The Revolution That Wasn’t

  • The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life by Roger Owen
    Harvard, 248 pp, £18.95, May 2012, ISBN 978 0 674 06583 3
  • Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria by Joshua Stacher
    Stanford, 221 pp, £22.50, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 8047 8063 6
  • Raging against the Machine: Political Opposition under Authoritarianism in Egypt by Holger Albrecht
    Syracuse, 248 pp, £25.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 8156 3320 4
  • Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt by Hazem Kandil
    Verso, 303 pp, £16.99, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 84467 961 4


Western opinion has had difficulty working out what to think, or at any rate what to say, about Egypt. It now seems that the pedlars of hallucinations have been cowed and it is no longer fashionable to describe the events of 3 July in Cairo as a ‘second revolution’. But to describe them as a counter-revolution, while indisputably more accurate, presupposes that there was a revolution in the first place. The bulk of Western media commentary seems still to be wedded to this notion. That what the media called ‘the Arab spring’ was a succession of revolutions became orthodoxy very quickly. Egypt was indispensable to the idea of an ‘Arab spring’ and so it had to have had a revolution too.

In part this was wishful thinking. The daring young Egyptians who organised the remarkable demonstrations in Tahrir Square and elsewhere from 25 January 2011 onwards were certainly revolutionary in spirit and when their demand that Mubarak should go was granted they couldn’t help thinking that what they had achieved was a revolution. They were of course encouraged in this by the enthusiastic reporting of the Western media, disoriented as they have been since the rise of the ‘journalism of attachment’ during the Balkan wars. But it was also the result of the influence of accomplished fact. The events in Tunisia were certainly a revolution. The role of the Tunisian army was a very modest one, essentially that of refusing, in its moment of truth, to slaughter the demonstrators to save Ben Ali. The role of the Egyptian army in February 2011, however, was not modest; it only seemed to be. Where the Tunisian army showed itself to be a genuinely apolitical servant of the state, the Egyptian army struck an attitude of neutrality and even sympathy for the demonstrators that masked its commanders’ real outlook. That was good enough for reporters who couldn’t tell the difference between appearances and realities. In outward form, both countries had had revolutions, and practically identical ones at that. So the ‘Arab spring’ was up and running and the question was simply: ‘Who’s next?’

To think about the recent appalling turn of events in Egypt in terms of an original ‘revolution’, with 25 January 2011 as the start of Year One, is to amputate the drama of the last two and half years from its historical roots, the story of what the Egyptian state became during the later stages of Hosni Mubarak’s protracted presidency. This is not a simple affair. It is the story of what the Mubarak presidency signified for the Egyptian state, for its various components, especially the army, and for its form of government, but also of what it signified for the various types of opposition his rule provoked or allowed. All this combined in the gathering crisis of the state itself, a crisis that was building long before the revolution in Tunisia got underway.

Mubarak ruled Egypt for more than thirty years, longer than Nasser (18 years) and Sadat (11 years) put together, and he made clear his intention to remain in office until he died, while simultaneously giving the impression that he intended his son Gamal to succeed him. His reign was thus an instance of both the wider phenomena that Roger Owen discusses in exemplary depth: the rise of ‘presidents for life’ in the Arab world and these leaders’ tendency – or at least the temptation – to try to secure the presidency for their families by instituting a dynastic succession. Mubarak concentrated power in the presidency to an arguably unprecedented degree, building on what Sadat had done but taking it much further.

In his detailed survey of the Arab ‘republics’, Owen distinguishes between two main categories, states ‘where the central government was relatively strong’ (Tunisia, Syria, Egypt and Algeria) and those where it was weak (Sudan, Libya and Yemen). He thus treats Egypt and Syria as substantially similar. Focusing on the Egypt-Syria comparison, Joshua Stacher offers a different view, arguing that the two regimes were dissimilar in several critical ways: the Egyptian power structure was highly centralised while the Syrian was and is comparatively decentralised, with Bashar al-Assad wielding nothing like the commanding authority over his regime that Mubarak had. Owen’s perspective could be said to allow for such variation; in both cases – as also in Tunisia and Algeria – central government has clearly been far stronger in relation to society than in Libya, Sudan or Yemen, and Owen himself illustrates how, within each of his categories, there are various permutations. But because the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have primarily been focused on and seen elsewhere in terms of the toppling of autocrats, and neither Syria nor Algeria’s autocrats have so far been toppled, the particular configurations have mattered a great deal. Stacher persuasively argues that the oligarchical rather than autocratic configuration in Syria has meant both that the regime has found it difficult to agree on a reformist course and that its various elements were bound to stick with Bashar against all comers, and so Western expectations that it would unravel under pressure were misplaced. How then does the other part of his thesis, that Egypt’s power structure has been extremely centralised, help explain the course of events there?

Long before the uprisings of late 2010 and early 2011, it seemed to me that the extreme accumulation of power that characterised the Mubarak regime, at any rate during the last third of his reign, which I observed while living in Cairo from 2001, had at least one definite implication for the future: it couldn’t possibly be sustained after Mubarak’s departure, whether or not his son succeeded him. After he went there was bound to be a redistribution of power within the state away from the presidency, and the question would be how this redistribution was handled and to whose benefit.

The matter of the succession was a central issue in Egyptian political debate from at least 2002, catalysed by the suspicion that a dynastic succession was planned and made problematic by some outspoken intellectuals’ indignant rejection of the possibility of tawrith al-sulta – inheritance of power. That the succession was a major issue underlying the events of January and February 2011 is self-evident. But the sensational entry onto the political stage of young liberal and leftist activists and, above all, of hundreds of thousands if not several millions of ordinary Egyptians who found the courage to stand up and shout aloud their pent-up anger at years of despotic rule and their dream of freedom and justice profoundly complicated the question of who would benefit from the redistribution of power.