Ten years on, did Egypt's January 25 revolution fail?

6 min read
25 January, 2021
Editor's note: This article is part of our special series on the Arab Spring 10th anniversary. The rest of the series can be accessed on this regularly updated portal.

The 25th of January 2011 was an historic day for millions of Egyptians. What started as mass demonstrations against corruption and police brutality turned into a full-fledged 18-day popular revolution that toppled a 30-year-old autocracy.

But after one decade, and with a sharp return to authoritarianism following a short-lived democratic experiment, how can the impact of January 25 be assessed? 

After long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, activists and the diverse political forces on the ground had no leader ready to unite them and rule the country. 

Nor were they organised enough to maintain and build on their victory, which paved the way for the military to take control of Egypt and deprive the popular movement of its short-term gains

It seemed logical then that the Muslim Brotherhood would win presidential elections in 2012, being the only organised group with resources and manpower inside and outside the country at that time. 

But the confrontations and disagreements the group had with other political fronts, as well as the army, ultimately led to their downfall, as the first democratically-elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted from power in a military coup in 2013.

  With a sharp return to authoritarianism following a short-lived democratic experiment, how can the impact of January 25 be assessed?  

Since seizing power, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has had conflicting stances towards the revolution, but the regime has fed on the uprising's losses. On some occasions he has glorified January 25 as a "great revolution", on others he has vilified it, describing it in 2018 as the "wrong treatment for a mistaken diagnosis." 

While initially appropriating symbols of the uprising, Sisi, his supporters and pro-regime media have settled on a narrative of destabilisation, blaming the revolution for economic hardship. 

Read more: Biden and Sisi: A favourite dictator no more?  

Seemingly further from the aspirations of the revolution than ever before, will the demand for "bread, freedom and social justice" ever be realised? 

Said Sadek, professor of political sociology at Nile University, believes that one decade is too short a period to determine whether the uprising failed or succeeded. 

"Revolutions rarely take over countries or rule themselves. They usually take a longer time to achieve their goals. For instance, the French revolution in 1798 did not [realise] freedom…and women were allowed to vote only in 1945," Sadek argues.

"Women in the United States realised the right to vote in 1920, while blacks were partially liberated in 1863. It took more than 150 years to get [former US president Barack] Obama to be in the White House. I believe that gradual accumulative victories are still on the table," he told The New Arab

Activist and human rights defender Sherif Azer, who was a prominent voice in Egypt's revolution, agrees to some extent with Sadek.

  Revolutions rarely take over countries or rule themselves. They usually take a longer time to achieve their goals  

"I believe the uprising wasn't a failure even though the current conditions are worse than before 2011, especially with regards to human rights. This is normal as dictatorial, repressive regimes attempt to protect themselves, fearing that another uprising might erupt, which makes them commit violations and react aggressively to any political endeavours or attempts to revolt," Azer told The New Arab.

"It is true that the uprising didn't rule the country…but this was not primarily its purpose when it broke out," Azer argued. "The uprising was not an organised movement affiliated with any entity or leadership. It was a spontaneous initiative triggered by people's rage. It is true protesters knew what they didn't want; but they didn't know what they wanted".

Will Egyptians rise again?

In recent years, the regime has intensified the crackdown on dissidents. Many believe that the suppression lived through during the reign of Sisi is far worse than any time under Mubarak. 

Tens of thousands of activists, members of opposition groups, lawyers, doctors and journalists are currently behind bars, some for just expressing their views, others in self-imposed exile outside the country, while dozens have been sentenced to death or already executed. 

The state has tightened its grip on privately-owned media outlets, which now act like brainwashing machines in the hands of the security agencies. The remaining free voices have been either blocked or persecuted. Over 500 websites of local and international media outlets and human rights groups have been blocked, whereas economic conditions have deteriorated leading to more poverty and anger among the poor.  

It seems that Sisi wanted to avoid Mubarak's mistake – fearing that treading lightly with social media activists, opposition groups and journalists would eventually lead to his ouster. As a result, he has ruled the country with an iron fist, leaving no space for freedom of thought and expression or a free media.

"The regime sees Mubarak as going easy with the opposition which led to a revolution and his fall at the end. Sisi's reaction to this was to persecute his opponents, which is nothing but a repetition of Mubarak's gravest fault," Azer said. 

  I have hopes that there will be another uprising but it will take more time and will be slower in action than the previous one  

"A successful regime is one that promotes good governance, rule of law and democracy. We witnessed throughout history dictatorships that fell. Sisi neither learned from the Egyptian experience nor those of other countries," he added. 

A compelling question now is whether repressive conditions in the country could lay the groundwork for a new popular revolt against the regime, especially since the enaction of the notorious anti-protest law designed to silence any possible attempts at mass demonstrations.

Read more: Is the Arab Spring still relevant a decade later?  

Sadek believes there is light at the end of the dark tunnel, though. "The anti-protest law doesn't prevent people from revolting. Mubarak passed similar laws backed with bullets. If people want to take to the streets, they will," Sadek reflected. "They just need to be organised and to grasp the ups and downs that took place in 2011."

"I believe change will occur when people's awareness is further raised. I have hopes that there will be another uprising but it will take more time and will be slower in action than the previous one," Azher said.  

"People have become more mature politically at a time when the regime remains out of touch as usual. But in a nutshell, in 2021, Egyptians never stopped revolting online on a daily basis against the government's policies and political games via social media".

Horriya Marzouk is a pseudonym. The author resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create a security or freedom of movement issue

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