January 25 marks the sixth anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution when protesters began to gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square demanding an end to longtime president Mubarak;s 30 year rule. For 18 days, hundreds of thousands demonstrated in a makeshift tent camp, denouncing social inequalities, government corruption and police abuse and calling for democratic reforms. Under increasing pressure, Mubarak resigned on February 11th and continues to be held at a military hospital on the outskirts of Cairo.
Egyptian President Abdel Al Sisi said today that Egypt was on the right track six years after the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. Speaking in a televised address commemorating the revolution, he called on young activists who took part in mass protest in 2011 to work for the country future. However, critics have accused Sisi of cracking down on freedoms won during the revolution since.
During spring 2011 the streets in Cairo and the Arab World where filled with people putting off decades of fearful obedience, raising their voice to express their grievances demanding change. The uprisings that swept across the Arab world in 2011 were remarkable in many ways.
The protests broke with the oriental and paternalistic perception of “respected” authoritarian leaders. They also told us that demography matters. It was the disenfranchised youth that initiated the protests in most places, a faction of society that never before appeared on the stage as a relevant political actor. The youth across the region felt united in their demand for change. Many activists around the world felt that they had the same struggle and were in the same situation as the people in Egypt.
Despite the unprecedented protests throughout the region the bottom line prevails rather grim. Six years later – except Tunisia – we are left with consolidated dictatorship, outright civil war or failed states. Recently illustrated by the violent fourth anniversary of the revolution in Egypt.
The revival of authoritarianism after popular uprisings against Mubarak's regime can partly be explained by the failure to consolidate post-revolutionary stability in Egypt. Consequently, fellow despots in the neighborhood justified their brutal crack down of protests with the increasing instability in the neighboring countries and deteriorating security situation. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant () added further fuel to the fire of repressive authoritarian reestablishment throughout the region.
Thus beyond specific domestic drivers the restoration of authoritarian rule can be seen as a response to increasing uncertainty about the outcomes of the Arab revolutions. Popular support for mass protests throughout the region dramatically declined over the course of 2011. In some instances, this was due to the coercive response by the regimes. In others this can partly be explained by fear of instability (Morocco, Jordan, Algeria). As an activist from the protest movement in Egypt summed up: “The aftermath of the popular uprisings in Egypt scared the people from the street. They preferred stability over the possibility of chaos.”
Many regimes credibly established the importance of security and stability as an effective counter narrative to the expression of grievances under authoritarian rule. The former general and Egyptian president Al-Sisi drew on the longing for security and stability in parts of the population setting out his candidacy for the presidential office, by saying: “We are threatened by the terrorist […] who seek the destruction of our life, safety and security.”
Such rhetoric can increasingly be found in speeches of autocrats across the region from Bashar Al Assad to Mohammed VI of Morocco: “There are no degrees of patriotism or of treason. For either one is a patriot, or one is a traitor.” The construction of a threat in the face of a popular uprising is not a new strategy and has proven effective for those states that were able to avoid the fall f the regime.
Even in Tunisia –the lighthouse of the Arab Uprisings– threat scenarios are constantly used by parts of the old elite to prevent substantial reform of the interior ministry and the related security forces. Amine Khali a Tunisian researcher working on transitional justice said: “The window for security sector reform is closing. The interior ministry successfully pacted with old and new elites in the face of growing security concerns in order to avoid substantial reform and accountability.” Similar patterns could be observed in Morocco.
But what is so worrying about this development? The answer boils down to the fact that the authoritarian elements have prevented change by successfully creating a threat and imposing themselves as the only alternative. They have instrumentalized fear in their favor and ultimately securitized the regimes themselves.
However there is as much violence at the heart of authoritarian regimes as might be triggered by the uncertainty and turmoil of revolutionary moments. We know that many revolutions fail and lead to no change at all or new authoritarian regimes. Nonetheless mass mobilizations always carry the possibility of substantial change towards more democratic politics with them. Ultimately the predominant fear of instability cannot be a reason to oppose change that entails the possibility of enduring freedom from oppression.
As mentioned at the beginning, an entire generation – that constitutes the majority of the population– has risen up against tyranny. Although they might be disillusioned and largely fallen back into political apathy, their grievances will not fade as long as despotism reigns in the region.
The next time the young generation makes their voices heard the West should be prepared to stand by their side. To help them overcome the fear of chaos and anarchy.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
International Affairs Expert
Photo Credit: Egyptian President Abdel Al Sisi