Tahrir Square became the iconic epicentre for resistance, but now Egypt is once more mired in dictatorship

By Kit Roberts


IT WAS a moment that changed the world, the moment long-time Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted from office after eighteen days of protests and uprisings.

Many of the most iconic images of the Arab Spring came from Egypt, from the Tahrir Square protest that toppled Mubarak. 

The energy contained within Tahrir Square was the essence of the Arab Spring distilled into one moment where anger and frustration transformed into a real hope that the future could be better. For many now, the speed with which the hope dissolved is a grim reminder of the lasting failures of the Arab Spring, and how quickly the optimism and opportunity was snatched away.

Unlike neighbouring Libya, Egypt managed to achieve the toppling of Mubarak without a  military struggle. Instead protests, strikes, and civil disobedience were deployed en masse to unseat the incumbent dictator and begin seeding an optimistic new Egyptian democracy. 

Mubarak himself did not share the grisly fate of Colonel Gaddafi, instead being sentenced to life in prison in 2012. He was convicted again in a retrial in 2015, and then ultimately ultimately acquitted of conspiring to murder protestors in 2017 and released from prison. He died in Cairo in February 2020, aged 91. 

As Mubarak faded away, so too did the fledgling democracy that followed his deposition. Elections held in the wake of Mubarak’s removal form power resulted in a majority for the deeply socially conservative and divisive Muslim Brotherhood, led by Islamist Mohammad Morsi.

Morsi proved deeply unpopular, introducing measures in 2012 which effectively barred members of the judiciary from interfering with drafting a new constitution. The move proved hugely unpopular with the public, leading to accusations that Morsi was positioning himself as dictator, and sparking another wave of massive protests in 2012 and 2013, including a second occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo. 

The combination of these alarming measures and a growing distaste among some citizens of the aggressive reactionary policies Morsi championed created an appetite for his removal. In 2013 the army issued a 48 hour ultimatum to pursue the interests of the Egyptian people. This ultimately led to the deposition of Morsi from the presidency and the installation of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as president following another election.

In the minds of some however, the overturning of the election was the moment any hope of a truly democratic Egypt died. For all his unpopularity and unpleasant views, Morsi still had a democratic mandate to govern, and the overturning of that mandate all but destroyed the validity of any future mandates drawn solely from a popular vote. The stage was set for Sisi.

Sisi has seen conducted an all out assault on the democratic institutions of Egypt. Press freedom in Egypt is now more or less non-existent, with journalists, academics, and any dissenters arrested. Legal provisions such as haebus corpus are the stuff of pipe dreams, and there are substantiated accusations of torture taking place in Egyptian prisons. 

As for the people of Egypt, one former journalist now living in the UK described them as exhausted, and heartbroken. As much as they pine for a brighter, democratic Egypt, that is no longer possible for a very long time. They say simply that people “are no longer willing to fight the fight”. 

Elections are still held in Egypt, but the truth is that the popular vote no longer has any bearing on their outcome. There is no longer the will, and there is no longer the engagement. Those who dissent are either gone away to other countries or in prison, and those who are left behind have had enough of protest and dissent. 

Many are now firmly convinced that Sisi is worse than Mubarak, more aggressively repressing the country and maintaining a tighter leash on citizens than before. 

Egypt has historically occupied a huge place in the cultural and political identity of the Arab world. The centre of Gamal Nasser’s pan-Arabism in the 1950s and 60s, Egypt formed the heart of the United Arab Republic formed with Syria from 1958 to 1961. The Suez Crisis too, showed the world that Arab countries could win large political victories over Western nations. 

As such, the removal of Mubarak in 2011 represented more than the mere the toppling of one dictator. It was a new moment of rebirth and optimism in the spiritual home of pan-Arabism and secular, democratising politics. Unfortunately this only compounds the despair of its ultimate failure to deliver on the hopes it reignited. 


Featured Image: Ahmed abdallaa @WikimediaCommons

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