A man holds a placard in a demonstration in front of the building where the high Military council held a meeting in Cairo on June 1, 2013
© AFP
A man holds a placard in a demonstration in front of the building where the high Military council held a meeting in Cairo on June 1, 2013
Last updated: April 18, 2014
Egypt at a crossroads – between denial and apathy

"The Egyptian uprising inspired a sense of liberation but not real freedom"

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In her book On Revolution, Hannah Arendt makes the distinction between liberation and freedom. While liberation is merely the freedom from tyranny, freedom refers to participation in public affairs via unfettered speech, thought, association, and assembly. This implies a will and capacity amongst people to participate in public life and affect change. While liberation is an important component of the struggle for freedom, it does not comprise its full content.

By and large, Arab revolts have inspired a strong sense of liberation. Without the realization of true freedom though, counter-revolutionary forces may dominate the political landscape. To date, this has been the sad fate of the Egyptian uprising. It has inspired a sense of liberation but not real freedom. From the outset, a key challenge facing the revolutionaries and political class has been to work out their deep factionalism and establish a platform for inclusive politics. Unfortunately, political forces across the spectrum never attempted to understand the implications of political liberalism.

Perhaps the greatest failure in this regard was to view the military as a legitimate authority. The majority of protesters against Hosni Mubarak in January 2011 and Mohamed Morsi in June 2013 treated the military as a legitimate authority. Experiences all over the world show that relying on a military to lead a transition to democracy is risky, since militaries tend to have a political culture where concession is seen as weak and authoritarianism is praised. Only a government with democratic legitimacy can undertake the inevitably painful reforms that are necessary for a successful transition to democracy. 

"Only an honorable confrontation of the truth will bring genuine improvement

There are Egyptians who even go so far as to believe that the radicalism of the revolutionary youth is to blame for the outbursts of violence, in spite of mounting evidence of serious human rights violations by the military.Yet, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is commonly portrayed in Egyptian media as pragmatic and driven by what he sees as the national interest of Egypt. The army is regarded by the majority of Egyptians as the only reliable institution able to safeguard the national security of Egypt. el-Sisi found himself in a critical juncture in Egypt's history, where he was obliged to side with the people to prevent an imminent civil war. It was a progression of events - there was a political crisis and millions went to the streets - in which the army felt it had no choice. Indeed, the army intervened on two occasions in modern history (the presidential ousters of 2011 and 2013) to bring the country through a divisive period and prevent a breakdown of the whole system.

Amid fears of a failed state and a fragmented society, many Egyptians are willing to tolerate transgressions, and even atrocities, by the military. In this type of environment, the revolutionary youth, who are liberal and left-leaning in a relatively conservative society, increasingly seem condemned to the fate of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is a Greek mythological figure who is compelled to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down over and over again. For Egyptian revolutionary youth, this process has already entailed much suffering, including death, injury, persecution, military trial, brutality — especially against females — and worst of all, character assassination.

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Egyptian society is torn between pragmatic denial or apathy and only an honorable confrontation of the truth will bring genuine improvement. The military’s intervention in politics will not solve Egypt’s troubles. In fact, it might aggravate the socio-economic problems plaguing the country. Egypt remains burdened by years of mismanagement and ill-considered policies that have been destructive of the common good, promoted corruption, and enfeebled the state’s non-security functions. Egypt cannot have a stable democracy if it does not overcome this legacy. Mubarak has left Egypt with one of the most corrupted state structures in the world. There are doubts that el-Sisi’s widely expected presidency will make much progress on these fronts. 

The international community has already begun scrutinizing the presidential elections to make sure that it meets international standards. The Egyptian government is attempting to satisfy the West’s expectations for its own long-term benefit by accepting international election observer missions. Because el-Sisi has the full support of both the state and private media, which has vocally supported his candidacy for months, along with the whole of the state apparatus behind him, many question whether election campaigning can ever be even-handed in this context. 

Observers suggest that the pent-up anger among revolutionary youth is likely to explode again if Sisi and his future government fail to create jobs. Looking retrospectively over the last three years, Egypt has developed a reputation for turning on a sixpence. el-Sisi is now a total hero, but he could just as easily be tomorrow’s villain. Most probably, he is intimately aware of that.

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