There are important similarities between the current situation in Egypt and the final days of the Mubarak era. But is that necessarily leading to a new revolutionary moment?
A number of Facebook pages have for months been calling for a “Return to the Square” on 25 January 2016, with hundreds of thousands saying they will participate. Although this is not an index of the actual numbers that could flock to the streets, the regime seems aware of the danger, and is cautiously preparing for the eventuality of fresh agitations. Tahrir Square, where all demonstrations have been banned since July 2013, is witnessing an increased presence of el-Amn el-Markazy (Central Security Forces). And last week ‘recommendations’ for Friday sermons by the Ministry of Religious Endowments were focused on warning the worshipers against “destructive calls” to destabilize the country and spread sedition.
So, let’s look more closely at some of the points that the current situation might have in common with the period that preceded January 2011.
Electoral farce. The results of the recently held parliamentary elections bring back memories of those in 2010, deemed to be among the most corrupt of the Mubarak era. This time, the second round of the race has just ushered in a parliament with an overwhelming majority in support of the president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a de facto exclusion of every kind of real political opposition, and a significant return of the feloul (the ‘remnants’ of the Mubarak regime, who were mostly running as independent candidates). The Muslim Brotherhood, which in 2010 won only one seat, now had no chances at all to run, and other forces, mostly non-aligned leftists and liberals, have altogether boycotted the contest.
Police brutality, a key target of youth rage in 2010-2011, is again making the headlines: thousands of people recently engaged in spontaneous demonstrations and clashes to protest cases of deaths allegedly caused by torture under police custody. Interestingly, such incidents took place in peripheral provinces, such as Luxor and Ismailia, far from the political centre of gravity of the country, and were not initiated by circles of activists and human rights advocates.
Rampant inflation, fuelled by a foreign currency crisis and rising import prices, is adding hardship to the daily predicament of poor and middle class Egyptians, struggling above all with exceptional food prices hikes that the regime is not able to control. Also in 2008, the inability to provide affordable food staples caused widespread riots at bakeries, which are believed to be among the early manifestations of the popular discontent that flowed in Tahrir and other squares of the country in January 2011.
Workers’ strike waves have been repeatedly hitting Egypt in the last few months. At the same time, new efforts to bring together the fragmented movement of independent trade unions are under way. And they are possibly at a turning point, after deciding to overcome divisions and step up pressures against government decisions that hit union freedoms and labour rights.
Although workers’ actions were not decisive in triggering the uprising in 2011, the widespread strikes initiated in February that year are believed by many observers to have been one of the most significant factors in the downfall of Mubarak. Moreover, growing labour mobilizations defined almost the whole decade leading up to January 2011, questioning at their core the policies of privatizations and austerity, and defying the wall of fear imposed by the authoritarian rule.
Indeed, the neoliberal policies that played such a huge role in exacerbating deprivation, inequality and social injustice in the late Mubarak era, have not been reversed or even mitigated after 2011, and least of all by the Sisi regime. At the same time, promises of a new era of development based on national projects, ushered in and symbolized by the New Suez Canal feat, failed to materialize and to ‘trickle-down’ into widespread benefits for the population. Moreover, the terrorist attack that hit the Russian plane in Sinai has recently spelled the final word for the already faltering tourism industry. Job opportunities are dropping, as youth unemployment rates remain high, especially for the educated youth (just a few weeks ago, a demonstration of hundreds of highly qualified unemployed postgraduates defied the ban on protests and moved to Tahrir Square to demand jobs in the public sector).
As for rural Egypt, small-scale protests occur almost on a daily basis, but episodes of unrest in the villages rarely make the headlines in the national media (the most recent case that gained some visibility was the protest of Beheira residents following the disastrous floods that hit the province). Discontent often focuses on issues related to access to resources and the lack or dysfunction of basic services. Farmers’ and villagers’ mobilizations have been a constant feature of the last twenty years in Egypt. However, due to their usually unorganized, local and temporary nature, they are often neglected. Even if rural Egypt did not play a major role in the 2011 uprising, years of marginalization and of confrontations with the state for access to resources heavily eroded Mubarak’s consensus so that, when January 2011 came, “the regime had no supporters in the rural areas standing by it” as explained by Saqr el-Nour, an Egyptian rural sociologist. The situation today is pretty much identical, as the latest agricultural policies mark “the worst period since a hundred years for farmers”, according to Basheer Saqr, long-standing activist and member of the Committee in Defense of the Farmers.
In sum, even though this exposition is far from being exhaustive, it points to the fact that many factors are there, indicating a widespread social malaise, and the readiness of many segments of society to mobilize. What is lacking (this is another important similarity to 2011) is the presence of any social actor organized enough, credible enough, and willing to interpret the actions and sentiments of these social groups, help them connect and gather around a wide and coherent platform, and facilitate the expression of their demands in a more directly political fashion. This is of course mainly a result of repression and of the closure of the totality of practicable political spaces after the military takeover of July 3rd 2013.
Moreover, and contrary to 2011, the Egyptian youth is this time much more disenchanted, and many are preoccupied more with individual strategies of survival than with engagement in collective actions (significantly, the number of Egyptians leaving the country increased by 17% in 2014 compared to the preceding year, and most of them are under the age of 30). The experiences of repeated periods of intense mobilizations in the last five years with apparently no results in sight have frustrated confidence that change could come from grassroots street actions. Too many times now, they have brought down a ruler, just to see him replaced by another one, sustained by more or less the same regime structures and behavior.
To conclude, we could say that Egypt’s long revolution (to use the sociologist Maha Abdelrahman’s powerful definition) is still ongoing, with multiple societal processes under way from various groups. Indeed, whether or not a new revolutionary uprising is preparing out there in the near future, and even though no hegemonic forces seem to clearly be emerging to take a leading role, this picture is testimony to the fact that the Egyptian society, in this fifth anniversary of its ‘January Revolution’, is neither dormant nor defeated.