Crown Center for Middle East Studies

The Egyptian Revolution, 10 Years On

A Conversation with Youssef El Chazli, Hannah Elsisi, and Neil Ketchley

Organized and edited by David Siddhartha Patel, Associate Director for Research

January 28, 2021

On January 25, 2011, Egyptians began a series of mass protests that, eighteen days later, brought down President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled for almost thirty years. The subsequent transition period was contentious and led to the election of Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood associate, as president. Amid widespread protests, the Egyptian military removed Morsi in June 2013; General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi assumed power, where he remains today.

In this Crown Conversation, we asked three scholars of Egypt—Youssef El Chazli, junior research fellow at the Crown Center; Hannah Elsisi, research fellow at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge; and Neil Ketchley, associate professor at the University of Oslo—to reflect on the tenth anniversary of the January 25 Revolution and its impact on Egypt and Egyptians.

Looking back, what did we not fully understand about Egypt in the late Mubarak era that made the January 25 Revolution possible? What do we still not understand about the uprising or its aftermath?

Neil Ketchley:
I want to highlight two underappreciated factors that contributed to Mubarak’s ousting. The first relates to the failure by Egypt’s security apparatus to anticipate the scale and nature of the opposition to Mubarak’s calcified regime in the run-up to January 25, 2011. Looking back on the first protest marches, the lack of police preparedness is striking. Much has been written about the creativity and determination of the small bands of roving protestors in Cairo and elsewhere, who outmaneuvered police and Central Security Forces (CSF) to reach symbolic sites in urban centers. Less remarked upon is that Egypt’s Interior Ministry seems to have significantly underestimated the number of protestors taking to the streets that day. Summing crowd sizes reported in Egyptian newspapers suggests that on January 25 around 35,000 protestors mobilized across 15 of Egypt’s 27 governorates, with the largest crowds in the capital. In the run-up to the protests, Interior Ministry officials announced that 4,000 police officers were being deployed to secure Cairo. It was subsequently reported in local newspapers that 30,000 police officers and CSF troops had been deployed nationwide to contain the protests. With the police outnumbered, protesters were able to outfox and overwhelm security forces at key moments. To put these figures into perspective, in the weeks leading up to the June 30, 2013 protests that led to the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, Interior Ministry officials claimed to have deployed between 300,000 and 400,000 police officers and CSF troops countrywide. Of course, as we now know, this massive security presence was designed to stop anti-Morsi protests from having any revolutionary potential. Counterfactually, it seems reasonable to think that the first anti-Mubarak protests would have ended very differently had protestors been confronted with similar levels of policing.

This leads to the second, related point: the interplay between early street-level protest and episodes of anti-police violence. By January 28, 2011, the Mubarak regime was fully alert to the threat of mass protest; there were massive police deployments on main roads and major thoroughfares in towns and cities across the country. Given the regime’s preparedness, how did protestors manage to inflict a second defeat on Mubarak’s Interior Ministry? One answer lies in a wave of anti-police violence that occurred at the same time as street-level protests. In Egypt, policing is coordinated at the district level: Each district has a police station that also functions as a temporary jail. The first attack on a police station occurred in the Arbayeen district in Suez on January 26 after police killed several protestors. These attacks escalated in the early evening of January 28, when local residents attacked between a quarter and a third of all police stations in the country, burning many to the ground. State security offices were also attacked, along with other key nodes in the Interior Ministry’s coercive infrastructure. This violence was especially concentrated in Cairo and Alexandria. We know from police radio transcripts that this violence forced Interior Ministry officials to redeploy police and CSF troops away from frontline policing duties to protect police stations. This led to the most serious violence of the mobilization: Over 300 Egyptians were killed during attacks on police stations—more than three times as many as were killed protesting in squares. With Egypt’s police in disarray, protestors found themselves free to occupy urban centers and main roads in governorates across the country, setting the stage for 16 days of energetic mass protest that ultimately led to Mubarak’s downfall. In districts where police stations were not attacked, forces controlled by the Interior Ministry continued to repress protest for the duration of the mobilization.

A police-centric analysis of the January 25 Revolution also sheds light on the trajectory of protest in the aftermath of Mubarak’s ousting. In the months and years after Mubarak left office, protestors made several attempts to recreate the conditions of January 25-28, 2011. In this, the initial creativity of Egyptian protestors was breathtaking, but this creativity also had its limits. By the end of 2013, anti-regime contention had fallen into a familiar pattern: Marchers left mosques on Fridays to reinforce occupations established in focal squares and roads. This repertoire allowed protest organizers to solve coordination problems in the absence of large organizations. But the repetitive use of these tactics, which worked by concentrating protestors in space and time, also diminished their impact. Security forces, who had days to prepare for the weekly Friday protest, were never again caught unprepared. Relatedly, the importance of anti-police violence only became apparent in the months and years after Mubarak left office. This was, in part, because protestors and activists had an incentive to stress the peaceful nature of the mobilization, while emphasizing the brutal and repressive character of Egypt’s security apparatus. Crucially, these instances of violence were never repeated in later protest episodes, leaving security forces free to focus on the threat posed by protestors. The importance of these attacks to Mubarak’s overthrow was not lost on the authorities, however. If major protests looked to be in the offing, armed soldiers, tanks, and armored personnel carriers would be sent to reinforce police stations in a bid to avoid any repeat of the events of late January 2011.

Hannah Elsisi: There is an extensive literature now that seeks to explain the conditions that made the January 25 Revolution possible. In the medium-to-long-term category, they include: movements for judiciary independence beginning in 2000; the fraudulent elections of 2010 and the looming prospect of a hereditary presidency; the brutal murder of Khaled Said in Alexandria in 2010 and the proliferation of police brutality, especially towards male youth; a decade of steady, organized labor mobilization; the mode of “united front” coalitional mobilization, like that of the April 6 Movement; the long-term decline of the developmental-welfare state and the associated social and economic devastation of the middle class and a majority of Egyptians.  And, of course, the model set by Tunisians in overthrowing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali plays a role. Though the particular mix and emphasis on structure versus agency varies, some combination of these factors are usually used to explain the revolution’s “inevitability.”

But revolutions are highly contingent events: So much has to go wrong (or “right”), and in a very particular manner, for an already improbable time sequence of events to result in a revolution. Neil’s account of the fateful decision to deploy a mere 4,000 police officers on January 25 is one such example. So, while these explanations of the revolution’s causes are important, they tend to conflate conditions of possibility with inevitability. Namely, they tend to obfuscate the fact that political and economic deterioration did not necessarily lead to a revolution.

Having a sense of the revolution’s contingency can be really helpful, I think, for trying to grapple with Egypt’s trajectory since 2013. For example, we might be tempted to think of the tenfold increase in the number of troops in the Egyptian Central Security Forces between January 2011 and June 2013 as evidence that any future rebellion will be that much harder to mount. Yet, the very fact of the revolution having happened is evidence that both activist and state learning are neither even nor linear. And both occur, increasingly, in a decidedly international sphere. So, viewing the January 25 Revolution as an open process rather than a fixed event should enable us to see that its future is no less contingent than its advent.

I am also hesitant to pronounce the revolution’s death via reference to an already foreclosed and nationally discreet aftermath. For example, I do think that economic liberalization, including large-scale privatization, in the late Mubarak era (1996-2010) stands as the overarching condition in which the Egyptian revolution was incubated. But it is also the backdrop against which grassroots mobilization and labor power have steadily declined globally in the last decade. So, while most analyses set neoliberalism as the long-term context of the revolution, the revolution’s aftermath should also be viewed within that same frame. I think that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s policies can be appraised not just in terms of their counter-revolutionary intention, but also as part of this global economic project whose effects (e.g., populism, xenophobia and racism, social bifurcation, deep and growing inequalities in wealth and opportunity) are increasingly shared internationally. Ultimately, I believe the study of a national revolution and counter-revolution is better served through a transnational lens.

Youssef El Chazli: I am always struck by the recurrence of certain types of explanations for revolutionary episodes. Having lived through the Egyptian uprising and studied it, I am fascinated by the obvious explanations deployed when revolts erupted in Lebanon, Algeria, and Sudan. Or even, more recently, how commentators tried to make sense of what happened at the United States Capitol on January 6. There is a sort of amnesia regarding what social sciences tell us about such events: It is like each one brings with it a radical novelty.

Revolutions have an interesting characteristic: They seem improbable, if not impossible, before they take place. They are inconceivable for both observers and participants for a variety of reasons. But once they happen, they seem inexorable, unavoidable. They seem to be the natural evolution of an already launched process. Revolutions could not not have happened. We tend to inventory all the (legitimate) reasons people had to be unhappy and angry and to mobilize.

This perspective necessitates grand narratives to match it, as if grand events need to have appropriately grand causes. And, thus, little place is left for smaller, less visible moments of individual and collective transformations. In my research, I try to understand how seemingly small, marginal interactions—such as between protestors and police officers in an alleyway, or between a party cadre and rank-and-file activists in a meeting—can have large-scale, disproportionate consequences. In other words, this means looking at the internal dynamic of revolutions—what happens during an uprising, the interactions between a variety of interdependent players, and how all of that might affect the outcome—instead of only looking at the grand “causes” or justifications people give for protesting.

This perspective has an important implication, notably that we should not mistake calm for stability. When I am asked to summarize my book in one sentence, I sometimes half-jokingly reply, “Authoritarian regimes are stable, until they aren’t.” But one might expand even further on that: The seeming robustness of institutions, reassuring us against threats of institutional breakdown, is not a given. And their erosion can occur quickly. Long-standing political systems can remain stable for decades. They can also come crumbling down in days. The Arab uprisings have shown us that political systems are prone to erosion, a characteristic that we should not believe is unique in any way to the so-called Global South.

Surveys suggest Egyptians today starkly disagree on the January 25 Revolution and its legacy. Did the past decade intensify old cleavages in Egyptian political life or create new ones?

Youssef El Chazli:
I think that this past decade has been a watershed for politics in the region, similar to the post-independence moment in several Arab countries. It really has been a transformative event for populations. One of the big everyday legacies of the January 25 Revolution is its function as a historical marker separating a before and an after. I was recently in a new suburb of Alexandria with two Egyptians who were trying to figure out when a building was constructed. Although neither of them participated in the revolution—one viewed it slightly favorably and the other opposed it—the two discussed the building as being from either “before or after the revolution.” This anecdote merely suggests how, although there are debates surrounding the legacy, the event has fused with the lives of Egyptians, and its impact is unlikely to fade.

In a sense, the January 2011 uprising opened up a new era of politics. Obviously, the event did not erase the conflicts and cleavages that existed before. But my feeling is that it has created a new system, which makes it hard for analysts to understand what goes on in Egypt today—whether in high government positions, the bureaucracy, public political space (or what little remains of it), parliament, mobilizations, protests, and even youth cultural practices. It is particularly hard to try and understand Egypt while relying on knowledge developed before 2011. More than ever, analysts of Egypt need to do fieldwork, conduct surveys, and (re)visit archives to make sense of developments.

That being said, larger trends might have evolved and transformed slightly, but they are still very much in place. State-led developmentalism and militarism, the effects of the international economic order, the realpolitik of the region (especially in the context of conflicts in nearby countries)—these kinds of long-standing global trends continue. But for anyone who observes Egypt up close today, especially the state and its transformations, this is not exactly the same state. The old regime has not simply reinvented itself and come back. I think this decade has witnessed a real re-founding moment of the Egyptian state, bureaucracy, and economic elite and its relationship to the government and society.

Neil Ketchley: In the months following Mubarak’s ousting, surveys found overwhelming support for the January 25 Revolution and its goals. However, by mid-2012, 48% of Egyptians who voted in the second round of the presidential elections cast their ballot for the old regime candidate, Ahmad Shafiq, who promised an elliptical return to Mubarak-style authoritarianism. Of course, some portion of these voters were always opposed to the revolution. But what about the rest? One partial answer lies in understanding the bases of popular support for the mobilization. For all the heartwarming scenes of mass “People power” in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, it bears remembering that only a small percentage of Egyptians ever took to the streets. The Arab Barometer survey finds that eight percent of the adult population protested during those eighteen days. Summing crowd participation sizes for protests reported in Egyptian newspapers suggests that this is likely an overestimate. Protest participation tailed off after Mubarak was ousted: Arab Barometer data suggests that only three percent of Egyptians joined a protest in the months following February 11, 2011. Egypt is not strange or abnormal in this regard; protest participation is a rare event in most contexts. Egypt’s revolutionaries were fully cognizant of this: Non-participants were said to belong to the “party of the sofa,” who followed events from the comfort of their living rooms.

This is worth keeping in mind when evaluating popular attitudes to the mobilization. As Hannah sets out below, Egyptians who joined anti-Mubarak protests often speak of a liminal moment, of entering liberated spaces that promised a radically different political, social, and economic future. Reading the interview testimony of protestors, one cannot help but share in a feeling of revolutionary communitas. Egyptians who chose to stay at home did not have this formative experience and, so, inevitably held a weaker commitment to the protests and their goals. And while participation in the January 25 Revolution was a minority phenomenon, all Egyptians ultimately felt the effects of the mobilization and the fallout that followed Mubarak’s ousting. The January 25 Revolution had a profound effect on the Egyptian economy. For example, the tourism industry, a major source of employment and revenue, was badly affected: Hotel occupancy rates from 2011 to 2013 were half of what they were in the last four years of the Mubarak era. Economic hardship was compounded by deliberate police inaction following the bottom-up defeat of the Interior Ministry at the hands of anti-Mubarak protestors, leading to an increase in crime across the country. Against this backdrop, an emerging body of research suggests that these negative externalities turned at least some Egyptians against the revolution. Even in the heady days of mid-2011, a period characterized by optimism and revolutionary potential, successive surveys found that overwhelming majorities of Egyptians held negative views of ongoing protest. This negative perception was encouraged by the Egyptian military, who launched ad campaigns calling on Egyptians to demobilize. And it seems that the negative externalities of the revolution and its aftermath had political consequences. Egyptians living in districts that saw increases in crime post-February 2011 were more likely to vote for Shafiq, as were Egyptians living in districts that saw more protest. Analysis of survey data also suggests that those who lived in districts where protestors launched particularly disruptive kinds of protest were more likely to associate democracy with socioeconomic threat and instability. Again, this is not necessarily surprising: Revolutionary mobilizations inevitably inflict a cost on society. In Egypt, however, these costs have been very effectively seized upon by reactionary elements, who have instrumentalized nostalgia for the relative stability of the pre-revolutionary period for political gain.

Hannah Elsisi: I agree with Youssef that the January 25 Revolution has come to represent a seismic event, against which Egyptians organize recent history and memory into a before and an after. Although the revolution undoubtedly divided—and continues to divide—Egyptian society along the lines of “for or against,” I believe there is also an overall agreement on the revolution’s legacy: Everything is much worse than it was before. For those who were for the revolution, especially those who participated in protests, it is still largely seen as a gamble that was well worth the risk and an experience that many would not trade for the world. I have heard very few participants express that they “wouldn’t do it all over again.” At the same time, most of those who participated in the revolution are today wont to lament the drastic deterioration of Egyptians’ fortunes with the sardonic quip: “We are sorry, Mr. President” (Ihna Asfin ya Rayyis), referring to a Facebook group set up by Mubarak’s supporters early in 2011. Marrying this conviction and commitment to the revolution with the daily lived experience of its grim consequences is evidence of the pedagogical power of revolutions and the difficulty of dislodging the modes of thought cultivated through revolutionary participation.

