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The Price of Stability: Egypt's Democratic Uprising

Since the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace agreement, Egypt was touted by the United States as an outpost of stability in a politically turbulent region. But this "stability" came at a high cost for many Egyptians. Hosni Mubarak's regime was founded on the belief that keeping Egypt safe from the threat of religious extremism, terrorism and regional strife required a coercive security state that could suppress any political unrest through force and intimidation. That "stability" has now unfolded. This, however, has not been a sudden event. It has been brewing for a few years, with the timing and strategies of the democratic uprising growing out of a series of social and political mobilisations, which laid the groundwork for what flared up on 25 January.


The Price of Stability: Egypt’s Democratic Uprising

Ahmad Shokr

Since the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace agreement, Egypt was touted by the United States as an outpost of stability in a politically turbulent region. But this “stability” came at a high cost for many Egyptians. Hosni Mubarak’s regime was founded on the belief that keeping Egypt safe from the threat of religious extremism, terrorism and regional strife required a coercive security state that could suppress any political unrest through force and intimidation. That “stability” has now unfolded. This, however, has not been a sudden event. It has been brewing for a few years, with the timing and strategies of the democratic uprising growing out of a series of social and political mobilisations, which laid the groundwork for what flared up on 25 January.

Ahmad Shokr ( is a doctoral candidate in the History and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Departments at New York University and an editor for the independent Egyptian online daily Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition ( He is currently in Cairo.

he popular uprising that has gripped Egypt since 25 January represents a historic turning point for mass politics under President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, which it threatens to end. Never before in this period have millions of Egyptians taken to the streets to demand the ouster of the ruling regime and a complete overhaul of the political order. Under intense popular pressure, a defiant Mubarak delivered a televised speech on 1 February in which he refused to step down and accused “political forces” of manipulating the protests to wreak havoc across the country. He exhorted Egyptians that in the coming days they must choose between chaos and stability. The stark dualism presented by the embattled president encapsulates a core feature of the US-backed regime Mubarak has built over his career, where security trumps almost all other political and economic considerations.

In the Name of ‘Stability’

Since the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, Egypt has been touted by US and Egyptian officials as an outpost of stability in a politically turbulent region. Mubarak’s commitment to maintaining domestic order, holding Islamists at bay, and cooperating with the US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the “war on terror” has made Egypt a lynchpin for US strategy in the region. By stoking international fears of an impending takeover by groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood if his regime were to be weakened, Mubarak earned the full backing of the United States and other foreign powers. But stability came at a high cost for many Egyptians. Mubarak’s regime has been founded on the belief that keeping Egypt safe from the threat of religious extremism, terrorism and regional strife requires a coercive security state that can suppress any political unrest through force and intimidation. Domestically, this has meant that security officials penetrate almost every aspect of public life – universities, civil society, gov ernment institutions and services – and channels for political expression are severely limited and tightly controlled. Under a notorious Emergency Law in place for 30 years, the Egyptian government has granted itself licence to expand security powers and restrict political freedoms. Elections have been routinely tampered with, to prevent the rise of any political challengers that could threaten the status quo. Police have had unchecked powers to detain and often abuse ordinary citizens. This is the price Egyptians had to pay to keep Egypt “stable”.

Meanwhile, Egyptian officials have routinely concealed these political failings with the promise of economic development and praise for Egypt’s exemplary status in the region. Political stability, they argued, delivered impressive economic gains and kept Egypt open to the benefits of global economic integration. Addressing fears in Washington about Egypt’s political stagnation, Egyptian Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali, one of the country’s top free-market policymakers since 2004 and an ex-IMF economist, boasted in The Washington Post in November 2010 that Egypt had become a trendsetter in West Asia/North Africa, with high economic growth rates and rapid technological advances, especially in media and telecommunications (Boutros-Ghali 2010). In addition to summoning economic arguments as an alibi for continued political repression, Boutros-Ghali’s description conveniently effaced the grim reality of growing social disparities, inflation, and rising unemployment, particularly among Egypt’s large and disenfranchised male youth population. Over half of Egypt’s population is below the age of 25. According to the World Bank, more than 40% of Egyptians live at or below the poverty line of $2 a day. The salaries of most working class Egyptians, including many young people, are insufficient to support a family and make a decent living.

Much of Egypt’s social distress today is the outcome of over three decades of trade

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liberalisation, privatisation and fiscal tightening – policies introduced by former president Anwar al-Sadat and accelerated under Mubarak – that have generally favoured the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and the poor. While the Egyptian state has slowly relinquished control over many areas of the economy and the provision of social welfare, it has retained some of the political hallmarks of the Nasserist state of the 1950s and 1960s

– a strong military and intelligence apparatus; a large civilian bureaucracy; and tightly-controlled civil society groups, unions and student organisations. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom that neoliberal globalisation will erode whatever remains of state corporatist legacies, Egypt has proven remarkably capable of embodying both trends at once. This combination of unaccountable government, a heavyhanded security state and mounting social anger fuelled by economic insecurities is the background story to the Egyptian uprising of January 2011.

