Egypt and the Arab Uprisings
2011: a year of revolt in Egypt and the Arab world
The uprisings known as the Arab Spring began with a Tunisian fruit vendor setting himself on fire to protest official mistreatment. Mass protests led to the ouster of Tunisia’s dictatorial president. Inspired by these protests, young Egyptians organized their own demonstrations, and succeeded in driving President Hosni Mubarak from office. Revolt spread to Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Algeria, and other countries. So far, though, only the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have succeeded in dislodging the old regimes. For an overview of the ongoing turmoil, see Wikipedia.
Egypt, in brief
On January 25, 2011, tens of thousands of Egyptians turned out on the streets of Cairo and other cities, demanding an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Following several days of demonstrations, Mubarak promised not to run for reelection in September, but the protesters distrusted his pledges. Growing numbers continued to gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding that he step down immediately. The Obama administration found itself in a difficult position: Mubarak was our strongest ally in the Arab world, but he ruled repressively, and the protesters represented a genuinely democratic movement. After 18 days of protests, Mubarak finally agreed to leave office, and Egypt’s military stepped in to lead the transition until a new government is elected. Human rights groups estimate that more than 300 people died during the protests; 1,500 protesters and 750 policemen were injured during clashes.
The current situation in Egypt
The military has been in charge since Mubarak stepped down. Ruling through an 18-member council, it promised to hand over power after the election of a parliament and president.
Disappointed by delays in the handover, and fearing that the military would never voluntarily give up its grip on power, thousands of citizens returned in November, 2011 to Tahrir Square, site of the protests that drove Mubarak from power.
Egypt’s first democratically-elected parliament in over half a century met on 1/23/12 for the first time, while thousands of demonstrators celebrated and protested outside. In a June run-off election, Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, won the presidency. The military, however, redefined the post of president, stripping it of most of its former powers.
For a survey of the challenges facing Egypt’s new president, see NPR.
The Syrian conflict
Since March, 2011, Syrians have been rebelling against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, who responded to the initially peaceful peaceful protests with brutal force. Assad inherited power from his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000; many had hoped that the son, a physician trained in England, would rule more liberally than his father, but the crackdown has been violent, with mortar fire and rockets aimed at demonstrators.
Defections by soldiers in late 2011 transformed the conflict into something approaching civil war. The rebels have formed a government-in-exile, the Syrian National Council, and Syria has been expelled from the Arab League. The U.S., the European Union, the Arab League and Turkey have imposed economic sanctions on Syria, but the violence has only worsened. The U.N. estimated that more than 7,500 had died in the fighting as of March, 2012; and the government has imprisoned between 15,000 and 40,000 people.
Demographics favor the rebels: 75% of Syria’s population are Sunni Muslims, who also make up the majority of the opposition, while only 12% (including Assad and other Syrian leaders) are Alawis, adherents of a sect of Shiite Islam.
The attacks against civilians had become so bloody by February that people around the world called for military intervention to stop the slaughter. Unlike in Libya’s case, however, no nation or coalition has stepped forward to oppose Assad’s forces. That’s partly because there is no consensus on what should be done—Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s violent crackdown—and partly because outsiders are reluctant to support an opposition that remains disorganized.
For more detailed information on the Syrian conflict, see the New York Times.
1/15/12: Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the U.N. appeals to Assad to “Stop the violence. Stop killing your people.”
2/4/12: The U.N. Security Council votes on a resolution supporting the Arab League’s peace proposal for Syria. The vote is 13-2, with Russia and China vetoing the resolution.
2/6/12: The U.S. closes its embassy in Damascus, citing violence in the capital city.
3/1/12: After 26 days of shelling by government forces, rebels in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs withdrew. They stated that they were retreating from this stronghold for the sake of civilians, who lacked food, electricity, and medicine.
3/2/12: An aid convoy trying to deliver food and medical care to Baba Amr was turned away by government forces. Rebels say the Assad regime is trying to cover up atrocities there.
