Two Contrasting Springtimes: Tunisia and Egypt

Photo by Chris Belsten | CC BY 2.0


After 23 years of domination, the end came quickly for President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He had constructed an elaborate security system around his regime, built upon extensive financial dependencies, non-accountability, fear and silence, described by Beatrice Hibou. But the self-immolation of a young peddler, Mohammed Bouazizi, in the inland town of Sidi Bouzid, where unemployment was high, on 17 December 2010, shattered the despot’s wall of fear. First twenty Tunisians were killed in one day, then over 200 before 11 January. As demonstrations in support of the martyr were suppressed, Tunis was engulfed in revolt. The general staff of the army and a section of the power elite worked in collaboration with the American embassy to stave-off popular revolution. According to Massimo Di Ricco, major social unrest in Tunisia ‘always came from underdeveloped regions, mainly in the South.’

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, denounced the heavy use of force in Tunisia on 11 January, and Ben Ali’s exile to Saudi Arabia, with the bulk of his wealth and his family, followed on 14 January. He was deceived both by America and by his own illusions: he thought his destination was France and his departure only temporary.

Overthrowing the autocracy was the initial task, but Tunisia possessed capacities for democratisation. The population of some 11 million was ethnically and religiously homogenous, and people in the coastal towns enjoyed good education, health and housing. Economic growth was around five per cent, based on tourism, mining, manufacturing and services. The status of women was high in regional terms. More than 80 per cent of adult women were literate, and figured prominently among university students, magistrates and diplomats. Civil society was strong. Trade unions, and specifically the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), had an established role: in 1983-84 during a spontaneous, southern-based bread revolt, and in 2008 when it was prominent in a ‘disobedience movement’ in the phosphate mining basin of Gafsa (not far from Sidi Bouzid). Across three ‘dusty desert towns, workers, trade unionists, mothers and children took part in widespread acts of civil disobedience, sit-ins, hunger strikes, occupations’. One of the strongest actions involved a group of 12 women, all widows, whose husbands had died in the service of the state-owned Gafsa Phosphate Company. Defying violence and intimidation, the women demanded employment for their children as traditionally due to them: the uprisings lasted several months. These protests, says Penny Green, ‘arguably paved the way for the revolution in 2010-11.’

In December 2010, UGTT affiliates, the teachers’ unions, ‘became the headquarters’, according to Mohamad-Salah Omri, for the revolt against Ben Ali. The country’s material conditions were pressing. The jobless rate for graduate women was above 40 per cent, and higher in the interior. About 800,000 of the working-age population of some 3.5 million were unemployed.

Democratisation began to be concretised through the successful holding of parliamentary elections as early as 23 October 2011. Tunisia was distinguished in the Islamic and Arab worlds by having an Islamist party with viable democratic aspirations. Ennahda (Renaissance), repressed under Ben Ali, had quickly rebuilt its structures, and led by Rachid Ghannouchi, campaigned on its long opposition to autocracy, its identification with the Tunisian working class, and its pluralist values. Against some small secular parties, and on a turnout of some 60 per cent of eligible voters, it won 37% of the vote and 41% of the seats in the constituent assembly. It came comfortably ahead of the Congress for the Republic (CPR) led by a prominent human rights campaigner, and Ettakatol with slightly less. It confirmed its pluralism by entering into a coalition government with both these secular centre-left parties: Moncef Marzouki, founder and leader of the CPR, became President, and Hamadi Jebali of Ennahda was Prime Minister.

A vital long-term step was the writing of a new constitution. The members of the Assembly, in close consultation with the people, wrote the document. In a ‘national dialogue program’, more than 5,000 Tunisians, participated in 44 meetings (including 18 abroad). The people thus wrote their constitution, ‘without tutelage of any kind’: legal expertise was consulted and civil society groups proposed, sometimes ‘imposed’, amendments. This open, deliberative process was impacted upon by argument between secularists and Islamists, but it was not dominated by the latter, as was flagrantly the case in neighbouring Egypt. Dispute had focussed on sharia and the role of Islam in a democracy. Words were taken from article one of the 1957 constitution, stating that ‘its religion is Islam’, where ‘its’ had long been understood to refer to…the country or the people, not to the state’. This crucially re-affirmed the civil nature of the state, and offered some satisfaction to the secularist parties and civil society.  Compromise was achieved, and eighteen months after work began, a draft constitution was released to the public on 14 December 2012. This outcome represented for Mohamed-Salah Omri how Ennahda was governing and responding to a strong civil society and active opposition.

Lilia Weslary described the actualities of the democratisation process at work in Tunisia: how excited she was to be voting on 23 October 2011, how her joy of being a new citizen was shared by all Tunisians, and how the assembly members had worked around the clock to realise the popular revolutionary demands for “Work, Freedom and Dignity”. Problems had been overcome, new ones awaited, but the initial achievements were already immense. A new party had emerged, Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia) which already was supported by about half the assembly, while a coalition of left parties, known as the Popular Front, had also appeared. Most threatening was the violence erupting from hard-line Salafist Islamists across the country, with support among younger people. Dictatorial remnants and new problems existed, but the people now had the “required weaponry”, she said, to bring them down, the pen and freedom of speech.

Much depended on the pragmatism and pluralism existing in Ennahda. President Marzouki recalled how he had ‘reached out to Ghannouchi’ when the latter was in exile in Britain. A series of discussions had resulted in the Islamist movement joining others in a “Call to Tunis” signed in Aix-en-Provence in 2003. The basis for this inclusiveness, according to Yasmine Ryan, was three pledges: on the equality of men and women; that the state would be based in civil society, not theology; and that Tunisia would be a democracy. Tensions had arisen within the ruling coalition over Salafist-jihadist activities, but Marzouki affirmed that collaboration between Islamist and secularist parties around common democratic values was essential and achievable. For Ghannouchi, it was “only [through] the construction of true democracy…with the participation of all key moderate voices” that stability would be ensured. This would necessarily be a long task.   They were speaking at the end of 2012-early 2013.

But democracy was directly threatened when Shokri Belaid was killed at his home on 6 February 2013. He was a trade unionist and lawyer, prominent in the Popular Front. Many called for change in the coalition, and the UGTT proposed a general strike solely aimed at ending violence. The Defence Minister, Abdelkarim Zebidi, immediately re-affirmed the neutrality of the military.

The threat intensified when another leftist politician, Mohammed Brahmi, was shot dead in Tunis in July. The killing was flagrant. Brahmi was killed in front of his wife and daughter, and police soon found that both men were shot with the same weapon. More than 70 assembly members resigned. Thousands of people demanded the resignation of the Ennahda-led government in early August. The UGTT with some 600,000 members, joined with the employers’ union UTICA, the League for Human Rights and the Bar Association in shuttle negotiations between the coalition and opposition parties. On 5 October compromise was again attained. Ennahda held 90 assembly seats (with half of them women), but it stepped down in favour of a temporary technocrat administration tasked with finalising the constitution. Ghannouchi had sought a rapprochement with the leader of Nidaa Tounes, a party containing many former members of the old regime: its founder and leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, was foreign minister under Habib Bourguiba and parliamentary spokesman under Ben Ali.

One of the highest points of the early democratisation process was achieved on 26-27 January 2014 with the passing and endorsement of the new constitution. In the aftermath of the two assassinations and mass street protests, civil society, represented by the above four big ‘historical organisations’, soon formalised as the Quartet—recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015–compelled the assembly men and women to concentrate on the finalisation of the foundation document. Consistent with what had earlier been done, the final process was open, highly participatory, deliberative and lively. Debates were aired live on a national channel and painstakingly monitored and circulated by dedicated civil associations like Al Bawsala. Shouting matches occurred between deputies, especially on religion and Islam. Accusations of apostasy were excluded, ‘a key innovation among constitutions in the Arab world’, and rights of women were strengthened. Democracy and freedom were extended, as Tunisia acquired some 11 million people, in Amira Yahyaoui’s words, “who are no longer silent”. The writing of the constitution’s 149 articles had taken two years: in sharp contrast with the rushed, unrepresentative and non-deliberative process under the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo at much the same time.

Omri depicts the January constitution as ‘the outcome of a process of struggle’ over what the post-revolutionary society was to be like. The turn towards a religious state ‘ha[d] been aborted’. Ennahda would no longer be ‘driving the agenda, and its opponents could no longer capitalise on opposing its policies.’ It was ‘a consensual constitution’ where, however, those in the marginalised regions had lost out. Article 12 ‘promises no more than “striving to”, rather than the much demanded “commits to” achieving regional balance within the framework of positive discrimination.’ Both the problems and the revolutionary commitments of the interior had been neglected.

Parliamentary elections in late October saw Nidaa Tounes, running on an explicitly anti-Islamist platform, and ruling out a future coalition. They won 85 seats, while Ennahda came second with 69 seats. The first round of presidential elections took place on 23 November. With a turnout of 62.9 per cent, Essebsi was first with 39.46 per cent, while Mohammed Marzouki was second with 33.43 per cent. Thousands of people had walked in the streets to protest against Essebsi and to support Marzouki.  Ennahda chose not to field a candidate. In a run off on 21 December, Essebsi comfortably won. But ‘a swathe’ of people with grim memories of life under Ben Ali, reportedly stayed with Marzouki: for them, Essebsi’s party ‘smacks of the old regime under a new guise’. The results also exposed the gulf between the poor and rebellious south and the richer north of the country: ‘in the five southernmost regions, 80 per cent of voters plumped for Marzouki,’ The Economist reported. The regional divisions were palpable: unemployment in the region of Gafsa exceeded 30 per cent, while the national average was half of that; in Tunis, 97 per cent of people had access to sanitation services, but in Sidi Bouzid only 12 per cent did.

