Egypt 2011: before the fall

Legacy of the Arab spring

Three years after the start of the mass revolts Yassamine Mather assesses the situation in Tunisia and Egypt

The Arab masses have nothing much to celebrate following the third anniversary of the Arab uprisings. There is little sign of the kind of political freedom called for by the protestors.

In Egypt the anniversary was marked by rival demonstrations of supporters and opponents of the military government. Dozens of people have been killed in the last few days, as police broke up anti-government protests. Hundreds have died since July, when the army deposed Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Mursi. Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, speaking to the BBC, summed up the mood of many: “Basically, this isn’t the third anniversary for the revolution that we were hoping for. The security state is back and also a great many activists are in jail.” Ironically the official gatherings to celebrate the 2011 uprising, in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, were organised by the military, who are keen to portray themselves as the saviours of the nation - in reality they are the saviours of the ruling elite.

In Tunisia and in Egypt opposition to the rulers, whether ‘moderate’ Islamists (Tunisia) or the secular military (Egypt), is not tolerated. The economic situation is catastrophic. There are no new jobs - on the contrary unemployment and uncertainty is on the rise and the majority of the population cannot afford many basic goods. The jails are full of political prisoners and the banning of oppositionists is part and parcel of the new order.

Having said that, at least in Tunisia and Egypt there is some kind of political life. But in Syria, where in the early days of the uprising opponents of the Assad regime raised demands for political freedom, the ‘revolution’ has been hijacked to such an extent that there is now in effect a war by proxy between Iran’s Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia.

As for Libya, the situation could not be more chaotic. Genuine opposition to the regime of Muammar Gaddafi had no chance of surviving once the US, France, the UK and Italy got involved - cheered on by sections of the European ‘left’. The new ‘democracy’ the US brought to Libya is in reality gunpoint chaos masquerading as government, while armed militias - some political, others just criminal - including appendages of al Qa’eda, rule the country. The militias are clearly powerful enough to kidnap the country’s prime minister and half of the Egyptian embassy staff. In fact the new ‘democratic government’ in Libya is itself a coalition made up of political representatives of the various militias.

In such circumstances it is difficult to talk of an Arab spring. However, the mass protests, strikes and other events witnessed over the last three years, including the coming to power of ‘moderate’ and not so moderate Islamists, will have long-term effects in the region, and this article will attempt to explain the political and economic reasons for the upsurge, as well as discussing the consequences of the defeat of the Arab spring.


On December 17 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year old fruit seller, set himself on fire in front of a government building, sparking riots across Tunisia and beyond.

Tunisians, followed by Egyptians, demonstrated against the constant degradation of their living conditions. They had tolerated political dictatorship, corruption and cronyism during the Ben Ali and Mubarak eras. But now they were angry at the impotence and subservience of their rulers vis-à-vis US imperialist interventions in the region and felt humiliated by their acceptance of continued Palestinian oppression. In addition those rulers had since the early 1980s pushed through economic restructuring programmes and a neoliberal economic agenda unchallenged. Economic misery, frustration with ever increasing unemployment and a growing gap between rich and poor fuelled the revolt.

In countries ruled by semi-secular governments (Egypt, Tunisia, Syria) the super-rich were identified as pro-western, decadent and anti-Islamic. Yet these governments’ ruthless repression of the left had created a situation where Islamists, often supported by Saudi funds, could benefit from the political vacuum created when protestors took to the streets, expressing frustrations built up over decades.

Many outside the region were surprised by the fact that demonstrations starting in Tunisia spread to Egypt and beyond, but the reason for this lies in the common colonial history of the region. With the exception of Egypt the Arab states are recent creations, less than a century old, and, although the mass media is keen to blame some of the more recent conflicts on a ‘Sunni-Shia divide’, there is a more complicated story of arbitrary borders dividing nationalities, of local rulers deliberately chosen from religious minorities and imposed by the colonial powers aiming to divide and rule.

Most of these countries were part of the Ottoman empire, which in the 17th century boasted 32 provinces, but by the early 20th century its collapse was well underway. Syria, for example, was part of the Ottoman empire until 1918 (from 1516): it was an Ottoman elayat (province) governed by a vali (administrator).

Egypt was a ‘khedivate’(autonomous tributary state) until 1882, when in effect it became part of the British empire. The country became a British protectorate in 1915 and finally gained formal independence in 1922 under Muhammad Ali. This dynasty lasted until 1952, when king Farouk was deposed by a military coup and the Free Officers Movement, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, came to power.

Nationalist and Ba’athist regimes gained prominence during the cold war, when they benefited from Soviet financial and political support. Pro- Soviet ‘official communist’ parties, some with considerable working class support, were instructed by Moscow to dissolve and join the Ba’athists. After the collapse of the eastern bloc, nationalist bureaucrats at the head of these states slid easily back into the western fold. They set themselves up as semi-dynastic dictators and became authoritarian supporters of the neoliberal economic agenda - vanguards of IMF-style economic restructuring programmes, privatising state-owned assets and often enriching their own close allies. Contrary to what the defenders of the ‘free market’ economy tell us, authoritarian regimes not only embrace neoliberal economic policies, but they can push forward such policies with little or no opposition, having already suppressed secular, leftwing forces and labour activists.

