In January 2011, Egyptians flocked to Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest against then President Hosni Mubarak and the oppressive government the country had been living under for decades.
With mobile phones in hand, the protests and their military backlash were streamed live on social media around the world. Protests in Lebanon, Oman, Yemen, Syria and Morocco began to ignite and with unrest already bubbling over in Tunisia, it became a period of revolution for the region, popularly coined the ‘Arab Spring’.
By the time I travelled to Egypt the following September, President Mubarak had resigned months before. Beyond the bustling markets of Cairo, the majesty of The Pyramids and the quiet villages the Nile curled around, there remained the scars of a revolution. The charred skeleton of a building stood next to the National Museum as a reminder of what had passed. Tourists had all but depleted. Hour long lines of tourists eager to enter The Pyramids no longer existed, with the few remaining visitors able to walk straight in.
While the physical scars the city nursed were telling of what had been, it was the people who were telling of what was to come.
Even if the protests weren’t being discussed specifically, everything was referred to as ‘before the revolution’, or ‘after the revolution’. Even from brief interactions, it was clear what a momentous split it was in their timeline as a country. The struggle for democratic freedom was far from over, but there was always hope that shone through; a sense of optimism for the future that seemed to override the trepidation of how exactly they would get there.
Fast forward to 2013 and for many Egyptians those rays of hope have all but diminished.
President Hosni Mubarak had ruled over Egypt for 30 years, and after his resignation the country entered a period of military rule. This military rule concluded in June 2012 when member of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP – a party set up by the Muslim Brotherhood), Mohamed Morsi, became the first democratically elected President. However the popularity and legitimacy of the FJP and its leader quickly began to unravel.
Senior Lecturer at the Monash University School of Political and Social Inquiry, Dr Benjamin MacQueen, explains that the declining support for Morsi’s presidency cannot be pinpointed on any one fault.
“He broke four or five really important relationships that just isolated him and his supporters. It was him, the party, and the ideological supporters that were left in a bad economic situation, with the military always wanting to get back at him because they saw him as an enemy from decades back. So he fully isolated himself from that, and created this sort of fervour,” Dr MacQueen says.
Coupled with this was Morsi assigning himself powers of legal immunity from any presidential decision he made. All of these factors culminated in the huge protests against President Morsi that were held on June 30, 2013, the one-year anniversary of his presidency, resulting in him being removed from power by the military the next month.
Since then, the country has reverted back to a military-run state, just as it was in 2011 after the initial revolution. The difference is that this time there is no decisive course of action.
Between August 14 and 18 this year, raids of sit-ins that supported ex-President Morsi left over 800 civilians and security personnel dead. On October 6, Morsi supporters clashed with police, leaving at least 53 dead.
“In terms of popular support, there’s no precise gauge as to where sentiment lies. The protests against Morsi were massive, but there was a negative motivation to wanting him gone, and not really a positive vision of ‘we want this instead’,” explains Dr MacQueen.
“When you look at it, it’s no longer even about findings solutions, it’s more about how can things be managed that mitigate the worst possible outcomes. As bleak as that sounds, that’s really where the situation’s at, at the moment.”
Until a suitable candidate to run for presidency can be found, the military will continue to run the country. Considering Egypt is a nation of 90 million, 50% of which are on or below the poverty line, experiencing a wavering economy and bloodshed on the streets, it will be no easy feat.
Ultimately, when the crowds filled Tahrir Square in 2011, they had a list of demands that were well within reason. Stability. An accountable and transparent government. A stable economy. A sense of certainty that their children will be educated and employed.
Of course, these have always been hopes among the Egyptian people for their country, but until the Arab Spring, they didn’t seem attainable.
Whether it is more crushing to come so close and miss an opportunity that at the time seemed so ready to unfold, or whether it should be viewed as a step in the right direction that has allowed for a more participatory civilian front, remains to be seen.