One Year Later, Egypt’s Future Remains Uncertain

One year after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s transformation is far from certain. The military council appears less willing to cede control, and violent clashes with protestors are becoming more commonplace. The unprecedented protests that shook Egypt in 2011 paved the way for their first true elections, but there is waning hope that Egypt is undergoing a democratic transformation.

Key Conclusions

The revolution that swept Mubarak from power has stalled. The military council set in place to manage the transition has shown little interest in ceding control of the country to the newly-elected civilian government.

Protests that began on the eve of the one-year anniversary erupted into full-scale clashes with security forces following soccer riots and resulted in the death of more than 70 people. As the military clamps down harder, the secularist and Islamist groups—which have been at odds with each other—seem to be coming to a consensus that the military must cede control of the country to its people.


Even with Mubarak gone, throngs of dissatisfied Egyptians occupy Tahrir square. The only thing that appears to be different are the slogans that reverberate through the most populous of the Arab nation’s capitals. Where the people once called for the end of Mubarak’s three-decade reign, the crowds are now demanding the removal of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which has filled the power vacuum since Mubarak’s ouster.

The army and people are no longer “one hand,” as large parts of the population have come to view the SCAF as simply a replacement for the Mubarak regime. According to a popular referendum held last March, SCAF was meant to hand over power in September 2011 with a possible three-month extension. Now the SCAF has issued statements assuring the people it will transfer executive control after the scheduled June 2012 presidential elections. However, as the images of an overflowing Tahrir attest, the people have yet to be convinced.

In the six decades following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Free Officers coup, the military has enjoyed special autonomy in the Egyptian government, and it appears the military chiefs have sought to increase this autonomy following the revolution. In November they attempted to push constitutional provisions to keep their budget from civilian scrutiny and secure permanent political powers until a new wave of protests forced them to drop the initiative. Expressing a view held by many of the protesters, Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswany noted, “The military council thought that removing Mubarak would mean they could keep the regime.”

In hopes of removing this perception from the population, the military has taken extra steps in an attempt to assure the people that it does intend to restore civilian control of the nation. Recently, the SCAF met with its civilian advisory council, set up to assist on transition issues, to examine ways the hand over can be expedited. This meeting produced the recent announcement that registration for the presidential election will now begin on March 15th. Additionally, the head of the military council, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, pledged to revoke Egypt’s decade’s old emergency law just before the revolution’s one year anniversary. Supporters of SCAF point to these steps as proof that the military is taking constructive action towards its transition commitment.

However, detractors remain skeptical. In order for the handover to happen sooner, a new constitution must be written—by a committee of 100, which has yet to be formed—and presidential elections held before June. Given the current state of affairs, this seems highly unrealistic. Also, the fact that Tantawi’s pledge to remove the emergency law came just before the one-year anniversary smacks of Mubarak-era tactics to placate the opposition in an effort to buy time. Furthermore, the fine print of this pledge states that the controversial law will be removed except for in cases of “thuggery.” This vague and broadly-defined term has been used by the military on several occasions to discredit anti-military protestors and activists, leaving many to believe this pledge will hardly translate into any tangible change.

Even if the SCAF was to step down ahead of schedule, a cohesive vision for Egypt’s future has yet to be articulated. Steven Cook, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, observes, “They want change. They want prosperity. They do not want the authoritarianism of the previous regime, buy beyond that, it is entirely unclear what Egyptians want.” This lack of consensus is troublesome, especially considering the monumental task of drafting the new constitution has yet to begin, which, at its core, is an attempt to codify the future vision of a post-Mubarak Egypt within a legal framework.

Any attempt at reaching this consensus is currently hindered by a contentious battle for legitimacy between secular and Islamist groups. A substantial percentage of the demonstrators populating Tahrir are from the young secularist groups that spearheaded the early protests against the Mubarak regime. These groups feel largely responsible for the political shift taking place in Egypt, but have come to feel marginalized as parliamentary elections failed to bestow upon them an official governing mandate in the new system. Not only did these secularist groups fail to make a strong showing in the elections, but their political rivals—the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the ultra-conservative Salafist al-Nour Party—dominated, securing 70 percent of the seats.

Secular groups bristle at the notion of these conservative parties claiming the mantle of the revolution asserting that the Muslim Brotherhood, long outlawed and politically sidelined, is seeking to consolidate its newfound post-revolution prominence by cutting a deal with the SCAF in exchange for lenience on the timing and enforcement of the transfer of power agreement. Although the Brotherhood flatly denies such claims, the news that the recently-elected speaker Saad al-Katatny of the Freedom and Justice Party sent a telegram praising Tantawi for his leadership and for “taking the side of the people” has clearly called into question the nature of the new Parliament’s relationship with the military.

While it is plausible that the Brotherhood and the SCAF generals reached a tacit agreement to share power, it is unclear how long such an alliance can last. Protests that began on the eve of the anniversary called for a speedier transition but erupted into wide-spread clashes with security forces following the news of riots at a Port Said soccer match which resulted in 73 deaths. Egyptians became enraged when eyewitness accounts claimed security forces did nothing to stop the ensuing violence.

As the violence continues, the military’s handling of the transition is being called into question, and the repressive tactics further complicate continued defense of the military. Popular support for many Islamist candidates was derived from their perceived “cleanliness” from the Mubarak regime. Continued backing of the SCAF could tarnish this image, as they are seen less as a corrective force and more as perpetuating a corrupt system.

Eli Williams is a Research Assistant in the Middle East program at the International Peace Institute

About the photo: Protesters marched to Ministry of Interior HQ in Cairo near Tahrir square, February 5, 2012. Photo by Jonathan Rashad.