In fact Islamists, often associated with the bazaar and industry, also benefit from free-market economic liberalisation, whether in power or in opposition. Rulers such as Mubarak, Ali, Assad and Gaddafi survived by imposing repressive measures. They decimated the revolutionary left, but generally left the Islamists alone.

It is not difficult to see how, for example, Egypt was affected by the world economic crisis of 2008. International Monetary Fund figures show the rate of growth falling from 8.7% in 2006 to 4.6% in 2009 and 1.0% in 2010-11 - and, of course, these figures do not show the growing gap between rich and poor.

We should also remember that US politics was tied to and dictated economic rewards in the Middle East. Dictatorial regimes soft on Israel were beneficiaries of US loans, including Mubarak’s Egypt. Governments prepared to trade with Israel were rewarded - qualifying, for instance, for duty-free exports to the US.

Qualified industrial zones (QIZ) were supposed to be an extension of the US-Israel Free Trade Agreement. They were supposed to help ‘broaden support’ for the Middle East peace process and produce ‘tangible economic benefits’ for Jordan, Egypt, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, by stimulating their economies and increasing employment. However, a condition was attached: they had to agree to import at least 12% of their goods from Israel. A form of bribery - financial gain in exchange for political obedience.

Between 2005 and 2008, Egyptian QIZ exports to the US grew by 57%. In 2010 they made up 40% of the country’s exports to the US, while the textile sector had over 700 companies. The economic crisis in the US had a major effect on this sector, reducing foreign currency incomes.

Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries, as major oil producers with small populations, played a significant role in the economy of the Arab countries, and here lies the problem that later forced a rethink in Washington. These powerful, small countries were and remain the main source of funding for the Muslim Brotherhood and the more Jihadist Islamic forces.

However, support for the Islamic movement was not purely reactionary. It expressed a resentment of Mubarak’s subservience to the US and the Sadat/ Mubarak peace deals with Israel - a resentment of the political implications of QIZs.

Egyptians faced additional hardship, as the price of all food products, including rice, wheat and corn, increased sharply in international markets from 2006 to 2008. In particular, the price of rice rose threefold in a five-year period, meaning it went from around $600 per ton in 2003 to more than $1,800 in May 2008.

Despair resulting from the economic situation; anger at the role of the army and the police, and at the impotence of Arab rulers in dealing with the Palestinian issue; the psychological effects of the defeat of Ba’athism in Iraq, seen by many Arabs as an insult to their national and regional Arab pride - all played a crucial part in these uprisings.

Muslim Brotherhood

There is no denying that in the absence of any serious secular organisations (most leftwing groups were banned, their members arrested and in some cases executed) at the time of Mubarak’s downfall, MB was the largest, best organised political force in the country. The Brotherhood’s success in forming the government should not be interpreted as proof of the popularity of political Islam: rather a reflection of the weakness of other political forces.

It was therefore inevitable that, once MB tried to impose sharia law on every aspect of society, once it became clear that it had no serious economic plan apart from continuing the neoliberal economic policies of the previous regime, it lost much of its support base. Most bourgeois parties that come to power after mass protests end up adopting ‘pragmatic’ measures, and this was true of MB, as far as both economic and international policies were concerned - all talk of economic justice was conveniently forgotten. However, the rhetoric used regarding religious laws was uncompromising and in fact became more hard-line as time went by.

The Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, won 47% of the seats in the Egyptian parliament in January 2012, when media reports concentrated on the imposition of Sharia law, a ban on alcohol, gender segregation, etc. However, Egyptian business largely welcomed the FJP victory, which was said to herald optimism about economic recovery. MB’s Islamic capitalist economy, like the one in Iran’s Islamic republic, was very much a compromise between two views: interventionist and laissez-faire.

One thing is clear: for all the talk of ‘moving towards an Islamic economy’ (interest-free banking and all), Egyptian banks and the stock market did not see any economic threat from the rule of MB. The Brotherhood’s economists were well aware that Islamic banking encompassed a tiny proportion (less than four percent) of the local sector and the FJP was not in a rush to change things. On the contrary, the party’s strategy was to encourage depositors and borrowers.

A powerful group of Islamist industrial and commercial leaders, headed by Khairat el-Shater - a multimillionaire businessman and former political prisoner of the Mubarak era who had been a victim of assets confiscation in the past - was an FJP strategist and senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood by 2012. El- Shater and his close partners were in favour of a liberal, market economy and a ‘business-friendly’ climate. These multi-millionaires were given the task of leading the ‘Renaissance Project’, the Brotherhood’s ambitious scheme to oversee economic planning, public administration, health and education.

At the same time the Brotherhood’s interventionist faction pursued a policy of export substitution in cooperation with the private sector; it called for control of the budget deficit and public debt, and restrictions on public spending (although the minimum wage was increased in the first year of the MB government).This faction also called for measures to strengthen competition, anti-trust legislation and the raising of the ceiling for tax exemptions.