3/27/12: The Syrian government has accepted the terms of a peace plan crafted by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The plan calls for, among other things, a commitment to stop the armed violence and protect civilians. For details, see CNN.
What’s next for Egypt?
No one knows yet exactly what sort of nation the new Egypt will become, or whether the military will ever relinquish its power.
In the November, 2011 legislative elections—the first after Mubarak’s overthrow—Islamist parties including the Muslim Brotherhood won nearly two-thirds of the seats, surprising and disappointing liberals and youth activists. In June, 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate won the presidency. Many in the U.S. (and Israel) have expressed the fear that Egypt’s revolt will follow the pattern of Iran’s, in which fundamentalists outmaneuvered other elements that overthrew the Shah. Others point out that Egypt and Iran have very different cultures, and an Islamic theocracy is unlikely to take root in Egypt. Whatever role fundamentalism plays in the new government, there is almost certain to be a struggle for power with the military.
Key elements vying for power in Egypt
• The Muslim Brotherhood: Founded in the 1920s, the Ikhwan (as it is known in Arabic) combines political activism with charity work, and has served a model for Islamic groups around the world. Though officially outlawed in Egypt since 1954 (when they were blamed for an assassination attempt on President Nasser), the Ikhwan has remained the country’s best-organized opposition movement: the group won 20% of legislative seats in Egypt’s 2005 elections. There is a contradiction between this fundamentalist group’s stated support for democratic principles and its core goal of creating a state ruled by Sharia, or Islamic law—a contradiction that worries observers. (For more, see the BBC.)
• The military: An army coup overthrew King Farouk in 1952, and the military has been the real center of power in Egypt ever since. Though the generals have promised to hand over control of the government, they will resist changes that challenge their influence—especially their business interests. (For details on the military’s businesses, see this New York Times article.)
• Remnants of Mubarak’s government: The protests unseated Mubarak, but left most of the government bureaucracy and the police untouched. Because they are the only Egyptians with experience in governing, they may remain in place, posing a challenge to reformers.
Important events, post-revolt
3/20/11: Egypt has held its first free and fair election in 60 years. Millions voted—a record turnout—and approved constitutional amendments that will lead to elections later this year.
3/24/11: The Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a powerful political force, and seems to have allied itself with the military government. The young, educated, secular leaders who organized the protests are no longer at the forefront. Many in Egypt fear this will doom the political reform the protesters sought.
4/15/11: The New York Times reports that organizations financed by the U.S. government have been promoting democracy in authoritarian Arab states by training opposition groups and their leaders to organize using new media and other strategies. Some who received this training became key figures in the Arab protest movement.
5/13/11: Civil disorder in Egypt—including jail-breaks, a riot at a soccer game, and a riot between Muslims and Christians—is getting in the way of an economic recovery and threatening the fragile new democracy.
5/24/11: Egypt’s highest prosecutor has ordered Mubarak to stand trial for his role in the deaths of unarmed protesters during the revolt.
7/8/11: More than two dozen former officials and Mubarak allies, accused of organizing an attack in which men on horses and camels charged into crowds of protesters, were charged with murder, attempted murder and terrorism.
7/12/11: Thousands of protesters have returned to Tahrir Square to express their dissatisfaction with the transition government.
August, 2011: Mubarak, though hospitalized, has been brought to a hospital courtroom to face charges of corruption and complicity in the killing of protesters. The proceedings were broadcast live on television.
9/25/11: The king of Saudi Arabia has granted women the right to vote and run for office in municipal elections. In a kingdom that strictly separates the sexes, and forbids women from driving, the change—widely seen as an outgrowth of the Arab Spring—is a major step forward.
11/19-22/11: Protesters filled Tahrir Square. Violent clashes between civilians and police escalated.
11/21/11: Giving in to protesters’ demands, the prime minister and cabinet resigned.
12/20/11: Thousands of Egyptian women marched in Cairo: the biggest women’s demonstration in modern Egypt’s history. Their protest came in reaction to recent incidents in which soldiers beat and kicked women demonstrators in Tahrir Square.
1/5/12: Prosecutors called for ex-President Mubarak to be hanged, saying he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of protesters, even if there is no proof that he directly ordered the violence unleashed against them.
2/26/12: Egypt opened a controversial trial of 16 American pro-democracy workers (along with 27 others from different countries) who are accused of promoting unrest. U.S. and Egyptian officials have been meeting behind the scenes, but have so far failed to resolve the dispute. After a brief hearing, the judge adjourned the case until April 26. U.S. officials have threatened to block Egypt’s $1.5 billion annual aid package if the case is not dismissed.
5/22-23/12: Egyptians cast their votes for a new president during two days of voting. About a dozen candidates ran. For details, see CNN.
5/28/12: Because no one won a majority in the presidential election, voters will choose between the top two finishers—Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, and Ahmed Shafiq, who served as Mubarak’s last prime mininster—in a runoff election in June. Crowds who wanted neither religious rule nor a return of the old guard protested the election result by setting fire to Shafiq’s campaign headquarters. See ABC for more.
6/2/12: Hosni Mubarak has been sentenced to life in prison for his role in the deaths of protesters last year. For details, see CNN.
6/14/12: Egypt’s Supreme Court dissolved Parliament, and the military took over legislative authority. For more, see CNN.
6/17/12: The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for president declared victory in Egypt’s first democratic presidential election—but the military redefined the post of president, making it a mainly ceremonial post with little power.
9/11/12: Protesters enraged by a film insulting Muslims climbed the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, tore down the American flag, and replaced it with a black flag featuring the Muslim declaration of faith in white characters. The film was made by an Israeli living in California. For details, see CNN.
How the uprisings began
A Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after a series of beatings and humiliations that began when a female municipal inspector tried to confiscate his fruit and then slapped him when he tried to grab his apples back. Bouazizi doused himself with paint thinner and set himself on fire in front of the governor’s office. The incident sparked protests seen on the internet and al-Jazeera, which then grew in size and ferocity. Bouazizi died a few weeks after the incident, on 1/4/11. Ten days after his death, the president of Tunisia fled the country. For more on the incident that set off protests around the region, see the New York Times.
What provoked the protests?
Though details vary from country to country, the protesters share certain basic grievances: tyranny, food prices that have climbed recently, and widespread unemployment among young people. (The wealth of elites and corrupt government officials makes this poverty all the more bitterly resented.) Other regions of the world have traded dictatorship for democracy, but the Arab Middle East has been left behind—and, in the age of the internet, more and more people can see what they’re missing.
What were the Egyptians’ grievances against Mubarak?
• Repression: Mubarak, a former Air Force General and Vice President, took office in 1981, when President Sadat was assassinated. Clamping down on the extremist elements behind the assassination, Mubarak instituted an “Emergency Law” that gave the government the power to arrest and detain suspects without charge, and to limit public gatherings. The security police that kept the regime in power were known for their brutality, including torture of prisoners.
• Monopoly on power: From the 1960s until Mubarak’s overthrow, Egypt’s presidents have were chosen in one-candidate elections. Legislative elections have been unfair as well. During the 2010 elections, opposition supporters were arrested and intimidated, opposition candidates were denied access to the media, and international monitors were prevented from observing the vote. Further enraging his opponents, Mubarak—the longest-serving president in Egypt’s history—seemed to be paving the way for his son, Gamal, an investment banker and political leader, to take over after he retired.
• Poverty and corruption: Although Egypt’s economy has boomed in recent years, poverty has spread. About half of Egypt’s citizens live on $2 a day or less. Meanwhile, the Mubarak family fortune is estimated at between $1 billion and $70 billion, most of it hidden in foreign banks and investments. Tax evasion, bribery and theft have cost Egypt about $6 billion annually, according to one report.
The U.S. response
The Obama administration struggled to find the right response to the protests, balancing Mubarak’s record as a strong U.S. ally (and one who suppressed Islamic militants) against the legitimate grievances and democratic aspirations of the protesters. The American stance waffled over the days of protest: U.S. officials urged Mubarak to speed up his exit at one point, and later called for a more gradual transition. Our government’s cautious support for the protesters frustrated and angered many Egyptians.
