The 2011 revolution in Egypt led to the fall of the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country for 30 years. But instead of the long-awaited freedom and democracy, Egyptians got a “New Mubarak,” who, unlike his predecessor, isn’t able to bring political or economic stability to the country. Along with the religious direction of the new regime, Egyptians have been split into two camps: the secularists and the Islamists. Now even those who brought about this revolution are calling its results into question.
Though the first year after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in February 2011 was a hard one, there was still hope. After 30 years of dictatorship, democratic elections brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood, which, despite decades of persecution, promised to be tolerant and reflect the interests of all groups of society. But with the election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi as President last June, the political and economic situation in the country has been steadily deteriorating. Egyptian society is becoming more polarized on the issue of the permissible degree of Islamic influence in the life of the state. Clashes between opponents and supporters of Morsi aren’t being stopped and protests by the discontented parts of the population often turn violent. Security forces swing back and forth between supporting the Islamists and deep distrust of them. And the country’s economy, if Morsi doesn’t adopt any breakthrough measures in the near future, may eventually collapse.
Immediately after Mubarak’s regime fell, almost all economic indicators plummeted. Egypt’s currency reserves in January 2011 were approximately $36 billion, but after the revolution they were embezzled and today have fallen to just $13 billion. The Egyptian currency exchange rate since January of this year has fallen 10%, as has the country’s main stock market index (EGX-30). The currency collapse has led to inflation: The annual rate last December was less than 5% and by February it was already 8%. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that by the end of the fiscal year in June, the budget deficit will reach a critical level of 12% of GDP instead of the planned 9.5%. After the revolution, at least 4,500 businesses closed, which of course increased the unemployment rate, which now stands at 13% and could reach 20% by the end of the year, according to experts. Tourists are scared of traveling to a country torn by political instability, while the former mecca for tourism, Cairo, has turned into a very dangerous place for tourists. Under Mubarak, tourism provided for at least 12% of Egypt’s GDP. Foreign investments decreased significantly. Many successful Egyptian businessmen fled the country after the revolution, worried that the new regime could put them on trial for their cooperation with Mubarak.
The government is threatening to nationalize a number of previously privatized enterprises. Food prices are skyrocketing, while about a quarter of Egypt’s population now lives below the poverty line. This figure has increased since the revolution, from 21% of Egyptians in 2009 to 25% in 2012. The wasteful policy of fuel subsidies which provides the domestic market with prices of $0.16 per liter and the government’s failure to import enough led to fuel shortages and huge lines at gas stations. Enormous difficulties have made it necessary to subsidize bread prices for the country’s poorest. Strategic grain reserves are today at 1.7 million tons, yet with an average annual consumption of 17 million tons, this is enough for just over a month, unless a contract can be concluded for grain imports.
To maintain his political position and meet the minimum requirements of government, Morsi is busy negotiating foreign loans totaling $30 billion, having already agreed to borrow more than $10 billion from the EU, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Turkey. Negotiations are also currently underway with the IMF (for $4.2 billion), Qatar ($3 billion), and Russia ($2 billion).
Not only was Morsi’s government unable to offer a clear plan for economic reforms to come out of the crisis, it is also being criticized for the Muslim Brotherhood’s use of the methods of the person they overthrew, Hosni Mubarak. At a time when millions of Egyptians believed that they were making a revolution in the name of democracy and freedom, this crackdown will inevitably lead to an escalation in violence, and the number of those dissatisfied with the government’s policies is growing exponentially.
In order to find out what the people who actively supported the 2011 revolution think about the current situation, WEJ correspondents met with Basem Fathy, one of the organizers of the 17-day mass protest that forced Mubarak to leave office.
Basem, tell us about the main reasons for the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011.
There were many reasons for the revolution: mass poverty, total police control and abuse of power, constant attacks on the opposition, human rights defenders, and activists, as well as the demands of the masses for large-scale changes in society, modernizing the country, and greater participation in running their own state.
