Eight years on, Egyptians see little change

Egypt’s slow move from revolutionary chaos to post-revolutionary stability has not been painless.
Sunday 27/01/2019
People walk in front of pictures of Tahrir Square to commemorate those killed during the Mohamed Mahmoud Street battles in 2011. (Reuters)
Distant memory? People walk in front of pictures of Tahrir Square to commemorate those killed during the Mohamed Mahmoud Street battles in 2011. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Egypt marked the anniversary of the January 25, 2011, revolution, which ended the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, with little fanfare.

A police presence was noticeable on major squares and hundreds of rapid intervention units were on alert to stave off possible demonstrations, including by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood but there was little unrest January 25, with most Egyptians treating it as any other Friday.

“Revolution? You know what? I swear I forgot that there was a revolution in this country,” said Tamer Hassan, a civil servant in his early 40s. “I think there are more important things to think about now.”

Apathy about the anniversary of the revolution, analysts said, was likely due to the changes that Egypt has undergone in the intervening years, making the events of January 25, 2011, seem far removed from present concerns.

“None of the objectives of the ‘Arab spring’ revolutions have been fulfilled, not only Egypt but in all Arab countries where these revolutions happened,” Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, said. “Freedoms are shrinking, thousands of people are in jail and economic conditions keep worsening.”

When it erupted in 2011, the revolution in Egypt was an expression of anger at police brutality, lack of freedoms and commodity price hikes. Social media activists who led the protest selected January 25, Egypt’s National Police Day, for demonstrations.

However, with police using force to crush the demonstrations and as fatalities mounted, the protesters increased their demands from political reform to regime change. Unrest spread across the country and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation 18 days later.

In the ensuing eight years, Egypt has been ruled by a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Islamist President Muhammad Morsi, interim President Adly Mansour and current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The revolution and its chaotic aftermath loom large despite public apathy. The turmoil and the lack of an effective government for 18 months after the revolution caused the Egyptian economy to suffer. Tourism declined and has yet to return to pre-revolution levels. Foreign investment also was down, draining Egypt’s foreign currency reserves.

Morsi was ousted in a military-backed popular uprising one year into his administration following public outcry over his policies and particularly his failure to address Egypt’s economic decline.

“Morsi was an utter economic failure,” said Gehad Auda, a political science professor at Helwan University. “He was only preoccupied with empowering the Islamists and ensuring their continuity in power.”

Foreign currency reserves at the central bank were less than $13 billion by the time Morsi’s presidency ended, down from $36 billion when Mubarak stepped down.

Elections in 2014 put Sisi in power with a mandate of returning security and economic stability. Five years later — Sisi was re-elected in 2018 — Egypt is in a much stronger position, with foreign investment and foreign tourists both returning, albeit still at pre-revolution levels.

Egypt’s foreign reserves stand at $42 billion and Sisi has spearheaded dozens of national megaprojects to improve Egypt’s infrastructure, including the construction of a new administrative capital on the outskirts of Cairo.

“Huge work was done in the last five years to save the economy and rescue our country’s future,” Auda said. “Egypt is returning to its position of regional leadership as the economy picks up and stability returns.”

Sisi has led a campaign to return security to the country following Morsi’s ouster, which saw the rise of Islamist extremist terrorism across the country. Hundreds of policemen and army troops have been killed in the fight against terrorist groups, particularly Sinai Province, an Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula.

“All this is coming to an end now and our country is a lot more secure than it was eight years ago,” said retired police General Fouad Allam. “This security and the political stability that is happening are necessary for the economy to take off.”

Egypt’s slow move from revolutionary chaos to post-revolutionary stability has not been painless. The economic reforms have caused intense suffering among Egypt’s poor. The reform package included liberalisation of the exchange rate of the Egyptian pound, the elimination of subsidies that many Egyptians’ relied on and the introduction of new taxes.

Subsequent price hikes caused many Egyptians to look back wistfully to the Mubarak era when a kilogram of red meat sold for 60 Egyptian pounds ($3.40). The equivalent now costs 140 pounds ($7.90).

The poverty rate appears to be rising, with many in Egypt’s lower and middle classes complaining that it has become increasingly hard to put food on the table, even with efforts by Sisi’s administration to increase special welfare programmes.

Cairo has faced criticism over political freedoms and free speech, with thousands of political opponents in jail, international rights groups said. The political opposition remains weak at a time when Sisi’s supporters openly talk about seeking to extend his time in office beyond current constitutional limits.

“These are the same conditions that caused the people to rise up against Mubarak in 2011 and even worse,” Sadek warned. “Our country is turning full circle, in fact.”