Ten years later

Hussein Haridy
Wednesday 27 Jan 2021

The Arab Spring: Was it a revolution or a popular uprising? Was it a spontaneous movement of the people or a foreign-led conspiracy? Who were the instigators and who were the beneficiaries?

Three days ago, not only the Arab world but the world at large and more particularly the Western world observed the 10th anniversary of what has been called the Arab Spring.

So far, no consensus has been reached on the essence of the Arab Spring, and even the description itself has become highly controversial, especially in some Arab countries where, instead of moving forward on the road of liberty and democracy, the societies that witnessed the Arab Spring found themselves torn apart by civil war and strife, not to mention the spread of terrorism and authoritarianism. 

Was it a revolution or a popular uprising? Was it a spontaneous movement of the people or a foreign-led conspiracy? Who were the instigators and who were the beneficiaries? And who come out losers after a decade of profound transformation in the Arab world and within Arab societies including those that saw the fall of deeply entrenched regimes and their replacement with political systems obliged to prove that they would bring about the aims and ideals of those who took to the streets in January 2011 – dreaming, maybe prematurely, of establishing democratic systems accountable to the people and operating according to the consent of the governed – but how?

In the months leading up to 2011, I remember long discussions with people from all walks of life about the political stalemate and polarisation, economic dislocation and growing social disenchantment with the then status quo. One participant in these discussions was the relative of a very influential politician in the ruling party back then, the defunct National Democratic Party of the late president Hosni Mubarak. 

We had been pressing him to convey to the upper echelons of power that the overall situation in Egypt was worsening and that something should be done before it was too late. At the time, we were receiving alerts that there were calls for mass demonstrations across the country on 25 January, 2011, to express deep opposition to government policies and the idea of Mubarak’s son succeeding him as head of state.

The late president himself adamantly denied the rumour but the general consensus was that this scenario was being seriously considered and that the stage would be set for it to be carried out. No one in the country was ready to live out such destabilising scenario, save, of course, those who stood to benefit from close relations with the Mubarak family, especially a small coterie of businessmen-turned-politicians.

Our friend used to tell us that he was conveying our messages, and receiving assurances that the situation was more or less under control, and that the demonstrations called for on social media would not cause serious troubles. From their perspective, it would be a one-day event, then things would be back to normal.

We were so dissatisfied with that response that we interpreted it as a complete break with the political and social realities on the ground. 

Things came to a head with the results of the parliamentary elections in late 2010. The newly elected parliament did not include a single opposition figure from opposition parties. If the previous legislature from 2005 to 2010 comprised figures from the opposition in addition to 88 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, not as active members in what was a banned organisation but as “independents”, the newly-elected one was an act of political provocation that was a reflection of a deep gap between the government and the people.

Ironically, according to what we had learned from sources close to the Mubarak family at the time, the elections were celebrated as a political vindication of the policies of the government and the late president himself. In retrospect, that proved to be a very serious miscalculation and a dangerous misreading of the political situation in the country. If more seasoned and experienced politicians were close enough to Mubarak and had his ear, maybe the subsequent course of events in Egypt might have been circumvented.

This miscalculation and misreading rather led to unifying all opposition forces against the regime with no political or popular support of any sort left for the government. I am going to spare the readers the narration of the events that gripped Cairo and the large Egyptian cities from 25 January till 11 February, 2011, the day the late president announced that he would relinquish his position and hand over political power to the military.

25 January, 2011 will remain in the annals of Egyptian history both a source of hope and a cause of controversy. A hope that Egyptians, and particularly the young, are inspired by the ideals of good governance and the images of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. If there is a lesson to be learned from 2011 throughout the Arab world it is that the Arab countries still have to catch up with the post-Berlin Wall world.

It is cause of controversy because, despite the fact that the 2014 Constitution recognises 25 January as a “revolution”, officially speaking, the insinuation that has been gaining currency lately is that it was a far cry from being that. 

The young who had spearheaded 25 January do not regret their role in their revolution; what they regret is that they failed to promote leadership that could mobilise and inspire Egyptians back then. They belatedly recognise the disastrous failure that enabled the Muslim Brothers to seize a revolutionary moment and use it to their own advantage for two years that still mark the history of Egypt to this day and will probably haunt us for some years to come.

Whatever else is said of the Arab Spring across the Arab world, one thing is certain: the rendez-vous of Arab countries with good governance remains a distant goal. It is a must.

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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