Arab revolutions through Egyptian eyes

Salma Shukrallah & Osman El Sharnoubi, Saturday 27 Aug 2011

Political players in Egypt from Liberals to Islamists to Leftists support popular rebellions to topple Mubarak-type dictators, but differ in their outlook on implications for a new Arab world

Arab flags in tahrir
People with raising Arab flags gather during a demonstration at Tahrir Square in Cairo, May 13, (Reuters).

Political transformation in Egypt helped to trigger uprisings in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. In turn the Arab world has pumped fresh blood back into Egypt’s political veins; activists and political groups are rallying support for political transformation elsewhere in the region where the dictators’ bullets are mowing down those committed to bringing down dictatorships. And while support for the drive to topple regimes is almost unanimous across the political spectrum, different positions have nonetheless formed on each case.


There is consensus in Egypt against Libya’s embattled leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Widely viewed by the public as a dangerous madman, Gaddafi’s four-decade reign, it is felt, must come to terms with its demise. It had initially seemed as if Gaddafi would follow in the footsteps of Mubarak and Ben Ali, but the picture changed when, following mass protests in Libya’s second city Benghazi, to the east, Gaddafi’s forces began to strike back. The situation quickly turned into a civil war between forces loyal to Gaddafi based in the capital Tripoli, to the west, and those who came to be known as the rebels or revolutionaries in the east.

Representing them is the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council (TNC), which declared itself the only legitimate body representing Libyans less than a month into the uprising. Complicating matters further, the UN soon adopted a resolution giving the US, Britain and France the mandate to impose a no-fly zone against Gaddafi, in an effort to prevent his planes from crushing the rebellion. The no fly-zone was later expanded so that NATO fighter jets could assist the rebels by targeting Gaddafi’s troops.

In a region that in some ways remains hostage to ideals of Arab nationalism and anti-imperialist rhetoric, the NATO intervention became a subject of contention among political forces in Egypt, the birthplace of Nasserist pan-Arabism. “There will be a price to pay and this price will be political as well as economic,” one independent Nasserist activist, Nada El-Kassas, declared: now that Gaddafi has fallen, Libya will have obligations to NATO. But the vice president of the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the Freedom and Justice Party, Essam El-Erian, played down such fears. El-Erian acknowledges reservations about foreign intervention, which he says the Brotherhood is against in principle, but he was more concerned about partitioning Libya into east and west. Since this has not happened, there is little cause for concern. But even El-Kassas, in her way, underplayed the threat: “I trust that the people who gave their lives defending Libya against Gaddafi will do the same against foreign intervention.”

For his part Emad Gad, a liberal analyst and member of the Social Democratic Party, dismissed such concerns entirely, pointing out that the initial no-fly zone imposed by the UN followed calls by the Arab League to the UN Security Council. “If it wasn’t for NATO’s intervention, Gaddafi would not have fallen,” Gad said as rebels swept through Tripoli and Gaddafi went into hiding. As for speculations about NATO’s intentions for Libya, Gad discounted them as conspiracy theories, pointing out that it is only because they have lived under autocratic nationalist regimes that Arabs might be taken by them.

Left-wing activist and member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party Hossam El-Hamalawy, by contrast, is certain the Libyan revolution would have continued without the help of NATO. “In all cases, the Libyans would have succeeded, even if it took more time,” he stated when asked about NATO fighters preventing Gaddafi’s forces from reaching Benghazi. “Every revolution takes its own course, and people are inevitably killed.”

Echoing this view, Karima El-Hefnawy, member of the Egyptian Socialist Party, complains that “Arabs were not taking a proper position on aiding the revolutionaries. If there was Arab support,” she said,  “the TNC would not have needed to resort to foreign aid, which immediately entails compromises.” Even though El-Hefnawy is understanding of the TNC’s motives, refusing to dub them “agents,” she is concerned about the extent to which NATO might exercise influence over the revolutionary council.

Yet since loyalties in Libya have been contested, a good example being that of the TNC’s Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who was Gaddafi’s justice minister for years, the representational status of the council presents another issue. A transitional body set up shortly after the uprising broke out, the council was not clearly democratically elected, but its role was not disputed by the revolutionaries. Wary of the TNC-Gaddafi connection, El-Hamalawy maintains that if Libyans decide to give it their support, he must recognise its legitimacy. Yet he hopes it will have no future ties with NATO. El-Erian has no qualms at all about the council, on the other hand: he feels it was propped up by the Libyan people to represent the revolution; unlike the Freedom and Justice Party, its sister institution, the MB has taken no position on the council because the MB is not a political entity in itself.

As Egyptian politicians witness the final gasps of the Gaddafi regime, El-Kassas agrees with El-Erian’s views on the TNC while Gad, having no objections to the TNC as yet, fears a de facto political Islam force will appear and hijack the revolution, such as what happened in Iran. Whether the real threat to post-revolution Libya comes from Islamists or Western interests, it has yet to be seen how events will unfold in this critical stage of the Libyan revolution.


By now fully identifying with the repression to which the Syrian people have been subject, Egyptians have rallied to the support of the Syrian revolution. Adopting the slogan “Your silence is killing us,” they have attempted to drive home the point that the Arab peoples cannot remain silent about the massacres committed by the Bashar Al-Assad regime.

Prior to the outbreak of the revolution, however, some Arab intellectuals saw the Syrian regime as an important supporter of resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine. In 2006, during Israel’s attack on Lebanon, a delegation of pro-resistance Egyptian activists and intellectuals visited Syria for negotiations with Bashar Al-Assad. But since the revolution broke out in 2011, many have shifted their stance. While some still fear that the fall of Syria's Baath regime will weaken resistance in the region, others believe such fear is used against the rightful demands of their revolutionaries. It has also been argued that the Syrian people are capable of bringing about a new democratic government that will support resistance.

El-Hefanawy says “I was part of a delegation that met with Bashar Al-Assad in 2006. We went to negotiate with him, for he represented a regime that supported the resistance (especially in Lebanon) but this time it is different. One cannot negotiate with a regime if it starts killing its own people.”

As the Syrian regime continues to speak of infiltration and foreign conspiracies to destabilise the Syrian state, some have expressed concern that Saudi Arabia and the 14 March alliance in Lebanon, known to be pro-Western and led by the Saudi-backed Saad El-Hariri, are secretly supporting Islamist factions in Syria. In turn, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah appeared on television expressing full support for Bashar Al-Assad.

El-Hamalawy, for his part, has no patience for this line of reasoning. Factions of the Lebanese left and Arab nationalists, he argues, have often made the mistake of depending on a dictatorial regime for supporting resistance. However, he insists that “dictatorial regimes from Nasser to Bashar did not serve the Palestinian cause well.” He described regimes like that of Al-Assad’s as hypocritical in their defence of the cause – they would be the first to sell out if that served their interests.

The social activist added that such support is no excuse for supporting the Syrian regime, anyway: “Nasrallah has shot himself in the foot for sure,” losing credibility by backing up the Damascus regime, claims Hamalawy. And El-Kassas agrees: “It is unfortunate that Nassrallah announced support for Bashar. However, Hezbollah did not choose its allies; it was in a position where it had to accept the support offered. Still, I have warned friends who are members of Hezbollah and asked them to rethink their position because in this situation they are condemning a people’s movement.” Kassas believes that any government replacing the regime in Syria will be pro-resistance, and will probably still back Hezbollah, because the Syrian people are, in general, pan-Arab and nationalist.

Hamalawy, too stated that “the future of the resistance depends on the Syrian people, who are anti-Zionist in their majority.” However, both Hefnawy and Kassas confirm that attempts at intervention are made in Syria by countries that have an interest in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the anti-Hezbollah Lebanese parties; both feel such attempts will be insignificant in the face of the will of the Syrian people.

Amid fears that Sunni Islamic organisations in Syria, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are being used to serve the agendas of those foreign powers and mobilised against the Shia Hezbollah, deploying sectarian division, Kassas insists that the Syrian movement is not dominated by any specific group even if some have spoken in its name. She adds that any party or organisation that does not respond to the movement will cease to exercise influence in Syria.

Gad, on the other hand, feels the resistance itself is an illusion and that Hezbollah is a “terrorist organisation that raises arms against its own people.” However, he also shares the concern that the MB are hijacking the Syrian revolution, but fully supports the revolution. Gad believes “the leader who turns his tanks against his own people does not deserve to rule.”

The Egyptian MB have released several statements during Syria’s uprising condemning Al-Assad’s massacres. However, in one of their statements released in April, the Brotherhood stated that Al-Assad’s regime played a positive role in supporting resistance movements against Israel, and rejected any form of regional or international interference in Syria that would serve Zionist interests.

While some say the position of the MB in Egypt, who support resistance movements including Hezbollah, does not represent the MB in Syria, El-Erian insisted that the two groups share the same outlook and standpoint. No operational coordination is taking place as yet, but there are ongoing talks.


While some believe that the uprising in Bahrain is a people’s revolution, albeit an unfinished one, others see it as a sectarian movement. El-Erian says the MB does not consider it a revolution “because it is one colour.” But Hefnawy insists that what is happening in “Bahrain is a people’s revolution. The regime tries to colour it with sectarianism and claim that the revolution is a Shia threat backed by Iran, but that is the way of all oppressive regimes. Since the Shia are a majority ruled by a Sunni minority, such claims serve a specific interest. The colonial powers, such as the US, also want to see us in terms of sects, just as they did in Lebanon. They want to maintain this picture because it keeps us divided and because of their fear of Iran. However, in the eyes of the Arab people, Bahrain’s is a people’s revolution.”

Kassas agrees: “If it was a sectarian revolution its demands would have been different. They would have demanded, for example, Shia representation in parliament or government, but, like all other Arab revolutions, they demanded an end to corruption, constitutional changes and equality.” Hamalawy adds that he is troubled by the MB’s refusal to support protests in Bahrain, referring to Sheikh Yousef El-Qaradawi, chairman of the International Union for Muslim Scholars and prominent Sunni cleric known to have much influence on the MB’s intellectual leadership, who described the Bahraini protests as a Shia uprising against Sunni rulers.

Yet Gad shares the MB’s view that the Bahrain protests are a Shia uprising. However, he does not see it as an uprising against the Sunnis, but rather an uprising for greater rights. He believes the Shia have to play the “democracy card” to gain their rights.  

While Hamalawy believes that what happened in Bahrain was a people’s movement and not a sectarian one, he does not consider it a revolution yet, but an uprising that was aborted. But, he adds, “this is not the end of the story.” Hefnawy believes “Bahrain’s situation is different to that of other Arab countries because it is part of the Gulf and the Gulf countries will not allow any change to undermine their kingdoms or their wealth. This is why Saudi Arabia interfered with so much force to oppress the revolution.”

Short link: