The Story of the Egyptian Revolution

by Samuel Tadros

Two weeks ago, Egypt was a stable authoritarian regime, prospects of change were minimal and every expert in Washington would have bet on the endurance of its regime. Today, Egypt is in a state of chaos. The regime, even after using its mightiest sword, is not able to control the country and the streets of Egypt are in a state of utter lawlessness. As the world stands in awe, confusion, and worry at the unfolding events, perhaps it is important to write the evolving story that is happening in Egypt before any reflections can be made on it.

by Samuel Tadros

Two weeks ago, Egypt was a stable authoritarian regime, prospects of change were minimal and every expert in Washington would have bet on the endurance of its regime. Today, Egypt is in a state of chaos. The regime, even after using its mightiest sword, is not able to control the country and the streets of Egypt are in a state of utter lawlessness. As the world stands in awe, confusion, and worry at the unfolding events, perhaps it is important to write the evolving story that is happening in Egypt before any reflections can be made on it.

Contrary to pundits, it turns out that the Egyptian regime was neither stable nor secure. The lack of stability is not a reflection of its weakness or lack of a resolve to oppress. It is a reflection of its inherent contradiction to the natural desire of men to enjoy their basic freedoms. Egyptians might not know what democracy actually means, but that does not make the concept any less desirable. Perhaps it is precisely its vagueness and abstraction that makes the concept all the more desirable.

Social Media Critical to Demonstrators

For two weeks, calls were made using new social media tools for a mass demonstration on the 25th of January. Observers dismissed those calls as virtual activism that would not result in anything. Other calls in the past had resulted in very small public support and the demonstrations were limited to the familiar faces of political activists numbering in the hundreds. As the day progressed, the observers seemed to be correct in their skepticism. While the demonstrations were certainly larger than previous ones, numbering perhaps 15,000 in Cairo, they were nothing worrisome for the regime. They were certainly much smaller than the ones in 2003 against the Iraq War. The security forces were largely tolerant and when they decided to empty Tahrir Square, where the demonstrators had camped for the night, it took them less than five minutes to do so.

But beneath that, things were very different. Social media tools had given people something that they had lacked previously, an independent means of communication and propaganda. In a matter of minutes, hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians were seeing the demonstration videos being uploaded on YouTube. For an apolitical generation that had never shown interest in such events, the demonstration was unprecedented. It was also tremendously exaggerated. At a moment when no more than 500 demonstrators had started gathering in that early morning, an Egyptian opposition leader could confidently tweet that he was leading 100,000 in Tahrir Square. And it stuck.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that after 58 years of organized state propaganda people would not believe for a second the government’s media machine and its coverage of the events. Why they chose to believe alternative propaganda needs more explaining. People believed the Twitter messages and the Facebook postings because they wanted to believe them. Tunisia had broken the barrier for many people. It mattered not that the situation and ruling formula in Tunisia is very different than the one in Egypt. Perceptions were more important than reality. If the Tunisians could do it, then so could we. With 15,000 demonstrating in Cairo, Egyptians were already texting each other with stories about the president’s son’s hasty flight out of the country soon after the demonstrations began. For a moment, it seemed that the only issue left to debate was whether President Hosni Mubarak would himself flee to London or Saudi Arabia.

The Regime Panics

The next day, the demonstrations continued with a promise of a return on Friday the 28th after Friday prayers in mosques. At this moment, the regime started to panic. This was simply something they did not understand. Imagine Mubarak’s advisors trying to explain to the 83-year-old dictator what Twitter is in the first place. But more worrying for them was that the only real force in Egyptian politics, the Muslim Brotherhood, announced its intention to join the demonstrations. Suddenly the government was faced with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from every mosque in the country. They acted as every panicking authoritarian regime would act. They acted stupidly.

The Internet was cut off. Mobile phone companies were ordered to suspend service. With the tools of communication disrupted, the regime was hopeful it had things under control. Simultaneously, they started standard arrests of Muslim Brotherhood leaders. To them, things seemed under control; but they weren’t. With every panicked move by the regime, the narrative of its weakness was reinforced for the people. People saw a regime that was scared of the Internet and they rightfully calculated that this was their golden opportunity.

