Egypt and the Middle East – what is happening?

Revolutionary icons: Social media and the internet has played a big part in the Egyptian protests

As the world watches, Egypt and the rest of the Arab region is undergoing seismic change.

What began as a popular uprising in Tunisia appears to have ignited into public revolt against long-established government in several Arab countries, the largest of which is Egypt, a key player in the region's politics.

Here, Egyptian scholar Ramy Aly, a Research Fellow in the School of Global Studies who specialises in Arab politics, Egyptian affairs and the impact of new media on popular protest and who will be returning to Cairo to observe new developments, provides analysis of recent events.

Q Is a bloody confrontation inevitable?

A This prospect remains undetermined. The violence yesterday has been widely attributed to some members of the National Democratic Party, who are fearful of losing their power and influence as the regime fades.

In particular, the Governor of Al-Minya province has been accused of paying thugs to go into Tahrir Square and of providing them with crates of Coka Cola bottles which have been turned into petrol bombs. Protestors in the square report that they have proof that some of those who attacked the demonstrators were card-carrying members of the police.

It is important to acknowledge that President Mubarak's speech, in which he announced that he would not run in the next Presidential elections and made constitutional concessions, affected many Egyptians.

They believe it showed he was willing to make unprecedented concessions to the demonstrators. Importantly, President Mubarak said, in response to calls for him to leave the country, that he was "born in this land, fought for it and would die in it".

The patriachal approach to political leadership makes such statements extremely powerful for many in the public. The country is split between two camps, and while there are many average Egyptians who now support the President, their cause is now backed by the force of hired thugs and remnants of the state security apparatus.

While the army is accused of standing by yesterday while peaceful protestors were attacked by an organised gang in Tahrir Square, today they are reported to be keeping the two sides apart and driving back the pro-Mubarak protestors.

The way in which the army controls and prevents the outbreak of violence today will be decisive for the two marches that have been called for tomorrow by the respective camps.

Q What has prompted the current demonstrations in Egypt?

A Ostensibly, demonstrators took to the streets on the 25th of January as a response to calls from a broad coalition of grass roots movements. The most prominent of which are: the 6th of April movement (a political and economic rights youth movement); The' Kefaya' (Enough/'Ya Basta') movement; and the 'National Coalition for Change', led by the former IAEA chief inspector Dr Mohammed Al-Baradei.

The call for the demonstration coincided with the annual 'Police Day', a public holiday commemorating the role of the Egyptian Police in resisting the British Occupation.

The Police Day has in recent years been viewed with much disdain by the public as the Mubarak regime has used the 1.3 million strong internal security apparatus, of which the police is an integral part, as the principle tool through which the population is politically controlled and through which (the thirty year) state of emergency has been enforced.

Importantly, the demonstrations of the 25th were took place against the backdrop of the overthrow of Zien El-Din Ben Ali's regime after one month of demonstrations and protest in Tunisia.

Events in Tunisia provided the public in other parts of the Arab world with a model of mass public protest which led to the removal of a dictator.

Hours after it was revealed that Ben Ali had fled Tunisia an Egyptian man set fire to himself in front of the Egyptian Parliament. His self-immolation was the first of at least seven others in Egypt, four in Algeria and one in Mauritania, all of whom were inspired to self-destruction by Mohammed Al-Bouaziziz, whose self-immolation was credited with sparking the uprising in Tunisia.

While regional events were an important catalyst, Egypt's political and economic problems are the main reason that the demonstrations have had such mass appeal and scale.

Egypt has been under emergency law (which suspends many articles of the constitution and involves the use of emergency military courts) for the best part of fifty years and President Hosni Mubarak has been in power for thirty years.

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has monopolised legitimate political activity in the country, and has a stranglehold on the upper and lower houses of parliament.

In recent years an unscrupulous marriage between business interests and political power has taken hold. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif's government is seen by many as representing an oligarchy that has opened the Egyptian market to foreign direct investment, privatisation and free market economics while ignoring the needs of the overwhelming majority.

The gap between a rich minority and the overwhelming majority who live in deprivation is stark. Inflation of up to 20% annually has been a huge problem, particularly in light of the fact that up to 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.

While an average GDP growth of 5% in recent years has meant that multinationals and foreign investors have benefited from economic liberalisation, basic state services have suffered from chronic under-funding and mismanagement: Education (illiteracy still stands at 38%), Health and R&D have totally collapsed in recent years.

Corruption, both within the State bureaucracy and within the private sector is rife and nepotism and favouritism are the most valued currencies in Egypt, where huge corruption cases have dominated headlines in recent years.

While the country's courts and advocacy groups have fought hard to uphold the rights of Egypt's poorest, they have often met with government intransigence.  In recent months campaigners won a landmark court ruling setting a minimum wage of (approximately) $250 per month (based on $2 per person per day for a family of 4).

The government immediately appealed against the court's decision and when the court rejected the government's appeal, the authorities simply opted to ignore the ruling.