Essebsi’s electoral success brought no political advance. Nidaa Tounes remained a patchwork of disparate interests, conservatives, liberals, businessmen and remnants: united chiefly by opposition to Ennahda, but with “no unifying ideology, no political programme, no socio-economic vision”, according to Maha Yahya. Many of them had ties to the Ben Ali regime.  Essebsi reportedly ‘faced calls for accountability for state repression against student and leftist movements’, according to Amna Guellali. Such responsibilities were both financial and political. The despotism as noted was built upon wide, systemic corruption. The World Bank reported in 2014 that, between 1987 and 2011, ‘Ben Ali and his relatives embezzled assets worth $13 billion,’ equivalent to 25 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2011. The Bank recognised too that ‘corruption remained endemic’. According to Achraf Mnif, 80 per cent of Tunisia’s development budget in 2012-13 was ‘skimmed off by a well-established mafia’ embedded in the extensive bureaucracy.

Confronted by this problem in a context of low growth, the Essebsi government  proposed to increase business confidence by suspending the prosecution of those accused of fraudulent activities under Ben Ali. An ‘economic reconciliation’ bill would let businessmen and bribe-taking officials secretly  declare their gains and re-pay them to the state. For many this looked ‘like an amnesty, a whitewashing of corrupt practices.’ The more so since the nefarious networks were now ‘active again under the cover of Nidaa Tounes, noted Mohsen-Finan. Beset by a range of mainly self-induced pressures, the party split in November 2015, with Essebsi losing a third of his parliamentarians and the party its majority, and Ennahda regaining its position as the largest parliamentary force–Ennahda with 69 seats and Nidaa Tounes with 57.

Giving the Victims a Voice

Providing justice to the victims of struggle against oppressive and non-accountable elites is a long-term task in Tunisia. It began with the focus on the estimated 317 people who died and the 3, 322 who were wounded in the uprisings in 2010-11. Hearings and appeals had been going on since 2012 before the Tunis military tribunal, as the law then proscribed. Human Rights Watch had criticised the authorities’ failure to identify the direct perpetrators of killings, despite detailed testimony from witnesses, and there were no mechanisms to prosecute senior officers with command responsibility. Leila Haded, a prominent lawyer, said that, while some 58 of the 60 accused military and police in the Tunis region were found guilty, the ‘sentences were derisory’. The Association of Tunisia Magistrates declared that military tribunals were inappropriate and called for a new independent judicial authority. Amidst ‘strong condemnation of the verdicts,’ the National Assembly on 14 April and ‘agreed to accelerate the creation of a Commission of Truth and Dignity’.

The Tunisian commission, unlike South Africa’s earlier Truth and Reconciliation Commission, aimed specifically to address Dignity and how it was threatened by corruption and economic crimes like fraud and misuse of public funds: and Dignity was one of the specific aims of the revolution. This would be in addition to its focus on overt repression.

Its public hearings on 17-18 November that year made an immediate impact. First ‘came the mothers’, and ‘their voices rang clear on television and radios across Tunisia.’ The public hearings were held in a former residence of Ben Ali’s wife. Bechir Labidi, a political prisoner, hesitated, then decided to appear: “History is not to be written in the palaces. Our [existing] history falsifies history.” Testimonies indicated that Leftists and Islamists had been particularly targeted. Nearly 15,000 claims had been filed. One victim of prolonged solitary confinement, said he was willing to forgive, “but I want them to admit the truth, apologise and explain why they did it.” For a country that had spent six decades under authoritarianism, first under Bourguiba then Ben Ali, the hearings were a chance to ‘confront the past, and bring it squarely to the present.’ President Essebsi was ‘notably absent’ on both days, as were representatives of Nidaa Tounes, when the current government’s record was reportedly ‘lambasted’. Raida Kadousi’s son was killed in the uprising of 2010-11, and she told the TDC: “You are our last hope,” Sarah Souli reported.

Sihem Ben Sedrine, a journalist and human rights activist under Ben Ali, was president of the TDC, and was known for her confrontational style. “The people who initiated [the Reconciliation] law are furious…They want my scalp,” Yasmine Ryan reported. But the TDC was not without strengths of its own. It was empowered to subpoena witnesses and government archives, and to reopen previously tried cases. In Tunisia’s fraught circumstances, the fact that the public hearings took place at all ‘needs to be seen as a success’ for the TDC. Near the end of 2016, ‘one and a half years [we]re left of its initial mandated time,’ and only one fifth of admissible files had been heard. 

Terrorism, Jihadism and Corruption

Jihadism and terrorism were huge threats to justice and democracy in Tunisia, and they came early to the new country, which contained strong Salafist adherents. In the spring of 2012 Ansar al-Sharia marched in the holy city of Kairouan, south west of Tunis, waving black flags and demanding that the government reform the education system and the media. Jihadist banners were hung from buildings in the centre of Tunis and other cities. The United States embassy in Tunis was attacked in September 2012 by Ansar al-Sharia elements and four Tunisians were killed. But counter measures by the Ennahda coalition restricted the group’s movements and ‘thwarted its social activities’. After the government classified Ansar al-Sharia as a terrorist organisation, the group was ‘eradicated’, according to the International Crisis Group.

Heavily armed young gunmen struck the Bardo National Museum in central Tunis on 18 March 2015, and killed more than 60 people, overwhelmingly foreign visitors. The Bardo is adjacent to the national assembly. The previous year the country’s museums and beaches had attracted six million tourists, whose spending accounted for some 7 per cent of GDP, and tourism supported more jobs than any other sector but agriculture. Ongoing war in neighbouring Libya represented one threat to Tunisian stability. But the country’s ‘biggest problem’, was of its own making: the ‘failure to cut the red tape and end the corruption’ that stifle business. The 2014 World Bank report said that firms connected to Ben Ali had reaped 21 per cent of private-sector profits, and this corruption system ‘remain[ed] largely in place’, The Economist reported. French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, noted in March that it was precisely because Tunisia “represent[ed] hope for the Arab world”, for peace, stability and democracy, that terrorism had struck. Just four months later, another young man dressed in black entered the Marhaba Hotel in the beach resort of Sousse and methodically killed 38 people in a few minutes with a Kalashnikov and grenades. A suicide attack on a bus in Tunis in November 2015, killed 12 members of the presidential guard.

After the assassination of Belaid in February 2013, the Ennahda-led government took steps to control Salafist-led mosques, and ‘thousands of would-be jihadists’ were prevented from leaving the country, Hugh Eakin reported. The country contributed disproportionately to the fighting in Syria and Iraq, and significantly to jihadist activities in Libya: one report claimed that some 6,000 Tunisians had ‘joined armed groups abroad’, with most of them fighting in those three countries. On a list of 10 world countries with jihadists in Iraq and Syria in 2015, Tunisia was easily the world’s biggest contributor: Saudi Arabia was the second, while Russia and Turkey were respectively third and fourth. These engagements heavily impacted on Tunisia. The country’s police said that the man who perpetrated the Sousse massacres had trained at a jihadist camp in Libya. That country alone represented a huge threat. In March 2016, a reportedly ‘large group of Tunisian Islamic State members’ assaulted the town of Ben Gardane in the country’s south east, killing 65 people.

Jihadism was interwoven with regional disparities in this area. On 14 January 2017, hundreds of people took to the streets in Ben Gardane to demand jobs, and the protest soon spread to neighbouring Sidi Bouzid, Meknassi, and Gafsa: the 2011 slogan, “Work is Our Right” rang loudly again.

Tunisia had a small national army, some 45,000 active soldiers, the smallest in the region, said James Denselow. This distinguished it further from Egypt, with its huge and grandiose military, closely aligned with the United States, and pre-dominant in government. The neutrality of the army during the ousting of Ben Ali had facilitated the country’s initial democratisation. Fierce clashes in March 2016, between the army and Islamic State forces, resulted in significant losses for the latter. Expenditure on national security then represented some 20 per cent of the budget.

Responding to the heightened Islamist threat to the nation, Ennahda in May subordinated its religious values to its democratic ideals, separating its religious and its political activities. In a vote among 1,200 party delegates at its 10th congress, 93.5 per cent supported the separation. Ghannouchi declared that there was now “no justification for political Islam in Tunisia.” Collaboration and then coalition with Nidaa Tounes had caused internal frictions, said Sarah Souli, and there were renewed concerns now about the retention of its old religious social base. ‘Ennahda draws strength from the fact that it’s not just a political party’ but also a social movement, she said. It was distinctively both Islamic and democratic. Additionally, since Islam is part of peoples’ everyday lives in Tunisia (and Egypt), it can’t be easily ignored for democratic reasons.

Corruption, and unaddressed poverty and inequalities were compounding the difficulties for democratisation. The country was facing a budget deficit of 5.9 per cent of GDP in 2017, and Nidaa Tounes, proposed sweeping austerity measures, including wage cuts, tax rises and the suspension of investment in infrastructure. At the same time, protesters in the interior were demanding jobs and a share in regional oil revenues, and had blocked roads, halting oil and phosphate production. President Essebsi had then taken the exceptional step of deploying the army to guard industrial sites. Troops were to be deployed against democratic protests, while the underlying corruption networks flourished. ‘Thousands’ of people marched in Tunis on 13 May shouting “no to forgiveness” (The Economist).

Addressing the scourge of jihadism also required that the root causes of violence be effectively addressed. The Crisis Group called for a broad strategy that prioritised prevention, tacked the roots of radicalisation, and enhanced security capacities. The formal economy must be made ‘more inclusive for newcomers from the interior and redouble political will in the anti-corruption struggle.’ Corruption must be tackled directly: simplifying administrative procedures, reducing opportunities for fraud and bribery, and curtailing influence-peddling. Corruption compounded by regional inequalities had left people of the interior deeply distrustful of government. The open, participatory, dialogue approach that facilitated the writing of the constitution, and rescued and reinforced democratisation in 2013, was perhaps indicative of the way forward now. A national strategy was necessary because of the depth and intractability of the present deeply structural problems: the inter-linked religious, economic and socio-political problems plaguing democratic Tunisia.