The most damaging part of MB’s economic policy was its attitude towards poverty. It was a top-down approach, relying on charity rather than better wages and more rights for workers. In opposition and at election time MB had embarked on far-reaching, organised charity work, a kind of continuous financing of support through charities (many set up with funds originating in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states). Some FJP supporters were also advocating making zakat - a form of charitable donation, equivalent to 2.5% of income, that Muslims are supposed to pay to help the poor - compulsory, although MB was not in power long enough to implement it. From the onset (even at the time of proposing the electoral programme) the party separated the issue of poverty from economic development and planning, classifying it as policy for ‘social justice’. Distributing food parcels paid for by Saudi Arabia might work during an election campaign. However, in a country of 70 million, where almost a third of the population live below the official poverty line, permanent charity was not going to be a sustainable option.

FJP election propaganda promised support for workers in the tourism industry, whose income supports 11% of the population, yet it was obvious that the drive for prohibitions on alcohol consumption and swimwear, and towards gender segregation would adversely impact on mass tourism - cheap package holidays to sea resorts, for example, as well as the upper end of the market. Then in June 2013 Mursi appointed a leading figure from the hard-line Islamist group, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, which claims responsibility for the murder of dozens of tourists in 1997, as governor of Luxor province. Egyptian tourism is not doing well, but the appointment infuriated tourism workers, who protested by blocking the entrance to government offices in Luxor.

The Muslim Brotherhood used every opportunity to attack the democratic gains of the uprising, often relying on its ally, the army - ironically the very force that eventually removed it from power. The ‘constitutional decree’ Mursi adopted allowed him to modify legal proposals in line with sharia law - but more than 70% of the population had refused to participate in the referendum to approve the Islamic constitution.

There was discrimination against the Christian minority, constituting 10% of the population, and in recent months it has faced new forms of sectarianism and intimidation. In accordance with sharia law, financial levies known as jizya (originally a 9th century form of taxation on non- Muslims) were imposed on Copts by the Islamic gangs. Christians also suffered state persecution through the criminalisation of so-called blasphemy, which was part and parcel of the Islamist constitution pushed through by Mursi.

Mursi in particular became a hate figure after he labelled all those who opposed him agents of foreign powers. In his last speech before the army stepped in he lamented: “How can the best of leaders make major achievements in such a poisonous atmosphere?”

Before last summer’s coup MB had lost many of its supporters. However, the subsequent ban, repression and arrests directed against the Brotherhood have undoubtedly restored some of its popularity amongst sections of the population. Islamist hard-liners are very good at playing the victim when they are in opposition, even though, as Egypt demonstrates when the MB had a cosy relationship with the army, they may be willing to become ruthless dictators.

The military coup in the summer of 2013 - just like in 2011, when the armed forces intervened to depose Mubarak - had one aim: to put an end to the revolutionary process. The longer the protests continued, the stronger the fear of genuine revolution.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates continue to pour billions of dollars into the Egyptian economy. However, as in Tunisia, Syria and Libya, Egypt’s economic and political problems are so endemic, so serious that no amount of cash can resolve the situation even in the short term.


The situation in Tunisia is slightly better, only because the Islamists have backed down from many of their original sharia-based proposals. On January 27 the Tunisian parliament voted by 216 votes to 200 for a new constitution - the first since Ben Ali’s overthrow and the result of a compromise between the Islamists and the secular opposition.

However, conflict between the two continues. Two opposition leaders have been assassinated, a number of soldiers and policemen have been killed and there are reports of suicide attacks at beach resorts. As in Egypt, tourism is badly affected by new Islamic legislation, lack of security and political uncertainty. There are reports of torture taking place in Tunisian jails, sometimes resulting in death.

In today’s Tunisia you can be hassled, harassed, assaulted and even threatened with death if you dare express an opinion not to the liking of the Islamists. If you are a woman you can face all this just for wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothes or for leaving home after dark. While the mass media presents Tunisia as a rare, positive exception to the disappointments following the Arab spring, those living in the country have a different opinion.


What can we learn from the events of the last three years? It is far too early to judge the significance of the Arab spring in terms of the revolutionary process in the region, Arab unification and threats of war. But the obvious conclusions are probably those that affect both imperialism and the peoples of the region.

First and foremost, 35 years after the first Islamic revolution (Iran 1979), even if Islamists come to power in another Middle Eastern country (as they did in Egypt) the following would apply:

The above issues have already had dramatic political consequences, including a change in US foreign policy towards Iran and Syria. Negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue and the Geneva talks on Syria are both part of this. There is once more an urgency in Washington to ‘resolve’ the Palestinian issue and this explains US secretary of state John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy, rushing between nuclear deals, Syrian talks and the Palestine- Israel negotiations.

For the peoples of the region there will be further consequences. The political and economic issues that caused the Arab uprising are as pertinent today as they were three years ago. However, political Islam is no longer considered in such high esteem by so many and it is not viewed as an agent for fundamental change. This does present a window of opportunity, albeit a small one, for the revolutionary left.