The case of minimum wages is a potent example of the way in which the NDP not only applies the law selectively according to its own interest but has sought to design, legislate and manipulate the interpretation of the law for its own ends.

In 2007 the NDP ushered through constitutional amendments which placed huge obstacles in the way of any Presidential candidates except either President Hosni Mubarak or his son Gamal Mubarak, who has been imposed upon Egyptians as a successor to his father since 2005.

The constitutional amendments also changed the way in which parliamentary and presidential elections were overseen and, importantly, removed judicial oversight in polling stations.

In November 2010 the NDP claimed to have won a landslide electoral victory, securing over 90% of the country's parliamentary seats. Massive electoral irregularities and the use of thugs and gangs to intimidate voters were reported and documented by the opposition.

Administrative courts ruled that election results in at least 1500 electoral wards were invalid. The incoming parliament lacked any viable political opposition. The NDP's parliamentary monopoly  meant that all effective routes to parliamentary oversight of the Executive and participation in plural politics had been denied to the people of Egypt.

The total control over the country's political and economic institutions, a brutal and abusive state security apparatus and a total absence of social justice are ultimately the reasons that have led to an unprecedented number of ordinary Egyptians to take to the streets.

Q How important are events unfolding in Egypt to the rest of the Arab world?

Egyptians often like to say that they have the oldest centralised state in the world which is now seven thousand years old. The modern Egyptian State (which was formed from 1805 onwards) has played an important role in the region. In the post second world war period Egyptian politics and in particular the Free Officer Coup of 1952 created a domino effect throughout the region with similar Coups taking place in Libya, Iraq and Yemen.

The charismatic but authoritarian Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser was highly regarded all over the Arab world for his particular brand of pan-Arabism and socialism, a legacy which survives to this day.

Egypt's experience of being seen to lead the Arab world in the mid-twentieth Century has produced a regional political discourse which ties the future of the region to Egypt.

The country, the most populous Arab state (one in four Arabs is Egyptian) therefore bears a particular burden. It has been and remains a pivotal military, economic and cultural state in the region and developments in Egypt are seen as central to developments across the region.

However, it is important to remember that it was the uprising in Tunisia, a much smaller Arab state, which inspired Egyptians to take to the streets in their hundreds of thousands.

Q ...And to Israel?

Egypt has played a central role in the story of the State of Israel since 1948. To a large extent Egypt took it upon itself and was expected by the rest of the region to played the lead role in the liberation of the Palestinian people.

Egypt and Israel fought four wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973) and while Egypt was able to liberate its own lands occupied by Israel, the country failed to defeat Israel militarily or to liberate the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

In 1979 Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty which has survived to date. However, Israel's continued occupation of Palestinians and Syrian Territory has meant that the peace treaty is deeply unpopular in Egypt and normalisation with Israel remains a taboo among Egyptians.

Egyptians by and large see the peace treaty as one which involves the Egyptian Government and not the population. The significant cooperation between the Egyptian and Israeli governments, like the joint Israeli Egyptian blockade of Gaza, is extremely unpopular among the majority of Egyptians, who believe that before Israel withdraws from all occupied Palestinians and Syrian Lands, there can be no peace with Israel.

For Israel the importance of unfolding events in Egypt is that the Camp David peace treaty effectively took Egypt out of the military confrontation between the Arabs and Israel and totally changed the strategic balance in the region. Although the change of regime in Egypt is unlikely to lead to any military confrontation it is unlikely that a popular government in Egypt would be as cooperative or convivial.

Q Are the demos organised and orchestrated, or are we watching a genuine popular uprising?

The structural weakness of political parties in Egypt (which were re-legalised in the mid-1970s) and their lack of a popular base means that protests are not organised along party political lines.

Trade unions and workers have been far more active in taking to the streets in recent years. Although the official political opposition groups are now scrambling to stake their claim in negotiations with the government and supporting the demands of the demonstrators, it is important to remember that most of them refused to endorse or participate in the first demonstration which took place on the 25th of January.

Notably the Wafd Party, the Tagamu Party and the Muslim Brotherhood officially announced their non-participation in the 25th of January demonstration. Online activists and the internet generation are credited with both calling for and leading the first demonstrations which quickly grew to include ordinary Egyptians of all ages, religions, classes and political persuasions.

The sheer diversity of people on the street and their huge numbers suggests that what we are witnessing is a popular uprising.

Q How have social media and Egyptian youth influenced the protest?

A The influence of social media in the run up to the 25th of January demonstrations has been significant.

The inability of advocacy groups, political parties and campaign groups to operate freely on the ground has meant that many of them resorted to online activism and mobilisation.

However, leading internet activists have made it quite clear that the protests in Egypt are not simply the result of a Twitter or Facebook revolution. They would not be made possible without the widespread economic hardship and political oppression faced by wide swathes of egyptian society.

In Egypt the word "shab" or "shabab" (youth/the youth) is often used to describe people even in their mid-forties. The state-run media in particular is keen to emphasise that the demands being made of the regime are those of young people, which in reality does not reflect the diversity of the protestors and their supporters. It is clear from the footage that the protestors are of every age and from every walk of life.