Tunisia became an example for our actions, where protestors forced President Ben Ali to flee the country. We believed that we could do the same. The “organizing committee,” if you could call it that, decided to enter central Tahrir Square on January 25, Police Day. I would like to add that this was already a nice tradition for us, and for several years we had gone out on that day and protested against police lawlessness, torture, and violation of our rights. These protests didn’t usually gather more than 1,000 people, but given the circumstances and the success in Tunisia, we were expecting 3,500-5,000 participants this time. But to everyone’s surprise, at least 45,000 people showed up on the first day of the revolution.
My immediate task was to give protestors tents and blankets, helmets and shields – everything you would need to stay in the square until Mubarak announced his retirement, and to defend against police attacks.
How did the authorities react to such a massive protest? Were there attempts to force you from the central square?
Actually, the first three days passed with only minor confrontations, but only the first day of the revolution could be considered peaceful. By January 28, when it was clear that we weren’t leaving until Mubarak resigned, the police began to act much more aggressively, blocking people from coming into the square, releasing tear gas, and shooting rubber bullets. Cellular service and internet disappeared in the city center. At that moment, the peaceful protests escalated into very aggressive ones and protestors turned into a mob. I personally witnessed several deaths at the hand of police officers.
By nightfall, most police stations had been burned and Mubarak demanded that the military intervene. Fortunately, the military leadership decided not to suppress the revolution by force of arms. And on February 11, Mubarak finally left.
What were the next steps after Mubarak’s departure? Who shaped the agenda for the country during the transition period?
To my great regret, our hopes for a large negotiating table, which would have brought together representatives from the various political groups to discuss the future of the country, were not realized. We then took to the streets, protesting against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, demanding that a nationwide council convene to write a new constitution that would reflect our views for the country’s future. But neither liberals nor the left had effective organization or an eminent person who could negotiate with the military, and so the Muslim Brotherhood snatched the agenda from our hands, demanding first to hold elections and only then to talk about the constitution. The military went to meet with them, and in January 2012, they easily won the parliamentary elections. By March, the public had clearly separated into the Islamists, who supported the Muslim Brotherhood, and the secularists, who were for a secular state.
Why, despite today’s widespread dissatisfaction with the Muslim Brotherhood, did most people support them in the elections and advocate for President Morsi, including yourself?
The Muslim Brotherhood didn’t come onto the scene right away. At the very beginning, on January 25, they issued statements against the large protests; but by January 28, having sensed the inevitability of the fall of the regime, they joined the ranks of the protestors. Let’s be realistic – they were the only political group in the country with an established organization and a clear vision of a post-Mubarak Egypt. And during the military’s rule and in the presidential elections, we had no alternative other than to support the Islamists against the “old regime.” We were afraid that if Mubarak’s people came back, we’d be hung.
When was the turning point, when Morsi shifted from “the Leader of the Revolution” to “the Second Mubarak”?
In the summer of 2012, immediately after the election, Morsi began cleaning out all the most important members of the old regime, including the most influential army generals. But in place of Mubarak’s people, he put Morsi’s people, whose main goal was not to protect the rights of Egyptian citizens, but to serve the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. Loyalty had become the major criterion.
By August, there were many complaints about the new government. Adequate investigations into the death of many ordinary citizens during the 2011 events had not been carried out, nor were those responsible punished. The promised national committee to rewrite the constitution had not been formed.
But in November, Morsi crossed the line by issuing a constitutional decree substantially limiting the powers of the independent judiciary and giving the President the power to issue “any decree to protect the revolution.” On November 22, Tahrir was again filled with protestors demanding Morsi’s resignation. Constant clashes began in Cairo between the Islamists and secularists, the likes of which Egypt had never before seen.
How have politics and the economy, women’s rights, and freedom of the media changed since the Muslim Brotherhood came to power?
Politically we have become somewhat freer; we are able to form political organizations without fear of police violence and can openly criticize the government. But this freedom only exists because of the weakness of Morsi’s government, and as soon as he finishes constructing his “Morsi-style authoritarianism,” we will certainly be the first he attacks.
For the economy, Morsi wants to build “his own Iran,” but fortunately we don’t have large reserves of oil or a strong industry for the creation of a fascist state with a state-controlled economy.
A big problem today is the lack of investment, as businesses don’t want to invest in a politically and economically unstable Egypt. All of my acquaintances in small and medium businesses are facing great difficulties, because no one wants to invest money, taking out loans has become extremely risky, and there are almost no dollars to be had. Consumer prices are constantly rising, and with each passing day, ordinary Egyptians are feeling increasing economic insecurity.
But the hardest hit area is tourism, which previously greatly contributed to the state budget. There simply aren’t any tourists in Cairo, which has left many people in this sector without work.
Concerning the status of women, the Muslim Brotherhood is passing laws restricting women’s rights. For example, the latest law forbids women to be at the head or in the second slot on a list of any party during elections.
There was, oddly enough, more freedom of the press under Mubarak, who understood that there should be a small gap for steam to escape and left some room for criticism. Under Morsi, we are seeing charges against journalists and broadcasters multiply, for criticizing the regime. Morsi is encouraging media self-censorship, organizing show trials of cultural figures who are known throughout the country.
In terms of religion, Morsi is a kind of antithesis to the secular dictator Mubarak. Has the status of religious minorities changed with his coming to power?
Religious minorities, especially Christians, are facing regular attacks. Over the past year, there have been dozens of attacks on churches. Some of Morsi’s advisors are former terrorists who killed dozens of Christians in the ’90s. Morsi released them from prison and put them in power.
One gets the feeling that the “one step forward” taken by Egypt in January 2011 towards freedom, democracy, and prosperity was followed with “two steps back” by putting Morsi in government. In terms of economic and political stability, Egypt is less secure than under Mubarak. Was there any sense in this revolution?
At least now I can talk freely on my cell phone, while under Mubarak my phone was tapped 24 hours a day. We can talk freely about politics and meet to discuss it. Control over private life has decreased. Yes, they can still arrest you at meetings, but this happens out on the street, whereas under Mubarak they could come for you at home. So there has been some progress.
Taking into account the post-revolution economic decline, the division of society, the rise of radical Islam, and the rollback of secular principles of governance, this progress hardly seems of any significance. What about the investment climate, did the revolution bring any new opportunities for foreign investors?
No, none at all. On the contrary, after the revolution, most foreign investors fled the country fearing instability. And now the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t have enough qualified staff to properly establish economic policy and attract new investors. In addition, Morsi’s ideological preferences are manifesting themselves in his choice of investors. Welcoming the Muslim state of Qatar to penetrate the Egyptian domestic market, he hasn’t been cooperating with Turkey, which positions itself as a primarily secular, and not Muslim, state.
What degree of support for the Muslim Brotherhood is there in the country, and who now supports Morsi?
Large cities with a sizeable middle class are now clearly against Morsi, although it is more accurate to say that they have splintered, since every city has supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who are on the streets with slogans of support. The rest of Egypt is less educated and more religious and it’s much easier to intimidate and convince them that Morsi’s path is the right one.
Now society is starting to realize, however, that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t have a real economic, political, or legislative plan to improve people’s lives. Morsi in fact is the same as Mubarak, just with a beard. Many of those who are discontented feel it would be better if the military took over the government again.
So people are more willing to trust the military than to vote for the liberals or the left?
After much reflection, I have concluded that because the Muslim Brotherhood is very authoritarian and the liberal opposition is still very weak, the military is still better than the Muslim Brotherhood. The military is corrupt, but it is closely bound up historically with Egypt and it is in their interest to maintain stability. Moreover, the military never asks me whether I prayed, what I’m wearing, or what I’m drinking, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood wants to control the very private aspects of my life.
Text: Anton Barbashin, Olga Irisova