Anatomy of Egypt’s Revolution

“The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.”

— Che Guevara

Like perfect storms, several factors have to simultaneously and collectively come together for popular uprisings or protests, even massive ones, to turn into a revolution. That is why only a few of them have been successful in world history. A revolution is, by definition, a successful struggle embraced by the masses that radically alters the existing political, economic, and social order.

The triumphs of the American, French, Russian, Cuban, and Iranian revolutions were the exceptions. While each one had its genesis in battling an oppressive or corrupt existing political system, each engendered its own unique features while satisfying distinctive conditions in order to produce a successful outcome.

One was initiated by an armed insurrection, but embraced by the public, against a tyrant monarch. Another was led by mobs producing enormous violence before settling down. Other revolutions had core ideological groups embedded in their midst that greatly influenced or manipulated their course of action before achieving their feat.

Likewise, the Egyptian revolution that erupted on January 25 in the aftermath of Tunisia’s was marked by its own unique features. Although the declared goals of the Egyptian revolution have yet to be fully realized, its primary goal of overthrowing its dictator was spectacularly achieved within a historically short period of time. While it took 28 days of continuous protests to depose Tunisia’s dictator, a country of 10 million people, it required only 18 days of massive demonstrations to accomplish the same in Egypt, a country of 85 million people.

The spark for Tunisia’s revolution was Mohammad Bouazizi setting himself ablaze in the city of Sidi Bouzeid on December 17. It was a desperate act of protest against the authorities who insulted him and seized his sole means of sustenance. Remarkably, the downfall of Zein al-Abideen Ben Ali’s regime four weeks later on January 14 was itself the spark for the Egyptian revolution, which erupted eleven days later. It was probably the only revolution in history that determined its commencement and announced its date to the world online. By February 11, the Egyptian regime had collapsed when its head, Hosni Mubarak, after much obstinate and arrogant behavior, was forced to resign in disgrace.

So what are the elements that distinguish the Egyptian revolution?

Historians will most likely debate for many years the various factors that came together to set off the uprising that turned it into a triumphant revolution. However, the most significant and distinctive features are outlined here. They are:

Popular revolution: The Egyptian people have taken ownership of this revolution from its inception. The youth movement that called for the protests before Jan. 25 admitted that they did not know what to expect. Although many opposition parties had called for demonstrations in the past, they only attracted a vocal but limited number of activists and elites.  The popular support for these protests was at best timid if not totally ignored.

But in this instance when the young men and women, calling for the uprising on social media websites, moved to rally support on the ground from neighborhood to neighborhood, thousands of people from all walks of life joined in. They did not stop by simply announcing it online, but actually toured the streets mobilizing the people calling for wide participation.

Asma’a Mahfouz, one of the young activists from the April 6 Youth Movement said in her interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper that, shortly after the protests started, “I was printing and distributing leaflets in popular areas, and calling for citizens to participate. In those areas, I also talked to young people about their rights, and the need for their participation.”

She continued, “I went to a street in Bulaq Dakrur (poor Cairo neighborhood), where I and a group of members from the movement intended to start protesting. At the same time, other members were doing the same thing in other areas. When we had assembled, we raised the Egyptian flag and began to chant slogans, and it was surprising when a large number of people joined us.”

She added, “With increasing numbers joining us, we stopped for some time in front of Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, and then we led the march to Tahrir Square. We found several demonstrations coming from different areas toward this one, and thus we decided to occupy Tahrir Square.”

As the demonstrations continued, every day broke new ground. It started with the educated youth, both middle class and affluent. They were soon joined by the oppressed and uneducated poor. Within a few days, the protests swelled to include all segments of society, including judges, lawyers, doctors, engineers, journalists, artists, civil servants, workers, farmers, day laborers, students, home makers, the underclass and the unemployed.

Moreover, the demonstrations spread across Egypt like none in its history, not even the great 1919 revolution against the British occupation. The protests since Jan. 25 were not confined to Cairo or Alexandria or even to the main urban centers.

Impressive numbers made their voices heard in every province and city, every town and village, in Upper Egypt and the Nile delta, the coastal areas across the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, in the Canal Zone and the Sinai. On the day Mubarak resigned, an unprecedented 15 million people were demonstrating. Almost twenty per cent of Egyptians were in the streets that day, first protesting, and then celebrating the end of the dictator.

The Role of the Youth: There is no doubt that the Egyptian youth played a critical role in initiating the protests. The “April 6 Youth” and “We are all Khaled Said” movements along with other youth-led organizations including the youth branches of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Baradei Campaign for Change, were at the forefront of the activities before and during the revolution.

At critical moments during the tense negotiations with the regime, it was the steadfastness of these young revolutionaries that defeated the attempts by the regime to push for half measures in order to save Mubarak, proposals that might have been acceptable to some opposition parties. But the youth organizers insisted on their main demand, which was the removal of the president. Most of these leaders are in their late 20s or early 30s.

Incidentally, the youth paid the brunt of the sacrifices. A list on Al-Dustoor newspaper’s website shows that 70 percent of those who lost their lives during the massive protests, as well as 80 per cent of the injured, were 32 years old or younger.

The Role of Women:  Egypt, like most Muslim countries, is a largely patriarchal society not used to having women, especially young females, leading any group or organization, let alone a political movement. But here the Egyptian people witnessed young women like Mahfouz, Isra’a Abdel Fattah, Nawwara Nagm, and Sally Tooma Moore, not only speaking out against the brutality and illegitimacy of the regime on live television, but also leading the demonstrators in chants and camping out in Tahrir Square for weeks.

The participation of women in the revolution, including in leadership positions from the beginning, have also encouraged other women across Egypt to participate. They have also sacrificed heavily for their freedom. At least 10 per cent of the casualties in the first week were women. This experience has solidified their role as real partners for genuine change, and entitled them to an ownership of this great event in their history.

Applying Non-Violent and Peaceful Means: From the outset, the organizers of the protests adhered to a strict code of non-violent and peaceful protests. They realized that the regime would crack down and employ brutal methods hoping to either deter or provoke them to use violence to justify even greater violence against them.

Ahmad Maher, the coordinator of the April 6 Youth Movement explained in an interview with Al Jazeera English that non-violence was not a tactic but a strategy for the movement. For over two years, thousands of members debated the writings and methods of non-violent struggle, including those of Gandhi, King, and Gene Sharp of the Albert Einstein Institution in Boston, the sages of the use of non-violent means for social change.

Last year Maher’s second-in-command, Muhammad Adel, was dispatched to Serbia to meet with Srdja Popovic, a proponent of non-violent resistance and leader of the Otpor (Resistance) Movement, a group of young activists who helped depose Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. He came back to Cairo with DVDs and other educational and training materials that demonstrated in detail some of the non-violent means and civil disobedience techniques used to induce political change.

When the protests in Egypt began, there were strict instructions for all participants not to carry any weapons, including knives, sticks, stones or sharp objects. They held signs that said this was a peaceful protest. When confronted by the police who tried to intimidate or beat them they would chant “peaceful, peaceful.”

Even when the regime sent thousands of its goons on February 2 to beat them with sticks and sharp objects, attack them with Molotov cocktails, or even shoot them with live ammunition, the protesters only tried to defend themselves, refusing to employ violent means. When they arrested about 350 of the hired thugs, they refused to take revenge despite the dozens who were killed and thousands more injured.  They simply handed them over to the military units stationed nearby.

Non-ideological and homogeneous:  Another distinctive feature of the revolution across Egypt was its focus on common goals. Despite the desperate efforts by the regime and its regional and international supporters to paint it as either ideologically based or foreign inspired, these efforts failed miserably.

The organizers were non-ideological. Although most ideological parties participated, including the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the leftists, the liberals, the secularists, and the Copts, all groups displayed a rare unity of purpose, focusing on the primary goal of the revolution without falling into the trappings of narrow divisions.

Unlike other Arab societies with a history of tribalism, sectarianism or ethnic conflicts, Egyptian society is largely homogeneous. The only fault line that its opponents have tried to foment or exploit is that of Muslim-Coptic tension. However, these tensions are a recent phenomenon and are the exception, not the rule. Much of Egypt’s history bears witness to that.

This rare unity among Muslims and Copts was displayed in Tahrir Square and across Egypt. Tooma-Moore, a Christian Copt, demonstrated the unity of all Egyptians, Muslims and Copts, in a recent interview when she said, “It’s totally beyond description how the mosque has been transformed into a working hospital. It is a mosque but there are no religious divisions.”

The youth organizers and all participating groups carefully abstained from any religious or sectarian chants. During Friday prayers many Copts surrounded and protected the Muslims while praying. Likewise, on Sunday the Muslims joined the Copts in their Christian services, in a moving display of national unity.

Disciplined and focused: Many observers were surprised at the level of discipline and focus the revolutionaries were able to demonstrate. Throughout the 18 days in the streets, they maintained their focus on Mubarak and his despised regime. They refused to engage in any negotiations that might distract from their primary goal of ousting the beleaguered president. Their slogans and chants reflected this unity of purpose among all demonstrators.

When the regime started offering concessions, almost daily, in the hope of splitting the opposition, weakening their resolve, or slowing down the momentum, the revolutionaries were able to energize the people further, raise their demands and mobilize even greater numbers without conceding their foremost demand.

Decentralized and highly organized leadership: This revolution was not leaderless, but the leaders were not visibly identifiable. They cleverly structured their protests and activities without naming a single group or leader.  Dozens were speaking on behalf of the revolution, communicating the same message. Some identified with the youth, others with the diverse opposition movements, while many were independent. The security apparatus was confused and could not identify the major leaders of the revolution.

Even when some leaders were arrested, they were easily replaced because no one person held sole power or vital information that could derail the revolution. When the youth within the Muslim Brotherhood  joined the protests on Jan. 28, they were immediately embraced and given leadership roles because of their discipline, resources, and abilities. Although some minor opposition parties tried to take credit or present a different political line, they were immediately exposed and marginalized.

The leaders also illustrated great organizational skills. Makeshift hospitals, staffed with hundreds of doctors, were established to treat the injured and sick. Remarkably, with over two million demonstrators in one geographical area, transportation, security, medicine, food, drink, bathroom facilities, trash collections, Street newspapers, and lost and found services were provided. Tents and covers were also supplied to the thousands of people who chose to camp out in the square.

When the government withdrew all the security forces and released thousands of criminals in order to spread fear and chaos across the country, the people immediately organized and established protection and security teams and neighborhood watches in order to protect their families and neighbors. Within days, thousands of criminals were caught and handed over to the military.

Steadfastness, bravery and determination: When many people in the streets were interviewed on dozens of television networks and new media outlets covering the unfolding events, there was a notable theme that stood out in their tone, namely, the eradication of the fear barrier.

All dictatorial and repressive regimes rule their subjects through intimidation and fear. The Mubarak regime was no different. The regime dispatched at least 350,000 security officers throughout Egypt in the first four days, employing all the tools of repression: beatings, water canons, tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition, and armed carriers.

However, the youth led the efforts in facing the brutality of the police even when dozens were killed and hundreds injured in the streets. It was clear that when the youth refused to abandon the protests and faced courageously the repression of the state without retreat, the rest of the people followed and the fear factor was removed from the equation.

Creative and resourceful:  As much as this revolution was peaceful, it was also incredibly creative. By Sunday January 30, the demonstrators were in control of all the main streets and squares. Millions of people were following the program set by the organizers. Activities were set to mobilize the people and demoralize the regime.

They were also resourceful. They brought huge speakers to broadcast the singing of the national anthem and play patriotic songs to the delight of the massive crowds. It brought a sense of national unity and patriotism, a feeling of honor, duty, and resolve.

On certain days where the protesters were called to attend by the millions, they were given names to consolidate the gains and unite the people under a single theme: Day of Rage, Day of Departure, Martyrs Day, Day of Defiance. People were free to be inventive and artistic as they thought up slogans, created chants, and drew up posters that focused on Mubarak, his family, and the regime.

Many of them were funny and daring. Bold jokes were widely shared, and comedy sketches were daily performed in the squares and streets. Poets, singers, rappers and bands were everywhere creating a festive Woodstock atmosphere. The more the president showed stubbornness the more entrenched and audacious the people became. With each passing day, the people no longer feared Mubarak, and even displayed an attitude of total ridicule and revulsion toward him.

Ingenious use of technology: It is common knowledge that the youth have not only mastered the use of modern technology, but also transformed it into an exceptionally effective political tool to communicate with their peers, educate the public, organize events, and mobilize the masses.

With over 800,000 Egyptians, mostly youth, using Facebook alone, the revolutionaries found a platform that allowed access with little challenge from the government. The use of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media outlets played a significant role in disseminating the message and galvanizing the support of the public.

Educational materials, political messages, training videos, mobilization calls, and organizational information, were placed online and utilized before a single protest was called. By the time the government shut down all mobile phone and Internet services, the genie was already out of the bottle. When asked by the French news service AFP, Abd el-Fattah, one of the April 6 youth organizers said after the government disrupted the Internet, “We’ve already announced the meeting places. So we’ve done it, we no longer need means of communication.”

Yet even during the revolutionary days of massive protests, the organizers were able to set up safe houses to send blogs, press releases, and instructions to others across the country, as well as announcing their activities, and communicating their viewpoints to the world.

Effective media strategy: The revolutionaries had a simple media strategy: ignore the government-controlled media and build strong contacts with the local opposition and independent media as well as the Arab and international media outlets.

The organizers knew that the regime would mobilize its propaganda machine through the state-owned print and electronic media. After first ignoring the widespread protests, the official media embarked on vast distortion and smear campaigns against the protesters.

Therefore, the organizers set up a sophisticated multilevel strategy comprising numerous spokespersons, who were united in their message and articulated their vision against tyranny, oppression, and corruption. They presented to the public a coherent pro-democracy social justice and freedom agenda. Every day, more prominent individuals from all segments of society were speaking out against the regime and joining the revolution.

They even set up a huge screen in Tahrir Square that featured live non-stop Al-Jazeera coverage. In essence, the revolution was indeed televised, providing not only a significant level of protection to the demonstrators, but also providing rapid response to all breaking news.

Whenever Mubarak or Vice President Omar Suleiman addressed the public in an attempt to seize the initiative, the organizers would immediately present several spokespersons to effectively respond and neutralize any effect on the public.

Neutralization of the Army: Perhaps the most vulnerable matter facing the revolution was the unpredictable reaction of the army. Initially, the organizers knew that the regime would rely heavily on the brutality of its security forces. But once the revolutionaries prevailed over the security forces by standing their ground, the regime would try to force a confrontation with the army.

The strategy of dealing with the army was to embrace it and avoid any confrontation by all means. The Egyptian army is one of the most respected institutions in Egypt, and the organizers were not going to challenge that.

In fact, the moment the army was in the streets after the withdrawal of the security forces, the people chanted, “ the people and the army are one.” They rushed to embrace and kiss the officers. Every pro-democracy speaker praised the army and appealed for its support.

Immediately, the army not only declared its neutrality in the confrontation between the people and the regime, but also pledged to protect the people. This posture made it possible for the revolution to continue its peaceful protests and embolden its political demands.

Even though the army was slow in providing protection to the protesters when they were attacked by the government’s bullies, the fact that the army did not attack the demonstrators and remained neutral was a huge blow to the regime, which at the end helped topple it.

Lacking depth and understanding, pundits recklessly invented names for the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Borrowing from the color and flower revolutions of Eastern Europe or Central Asia, they called them the Jasmine and Lotus revolutions, respectively. But such names are meaningless, as they do not reflect the spirit of these revolutions.

People in Tunisia and Egypt revolted primarily to become free; to restore their dignity; to regain respect for themselves. Hence, these were revolutions marked by the deafening calls for freedom and dignity.

As Martin Luther King Jr. once reminded his fellow oppressed compatriots at the height of their struggle against a repressive system, “I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history.”

Indeed these words capture the essence of the revolutions underway in the Arab world today.

In part II, on our Friday-Sunday site,  Al-Amin will examine the consequences of Egypt’s revolution.

ESAM AL-AMIN can be reached at



Esam Al-Amin is the author of The Arab Awakening Unveiled: Understanding Transformations and Revolutions in the Middle East. He can be contacted at