In the two and a half years since the toppling of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his replacement with Mohammed Morsi, Egyptian activists repeatedly set dates for a “second revolution.” As Egyptians spoke excitedly about the protests planned for June 30 of this year, I wondered whether the reality might match expectations. On June 28, I spoke again with Ahmed Salah, a veteran Egyptian activist whom I worked with to write an account of the first day of the Egyptian Revolution (“The Spark: Starting the Revolution”). He did not hesitate to predict the import of June 30. “The revolution has begun,” he said.Two years ago, Salah was more skeptical about the protests he helped organize. He begins his account of January 25, the first day of the 2011 Revolution, by relating how uneager he was to get out of bed that morning, worried that nothing would come of his and his fellow activists’ plans. But now he felt optimistic that mass protest would soon bring down Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.Salah had evidence to bolster his optimism. Since January 25, protest in Cairo had never really stopped. Fireworks exploded throughout Egypt when Hosni Mubarak stepped down in 2011. But he handed transitional power to the military — an institution that, despite much popular support, has historically played the role of kingmaker and enforced Egypt’s autocracy. Veterans of Egypt’s decade-old democracy movement continued to protest, now against military rule. Before long, the military’s patriarchal actions – military trials of protesters, efforts to protect its political role in the new constitution, show trials of civil society forces – returned much of the country to the street. Public spaces throughout Egypt filled with dissenting citizens like they had during Hosni Mubarak’s last days; Tahrir Square was rarely empty.
In summer 2012, the military’s transitional rule concluded with presidential elections. They were decided by a run-off between Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik, a former military figure who spoke with a strongman’s rhetoric. Morsi eked out a victory — by 3% of the vote — by pledging to Egypt’s liberals and revolutionaries to be an inclusive president committed to democratic principles.
Within months of the election, Egyptians had buyer’s remorse. According to Salah and others, citizens complained about “Brotherhoodization” as Morsi broke his promise to make diverse appointments, such as naming a Christian and a woman as vice presidents, and filled positions with allies regardless of their merit. Most shocking to Egyptians was his choice for the governorship of Luxor: Morsi picked Adel el-Khayat, one of the leaders of the Islamic political group Gamaa al-Islamiyya, which had once killed dozens of tourists visiting that region’s famous temples.
Morsi not only failed to be a president for all Egyptians, his regime became increasingly undemocratic. As he assumed the presidency, members of Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party dominated an assembly tasked with writing Egypt a new constitution. But Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the election of the new lower house of parliament violated electoral law and announced its intention to rule later on the validity of the constitutional assembly.
With the court’s decision looming, Morsi issued a decree that placed him and the assembly beyond the reach of judicial review. His allies finished writing the constitution in an overnight session — in which no members of the opposition were present — and successfully pushed for a rushed national referendum that, while widely boycotted, made it law. Critics called it unprofessional and full of clauses and ambiguities that benefitted political Islam and the ruling party.
Egyptians reacted to Morsi’s decree by demanding that he step down. Once again, protesters flooded Tahrir and other public spaces in towns and cities throughout Egypt. They fought security forces and raided the local offices of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Dark hints of civil war emerged. The Muslim Brotherhood mobilized and forced protesters away from the Presidential Palace and their local offices with fists, knives, and guns. Fights broke out between anti-Morsi protesters and his supporters. In the industrial city of Mahalla, protesters briefly kicked out security forces and declared the city a liberated territory.
In late April 2013, five young Egyptians began collecting signatures for a campaign called Tamarod (or “Rebellion”) that vowed that June 30, the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, would be his last day in office. It called for early presidential elections and protests on June 30 to back up this demand. By late June, the organizers claimed that 22 million people had signed. As Morsi responded with fiery, defensive speeches stating his refusal to step down, millions of people filled Cairo’s streets each day leading up to June 30.
Protestors assembled in Cairo’s streets and squares with less fear than in 2011, when, as Salah recalls in “The Spark,” everyone who protested in Tahrir Square knew that they might face imprisonment or death. Old men and women took their children and furniture outside to occupy the streets. On June 30, rallies assembled in nearly every neighborhood and converged on Tahrir, the presidential palaces, and a number of other public squares and buildings. Thanks to the gains of the January 25 revolution, they no longer needed organizers like Salah to help them avoid hostile security forces. Egyptians simply went to the same protest points where they had gathered over and over for the previous two years. Conservative estimates put the crowds that toppled Mohammed Morsi at well over 10 million nationwide — even larger than the protests in 2011.
On July 3, 2013, Egyptians once again celebrated a change of leadership with unclear implications. The protests ousted Morsi, but only after the military acted, in their words, to fulfill the wishes of protesters and prevent civil war. They took control of government buildings and state media, arrested Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and announced a new direction for the country.
Many of the Egyptians that mobilized on June 30 bristle at the suggestion that the events were a military coup. Salah, for one, is familiar with coups: his uncle was one of the military officers who overthrew Egypt’s King Farouk in 1952. He argues that the military did not initiate a coup to take over, but responded to the rising risk of civil war and increasing prevalence of weapons and polarization by imposing a solution. The military has named a civilian president and declared a schedule for what he hopes will be a unifying process of amending the constitution and new elections. Salah has protested against the military and faced torture at its hands. But he is comforted by the appointment of respected liberal figure Mohamed ElBaradei as vice president. “ElBaradei would not accept a position if the military was calling the shots,” he said when we spoke recently.
Despite all the uncertainty, one thing is now clear: the Egyptian people have shown that they will never again be subjects. They are agents determining the fate of their country. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 was not just a spontaneous, one-time event. Egypt’s democracy movement can trace its roots back to protests in 2001 and 2003 against the Second Intifada and Iraq War. Those protests resulted in the creation of a movement — the Egyptian Movement for Change — that made the groundbreaking move of denouncing an Arab dictator in 2004. It and other democratic forces were buoyed by labor strikes in 2007 and 2008 that brought the country to a halt. Protests have continued for nearly two years since the revolution. Egyptians’ political engagement has become a self-sustaining force.
The Egyptian Movement for Change, the January 25 revolution, and the Tamarod campaign all succeeded because they united everyone around the act of removing the current leadership. Any force that tries to dominate Egypt will face similar opposition. But Egypt’s feuding political parties and social forces have yet to agree on what they should build with the freedom they have paid for in blood.
Today, Egypt’s transition seems increasingly precarious as both Morsi supporters and the military turn to violence, the pro- and anti-Morsi camps dehumanize each other, and many of the protesters support imposing victor’s justice on the Brotherhood. The risk is that the struggle to define Egypt’s future will be decided by bullets rather than through politics. Egypt desperately needs leaders willing to seek unity through compromise — and to build a new country based on democratic principles rather than tired ideologies. It needs leaders able to do the hard job of leading rather than take the easy route of playing to people’s animal spirits. Whether Egypt’s leaders rise to the occasion will determine whether the Egyptian people finally get the revolution they deserve.
Alex Mayyasi is a writer at in San Francisco and the co-founder, with Ahmed Salah, of the Activism Research Center. He is a graduate of Stanford University’s International Relations program, where was a former editor and contributor to The Claw Magazine. From 2011 to 2012 he lived in Cairo, and worked for a local non-governmental organization supporting human rights and civil society through the use of new media.