Lessons From the 10th Anniversary of the Egyptian Uprising

In marking the anniversary of the Egyptian uprising, it is deceptive to celebrate a revolution. The word “revolution” has been bandied about a lot since 2011, writes As’ad AbuKhalil. 

Over 1 Million in Tahrir Square demanding the removal of the regime and for Mubarak to step down, Feb. 9. 2011. (Jonathan Rashad/Wikimedia Commons.)

By As`ad AbuKhalil
Special to Consortium News

Ten years ago, the entire Arab world seemed on the verge of revolution: despots in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain were facing the wrath of their population. Millions were chanting for the overthrow of regimes, and feared despots were suddenly tottering.

While Tunisia in late December 2010 was the first Arab country to witness tremendous political upheaval, it was the eruption of popular anger in Egypt in January and February of 2011 which signaled that something big was happening in the Arab world. Absolutist rule in Egypt and elsewhere was crumbling.

Egypt was significant not only because it is the most populous Arab country, and not only because it has been considered traditionally the center of the Arab world and the seat of the Arab League, but also because the U.S. government has—since the Camp David accords in 1979–invested heavily in Egypt to consolidate tyrannical rule there in order to guarantee the preservation of the unpopular Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Egypt was supposed to represent the American political model for the whole Arab world: that the U.S. is willing to support—and invest heavily in—despotic rule throughout the region in return for normalization with Israel.

The Egyptian people tried to revolutionize their lives; they pushed ahead to not only get rid of Husni Mubarak but to demolish an archaic political system that was established with U.S. support under Anwar Sadat during the Carter administration.

The Egyptian people wanted to reverse decades-old policies toward Israel: the brandishing of Nasser’s pictures in Tahrir square signaled a nostalgia for the Arab nationalist era of the 1950s and 1960s. Egyptian youth (mostly radical leftists) marched to the Israeli embassy and tried to set it on fire.

The U.S. government quickly intervened and warned the Egyptian military brass that the U.S. would act to punish Egypt if the Mossad agents inside the Israeli embassy were not protected. Egyptian special forces stormed the building and quickly removed the Mossad after disguising them.

The rules of the games were set: the U.S. wouldn’t accept a return to pre-Sadat days, when Egypt charted its own foreign policy without outside intervention or dictates.

Too Much Blood

In marking the anniversary of the Egyptian uprising, it is deceptive to celebrate a revolution. The word “revolution” has been bandied about a lot since 2011, after a series of Arab uprisings followed. Initially the U.S. thought it could be an opportunity to replace some rulers with others who were more convenient to American interests—Mubarak was too stale as a U.S. stooge.

The term “Arab spring” was coined to point to U.S. exploitation of political developments in the region. But the coinage did not last as too much blood has been spilled since—and with direct U.S. involvement: in Libya and Syria in particular, but also in Yemen and Bahrain, where the Obama administration (and later Trump) supported the savage crushing of people’s will by the Saudi military.

The Egyptian people undertook a heroic effort to remove Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011. He had ruled the country for 30 years after Sadat’s 1981 assassination. The U.S. was taken aback and tried at first to urge caution and even condemned the demonstrators (along with the government) for the use of violence, even though the protesters were unarmed and mostly peaceful (with the exception of heaving pavement stones at the police).

It was in early February 2011 when the U.S. government panicked and realized that millions of Egyptian protesters would not be subdued and that they would not settle for vague promises of “reforms”. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came up with the plan to keep the regime at all cost and suggested Mubarak be replaced by Omar Suleiman, the head of the feared intelligence service. The Egyptian people quickly made their disapproval known, and the U.S. backed down, pretending it was supporting the people’s choices.

The Egyptian people pressed for free elections—a scary notion for U.S. foreign policy in the region, because the foreign policies of Arab rulers don’t conform with the views of their population, especially regarding the U.S. and Israel. The U.S. was nervous about the first free presidential election in 2011. The candidate of the security establishment most likely received Gulf and Western funding, but the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan), Mohammad Morsi, won.

Two years later Gen. Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi removed Morsi from office. (In his capacity as head of Egyptian military intelligence, al-Sisi was, with U.S. training, very close to U.S. and Israeli security interests). It is reasonable to assume the UAE and Saudi regimes wouldn’t have been able to arrange for this coup without prior support and authorization from Washington.

Lessons to Be Learned

The lessons of Morsi’s removal, and also of the ten-year anniversary of the Egyptian “revolution,” is that the U.S. still wields tremendous influence in Arab regional politics. These are some of the lessons of in light of the passage of time since the removal of Mubarak:

  1. The U.S. rules the Arab world though the intelligence-military apparatus in every country there. There were no revolutions in this era of Arab uprising because the real levers of power remained in the hands of the intelligence-military elite. The U.S. does not mind a change in the faces of the political elite, which exercise no real political power, provided that actual power remains in the hands of the military-intelligence apparatus. The U.S. does not mind a change in the name of the ruler provided that the governor of the Central Bank and the top military-intelligence elite remain tools of the U.S. government (and of Israel in some cases).
  2. The key lesson of the last ten years is that the Egyptian people, and the Arab people, won’t be able to change a regime and won’t succeed in pressing ahead with a real revolution if they don’t direct their protest against the top military command and the intelligence apparatus. What we saw in Tunisia and Egypt (in the brief era of Morsi) is that real decision-making is not in the hands of the elected officials but that unelected, U.S.-handpicked military generals hold the reigns of power.
  3. Egypt is less central to U.S. strategy in the region, and both Egypt and Jordan are no longer the two states that the U.S. relies on for the preservation of peace treaties between Arab rulers and Israel. The UAE has become the key central ally among all Arab states with Israel, and its role will rise in U.S. eyes especially as it has shown enthusiasm to engage in military operations and war alongside the U.S. (or semi-independent of the U.S. in some cases) in various places, from Afghanistan to Libya and Yemen. But the decline of the status of Egypt—which coincided with the loss of the leading Egyptian role in the region since the death of Nasser—does not mean that the U.S. will endanger the security and survival of the regime. The U.S. has invested heavily in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and that is not about to change any time soon.
  4. The liberal elite of Egypt has become complicit—as in all of the Arab world—in the rise of new tyrants. The bitter opposition to Ikhwan—an opposition which internalizes Western Islamophobic currents—is paramount among the liberal elite, and for that they are willing to support military tyrants in order to obtain or maintain positions of prominence in media, academia, and politics.
  5. Mass protests that are not organized through classic political parties won’t succeed. The success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the 2011 uprising was due to its organization, in contrast with its opponents in the streets who were largely disorganized and fragmented. There were leftist political parties but they too were fragmented and failed to form a united leftist front that would include Marxists and Nasserists. (Some Nasserists, including the surviving children of Gen. Gamal Abdel Nasser, even shamelessly lent their support to the dictatorship of Gen. Sisi.)
  6. With the new set of peace treaties between Israel and several Arab tyrannical regimes, the Middle East is unlikely to witness waves of democratization any time soon because democracy clashes directly with the U.S. aim of forcing these peace treaties. Israel has been introduced—albeit unofficially—to the Arab League and it will be assisting—more overtly than before and more extensively than before—in Arab repression. There is already evidence that the UAE, and other Gulf regimes, have been relying extensively on Israeli spying and repression technology and that ithis cooperation will continue to grow.

The Egyptian people have marked the occasion of the tenth anniversary with much sadness and despair. They were betrayed not only by Western governments, which continue to exploit their ideals of freedom and equality in the most demeaning fashion, but also by their own cultural and media elite who seemed to support the popular uprising in 2011, but quickly switched to the support of the dictator once he seized power in 2013.

American sponsorship of Arab dictatorships did not start with Donald Trump, and will continue with Joe Biden. And now Israel has become a cheerleader and lobbyist for Arab despots in Washington. To change that, the slogan, “The People Demand the Overthrow of the Regime” must also include “and the Overthrow of the Military-Intelligence Command.”

As`ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002), and The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004). He tweets as @asadabukhalil

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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4 comments for “Lessons From the 10th Anniversary of the Egyptian Uprising

  1. saman
    February 3, 2021 at 00:34

    There is no discussion of the Morsi government and the left’s role in its overthrow in your piece. What should the left’s strategy have been? This is an important question, as relevant in the Islamic world today as it was in 2013. The late Samir Amin supported the coup. Was he right?

    I hope I am not being offensive but what was your own position about the campaign of demonstrations and and other moves prior to the coup? Was it not a strategic mistake for the left not to engage and cooperate with the Ikhwan closely?
    More generally what do you think about Judith Butler’s views on organizations like Hezbollah or Hamas, saying that “… understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important. “

    • February 3, 2021 at 15:54

      saman…..So, I am thinking “turn, turn, turn”. I’m not trying to be flippant, but sometimes “the left” gets absorbed into self-evaluation, that when they wake up from their dream, the ship has already sailed.
      Those who can “get their act together” in a rapid way are the ones who will tell the story of the future is what I’m thinking, but I know this: I could be wrong.
      Still, everything I read in this article rings so true to me and it breaks my heart. But broken once, poor you….broken twice, grow up….broken three times – …….hell, I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Spooks be damned, I’m sick of their lies.

  2. Peter
    February 2, 2021 at 16:43

    Key concept…….***The Egyptian people have marked the occasion of the tenth anniversary with much sadness and despair. They were betrayed not only by Western governments, which continue to exploit their ideals of freedom and equality in the most demeaning fashion, but also by their own cultural and media elite who seemed to support the popular uprising in 2011, but quickly switched to the support of the dictator once he seized power in 2013. ****

    Declining Empire’s savagery is not a new phenomena. Venal avarice amidst the privileged classes is a reoccurring and a retrograde theme. A most profoundly sad tale. Will History not teach this “educated class” anything? The bell will surely toll for them when the time for settling scores comes. As it inevitably will.

  3. February 2, 2021 at 10:56

    This feels too hot to touch, but thanks for sharing this. It needs to be understood if anything is gonna change for the better anytime soon.
    I agree as well with your sentiment regarding use of the word “Revolution”. It means different things to different People, and there is more than one definition – individually as well.
    The other day there were some crows circling around my home – they were revolving in the wind so-to-speak. I don’t know how many revolutions they made. Anyhow, like I said, I agree with your sentiment, and I just love it when the crows are flying around above-head.
    Thanks again,

Comments are closed.