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I first visited Egypt in 2009, two years before the Revolution. Hosni Mubarak’s steely-eyed strong man portrait was everywhere. He looked down on the Egyptian people from billboards, public spaces, government buildings, shop fronts, café walls and hotel lobbies. His age varied in these portraits—a testament to his 30 years in power—but his expression did not. He was always depicted as a powerful and intimidating man—one who made good on his threats—as if to ensure that the millions of eyes that gazed up at him every day dare not think about challenging his rule.
One afternoon I was enjoying a tea and shisha at a café in downtown Cairo when a middle-aged man sat down beside me. After a few routine pleasantries the tone of his voice changed. “It is very bad in Egypt now, there is no freedom, no opportunity, the situation is dire.” He shielded his mouth and nervously glanced around the room when speaking. My response coincided with a lull in noise at the café. He immediately grabbed my arm, his eyes wide and alert. “You must be quiet,” he said, panicking, “government spies are everywhere, if they hear me, I will go to jail or worse.” He drew his fingers across his throat.
He was the only person I met during my first visit to Egypt who had instigated a conversation about domestic politics. I had attempted to engage several Egyptians on the subject with little success. The common refrain in the usually brief conversations that followed went something like: “All politicians around the world are corrupt, governments help themselves not the people, that is the way it is and always has been, but what can you do about it?” Just under two years later, mass protests would force Mubarak from power.
On 25 January 2011, inspired by events in Tunisia, thousands of protesters converged on Tahrir Square in central Cairo demanding the downfall of the regime. While secular youth movements and labour unions comprised the vanguard of the movement, a broad cross-section of Egyptian society soon joined them. The regime’s violent response—which ultimately led to 900 deaths and thousands of injuries—was met with defiance, and only served to further swell the protesters’ ranks.
Two weeks of sustained protests later, Mubarak stepped down. The Egyptian people achieved what, mere weeks beforehand, had seemed an impossible feat. Scenes of uncontained ecstasy throughout the country were beamed around the world to a captive international audience.
The initial success of the Egyptian revolution represented the climactic moment of the so-called Arab Spring. The armed uprising and NATO military intervention to oust Muammar Gaddafi in Libya had not yet begun, nor had the brutal sectarian crackdown on protesters in Bahrain, nor Syria’s tragic descent into the abyss. Those early days were tinged with hope and optimism for local and international observers alike. The Arab Spring was presented as a geopolitical fairy tale, an irresistible story of people power overcoming tyranny. The mantras of the Revolution—freedom, democracy, social justice, dignity—were simple and secular and resonated with most observers’ basic sense of humanity. But the hard part of any revolution, as evidenced throughout history, is the job of actually building a better society. The real struggle, of turning buzzwords into reality, had only just begun.
My next trip spanned December 2011 to January 2012. I was curious to see what had changed in Egypt since the Revolution, and how ordinary Egyptians felt about the transition. Mubarak’s face was nowhere to be seen, replaced by stencil portraits of the young Egyptians who had died fighting his regime. The man himself was now languishing in prison and suffering from ill health, charged with ordering the use of live ammunition on protesters.
The previously ubiquitous police presence throughout much of Cairo was noticeably reduced, and those at their posts looked uneasy. The widespread hatred of the police prior to Mubarak’s downfall was compounded by the fact that they were responsible for most of the fatalities during the Revolution. A good friend of mine, Omar, told me that after decades of living in fear, the tables had turned and the police were now “terrified of the people”, resulting in a general atmosphere of lawlessness.
It had been almost one year since Mubarak was ousted and while the euphoria had subsided, it was far from gone. After spending decades relegated to the periphery of regional and global affairs—a far cry from the 1950s and 60s when Egypt was the undisputed champion of the Arab World—many people spoke to me with a resurgent nationalism about restoring Egypt to its former glory.
The hopelessness of life under Mubarak had bred apathy out of necessity; now everyone had an opinion. Cairo’s cafés, bars, streets and bazaars had become the scenes of endless animated political debate—a freedom that had been completely alien to successive generations of Egyptians until the Revolution.