The Roots

The timing and strategies of this democratic uprising however grew out of the recent history of social and political mobilisation in Egypt over the last few years, which laid the groundwork for what flared up on 25 January. It is tempting to explain the Egyptian revolt as being driven by a universal yearning for political freedom and social justice. There is undoubtedly some truth to this view. But autocratic rule and economic malaise do not automatically generate popular revolts as a response – if that were the case many governments around the world would have been toppled or at least severely shaken by mass action a long time ago.

The roots of Egypt’s uprising go back at least to 2004 when young reformist politicians bent on promoting deregulation, trade liberalisation and tax reform rose to the fore of the Egyptian government. This group was symbolised by the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak, himself an ex-banker, who brought his closest allies into the ruling National Democratic Party’s (ndp) newly-created Policies Secretariat – an influential body giving policy recommendations, particularly on social and economic issues. The presence of these men in

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government forged an ever stronger connection between business interests and politics. Meanwhile, the government’s reputation for corruption worsened as business elites with close ties to politicians seized control of public assets and large tracts of state-owned land (whose value shot up by a real-estate boom driven by frenzied speculation) and established mono polies over key commodity markets, like iron and steel.

Mubarak Jr’s rising political profile prompted the emergence of several small (and largely urban) opposition groups and campaigns, most notably Kefaya or the Egyptian Movement for Change, which denounced the anticipated transfer of power from father to son and called for immediate political reform. Meanwhile, low wages and rising prices triggered sporadic protests that grew into a wave of labour mobilisations fighting for improved living conditions and trade union independence. Between 2004 and 2011, well over one million workers participated in strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations and other forms of collective action in both the public and private sectors.1 All these organised forms of protest achieved varying degrees of success, but perhaps their chief contribution to Egypt’s changing political landscape was to reintroduce a vibrant culture of street protest that had been muzzled by the Egyptian state for most of Mubarak’s reign. Thanks to these groups the street became one of the few channels available for the expression of political and economic grievances.

The organisational groundwork for the 2011 uprising however came largely from a group of young cyber activists who began mobilising in June 2010 around the death of a 28-year-old Alexandrian man, Khaled Saeed, who was allegedly beaten to death by two police officers following his arrest at an internet cafe. The murder attracted widespread media attention and sparked outrage among activists and human rights workers. It quickly prompted many Egyptians to take to the streets with a single message – “it can happen to anyone of us”. “The violence” and abuse of power that has long been associated with the Egyptian police now seemed for many middle class youth and families indiscriminately threatening to criminals and ordinary citizens

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alike. More than the protests, it was the anonymously administered Facebook page “We are all Khaled Saeed” that sustained popular momentum around the case. It attracted tens of thousands of members within weeks and served as a platform for people to vent the anger about the murder and discuss tactics of resistance – silent vigils becoming the most common. The Facebook page outlived the brutal incident and, along with other pages belonging to groups like the 6 April Youth Movement, served as a key forum where the 25 January “Day of Anger” was organised (Coker et al 2011).

Tipping Point

Egypt’s parliamentary elections in November 2010 were perhaps a tipping point that eroded any remaining legitimacy for the Egyptian regime. The ruling NDP won a sweeping 93% majority with no opposition party taking more than six seats. The landslide victory established a legislative monopoly for the ruling party and curbed the possibility of any parliamentary dissent over the next five years. Many observers described these elections as the worst in Egypt’s modern history. The staggering levels of fraud affected virtually every stage of the process – from candidate selection, to campaigning, to voting and ballot counting, to monitoring – and surpassed even the most cynical of expectations. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group that held 20% of seats in the outgoing parliament, suffered the most serious losses as the group did not secure a single seat. Irked by widespread public anxieties over the future of Egypt’s presidency, the Mubarak regime chose to contend with political uncertainty by limiting dissent in parliament and the public sphere. A number of satellite TV stations were shut down and popular hosts were taken off the air in the lead up to the vote. While the election result may have disappointed anyone who hoped the US’ biggest ally in West Asia/ North Africa and the second-largest recipient of US aid (most of it – $1.5 billion a year – goes to the Egyptian military) was capable of moving towards a system of political pluralism, those closely following Egyptian domestic politics found the outcome hopelessly predictable.