Although this was a mass movement with no single leader, certain individuals played an important role in organizing the protests and speaking for the demonstrators:
• Wael Ghonim: a Google executive and one of a handful of online organizers of the protests, Ghonim was arrested but released after 12 days in secret detention. He emerged as a symbol of the revolt after an emotional interview with Mona el-Shazly, a popular television host. (For more on Ghonim, see Wikipedia.)
• Mohamed ElBaradei: head of the International Atomic Energy Agency for 12 years until 2009, and winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, ElBaradei has lived outside of Egypt for many years. He returned to Cairo on 1/27/11, and has served as a spokesman for the protest movement. He is seen as a possible candidate for president. (For more on ElBaradei, see Wikipedia.)
• Ayman Nour: a liberal democratic candidate for president against Mubarak in 2005, Nour was imprisoned for four years on charges that he forged documents to register his political party for that election—charges he vehemently denies, and that are widely assumed to have been politically motivated. Nour has said he intends to run for president.
• Mohamed Hussein Tantawi: Mubarak’s long-time defense minister, Tantawi heads the military junta that will rule Egypt until a new government is elected.
The web has proved a potent tool for protesters. A core group of about a dozen young professionals organized the protests, mainly by calling for demonstrations on a Facebook page. They then spread the word about protests and police brutality on Twitter; and video of police violence against protesters, uploaded to YouTube, inspired wider outrage. The government managed to shut down the internet starting on 1/28/11, but ended the blackout after five days. To read how the organizers outwitted the police, who had prevented or crushed past demonstrations, see this Wall Street Journal article.
Nonviolence vs. fighting back
The protest organizers adopted a strategy of nonviolence, and this gave the demonstrators great moral stature in the world’s eyes—especially when the police used violence against them, and the scenes appeared on television and the internet. The nonviolence was not complete, however: when pro-Mubarak mobs (referred to in most news reports as “thugs” and “plainclothes police”) attacked the demonstrators, many fought back, resisting the attempt to drive them from the streets.
For photos and video of the protests
Opinion on the Arab Revolts
Mustafa Akyol, “Can Islamists Be Liberals?” New York Times, 5/14/12: “It was the exclusion and suppression of Islamists by secular tyrants that originally bred extremism… Islamists will become only more moderate when they are not oppressed, and only more pragmatic as they face the responsibility of governing. But… [w]hat if elected Islamist parties impose laws that curb individual freedoms — like banning alcohol or executing converts — all with popular support? What if democracy does not serve liberty?”
Thomas Friedman, “There Be Dragons,” New York Times, 2/29/12: “[L]ooking honestly at the region, one has to conclude that the prospects for stable transitions to democracy anytime soon are dimming. It is too early to give up hope, but it is not too early to start worrying… [W]hen the iron lid of autocracy comes off they fall back, not on liberalism, but Islamism, sectarianism, tribalism or military rule.”
Moez Masoud and Matthew Ingalls, “Egypt’s Rulers Are Threatening the Gains of Tahrir Square,” New York Times, 1/4/12: “Many Egyptians already are saying that the interim council has embraced the time-honored political strategy of disavowing responsibility for Egypt’s woes, as it ducks the blame for blood that continues to spill while it is in charge.”
Thomas Friedman, “Trust, but Verify,” New York Times, 1/18/12: “American policy needs to be based on the assumption that, like all parties, Islamist parties contain moderates, centrists and hard-liners — and, in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, lots of small businessmen. Which wing will dominate as they assume the responsibilities of governing is still an open question.”
Roger Cohen, “From 9/11 to 2/11,” New York Times, 2/14/11: “Perhaps the most effective antidote to 9/11 will prove to be 2/11, the day Hosni Mubarak conceded the game was up… We’ve tried invasions of Muslim lands. We’ve tried imposing new systems of government on them. We’ve tried wars on terror. We’ve tried spending billions of dollars. What we haven’t tried is tackling what’s been rotten in the Arab world by helping a homegrown, bottom-up movement for change turn a U.S.-backed police state into a stable democracy.”
