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Egypt: Uprising And Analysis
Two Years Later. February 2013

Interview with Dr. Ann Lesch by Ja A. Jahannes
Cairo, Egypt and Savannah, Georgia

Two years ago, the world witnessed a media-genic, dramatic, historical, social network-influenced, uprising unfold in Egypt. In Motion Magazine had an opportunity to conduct an interview with a renowned Dr. Ann Lesch, an international scholar, who has been living and working in Cairo, and had lived there for nearly fifteen years. This interview is a follow up to that interview, by Dr. Ja A. Jahannes.

Ann Lesch is professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, having previously taught at Villanova University. She has lived in Egypt for nearly seventeen years of her adult life and has published articles on the causes of the January 25th Revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian labor migration, and Egyptian foreign policy. She is also the author of books on Sudanese politics and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Jahannes: Please give us some background. What was your assessment of the Egyptian uprising two years ago, when we interviewed you. Then you told us that there were signs that an uprising might occur. Discontent was mounting visibly -- brutality by security forces, clampdowns on political activists and journalists, and the rigging of the parliamentary elections in November 2010 angered many people, coupled with the serious unemployment and an escalating cost of living. However, it took the Tunisians’ overthrow of Ben Ali to catalyze the massive street protests. Is that still your assessment or have some other factors come to light? Did it unfold as you predicted and what surprises may have evolved?

Lesch: It is hard to believe that two years have passed since you interviewed me, in the midst of the eighteen day struggle to overthrow President Mubarak. At that moment, we didn’t know that the massive peaceful demonstrations mounted throughout Egypt would succeed. And there was uncertainty as to the role that the armed forces would play, although it was evident that the officer corps did not intend to attack the demonstrators. On February 11, it was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that gave the decisive push: confronting Mubarak with the stark choice of resigning or facing charges of treason.

As to the causes, the ones that I mentioned remain highly relevant. I could add the corruption of the ruling regime, including the crony capitalists around Gamal Mubarak, the president’s younger son. Since the regime’s demise, new information emerges daily of the depth of corruption, including within the security forces and police. Of course, as the armed forces have retained their autonomy and the secrecy concerning their budgets and their vast agricultural and industrial empire, little or no information is available about their corrupt enterprises.

I may have understated the role of worker strikes in leading up to the uprising: From 2004 (when large scale privatization of the public sector accelerated) until 2011, at least two million workers protested at more than 3,000 factories or in front of the parliament. The organizational skills that they gained during those protests were crucial in the period leading up to the uprising. Moreover, their demands escalated from limited issues such as bonuses and retirement benefits to full-throated cries of “down with Mubarak.”

Finally, the self-organized soccer fan groups known as Ultras were not considered “political actors” before the uprising. They had chanted and fought against the Central Security Forces during soccer matches -- and quickly transferred their skills to manning the barricades in Tahrir Square on January 25. Now, the Ultras are central to the ongoing protests against police violence.

Jahannes: Who now seem to be the winners and losers in a post-Mubarak Egypt? The security forces, military, and old-regime stalwarts -- or the new, democratic forces as you suggested two years ago?

Lesch: The old-regime stalwarts were swept aside. They fled the country or were jailed for corruption. When members of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), who were often “big men” in their localities ran for parliament in November 2011, they only won eighteen seats (3.5 percent of the total). The new constitution bans NDP leaders and NDP members who served in the 2005 and 2010 parliaments from running for office for the next ten years. Nonetheless, Mubarak-era appointees remain influential in the administrative apparatus and in the judiciary -- and, in time, many “felool” (remnants of the Mubarak regime) will quietly regain a degree of influence.

The military and the security forces remain very strong. SCAF ruled the country from February 2011 through June 2012 -- and even then insisted on retaining the authority to approve all laws related to the armed forces and control its budget through the National Defense Council, in which military officers constitute the majority. (This was written into the constitution that was passed in December 2012.) But the President has the power to remove the Defense Minister (who heads SCAF) -- and did so in August 2012. At present, there are no indications that the officer corps will step back into the political arena, so long as its economic interests are protected and so long as the security situation remains manageable.

As to the security and police forces, they pose serious problems. They are completely unreformed: the beating of civilians on the streets and in police stations is as flagrant as it was before the uprising. And the courts have not convicted any officers for killing and wounding people. This judicial failure has fueled huge anger -- as obtaining justice was and remains a central demand.

