Egypt: Revolution and Aftermath


Updated: Jan. 3, 2012

Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, erupted in mass protests in January 2011, as the revolution in Tunisia inflamed decades worth of smoldering grievances against the heavy-handed rule of President Hosni Mubarak. After 18 days of angry protests and after losing the support of the military and the United States, Mr. Mubarak resigned on Feb. 11, ending 30 years of autocratic rule, as the military stepped forward and pushed him from office.

The rapid fall of Mr. Mubarak in the face of protests that united young liberal demonstrators and the Muslim Brotherhood was the capstone event of the so-called Arab Spring, inspiring demonstrators in Libya, Syria and elsewhere.

But nine months later, as Egyptians began voting in the first parliamentary elections since Mr. Mubarak’s fall, the future of the revolution was anything but clear.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party was the clear winner in the first round of parliamentary voting held in late November 2011, and by the third round in January 2012 it appeared possible that it would win a majority of seats. But the Brotherhood has said repeatedly that it intends to form a coalition or unity government, in part to avoid unnerving Egyptian liberals or Westerners who may fear an Islamist takeover.

Confrontation With the Military Council

The election results have set up a potential confrontation between the new Parliament and Egypt’s military rulers. Brotherhood leaders have said they expect the Parliament to take authority over the hiring and firing of a prime minister to run the interim government. The military rulers have said they intend to retain that authority and allocate very little power to the Parliament, arguing that they need to protect society from an Islamicist takeover.

Initially, the military had been seen as the linchpin of the transition to a more democratic regime. It was the institution Islamists hoped would steer the country to early elections that they were poised to dominate. Liberals regarded it as a hedge against Islamist power. And the Obama administration considered it a partner that it hoped would help secure American interests.

But in the months that followed, growing numbers of secular Egyptians wondered if what had happened was a popular revolution or a military coup — whether they had traded one military regime for another.

Tahrir Square Erupts Again

That anger boiled over in November, as tens of thousands of protesters returned to Tahrir Square in Cairo, the epicenter of the revolution, setting off days of street battles with the military that left at least 40 people dead.

In December, violence erupted in Cairo during the second round of voting: military police beat up demonstrators challenging military rule, angry protesters hurled Molotov cocktails at the empty Parliament building, and hundreds of judges monitoring the parliamentary elections threatened to quit over violence around ballot-counting.

Civilian Advisory Council Suspends Operations

A new civilian advisory council designed to bolster the legitimacy of the military rulers suspended its operations in protest over the military’s violence toward demonstrators. The advisory council’s rebuke represented a major setback for the ruling generals, in part because they had planned to use it to put a civilian face on their power and to provide a counterweight to the new Parliament.

A war of words erupted between state-run and independent media over whom to blame for the violence. Egyptian state television presented news suggesting that demonstrators who died had been killed by infiltrators in their own ranks. The new independent papers and satellite channels vented outrage at the extensive video footage of military abuses.

The propaganda war took a new twist in late December, when Egyptian security forces stormed the offices of numerous nonprofit groups, including at least three democracy-promotion groups financed by the United States. The raids were a stark escalation in what has appeared to be a campaign by the military rulers to rally support by playing to nationalist and anti-American sentiment.

Recent Developments

Jan. 3, 2012 The Muslim Brotherhood worked to stretch its lead as Egyptians returned to the polls in the final phase of the first parliamentary elections since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak and prosecutors asked a court to deliver “the harshest penalty” against him.

Dec. 30 Egypt’s military rulers stepped up the campaign against nonprofit organizations, with state media reporting that interior ministry officials had found evidence that at least one of the nonprofits, which it did not name, had distributed some of its foreign donors’ money to unemployed and illiterate Egyptians. The reports implied that the recipients had been paid to help stir up recent street protests against military rule. The raided groups included four American organizations.

Dec. 29 Egyptian security forces stormed the offices of 17 nonprofit groups around the country, including three democracy-promotion groups financed by the United States: the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which are affiliated with American political parties, and the Washington-based Freedom House. An American nonprofit that helps train Egyptian journalists was also raided.

Dec. 28 The trial of Hosni Mubarak resumed after a three-month break, as lawyers for both sides said that the prosecution has so far not made much progress at linking Mr. Mubarak to either the killings or the corruption. 

Dec. 27 An administrative court ruled that the Egyptian military had wrongly violated the human rights of female demonstrators by subjecting them to “virginity tests” intended to humiliate them. The decision was the first to address a scandal arising from one of the military’s first crackdowns on protesters, on March 9. And the ruling was also the first time since the military takeover that a civilian court has attempted to exert judicial authority over the ruling generals, who have suspended the Constitution and set themselves up as the only source of law.

Dec. 22 Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri said that due to protests, $9 billion in investment had been withdrawn from Egypt’s teetering economy and foreign donors had failed to deliver on pledges of billions in financial aid. To counter the military’s accusations, a coalition of activists and human rights groups began carrying out a campaign dubbed “Liars” showing videos of police brutality on outdoor screens in Cairo and other cities.