Maher Hathout, “A second chance for democracy in Egypt,” Los Angeles Times, 2/1/11: “For the last 30 years, Mubarak has tightened his stranglehold on the Egyptian people… Today, Egypt is capturing a new opportunity to recover and reclaim its destiny… They refuse to watch history repeat itself. ¶We are witnessing a revolution, a turning point for Egypt. I hope that it becomes a turning point for American foreign policy as well — a lesson that we should never support repression rather than the aspirations of a nation’s people.”
Claire Berlinski, “Why You Should Care About Egypt Protests,” FoxNews.com, 1/27/11: “Many of the people now protesting in Egypt want what every American takes as his birthright: democracy, dignity, rule of law, civil rights. Many of them, however—I would wager—do not… This is a dream come true for Egypt’s Islamists…”
What the revolts mean for the Arab world
David Hirst, ”Gaddafi cruelly resists, but this Arab democratic revolution is far from over,” The Guardian, 2/20/11: argues that the Arab world may finally be catching up with the rest of the globe. “No other such geopolitical ensemble has so long boasted such a collection of dinosaurs, such inveterate survivors from an earlier, totalitarian era; no other has so completely missed out on the waves of “people’s power” that swept away the Soviet empire and despotisms in Latin America, Asia and Africa. In rallying at last to this now universal, but essentially western value called democracy, they are in effect rejoining the world, catching up with history that has left them behind.”
For more information
Fouad Ajami, “Demise of the Dictators,” Newsweek, 2/14/11: an overview and analysis of the Arab Revolution of 2011.
For updated country-by-country reports on the Arab rebellions, see the New York Times.
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Last updated 9/12/12
Even more information
18 days: how protest led to a new order
1/25, “Day of Anger”: Inspired by massive demonstrations in Tunisia that drove dictatorial President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from office on mid-January, tens of thousands of Egyptians turn out for a protest in several cities.
1/26: The Egyptian government bans public gatherings, but protesters turn out again; the police arrest hundreds, and use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters.
1/28: Hundreds of thousands go straight from afternoon prayers to public protests. Police and protesters fight for control of the streets. Finally, the security police withdraw. Armed men break open jails, and looters smash store windows. Looters also break into the Egyptian Museum and make off with 18 items, including two gilded wooden statues of King Tut (one of which has now been recovered). Mubarak orders his government to resign, summons the army to restore order, and names Omar Suleiman, head of military intelligence, as his new vice president.
1/31: Saying it recognizes the “legitimate demands” of the protesters, the army declares that it will not use force against them. Some observers have called this the turning point that made victory possible.
2/1: After the biggest protest turnout yet, Mubarak announces that he won’t run for re-election. The demonstrators, however, demand that he leave office immediately.
2/2: Mubarak fights back, sending his supporters into the streets to fight the protesters with violence. The army does little to stop the fighting.
2/3: Clashes continue between Mubarak’s supporters and demonstrators. The government’s security forces target journalists and human rights workers, assaulting them and confiscating their cameras, apparently trying to rid the streets of witnesses.
2/4: The U.S. proposes that Mubarak resign immediately, and let his vice president lead a transition government.
2/6: Vice President Omar Suleiman meets with opposition leaders, and claims the meeting produced a “consensus” about the road to reforms; but protesters say they reached no such agreement.
2/8: The reorganized government promises new reforms, but demonstrators refuse to accept anything less than Mubarak’s exit. In an emotional television interview after being released from detention, Google executive Wael Ghonim acknowledges that he was one of the people who created the online campaign that sparked the protests.
2/9: Ghonim’s interview inspires an even greater turnout of demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
2/10: Strikes and protests are held across Egypt. In a late-night speech, Mubarak infuriates protesters by saying he will serve out the rest of his term.
2/11: Mubarak reverses himself and agrees to step down from the presidency, turning power over to Egypt’s military until elections are held.
For a detailed timeline of the protests, see the New York Times.