Egyptians took to the ballot box today in a two-day referendum on the new constitution, which experts say strengthens the role of the military, the police, and the judiciary, and contains some provisions for the rights for women. Many Egyptians are seeking stability since widespread protests in January 2011 ended a 30-year dictatorship and threw this large country into near-constant upheaval.
But Dr. Khaled Fahmy, a historian and professor at the American University in Cairo, said the revolution in Egypt “has just started.”
“The challenges are huge because the old regime has not collapsed—if anything, it has managed to position itself—but I think the genie is out of the bottle. I don’t think it is possible to revert back to the situation before January 2011.”
Dr. Fahmy said that when a revolution is directed at the security forces, such as the one in Egypt, large segments of the middle class become deeply anxious about their personal livelihoods and about the lack of security in the street. “They were enamored by this [protesting] youth and their creativity and so on, but they were anxious because of the instability,” he said.
“The scale and the depth of this revolution is phenomenal,” Dr. Fahmy said, adding that, though there are similarities to the widespread revolutions in Europe in 1848, “the number of people who participated in one way or another—in terms of percentage to the population at large—is unprecedented. And the number of issues that have been tackled by this revolution is also unprecedented.”
“In terms of what this revolution is against… there are very deep, historical roots of it that go as deep as the very nature of this modern Egyptian state—this aloof, patriarchal, remote state that claims to deliver goods and services for the people, but is not held accountable to them,” he said. “And I think what Egyptians are revolting against is exactly this nature of the state. It is not only police brutality, and it’s not only [ousted President Hosni] Mubarak, and it’s not only the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s something that goes at the very nature of the Egyptian state.”
He said the army controls and estimated 25-40 percent of the Egyptian national economy. “These are not a handful of corrupt generals,” he said. “This is an entire cadre of officers with huge, huge interests both local and international.”
He said the middle class was also very disaffected by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and blamed the revolution for it, and that the coup in July 2013 that ousted President Mohamed Morsi was not only against the Brotherhood, but what the revolution stands for.
“And the question is, I think people are asking… Well, we want a military. We don’t want to disband the Egyptian military. We want a strong military, and we want to maintain the conscription policy. But we want this military to serve us rather than to serve itself. And that is very difficult, to affect this change.”
The interview was conducted by José Vericat, Adviser at the International Peace Institute, on December 12, 2013.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Jose Vericat: We’re here with Dr. Khaled Fahmy, Egyptian historian, professor at the American University in Cairo to talk about Egypt today in the broader context of the Middle East. Dr. Fahmy, thank you for being here today. I would like to ask you, has the Egyptian revolution failed?
Khaled Fahmy: No, the Egyptian revolution has just started. We’ve just seen the initial phase, and currently right now we’re seeing a serious counterrevolution that seems to be succeeding in the sense that many of the forces of the previous regime and those against whom the revolution erupted in the first place managing to re-gather their strength.
And what has happened in 2011 onwards is a bursting of energies in the country at large, and among the youth in particular. This is a society that is youthful—more than half of the population is under 25 years of age. And this is a big country; it’s not small.
The challenges are huge because the old regime has not collapsed—if anything, it has managed to position itself—but I think the genie is out of the bottle. I don’t think it is possible to revert back to the situation before January 2011.
JV: Can you talk a little bit more about the current situation and how the previous regime has managed to reposition itself and really strengthen its position strategically?
KF: I think the current moment in Egypt and maybe even in the region is comparable historically to 1848 in Europe where many important segments of society entered the political sphere for the first time, against the established authorities, established institutions—the army and the church, in Europe, and the monarchies. And initially, things looked very serious, but then the counter-revolution won and went after the revolutionaries. And I think we’re witnessing something similar in Egypt. I think the former regime people—what in Egypt are called the feloul, big businessmen, former politicians within the National Democratic Party—in alliance with ministry of interior officers and army officers saw the writing on the wall. That this is something very serious, and they had to contain it.