In a general sense one can say that democratic forces succeeded, as the return to Mubarak-style autocratic rule is hard to imagine. People express themselves vigorously and continuously. However, the youths who invigorated the uprising have been seriously marginalized. They express themselves through street-art, community improvement efforts, a vigorous culture of tweets, and continuous protests in public. But they have not been able to translate their ideas into conventional parliamentary expression; very few won seats in the elections and they are suspicious of the self-promoting politicians. There is therefore a high degree of frustration and anger that the demands for freedom and democracy haven’t translated into the concrete changes that they had sought.

Jahannes: Is the situation in terms of gaining control over power still fairly fluid or even volatile? Have those who wanted political change remained connected or have they splintered and become competing groups? Are the business elites flexible and able to adapt to the new reality?

Lesch: If we focus on the parliamentary elections, it is evident that the Islamist groups were the best organized and best able to gather voters behind them -- particularly in the rural areas. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom & Justice Party won more than 40 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly (November/December 2011) and an Islamist/Salafi bloc won 25 percent. Their combined majority in that house was 70 percent -- and in the upper house, 83 percent. This meant that, in the People’s Assembly the various non-Islamist groups held 30 percent of the seats, but they could not constitute a “blocking minority” as they were divided among themselves. They wanted to separate religion from politics, but they differed on the optimal economic system (e.g., capitalist vs. socialist) as well as other issues and often had such strong egos that they found it difficult to cooperate.

This lack of cohesion was particularly evident in the presidential race: Instead of rallying behind one candidate, they divided their votes among a dozen candidates. As a result, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi gained 25 percent of the votes in the first round, and won in the run-off. If the anti-Islamists had united, their candidate would have easily gained forty percent or more in the first round, becoming the favorite in the run-off.

Today, the political scene is highly polarized: President Morsi takes his cues from the Guidance Council of the Brotherhood and relies on the Islamist majority to get his policies through the parliament. Opposition forces are alienated from the political process and consider his “majority” as false -- not a majority that reflects the real balance of views in the country at large. There is huge anger on the streets against the Brotherhood's effort to hijack the revolution and over its using the hated police to quel protests. The newly formed National Salvation Front (NSF) is trying to articulate coherent positions against the government and the constitution, and even the main Salafi party has joined the NSF's call for a coalition government to guide the country until parliamentary elections can be held later this spring.

As to the business community, those who benefited from the Mubarak regime tend to lie low (and some are in prison, as I noted). Some are making deals with the government to return a portion of their illegally-gained assets in order to have court cases dropped. The Brotherhood’s business elite is trying to assert itself. Its merchants, construction firms, and other businesses are flexing their muscles -- and working to build joint enterprises with the military. Whether this elite will be able to consolidate itself remains questionable, given the fluidity of the political scene.

Jahannes: Now that the Brotherhood is part of the political establishment, do Egyptians view them as a departure from the Mubarak legacy or a continuation of it, since President Morsi has made considerable changes to Egypt’s constitution and greatly expanded his powers as president?

Lesch: The Brotherhood changed overnight from a beleaguered underground movement, many of whose leaders were in prison during the uprising, to the political establishment. Even during the uprising, some of their leaders were ready to make a political deal with Mubarak's government -- a deal that was strongly rejected by the Brotherhood youth, who were very important on the street throughout the eighteen days. The Brotherhood seeks to capture the instruments of power -- administration, judiciary, press, etc. -- but is ill-prepared to rule and has few (if any) coherent socio-economic plans. Morsi’s November 22, 2012, decree that made himself immune from judicial oversight, deeply shocked people. (That decree has now lapsed.) The Constituent Assembly (appointed in spring 2012) wrote a new constitution - which Morsi rushed through a referendum -- and which has resulted in many concerns and questions, particularly related to the rights of women, religious minorities, and labor.

Jahannes: Has the overthrow of the Mubarak government destabilized the Egyptian economy or has it had a more positive effect and a promise for expansion of the economic sectors and more jobs in the long term? How do you assess the reports, to the contrary, that the Egyptian pound is hurting and the cost of everything is rising -- even the price of bread?

