‘Spring’ and Counterrevolution in Egypt: Four years of reflections

Middle East
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The renowned international-law specialist Richard Falk is the author of Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring, a collection of blog posts he wrote, 2011-2014, about all the Middle East except Palestine and Israel. (Those latter blog posts were collected in the recent volume Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope.) Chaos and Counterrevolution is forthcoming June 9 from Just World Books of Charlottesville, Va. This text is adapted from the introduction to the chapter on Egypt.

Prof. Falk will be launching the new book with a worldwide conference-call discussion with Phyllis Bennis, hosted by JWB publisher Helena Cobban, to be held at 11:30 EST on June 9. Details and pre-registration are here.

I had the opportunity to visit Egypt shortly after the dramatic Tahrir Square uprising in early 2011 that caused the downfall of the authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for thirty years. I visited twice more, at eight-month intervals, during 2012. It was evident, as I talked with a wide range of Egyptians from many sectors of society, that an economic and political downward spiral was taking place before my eyes. This process was accelerating, leading the lofty expectations, hopes, and dreams so prevalent in the period immediately following the overthrow of Mubarak to disappear. What remained was a toxic atmosphere of enmity, distrust, tension, and confrontation.

Richard Falk (Photo: Just World Books)

Richard Falk (Photo: Just World Books)

Above all, it became evident that the unexpected electoral and popular strength of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) was unwelcome among large segments of Egyptian public opinion, especially in Cairo. This reaction was reinforced by the morning-after realization among the poor and urban business and tourist sectors that, despite their original excitement about the uprising, it was not bringing about any material benefits. Instead, most Egyptians faced a deteriorating standard of living. The economy was stagnating, the old oligarchs were still in control, and tourists were staying away from the country because of its perceived unrest. These tendencies seemed further strengthened by the opposition and by the intense concerns of the Gulf monarchies and Israel about the prospect that popular elections would produce an Islam-oriented government. Bottom-up politics, especially those with an Islamic edge, are anathema to the Gulf monarchs, who fear that any formation of political Islam in the greater Middle East whose strength rests on popular support and a democratic mandate could threaten the stability of their top-down, Islam-oriented structure of governance and privilege.

This national and regional dynamic culminated in the victory of Mohamed Morsi, the default candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a runoff election for the Egyptian presidency in June of 2012. The Armed Forces reluctantly certified the outcome after tense days of suspense. What set off alarm bells in my head at the time was the closeness of the vote (51.7 percent to 48.3 percent), considering that Morsi’s runoff opponent was Ahmed Shafik, an overt product of the Mubarak era whose campaign promised to restore the old order, openly rejecting the vision of a new Egypt that had animated the spirit of Tahrir Square. It was evident that apprehension about a Brotherhood presidency had persuaded many supporters of the overthrow of Mubarak to vote for Shafik as the lesser evil.

As my blog posts on Egypt increasingly reflected, I came to believe that Morsi was given a mission impossible. His success as a leader depended on a cooperative public, an obedient judiciary, and a supportive international political environment. None of these conditions existed. At the same time, I had expected Morsi and the Brotherhood to respond more skillfully to this admittedly difficult situation, moving cautiously on such agenda items as drafting a constitution or implementing Islam-oriented social policies and doing a better job of coopting the more liberal elements in the opposition. I also hoped that this elected leadership would create more public understanding of the difficulties of the transition period, including Washington’s ambivalence and Tel Aviv’s outright hostility. I was suspicious about what to expect from the armed forces, but I shared the common Egyptian perception that the armed forces and the Brotherhood had worked out a bargain of mutual forbearance. This seems to have been true in the early months of the Morsi presidency, but as public unhappiness with the political and economic status quo grew month by month in 2012 and became a strong national movement in the beginning of 2013, the leadership of the Egyptian armed forces clearly began to side with the street demonstrations against the government.

Chaos and Counterrevolution cover image

Chaos and Counterrevolution cover image

During my last visit to Cairo, in early December 2012, the handwriting was clearly on the wall. Morsi’s rule was increasingly challenged by more and more organized opposition forces, bolstered by strong support from the Coptic minority. In retrospect, it was a tragic error for the MB to withdraw its original pledge in 2011 not to compete for some of the seats in the Egyptian Parliament or put forward a candidate for the presidency. If it had held back, allowing someone from the old Cairo secular establishment to lead the country during the transition period, it would have almost certainly have avoided the bloody counterrevolutionary campaign designed to criminalize its leaders and destroy its organized presence. The crackdown started in mid-2013 and continues to the present, spreading beyond the Brotherhood to all social forces that dare to challenge the Sisi leadership in any way.

