The awakening is not over, but the heady days of the Arab Spring have come to an end. The counter-revolution, Régis Debray once observed, is revolutionised by the revolution. And so it has been. In Syria, protests have degenerated into sectarian warfare, fomented by a thuggish ruling clique that seems ready to bring the entire country down with it. In Yemen, President Saleh has agreed to stand down after nearly three decades in power, but on the northern border with Saudi Arabia, the dirty war between Shia Houthi rebels and Salafists is getting nastier. In Libya, the oil companies are doing business again, but the country’s new rulers, swept to power by Nato, are talking about restoring Sharia law, perhaps even polygamy. In Bahrain, a peaceful uprising by the Shia majority has been crushed by the al-Khalifa monarchy, with help from troops dispatched by Saudi Arabia. (Tehran, the Saudis claimed, was behind the protests, an assertion rejected by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry in November.) Never keen on popular politics, and furious with the Americans for ‘deserting’ their mutual friend Mubarak, the Saudis have been assiduously fighting the revolutionary wave, mostly with petrodollars, sometimes with guns. The Obama administration was not pleased with the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, but it barely uttered a word of criticism: the Fifth Fleet is stationed there, and preserving the special relationship with the House of Saud is paramount.

Civil strife, sectarian warfare, repression: the forces resisting revolutionary, democratic change in the Middle East are proving tenacious. The only country to have been spared such turbulence is Tunisia, where, in an extraordinarily smooth post-revolutionary segue, the moderate Islamists of the Nahda have come to power in elections, reassuring secular Tunisians that they intend to respect the country’s progressive family code. But Tunisia has the luck of being small and peripheral. It is an island of comparative tranquillity because it barely casts a shadow beyond its borders.

Egypt, by contrast, casts a very long shadow. It has the largest population of any Arab country: some 83 million citizens. It has the Suez Canal, through which American warships are accustomed to pass at short notice. It shares a border with Israel, with which it signed a peace treaty that has allowed the Israeli army great room for manoeuvre when it has invaded its neighbours. Egypt has a very close relationship with Washington, particularly when it comes to counter-terrorism, and it has provided services that dare not speak their name, such as torture. But it has never been merely a client state. Egypt is a genuine nation, with a pharaonic history of which it is understandably proud. It has memories of leading the Arab world under Nasser, and despite the many humiliations that followed Nasser’s defeat in 1967 it has never quite given up on the idea of leading it again, as if the last four decades were just a caesura. And then there is the city of Cairo, overcrowded, grimy and a bit battered but still, in its bewildering size and wounded ambition, the cultural and political capital of the Arab world: a status it lived up to, for the first time in decades, in Tahrir Square during the 25 January revolution. The stakes in Egypt are very high.

Less than a year has passed since the uprising began, but the euphoria in Tahrir Square already seems like a distant memory. The young people who launched the revolution are still protesting, but they have been outflanked by the hard men, the soldiers and Islamist politicians now calling the shots. The Mubarak regime was replaced by a military junta, the 20-member Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), headed by Field Marshal Muhammed Hussein Tantawi.The Scaf has all but declared war on Tahrir, assailing protesters calling for civilian rule as ‘enemies’ of the revolution which it perversely claims to embody. On 16 December, military police officers armed with electric prods and clubs, and assisted by thugs, moved into the square at dawn. At least 14 people were killed and hundreds injured; a woman was stripped half naked and beaten in the square. The country’s newly appointed prime minister, Kamal El-Ganzoury, blamed protesters for the violence, accusing them of an ‘assault on the revolution’.

The other principal beneficiary of the uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood, has seen its political party, Freedom and Justice, win more than 40 per cent of the vote in the first round of elections, and appears to have done just as well in the second round. The Egyptian Bloc, a left-liberal secular coalition, came a dismal third, and performed well only in Cairo: a reminder that ‘Egypt isn’t Tahrir Square’ (as Major General Mukhtar el-Mallah put it), and that Cairo isn’t either. The runner-up was al-Nour, a fanatical Salafi party that promises to impose Islamic law, and to lead the country ‘on the path to light’. Al-Nour appeared on the scene shortly after the revolution, when scores of Salafi prisoners were released from Mubarak’s jails; they are said to receive support from Saudi Arabia, perhaps as a way of sticking it to their neighbourhood rival Qatar, which backs the Brotherhood. The bearded men of al-Nour frown on women’s rights and make little secret of their hostility to Christians. Their strong showing only added to the anxieties of the Copts, nearly a hundred thousand of whom have already emigrated, a number expected to rise to 250,000 next year.