And they managed to contain it by addressing—not simply by having a coalition among each other, which was always possible, but I think what flipped the balance is the silent majority who did not participate in the revolution, who were not as affected by it as revolutionaries, hence they were not really out in the streets. They were enamored by this youth and their creativity and so on, but they were anxious because of the instability. This is what a revolution brings. It brings instability, and especially if the revolution is directed against the security forces, and the security forces are retaliating by withdrawing security from society at large. So, many big segments of society are deeply anxious about their personal livelihoods and about the lack of security in the street—I’m speaking about middle class, not even lower classes, but middle class people in Cairo in urban centers who were very disaffected by the lack of security.
In addition to this, that middle class also were very disaffected by the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power, and they blamed the revolution for it. This is a peculiar thing in Egypt, in the sense that the revolutionaries did not end up in power. The revolutionaries ended up managing to shake the foundations of the regime enough not to cause the collapse of the regime but to affect an opening in it. And that opening resulted in the Islamists winning the elections. So, as far as the middle class, the urban middle class are concerned, they found that their livelihoods had been drastically affected.
At the same time, politically they got rid of Mubarak. It is true—not much love lost there, but instead they got the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Muslim Brotherhood did not deliver properly, it did not manage to allay the fears of this middle class. So then the former regime stepped in and drove a wedge, using this disaffected silent majority and told them: “You see what happens if you remain silent? Throw your lot with us against both the revolution and the Islamists.” And this is what led to the coup of 4th of July, 5th of July of this last summer against not only Muslim Brotherhood and the elected government, but also against the revolution and what it stood for.
JV: In Egyptian history there are numerous revolutions and uprisings and it seems to be following a pattern. Do you think that there is a sense in which something is different happening now? There are new factors at play and there will not be a return to the status quo?
KF: On a certain level, this is a revolution that seems linked to earlier revolutions in Egypt’s history, some of which we have known and studied; some we don’t know much about, things that we discover in the archives. As a social historian, I can tell you that there hasn’t been a single decade that has passed since the beginning of the 19th century without some big uprising in some entire province or another. But then, every now, and then it becomes national: From 1879-1882, the so-called Urabi Revolution; then 1919; then ’52, which was a military coup joined in by millions of Egyptians later on.
But on the other hand, this is unprecedented. The number of people who participated in one way or another—in terms of percentage to the population at large—is unprecedented. And the number of issues that have been tackled by this revolution is also unprecedented.
The scale and the depth of this revolution is phenomenal. And the sign of it is that we have two deposed presidents in Egypt now. We have two presidents who have been deposed and they’re still alive, and the future has not been settled. That is the scale of the revolution that we are witnessing now. And none of this is settled yet, which means that it will take a long time.
In terms of what this revolution is against—again, there are very deep, historical roots of it that go as deep as the very nature of this modern Egyptian state—this aloof, patriarchal, remote state that claims to deliver goods and services for the people, but is not held accountable to them
And I think what Egyptians are revolting against is exactly this nature of the state. It is not only police brutality, and it’s not only Mubarak, and it’s not only the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s something that goes at the very nature of the Egyptian state.
But the Egyptian state by its same token is also a powerful state. It’s deeply entrenched in its own interests, and it’s very resourceful, and it’s fighting back because it realizes what is at stake. And it’s far from settled. The jury’s still out. We still don’t know which side will win, but I have little doubt that things will go back to normal. I mean, maybe the counterrevolution will succeed in gaining some breathing space for a time, but I don’t think they can go back to what Mubarak used to do.
JV: Some observers see the dismissal of the Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohammad Morsi as the ultimate proof of the failure of political Islam, a sobering moment, and a welcome return to old-fashioned secular Arab nationalism. Do you agree?
KF: No, I don’t think that deposed President Morsi can be easily categorized. Because on the one hand, we had a huge outpouring of people; some of them are these silent majority people who are sitting at home minding their business and who are deeply disaffected by how the country had been governed under the Muslim Brotherhood. And they wanted to send a signal to the Muslim Brotherhood that not only is their time up, but the time of political Islam itself as an answer to a country’s problem is also up.