For those who were against the uprising, many continue to mumble their apologies to the “real” Rayyis, even as they express outward support for the incumbent with varying degrees of fervor. Their support is more or less correlated with the contraction or expansion by Sisi’s government of the social, economic, and political privileges that they enjoyed before. For middle- and high-ranking members of the military, many of whom have seen their fortunes and political power expand beyond their wildest imaginations, we can surmise that few are sorry for anything that transpired over the last decade. It is easy to underestimate just how far this changes the composition of Egypt’s economic elite and bureaucracy and, in time, will change the state’s shape and policies. As Neil points out below, we are already observing a different state form as the regime eschews ruling through a dominant party, akin to the Mubarak-era National Democratic Party (NDP). Less obvious perhaps is that the children of Egypt’s middle- and NDP-affiliated ruling classes are among these mumblers, as they have been stripped of various social and economic privileges: from sartorial choices and social meeting places to monopolies on film and entertainment industries, exclusive schools, and gated communities. Their parents can be heard mumbling too, as they have lost one mega-project tender after another to the military and its affiliate companies. Less acknowledged, because it is politically inexpedient, is that President el-Sisi has garnered significant support among those sections of Egypt’s poor, who may have been agnostic or opposed to the revolution—or even excluded from its premise and promise—but who have benefitted from an expansion in their access to subsidized food stuffs and health care via the new electronic social security cards managed by the Ministry of Military Production. It is not unreasonable to think that the shift to vernacular in presidential speeches is about creating new publics. So there are certainly new cleavages in the making.

But what of old cleavages? The revolution undoubtedly exacerbated, and the agents of counterrevolution willfully inflated, an intractable divide between the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) on the one hand and all other stripes of opposition—whether Salafist or leftist—on the other. This echoed an earlier strategy that was crucial to the success of the Free Officer’s power grab in 1952-1954. Divides within the opposition were continuously stoked and stroked to facilitate and enlarge the repressive capacities of both Nasser’s and Sadat’s governments. However, there is a real possibility that the short-lived tenure of the MB’s government and the brutal massacre with which it was brought to an end may precipitate a serious reckoning across the self-stylized revolutionary camp and put the final nail in the coffin that has bifurcated oppositional politics along lines of “the MB versus the rest.”

How does Egypt today under el-Sisi compare to Egypt under Mubarak?

Neil Ketchley:
The government of President el-Sisi has clearly diverged from the Mubarak template of rule in several important ways. The enhanced role of the military in the economy and the reluctance to build a political wing to the regime comparable to the National Democratic Party are but two obvious examples. Keeping with the theme of protest, another difference is in the level and type of repression meted out by Sisi’s security apparatus. During the first days of the January 25 Revolution, police forces primarily relied on tear gas and batons, rather than live ammunition and birdshot. Following the 2013 removal of President Morsi in a coup, protestors taking to the streets have had to reckon with armed security forces who opened fire with impunity. The Interior Ministry has become particularly proficient at cracking down on the modalities of protest pioneered in early 2011. Police tactics were honed in the year following the coup, when the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Morsi supporters launched thousands of street protests. The apogee of this repression was the Rabaa Massacre on August 14, 2013, when over 1,000 protestors occupying a square in northwest Cairo were killed in just a few hours. That violent episode forms part of a pattern in which security forces have used any means necessary to deny space and visibility to anti-regime protestors.

There has also been an unprecedented wave of arrests. To give a sense of the scale of the crackdown that has followed the 2013 coup, a forthcoming version of the WikiThawra dataset contains information for over 125,000 political arrests in Egypt over the past seven years. This is likely an underestimate. Those detained often recount instances of torture. Female protestors and activists have also been targeted with calibrated sexual violence. Activists speaking about the Mubarak period often refer to attacks on women as being a “red line” that the regime was reluctant to cross, although this is not to say that sexual violence did not occur. In the post-coup period, however, sexual assault by security forces became commonplace. A large number of the victims were pro-Morsi supporters, often female university students detained for joining anti-coup protests. Building on what Hannah notes above, as with much of the harshest repression under the current Egyptian government, the political affiliations of these protestors and the cleavages that have come to pattern Egyptian politics has meant that those victims have received little support or attention from human rights groups.

What imprint did participation in mass protests leave on participants’ lives?

Hannah Elsisi:
For many who took part, it is quite difficult to talk about the January 25 Revolution and its legacy. Certainly, that is the case for me. Without the professional or environmental impulse to confront Egypt’s recent history—at least not outside the context of intimate exchanges with an old friend or counsellor—it has become increasingly difficult to access those years and catalogue them. I think this is one of the most significant and widespread effects on participants’ personal lives. It is not a function of their participation but rather of the continuous cannibalization and erasure by the state of any evidence that a revolution happened at all. Cultural production—films, exhibitions, art, TV soap operas, literature, poetry, historical accounts and archives—is typically how people come together to talk about collective experiences of joy and trauma, of loss and failure, and of shared aspirations for the future. But this production (and its attendant spaces) has been greatly proscribed, diminished, and at times disfigured by censorship and the threat or fact of incarceration. It is to the credit of those—perhaps more prominent in exile, but more numerous in Egypt—who are still managing to think creatively through these years.

At the individual level, there have been significant ruptures in patriarchal gender mores and norms in cities beyond the capital and in social milieus beyond politicized middle-class leftists and liberals. Having lived through the liminal euphoria of a revolutionary situation, more participants have taken a starkly different approach to their bodies, their intimate and familial relationships, their living and working arrangements, sex and sexuality than—in my view—at any other moment in modern Egyptian history. Politically, this has translated into an Egyptian “Me Too” movement that has gone from strength to strength and shown no sign of abating for almost a year now. It has built upon the experiences and organizational skills of the revolution’s anti-harassment groups and operated under threat of death and violence at the hands of perpetrators and with the knowledge that the state will incarcerate and torture women who file official complaints (and the men who accompany them to the station). This is a movement that is in many ways more radical and progressive in its demands, forms of homosocial solidarity, and cross-class mode of organization than its Global North counterparts. The violence meted out against queer and non-normative intimacy under the rubric of “anti-debauchery” and prostitution laws is also being challenged more than ever before and by a much broader coalition of activists, partially because cross-denominational and non-marital intimacy has been criminalized via similar laws and discourses. So I think the revolution will come to be viewed as a watershed moment for new emergent standards of gender difference, conformity, and intelligibility—in the same way, say, as National Liberation Front resistance or Kemalism constituted watersheds in Algerian and Turkish gender history, respectively. Still, it is important to recognize that incarceration and exile have been the most common and the most impactful consequences of participation in mass protests for many Egyptians and their loved ones. 

Youssef El Chazli: I want to echo what Hannah mentioned regarding a difficulty in reflecting on these anniversaries. For someone who has not only studied the January 25 Revolution but, more importantly, also participated in it and saw it become part of his life, there is always a harshness in being faced with the dominant “success/failure” trope that compares Tunisia’s “successful” transition to Egypt’s autocratic turn or wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. And this harshness is, I think, a first indicator of that imprint left on participants’ lives. It is not just something one can talk about, from a distance, professionally.

But anniversaries do tend to produce evaluative moments, a balance sheet of sorts. In fast-paced and fluid contexts like revolutionary situations, they represent opportunities to stop and ponder “what went wrong?” This tends to be expressed in very schematic and normative terms, successes being measured by clear political changes (e.g., presidents and governments changing, the organization of elections, enacting new laws and new public policies). If those can be found, even if no structural change happens, then one might speak of a successful revolution.

I personally try to look for the less visible, long-term, and unintended consequences of participation. Using Egypt’s 2011 revolution as a case study, I have argued that participation in mass protests has myriad consequences. In closed political systems, the mere act of protesting constitutes a break with everyday life, experienced as intense emotional moments that often shape people’s attitudes and life trajectories. Though some participants in Egypt’s uprising tried to leave that period behind—and most retreated, strictly speaking, from political activities—the main discourses and issues invoked in the mass protests remained relevant and continue to impact people’s lives. The revolutionary experience led many to question what was normal and possible in their other life spheres, including friendship circles, family, and the workplace. Involvement often had life-altering effects on participants’ private lives, notably in issues related to gender, parenting, and professional careers. These effects are easy to overlook, but they can increase the likelihood of long-term social, political, and cultural change.

The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the authors exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.