Three years ago, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fled Tunisia and the situation in Egypt began to move, although few people really expected Hosni Mubarak to do anything but stay in power. At the time, I wrote in this newspaper that “civil society has not just been crippled, but … it has been massacred”. As a result, “young people, whether in Tunisia or elsewhere, need a vision”. I was, essentially, arguing against a revolutionary uprising. I was wrong.
Sadly, I do not anticipate a positive third anniversary of the January 25 uprisings. There will be large crowds on the streets and, hopefully, there will be minimal violence.
On the broader political scene, the dreams and hopes of that original moment have gone. The majority of Egyptians have made a choice between two camps: most seem to support a new constitution. A minority has chosen a bankrupt, sectarian Islamist movement that has a marginal fringe of violent radicals. Critical mass certainly does not lie with the forces of reform who might seek to restructure the security establishment, develop the judiciary or restructure policies for social justice. Talk of transitional justice for Mubarak’s era, let alone the three years that came after it, would be humorous, if it were not so tragic.
Three years ago, I argued that the Egyptian state needed reform rather than revolution. My concern was that revolution would lead to collapse, and without a thriving civil society, all that would happen was chaos. As it turned out, the revolution did not lead to collapse, partly because the state did not exist in a conventional way. Rather, it existed, and exists, as more of a network of interests than anything else – and those interests are stable.
What remains is a deceptive type of stability. This state persists due to the games played by both the current administration and its main Islamist opponents in the Muslim Brotherhood-led Anti-Coup Alliance. At some point, the duel between the two will cease to be the main energising force of the country’s political arena – and then the administration may pause to wonder what needs to be done.
Odd as it sounds, Egypt does need a revolution, because in the past three years, it has not actually had one. It has had revolutionaries, who have wanted to build a new Egypt, but revolutionary change has not taken place.
There were chances for it – but they would have required the cooperation of either the Muslim Brotherhood or the military establishment. In both cases, they chose an interpretation of their own interests that precluded building a widespread consensus for a new Egyptian republic. In both cases, they declared victory and then failed to build the republic that remains the single best hope for a stable Egyptian state in the 21st century.
Egypt is not an island. For good reason, the international community will continue to be concerned about an Egyptian state where it feels respect for fundamental rights are decreasing.
Unilateral engagement with Egypt is likely to be perceived as unwanted international interference. Multilateral engagement, particularly from a collection of Gulf and European states, may be a different story – and will, perhaps, be more successful in identifying how to assist Egypt to move in a more positive direction. Egypt is not simply a proud state, but an important one whose future affects the entire region.
For that reason, it deserves assistance – and part of that aid should be clear and forthright advice about where things are going wrong. Civil society, which is under more pressure than ever, needs to be strengthened and not be subject to further subjugation.
At one point, the authorities of Egypt may realise that real and genuine reform is the best way to a stable future. The overwhelming majority of Egyptians are young and the current set up of the Egyptian state is structurally incapable of meeting their needs, let alone their aspirations. That demographic reality may force the political elite to one day reconsider their options.
In the meantime, the forces of reform who put their faith in the possibilities of the January 25 uprisings have really only one choice, and that is to maintain their vision of a better Egypt, continue to hold everyone and everybody to account – in whatever way they can, through media outlets, rights groups and other civil society institutions.
I wrote in 2011 that “Right now, it’s not that these young people are rejecting a vision. It’s worse: no one has any vision to give them.”
Three years on, there are now more people who could conceivably build that vision, whether they do or not is up to them.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and ISPU
On Twitter: @hahellyer