Back in 2011, during the nauseatingly patriotic months that ended Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year grip on the country, I usually stayed silent when asked about the Egyptian revolution. Pro-revolution, anti-military, that’s how I described myself. I told people I was a liberal and a secularist, because those are the same thing right? I was 16 and living in Cairo at the time, sitting with friends in coffee shops where conversations inexorably turned into reflections on the horrors of Mubarak’s dictatorship. It seemed that, at the time, the cool thing to do was appear skeptical of the whole charade (it was also cool to use words like “charade”), and tell people that Mubarak needed to go but that we weren’t doing a good job recovering. I, on the other hand, had the same mind-numbingly neutral response to anyone who asked what I thought about the revolution’s success, or lack thereof: it’s too early to judge. I kept saying that until very recently, refusing to accept Egypt’s worsening condition. But I recently realized that it had been three years. Three years, and all we have managed to do is dispose of another incompetent totalitarian, Mohammed Morsi, and hand the country back to the military.
Originally, I wanted to title this article “Has the Egyptian revolution been successful?” but I quickly changed the subject to why it hasn’t been successful. There isn’t much debate, or written material, about whether or not Mubarak’s removal has generated much success — it hasn’t. The country’s a mess, regardless of how you look at it. Cairo is an immiscible stewpot of insane Islamists, power-hungry military figures, naively hippie liberals, and pompous “educated” secularists. There are even some nostalgic leftover old-regime advocates. The economy is in the figurative toilet, with unemployment at 12 percent and a steady number of people dropping out of the labor force altogether. Foreign investment is at a minimum, and so is tourism, with the pyramids proving insufficient compensation for the risk of death.
Even if we were to excuse the economic downturn as an inevitable result of a much-needed revolution, we still cannot conclude that the revolution itself was successful. Three years later, and the country is still ruled by an interim government. Even when presidential elections do take place for the second time since Mubarak’s disposal, it’s still highly probable that an authoritarian military figure will take over instead of a level-headed citizen (I’m not sure if those even exist in Cairo’s politics). Egyptians have removed the man but not the method; freedom of speech is still a pipe dream in Cairo.
I wrote this article mainly as a response to Western media, to the way I see Egypt’s politics play out through the lens of American news cameras. The prevalent Western explanations to why the post-revolution years have gone so poorly is that Egyptians suffer from low rates of education, making the country especially susceptible to dictatorships. While there might be some truth to that, in reality, the issue is far more complicated, and there’s a story worth telling. Let me explain my point by contrasting Egyptian politics with something closer to home. In Egypt, there’s a common idea that American politics are a joke and that the two-party split that dominates Capitol Hill is entirely absurd. What I’ve seen is that outside the United States, particularly in Arab countries, most people think that Democrats and Republicans are inseparable beings. I’ve also learned that that’s simply not true, and that the difference between American conservatives and liberals are vast enough to warrant significant debate. However, it’s also obvious that both parties dominating American politics have similar enough goals so as to be included in the same conversation.
Here is where we see the problem with Egypt: the dominating ideas and cultures are too different to allow inclusive conversation. There are parts of Cairo I have never and will never visit. The city is divided, and fiercely so. Islamists demand religious submersion, while secularists advocate separation of church and state. Liberals discuss the virtues of opening up Egypt to free international trade, while Salafis preach isolationism and a return to Shar’iah, canon law based on the Koran. Lower class proletariats pick up arms for the Muslim Brotherhood, while atheism spreads through an increasingly detached upper class. These ideologies come from so many different places, but they all head toward Tahrir Square seeking the same thing: representation.
Right now, the military continues rounding up or simply killing Muslim Brotherhood members, calling them terrorists and criminals. And while I deeply hate the MB, I don’t think you can just arrest or kill an organization that has such a large following. The issue, however, is that whenever I say that the Muslim Brotherhood, though being detrimental, should be treated with some sort of respect and included in political dialogue, I get the same simple response, “how?” and I never know how to respond. I am no politician, but I don’t think even politicians are smart enough to devise a way to include all the different voices present in Cairo.
So here’s my conclusion: I think the Egyptian revolution has failed because it attempted to achieve democracy. Democracy, in its truest definition, seems lost on a country like Egypt. Democracy fails in Egypt for the same reason it can fail internationally: the cultures are just too different. Cultural clash is something we think of and discuss between countries on an international level, but it is epitomized in Egypt. I have no thoughts on how the country should proceed, and I don’t know what or if there is a suitable alternative to democracy. But all I know is, we tried. We tried, and we failed. When given freedom, we elected the Muslim Brotherhood, overthrew them, and now seem happy to hand the country back to the military. But with a country as divided and unstable as Egypt, perhaps the foolish thing to do was seek democracy in the first place.