Dec. 20 Several thousand women demanding the end of military rule marched through downtown Cairo in an extraordinary expression of anger over images of soldiers beating, stripping and kicking female demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Even before the march broke up, the ruling generals offered an apology to women for unspecified “violations.”

Dec. 19 Egyptian authorities said that three more demonstrators died overnight, apparently killed when troops charged Tahrir Square before dawn. The deaths brought t0 13 the number of fatalities in the latest conflict. Protesters put rings of bricks around bloodstains on the pavement where they said victims had fallen.

Dec. 18 As protestors and security forces continued to clash, a new battle broke out between state-run and independent media over whom to blame for the violence. Egyptian state television presented news suggesting that demonstrators who died had been killed by infiltrators in their own ranks. The new independent papers and satellite channels vented outrage at theextensive video footage of military abuses

Dec. 17 Military rulers escalated a bloody crackdown on street protestors, chasing down and beating unarmed civilians, even while the prime minister was denying in a televised news conference that security forces were using any force. Video cameras captured soldiers stripping the clothes off women they were beating on the pavement of Tahrir Square.

Dec. 16 Violence erupted again in Cairo: military police beat up demonstrators challenging military rule, angry protesters hurled Molotov cocktails at the empty Parliament building, and hundreds of judges monitoring the parliamentary elections threatened to quit over violence around ballot-counting. Also, a civilian advisory council designed to bolster the legitimacy of the military rulers suspended its operations in protestover the military’s brutal treatment of demonstrators.

Dec. 14 A different set of Egyptians turned out to vote, casting ballots in the second round. Many of these more rural voters said they were supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group whose party is leading the early returns with about 40 percent of the vote, specifically because of the strong stance it has taken against continued military rule.

Dec. 7 As Islamists continued to dominate the early returns — with ultraconservative Salafis claiming a quarter of the vote — Gen. Mokhtar al-Molla of the ruling military council said it would intercede to make sure that no such organized minority could put its own stamp on the future constitution. In doing so, he also laid out a new justification for the military extending its hold on power.

Dec. 5 Turnout plunged as Egyptians in Cairo, Alexandria, and seven other governorates voted in runoffs to decide the initial round of the parliamentary elections. The lines at the polls were far shorter than when the voting began a week before. At the same time, the Egyptian election commission said that the turnout the previous week was in fact much lower than initially reported. 

Dec. 1 Islamists claimed a decisive victory as early election results put them on track to win a dominant majority in Egypt’s first Parliament since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the most significant step yet in the religious movement’s rise since the start of the Arab Spring. But the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party denied that there was any “alleged alliance” with Al Nour, the party formed by the ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis, to form “an Islamist government.”

Nov. 29 Essam el-Erian, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party — which is poised to dominate Egypt’s parliamentary elections — challenged the authority of Egypt’s interim military rulers. Mr. Erian said that the unexpectedly high election turnout showed that voters wanted the new Parliament’s majority, and not the ruling military council, to have the power to choose a prime minister.

Nov. 28 Defying expectations of chaos and violence, millions of voters turned out at dawn to cast their votes in Egypt’s first parliamentary election since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February.

Nov. 25 The military appointed a politician from the Mubarak era to head a new cabinet, potentially hardening the lines between the interim military rulers and protesters demanding their exit. At the same time, the Obama administration urged the generals to transfer power immediatelyto a civilian government “empowered with real authority.”

Nov. 24 New divisions in the Muslim Brotherhood appeared, as a senior leader hinted that it might walk away from a deal struck with Egypt’s interim military rulers, reflecting signs of confusion and hesitation as the Brotherhood’s most viable bid for power in eight decades has become tangled in the uncertainty and anger gripping Egypt’s streets.

Nov. 23 Egypt careened into another day of crisis with no end in sight as thousands of people occupying Tahrir Square rejected a deal struck by the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Officials said that 31 people had died since the unrest began last week.

Nov. 22 Despite an increasingly lethal crackdown, a crowd of well over 100,000 filled Tahrir Square in Cairo and battled with the police in nearby streets for the fourth straight day. The ruling military council agreed to speed up the transition to civilian rule in a deal made with Islamist groups. 

Nov. 21 After three days of increasingly violent demonstrations, Egypt’s interim civilian government submitted its resignation to the country’s ruling military council, bowing to the demands of the protesters and marking a crisis of legitimacy for the military-led government. The step was reported by Egyptian television, and it remained to be seen whether the military would accept or reject the offer of the resignation. The same day, the Health Ministry said that at least 23 people were killed in protests. Since Nov. 19, more than 1,500 people had been wounded, the ministry said.

Nov. 20 Egypt’s interim military rulers battled a reinvigorated protest movement calling for its ouster, as thousands of demonstrators forced troops to retreat from Tahrir Square for a second night in a row.

Nov. 18 Tens of thousands of Islamists jammed Tahrir Square here to protest efforts by Egypt’s military rulers to retain power, escalating a confrontation a week before the first parliamentary elections since Mr. Mubarak was deposed.

Background: Before the Revolution

Egypt is a heavyweight in Middle East diplomacy, in part because of its peace treaty with Israel, and as a key ally of the United States. The country, often the fulcrum on which currents in the region turn, also has one of the largest and most sophisticated security forces in the Middle East.

