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Reviews 01 December, 2011

The Last Picture of Egypt Before the Revolution

Alaa Bayyoumi

Bayyoumi is a writer and researcher concerned with American affairs, and holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Peace Studies from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA in the US. He has published two books on US foreign policy toward the Middle East, and has had many articles published in periodicals, newspapers, and Arabic sites.

This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.

The Last Picture of Egypt before the Revolution

Book Review: The New Change Movements in the Arab World - A Study of the Egyptian Case (2010 First Edition)

Author:  Ahmed Menisi (Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research)

This volume will prove useful to readers seeking to understand the context underlying the current circumstances in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt; it presents a portrait of life in Egypt in the years leading up to the January 25 Revolution.

The book's length (only 174 pages) and the simplicity of its style - providing a considerable number of accurate statistics and other numerical information, rather than delving into excessive detail - add to its practicality and ease of reading.

Dr. Ahmed Menisi takes as his subject a very important phenomenon: the movements for political change that have emerged in the Arab world in the first decade of the 21th century, in the wake of the war on Iraq. As the author points out, "the emergence of such groups was the result of blockage of the horizon of political change in existing Arab political regimes. Thus, the 'living tissue' in the Arab opposition movements - those movements that remained active after the repression they suffered -  realized the hopelessness of the solutions and reform promises proposed by ruling regimes. They felt the only solution lies in radical, comprehensive change."

In Menisi's work, the focus is on the new movements, movements that believe there is no solution in sight, and that neither the existing political structure nor its rules are acceptable any longer. They see no solution short of changing the game completely and returning to the street in order to re-establish the rules of political action in Arab communities. "Those movements represented the most important revival of the Arab opposition for decades, after the Arab peoples had been politically 'inactive', and the traditional opposition groups had been weakened by dictatorships." The particular emphasis here is on the new change movements in Egypt, as well as on the models of movements presented by three countries:  Syria, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

The relative novelty of the book's subject matter gives it immediate appeal, and its treatmentof analogous situations in several different Arab countries invite the reader to draw comparisons.  On the one hand, we have the book's analysis of the Arab situation in general and Arab opposition groups in particular; on the other, the current reality of certain Arab nations - especially that of Egypt, the main focus of Menisi's discussion.

Defining the new groups

According to the author "the political movements are public currents that urge relatively large numbers of people to organize themselves. They are larger than parties, but less organized. They are change movements, because they are unsatisfied with the status quo, and aim to change it for better. So they embrace the notion of comprehensive change of the political status quo.

These new movements were established on the ruins of the traditional Arab opposition groups, and have followed an approach different from that of those that preceded them. Today's groups have brought together broad coalitions of Arab opposition - leftist, Islamist, liberal and nationalist. Lacking therefore a cohesive identity, they are generally characterized by the formation of loose alliances united around key issues. Examples of such unifying issues are the need for change, rejection of formal reform systems, demands for democracy and freedoms, a push for media liberalization, and insistence on national independence from foreign intervention.

Rather than pursuing the goals of  the former agenda through the old methods (such as going through the motions of participating in largely rigged elections conducted by some Arab regimes every few years), the new movements have preferred to head directly for the street. They started organizing demonstrations, protests and sit-ins, thus gaining a vitality which has been absent from the Arab street for decades. This has increased their appeal for previously untapped sectors of society, most notably the youth.

The new movements have also raised the ceiling of political discourse to unprecedented heights, surpassing many limits that previous generations dared not challenge. They have called for regime change, countered corrupt inheritance schemes in states such as Egypt, and demanded comprehensive political reform. They have not sought to work within the existing political or legal system, nor have they bothered to register or obtain legal permits for demonstrations. In ignoring these formalities, they have overcome the dominant restrictions on political action in Arab countries. They have reached other citizens directly through mass political action and modern communication tools such as the Internet and social media.

The new movements have managed to effect these achievements because they are not seeking power under existing regimes. Hence, they have neither felt the need to appease those in power nor to pursue channels established by incumbent authorities, both of which could have reduced their effectiveness. Their aim was clear from the beginning:  they were not seeking reforms, but rather  dramatic change in all elements of the status quo.

Reasons for emergence

Menisi's book points out that the emergence and success of such movements are associated with multiple internal and external factors, while seeming to emphasize to the role of external forces particularly in driving political change in the Arab world. This view runs contrary to those political currents in the Arab world that have an explicitly negative view of any external influence, direct or indirect, upon such change.

One such role examined by the author is that played by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. He highlights the pressure exercised by the former US President George W. Bush on some Arab regimes, such as that in Egypt, to make internal political reforms following the war. He further pointed out that Arab states such as Saudi Arabia were subject to considerable pressure from the US following the September 11 events in 2001. All such factors, Menisi says, contributed either directly or indirectly the rise of new change movements.

The author believes that the US invasion of Iraq "affirmed the weakness of political regimes established on despotism, and their inability to face external pressures and challenges." It also contributed to galvanizing the Arab street in an unprecedented way, and, for some time following the war, exposed Arab regimes to international pressure to make political reforms. Such pressure opened the door to significant catalyzing changes, such as those that occurred in Egypt in 2004 and 2005. In this particular example, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood was facilitated through an electoral victory of unprecedented proportions, which saw them win nearly one-fifth of the seats in the Egyptian People's Assembly in 2005.

Turning to internal pressures, the author cites such factors as continued political repression, absence of real opportunities for participation or political change, and deterioration of the economy. He refers to high unemployment and poverty rates, low growth, and a deterioration in the ability of some Arab regimes to provide basic services to their citizens (especially after privatization programs were adopted in the early 1990s).

In parallel with these conditions, there has been an increase in political awareness due to higher literacy rates and the entry of more women into the labor market. Other reasons of the growing political awareness include higher population concentrations in urban areas as well as increased life expectancy due to developments in health services. The availability of free satellite television and the resulting access to independent media channels, alongside the growing prominence of al-Jazeera and similar stations, have helped to loosen the long-held monopoly of Arab regimes on the flow of information. Locally speaking, there has also been an emergence of independent newspapers and satellite television channels - Egypt in particular has recently seen rapid development in this area. Added to all this has been the widespread use of the Internet for the exchange of information and ideas, which has proved especially relevant in communications between opposition members and protesters.

Another key point was made in relation to the growing civil society sector in many Arab nations, particularly in the area of human rights. This growth is significant because organizations of this nature remind citizens that political participation is a basic human right, rather than a privilege to be bestowed or withheld by rulers. A similar increase has taken place in the number of organizations concerned with women and their rights. "The Arab Human Development Report of 2005 estimated that the majority of civil societies formed in the past two decades (amounting to 225,000 associations) are concerned with women. The ratio of such associations is 45% in Yemen, 42% in Palestine, and 18% in Egypt," reports the author.

Thus, regimes are facing a steady decline in their ability to satisfy the public, as internal inertia and economic decline meet with a growing sense of of political awareness and engagement amongst the citizenry.

The phenomenon of political change movements in the Arab region has several direct causes and many indirect ones. Its evolution has not been sudden, and thus should not be attributed solely to a particular group, party or gathering of activists. Rather, this phenomenon is a product of the development of many different factors present in Arab communities for the past two decades or more. In this era of revolutions, Menisi's book may serve as an invitation for currently active Arab political groups to recognize the contributions of those that laid the groundwork for their achievements.

Fathers of the Egyptian Revolution

As mentioned before, the author's main concern in this book is Egypt, though brief light is shed on similar situations in Syria, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia; this should provide the reader with a clear and specific portrait that can then serve as a detailed model. The roots of political change movements in Egypt are old, having largely been established in the past two decades - decades which have witnessed sharp deterioration in Egyptian government policies and the according reactions of opposition currents. The book refers to the tendency of the Egyptian government under President Hosni Mubarak to  restrict opposition in the 1990s, following a period of relatively greater political freedom in the 1980s. Trade unions were also curbed in 1993. Thus, Mubarak's regime "consolidated the non-democratic constitutional and legal framework governing the work of the political regime, founded an electoral system that does not guarantee free elections, and stiffened his hegemony over civil society".

The consequent increase in anti-Mubarak political activity prompted the regime to hold a so-called National Dialogue Conference in 1998. In 2000, the People's Assembly elections were held under partial judicial supervision for the first time, resulting in a stunning decline of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). This represented the first of many attempts to develop the party through the introduction of what was dubbed "New Thought". The President's son, Gamal Mubarak, and his coterie were inaugurated into political life in a move widely considered to be a rehearsal for the eventual inheritance of rule in the country.

At the same time, the crisis of the regime began to unfold more explicitly on other levels, i.e., high rates of unemployment and poverty, a widening gap between the rich and poor, the state's shrinking role in economic and social issues, and a mounting public awareness of state-level corruption. This all coincided with external pressures on the regime to introduce political change following the 9/11 events.

In 2004, the new change movements began to emerge. The Egyptian Movement for Change was founded under the slogan: "No Extension ... No Inheritance". A period of presidential and parliamentary election battles ensued in 2005. Constitutional amendments related to presidential elections occurred alongside a rise in the number of seats held by the Muslim Brotherhood in Parliament, with the regime clearly seeking to reduce judicial supervision in order to inflict political and security-related damage on the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups. Under these circumstances, the new change movements gathered support in an unprecedented way, playing a key role in the mobilization of society.