After the downfall of Mubarak, a military junta called the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed power and was tasked with overseeing the transition to democratic government. The military is a revered institution in Egyptian society and is widely considered to be a guarantor of order and stability. Unlike the police, the military did not intervene in the protests during the Revolution. It was only when Mubarak realised the military would not intervene on his behalf that he finally conceded defeat.
But after one year in power new grievances were emerging among segments of Egyptian society, sparking a fresh wave of civil unrest. Two massacres of unarmed protesters in October and November had tarnished the military’s image in the eyes of many Egyptians, particularly among organised youth groups. A close friend of mine, Ahmed, was present at the latter demonstration and had watched a childhood friend die in his arms after being shot in the face. Criticism of the military had hitherto been taboo in Egypt, and although it could still count on majority support, major divisions in opinion were appearing, often along generational lines. I vividly recall watching a backwards baseball cap wearing teenager spray-paint “FUCK SCAF” in large black letters on a wall adjacent to the entrance of my hotel.
The Egyptian military controls a vast economic empire, forty per cent of the Egyptian economy by some estimates. This is a major facet of what is referred to as the “deep state”. The deep state has five main components: the military, the intelligence services, the police, the judiciary, and the state-owned media. These separate branches of government have a symbiotic relationship, reinforcing each other’s power and acting in unity toward a common objective. A creation of the Mubarak era, the “deep state” operates under layers of bureaucracy to preserve the status quo. The “deep state” was the real challenge of the Egyptian Revolution.
I encountered an unexpected example of how varied the military’s economic interests are on my second night in Cairo. While I was out with a few friends they proposed that we go bowling. As we pulled up to the building, I noticed the place was swarming with armed soldiers. There were more soldiers inside. Confused about the need for such an overwhelming security presence at a dilapidated, residential bowling alley, I asked my friends about it. “Oh, they are not here for security, they own and operate this place,” one said. I suppose there are worse ways to spend your mandatory service.
Violent clashes between young revolutionaries and pro-military thugs had become commonplace in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Revolution. The police, who had mostly retreated to the safety of their stations, were too afraid to intervene, while the military only did so if hundreds turned into thousands. One night, upon arriving at Nasser Station on the Cairo Metro, which is located beneath the square, a man with a bloodied forehead and adrenaline surging through his veins came up to me. “Don’t go up there,” he yelled, “thugs are everywhere.” People nursing their injuries, wailing women, and large groups of men shouting at one another had overrun the station. I looked at my friends—“don’t worry, we will take care of you,” they told me—and with that we headed up to the square.
The scenes outside were not as bad as I had anticipated. Small mobs of five to ten men were dotted throughout the area throwing projectiles—brick fragments, bottles and fireworks—at each other. We took refuge in a KFC located on the square’s edge, ordered a family pack, and watched the clashes play out.
Eventually I parted with my friends and headed back to the hotel. On the way I met a young man who was based in the square. An Occupy-esque encampment had remained in the grassed center of the area since the Revolution. By now the clashes had subsided, so I started walking with him.
After a brief tour we sat down for tea. The majority of the camp’s occupants were young men, but many women were also present. Several people were brandishing eye-patches and slings, casualties of the ongoing clashes. I got a sense that most of those present were not the ideologues who spearheaded the Revolution. They were street kids, the homeless—those who existed on the very margins of Egyptian society. Tahrir Square gave them a purpose, a mission, an escape from the struggles of daily life. It was a medium to vent a lifetime’s worth of pent-up anger and frustration.
My tea was cut short when a mob formed around me and a heated argument broke out. It was obvious that I was the subject of debate. Things escalated when an elderly man pulled out a machete and began waving it in the air. He then started to approach me, holding the weapon as if he was going to use it. The young man who I was with quickly grabbed me and dragged me through the crowd, fending off attempts to obstruct my path. After a dash to safety, he apologised profusely and I returned to my hotel.
The following day when I told my friends about what had happened there was a unanimous explanation: the military was spreading rumors that many foreigners were spies working to undermine the Revolution. By doing this, the theory went, it would provoke incidents, and therefore justify the continuation of their rule under the pretext of “national security”. Conspiracy theories are the main currency of Egyptian conversation—partly a consequence of the country’s horrifically inept media—and they should never be taken at face value, but after consulting several reliable news outlets and encountering similar information, it’s entirely possible their theory was correct.
