Marking the 10-year anniversary of Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests earlier this month, Western commentators have widely lamented the general failure of the Arab Spring to produce lasting democracy across the Middle East.
In Egypt itself, a brief moment of hope gave way to more political turmoil and, eventually, a reversion to authoritarian rule. Today, under the militarist President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, activists, journalists and other critics are regularly persecuted—with the authorities even persecuting the families of those who fled his heavy-handed regime.
It represents the further deterioration of a situation that former ICWA fellow Jonathan Guyer—who was based in Cairo from 2015-2017—described as already tenuous during his fellowship. “There was a similar level of repression, but people were enduring,” he said. During his time in Egypt, Guyer researched political cartoons and other forms of cultural expression in the Arabic world.
But there’s widespread misunderstanding about the nature of the country’s authoritarian regime today, he adds.
On one hand, Sisi’s brutal state reflects the stubborn resilience of autocracy throughout the Middle East. On the other, it’s a “porous, brittle regime” built on patronage within a relatively closed inner circle—not particularly promising for its long-term stability.
“The fact that they have to be this repressive shows that they’re not actually in such good standing,” says Guyer, now the managing editor of The American Prospect. “It’s not that the military won; it’s that the military is actually so afraid of political voices or parties that they’e depended on a huge level of repression.”
That sentiment is echoed by other experts who have criticized the idea in some Western circles that authoritarian stability is something of an acceptable inevitability. In fact, they say, there’s a fundamental failure to grasp such regimes’ inherent fragility.
That’s not to say there’s a bright future for the democratically minded in Egypt.
Those outspoken public intellectuals and other thought leaders who could afford to leave have already done so, Guyer says, while only a single major independent media outlet, Mada Masr, remains in operation. Worse still, he adds, there’s “fatigue” among policymakers in Washington, enabling the United Arab Emirates, a longtime Egypt ally, to wield more clout.
Still, there are voices of hope amid the overwhelming sense of deflation.
Guyer points to an Egyptian writer he befriended during his fellowship who, in a recent essay for The American Prospect, described the difficulty of life both under the longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak and after his fall. Ahmed Neji, now a fellow at the Las Vegas-based Black Mountain Institute following his flight to the United States, recalls watching Black Lives Matter protesters achieve a series of “small victories” their Egyptian counterparts never quite managed following Mubarak’s ouster.
Despite their divergent outcomes, he says both movements showcase the historical sway of people power.
“[T]he point is we have to believe that the world we inhabit is something we made, collectively, and therefore that we could also have made differently,” Neji writes. “That was the gift of the January 25, 2011, revolution.”
Photo: Tahrir Square protests continue against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, November 30, 2012 (Y. Weeks, VOA)