Friday was an unprecedented event in Egypt. While it is impossible to guess the number of protesters on the streets that day, it is safe to say that they exceeded one million. Every mosque was a launching site for a demonstration. The Islamists were out in full force. The slogans that day were quite different than those seen and heard on previous days. Islamic slogans and activists were clearly visible. The now fully deployed internal security forces (a separate security force from the army) were faced with wave after wave of protesters that came from every street. After four hours, they were collapsing.

Whether Mubarak was fully told about the deteriorating situation for the previous days or whether it was at this moment that he suddenly realized the gravity of the situation remains unknown. One thing is sure; the regime was not prepared for this. At that moment, the decision was made to call in the army, announce a curfew, and withdraw the internal security forces. In reality, the army did not deploy immediately. The troops and tanks that appeared in the streets were Presidential Guard units based in Cairo.

The Army is Called In

The army was actually still far away from deploying to Cairo. Because no one had imagined that the situation would totally be out of control, the level of alert of the army was never raised. Officers were not called from their vacations and the whole top level of command was actually thousands of miles away – in Washington for prearranged strategic discussions at the Pentagon. Moreover, the plan for deploying the army never imagined a scenario where people would defy it. No one imagined that the army would be required to put a tank on every street. They thought the mere mention of the army being called in, the sight of a few tanks and the announcement of the curfew, would make people immediately go home scared. They didn’t.

The Egyptian army is hugely popular due to the established mythology of Egyptian politics. The people see the army, which, in all aspects, is the regime, as separate. The army is viewed as clean (not like the corrupt government), efficient (they do build bridges fast) and, more importantly, the heroes that defeated Israel in 1973 (it is no use to debate that point with an Egyptian). With the troops and tanks appearing in the streets, people actually thought the army was on their side, whatever that might mean. With an announced presidential address that kept being delayed, Egyptians prepared themselves for the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation.

Mubarak was at a loss. The army could not possibly shoot people. That would destroy its reputation, but more importantly as a practical matter, the troops could not do it in a controlled way. These guys were not trained for it; they didn’t have rubber bullets or tear gas, only live ammunition and tanks. The thought of actually using them in this situation was never an option. To the surprise of the regime, people just celebrated the army’s arrival and started dancing in the streets defying the curfew. But something sinister was happening as well. The looting was starting.

The decision to withdraw the internal security forces was reasonably calculated. First, the men were utterly exhausted and needed time to regroup. Second, as the internal security forces had become the symbol of the regime’s oppression, their withdrawal was necessary to calm the situation. Third, and most important, in the protocol of operations there could not be two forces with arms in the same street receiving orders from two different command structures. Even with the best of coordination – not present in Cairo – a disaster would be bound to happen.

A Security Vacuum Leads to Chaos

What was not calculated however was the fact by withdrawing the internal security forces before the army could deploy, a security vacuum was created. In that time, an opportunity presented itself for everyone. The scenes were unbelievable. First there was massive anger vented at symbols of state oppression, such as the ruling party’s headquarters. More drastically, in what can only be described as systematic targeting, police stations were attacked. Every police station in Cairo was looted, their weapons stolen and the stations burned. At the same time, massive looting was taking place. Even the Egypt Museum, which hosts some of the world’s greatest treasures, was not spared.

Saturday was indescribable. Nothing I write can describe the utter state of lawlessness that prevailed. Organized groups trying to free the prisoners attacked every Egyptian prison. In the case of the prisons holding regular criminals, this was done by their families and friends. In the case of the prisons holding political prisoners, it was done by the Islamists. Bulldozers were used and the weapons available from the looting of police stations were available. Nearly all the prisons fell. Prison personnel simply could not deal with such an onslaught and no reinforcements were available. Nearly every terrorist held in the Egyptian prisons – from those that bombed the Alexandria church less than a month ago to the murderer of Anwar El Sadat – was freed; the later reportedly arrested again.

On the streets of Cairo it was the jungle. With no law enforcement in town and the army at a loss to deal with the situation, it was a golden opportunity for criminals. In a city that is surrounded with slums, thousands of thieves fell on neighboring richer districts. People were robbed in broad daylight, houses were invaded, and stores looted and burned. Egypt had suddenly fallen back to the State of Nature. Panicking, people grabbed whatever weapon they could find and formed groups to protect their houses. As the day progressed, street defense committees became more organized. Every building had men standing in front with everything from guns, to knives and even sticks. Women prepared Molotov bombs using alcohol bottles. Street committees were coordinated and every major crossroad had groups of citizens stopping passing cars to check their ID cards and search for weapons. Machine guns were in high demand and were sold in the streets.

