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12 Years After the Events of the ‘Arab Spring’

12 Years After the Events of the ‘Arab Spring’

Tuesday, 7 February, 2023 - 12:15
Gamal Abdel-Gawad
Egyptian writer

The uprising of January 25, 2011 presented Egypt with few opportunities and many threats. Twelve years on, Egypt has managed to avoid the worst of the dangers posed by this so-called spring but failed to seize the opportunities, ending up in a similar position to that which it had been in before being hit by the storms of this spring.

The uprising opened the door to reforming the nation-state. It presented Egypt with the opportunity to end the political stalemate, introduce new elites and players into the public sphere, and readjust the balance of power between its institutions and its social and political forces. This opportunity is gone because it had always been purely theoretical.

The facts on the ground and the balance of power in the country, on the other hand, demonstrated the fragility of the forces of change, that the momentum that forced President Mubarak to resign was unsustainable, and that the actors in the de facto power were better organized and more experienced, allowing them to regain the initiative.

This opportunity could have perhaps been taken advantage of if the activists had been more reformist and less revolutionary and if they had behaved more like political actors and less like human rights activists. It also would have been helpful if the Muslim Brotherhood had been more Egyptian and less Islamist, less selfish, and less obsessed with power. However, all of these are all nothing more than items on a wish list, and so, the opportunity was squandered.

Most of the Arab countries that were hit by the hurricanes of this spring are now dealing with the calamities of civil war, state collapse, and displacement. Foreign intervention is a genuine threat, not a pretext blown out of proportion by the opponents of the revolution. Egypt has succeeded in averting all of these threats, becoming one of the Arab Spring’s survivors. However, surviving is not the same as winning.

Egypt escaped the grip of political Islam, one of the threats introduced by the winds of this spring. Political Islam creates a minefield of dangers. It can depend on the support of several segments of the population. The foundations of the Islamists’ project conflict with the nation-state project, the foundation on which Egypt’s modern renaissance has been built since the nineteenth century. Islamist ideology rejects the nation-state as such and in principle. Whatever the Egyptian public sees as the virtues and achievements of the nation-state, the Islamists see as an affront to religion that must be rectified.

The Islamists are reactionary radicals who want to push history back, and their accession to power turns the opportunity for reform that loomed in January into a setback that undermines the national state. Integrating Islamists into a political system open to all citizens presents several challenges, while a political system that excludes them cannot claim to be politically inclusive; this dilemma has impeded the political development of our country.

Twelve years later, Egypt is still in transition as it tries to make rapid leaps forward while avoiding the mistakes of the past. It has been a mixed bag of successes and failures. It is carefully reassessing the Mubarak era to avoid repeating the mistakes his regime made. Indeed, this keenness to learn from this period drives their behavior at this stage. In today’s Egypt, the model is one of a centralized, developmental state that relies on the state’s ability to impose its authority and mobilize resources to achieve rapid economic growth.

It could be considered a sharp contrast to the neoliberalism that had prevailed during President Mubarak’s era, which saw the private sector expand, private wealth increase, the role of the state decline, growth rates rise, and economic inequality deepen. With the current centralized developmental model, the private sector has seen its role wane, the state has come to play a more expansive role, the growth rate has increased, economic inequality has deepened, debts have increased, and the value of the local currency has declined.

The Mubarak regime allowed for a margin of freedom of expression, publication, and dissent. This margin was not broad enough to turn Egypt into a democratic country whose contradictions were resolved peacefully through institutions and elections, and it was not narrow enough to prevent the revolutionary forces from exploiting it to organize, mobilize, and overthrow the regime. The conclusion about the experience of the Mubarak era that ended up prevailing is that this margin of freedom was the problem.

The authorities thus decided to impose tighter controls, depriving the dissidents of a gap they could exploit. They have behaved with excessive caution at times, depriving regime supporters of the chance to support it their own way because of its fears of revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood, who are good at latching on to otherwise benign activities and subverting them to serve their own ends.

Egypt has completed its post-Arab Spring transformation to arrive at the point it is at today. It has held a national dialogue aimed at building a national consensus around a new and more effective framework that reflects the popular mood in Egypt and that aspires to more than avoiding the worst.

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