Five years after Egyptians took to the streets in the demonstrations that eventually helped to oust Hosni Mubarak from power, a quiet, fear-based cynicism has replaced boisterous, empowered optimism. It is tempting to blame Egypt’s failed transition on one side or the other — the Islamists’ overreach or their opponents’ incompetence — but to do so misses the fundamental role that fear played in Egypt’s transition from the outset.
All transitions are periods of uncertainty, but they differ in the extent to which contenders focus on the possibilities of gain or the fear of loss. When Egyptians took to the streets on Jan. 25 five years ago, they overcame not just the wall of fear between Egyptians and the regime, but one between groups within Egyptian society as well. That fear returned over the course of the transition, to deadly effect. Even many of those who protested, or applauded from the sidelines, to oust first Mubarak and later Morsi, have come to fear both the current regime and the alternatives. As one Egyptian commentator put it, “The Brothers and the Military: Two sides of the coin.”
There are deep historical roots to the pervasive distrust which has shaped the Egyptian public. Egyptian politicians had long manipulated fear as a strategy for retaining power. Distrust had escalated in the 1990s, when a wave of radical Islamist terrorism and open calls for killing ideological opponents, on the one side, and the general silence of human rights advocates in the face of regime repression on the other, widened the chasm between Egyptians of Islamist and non-Islamist orientation. Members on both sides of the political divide (a political divide, we should note, that is in reality multi-faceted) had reason to blame and fear each other. As the intellectual and activist Ahmed Abdallah warned in his 1994 call for a national dialogue, “The current polarization imposes extreme choices upon people: either we or them.”
Yet in the decades that followed, fear had subsided. The terrorism of the 1990s was quelled; Islamist and secularist-oriented activists mobilized jointly in the 2000s over common economic and humanitarian demands; while the regime, in part because it was intent on catapulting Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to power, distanced many of its supporters. On Jan. 25, 2011, Abdallah’s warning was but a faint echo as Islamists and secularists, men and women, rich and poor took to the streets to voice their frustration. At least for the moment, they were no longer engaged in a zero-sum game. Egyptians could imagine a better future for all.
However, the politics of fear soon reared its ugly head. By March 2011, the agreement between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood over the framework for the political process fostered fear among the Brotherhood’s opponents. The apparent collusion between the Islamists and the army, they worried, would set the country on a course toward Islamism that could not soon be reversed. Islamists were hopeful and tried to capture the great opportunity emerging after the fall of Mubarak. When they willingly grabbed the deal that the military offered them, they brought an end to the Islamists-Secularists revolutionary coalition that overthrew Mubarak’s rule only weeks earlier. The democratic, anti-Mubarak common ground rapidly eroded, allowing the return of the politics of ideological polarization, within which mobilizing fear, rather than making promises, became a main strategy.
The emergence of the orthodox Salafi movement exacerbated the situation. The uncompromising anti-Coptic and anti-liberal discourse of the Salafis heightened mistrust and fueled ideological rivalry. For instance, after the Islamists’ sweeping victory in Egypt’s first poll in the post-Mubarak era, held in March 2011, Sheikh Mohamed Hussein Yaacob proclaimed that the Islamists victory was the “Ghazwat al-Sanadeek,” or conquering the ballot boxes. Invoking the notion of “Ghazwa,” a term typically preserved to describe the wars launched by early Muslims against infidels, indicated the way Salafis perceived democratic politics. Sheikh Yaacob invited those who didn’t like the outcome of the vote to leave for the United States and Canada, signaling his perception of tolerance and pluralism in the post Mubarak political system. The Salafi sheikh fostered fears that Islamists intended to turn Egypt into an Islamic state that would not accommodate all of its citizens.
Islamists aroused fear among their opponents, but they were also motivated by their own fears. The instrumental role that liberal youths played in bringing down the Mubarak regime alarmed the Islamists, particularly the ultra-religious Salafis, who feared uncompromising secularism. Two days after Mubarak stepped down, the leading Salafi Sheikh Saeed Abdel Azim called upon his followers “to come to the rescue of article 2 of the constitution against the fierce secularists attempt to undermine Egypt’s Islamic identity.” Moreover, Islamists feared prosecution. The Brotherhood didn’t join the anti-Mubarak revolt until it became too costly to continue sitting on the sidelines. But once they accepted the risk of joining the protest, the Brotherhood was certain that “their necks will be put at stake if their attempt at power fails.”
There were attempts to overcome the fear and find compromise. In fall 2011, concerns over military intentions to maintain power pushed Islamists and their more secular opponents to join forces, and a similar concern about a return to the autocratic past led many who would otherwise oppose the Muslim Brotherhood to support the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, edging him to a win over Ahmed Shafik in the presidential elections of 2012. (It is important to note that the military’s popularity had declined slightly in the lead-up to these elections, with slightly less than 70 percent of Egyptians evaluating the military performance as good or very good in polls conducted by the AlAhram Center for Political and Social Studies and the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute. Even then, however, the military remained the single most trusted institution in Egypt.)
Yet after the elections, underlying suspicions led both sides to dismiss the conciliatory moves, emphasize blunders, and escalate tensions. President Morsi’s constitutional declaration of November 2012 amassed extra-constitutional power in the president’s hands.
The Islamists’ monopoly over the drafting of the constitution in January 2013 drove the relationship between Islamists and their opponents to the point of no return. And Egyptians, frustrated with economic stagnation and political wrangling, lost confidence in the Morsi presidency and, by extension, the Brotherhood quickly lost confidence. As shown in Figure 1, in the run-up to Morsi’s overthrow, 61 percent of Egyptians disagreed with the way that the president was performing his duties, and only 32 percent agreed. After one year in power, only 64 percent of the Egyptians deemed Morsi’s administration to have been worse than expected. (See Figure 2.)
This fear had distinctive effects on behavior during a transitional period. When actors see the situation in terms of enormous, potential failures rather than possibilities of success, they are in what Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky called the “domain of losses.” In their seminal work, Kahneman and Tversky show that actors who perceive outcomes in terms of potential loss rather than gain, they are more willing to take risky actions. Importantly, it is the framing of the outcomes, not the outcomes themselves that drive each sides’ strategies. But when attention turns to the fear of loss, actors are more likely to engage in brinksmanship.
And in Egypt, they did. Some who took to the streets perhaps had longed for the days of Mubarak and sought to restore the military to power. Yet, many who called to oust Mohammed Morsi from power hoped that that it could be a reset button, starting the revolution afresh. They certainly had not asked for the terror that ensued at Rabba’ Square on August 14, or for the repression that ensued.
But the two-and-a-half years since the uprisings began could not simply be erased. The military and many like-minded nationalists had grown angry and tired. They could not tolerate the Muslim Brotherhood — or even its sympathizers. With power on their side, they no longer needed to accommodate opposition; indeed, they could mobilize against any opponent in the name of the state, with heady, nationalist fervor.
Fear plays an even greater role in the post-Morsi era. Officials, politicians and activists from the post-Morsi era frequently describe Egypt as in a state of war, and the failing states and the rise of terror organizations across the region underpin this argument. Fear of chaos is equally palpable. As Gerard Padró Miquel put it, “Fear of falling under an equally inefficient and venal ruler that favors another group is enough to discipline supporters.”
Such arguments help to legitimize the Sisi regime as the protector of the nation in the war against the enemy forces of extremism, terror, foreign intervention, and irresponsible activism; the integral parts of the conspiracy designed to destroy the Arab World under the guise of the Arab Spring. This is how the current reality is depicted in the official and semiofficial discourse, where Islamists are terrorists; human rights activists the agents of imperial powers, and mobilized youth the anarchists who reject notions of state and authority. Defeating the Arab Spring conspiracy has become the primary goal one so dear that many are willing to pay, even if the price is the reign of fear.This discourse once again mobilizes fear in the service of regime survival, limiting the memories of the great hopes for the Jan. 25 uprising.
Ellen Lust is professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg, the founding director of the Programs on Governance and Local Development at the University of Gothenburg and Yale University, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy. Gamal Soltan is a professor at the American University of Cairo. Jakob Mathias Wichmann is a partner at Voluntas Advisory.
This piece is part of a series of reflections on the Arab uprisings after five years.