Of course, it is always somewhat problematic to assess tactics after the fact, especially as other considerations likely influenced the MB to seek as much political power as the Egyptian public would confer via the five competitive elections in 2011 and 2012, including the fear that its organizational strength and grassroots popularity would not last. It was understandable to believe that after enduring decades of repression, this was the Brotherhood’s moment and if it was allowed to pass, another chance to govern might never return. Its leaders might have sincerely felt that passivity at such a moment, when the people supported their political aspirations and outlook, would have been interpreted by many as a betrayal of public sentiment damaging to their reputation.

What remains obscure and highly contested is the nature of the MB as a political actor: whether it was as moderate and accommodationist as it claimed or as extremist as its critics contend; whether its heavy-handed, exclusionary, and sectarian style of governance produced the coup that brought General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power, or this merely provided a pretext for a power play. Several features of the situation are not in doubt:

  • that the MB was politically inexperienced and could not fulfill the expectations of those who supported Mubarak’s overthrow, especially those who hoped for improvements in their material situation and a quick revival of the Egyptian economy;
  • that the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), were deeply threatened by the popularity of the MB; that the liberal, anti-Mubarak secular forces that had originally supported the overthrow had seriously underestimated the MB’s level of populist strength and, when it became evident, switched sides and were joined by the leadership of the Egyptian armed forces, Copts, the mainstream media, and most of the business community;
  • that this anti-Morsi coalition acted to create a crisis of legitimacy in the months leading up to the July 3, 2013, coup, including manipulating fuel and food prices and supplies to convince the Egyptian public that the Morsi government was leading the country to collapse; and
  • that the 2011 upheaval had left the Mubarak bureaucracy in place, including the judiciary and intelligence service, which meant that the Egyptian public sector remained overwhelmingly committed to restoring secular authoritarian governance and hence to obstructing Morsi’s attempt to govern.

After the Sisi coup, the Gulf monarchies immediately bestowed large infusions of cash upon the new leadership, and the fuel and food shortages immediately disappeared. It seems there was a genuine populist turn toward the armed forces as the failures of MB governance had generated widespread disillusionment. In this atmosphere there emerged a broadly shared sense among Egyptians that they must choose between a military authoritarian order and an Islamically administered, repressive chaos. In effect, it seemed that the only choices were rule by the military or by the MB. The folk wisdom of the Arab world came to the surface during this anti-Morsi movement in the form of a widely quoted proverb: “The people prefer a hundred years of tyranny to a single year of chaos.” It seems also that most of the region was willing to support the new Sisi leadership for strategic reasons, as was the United States, despite Sisi’s ruthless moves against the constitutional order, mass atrocities against Brotherhood followers and leaders, and punitive moves against political activists who took to the streets to oppose this restoration of authoritarianism. Part of fuel for the anti-Morsi bonfire came from the stalled economy, for which the MB was held responsible, although it is doubtful whether any leadership could have done much better.

The Egyptian experience epitomizes the difficulties of achieving a smooth transition from authoritarian forms of government to inclusive constitutional democracy, as accentuated by an economic situation stressed by mass unemployment, corruption, and severe inequalities. The intense polarization in Egypt, which was reinforced by the anxieties of a vulnerable and influential Coptic minority, suggest two complementary conclusions: that the MB and Islam-oriented political parties enjoyed sufficient grassroots support to win the first series of free elections decisively and that, at the same time, such an outcome proved unacceptable to those Egyptians who feared and loathed the prospect of a religiously oriented leadership, perhaps more so because it enjoyed electoral approval. Egypt proved a battleground between secularism and political Islam in which democracy was the loser. If this overall interpretation is generally accurate, it raises doubts as to whether democratization is a viable option not only for Egypt but for many countries in the region. Only Turkey and Tunisia seem so far to be navigating the precarious path of combining political stability, credible economic performance, and some endorsement of Islamic values (within an avowed secular and pluralist constitutional framework) with a functioning, although blemished, democratic system of government.

The Egyptian developments are now being assessed in light of the emergence of ISIS as the primary threat to regional order and Western interests and values. In such a context, so long as the government in Cairo can maintain domestic order, few questions will be asked about encroachments on human rights and abandonment of democratizing progress. ISIS also has fanned the flames of Islamophobia in the West more than any development since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and giving rise to dangerous contentions that the West is at war with Islam which, if not counteracted, could become self-fulfilling.

At the time of high hopes in 2011, many argued that what had taken place was irreversible, that the long-oppressed Arab masses had broken the chains of fear once and for all, and that “a new subjectivity” was coming into being among the people of the greater Middle East. It is too soon to tell whether this was wishful thinking. It may overlook the degree to which the purveyors of authoritarianism have also learned from their failures and, given the chance, can instill politically paralyzing fear through even greater reliance on state terror. The West took several centuries to establish reasonably reliable institutions of accountable government during periods of normalcy, although it was a slow process taking centuries, including several terrible regressions. The European uprising of 1848 has been compared to the Arab Spring, and its counterrevolutionary sequels seem to parallel what has happened in Egypt in recent years. Yet this was not the end of the story; democracies did, in the end, emerge in Europe, although slowly.