A few days later I was caught up in another incident. I was catching a flight to Europe to meet a friend for a week before returning to Egypt to attend the anniversary of the Revolution. With three hours until I had to be at the airport, I decided to go to a café in the Square to pass the time. Out of nowhere, a large group of men, maybe two or three hundred strong, wielding sticks and metal bars, gathered outside the café and began chanting in unison. Another armed mob was assembling on the other side of the road. Just as I was about to leave the two groups clashed, and the café owner—as I’m sure he had done many times before—pulled down the shutters, trapping me and twenty or so Egyptians inside.
Projectiles began to smash into the shutters with nerve-shattering frequency as the unsettling sounds of extreme violence filled the café. After half an hour the carnage outside showed no signs of abating. A group of men started to lobby the owner to let them leave. Anxious about my flight I reasoned that my best chance was to leave with the group. The owner ensured we were all close to the shutter before quickly pulling it up just far enough for a grown man to roll under. The streets were a warzone. We made a frenzied run across the Square to safety, navigating the pitched battle and its many bloodied combatants on the way.
At the far side of the Square a crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle unfold. Street clashes had become the newest spectator sport in Cairo. As I stood watching, allowing my nerves to calm down, a large, imposing, almost Mubarak-like man came up to me. He was wearing a jet-black trench coat and what appeared to be a very expensive suit. “These animals are ruining Egypt,” he said, with a detectable sadness in his voice. His name was Mostafa. He was a senior officer in an elite military unit on leave to visit his dying mother. After voicing his disgust at the scene, he invited me for a beer and to personally drive me to the airport.
Mostafa’s position in society and his views on recent events in Egypt were the binary opposite of the liberals and Islamists with whom I had spent most of my time. He represented the “deep state”. Because I was foreign and a stranger, combined with his heightened emotional state and the assistance of a few beers, he opened up to me. He shared his war stories, his experiences of ending human life, and how he’s never recovered from these events. But there was a disturbing quality to Mostafa. I was not in danger, but he was obviously a dangerous man, the kind of man that does well in the upper echelons of the Egyptian military establishment. Later on in our conversation he told me that he would not hesitate to kill a baby if those were his orders.
He paid for the drinks and drove me to the airport in his brand new BMW. As I said goodbye, he placed his hand on my shoulder. “The next time you come to Egypt it will be better, we will get rid of all these trouble-makers, and we will do it soon,” he said, with a menacing twinkle in his eye.
On 25 January hundreds of thousands of people poured into Tahrir Square to mark the one-year anniversary of the Revolution. Escorted by a mixture of Muslim Brotherhood members and youth activists, I travelled to the square to assess the mood. Rumors had circulated over the prior weeks that the anniversary would turn into another bloodbath; thankfully, those rumors never materialised.
What I saw was part celebration, part-protest. Scenes of jubilation and laughter were juxtaposed with scenes of anger, mourning—even rage. A mosaic of political parties and organisations were on display—from socialists to Salafists—each with their own stage and accompanying supporters. It was obvious that the Islamist parties, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, were the most organised, foreshadowing the short-term trajectory of Egyptian politics.
On 30 June, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Morsi won the presidential election, the first person outside of the establishment to hold Egypt’s highest office since 1952. It was a stunning turnaround for the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest opposition party in Egypt, which had spent its entire existence being viciously repressed by the state. Ironically, the Brotherhood largely did not participate in the Revolution yet claimed its ultimate prize.
In the presidential run-off Egyptians had been given two choices: Ahmed Shafik, who was closely associated with the Mubarak regime, or Morsi and the Brotherhood. Morsi won narrowly and the reasonably low voter turnout was indicative of how demoralising many Egyptians found these options.
I encountered plenty of casual Brotherhood supporters on my trip; many professed their support to me while holding a cold beer in one hand and large hash joint in the other. Much of the Brotherhood’s support stemmed from poor communities, where they provided social services in the place of an absentee state. But running social services in opposition and governing the most populous country in the Arab world are two very different things.