Internet penetration is Egypt is limited (officially 13.5 million users) and it is clear that huge numbers of people have taken to the street and organised themselves in the absence of both the internet and mobile phone networks. In the medium term it will be interesting to see how social networking is represented in narratives of the uprising.

Q What role, if any, has the Muslim Brotherhood in the current unrest?

A The Islamophobia card has been played by both the regime in Egypt and other governments fearful of democratic change in Egypt.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood played no part whatsoever in the outbreak of the demonstrations, Egyptian state media was quick to try and delegitimisze the demonstrations by claiming that they were orchestrated by the (illegal) Muslim Brotherhood or that demonstrators were being manipulated by them.

The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is well aware of attempts to delegitimise the protestors and their demands by associating them the movement and as a result the Brotherhood has repeatedly said that claims that the protests are organised and manipulated by them is both untrue and deeply insulting to the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians of all political persuasions who have taken to the streets in this popular revolt.

These demonstrations have been marked the non-religious and non-sectarian nature of the demands and slogan used by protestors who are calling for political change, freedom and social justice.

Q What viable political option is there to the current regime apart from the Muslim Brotherhood?

A Many people overstate the role of Muslim Brotherhood in the future of Egypt. The Egyptian government has for years presented the Egyptian public with a false option for its future: either accept the dictatorship or either the Muslim Brotherhood will turn Egypt into and Islamic state or there will be total instability in the country.

The government's failure to convince the wider public that the protests were the responsibility of the Brotherhood led the Ministry of Interior to withdraw security. The entire internal security forces including the police evaporated overnight and government-trained and employed thugs have looted and destroyed both private and public property in an attempt to scare protestors off the streets.

Up to three hundred people have lost their lives, most of them at the hands of State Security forces in plain clothes who have rampaged through neighbourhood and residential areas looking for soft targets.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an important part of Egypt's social and political fabric, however they only represent a proportion of Egyptians. They have never threatened to take power by force and have worked through all the obstacles put in their way to be among the most effective members of the parliamentary opposition in the 2005-2010 session, until they lost all their seats in the last parliamentary elections in November/December 2010.

Egypt's future is one of free and fair elections, democracy and the rule of the law. The Muslim Brotherhood will play an important part in that future. It is expected that they will increase their share of the parliament but they do not see themselves nor are they seen as a majority.

Q What is the view of the man in the street? Is this a revolution of the city, with little or no bearing on life in the rest of the country?

A Ordinary Egyptians have been mostly shocked by the behaviour of the Ministry of Interior and the State Security services.

This did much to convince many Egyptians who would have otherwise stayed at home that the regime had to go. Even if the political and economic demands of the protestors did not resonate with everyone, the breakdown of the security situation and the way in which the security apparatus meant that residents of villages, town and cities alike have been affected by the protests and the regime's reaction to them.

In President Mubarak's Tuesday night (Feb 1) speech, he said that he would not run in the upcoming Presidential Elections in September 2011. He also called on the upper and lower houses of parliament to put in place the constitutional changes which would ensure free and fair elections.

However, the protestors have demanded that the upper and lower houses of parliament be dissolved due to their illegitimacy. Indeed the President's 'new government', which is tasked with overseeing the transition period, overwhelmingly contains the same figures as the previous government, with the notable exception of the position of prime minister, interior minister and minister of finance.

President Mubarak's speech has to some extent succeeded in dividing the country. A majority continue to insist on his immediate resignation, the dissolution of parliament and the appointment of the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court as caretaker President. On the other hand, an increasingly vocal minority are calling for him to stay and oversee the transition period.

The main motivation for those who want him to stay is the fear of a future without the man who has dominated politics for the last thirty years.

The overwhelming majority of Egyptians have known no other leader, they are fearful that the country will descend into chaos and that insecurity and paralysis will bring their daily lives to a standstill.

While these fears are on some level understandable, it is clear that the Egyptian people have shown the regime and all its figures to be illegitimate.

It is unlikely that the same regime that has oppressed people for three decades will be the one to give them true democracy and fight corruption and social injustice. While there are many aspects of the Egyptian constitution that need to be changed, the constitution contains procedures that could provide the security and stability that people seek while addressing the legitimate demands of the protestors.

The procedures in the constitution for the appointment of a judge as caretaker President and the organising of elections are the best option for Egypt: it will ensure that neither Mubarak's regime nor the largely untried and distrusted opposition can hijack the legitimate demands of the Egyptian people for a new beginning.

Notes for editors


For further information or updates from Ramy Aly, please contact Maggie Clune in the Press office.

The School of Global Studies at Sussex aims to provide one of the UK's premier venues for understanding how the world is changing. The School offers a broad range of perspectives on global issues such as climate change, international migration, conflict and violence, infectious diseases and child and maternal health, international security, and global cultures and religions. It combines world-leading research by academic faculty with innovative teaching programmes that draw on our areas of research strength.

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Last updated: Thursday, 3 February 2011