Since 2010 three big processes have gone on in approximate sequence. The first was huge in size—millions of people, centred symbolically on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, focussed on the overthrow of the Mubarak autocracy, and on freedom and solidarity. What the uprising was like was noted by Mona Hussein Wasef, age 26: “For eighteen days we were in Tahrir Square, side by side, men and women, educated and uneducated, rich and poor. Never have I felt so much solidarity. I was Egypt, we were all Egypt, fighting for freedom.”

The second saw an attempted closure of the social upsurge through a power sharing interregnum between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, before the incompetence and authoritarianism of the Islamists saw them swept from power in July 2013, through popular revulsion. Since then the Egyptian military has re-asserted its power directly, backed by the regional interests of the United States. The powers of the labour unions and social movements have been suppressed but not negated. The whole nearly decade long process has been characterised by the absence of popular political organisations, in contrast with  Tunisia: no Ennahda, no CPR, no Quartet of tried and respected civil organs. The Muslim Brotherhood had large numbers and organisational skills, but lacked competence and democracy. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi exploited the popular prestige accorded to the military, but had to use unfair tactics to win the presidential election of May 2014. He now enjoys the effusive support of President Donald Trump.

Egypt experienced its Mohammed Bouazizi moment on 6 June 2010 when Khaled Saieed, age 28, was beaten to death in public by two police near his home in Alexandria, in a sustained assault. Photos taken by relatives showed Saieed’s mangled face and bloodied head: soon ‘there wasn’t anyone in Egypt who didn’t know who Saieed was’, in the words of the owner of a café which he’d patronised. Existing human rights movements like the April 6 Youth Movement immediately mobilised and new groups formed.

Ahdaf Soueif feels that ‘the Egyptian street started to move for the first time in thirty years’ around 25 January 2011. Repression was already heavy. One conservative estimate says that the numbers killed in clashes with security forces, January through February 2011, was 846. Washington’s reluctance to intervene was clear. Secretary Clinton had referred to President Mubarak as a loyal friend and even as “family”, and President Obama described him as “a counsellor and a friend to the United States.” Not until 1 February did Obama press for an immediate and meaningful transition.

The ties that bound Washington and Cairo were indeed strong with United States’ military aid running at $1.3 billion a year (discussed below), and viewed by the Pentagon as an untouchable investment in regional security. By 11 February the arrangements for Mubarak’s removal had been made. The decision was in any case largely made for them by the people: ‘millions of Egyptians [had] poured into the streets all over the country’. In Cairo ‘a mass of humanity’ surged towards Mubarak’s residence while hundreds of thousands protested in Tahrir Square, as Steven Cook noted. Early that evening Vice President Omar Suleiman briefly announced that Mubarak had stepped down and power had been handed over to the military, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

A long experience of labour protest and trade union action underlay the popular upsurge. Workers’ action had increased when Mubarak had implemented neoliberal privatisation programmes including lowering wages and benefits. In 2006-08 almost the entire textile industry was on strike, and labour activism became ‘the primary form of resistance to the regime’ over the years preceding 2011, said James Gelvin. They continued apace during the transition from Mubarak to SCAF. In mid-2012, strikes were rife across the large textile sector, and unrest also occurred in the ceramics industry: disputes at Ceramics Cleopatra, the largest privately-owned ceramics firm, saw clashes between workers and police.

What would come from SCAF was unclear except that the military wanted a complete and speedy end to revolutionary activity. When Ahmed Maher of the April 6 Movement was taken to see General Sisi (then head of military intelligence) soon after 11 January, Sisi told him: “You are heroes, you did miracles…something we failed to do for years, but now we need you to stop demonstrating.” As protests and hundreds of deaths continued, the military’s response was to broaden the composition of the ruling elite, and offer ‘a political settlement that combined procedural democracy’– the protesters would be unsatisfied with less–‘with practical autocracy’, according to Jack Shenker. They needed ‘a new partner in the ruling enterprise’, with values not dissimilar to the military’s. That was the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Interregnum of the Brotherhood and the Military

The Brotherhood had little or no positive role in the great uprising. It gained from its large size—reputedly some 800,000 dues-paying members in 2012—and disciplined organisation: it provided welfare services in rural areas, and was skilled in getting out the numbers. It was disposed towards collaboration with government and against revolutionary activity. A clarifying event had reportedly occurred in mid-November. Before parliamentary and presidential elections began, a big uprising against military rule erupted centred on Mohamed Mahmoud, one of the main streets out of Tahrir Square. At the height of the clashes in which ‘more than a hundred’ were killed, Brotherhood members ‘had linked arms to prevent revolutionaries from reaching the security forces’ and just possibly toppling the regime.

The Brotherhood’s political wing was the Freedom and Justice party, and its presidential candidate was Mohammed Morsi, an engineer and career Brotherhood politician. It repeatedly declared that ‘it would participate but not dominate’, and that it would govern ‘for all Egyptians’. But on Carrie Wickham’s assessment, it had no ability to cooperate equally with other groups or entertain criticism. Morsi was ‘a quintessential organisation man’, loyal to the Brotherhood’s old guard and faithful in following their directives.  During the presidential elections, he stressed that ‘no party, group or class would ever again be allowed to monopolise political power’, and that he would appoint a number of vice-presidents to represent other socio-political forces, working under the oversight of parliament and civil society.  Morsi was named president in mid-2012 with 52 per cent of the vote, against an opponent who was  Mubarak’s last prime minister and former air force commander.

President Morsi thereafter stressed rhetoric over substance, and neglected all of his promised reforms. The writing of a new constitution exemplified his failings. The draft published at the end of November ignored the rights of women, children and workers, limited freedom of expression in the name of religion, and affirmed the political pre-eminence of the military. The drafting process was quite unlike what was underway in Tunisia. Only seven women were included in the 100-member assembly, and that number soon fell. Young people so prominent in the uprising were unrepresented. In a final seventeen-hours session that ended at 06.40 on 29 November, the entire 236 articles were supposedly reviewed, revised and voted on. The approval process was equally farcical. National literacy rates suggested that about one-third of voters were unable to read the draft, but less than 15 days were allowed between its publication and the first round of voting. In the outcome, 63.8% of voters approved Egypt’s draft; but turnout was just 32.9% of the population, which meant that ‘a mere 21% of eligible voters’ had actually approved the constitution.

In office, Morsi used state power to beat protesters, break strikes and restrict rights: 200 cases of police brutality were reported in his first 100 days, and an activist claimed that a torture chamber existed wherever there were security forces. Feuding with the judiciary, in late November 2012, Morsi issued a declaration that placed him effectively above the law. Tasked by the military with containing the revolution, protests against Morsi’s rule grew larger by the month, and a series of demonstrations brought ‘millions back on the streets,’ on Shenker’s assessment, in the summer of 2013.

The Tamarod (rebel) Campaign began mobilising for the resignation of Morsi from early April. With leaders who were young and unknown, and possibly connected with elements in the security apparatus (Shenker cautions that mass mobilisation and elite influence were not mutually exclusive, and street protests against the Brotherhood were real and revolutionary). People had long been reluctant to sign their names to any protest, but Tamarod now invited them to provide their ID numbers as well as their names, registering their solidarity and opposition. Using humour and ridicule (cartoons declared that ‘Religion is Not Just a Beard’, and exhorted supporters to ‘Stay Calm and Tamarod’, some 22 million signed the petition, about 40% of the electorate. As many millions took to the streets, Tamarod gave the president an ultimatum to resign by 17.00 hours on 2 July or face ‘complete civil disobedience.’ General al-Sisi announced the military’s readiness to intervene “if the demands of the people are not met.” Cabinet ministers resigned, and the headquarters of the Brotherhood were ransacked and burnt in an all-night rampage. Tahrir Square was festive. The army acted on 3 July. In the absence of independent popular organisations, Hazem Kandil wrote soon after, ‘the revolt would have been aborted without the support of the military.’

It was of course possible to support the need for the military’s intervention on 3 July and oppose military rule. Alaa al-Aswany was a leading liberal writer who supported the ousting of the Brotherhood, which had “used violence from the very beginning.” Al-Aswany’s position was clear: “We don’t want the Ikhwan (or Brotherhood), and we don’t want the old regime. We want a democratic state,” Patrick Kingsley reported.

Shenker noted the army’s ‘canny manoeuvring’ in and around a public weary of turmoil, but its actions soon acquired increasing clarity. When thousands of  Brotherhood supporters and other opponents of the military had gathered in August in Rabaa and Nahda, two large Cairo squares, security forces launched what became ‘the bloodiest massacre in the country’s modern history’. The authorities counted 638 corpses, the Brotherhood over 2,500. At one of Rabaa’s field hospitals, one protester recalled, each floor of the building ‘gradually filled up with bodies, as sniper’s bullets pounded the hospital door’.

The crack-down was soon broadened into a full authoritarian array. The April Sixth Movement was targeted, and its leader, Ahmad Maher, imprisoned along with other key activists. By late October there was reportedly a big wave of popular support for General Sisi. The army’s decades-old popularity had been boosted by the removal of Morsi, and al-Sisi appeared different from other SCAF commanders. Born in 1954, he was SCAF’s youngest member. He had trained in Britain and had a Master’s degree from the US army’s War College in Pennsylvania.

Sisi was Morsi’s defence minister, and since 2012 had cultivated a ‘restrained persona’: when he announced Morsi’s removal in July 2013, that was reportedly the first time many had heard him speak. After he announced his candidacy for the presidency on 26 March 2014, this largely continued. He left any semblance of campaigning to his aides. His only competitor was Hamdeen Sabahi, who was ‘too poor even to hire a hoarding’, but issued a detailed manifesto, and aimed to “give hope to the youth and to the poor”. He was denied access to the media. The election occurred in a stifling atmosphere, and liberal and secular activists shunned the polls, and thus also Sabahi’s campaign.  He had supposedly been arrested 17 times. The process was without any semblance of fairness. The government declared the second day of voting a national holiday then, when booths remained empty, extended the election for a third day and threatened non-voters with a large fine. Al-Sisi obtained 96% of the vote. But he had aimed at a turnout of 80%, and actually gained only 47.5%, almost five points lower than when Morsi ran against Shafiq. Sabahi said near the end that “the greatest thing we achieved is that the Egyptian people have begun to feel that they are the decision-makers.”

The American-Backed Military Barriers to Democratisation

Corinna Mullin and colleagues have analysed the weight of the repression that the Egyptian people have faced, its continuities under the rule of Mubarak, SCAF and Morsi, and how this was supported throughout by the United States’ military and economic aid over three decades. Between 1978 and 2011, the US provided Egypt with bilateral foreign aid worth $71.6 billion, including military aid of $1.3 billion annually from 1987. The strategic function of a ‘large part’ of the weaponry purchased through the United States was ‘to repress internal dissent’. Mubarak, they state, created one of the region’s ‘largest and most repressive state security apparatuses’, wherein ‘torture…was endemic.’ Bilateral relations deepened in the context of America’s expansive war on terror after 2001, when ‘state violence and human rights violations increased.’ Violence ‘characterised’ SCAF’s 17-months rule, including ‘systematic torture’ in prisons and detention centres, the referral of some 12,000 civilians for trial in military courts, and so-called virginity tests on women activists (a practice for which General al-Sisi was particularly identified). State violence ‘continued unabated throughout Morsi’s presidency’ (including a new form of organised public abuse of women activists). After Mubarak’s removal, the US continued to offer military and economic aid, limiting the potential, they note, ‘for a meaningful democratic transition to succeed.’

Mubarak Country versus Resistance/Revolutionary Country

Shenker sees Egypt divided between two systems of power, historically and politically. The former represents the infrastructure of exclusion and domination in modern Egypt, and the latter recognises how those structures were exposed and undermined during Mubarak’s final years. He sees Egypt as a country caught between two models: ‘one broken, but not yet fully defeated, the other full of life, but not yet fully emerged.’ The enlivened, emergent, revolutionary system expresses the hopes and energies of, as Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny claim, ‘the vast majority of Egyptians: the urban and rural poor; the small traders and artisans; industrial, transport and office workers; teachers and health workers…They [we]re the heart and soul of the January Revolution’. The state, SCAF, Morsi and Sisi, ‘wishes to remake these people in its image, but the people have it in them to remake the state as well’, Shenker believes.

Trade unions and workers’ action are at the heart of resistance and revolutionary Egypt, and few do this with greater determination than those at Cleopatra Ceramics. It is one of the largest ceramics plants in the Middle East, containing thousands of workers, who make everything from tiles to toilet basins, which are exported to many countries internationally. Shenker met Cleopatra’s vice-president, Madame Daniela, whose sphere of power since 2011, extends little further than her office suite, and management now operated in ‘multiple jurisdictions—part Mubarak Country and part Revolutionary Country’.

Workers at Cleopatra had occupied the factory many times since 2011, and were no longer ready to stand around while the owner, Aboul Enein, former Mubarak ruling party stalwart and rich Cairo landowner, yelled insults at them. Each mobilisation had involved four or five thousand workers walking out. Cleopatra workers had also blocked streets in Cairo and stormed government offices in Suez (another locus of repeated union agitation). One aim of their struggles was to “cleanse” Cleopatra of ‘mini-Mubaraks’, typified by Enein. This fight for ‘collective democracy’ was being waged in many places in recent years, in Tahrir, in Suez’s el-Arbaeen Square, and other public spaces. Some Cleopatra workers, says Shenker, had stopped seeing themselves as employees, but rather as ‘custodians of a shared productive resource’.

Statistics suggest that state power has not quelled workers’ action. In 2014, after Sisi had attacked all forms of protest, more than 2,200 labour protests were recorded. Democracy Meter noted that 1,117 worker protests had occurred through 2015, around three per day. Volatility sometimes involved professional middle classes too. Thousands of doctors across the country protested against police brutality in February 2016, after two doctors had been beaten up by police, and staff threatened with a gun, in a Cairo hospital: the Egyptian Medical Syndicate initiated a campaign to have the police culprits punished, declaring; ‘We want the rule of law.’ For Shenker this indicated that ‘a significant proportion of the [people] no longer think about themselves and about politics in the same way,’ echoing Hamdeen Sabahi’s observations.

Sisi’s repression of ‘any social or labour protest’ steepened in early 2017.  Ahmed Maher, Sisi’s erstwhile heroic miracle-achiever, spent three years in Tora Prison, mostly in solitary conditions, but still managed to smuggle out eloquent critiques of the dictatorship: when released, however, he lived under round-the-clock surveillance, bereft of any capacity to speak or write. Almost any independent individual action faced repression. Shena Cavallo reported an estimated 60,000 political prisoners, that ‘countless NGOs had been shut down’, and respected activists and journalists faced ‘a myriad of trumped up charges’. Quoting reputable sources, Aljazeera noted three to four ‘forced disappearances a day’, 2015-16, and Amnesty International placed the number of the disappeared at 1,700, and said that extra judicial killings were ‘common’. The Economist reported ‘unprecedented repression’, and wrote that only China and Turkey locked up more journalists: so many political prisoners were jailed, that the state had to build 16 new ones.

