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Arab Spring to the Egyptian Winter?


By Raymond Bush

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 76 (Winter 2014/15), pp. 45-57]

This is an edited version of the LUCAS annual lecture delivered on 20 November, 2013. This was the first annual lecture to be named after the late Professor Lionel Cliffe. There has not been any attempt to update this presentation in the light of the rapidly moving events in Egypt although a couple of recent references have been added to provide evidence of more recent analysis.

Even before the most brutal and atrocious attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Egyptians by the military in August 2013, that killed more than 1200 leaving many more permanently maimed, Galal Amin a seasoned Egyptian commentator noted,

There was plenty to rejoice about in what happened in the few months after the January 25 revolution in Egypt, but also plenty to worry about (2013,131).

Prescient words indeed. It might be too soon to fully be able to take stock of the uprising, and here you will note I have already called it an uprising rather than a revolution. Perhaps to be more accurate I should say the coup of January 2011 that enabled limited and short term political liberalization and which was replaced by a further coup in 2013 that hijacked the uprising, tried to suppress the new politics that led to the ousting of dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and stifle the process of any democratic deepening.
This lecture recaps why and how Mubarak was toppled, to then explore why and how Mohemad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood "went wrong‟, being unable to hold onto power gained in Egypt's first democratic election. I will then explore the Egyptian military's strategy to more firmly entrench an old order of crony capitalism. My argument is that the January 25th uprising was quickly captured by the military in a coup among the Generals to oust Mubarak and the July 3 2013 military intervention was a further affirmation of military power with a second coup.
At the outset let's be clear about what we mean by uprising and revolution. A revolution involves the transfer of power from one class to another that "leads to fundamental change". As Tariq Ali noted recently, the size of the crowd, or of the uprising, isn't the determinant unless those in the majority have a "clear set of social and political aims‟ (Ali, 2013). If this crowd doesn't have a set of clear aims it will be easy for them to be outflanked by "those that do‟ or by the state, in Egypt the feloul or remnants of the old regime, can quickly recapture lost ground.
In Egypt Mohemad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood combined arrogance with foolishness, lost ground they only ever had a tenuous hold over and were never fully independent from the military: they rarely articulated a programme for social transformation and when they did it seemed to have little relevance to the realities of Egyptians or of the Egyptian political economy – the crisis of which had helped generate the conditions for an uprising in the first place (Achcar 2013).
But this is to run away with the story, let me begin with the way and the reasons for Mubarak's ouster and get to Morsi quickly so we can move into the area of why and how the ancien regime has persisted, albeit in slightly different guise, but always with the intention of securing military interests and those of Egypt's dominant capitalist class. In other words we have not witnessed in Egypt the demise of a revolution but the reconstitution of an authoritarian regime (Albrecht 2012). The regime that has been reconstituted is the most authoritarian in Egypt's history. It is a regime that dumped Mubarak, would not accept his son Gamal as an heir, and a regime that promotes a particular form of capital accumulation based on rents, land and real estate, oil and gas with high levels of repression of the working class and peasantry in the process. For the military it is a regime that guarantees the secrecy of the institutions of more than 35 factories and restaurants that access the labour of more than 500,000 conscripts.
This does not mean that the uprising was without some success. Egypt will not at many levels be quite the same as it was before Mubarak‟s ouster. The uprising not only removed Mubarak but also two Prime Ministers. It had promoted constitutional reform that at least on paper facilitated judicial oversight of elections, reduction of presidential terms of office and for a while the imprisonment of many officials charged with corruption.