I did not aim to turn this into a personal story, but those people are my friends and family; it is a personal story. My neighbors were stationed at my father-in-law’s house with men on the roof to look out for possible attackers. A gang of thieves shot at a friend of mine and another friend actually killed one of them defending his house and wife. Another friend’s brother arrested 37 thieves that day. The army’s only role was to pass by each area to pick up the arrested thieves. Army officers informed the street committees that anyone with a weapon (legal or not) should use it and the death of any of the thieves would not be punished.

The story was evolving as more troops poured into Cairo. Mubarak decided to appoint Omar Suleiman Vice President and Ahmed Shafik Prime Minister. Both are military men, Suleiman the Chief of Egyptian Intelligence Service and Shafik the former Commander of the Air Force. To understand the moves one has to understand the nature of the ruling coalition in Egypt and the role of the military.

Regime History

Since 1952, the Egyptian regime has been based on a coalition between the army and the bureaucrats, perfectly fitting O’Donnell’s Bureaucratic Authoritarian model. The army was in full control of both actual power and the economy. Ex-officers were appointed to run state enterprises and high-level administrative positions. More importantly, the army had an enormous economic arm that ran enterprises as diverse as construction companies and food distribution chains.

In the late 1990s this picture began to change. It is not news for anyone following Egyptian politics that Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, was being groomed to follow his father. In reality, the elder Mubarak was never fully behind that scenario. Whether it was a real assessment of his son’s capabilities or concern that the army might not accept him, Mubarak was hesitant. It was his wife who pushed heavily for her son. Gamal began a calculated step-by-step rise within the ruling NDP party, bringing with him two groups. First, were the Western-educated economic technocrats. Trained in international financial institutions, they shared what is generally described as neo-liberal economic policies labeled the Washington Consensus. Second was the emerging business community. Together, they started restructuring both the Egyptian economy and the ruling party.

Gamal Mubarak’s Impact on Egyptian Politics

Fiscal and economic policy was the domain of the technocrats, and they performed miracles. The economy under the Nazif government had unprecedented growth, the currency was devalued, investment poured in, and exports grew. Even the 2008 economic crisis did not dramatically affect Egypt. But no one in the government or industry actually rationalized, explained or defended the policies to the Egyptian public. The country was moving toward a full capitalist system, with a reduction in the “nanny state” services that many people relied upon, but no one explained why that was needed or why it would ultimately be beneficial. The people were still being fed the old socialist rhetoric. The objective improvements in the Egyptian economy and its stock market mattered very little to the people – it was not that the effects were not trickling down, they were, but people could not understand why the government was no longer providing what it used to.

Businessmen benefited greatly from the economic improvement. Business was good and political aspirations started to emerge for them. First, they wanted to hold a Parliament seat, which would offer immunity from prosecution. With Gamal, however, they suddenly saw a higher possibility. Gamal wanted to reorganize the ruling NDP party, which had never been a real party but was more of a mass, valueless organization of state operation. Businessmen including Ahmed Ezz, the steel tycoon, saw a golden opportunity. With Gamal, they took full control of the party and with the party they had power.

The army never liked Gamal or his associates. To begin with, Gamal had never served in the military and, adding insult to injury, his friends were threatening the army’s interests. The technocrats’ neo-liberal policies were threatening the army’s dominance of the closed economy and step-by-step the party was becoming an actual organization competing with army officers to fill administrative positions. Suddenly, the door to power and wealth in Egypt was not a military career, but a party ID card. As long as Hosni Mubarak was in power, however, the army was silent. The army is 100% loyal to the president, an October War hero, their Commander-in-Chief, and an Egyptian patriot who served his country well. Moreover, General Gamal Abdel Nasser having conducted his own military coup in 1952 put mechanisms in the army to ensure that no one in the army after him would be able to do the same.

Egypt, Post Mubaraks

With the unfolding events, the army was finally able to put its narrative to the President and gain his support for it. The army’s narrative is that Gamal and his friends ruined the country. Their neo-liberal policies alienated people and angered them with talk of removing subsidies, while his party gang destroyed the political system by aiming to crush all opposition. Mubarak, in the past, had mastered the art of “playing” and co-opting the opposition. Its size in Parliament differed in various elections, but there was always a place there for the opposition. The 2010 elections were different. No opposition party was allowed to win seats. Being refused a legitimate political method to raise grievances, the opposition chose illegitimate ones in the form of street demonstrations.