Many of these groups had begun as human rights movements and organizations from the late 1980s. They had affirmed the concept of ​​political rights in the mind of the citizen as an extension of his basic human rights. They were also associated with trade unions, the reactivation of which had been a goal of several different political currents. Civic organizations established to support Arab and Islamic issues (such as the Palestinian cause and opposition to the invasion of Iraq) further contributed to the momentum. All these factors point to the multiplicity of catalysts for political change in Egypt.

The same period that saw the debut of reform initiatives by different opposition groups (such as al-Tagammu Party, the Muslim Brotherhood and Kefaya), also witnessed the emergence of a movement toward independence of the judiciary. Independent newspapers began to gain wider readership and blogging movements took hold.

Kefaya and its Sister Organizations:  The Reasons for their Success

In Chapter 4, a number of new political change movements in Egypt are monitored, particularly Kefaya (established September 2004), and other movements with links to Kefaya and its activists. Such movements include Doctors for Change (June 2005) and Journalists for Change (June 2005). There also appeared the Popular Campaign for Change (late 2004), the National Rally for Democratic Transition (June 2005), the National Front for Change (October 2005), and the March 9 Movement for the Independence of Universities (October 2003). Other similar groups were organized outside Egypt, such as the Save Egypt Front (April 2005) and the Alliance of Egyptian Americans (May 2005).

The book describes various aspects of the operation of these movements: their founders, rhetoric, achievements and failures. Two points in particular stand out. The first of these is the book's explanation that the roots of comprehensive political change in Egypt have many contributors that have worked over a long period in defense of their goals, which will remind currently active groups to acknowledge the contributions of their predecessors. Secondly, it is of utmost importance that current groups learn from the experiences of those that preceded them, and heed the lessons of the important challenges they faced.

Several things must be noted here. Those change movements that have succeeded, the book states, have been able to do so because they accommodated the presence of other forces within the traditional opposition. They headed directly to the street without regard for approvals or legal permits. They also include a mix of generations, led primarily by the 1970s generation whose political consciousness had taken shape in the 1960s (and who had therefore experienced the bitterness of the 1967 defeat and the massive changes experienced by Egypt in the following decade).

Another factor that has worked in their favor was the fact that they opened their doors wide to nearly all comers, without imposing bureaucratic constraints on membership. Later, they incorporated into their numbers a large percentage of individuals from the youth, economically disadvantaged and working class sectors. Also helpful has been their inclusion of the new middle class that grew up apart from the public sector and state institutions, and their tendency to employ modern technology to their advantage (thereby surmounting the limitations of the state media).

These movements have thus managed to achieve major breakthroughs: moving the stagnant water in Egyptian politics, breaking the political deadlock, spreading the culture of political protest among Egyptians, urging new categories to political participation, and pressuring traditional opposition groups to improve and evolve.

Impediments to Comprehensive Political Change

Despite their many successes, these movements have failed conspicuously in some areas. Firstly, although they have managed to build numerous alliances across a broad ideological spectrum, they have fallen short of cementing a strong bloc of opposition and thus these alliances have remained loose.

Secondly, their popular base has remained limited and has not been able to mobilize large segments of the public nor engage them in demonstrations and other forms of protest. Thirdly, the internal institutional organization of these movements has remained weak, and fourthly, they lack a comprehensive and coherent political project with which to replace the existing regime.

Fifthly, the movements in question have proved largely uninterested in the establishment of regional and international alliances, not seeking to extend cooperation beyond mutual sympathy with some groups in other countries. This reflects the fundamentally provincial nature of many of the movements, and their lack of will and capacity toward international collaboration.

The author refuses to blame the new political change movements for earlier problems beyond their control. Examples of such problems include the pressure they faced from governments, as well as the timeworn internal conflict among various manifestations of political opposition in the Arab world. Some reasons for this conflict are the rift between religious and secular elements, the state of political calcification suffered throughout the Arab world, the decline of international pressure since 2006, and a general scarcity of funding.

Perhaps the above-mentioned problems and their causes can help to explain the challenges that face Egypt in the wake of its revolution, especially the difficulty of achieving political consensus between different political currents. Another challenge is the absence of a broad popular base for political revolutionary action, despite the recent achievements of the revolutionary elements. Finally, there is the organizational weakness of political opposition groups, the lack of conviction in their political, theoretical and international discourse, and their apparent failure to provide integrated projects of political reform.

All this shows that Dr. Menisi's book indeed provides a solid, useful picture of Egypt in the time leading up to the revolution, providing a guide for readers to understand its primary indicators and define its roots. It also highlights some of the chronic obstacles facing change movements both in Egypt and the Arab world beyond. Building understanding and awareness of yesterday's challenges could be the first step to overcoming those of today.