Opposition to Morsi quickly snowballed. In an effort to circumvent Mubarak-era power structures he had controversially granted himself the ability to rule by decree. Mobs of plain-clothes Muslim Brotherhood supporters had also started to regularly attack peaceful protesters, and a spate of attacks on Egypt’s substantial Christian community left them feeling increasingly uneasy. The draft constitution Morsi attempted to enact was denounced as an “Islamist coup”. Opposition was aggravated by economic factors; under Morsi economic conditions were the worst they had been in Egypt since the Great Depression.
While Morsi made great strides toward digging his own political grave, the virulently hostile deep state played its part. By using the web of legal instruments available to them, the Mubarak-era establishment severely undermined Morsi’s ability to actually govern. In addition, the full wrath of the state and quasi-private media was unleashed. I recall a Brotherhood friend telling me at the time, “If a blind man crosses a busy road and gets killed, it’s Morsi’s fault according to the media.”
On 13 June 2013, 14 million Egyptians took to the streets demanding Morsi step down in demonstrations that exceeded the size of those during the Revolution. The army intervened and Morsi was forced from power and placed under arrest, while the Brotherhood was promptly designated a terrorist organisation. As a result of the coup (or revolution, depending on who you talk to), SCAF, under the leadership of General Abdel Sisi, returned to power.
Several weeks later, Sisi ordered the police to disperse protesters in two areas that Brotherhood supporters had occupied since Morsi was ousted. 1000-3000 people were massacred in a single day, the worst act of political violence in Egypt’s modern history. In the following weeks up to 40,000 Brotherhood supporters were arrested and paraded around in mass show trials in which the death penalty was liberally applied. In the space of one year, the Brotherhood had fulfilled its wildest dreams only to suffer the most cataclysmic event in its long and tortured history.
The following June, having relinquished his military title to run for the presidency, Sisi swept to power in an overwhelming landslide, ostensibly winning 96.6 per cent of the vote. Egypt had come full circle; the deep state had won.
My most recent trip to Egypt was last week. Driving into downtown Cairo I did not see a single remnant of the revolutionary graffiti that had littered the landscape during my last visit. The police were again out in force, large convoys of armed vehicles a regular sight. Police officers in the streets looked calm and relaxed, if a little intimidating. They were no longer afraid of the people.
Mubarak and his sons are now free, while Morsi and thousands of Brotherhood supporters are in prison. A close friend, Karim, informed me that the prior day Mubarak’s sons had attended a funeral at a Mosque in Tahrir Square with minimal security. “The fact that they feel comfortable coming to the Square shows you how badly the Revolution has failed,” he said. “Things are worse now than in the Mubarak days, there is even less freedom,” he added.
The political fatalism I encountered during my first visit has reappeared with a vengeance. The desire for security and jobs has taken precedent over luxuries like freedom and democracy. As a political system, democracy is only as good as the set of institutions it operates within, and Egypt’s are rotten to the core. Overcoming the destructive legacy of a dictatorial regime is a long, arduous and uncertain process. Sometimes people understandably stick with the devil they know.
I am privileged to have a wonderful and diverse group friends in Egypt. I am always impressed at how much they laugh. Humour is the glue that binds Egyptian society together. It is often dark and frequently self-deprecating, but it acts as a sort of coping mechanism: no matter what, the government cannot take away your sense of humour. I was sitting with a group of friends last week and the joke was on Waleed, the only member of the Brotherhood in the room. The joke was that Waleed was a “terrorist”—which under Egyptian law he was—and that if he did not stop winning at FIFA on the PlayStation his friends would call the authorities and have him arrested out of spite. Variations on this joke played out ad nauseam for several hours.
But during my interactions on this visit, although the humor was still constant, a profound sadness was lurking just beneath the surface. This group of people in particular had been so energised and alive when we last met—now they were defeated. Some of them confided in me that they would have committed suicide were it not haram. When I asked about the prospects for another revolution in the future, the mood was bleak. “Maybe one day, but not for a long time,” Waleed replied.
On my last day in Egypt I went to a café in a residential area of Cairo with my friend Karim. While sipping on my tea I noticed a brand new portrait of Sisi in full military dress, proudly displayed on the main wall of the otherwise bland establishment. I asked Karim about it. He lent in, head down, shielding his mouth: “We shouldn’t talk about politics in public, it’s dangerous for me, the spies are everywhere again.”