrest, or detain these dissidents.144 Then, the military-security apparatus turned its wrath on the revolutionary youth, who had eventually realized that forcibly removing Morsi would lead to more, not less, repression. Using an antiprotest law unilaterally issued by the interim president Adly Mansour, police arrested and charged many prominent youth leaders who had begun protesting against the ensuing regression of individual rights.145 As of the time of writing this chapter, most of Egypt’s opposition leaders have been arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to jail or death for crimes ranging from terrorism to violating the protest law. Those who remain free have been scared into silence as they witness the high price their colleagues have paid for defending individual rights. It is too early to predict how such regression to oppressive authoritarian practices will affect Egypt’s political future.
Although some Egyptians believe Egypt can be stable only under the firm hand of a military general, many Egyptians have now tasted the fruit of freedom. Egypt’s youth, in particular, will not so easily accept another era of authoritarianism that suffocates their political expression and sacrifices their future to enrich a handful of elites. They are wired to one another in a world in which citizens now expect and demand democratic political representation. Egyptians broke Mubarak’s wall of fear, and they are just as likely to break the new walls currently being built by Egypt’s new police state. The military certainly won the battle for authoritarian rule, but it is far from clear whether they have eluded a prospective revolution for a democratic state.