The Egyptian revolution: What went wrong?

For change to happen, the lessons of the past five years should be kept in mind for the future rounds.

Egypt protestor and flag
A protester holds up an Egyptian flag during clashes in Cairo January 28, 2011, [Reuters]

“These kids [protesters] should be arrested in a matter of 24 hours. And we can get them by getting their mothers, their sisters, and their wives. Whoever tells me ‘human rights’, I will hit with my shoes … my words are clear. We should get their mothers, their fathers and their wives” said the head of the human rights committee in the newly “elected” Egyptian parliament, the former judge Mortada Mansour. This was a few weeks ago.

His words were already policies.

Five years ago, the brutality of the security services sparked a challenge to the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak: an uprising whose slogans were “bread, freedom, dignity, and justice”.

Today’s political facts of life in Egypt could not be further removed from these slogans: well over 40,000 political prisoners, more than 1,250 forced disappearance in 2015 alone, hundreds of alleged extrajudicial killings (mainly in Sinai), and multiple mass killings of protesters in the aftermath the July 2013’s brutal coup.

So, what went wrong?

Enters the SCAF

Perhaps Egypt’s unbalanced civil-military relations come at the top of the “wrongs” list. In the words of Carnegie scholar Yezid Sayigh, Egypt’s “second republic” can only be established after the “officer’s republic” is completely extricated and dismantled.

Between February 2011 and July 2013, this has not only failed to materialise, but has ended up reinforcing the military establishment’s economic and political dominance.

Religion and identity politics have unnecessarily fuelled the political polarisation between an Islamist majority that kept on winning elections held between March 2011 and December 2012, and a non-Islamist minority.


The January 2011 uprising led to a military coup against Mubarak’s dictatorship and a takeover by an unconstitutional military entity: the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF. Since then, the junta became the most powerful political and economic actor in the country, even compared with the presidential institution, the general intelligence apparatus, the state security apparatus, Mubarak’s crony businessmen and all the political parties and groups put together.

Mubarak and the SCAF had similar views on democracy in Egypt. But the uprising and the resulting removal of the former by the latter created unprecedented freedoms as well as free and fair elections.

The main strategic blunder of the pro-change forces – whether reformists or revolutionaries – was failing to protect these achievements and then advancing further to balance civil-military relations.

The failure of the political forces to agree on a non-violent conflict-resolution mechanism has led to extreme political polarisation between pro-change and pro-status-quo forces.

This has resulted in an increased reliance on the wealthy and powerful armed institutions as an “arbiter” and a “saviour”. Therefore, in public, political figures would make calls to reform the security sector, to implement democratic control over the armed forces , and to end police and military brutality.

Yet in private (and sometimes publicly), the very same political figures would praise security forces whenever they cracked down on their political rivals or dissolved democratic institutions which did not benefit these figures.

Fragile democratic institutions

This brings us to the short-lived democratic institutions between 2011 and 2013. The political forces did not prioritise the empowerment of these institutions.

On the one end, the losers in the electoral rounds rushed to undemocratic alternatives to be in power, including appointments by the military, and various versions of spoiler tactics.

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The winners failed miserably to translate the revolutionary street demands of eradicating torture, ending impunity, transparency and social justice, into policies and legislative procedures. This was mainly due to limited knowledge of running the state apparatus, a lack of creativity and experience, and ideological polarisation based on the use and abuse of religion in politics.

Religion and politics

Religion and identity politics have unnecessarily fuelled the political polarisation between an Islamist majority that kept on winning elections held between March 2011 and December 2012, and a non-Islamist minority that had the prospect of winning elections in the near future, had democratisation continued.

The rift in the 2012 constitutional assembly was the highlight of that polarisation. Article 219 – a brainchild of the Salafi members of the parliament who mainly come from the Nour Party – stated that the principles of Islamic law include “its comprehensive evidence, its jurisprudential and fundamental bases, and its recognised sources in Sunni sects.”

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For most of Egypt’s seculars, this language was both incomprehensible and quite scary. Article 44 prohibited insults or “implied” insults of prophets and messengers of God. For many Egyptian seculars, this was a direct restriction on freedom of speech.

Moreover, many Islamists and religious institutions cheered such wordings as “victories”. Indeed, it was an outrage for the liberals.

Regional roles

The impact of regional and international sponsors on that period of democratisation was critical. The support for democratisation in Egypt (especially democratic control over the armed forces) by Western democracies paled in comparison to the support of some autocracies for reviving dictatorships.

Several regional Arab actors did not perceive any meaningful democratisation process as beneficial to their interests. Rather, they viewed these prospects as threats to their regimes’ security and stability.


As a result, all of the status-quo forces in the Arab-majority uprising countries had wealthy and aggressive regional backers. Western democracies and regional pro-democracy states were hesitant to commit to, or to assist in, a time-consuming, resource-draining, no-holds-barred conflict.

This does not mean that it is the end of democracy in Egypt. In a country of more than 90 million where more than 70 percent of the population are under the age of 35, change is more likely than continuity of corruption and repression.

But for change to happen, the aforementioned lessons should be kept in mind for the future rounds.

Omar Ashour is Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

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