The achievements of democratic governance in Europe and North America continue to be periodically tarnished during times of economic and political crisis, as reactions to the 9/11 attacks in the United States illustrate. These secular democracies also proved vulnerable to the rise of fascism, showing that its institutions were catastrophically reversible given certain severe domestic challenges. Each historical situation is unique, so we must wait and see whether there will be further reactions to Egypt’s currently disappointing rollback of the Arab Spring. What we can say is that Egypt, more than any other country in the Arab world, is a political weathervane whose behavior is regionally influential beyond its borders, for better and for worse.

About Richard Falk

Richard Falk is a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University. He is the author or co-author of 20 books and the editor or co-editor of another 20 volumes. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on "the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967."

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6 Responses

  1. Marshall
    June 3, 2015, 12:52 pm

    It is rather offensive to say that the Muslim Brotherhood ought to have sat down and shut up and let someone from the Cairene secular establishment run Egypt during the transition. This blames the victim, which, despite winning the presidency, the MB was. These mysterious and vanishing shortages were the work of old-regime elements looking to sabotage the new, aided by omission if not commission in that the US did not transfer our allegiance and foreign aid to the democratically elected legitimate government of Egypt, probably at the behest of Israel.

    The “secular elite” that you refer to, supporters of the Tahrir uprising but increasingly opposed to Morsi and thus favorable to counter-revolution, really have a lot to answer for as well. They didn’t like that in post-Mubarak Egypt, the only political group with popular support was the very one that everyone in the establishment had been persecuting for years. It was they who made a tactical and strategic blunder by not trying to make the best of things in the new politics, e.g. by forming alliances of convenience to thwart the MB in parliament. That would have meant coming to grips with the fact that their countrymen do not want to be ruled by them. Instead, the judiciary just dissolved parliament by fiat, which only served to locate all democratic accountability in the presidency, which weakened it in a context in which the core question “should Egypt be a democracy?” is not a matter of consensus.

    And, I fear, it will be returned to them many times over should democracy ever re-appear in Egypt, just as the secular elite who once ran Israel and Turkey are now politically irrelevant after decades of marginalizing the religious dupes in the countryside.

  2. Keith
    June 3, 2015, 6:12 pm

    RICHARD FALK- “This process was accelerating, leading the lofty expectations, hopes, and dreams so prevalent in the period immediately following the overthrow of Mubarak to disappear.”

    Those lofty expectations and hopes were totally unrealistic. As I indicated at the time, Egypt needed to import food which it could only pay for with either borrowed IMF money or money from a Gulf monarchy. In effect, Egypt was dependent upon outside forces for its survival, hence, its options were limited in the extreme. To make matters worse, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were stupid, allowing themselves to be held accountable for a situation beyond their ability to control. As a consequence, Egypt has resumed its role as an imperial vassal state, the Egyptian people in worse shape than before the vaunted Arab Spring. Additionally, the Arab Spring was used to justify the imperial intervention in Libya and continuing destabilization of targeted countries in the Middle East such Syria.

  3. just
    June 4, 2015, 11:50 am

    Mr. Falk, I very much appreciate your incisive analysis as presented here. It’s the best I’ve read thus far. Of particular significance to me was what you wrote here:

    “I also hoped that this elected leadership would create more public understanding of the difficulties of the transition period, including Washington’s ambivalence and Tel Aviv’s outright hostility.”


    “These tendencies seemed further strengthened by the opposition and by the intense concerns of the Gulf monarchies and Israel about the prospect that popular elections would produce an Islam-oriented government. Bottom-up politics, especially those with an Islamic edge, are anathema to the Gulf monarchs, who fear that any formation of political Islam in the greater Middle East whose strength rests on popular support and a democratic mandate could threaten the stability of their top-down, Islam-oriented structure of governance and privilege.”

    Thank you for putting pen to paper on this. My profound disappointment at what you describe as “Washington’s ambivalence”
    runs deep. So much for ‘spreading democracy’, much less supporting it. It’s ‘nice’ to find the alliance of the US, the Gulf States, and Israel in print.

    Washington’s seeming embrace of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi disturbs me, to put it lightly.

  4. gamal
    June 7, 2015, 11:47 pm

    Sisi says something so stupid the whole nation has a facepalm moment. Apparently he was stuck in a lift with Merkel for an hour, do the Germans install Egyptian made machinery?

    His days are numbered, even the Arabians are courting alternatives, well Shafik
    is sulking somewhere in the gulf, the head Oligarch the Christian Sawaris hates him due to a tax demand, Omar Kassem explains at


    the Idiot speaks, in a ” fuck this shit” stylee,

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