Lesch: It was not surprising that the economy suffered abrupt shocks during and right after the uprising. The government closed down the banking system for nearly two months, tourists vanished, industrial production slowed down, and commerce dropped (particularly due to the night-time curfew and insecurity on the highways). As daily life resumed, there were expectations that the economy would re-stabilize. However, the angry demonstrations in the Fall of 2011 -- and again in Fall 2012 -- made tourists wary of returning. Industry, commerce, and banking have improved, but there is little foreign investment. Moreover, the government’s commitments to subsidize energy and other commodities have swamped the budget, increased the deficit, and led to the hemorrhaging of dollars out of the country. A few governments -- notably Qatar -- have transferred millions of dollars to the central bank, but this infusion props up the currency only in the short-run. In the long run, there needs to be restored international confidence -- including the anticipated IMF loan. Without that loan (which is offered at just over one percent -- an extraordinarily low interest rate), European and American support will not be forthcoming. The upshot is that -- at present -- unemployment is higher than before January 2011, there have been no structural reforms, and the gradual devaluation has caused prices to rise for basic commodities as well as luxury goods. This fuels the anger of protestors, for whom “aish” -- which means both “life” and “bread” -- is a central demand.

Jahannes: Two years ago the Egyptian government claimed there were many foreign manipulators behind the scenes fomenting the uprising. Did any of that kind of alleged activity actually surface?

Lesch: No -- most autocrats talk of “hidden foreign hands” as a way to avoid admitting that protests are home-grown, based on real domestic grievances. I remember one day when Mubarak’s government claimed that Americans, Iranians, Israelis, and Palestinians were working together in Tahrir Square in order to overthrow the regime -- hardly a credible mix! Those kinds of claims still surface every once in a while -- but are usually laughed at.

Jahannes: Is there now more of a competitive party system in Egypt than two years ago? Is the notion of democracy any more near to being a reality for the people in general than heretofore or has the hope for democracy in the immediate future been crushed?

Lesch: In 2005, Mubarak won ninety percent of the votes in his bid for another term as president. In 2010, the NDP won 97 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly. That kind of monopolization of power is no longer possible. I mentioned that the Islamist parties won the majority of seats in the elections for the lower and upper houses of parliament in late 2011 and January 2012; however, even the Islamists are divided among different trends and argue amongst themselves. Voters are learning rapidly how to vote strategically -- and that knowledge will be important in subsequent elections. Moreover, there was a lot of “buyers’ remorse” when voters discovered that their elected representatives were (often) not very bright -- and also discovered that the MPs didn’t necessarily support the interests of those who voted for them. A common refrain has been, if the MPs don’t fulfill their promises -- “We’ll dump them.”

Jahannes: How do Egyptians see American involvement now, and how can America best assist the people and government of Egypt?

Lesch: The US government provided enormous support for Mubarak and the Egyptian military and encouraged the neo-liberal economic policies of that regime. Ambassador Margaret Scobey admitted that she was completely taken by surprise by the uprising. It took the US government several days to shift from mildly asking for political reform to admitting that Mubarak had to go. There must have been continual conversations between SCAF leaders and senior US officials. After the uprising, the embassy supported efforts by US NGOs (such as IRI, NDI, and Freedom House) to foster democratic change -- but that boomeranged, as senior Egyptian officials (largely held over from Mubarak’s cabinet) charged them with interfering in Egyptian politics, closed down those offices in late December 2011, and tried to arrest their staff.

The current ambassador -- Anne Patterson -- who came to Egypt from Pakistan -- indicated that SCAF should endorse the results of the presidential elections (which gave Morsi 52 percent of the vote as against the former air force officer Ahmed Shafiq’s 48 percent) and supported a smooth transition from military to civilian rule. The US continues to pump huge amounts of money into the armed forces but has withheld economic aid until the political situation stabilizes and the IMF loan is finalized. This puts some pressure on Morsi’s government, but not much. Moreover, Patterson sends conflicting signals. On the one hand, she speaks candidly about the need for political leadership to overcome the economic crisis and, on the other hand, she signals that Morsi will survive as president -- a message that doesn’t encourage him to meet the opposition groups’ demands for power-sharing and amendments to the new constitution. This could fuel protests at the US embassy for alleged collusion with the Brotherhood to maintain it in power.

Jahannes: What are the current thoughts in Egypt on the situation in Palestine after the Hamas “victory” and the upgrade in status of the Palestinian Authority at the UN?

Lesch: There is strong support for Palestinian statehood among Egyptians, and anger at Israel’s violent occupation, seizure of land, and deprivation of political rights. The Egyptian government played a facilitator role in ending the November Israeli bombardment of Gaza -- and gained credit from the US for that role. There are constraints on Egyptian policy and actions, however, as its key concern is security in Sinai and controlling the border with Gaza so that militants won’t infiltrate into Sinai. In that regard, the current government has destroyed more tunnels between Sinai and Gaza than were destroyed under Mubarak. Thus, while verbally supporting Palestinian rights, Morsi and his government admit that the Egyptian-Israeli treaty of 1979 must continue.

Jahannes: Will non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslims still have rights under the new constitution?

Lesch: The constitution recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity and Judaism as the official religions. This excludes Shii Muslims, Bahais and any other religion. Before the uprising, the Bahai community had won some legal rights through the judiciary -- but these may be lost. Recently, the Minister of Education refused to allow Bahai children to attend public school. These stipulations -- coupled with constitutional articles that criminalize defamation -- represent setbacks to freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

Jahannes: Is there colorism in Egypt? People of color do not appear to be a part of mainstream Egyptian socio-economic and political strata.

Lesch: The Nubian community is darker skinned than most Egyptians who live in northern and central Egypt. Nubians have a distinct history, culture, and languages. They live in northern Sudan and in the Lake Nasser/Aswan area of Egypt. Many of them migrated north to work as servants in the cities -- then diversifying into other positions. They lost most of their land when the High Dam was constructed in the 1960s and their villages were flooded by the new Lake Nasser. Today, they are struggling to reclaim their land rights: both SCAF and the Morsi government claim that they will let them resettle near the lake, but I don’t think that any action has been taken.

The Bedouin are also discriminated against: They can’t own their land along the Mediterranean coast toward Libya and in the Sinai peninsula. Sinai Bedouin were not allowed to serve in the military and are barred from working in the tourist resorts in Sharm al Sheikh. Most of the young men are unemployed. Since the uprising they have expressed their anger at this discrimination. As with the Nubians, government officials make promises to alter their status but have yet to carry through those promises.

Jahannes: What is your prognosis for the future of Egypt? Do you see developing relations between Egypt and Iran and what kind of new relations is Egypt likely to forge with other regional players as well as international political power houses? What, in short, is Egypt’s future?

Lesch: As soon as Morsi became president, he tried to reach out to global and regional states to ensure a smooth transition as well as to improve relations with states whom Mubarak had alienated. Mubarak hadn’t participated in the African Union meetings since 1995 and hadn’t gone to the UN General Assembly for a decade. Morsi quickly visited China (with a large trade delegation), Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and key European countries. He reopened dialogue with East African countries, particularly on vital Nile-water issues, and addressed the UN General Assembly. Morsi wants to show the West and the Gulf states that he is a force for stability. After all, he depends heavily on them for financial aid in order to keep Egypt afloat.

I should mention that his visit to Tehran in late August came in the context of the Non-Aligned Movement, not as a move to restore diplomatic relations. Those relations had been broken in 1979, when Egypt hosted the former Shah -- and then allowed him to be buried in Cairo. In Tehran, Morsi angered his hosts by denouncing their support for Bashar Asad in Syria and also emphasized Sunni doctrine as central to his beliefs (in a state where Shiism dominates). Moreover, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent visit to Cairo came in the context of the annual meeting of the Islamic Conference Organization. Although Ahmadinejad sought close relations with Egypt -- stressing their deep civilizational ties and making unrealizable promises of economic aid -- the atmosphere was tense and there was overt criticism of Iran's alleged efforts to spread Shi'ism in the Arab world and over its support for Asad.

Egypt’s future! We have to remember that Egypt is emerging from sixty years of military dictatorship. There is so much to undo -- while at the same time forging new modes of behavior in the political arena. This is going to be a long process. I often think of a comment made by Bassem Youssef (Egypt’s Jon Stewart) a couple of months after the uprising: “The shoe that was pressing down on all our necks for thirty years has gone. It’s natural that once this shoe has disappeared, we hear a lot of noise and shouting. This strange phenomenon is called democracy. Let’s not destroy it just because we’re scared.” And so I’ll conclude: let’s hope that people continue to protest, continue to demand their rights. Then, in time, democracy will take root and thrive.

Dr. Ja A. Jahannes is a writer with a broad interest in international affairs and issues of peace. He has visited Egypt twice on intensive study tours, was a Joseph J. Malone Fellow in Arab and Islamic Studies under the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations in Jordan and Syria; and was a research fellow with the Ministry of Education in Israel. Note. The interview questions were formulated by Dr. Jahannes in consultation with a number of America scholars, including Daniel Walker, Michael McCoy, John Pew, Vincent Rudy Gadsden, Jerry Silverman, and Nic Paget-Clarke, publisher of In Motion Magazine.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 18, 2013

Also see:

  • Egypt: Uprising And Analysis
    Interview by Ja A. Jahannes
    Cairo, Egypt and Savannah, Georgia
    Published in In Motion Magazine February 6, 2011