On 11 February 2011, Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak resigned, bowing to popular pressure after two weeks of protests centred on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group, was elected to replace him but was quickly ousted in a military coup in 2013 by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then minister of defence. Sisi, who banned the Muslim Brotherhood and dissolved parliament on taking power, still rules today.
Ten years on from Mubarak’s toppling, what remains of the Egyptian revolution? Tahrir Square’s protesters chanted “bread, freedom, social justice”. Did they get any of what they asked for?
Ahmad, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym because he fears reprisals from the authorities, is an independent journalist in Egypt. He remembers the mood in 2011. “People were just really optimistic. The poor, people on the street, felt that things actually could change,” he recalls. “Poverty did not have to be your destiny.”
The mood after the revolution was ecstatic. “More activists than ever before were engaged in politics,” Ahmad says. Liberals, socialists, anarchists – all were emboldened by the atmosphere of freedom and debated what kind of a country a liberated Egypt should be.
The first demand – bread – is the one on which Egypt has made the most progress since 2011, although the picture remains mixed. GDP per capita in 2019, at $3,019, was a modest 8 per cent higher than in 2011 but is unlikely to have grown much in 2020 due to the impact of coronavirus restrictions and a drop in international tourism. GDP this year is expected to grow by just 2.4 per cent, according to projections by Moody’s, a credit rating company.
Sisi has shown himself to be a fan of large-scale infrastructure projects (criticised by some as “vanity projects”) such as the $8bn Suez Canal extension, which was seen as a white elephant when it was opened in 2015. Other expensive undertakings include the widest cable-stayed bridge in the world, inaugurated in 2019, and the New Administrative Capital, a plan to build a new capital city 45km east of Cairo.
Sisi’s pet projects are, on balance, economically useful, says David Butter, an analyst at the think-tank Chatham House. “Investments in road, rail and electricity will be of benefit but the usefulness of new cities is more debatable. The Suez Canal extension had some logic, in terms of global competitiveness versus Cape and Panama Canal. But the infrastructure surge has driven a lot of business to the military and regime cronies, and pushed up the national debt.”
On freedom and social justice, however, Egypt has arguably regressed since the revolution. Sisi rules Egypt with an iron fist. His regime is more repressive than Mubarak’s, says Butter. A referendum in 2019 concentrated power in the hands of the president, allowing him to remain in office until 2030, while also giving the military a greater role in government. Some 89 per cent of voters approved the changes, according to official results.
All newspapers print exactly the same content, down to grammatical mistakes, says Ahmad, who has been banned from working for foreign media due to his unfavourable reporting. There is no political opposition to speak of and groups including women, Christians and Shiite Muslims face varying degrees of discrimination, according to Freedom House, a rights watchdog. “The regime has drawn a lesson from what happened ten years ago. In their view, the risks of allowing any kind of chink of potential opposition to shine through are considerable,” Butter says.
Ahmad’s verdict is unequivocal: “Egypt today is in a much worse state than it was under Mubarak.”