This build-up of events needed only a trigger to unleash the pent-up fury of a public weary of a stifling and humiliating status quo. The spark came from Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” last month. Inspired by the ouster of Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, young Egyptian activists initiated a call over Facebook and other social media sites for a “day of anger” on 25 January – a national holiday, known as “police day”, commemorating the heroism of Egyptian police in Ismailia who defied British military commands to evacuate their stations and lay down their arms six months before the 1952 Free Officers’ Revolt. The call was taken up by Egyptian lower and middle class youth that came out en masse, many of them marching in a political demonstration for the first time, to confront one of Egypt’s most loathed public institutions that has long been associated with violence, corruption and the abuse of power. What started as a youthled revolt soon turned into a popular uprising that could not be quelled even by the full might of the interior ministry’s central security forces (riot police) that were brought to their knees on the night of 28 January by unrelenting multitudes of anti-regime demonstrators. The protests have remained leaderless, with no single figure able to represent the movement. The people on the streets have outshone Egypt’s small and feckless official opposition parties that have a long history of working with the regime.

In trying to suppress this uprising, the Mubarak regime has exhausted its full arsenal of security tactics – riot police, plain-clothed thugs, hired pro-regime supporters, and media and communications blackouts – which caused hundreds of deaths but have only further emboldened the protesters. The regime has remained true to its “security first” doctrine, preferring scare tactics and intimidation over any meaningful concessions that can satisfy at least a significant segment of the anti-Mubarak demonstrators. The current stand-off between the regime and its opponents requires a political solution, not a security one. There are serious questions about whether the new Egyptian government – purged of all its younger reformers and stacked with senior military figures appointed by Mubarak four days after the start of the revolt – will be able to achieve such an outcome. Far from marking a break with Egypt’s authoritarian past, the new cabinet represents an extension of the military’s influence over politics.

At its helm is Egypt’s ex-spy chief Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s right-hand man for almost 20 years and a man with a long history of collaboration with the Central Investigative Agency of the US and the Israeli government (Mayer 2011). Moving forward, many demonstrators, nervous about the promotion of Suleiman to the country’s second-highest position, insist on their demand that Mubarak step down as the starting point for negotiations over constitutional amendments, an interim government and eventually free and fair elections. There are differences of opinion over the technical details of how to carry out such a transition (in particular, what responsibilities Mubarak should delegate to his deputy before leaving) such that the protesters’ ultimate goal – the democratic election of a government with a popular mandate – can be achieved (Bahgat and Abdelaty 2011). But that the president should resign before this happens is not up for question and is the sole demand uniting a variegated coalition of political forces that may be prone to many divisions in the future.

Over the past decade, several western commentators predicted that a restrictive political system and economic disenfranchisement were pushing Egypt towards the cusp of an inevitable political implosion. The view from inside however was quite different. With most of the key institutions of political power – most notably the army and security and intelligence services – seeming to be firmly intact, local observers had trouble imagining such a scenario. “Egypt is not Tunisia” wrote several leading analysts in Egyptian newspapers following the ouster of Ben Ali last month (Shobaki 2011). Egypt, they argued, was a less educated society with a strong security state that cleverly allowed for the expression of dissent so long as it did not threaten the existing political order. The Egyptian state had, over decades, successfully built a constituency of beneficiaries

– businessmen, civilian bureaucrats, military and security personnel, and a large base of party members who received services and privileges through state institutions – that spared it the marks of neo-patrimonial greed and despotism that made Ben Ali the target of widespread anger and revulsion.

In the end, however, Mubarak’s calculus of stability has till now backfired. Unsurprisingly, what galvanised public anger and sparked Egypt’s uprising were the notorious security services of the interior ministry that were responsible for maintaining domestic order, usually by brute force. Staring out of my downtown balcony just after midnight on Saturday, 29 January, I was gripped by the sight of burning armoured security vehicles that had been turned over and set ablaze by raging crowds earlier that evening and lined up along Cairo’s corniche. This was not vandalism; only the thrill of self-empowerment that erupts when fear is overcome. The suffocating smell of tear gas that filled the air throughout the day had not yet lifted. Cheers of victory were still echoing through the dark streets of Egypt’s capital as thousands of demonstrators defying military curfew celebrated the people’s victory, temporary as it may be, over their brutal oppressor. The scene was telling: revolution had come to Egypt – unpresaged and barely grasped – instigated by the fervour of a moment and the dreams of a people.


1 “Justice For All: The Struggle for Workers’ Rights in Egypt”, pubs_egypt_wr.pdf


Bahgat, Hossam and Soha Abdelaty (2011): “What Mubarak Must Do before He Resigns”, The Washington Post, 5 February, http://www.washingtonpost. com/wpdyn/content/article/2011/02/04/AR 2011020404123.html

Boutros-Ghali, Youssef (2010): “Egypt: Trendsetter in the Mideast”, The Washington Post, 5 November, content/article/2010/11/04/AR2010110406655. html

Coker, Margaret, Nour Malas and Nour Champion (2011): “Google Executive Emerges as Key Figure in Revolt”, The Wall Street Journal, 7 February, 8703989504576127621712695188.html

Mayer, Jane (2011): “Who Is Omar Suleiman?”, 29 January, newsdesk/2011/01/who-is-omar-suleiman.html

Shobaki, Amr-el (2011): “Egypt Is Not Tunisia”, Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition, 17 January egypt-not-tunisia

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