What went wrong in Egypt?

For a revolution to succeed, it takes more than elections, and more than popular support, for a break with the past.

Mohammed Morsi for gfx
To many voters, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi represents a break with the former regime [EPA]

Cairo, Egypt – Egypt is holding presidential elections in amid a constitutional, political and economic mess.

Once elected, it is not clear who will swear in the new president, or what authority the new leader will have – these powers are yet to be defined in the new permanent constitution. Many are asking what happened to the promise of change.

It is complicated, to say the least. There is no simple answer as to how or why, after a breath-taking revolution, Egypt is stuck, once again polarised between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

And today, Egyptians find themselves obliged to choose between a new version of the old regime and what many fear to be the coming of Islamist rule.

Indeed, speaking to people here, one gets the impression that many Egyptians are voting not for a preferred candidate but against the other.

In other words, many of those who will put either Mohamed Morsi or Ahmed Shafiq on top are doing so not out of conviction in their vision or agenda. Many Morsi voters want to ensure that the old regime doesn’t come back with a vengeance, and many Shafiq voters want to prevent the Islamists from taking over the state.

More than a few revolutionaries blame others for the country’s predicament. In reality, the revolution wasn’t simply “stolen”, it was mostly surrendered.

A mixture of youthful naivete and Islamist overreach allowed the old regime to recover its force, unify its assets and move centre-stage once again.

Just as the revolution imploded, the old regime consolidated.

Competition and convergence

The revolution was totally united against dictatorship and in favour of freedom and social justice.

But as soon as it succeeded in ousting Hosni Mubarak and his inner circle in spring 2011, there emerged contradictory interpretations as to what the revolution’s slogans meant or entailed.

Short-sighted, the revolutionaries soon split as they rushed to compete in general elections without finishing what they started, the most important element of which was agreeing a new constitution.

The challenge for the revolution hasn’t been to change Mubarak but to change the regime. Or, as I put it then: the central question facing Egypt is not who will replace Mubarak but what will replace his regime.

Be that as it may, what started as a unified revolution soon imploded and splintered into Islamists, nationalists, liberals and leftists and more opportunists jostled for influence.

As the revolutionaries and their allies bickered, bragged and drifted, the two pillars of the old regime – divided by the ousting of Mubarak – the military and the old political establishment – began to recover, converge and consolidate their efforts once again.

 Former Brotherhood official
‘undecided’ in Egyptian poll

The so-called “deep state” that comprises the institutions, elites, and businesses that profited from the Mubarak administration began to recover their common voice and influence during the military-managed transitional state.

Islamists’ takeover of more than two-thirds of the parliament gave the military and the old bureaucracy the needed scare to unite their forces against the revolution. And once again, the youth found themselves alienated and isolated.

The military and the old bureaucracy deployed all their assets, including those in big business, the judiciary, and security forces to undermine the revolution and undo much of what has transpired since spring 2011, including dissolving the elected parliament and reinstating emergency-like laws that allow for extraordinary arrests and imprisonment of activists, as witnessed in the first day of voting, against supporters of the April 6 movement.

Indeed, much of the political and electoral process and all the regulations imposed this year have been managed by SCAF and forces from the old regime, whether in the interior ministry, the security forces or the judiciary. 

Revolutionaries who hoped they could create revolutionary change by playing by the rule of the regime and within the old system have since been “lost in transition”.


There’s nothing unexpected in what the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is doing. Anyone who thought the military would just roll over and return to the barracks is dangerously naive.

As I wrote at the beginning of the revolution, much of the adulation for the generals was either misplaced or exaggerated. The brass saw the writing on the wall, understood change was coming to Egypt, and moved to get rid of Mubarak in order to safeguard their own influence.

The generals saw an opportunity in removing an ailing dictator to renew and reinforce their role in the post-Mubarak political vacuum. They have too much at stake in the state, its institution and economy to step aside. That’s their world and what they know best in the absence of war.

What is utterly incomprehensible is why a successful revolution didn’t finish the job by creating the necessary circumstances for a second republic. That meant no less than creating a unified Supreme Council of the Revolutionary Forces (SCRF) to manage the political transition in the country with the support of the public squares. Then, the revolution would have enjoyed wide popular domestic support and unprecedented international sympathy.

Has the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood been too ambitious and opportunistic? Have the youth been too naive to let go of their accomplishments and abandon the squares too early? Perhaps. What is clear is that decades of dictatorship and one-party rule don’t just evaporate because the powers that be lost the first or second round to the people they long treated unworthy of government.

For a revolution to succeed, it takes more than wide popular support for a break with the past. It also takes more than elections. It requires translating the control of the streets and public squares into people’s control over the pillars of the state.

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and the author of The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, now available in bookstores.

Follow him on Twitter: @marwanbishara