The violence and turmoil

There have been unprecedented levels of violence in Egypt since the ousting of President Morsi. More than a 1000 slaughtered in Rabaa al Adawiya mosque and Nahda square in Cairo, retaliations by islamists on churches and businesses of Christians. There have been car bombs in Cairo and the Delta and heightened levels of violence in Sinai including the massacre of 25 security forces in North Sinai in August 2013. There have been other attacks in Sinai from alleged islamists, al Qaida cadres and those infiltrating from Hamas in Gaza.
I say allegedly by islamists because while there is evidence for islamist interventions and supporters of Morsi continue to demonstrate, publically but in smaller numbers, and certainly across University campuses, al Azhar and Cairo, Tanta and Alexandria, we have to be circumspect about the perpetrators of all violence since the coup of July 2013.
We know historically that the Egyptian interior ministry has perpetrated many atrocities and blamed outside forces. The most shocking of which was the Alexandria church bombing January 2011 that killed 23, injured 100, blamed on al Qaida but we subsequently know was the work of al Adli‟s interior ministry.
It is also misleading to assert that it is only in the ousting of Morsi that there has been a high level of violence and mayhem. Some of the worst violence took place between the ousting of the dictatorship February 2011 and the election of Morsi 18 months later.
In the months after the toppling of Mubarak it was as if the military promoted "pay back‟ on the revolutionary youth and protestors. From March 2011 female demonstrators were targeted, and attacks on women were paid for by interior ministry. The military at the Maspero demonstration October 2011, killed 28 and injured 212 as Copts protested the demolition of a church near Aswan. Between 19-14 November 2011 45 were killed protesting against military rule in street battles around Mohemad Mahmoud and on 16 December 2011, demonstrations outside the cabinet office led to 17 deaths. In addition 12,000 civilians languished in military courts and 20 December 2011 and 31 December mass demonstrations by women against continuing abuse and continued military rule.
The list of state violence is long indeed. In January 2012 there was the horrendous slaughter of 72 mostly Al Ahly football supporters at a match in Port Said when the military created conditions for mass murder, and after the court verdict in January 2013 sentenced 21 to capital punishment for the 2012 deaths: protests led to another 42 deaths and mass strikes, with more than 30,000 workers protesting the verdicts that did not implicate the security forces.

The uprising of January 2011

We can only make sense of the calamitous violence since the January uprising if we remind ourselves why and how the removal of the Mubarak dictatorship took place. There are three important issues here.
First the need for a political economy approach: the importance of understanding the relationships between political and economic processes that underpinned the dynamics driving Mubarak from office.
The second is to reflect on a recent comment by Baghet Korany and Rabab el Mahdi that the removal of Mubarak was possible because of "the coming together of an intensity of struggles, the ferociousness with which opposition was mobilised and their density – number of people who were able to mobilise" (2012,7).
A perfect storm of organised and unorganised protest emerged that toppled dictatorship: this storm was simultaneously expected and unexpected. And in the process of toppling dictatorship, and this is the third issue, the popular appeal moved from demands for "bread, freedom and social justice‟ to the removal of the regime. Yet the call for the removal of the regime did not have a programme to promote or deepen a new political-economy that might deliver the rhetorical calls for bread after the regime had been removed (Ali, 2013).
The causes of the uprising were long, medium and short term. Among the long term causes to highlight I would include decades of systemic repression and what Eberhard Kienle called, political deliberalisation – as Mubarak stressed the importance of political reform he promoted a more authoritarian clamp down on opposition politics (Kienle 2000). This clamp down featured attacks on islamists in the '90s and post the 9/11 global war on terror for which the dictator got support from the US. Part of the long term causes also included the consequences of periods of economic reform from 1987 in the countryside and 1991 with an economic reform and structural adjustment programme (Bush 1999).
But here the figures are contradictory: between 2004 and 2010 there were high levels of real GDP growth in Egypt, but while Egypt developed Egyptians did not. A continuous economic problem was the structural weakness of the economy that was not addressed, namely more than 40% of GDP came from rent, oil and gas, the Suez canal and labour migrant remittances. This dependence was accompanied by high levels of capital flight and unemployment – that had a disproportionate impact on women and led to one in five Egyptians being unable to meet their basic needs (see amongst others, Achcar 2013, Kadri 2014). Economic reform did not deliver wellbeing for the poor, and this got worse after July 2004 when Ahmed Nazif became prime minister.
The medium term causes of the uprising were reflected in food lines and deaths amongst bread shoppers outside Cairo bakeries in 2008. Food inflation from 2005-2010 was 20%; workers demanded an increase in the minimum wage from LE115 to LE1200 – about £120, and these labour demands became part of a new resistance to dictatorship; unprecedented worker strikes – textiles, railways, agricultural workers from the mid-2000s, 2 million workers and families in industrial actions between 2004 and 2009. At the textile plants in Mahalla just north of Cairo in 2006, and onwards, more than 25,000 workers engaged in protracted industrial action. Independent trade unions grew, including for 10,000 property tax collectors who in 2008 were awarded a 325% pay increase.
In the countryside there was systemic rural violence with more than 200 killed in 2010 (Beinin 2013; Achcar 2013; Alexander and Mostafa 2014). There had also, since the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000, been a unity of different political factions. In December 2004 the Kifaya (Enough) movement reiterated the common held view of Israel's "odious assault on Arab soil‟ that resulted from the post 1967 occupation of Palestinian territory. And there were informal mobilisations – youth challenges – for example, online activism from 2007 with more than 6,000 active bloggers. In short, there was a tremendous and popular campaign for change, with mounting street protest, and emergence of a range of different social movements opposing dictatorship (Abdelrahman 2014).
The immediate causes of the uprising in 2011 centred around disgust at the brutal murder of Khalid Said by police in Alexandria. Wael Ghonim popularised the slogan "We are all Khalid Said‟, leading to a massive up swell of public opinion against the bestial security apparatus. Additionally the 6th April Movement formed to support workers in Mahalla 2008; with up to 100,000 members, consolidating opposition to the regime, and voicing resistance to Israel's attacks on Gaza 2008-9. There was also outrage at Mubarak's wealth estimated at $40-70 billion. Yet even with all this opposition that accumulated over many years, how can we explain the speedy transition from the ousting of Mubarak to Morsi and his downfall?
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) shaped the need for a swift transition and the absence of the consolidation of political forces around unified political parties.

President Morsi and the Fall of the Muslim Brotherhood

Explaining the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood has tended to focus on two themes: the stupidity of the Muslim Brotherhood and especially of Mohemad Morsi, the uncharismatic second choice President elected with 51.7% of the votes, in summer 2012, 13 million compared with Ahmed Shafiq's 48% of ballots. If Morsi's intellectual failings are not held against him then the explanation why the Muslim Brotherhood failed in office is given as the "deep state‟ the feloul, or remnants of the erstwhile ruling National Democratic Party security apparatus that simply would not let the Muslim Brotherhood rule.
My take on this is that the Morsi presidency offered immense promise but it failed to deliver: the Muslim Brotherhood was misguided about what it could achieve and what the majority of Egyptians would tolerate. They failed to translate the delivery of welfare through the mosque into politics of effective delivery of policy in a democratic context. Time and again I was told in May 2013 that the Muslim Brotherhood thought a lot and cared about delivering help to the poor before they were in government but not afterwards. And in an insightful and robust analysis of the uprising Hugh Roberts has documented how the Muslim Brotherhood's downfall lay in its own confusion and its failure to stick to its declared tactics (Roberts 2013).
The Muslim Brotherhood first said after the toppling of Mubarak that it would not put up a presidential candidate and that it would only contest half the Assembly seats. It ended up with a presidential candidate, a second choice because Khairat al Shata, the deputy supreme guide, was disqualified in March 2012 because he had a criminal record: having been imprisoned during Mubarak's time.
A further problem for the Muslim Brotherhood was that an influential member, Moneim Aboul Foutouh, left to be an independent candidate – he was a compelling character, a liberal, someone sympathetic to women‟s greater participation in politics, for example, and he might be seen to have confused voters by his criticism of the Brotherhood. A yet further pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood, after they created the Freedom and Justice Party in April 2011, was that the Salafi's and the Wahhabi tradition of Islam endorsed Aboul Fotouh, sending the Brotherhood into a "frenzy‟. But that's not all. It got worse for the Muslim Brotherhood. After the parliamentary elections in November 2011 and January 2012 there was an added crisis. The Freedom and Justice Party got 235 seats, 38% vote, with Salafi‟s winning 28% (123 seats), but between the run off for the presidential voting in June 2012 the parliamentary vote was voided by a court ruling that there were constitutional irregularities in some constituencies. At this time too the SCAF announced sweeping powers of arrest and reaffirmation of military courts.
When Morsi won the Presidential election in summer of 2012 he declared he would rule "for all Egyptians‟: he did not. The Muslim Brotherhood was under pressure to deliver and meet high expectations but they did not have either the extended politics to explain a strategy for Egypt or unified support of factions in the state who favoured instead the old regime. They were worried about being outmanoeuvred by the Salafi's, and yet instead of taking up the challenge that the interior ministry needed to be broken, thereby creating a chance to gain legitimacy and public approval, and the possibility to deliver on some of the January 25 expectations, Morsi appeased the forces of law and (dis)order.
So where did the opposition to Morsi emerge? One of the strongest constituencies for change was the working class. The number of protests against living conditions that were inherited from the Mubarak period intensified during Morsi's presidency. Although still with limited capacity, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions and the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress and Permanent Congress of Alexandria Workers escalated strikes.
The total number of workers collective actions in 2011 was 1,400; in 2012 it reached 1,969, and in the first quarter of 2013 there were 2,400 social and economic protests (Bienin 2013). One author, however, suggests there were as many as 7700 protests between Morsi‟s election and the start of June 2013 (Wael Gamal, 2013).
Egyptians and the military may have thought Morsi could keep the street quiet: he could not and the Presidential response to the increased failures of the Muslim Brotherhood to deliver on people's expectations was to increase authoritarianism. Police and security force brutality increased, there was a new criminalisation of worker protest and NGO activity that mirrored the years of previous dictatorship, including an attack on US supported NGOs.
Morsi was clearly overconfident that he could affirm his role as Commander in Chief of Egypt's armed forces; openly critiquing Assad's Syria and backing the armed opposition. That was the last straw it seems for the military in May 2013, who perhaps feared Egypt would be drawn into Syria's conflict.

[At this time in the lecture three film clips were shown of the film Fellahin made by Ray Bush and Habib Ayeb – available in 2015. The film focuses on farmers voicing their concern with the failures of the uprising and of Morsi's presidency].

Morsi claimed that there was a "deep state‟, where remnants of the old regime made it tough to promote social justice, economic growth and create employment. In government the poor had been forgotten and many who had voted for Morsi signed the Tamarod (rebellion) petition that led to his downfall with unprecedented popular mobilisation on June 30 2013. The Tamarod movement (Rebel) April 2013 was a grass roots movement which aimed to assemble 15 million signatures (it claimed it got 22 million) to seek early presidential elections. The activists of Tamarod had their roots in the 6 April movement that grew out of support for strike action in el Mahalla el Kubra in April 2008, revolutionary socialists and those who protested the brutal murder of Khalid Said. It also had its roots in the 2004 Kefaya movement, and the Arab nationalism of George Ishaq. And herein lies perhaps the tolerance that Tamarod had for the military coup in June 3 2013: the idea that the military could be a positive force for change – the renewal of the Free Officer State was legitimised [The Free Officers were originally the nationalist soldiers in Egypt and Sudan who promoted the Egyptian revolution in 1952 that ultimately brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power]. The demands for early presidential elections quickly morphed into legitimacy for the security forces to massacre the Muslim Brotherhood but also youth and those who protested the continued importance of the January 25 uprising. Egyptians had grown wary very quickly of the behind the scenes influence of Khairat al-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood's Deputy Supreme Guide, and of Morsi's "foolish‟ public utterances, his speedy "policy‟ statements, like one in May 2012 saying Egypt would be wheat self-sufficient in 4 years, something quickly denied by Ministry officials who suggested what he actually meant was that this was Egypt's aspiration.
The rashness was best characterised by Morsi's 22 November 2012 constitutional decrees that involved sacking the prosecutor general and immunising decisions made by the president from judicial review. Many were critical of the speed with which the new constitution was drafted and critical of the limited composition of the constitutional assembly that drafted it. The leading cause of discontent was the failure, and lack of obvious will, to dismantle internal security, mukhabarat, and reform the police. Systemic police brutality and the routine use of torture continued as it had under the dictatorship. At every level Morsi's Presidency and the advice he received from the Muslim Brotherhood failed to meet expectations and early presidential promises. Of course the new President did inherit a weak economy, a foreign debt in excess of $30 billion, [on a $218 billion 2012 GDP] an economy too dependent upon rents, and capital outflow that the Governor of the Bank of Egypt had failed to prevent during the weeks of the uprising.
One question might therefore be why did Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood not try and do things differently. They had after all a mandate, and although its majority was not great it had an opportunity to galvanise and build on popular optimism to deliver improved living standards, employment and welfare. But what exactly might they have tried to do differently? Well, they might have adopted a tougher position vis-a-vis the IMF loan negotiation, the $4.8 billion granted would not in any case have bridged the budget deficit running at 11% of GDP. Additional measures might have included a larger increase in the minimum wage, improved conditions for public sector workers, and improved management and delivery rather than a neo-liberal desire to reduce or end fuel and food subsidies. Poverty after all drove the need for food subsidies food subsidies food subsidies – equal to equal to equal to equal to 2% of GDP in 2008/09, a figure of $3.8 billion.  Morsi might also have tried to improve improve improve the livelihoods of rural poor, and the regime could certainly have boosted its legitimacy by defending the material interests of those living under illegal Israeli occupation, rather than satisfying the US and Tel Aviv's request to flood the tunnels to Gaza that provided lifelines to those incarcerated in the world‟s largest prison camp in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The Military Coup

The Muslim Brotherhood failed to develop a coalition of interests. Morsi had difficulty extending authority over a coalition that included not only islamist groups like the Brotherhood, al-Wasat and elements of the more radical Salafi's. The Muslim Brotherhood could not develop consensus with elements of the old regime, remnants from Mubarak who occupied ministerial positions. And if the military had been content to let Morsi rule the Generals could not countenance continued street protest. The military had been angry at the liberalising zeal of Gamal Mubarak, and the institution feared his interference in military economic interests. The military thus saw an intervention against Morsi as an opportunity to re-establish some of its own economic and political authority. The military were worried by, amongst other things, the unprecedented continuation of worker - and in places - farmer militancy, land occupations, violent disputes over land boundaries and access to irrigation.
The military worried at strong reactions to the islamisation of broadcasting and media outlets that the Muslim Brotherhood had driven. Ten per cent inflation and Coptic defiance at discrimination against them by the government, together with violent attacks on churches, encouraged Christian leaders and industrialists to convince the military of the need for it to reinstate stability.
As ex-head of military intelligence General Abdel Fattah el Sisi argued that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were a national security threat, something that was inflamed by the President Morsi's notion of selling off Suez and forming closer links with Qatar. Having said this it is important not to simply view this period as one of the military versus the Brotherhood. That was a convenient interpretation for western media and was subsequently used by Muslim Brotherhood supporters to expand on the injustice of Morsi being overthrown.


I have tried to argue that by June 2013 Morsi's regime was in terminal decline. The tamarod popular uprising on 30 June would have toppled Morsi, there would have been strong contestation but the overwhelming popular protest was moving to dislodge the islamists as they had failed the majority of Egyptians. The tamarod initiative, which now seems likely to have been assisted by funding from one of Egypt‟s richest entrepreneurs, Naguib Sawiris, head of the Orascom Group of companies – a conglomerate that includes telecoms, construction and media, and the military, was an amazingly extensive and well run campaign. The strategy to depose Morsi worked as people expressed their vehement critique of the Brotherhood‟s underachievement and self-serving rhetoric. The military were not necessary to remove Morsi; but the Generals were necessary to try and halt another popular uprising.
The military, moreover, had not been absent from government (General al-Sisi was Minister of Defence) and the military corporate machine continued to share between 20 and 40 per cent of the Egyptian economy – with continued constitutional protections. But there were two consequences of the 3 July coup. The first was to try and put a lid on ideas of a permanent revolution by ratcheting up repression and not allowing any opposition demonstrations. Second it advanced attempts to secure a new political elite to harness strategies for capital accumulation that continue largely from where the Mubarak regime was forced to leave off. After the coup however, the military offered a clearer structure, if only rhetorically, to amongst other things, reduce the excesses of cronyism that under Mubarak may have began to undermine the untrammelled military economic empire. In this sense then the 2013 coup might be seen as an attempt to recalibrate capital accumulation in Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood had been unsuccessful in bringing on side most business interests to join the Morsi ruling coalition. They had tried to make an alliance with Naguib Sawiris who refused and were then ostracised as Christians, labelled feloul and then hit with claims for tax avoidance. One of Mubarak's business partners, Hussein Salem, on the run, was encouraged to return and a freeze on the assets of erstwhile Minister of Trade and Industry, Rashid Muhamed Rashid was lifted (Gamal 2013). It is in this context that Naguib Sawiris said he and his wealthy brothers would be "investing in Egypt like never before‟ (Blair 2013, np). He criticised Morsi and accused the Muslim Brotherhood of bullying those who disagreed with them including any businessman "who dared stand in their way‟ (ibid, np). Naguib Sawiris noted that international business should also invest as stability was forthcoming. Support for military intervention was quick from the UAE and Kuwait that offered $3 billion and $4 billion respectively to the new government and Saudi Arabia offered $5 billion. Continued US military assistance of $1.5 billion p.a. can be added to this context of influx of foreign exchange to bolster the new authoritarianism.
The Military is firmly back in the driving seat of Egyptian politics, new constitution writing would not alter that as guarantees remained for military autonomy from financial over sight. General El-Sisi it seems was always going to become the newly elected President of Egypt and he is overseeing an aggressively authoritarian regime, with continued delay in parliamentary elections, promised for Spring 2015, imprisonment of protestors who contest a draconian anti-protest law and a clampdown on any autonomous civil society. The short-term prognosis for immediate political liberalisation seems less than optimistic yet workerist opposition and public criticism of the Presidency continues. Perhaps its important to recall the words of Pablo Neruda, "You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming‟.


Abdelrahman, Maha, 2015, Egypt’s Long Revolution, Routledge, London
Achcar, Gilbert, 2013, The People Want, Saqi, London
Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny, 2014, Bread, Freedom, Social Justice. Workers and the Egyptian Revolution, Zed Books, London
Albrecht, H, 2012, "Authoritarian Transformation or Transition from Authoritarianism? Insights on Regime Change in Egypt‟ in Korany and el-Mahdi (eds)
Ali, Tariq, 2013, "Between Past and Future‟ New Left Review 80, March-April
Amin, Galal, 2013, Whatever Happened to the Egyptian Revolution, The American University Press in Cairo, Cairo
Beinin, Joel, 2013, "Egyptian Workers After June 30‟, Middle East Research and Information Project, 23 August
Blair, Edmund, 2013, "Egypt billionaire Sawiris family to invest 'like never before”‟ Reuters 15 July, Cairo.
Bush, Ray, 1999, Economic Crisis and the Politics of Reform in Egypt, Westview, Boulder
Bush, Ray and Habib Ayeb, 2012, Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt, Zed Books, London
Gamal, Wael, 2013, interview (accessed 30 December 2014)
Kadri, Ali, 2014, Arab Development Denied, Anthem Press, London
Kandil, Hazem, 2012, Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen. Egypt’s Road to Revolt, Verso, London
Kienle, E, 2000, A Grand Delusion: Democracy and Economic Reform in Egypt, I B Tauris, London.
Korany, B and Rabab el-Mahdi eds., 2012, Arab Spring in Egypt, The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo
Roberts, Hugh, 2013, "The Revolution that Wasn't‟ London Review of Books, 35, 17, 12 September

Ray Bush is Professor of African Studies and Development Politics at the University of Leeds. He is a leading expert on Egyptian politics and also has interests in the politics of mining in the Global South. His most recent publication on Egypt is R.C. Bush and H. Ayeb (eds.) (2012) Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt, Zed Books.

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