Egypt’s revolutionary conundrum

Five years on, Egypt is in the throes of a radical social revolution but its political elite remain delusional.

Celebrations downtown off Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt (2011) [Getty]
Celebrations off Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo (2011) [Getty]

In January 2011, Egypt captivated the entire world but, more importantly, Egyptians surprised and mesmerised themselves.

If revolution means, as the word implies, sending the established order and accepted norms into a spin, then what occurred in those heady winter days in 2011 was a revolution with a capital R.

Many had believed that only the tyranny of death would manage to oust the ageing tyrant. Instead, millions of Egyptians taking to the streets gave Hosni Mubarak his marching orders.

Egyptians are docile and apathetic, was the received wisdom. But they shook off the chains of apparent lethargy to rise up, en masse, against the despotism of the dictator, the junta and the theocrats.

Egyptians need, neigh desire, the iron fist of a strongman. Although a surprising number of people lamented the downfall of Mubarak, the majority were jubilant and partied like there was a tomorrow when the news of his demise broke.

Five years on: After the Arab Spring

In addition, the crowds’ sustained and uncompromising demands for bread, freedom and social justice put pay to the lie that Egyptians do not desire nor understand democracy, even if some are reluctant or passionate supporters of military or Islamist dictatorship.

Fallen into a wormhole

Today, it is hard to believe that those momentous events occurred only five years ago. Like a 21st century Alice, Egyptians seem to have fallen into a wormhole in which time, space and history have been warped and speeded up.

In only five years, Egypt has gone through more changes in leadership than over the preceding six decades. The country has hurtled through revolution, counterrevolution, and anti-revolution, and its people have ridden the emotional rollercoaster that has taken them from the heights of elation to the depths of deflation.

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Though everything promised change, nothing seems to have changed. This has led to a sense of despondency and despair, with many signing off on the revolution’s death certificate or, worse, claiming that it was never born in the first place.

Though everything promised to change, nothing seems to have changed.


But is this disillusionment justified?

It is true that the existing order has proved remarkably adept at clinging on to power. First, the regime sacrificed its head to save its body. Then the military tried to rule directly and co-opt the revolutionaries. Failing this, it hid behind the democratic facade provided by a pliant Muslim Brotherhood.

When Mohamed Morsi got too big for his boots, he was unceremoniously evicted and the loyalist he appointed to run the armed forces, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, became Egypt’s newly minted military dictator.

The counterrevolution has been so apparently successful that it seems to have brought Egypt back to square one. However, appearances are deceptive.

The incremental and unprecedented use of force and coercion, not to mention efforts to frighten the population into submission, are signs of weakness, not of strength. It betrays just how desperate the regime has become after everything has failed to keep a rebellious population in check.

Graffiti on a wall off Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo (2011) [Getty]
Graffiti on a wall off Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo (2011) [Getty]

And even though Egypt’s jails are overflowing with prisoners of conscience, not to mention all the dead, other activists, critical journalists and outspoken citizens take their place, some many times over.

In the face of adversity

Ahmed Gamal Zyada is just one “typical” example of this courage in the face of adversity. A journalist who previously spent 500 days in prison, he was recently stabbed and left for dead in what his family allege was a political assassination attempt.

“I’m not going to lie, pretend that I’m a hero and say I don’t feel fear,” Zyada said in an interview after his release. “I am afraid, but I’m not going to be silent.”

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But it is not just revolutionaries who feel fear. Despite being the one with the guns, the soldiers, the police and the prison cells, the Sisi regime is the one that is acting terrified, especially so in the run-up to January 25.

The trouble with the revolution was that the euphoria it aroused raised too many high expectations.


This panic was amply demonstrated this month by what has been described as “the toughest security crackdown in Egypt’s history” which has included a spate of arrests, the random, arbitrary searching of thousands of downtown apartments.

The underlying reason for this fear are clear: while Egyptians have changed, their leaders have not, and they live in a delusion that the old ways can be restored through violence.

“A profound gulf now exists between a ruling class intent on governing as if nothing has changed and large swaths of a democratic citizenry for whom something fundamental has altered,” writes Jack Shenker, who covered the revolution for The Guardian, in The Egyptians, a new book which will be released soon.

In addition to the ferocity of the counterrevolution, the trouble with the revolution was that the euphoria it aroused raised too many high expectations. Problems that have accumulated over the six decades since the army took power take time to unravel.

The brutality of the modern Egyptian state over the past two centuries cannot be blunted immediately. The damage done by foreign control and meddling that has been Egypt’s lot for more than two millennia cannot be repaired in an instant.

A protester in Tahrir Square holds a photo showing President Hosni Mubarak's face crossed out (2011) [Getty]
A protester in Tahrir Square holds a photo showing President Hosni Mubarak’s face crossed out (2011) [Getty]


When the revolution first erupted, I argued that a political revolution would fail without an accompanying social (r)evolution, to dethrone the million “mini-Mubaraks“, weed out endemic corruption, promote equality and egalitarianism, create a meritocracy and more.

While the political revolution has stalled, the social and cultural one is in full swing. It has been spearheaded by workers demanding their rights, women struggling for equality, and the growing assertiveness of previously discreet minorities, such as atheists.

Young people have perhaps been the greatest agitators for change and have given their elders lessons in courage, determination and grit – schools have become breeding grounds for rebels.


Whether or not Egyptians heed the call of the shrunken ranks of activist to take to the streets once again on January 25, it does not mean they never will again. Egyptians have discovered their latent ability to move immobile mountains and have broken the fear barrier.

When they do eventually rise again, a deep social revolution may enable them to unleash their creativity to the maximum – perhaps even reinventing democracy to suit their needs.

“I am deeply convinced that the future is ours and that we are now witnessing the beginning of the end of this tyrannical state,” believes Khaled Fahmy, a history professor who has been chronicling the revolution.

Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian-Belgian journalist, writer and blogger. He is the author of Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. He blogs at

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.