The Islamist victory wasn’t engineered, but it couldn’t have come as a disappointment to the Scaf. The Muslim Brothers are the devil they know, and they are a more cautious, pragmatic bunch than the kids in Tahrir Square. The spectre of radical Islam is a card that Mubarak played throughout his years in power. It was the old regime’s argument for limiting political freedom, and the new regime is likely to find it equally useful. Indeed, hardly had the first round of elections ended when the Scaf announced that it would oversee the drafting of the country’s new constitution. An elected parliament dominated by Islamists couldn’t be trusted with such an important task. Three days later, after the Muslim Brotherhood withdrew in protest from the constitutional advisory council, the Scaf backed off from its announcement: the constitution, it now says, will be drafted by the Constituent Assembly appointed by parliament. But this attempt to weaken parliament did not bode well for popular sovereignty, even if it calmed nerves among liberals and Copts, not to mention officials in Washington and Tel Aviv. The ‘handover’ to a civilian authority is to take place after presidential elections are held, but the Scaf hasn’t committed itself to a firm date: maybe next year, maybe mid-2013. ‘The people and the army are one,’ protesters chanted when the army intervened on their side in February. That slogan now seems as plausible as pouvoir à l’imagination. In March, the blogger Maikel Nabil published a post entitled ‘the people and the army were never one hand.’ He was sentenced to two years in prison.

Nabil’s is not an isolated case. As Amnesty International showed in its blistering report of 22 November, the Scaf has made a mockery of human rights – in the name, as always, of ‘ensuring security and stability’. One of the main demands of the uprising was the abolition of the Emergency Law. Under the Scaf, the law has been expanded to cover offences such as blocking roads, broadcasting false rumours and ‘assault on freedom to work’ – a euphemism for strikes, which are now criminalised. More than 12,000 civilians have been tried in military courts since February; in October the Scaf promised to end the trials but that hasn’t yet happened. Some 39 NGOs are under investigation for ‘treason’ and ‘conspiracies’ against national security; their offence has been to accept foreign money. Torture remains widespread, and more than a hundred protesters have been killed by security forces, 40 of them in the November clashes in Tahrir Square. Women arrested by the Scaf have been subjected to invasive ‘virginity tests’, which a senior general justified on CNN by explaining that these women ‘were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters.’ He had to ‘prove that they weren’t virgins’, he said; otherwise they might claim they had been sexually assaulted. On 9 October Coptic demonstrators outside the Maspero television building in Cairo were attacked by security forces, and an anchor on state TV called on ‘honourable citizens’ to defend the army. The request was fulfilled with enthusiasm. Thugs and freelance vigilantes, armed with Molotov cocktails, turned up; at least 28 people were killed, some of them crushed by armoured vehicles. Once again, the Scaf blamed the protesters for the violence.

A military government stubbornly clinging to power, and willing to use lethal force against unarmed protesters; bloggers held in prison for ‘insulting the military’; not a single woman appointed to the constitutional committee; Salafis receiving as much as 30 per cent of the vote for parliament: an uprising against a dictatorship seems to have taken a disconcertingly illiberal turn. No wonder the Tahrir vanguard has begun to ask what the uprising has achieved. No wonder some of them claim the revolution has been ‘hijacked’ by a counter-revolution of generals and Islamists whose aim is to prevent genuine civilian rule. It is a view shared by sympathetic foreign observers, who dreamed that what was happening in Tahrir Square was the birth of a liberal Egypt in which all the freedoms cherished in the West would be protected.