Perhaps the most glaring of extra judicial killings was the Italian graduate student, and Cambridge doctoral candidate, Giulio Regeni, age 28: glaring in both its barbarity and its international associations. He was an Arabic speaker who felt at home in a revolutionary Cairo. His research focussed on the new independent trade unions, and particularly on the union of street vendors. The numbers of such independent unions had ‘exploded from four to thousands’, 2010-17, spawned by the anti-Mubarak revolution. He disappeared in downtown Cairo on the evening of 25 January 2017, a redolent anniversary, and his body was found near a highway nine days later. He had been ‘beaten, burned, stabbed and probably flogged on the soles of his feet over a period of four days, and he died when his neck was snapped.’ No credible official explanation has been offered, despite sustained high level intervention from Rome. But the cause does seem reasonably clear. Declan Walsh quotes (on 15 August) ‘an Obama administration official’ that “we had incontrovertible evidence of official Egyptian responsibility.” One of three former officials told Walsh: “There was no doubt”. The United States passed this conclusion to a furious Prime Minister Renzi: Italy was then Egypt’s biggest trade partner in Europe.

There were indications that such suppression had had its effects. The state had implemented a range of adjustment policies including raising the price of petrol and floating the currency (in order to secure an IMF loan), described as ‘the harshest since Anwar Sadat’s lifting of price controls in January 1977. These had led to a decrease in real wages, a spike in inflation, and a deterioration in living standards, across classes. In 1977, Sadat’s actions had resulted in bread riots. Some now asked ‘why isn’t the public taking action?’ This question, Mostafa Bassiouny felt, was similar to what perplexed the world before January 2011.

Khaled Dawoud is a journalist who supported Sisi’s ousting of Morsi, but he feels now that the President’s position was ‘more fragmented than it appears’. He has staked his legitimacy on effectively fighting terror and turning around an economy that had collapsed after 2011. ‘He has failed on both counts.’ The economy remains stagnant, inflation high, and with huge infrastructure projects (like the widening of the Suez Canal), eating up hard currency. And suppression ‘has done little but foment anger.’

One thing Sisi can possibly count on is the uninformed support of President Donald Trump. He has praised the way he “took control of Egypt”, and believes that what he called “safety” was “very strong” in the country.  Sisi was also visited by the CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, who stressed that Washington seeks to “bolster strategic ties” with Cairo, especially in security cooperation, The Economist reported.

The struggle between revolutionary country and Mubarak Egypt seems set to continue. The advantages of power and national organisation lie with the latter, while the former represents the bulk of the people and their apparent determination to persist. 30 months after the ousting of Mubarak, ‘perhaps 10 million people across the country’ took to the streets again to demand Morsi’s departure. Max Rodenbeck attested then to the ‘creativity of ordinary Egyptians, who are clearly ready to fight for the freedom they have tasted.’

The nakedness of Sisi’s despotism is now clearly displayed, unlike the unknown, somewhat attractive figure who assumed the popular task of removing Morsi: his scope for more ‘canny manoeuvring’ is about zero. Unaligned with a political party, Sisi relies, notes Walsh, on ‘the totems of the state, generals, judges and security chiefs’. The country is most distinguished today by the immense size of its political-prisoner population. President Donald Trump voices support that few other state leaders would utter, but is known for his unreliability and unconcern for facts. Responding to Trump’s fulsomeness, Sisi said that the American president was “a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible”. That task actually faces both of them.

Springtime in Tunisia and Egypt

Democratisation is normally a long process of struggle, but Tunisia gained great success in a short time, advantaged by its homogeneity, and by the strength of its political organisation in both civil society and in its national institutions. Tunisia also benefited from possessing a democratic Islamist party, able both to attract popular support, and ready to establish pluralist government with secular forces. A readiness to compromise has been repeatedly demonstrated, most notably by Ennahda and Ghannouchi. The absence of an overweening military was another of the country’s strengths, along with the neutrality it displayed at critical times. But one of the country’s biggest threats is endemic corruption stemming from Ben Ali’s ramifying security system, and continuing under the cover of networks associated with Nidaa Tounes. Another big and immediate threat is Jihadist terrorism, and a third big problem is the need to redress historic regional inequalities. The three are deep structural and closely inter-related threats. Perhaps the best long-term solution is to be found in the genius of Tunisian democracy, its open, participatory and deliberative capacities which it utilised well in the writing of its constitution, and in its response to political assassinations.

Oppressive institutions have long dominated in Egypt, and its people have responded over decades with bravery, determination and adaptability. But without national popular organisations and leaders able to mobilise engagement in the mundane details of democracy like electoral turnout, which might seem mere ‘procedural democracy’ to some, but also constitute over time the building blocks of meaningful democratisation. General Sisi is just another in a line of military despots stretching from Nasser, through Sadat and Mubarak, with the last, an air-force commander, as admired in his last days by both Secretary Clinton and President Obama as Sisi is today by Trump. Egypt now experiences especially heavy military domination backed by the United States, without any thought from Trump for the plight of its people.

Kenneth Good is an Honorary fellow, Global Studies, RMIT, Melbourne.