Revolution or demonstration?

Revolution or demonstration?
In modern history, three events have marked Egypt's transition to the revolutionary age, and the vigour that gripped the country during the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak endures.
6 min read
23 Oct, 2014
Egypt's revolution sparked a wave of unrest [Getty]

I want to speak to you about 25th January, the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, when the people took to the streets with the simple slogan: "Bread, freedom and social justice."

To begin with, we must establish a conscious understanding of what took place, without resorting to contentious academic terms of whether the events of the past four years were revolutions, conspiracies or coups. We must also establish if international actors such as the US and the West, or regional actors such as Hizballah, Hamas or some Arab Gulf states, were somehow responsible for the grave developments to take place in Egypt since that day, or whether they merely played an assisting role.

Let us begin from the final scene, when the armed forces - represented by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) - believed that the country was in imminent danger, two and a half years after that 25 January 2011.

This fear emerged due to the results from the ballot boxes, which brought a Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, into power. More dangerous however, was the president's Islamist agenda, its goal to change "the regime" that had governed Egypt for 60 years.

Revolutionary times

Therefore, as the armed forces see themselves as the guardians of the nation, its regime and system, the group acted on popular demands for them to carry out their responsibilities. They took control of the government and mapped out a new vision for the country. A statement issued by the military council on 3 July 2013 detailed their plan, and given their power, they were able to achieve their objectives.

SCAF kicked off its plan by removing the elected president, detaining him on charges ranging from escaping jail to stealing livestock, in addition to the more punishable crimes of espionage and treason. They then scrutinised the leaders and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the president's party, and presented their own commander-in-chief as a presidential candidate, who won controversial elections after the constitution was amended and approved by a referendum.

In an attempt to cement their power, new laws were passed to make it illegal for any politician to remove or change the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. They also decided that Morsi and the Brotherhood should be considered enemies of the state, terrorists who should be fought and uprooted.

Lessons from history 

For Egypt to regain its former glory as an inspirational leader of the region, we must ask once again, what happened on 25 January 2011? Are current events the natural outcome of that day?

[SCAF] decided that Morsi and the Brotherhood should be considered enemies of the state, terrorists who should be fought and uprooted

To answer this we must turn our attention to three major events in Egypt's modern history, which have all been described as revolutions. The first took place at the end of the 19th Century, and was known as the Urabi Revolt. It started on 9 September 1881, when Colonel Ahmed Urabi, along with his fellow officers and soldiers in the army, marched into Abdeen Palace and demanded that the ruler of Egypt, Khedive Tewfik Pasha, revoke a decree that installed Circassian generals in top military positions, blocking the promotion of Egyptian non-commissioned officers. 

However, the Urabi Revolt, which started as a military protest, ended in chaos as the British intervened in Egypt and colonised the country.

Thirty-eight years later, on 9 March 1919, a second monumental event took place. Three Egyptian nationalists, Saad Zaghloul, Abd al-Aziz Fahmi and Ali Sharaawi, headed a delegation to meet the British High Commissioner to Egypt, Sir Reginald Wingate, to demand independence for the country from British rule.

The delegation also asked to be permitted to travel to London and put their demands before the British government. The British representatives refused both demands and Zaghloul and his companions were imprisoned and exiled to Malta, which sparked mass demonstrations, strikes and unrest. These events continued until the announcement on 28 February 1922, of the Unilateral Declaration of Egyptian Independence by the British government. We commonly call these events the 1919 Revolution.

The third and perhaps most dangerous event took place on 23 July 1952, when the Free Officers Movement led by Gamal Abdel Nasser took control of the Egyptian army command and issued Communiqué No 1. It stated that an incompetent and corrupt leader was governing the army, and that the Free Officers took it upon themselves to cleanse the military in accordance with the constitution.

Upon listening to the statement, people took to the streets to demonstrate their support for the Free Officers. These events developed into what we all know as the July 1952 Revolution.

Egyptians took to the streets on 25 January demanding something different, and it was apparent that their aim were to topple the regime

After a quick study of the main game changing events which shaped modern Egypt, we can return to the day of 25 January 2011.

There are many forces at work which want to create an impression that events on that day started out something like this: a series of demonstrations by Egyptian youth made demands on the government. The government understood their calls and were willing to act on them. They did in fact try to respond to the people's requests, however, dark forces represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies soon pounced on this popular movement.

Ongoing revolution

Thus, it can be reasoned that the events of 25 January were merely demonstrations.

However, times have changed and multiple takes are the work of the film industry. Khedive Tewfik's work in turning the initial Urabi Movement's successes into mere chaos, and the optimism of the July 1952 revolution that ended in the establishment of a totalitarian state, are unable to be recreated. The reason is that Egyptians took to the streets on 25 January demanding something different, and it was apparent that their aim was to topple the regime.

This clearly meant, and for the first time in the country's history, that Egyptians wanted a revolution and not simply a demonstration of anger and frustration.

A revolution is not a coup, it is part of a long, persistent struggle - which is not achieved in one knockout blow, as imagined by some. What happened on 25 January 2011 will never be wasted because it was born from the people's revolution. There is no doubt that the Egyptian revolution ebbs and flows, but it will continue to run its course until it prevails. 


Adel Soliman is a retired Egyptian brigadier general, writer and academic with a focus on strategic and military affairs.


This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.