But at the same time, Arab nationalism, presented by the army—it wasn’t really Arab nationalism but this old-fashioned nationalist institution that speaks a language of the ’60s, really, if one listens to [Egyptian Army General] al-Sisi. Al-Sisi is not saying anything that belongs to this age. Al-Sisi is vintage ’60s without the glamour and the charisma and the resourcefulness and the intelligence of Nasser. So, it’s these two forces coming together to depose the Muslim Brotherhood. It is wide segments of the Egyptian population saying “no” to political Islam but it is also the former regime—the feloul, most notably, the military—telling the Muslim Brotherhood that they really cannot temper with the Egyptian state the way they did in their year in office.
JV: Do you see a struggle over the identity of the Egyptian state, over the narrative of the revolution?
KF: Very much so. Again, the question is: which interests is this bureaucracy, this state, serving? Is it serving its own interests? The officers, as we know, just to give one example using the main institution of that state—the army. Now we know that the army is controlling about 25—estimates range between 25 to 40 percent—of the Egyptian national economy. And every now and then the military can step in and speak as if they are another entity, so much so that they can say, “We are lending the Egyptian state a billion dollars’ last year.” It’s the military serving their own interests.
And the military, the high brass of the Egyptian military having their own companies and having their institutions that range from not only factories but also prisons, and the legal cover to protect their own interests, their own families. These are not a handful of corrupt generals. This is an entire cadre of officers with huge, huge interests both local and international. I’m not talking about arms smuggling and arms deals. It’s much more basic, much more serious, much more widespread when we speak about 40 percent of Egyptian economy of factories and businesses and hotels and restaurants and services and gas stations and bottled water companies and bakeries—a huge amount of services that are controlled by the military.
And the question is, I think people are asking… Well, we want a military. We don’t want to disband the Egyptian military. We want a strong military, and we want to maintain the conscription policy. But we want this military to serve us rather than to serve itself. And that is very difficult, to affect this change.
JV: Do you see this more as a regional phenomenon, or a national phenomenon? Can you, in other words, compare what’s happening in Egypt to other countries, or is it fundamentally different?
KF: Well, I think this very general question is being asked in different fashions in different countries. Of course there are different important regional variations. Libya has distinctly different problems than Egypt and Syria to just pick the three most famous examples, and of course Tunisia. The size and power of the middle class is different. The size of education of that middle class is different. The nature of the state is different. The position of the army in the economy and society is different. And, most importantly, with regards to Syria, the ethnic divisions in the country play a factor in Syria the way they don’t play in Egypt. In Libya, there is the regional difference, in addition to oil and the role of outside players. So, there are many different factors that give local flavors to this question when it is posed to different countries.
But the big question I think remains the same. The big question is: how do we make these states serve us? How do we maintain these countries? No one is talking in Egypt or in Syria of dismantling the state, but we want to remove some people. But more importantly, and more difficultly, we want to transform the very nature of the institutions of the state. And I think this is asked across the board.
JV: Lastly, do you think the influence of Egypt is waning in the region? And do you think that Egypt is now less influential than other parts of the Arab world? Or do you think that there are other events going on elsewhere in the region that are going to shape the region much more?
KF: I think the revolution highlighted the paradox of modern Egyptian history. Economically and militarily, Egypt is very weak. It cannot compete with the financial power of Qatar or Saudi Arabia. It cannot compare to the military might of Israel or Turkey.
But, in terms of its history of institutions, of its soft power, of its culture, and, most importantly of the significance of Islam forces within it, it continues to be very important. Egypt sets the tone for cultural, political, social questions across the board. It’s the largest country, and what happens in it both culturally and politically will have reverberations throughout the whole region. So, in that sense it is very influential—and this is why the stakes in Egypt are very high. And because it is such a big country, even Saudi Arabia and its financial power cannot affect it so easily. The number of players and the number of portfolios that are being opened and discussed are so big that they cannot be controlled by an influx of petrol dollars.
JV: Dr. Fahmy, thank you very much.
KF: Thank you.
About the photo: A voter in the March 19, 2011 referendum, Cairo, Egypt. (Ted Swendenburg/Flickr)