Today, Egyptians are scared. They have been given a glimpse of Hell and they don’t like what they see. Contrary to Al Jazeera propaganda, the Egyptian masses are less interested in demonstrating than in protecting their homes and families. One night last week there were only 5,000 political activists demonstrating and not 150,000 as Al Jazeera insisted. At this moment, no one outside of the political cadres cares if the president resigns or not. They have more important concerns now – security and food top the list.

So where are we? Well the answer is still not clear, yet some conclusions are evident.

1. The Gamal inheritance scenario is finished.

2. Mubarak will not run for another presidential term. His term ends in October and whether he serves it out or resigns “for health reasons” when things cool down, he is dying and will be gone.

3. The army is in control. Egypt is heading back to the “golden age” of army rule. The “kids” are no longer in charge; the “men” are.

4. Until the economy fails again, the neo-liberal economic policies are finished. Forget about an open economy for some time to come. The immediate task of the army is to stabilize the situation and enforce order. The internal security forces have been ordered back into the streets. Next, will be to deal with the political activists and Muslim Brotherhood who now dominate the scene. It is anyone’s guess how that will go, but in a couple of days the Egyptians will probably be begging the army to shoot them. Third, is to return life to normal with people returning to work and food somehow becoming available. Political questions will come later.

The long-term challenges are numerous. Economic losses are huge. Property has been destroyed and there will likely be a run on the banks when they reopen and capital flight will be the key word in town. No sensible person will invest in Egypt for some time to come.

Politically, the army will aim for returning to the pre-Gamal ruling formula. The government will provide the people with higher salaries and increased subsidies in hopes of appeasing them. Will it be enough? Doubtful. Egyptians have realized for the first time that the regime is not as strong as it looked. If the army did not stop the demonstrators then, how will they ever be silenced? They are greatly empowered. They feel pride in themselves. They protected their neighborhoods and did what the army failed to do. This empowerment will not be crushed easily.

The security situation is a disaster. It might take months to arrest all those criminals again and no one has a clue how the weapons that were stolen will be collected again or how the security forces will ever regain the respect necessary to maintain public order. Perhaps most important, reports indicate that the borders in Gaza were open for several days. What exactly was transferred between Gaza and Egypt is anyone’s guess.

The El Baradei Factor

You might wonder where Mohammed El Baradei is in all of this. Perhaps you think CNN’s anointed leader of the Egyptian Revolution will be important to the future. Hardly! Outside of Western media hype, El Baradei is nothing. A man who spent less than 30 days in the past year in Egypt and hardly any time at all in the past 20 years is nobody. It is entirely insulting to Egyptians to suggest otherwise. The opposition, you wonder? Outside the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition consists of groups that each can claim fewer than 5,000 actual members. With no organization, no ideas, and no leaders, they are entirely irrelevant. It is the formerly apolitical young generation that has suddenly been transformed they are the key.

Egypt is, as it has been, an enigma. On the one hand, the army that has ruled since 1952 will continue to hold the upper hand in the transition from Mubarak to the future. On the other hand, now that they have been empowered, the Egyptian people may not accept the status quo ante for long. On yet another hand, a population that was convinced just two months ago that attack sharks were planted in the Red Sea by the Israeli intelligence services – as the Egyptian public was – is hardly ready to create a liberal democracy.

The Sunday Agreement, a Way Forward

The current situation was caused in some measure by the lack of meaningful political discourse. It would be wise of the players – and their friends – to leave off the chatterbox clich├ęs about “democracy” and begin the serious work of addressing concrete political, economic and social issues that have brought Egypt to this point.

Sunday’s agreement by the government to allow freedom of the press, to release those detained since anti-government protests began and to lift the country’s emergency laws when security permits is a good start. But as it is just a start, the real work remains to be done.

The question is not only whether the Egyptian press is free or not. The more important question is what are the ideas that are being articulated in that press. A free press that reports little more than anti-Semitic conspiracy theories does not in any way better the situation.

All those concerned with Egypt’s future should start addressing the substance of the political discourse and not the form it takes.

Samuel Tadros is Senior Partner at the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth (EULY). Founded in 2007, EULY ( is an Egyptian non-governmental organization that seeks to spread the knowledge of the ideas of liberalism among Egyptian youth.