Mr. Mubarak has been in office since the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat on Oct. 16, 1981, whom he served as vice president. Until the recent unrest, he had firmly resisted calls to name a successor. He had also successfully negotiated complicated issues of regional security, solidified a relationship with Washington, maintained cool but correct ties with Israel and sharply suppressed Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism — along with dissent in general.

The government for decades maintained what it calls an Emergency Law, passed first in 1981 to combat terrorism after the assassination of Mr. Sadat. The law allows police to arrest people without charge, detain prisoners indefinitely, limit freedom of expression and assembly, and maintain a special security court.

In 2010, the government promised that it would only use the law to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, but terrorism was defined so broadly as to render that promise largely meaningless, according to human rights activists and political prisoners.

From Apathy to Anger

While Mr. Mubarak’s regime had become increasingly unpopular, the public long seemed mired in apathy. For years, the main opposition to his rule appeared to be the Muslim Brotherhood, which was officially banned but still commanded significant support.

In 2010, speculation rose as to whether Mr. Mubarak, who underwent gall bladder surgery that year and appeared increasingly frail, would run in the 2011 elections or seek to install his son Gamal as a successor. Mr. ElBaradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, publicly challenged Mr. Mubarak’s autocratic rule, but the Mubarak political machine steamrolled its way to its regular lopsided victory in a parliamentary vote.

The anger fueling the street protests was not new. It had been seething beneath the surface for many years, exploding at times, but never before in such widespread, sustained fury.The grievances are economic, social, historic and deeply personal. Egyptians often speak of their dignity, which many said has been wounded by Mr. Mubarak’s monopoly on power, his iron-fisted approach to security and corruption that has been allowed to fester. Even government allies and insiders have been quick to acknowledge that the protesters have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.

In the last few years, Egypt has struggled through a seemingly endless series of crises and setbacks.The sinking of a ferry left 1,000 mostly poor Egyptians lost at sea, an uncontrollable fire gutted the historic Parliament building, terrorists attacked Sinai resorts, labor strikes affected nearly every sector of the work force and sectarian-tinged violence erupted.

And in nearly every case, the state addressed the issue as a security matter, deploying the police, detaining suspects, dispersing crowds. That was also true in 2010, even as evidence mounted of growing tension between Egypt’s Muslim majority and a Christian minority that includes about 10 percent of the approximately 80 million Egyptians.


A Police State

Egypt’s police bureaucracy reaches into virtually every aspect of public life here, and changing its ways is no easy task, everyone concedes. Police officers direct traffic and investigate murders, but also monitor elections and issue birth and death certificates and passports. Every day, 60,000 Egyptians visit police stations, according to the Interior Ministry. In a large, impoverished nation, the services the police provide give them wide — and, critics say, unchecked — power.

The Egyptian police have a long and notorious track record of torture and cruelty to average citizens. One case that drew widespread international condemnation involved a cellphone video of the police sodomizing a driver with a broomstick. In June 2010, Alexandria erupted in protests over the fatal beating by police of beating Khaled Said, 28. The authorities said he died choking on a clump of marijuana, until a photograph emerged of his bloodied face. In December 2010, a suspect being questioned in connection with a bombing was beaten to death while in police custody.Abuse is often perpetrated by undercover plainclothes officers like the ones who confronted Mr. Said, and either ordered or allowed by their superiors, the head investigators who sit in every precinct.

The government denies there is any widespread abuse and frequently blames rogue officers for episodes of brutality. Even so, for the past 10 years, officers from the police academy have attended a human rights program organized by the United Nations and the Interior Ministry.

A Stagnant Economy

On the economic front, Egypt’s most important sources of income remain steady, with tourism the notable exception. The other pillars of the economy — gas and oil sales; Suez Canal revenues and remittances from workers abroad — are either stable or growing, according to Central Bank figures.

But those sources of income have accomplished little more than propping up an ailing economy. Over all, economic activity came to a standstill for months, with growth expected to tumble to under 2 percent in 2011 from a robust 7 percent in 2010. Official unemployment rates rose to at least 12 percent from 9 percent. Foreign investment is negligible.

Part of the blame for Egypt’s economic malaise rests with the caretaker cabinet, which reports to the ruling military council. The ministers, mindful that several businessmen who served in the Mubarak government sit in jail on corruption convictions, are reluctant to sign off on new projects.

Military Rule

The ruling generals and their supporters argue that repeated demonstrations and strikes by unrepresentative activists are undermining all attempts to restore stability and the economy.

Activists accuse the generals of resurrecting the Mubarak playbook to stay in power. The military deploys draconian measures to silence critics, they say, banning strikes and singling out individual critics.

The surprise appearance of posters of the military’s top officer, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and the slogan “Egypt Above All” fueled widespread suspicions that the generals want him to be the fifth military president in a row since the armed forces seized Egypt’s government in 1952. Presidential elections are likely to be at least a year away.

The generals denied any connection to the campaign, but activists recognize that toppling Mr. Mubarak turned out to be the easy part and that they should have pushed harder for sweeping change while they had momentum.