A liberal Egypt was briefly alive among the people in Tahrir Square who desperately wanted to be a part of the modern world. But as Ernst Bloch once remarked, we all live in the present, but ‘not all of us live in the same now.’ And what the revolutionary youth discovered, once Mubarak was overthrown and the country began to have a genuine political life for the first time since the Free Officers seized power in 1952, was that they had little support among those who lived in a different now. They discovered that to start a revolution is not to own it. Egypt – in its conservative, pious, traditional aspect – didn’t recognise itself in the largely middle-class, internet-savvy Tahrir groupuscules. It was repelled by cultural radicals such as Aliaa Elmahdy, the so-called nude blogger, who became a cause célèbre among feminists when she posted racy photographs of herself: an act of revolt, she explained, against conservatism and ‘sexual complexes’. If this was liberalism, most Egyptians wanted no part of it. It was one thing to follow the vanguard into the streets to chase Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, his intelligence chief, out of office. It was quite another to support it after the uprising had achieved its goals, especially since the movements that occupied the square were essentially leaderless. This was a bitter lesson for the revolutionaries, and they have yet to recover. In the words of one disenchanted activist, Youssef Rakha, ‘the irony of the so-called revolution, its greatest triumph and its worst tragedy, is that it had no political direction.’

The Muslim Brothers, on the other hand, had patiently been building a base for eight decades. Cautious as ever, they were latecomers to Tahrir Square, but when they arrived they manned the barricades and made a decisive contribution to the overthrow of Mubarak. And when they formed the Freedom and Justice Party after the uprising they immediately had a modern electoral machine at their disposal. In marked contrast to opposition parties like the Wafd and Tagammu they weren’t tainted by association with the old regime – a crucial advantage. The first round of elections has provided dramatic confirmation that the Islamist moment has arrived in Egypt, as it has in Tunisia, Libya and Morocco. Mubarak’s repression merely delayed it.

A cool reckoning of what this means, against the backdrop of the wider region, is in order. A year before the 11 September attacks, Gilles Kepel, in his widely cited book Jihad, argued that the resort by jihadi groups to spectacular acts of violence against the ‘far enemy’ in the West showed the desperation, not the strength, of Islamist movements that were no longer able to confront the ‘near enemy’ – their own ‘impious’ governments. After 9/11, Kepel held his ground, which gave his thesis an attractively counterintuitive appeal, while Islamist movements that wanted nothing to do with al-Qaida – from the moderate, pro-business Islamists of the Turkish AKP to the Shia guerrillas of Lebanese Hizbullah – went from strength to strength. Whenever Islamists such as Hamas came to power in elections, other, more comforting explanations were sought for their success. What appealed to voters was their opposition to corruption, their dedication to ‘resistance’, their charitable work providing education and healthcare in slums: anything but their belief in faith-based governance. But in the Arab world today, these selling points are all part of the same package. Since the collapse of Nasserism in 1967, Islamism has provided the Arabs with an idiom of resistance, one with an even stronger claim to cultural authenticity than secular nationalism. The lustre of Islamism has also been burnished by concrete achievements: the success of the AKP in Turkey and Erdogan’s growing stature as a regional leader who has defied American wishes; the 2006 ‘divine victory’ of Hizbullah in Lebanon, which washed away some of the humiliation the Arabs have felt since the 1967 defeat. Erdogan and Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, are folk heroes in Egypt.

The Islamism of today is very different from the Islamism of the 1980s and 1990s, when radical jihadis rose up against secular-nationalist regimes in Syria, Algeria and Egypt, turning Hama, Algiers and Cairo into war zones. Their interpretation of majority rule doesn’t always make room for minority rights, but aside from al-Qaida and a fringe of extremists, Islamists now aim to achieve their goals through democratic politics. Even the hardline Salafis, who for years rejected elections as un-Islamic, have been grudgingly won over. Islamists have been chastened by their experience of state repression, and by al-Qaida’s attacks against fellow Muslims, which disgusted even those Muslims who had been inclined to see Osama bin Laden as a defender of the faith. They have also drawn important lessons from the experience of Turkey and Indonesia, which persuaded them that, as the sociologist Asef Bayat puts it, ‘Muslims could confidently remain Muslim but also have a democratic state.’

Today’s Islamists are far from liberal, but they understand that they have much to gain from working with liberals, and that democratic governance may provide the ummah, and the faith itself, with better protection than a rigid Islamic state such as Iran or Saudi Arabia. Bayat describes the loose coalition of liberal and Islamist democrats as ‘post-Islamist’, in that they seek to establish ‘a pious society within a democratic state’, drawing inspiration from religion but emphasising rights over obligations. Post-Islamism first emerged in Egypt, he argues, when secular and Islamist forces joined to stage mass rallies in Cairo in support of the second intifada; that movement evolved by 2004 into Kefaya, a precursor of the groups that made the revolution. It is unlikely that the Muslim Brothers will ever describe themselves as ‘post-Islamist’: that would be close to heresy. And there is an understandable wariness among liberals and leftists about the Brothers’ commitment to sharing power. But their intentions have never been tested, and they have made it plain that their first priority in government will be to deal with the country’s enormous social problems. Like its friends in Tel Aviv, the Obama administration is worried that the Camp David treaty will be nullified if the Brothers gain the upper hand, and that Egypt will go the way of Iran in 1979, a fear exacerbated by the storming of the Israeli Embassy in September. But the Brothers denounced the attack on the embassy and have said they will honour the treaty, with some adjustments. They know there is no appetite in Egypt for war with Israel, even if public opinion runs against ‘normalisation’. They are conservative reformers, not revolutionaries. They may bristle at the idea of a secular state, as Erdogan discovered on his visit to Cairo, but they are nearly as hostile to clerical rule. In their economic policy, they are unlikely to offer anything more robust than a tepid neoliberalism.

If, that is, they are allowed to govern. The Scaf flirted with the idea of using the Brothers as a front shortly after coming to power last February, but it was forced to shelve this strategy because the Brothers turned out to be stronger than anyone expected, including the Brothers themselves. The Scaf has since aimed to weaken the Brotherhood or – shades of Mubarak – to use it to cause panic among those, in Egypt and in the West, who fear an Islamic revolution. It has had some success in projecting itself as a guarantor of Egypt’s security, particularly among the so-called hizb al kanabah, ‘the party of the couch’: the silent majority of Egyptians who stayed at home during the demonstrations and wish to see an end to all the upheaval. People succeeded in overcoming their fear of Mubarak and his police during the uprising, but Egyptians have yet to overcome their fear of one another: their fear that, in the absence of a strong hand, the country could fall apart. The Scaf has played on this, warning darkly of a plot by unnamed conspirators to ‘weaken the Egyptian nation’ and accusing the protest movements of serving ‘foreign agendas’; according to one Scaf member, ‘there is an invisible hand in the square causing a rift between the army and the people.’ It has no more vision than Mubarak did, and possibly less, but it has a great deal of determination, and a clear goal: to prove that only the military can ensure the country’s stability. This was el-Mallah’s message when on 7 December he announced that the Scaf would maintain control over the writing of the constitution. It’s a message that will go over well with some liberals, who would like to see the Islamists held in check. In this respect the situation is all too reminiscent of Algeria in the early 1990s, when Islamists won the first round of parliamentary elections and looked poised to win the next. The military brought the second round to a halt, and the Islamists concluded that the only way they would ever take power would be by force of arms. Algeria is still recovering from a war in which nearly 200,000 people died.

When the Scaf first appeared on the scene, few predicted that it would try to rule for long. The military, it was said, wanted nothing more than to return to its barracks. But the military is enjoying a taste of power it hasn’t had since the early 1950s when the Free Officers overthrew the monarchy and may find hard to give up. The uprising against Mubarak overshadowed a struggle that may do more to determine the way the country is governed: the army’s settling of accounts with its rivals inside the old regime. Under Mubarak, the intelligence services and the Ministry of the Interior were strengthened at the army’s expense, and the army developed a serious grudge. It also came to despise ‘Gamal’s boys’, the businessmen who profited handsomely from their close ties to Mubarak’s heir apparent. The army was a marginal player in political decision-making; it wasn’t involved in the grim business of daily repression, and during the uprising was never a target of popular rage. By remaining neutral while Egyptians vented their anger against the regime, the Interior Ministry and the police, the army was able to present itself as the nation’s saviour. After the uprising, it moved quickly against Habib al-Adly, the hated interior minister, and Gamal’s ‘boy’ Ahmed Ezz, a steel magnate, both of whom were arrested for squandering public funds. Eventually, it turned against Mubarak himself, a former commander of the air force. The army’s swift action satisfied the public desire for justice and revenge, and gave the Scaf a certain legitimacy.

But in those years of exile from political power the army had established itself as a major force in the county’s economy. It acquired interests and privileges which it was determined to protect. Retired officers grew accustomed to receiving titles to public lands. Some turned these into lavish housing developments or hotels; others went into agriculture. This infrastructure has always depended on American aid – $1.3 billion a year. The military’s American patrons have never been under any illusions about where their dollars were going. As Margaret Scobey, the former ambassador to Cairo, wrote in a 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks, ‘Defence Minister Tantawi keeps the armed forces appearing reasonably sharp and the officers satisfied with their perks and privileges.’ Tantawi is not much liked in Washington, where he is seen as ‘aged and change-resistant’, as another cable put it. America’s man in Cairo is, by all accounts, Tantawi’s Soviet-trained deputy, Sami Hafez Enan, chief of staff of the armed forces, who was in Washington when the uprising broke out; he cut his trip short and appeared in Tahrir Square on 10 February, promising to fulfil the demands of Egypt’s protesters.

The relationship between the US and the Egyptian military is not defined by any one man, however. The military, much more than the Mubarak regime, is considered indispensable to American strategy in the Middle East. Its commitment to the peace treaty with Israel is what matters most, but the logistical support it gives to US forces in Afghanistan, its opposition to the spread of Iranian influence and the access it provides to US ships in the Suez are nearly as important. The two militaries also conduct joint training exercises in the desert. In return Egypt’s army has come to expect its annual aid package. ‘Egyptian officers,’ Steven Cook writes in The Struggle for Egypt, ‘regard the aid not as American generosity but rather as their money.’ This, in Mubarak’s words, was the ‘untouchable compensation’.[*]

There have been some shifts in Egyptian diplomacy since the uprising. Egypt has tried to broker the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, much to Israel’s annoyance, and it has relaxed the siege at the Rafah crossing. When Israel killed five Egyptian soldiers during a cross-border raid against the perpetrators of the attack on tourists in Eilat, the Egyptian government demanded a formal apology. (It got an apology of sorts, only to be upstaged by Erdogan, who withdrew the Turkish ambassador over the Mavi Marmara attack.) There has also been talk of renewing relations with Iran. But little progress has been made, and Egypt stood with the Bahraini monarchy and the Saudis during the attacks on Shia protesters. Most of the changes have been a matter of tone: attempts to save face, rather than a new regional posture. There seems to be little interest in reclaiming leadership in the Arab world.

The Obama administration, no doubt appreciating the Scaf’s efforts at a time of great stress, has stood by it, in the face of growing pressure from Congress. There have been verbal wrist-slaps over the army’s crackdown on protesters in Tahrir Square, and calls for restraint, much as there were in the last days of Mubarak. But Hillary Clinton has said that the Scaf’s vague schedule for elections, which may delay the transition to civilian rule until mid-2013, is an ‘appropriate timetable’. The military aid continues to flow, without conditions, and the tear gas canisters read ‘Made in America’. The political ambitions of Tantawi and his fellow generals appear only to have grown. Many people were furious when Tantawi turned up in downtown Cairo in a civilian suit, stirring rumours that he’s planning a run for the presidency. (It’s taboo for military officials to turn up in Cairo unless they’re in uniform.) The Scaf denied it, but posters in support of a Tantawi bid appeared in Cairo and Alexandria. Washington isn’t likely to withdraw its support from the Scaf unless its tactics incite protests that put American interests at risk. The Scaf’s position is by no means assured, so long as Tahrir Square remains a rival to its legitimacy. The protesters are fractured but still vigorous; the Brothers seem determined to fight the Scaf’s efforts to clip its wings. Together they have had some success in forcing the military’s hand. Whether they can persuade it to make way for civilian governance remains to be seen. But if their efforts are crushed, with tacit American support, further unrest could explode, and the Scaf will not be the only target of popular anger.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 34 No. 3 · 9 February 2012

Adam Shatz says that the new rulers of Libya may be contemplating the restoration of Sharia law, ‘perhaps even polygamy’ (LRB, 5 January). But no prohibition of polygamy has ever been enacted in Libya. The only two Islamic countries that have abolished polygamy by secular legislation are Turkey in 1926 and Tunisia in 1956. Polygamy (probably more correctly ‘polygyny’) is rare in the Arab countries and specifically discouraged by the Quran, where a husband is commanded to be fair and to treat his wives with meticulous equality; if equality is not guaranteed (and the Quran says it will be impossible), ‘then one wife is best for you’.

Salah el Serafy
Arlington, Virginia

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences