The Egyptian Revolution of 2011: Causes and Dynamics
Shafeeq Ghabra
Professor of Political Science
Kuwait University

This study was published in a book edited by: larbi Sadiki, titled: Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring, Routlege, 2015




Between May and September 2011, I made four visits to Cairo, spending several Fridays on Tahrir Square meeting with Egyptians kind enough to candidly speak with me about their dreams, fears, and experiences during the revolution. This study was somewhat difficult to conduct because the situation on the ground remained so fluid. Thus, this paper is necessarily a work in progress, yet it captures the most important dynamics leading up to the revolution and its aftermath. I believe Egyptians will repeatedly revisit  2011, a foundational year for them and their country, to generate momentum and sustain the power that ignited their revolution. I would like to thank Sara al-Sheriff, a young freelance journalist who embodies the spirit of the Egyptian revolution and who arranged interviews with the people whose perspectives are presented here.

The January 25 Revolution has deep roots in Egypt’s past as well as in the Mubarak era. The Mubarak regime bet its ability to stay in power on a popular fallacy accepted across the Middle East—that Egyptians feared change because of the potential of Islamic militancy. In other words, Egyptians would willingly forgo freedoms in exchange for government protection against Islamic extremism. Under this assumption, the government held onto the emergency regulations it imposed in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat—the event that brought Mubarak to power. Furthermore, the regime had no interest in nurturing a system that would allow any real political opposition to emerge or partnerships to form that could further the country’s development (Muasher, 2008).

During Mubarak’s thirty years in office most Egyptians were more or less apolitical, preferring instead (and often by necessity) to focus on managing daily hardships as unemployment and poverty rose. In the early 2000s, Mubarak still had legitimacy in the eyes of many Egyptians. They stuck with him when he promised reforms and better living conditions in 2002 even though they doubted things would really improve.

But the roots of the January 25 Revolution grew outside of Egypt’s established political opposition, rising from its newly formed youth groups. The regime's shortcomings turned an apolitical population into an angry population focused on regime change. This study will focus on the causes and dynamics of the Egyptian revolution.



One of the first mistakes of dictatorial regimes is unchecked power centralized in the hands of a small group of officials. With time, such situations encourage corruption, which in turn generates opposition to the system. For the past thirty years, the Egyptian government was accountable only to President Mubarak. In keeping him happy, it guaranteed him—and by extension, his political circles—extraordinary privileges and power. The regime’s lack of responsiveness to the rest of Egyptian society, along with repression of any opposition, exacerbated the regime’s arrogance.

According to Abdullah Kamal, a leading member of the National Democratic Party (NDP) with strong ties to the Mubarak family, “The appointment of Habib al-Adly as minister of interior in 1997 was [the president’s first] strategic mistake. The second strategic mistake is the empowerment of his son Jamal Mubarak in 2000 as a member of the NDP’s secretariat general, then in December 2000 as a member of an ad hoc committee entrusted with reforming the NDP, and in September 2002 as the head of NDP’s Policies Secretariat during the party's eighth General Congress. In his turn, Jamal allied himself with al-Adly and his policies of repression” (interviews with Abdullah Kamal, June 2011 1). In fact, one of the first people to point out the dangers of inheritance in Egypt was Saad el Din Ibrahim, a leading Egyptian intellectual. His article on the matter led to his imprisonment from 2000 to 2003 2.

In addition to his affiliations with the NDP, including sitting on its policy committee (2003–2011) and in its media office (2006–2011), Kamal served as an appointed member of the Shura Council (2007–2011) and editor in chief of the daily Ruz al-Yusuf (2005–2011). Al-Adly was dismissed during the 2011 demonstrations as part of an attempt to tamp down protests.

The alliance between al-Adly and Jamal Mubarak would prove toxic for the regime. Al-Adly backed Jamal, aiding in the younger Mubarak's political ascent, which coincided with the slow but clear marginalization of the military establishment. The relationship between Jamal and Al-Adly gave the police and internal security forces power rivaling the army’s (interview with Wael Jamal, June 2011 3). It is telling that in the early 1980s, the army was 1.5 million strong, while internal security and the police numbered 250,000, but as the 2011 revolution approached, the army consisted of 250,000 troops and the security forces 1.5 million men.

Jamal Mubarak’s rise coincided with his father’s disengagement from internal policy. The elder Mubarak preferred instead to focus more on foreign policy. Beginning around 2000, President Mubarak became increasingly less interested in Egypt’s domestic affairs. In addition, it is speculated that the death of one of his grandchildren in 2009 sent him into a possible depression and further isolation

Egypt was not an exception to undemocratic political systems in that intellectuals are the first to issue warnings and among the first to pay the price of telling the truth.
Wael Jamal is a leftist-oriented writer and journalist and managing director of the daily al-Shorouk.

In some ways, simply being the son of an unaccountable leader created a trap for Jamal. Once his father ensured him a seat on the NDP policy committee, many assumed, along with Jamal, that he would be Egypt’s next president. Those around Jamal inflated his capabilities while simultaneously contributing to his isolation and tunnel vision (interview with Nabil Farouk, June 2011 4). 

Despite Jamal’s limited political experience, he became involved in liberalizing the economy. The process created new alliances between the business community and the government under Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif beginning in mid-2004. 5 Some of the businessmen who benefited from the new policies were affiliated with Jamal’s Future Generation Foundation (FGF), established in 1997.

In contrast to his son, President Mubarak surrounded himself with a group linked to the establishment. His circle included Ibrahim Kamel, a multimillionaire businessman and prominent member of the NDP; Zakaria Azmi, a former chief of the presidential staff and a founding member and former secretary-general of the NDP; Fathi Sorour, speaker of the People’s Assembly since 1990; Hussein Salem, co-owner of the East Mediterranean Gas Company; and Safwat Shareef, former speaker of the Egyptian Shura Council and the Secretary-General of the NDP. Mubarak did not like change, preferring instead to rely on men with whom he had long histories.

Farouk is a writer best known for his books in the Egyptian Pocket Novels series. Farouk gained access to state intelligence information in order to write realistic accounts in his novels.
 Nazif resigned during the first days of the revolution as Prime Minister 2011 and is now under investigation. Ahmad Izz (who monopolized the metals trade), Anas al-Fiqqi, Ibrahim Kamel, Mohamed Mansour, Ahmad Mugrabi, and Rachid Muhammad Rachid were a few of the prominent businessmen associated with Jamal Mubarak’s projects.


These individuals, however, were part of his problem. As Mubarak aged, they became his gatekeepers. They isolated him and prevented him from being told anything that might upset him. Members of the president’s inner circle of course recognized Jamal’s usefulness and the necessity for continuity.

President Mubarak had introduced programs of economic reform over the years, but in contrast, those under Jamal showed no awareness of the safety net on which so many Egyptians relied. The business-oriented ministers around him were insensitive to the need for minimum wages or strong labor rights. The model of privatization implemented by the government had neither limits nor regulation, which led, unsurprisingly, to massive corruption (interview with Wael Jamal).

When Mohamed Mansour, a businessman associated with Jamal Mubarak, was appointed minister of transportation in 2006, he stated publicly that he had been unaware that so many Egyptians took buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation. He resigned after a deadly train accident in 2009.

The crash was one of a string of disasters involving public transportation or government facilities and helped to destroy what little goodwill remained in the Egyptian people towards their government. In 2008, more than a hundred people died in a landslide in Cairo when boulders rained down on a shantytown. That same year, the nineteenth-century palace housing the Shura Council (the upper house of parliament) caught fire. In 2006, a boat had sank with some 1,300 workers en route from Saudi Arabia; only about 300 men survived. Egyptians blamed these and other disasters on corruption.

Powerful members of the regime dominated the business community, through their ownership of large companies, benefiting from government privatization. Some companies, listed on the stock exchange, inflated their profiles based on millions of acres of formerly state-owned lands obtained at bargain basement prices. To the detriment of the middle class, promotion of small business was ignored.


Many Egyptian progressives thought that reform from above was the only hope for Egypt. “Only the army can make a difference,” some of them would say in 2008. Many had pinned their hopes on Omar Suleiman, the director of military intelligence. If he became vice president, they thought, perhaps he could emerge as a reformer. During the last five years of Mubarak's rule, however, Suleiman was weakened by Jamal's connection to al-Adly (interviews with Abdul Rahman Yusuf, June 2011 6).


 Yusuf, a poet, is the son of the Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi. He was the first coordinator of Jamiyat Wataniya alil Taghyeer (National Association for Change), which supported the political aspirations of Mohamed ElBaradei after his return to Egypt in 2009.



The Kifaya (Enough) movement started in 2004 as a broad national coalition with the goal of bringing about a democratic transformation in Egypt. The group, composed of communists, leftists, Islamists, Nasserites, and liberals, committed itself to peaceful means. Its most immediate goal was to prevent the passing of the presidency to Jamal Mubarak. Its followers pressed for open and fair elections and for a president other than a Mubarak. According to Ahmad Shabaan, a Kifaya co-founder and leader:

In Kifaya we discovered that political parties were penetrated by the regime and by the security [apparatus] and that civil society was totally marginalized. To deal with this situation we went to the street and found it to be the main variable of change (interview with Ahmad Shabaan,    June 2011).

As Kifaya evolved, so did its ability to take advantage of available media. Between 2004 and 2010, Kifaya was involved in 3,000 strikes and sit-ins. For a time, Kifaya embodied prospects for change in Egypt and represented the voice of the middle class and its sense of marginalization (interview with George Ishaq, June 2011 7).


 Ishaq, as general secretary of the Kifaya, became the first Copt to hold a high-profile position of leadership in an Egyptian political organization during the Mubarak era.


Between 2005 and 2008, some 1.5 million Egyptians participated in protests against social conditions and government policies. Labor also became a factor in such protest. For example, after a state-owned factory was privatized, the new owner wanted to dismiss a large number of employees and did not want to give remaining workers certain rights and benefits. This led to labor protests (interview with Wael Jamal).

Constitutional amendments in 2007 paved the way for Jamal Mubarak’s ascendancy by blocking any presidential candidate from running who had not been sanctioned by the incumbent regime. Article 179 was changed to allow the state to prosecute civilians in military courts and to give the state even more powers to arrest and search citizens. The amendment to Article 88 weakened the judiciary’s oversight of elections, while changes to Article 5 effectively blocked the Muslim Brothers from forming a political party (Brown, Dunne and Hamzawy, 2007).

In response, Egyptians mounted major strikes on April 6, 2008. The state restrained itself from full-scale confrontation and even made conciliatory gestures. For example, Prime Minister Nazif spoke to 20,000 workers in one factory and sacked the plant’s chair.

These 2008 labor strikes transpired in the creation of April 6 Youth Movement that would be a decisive influence in the 2011 revolution. In March 2008, activists had launched a Facebook page in support of the planned strike by textile workers in Mahalla to protest low wages and high food prices. The activists behind April 6 were non-ideological. Only later would the movement coalesce into an attempt to overthrow the Mubarak regime through nonviolent protest.

The story of Muhammad Adel, a twenty-three-year-old activist and one of three principal leaders of the April 6 Youth Movement, illustrates the dynamics that led so many Egyptians to Tahrir Square in January 2011. Adel was politicized at age sixteen, in 2005, when he became a member of the Muslim Brothers. He left the Brothers in 2007 when he came to disagree with their conservative message.

Many of the bloggers who played a major role in the 2011 revolution started out as Muslim Brothers but with time became more liberal in their views. Adel joined the April 6 Youth Movement one month after its formation in 2008 and promptly found himself jailed for four months. April 6 included many individuals who were critical of the Muslim Brothers but nonetheless defended them publicly to maintain unity against the government. The members of the April 6 Youth Movement did not know each other by face as all their activities took place on Facebook and later on Twitter before turning into a street protest movement (interview with Muhammad Adel, June 2011).

The question of Palestine highlighted another side of Adel’s political awareness. Events in Gaza, and  Israel’s war in South Lebanon in 2006 against Hezbollah shaped his thinking and the thinking of an entire generation of Egyptian revolutionaries. Gaza and Lebanon enhanced Adel’s understanding of the link between Mubarak’s policies and the larger Arab national questions of independence and rights. Adel himself broke the blockade imposed by the Mubarak regime on Gaza when he entered the strip in order to show solidarity with the Palestinians.



Most Egyptians doubted the efficacy of collective peaceful action, so confidence among youth and activists in their abilities to organize rose only slowly. Small strikes and demonstrations helped them realize the potential of their power to make a difference. Such is the contribution of Kifaya, the April 6 Youth Movement, and similar mobilizations to the Egyptian psyche.

Before 2000, Egyptians would look around and compare their situation to those of the Syrians and Libyans and feel assured that despite their problems, they were better off. After 2000, however,  though the open social media, Turkey and Brazil caught their attention, igniting thoughts that maybe they could do better (interview with Bilal Fadl, June 2011). The awarding of Nobel prizes to two Egyptians—Ahmed Zewail in 1999 for chemistry and Mohamed ElBaradei in 2005 for peace—inspired youths but also gnawed at them. These two laureates were products of Egyptian institutions, yet they had no outlets for using their gifts or expressing themselves in Egypt. This demonstrated to many that the problem lay within the system, not the individual.

ElBaradei returned to Egypt in November 2009 with a vision for change. He arrived with a global perspective and attempted to prod Egyptians’ imagination and encourage them to think outside the box. His presence disturbed the waters and helped take Egypt’s fledgling protest movement to another level. A group of activists, including those from Kifaya, formed Jamiyat Wataniya lil Taghyeer (National Association for Change), an umbrella outfit to support ElBaradei. The group launched a campaign for political change in Egypt and tried to engage Egyptians in poor, marginalized areas and neighborhoods. Slowly but surely they were breaching the wall of fear.

The campaign for parliamentary elections in 2010 exacerbated tensions, which reached a critical mass when the NDP took 97 percent of the seats. The last and slightest hope to change the system from within disappeared. Egyptians knew that the Mubarak forces had rigged the elections, which they considered the run-up to a transfer of power to Jamal Mubarak. Renewed feelings of humiliation spread through a population that had already had enough.

The regime, sensing Egyptians’ restive mood, turned to Habib al-Adly who unleashed the police and security forces against average citizens. During 2010, they switched from intimidating opposition leaders and well-known critics to targeting student activists and average citizens. Police had orders to beat and mistreat; the state and the people had entered into an undeclared battle (interview with Ahmad Shabaan, June 2011 8).

The government also hired 500 technically savvy young men and women from the NDP to disrupt internet communications among activists and movement supporters. Based on an investigation by the Ministry of Communication on the impact of social media in the turmoil that followed the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009, the Mubarak government decided to focus its efforts on Facebook but not on Twitter. Despite the regime's foresight, the Facebook revolutionaries easily identified the government teams by their content—nothing but praise for Mubarak (interview with Muhammad Ibrahim, June 2011 9).

Shabaan is a co-founder of Kifaya
Ibrahim took part in the NDP's electronic operation before the revolution.


According to Muhammad Adel, a leader in the 6 of April movement:

“Since 2009 about 300 of us started going to Maydan Tahrir [Tahrir Square]. Our movement was small and effective. We were about 4,000 individuals by 2010. We did small demonstrations and walked to the People’s Assembly. But four days after the murder of Khaled Said we had a demonstration in front of the notorious Ministry of Interior in protest of his murder. We were about 500 meters from the ministry of Habib al-Adly and were beaten severely. Thirty of us were jailed. But this proved to be a prelude to what could be coming later”.(interview with Muhammad Adel, 2011).

Khaled Said used his phone to record police informers in Alexandria distributing drugs and talking about giving them to individuals and pushers so they could arrest them and get promotions. They would keep a portion of the drugs for themselves and profit by selling it. Khaled planned to upload the video to the internet, but before he could he was arrested. At twenty-six years of age, Khaled was tortured to death at a police station in June 2010. He had been socially conscious but was not an activist. After Khaled’s death, friends uploaded the footage he had recorded so all could see why he had been killed.

Sara al-Sheriff, a twenty-three-year-old activist and freelance journalist, described how Khaled’s murder changed the atmosphere in Egypt:

“I joined [the] We Are All Khaled Said blog on Facebook formed by Wael Ghonim after Said’s murder. One million joined Said’s page. Said was like us. He wanted his country to be better. We also decided to go to the street every Friday wearing black and carrying his photos while holding a Quran. We did this every Friday on every seaside or riverside in Egypt. Thousands participated. We were determined to take Khaled’s right back” (interview with Sara al-Sheriff, September 2011).

In short, with YouTube as a mirror, Egypt’s youth realized that they too could easily become or could have been a victim of official repression. Further charging the atmosphere, an explosion at an Alexandria church on New Year’s eve 2010 appeared to have been carried out with the cooperation of members of the Ministry of Interior. Collusion between the regime and certain elements of the Salafi movement was well-known. Coupled with events stemming from Bouazizi’s death in Tunisia, Egypt was ripening for a revolution of its own. The state, however, going about business as usual, failed to see the currents energizing Egypt’s youth (interview with Ahmad Shabaan, June 2011).



When the call was issued for Egyptians to take to the streets of Cairo in January 2011, no one expected a revolution. The cadre of young Egyptians on Twitter and Facebook involved in the April 6 Youth Movement, Kifaya, the National Association for Change, We Are All Khaled Said, and other social and civic groups thought to themselves, “It is impossible to have a revolution by appointment and by announcement on Facebook, but why not try. We have nothing to lose” (interview with Bilal Fadl).

Therefore, after deliberations in closed groups on Twitter, the activists decided to call for a revolution on January 25, a holiday honoring the police. They evaded detection by the Ministry of Interior by using accounts and groups unknown to authorities. Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011.

The leading members of the ruling NDP viewed the younger generations with contempt. Many in government felt, “This generation has no values. This is a spoiled generation that only cares about Facebook and hip-hop” (interview with Ahmad Shabaan, June 2011).

According to Mahmoud Ibrahim, a tech-savvy young NDP supporter:

“We met with the leaders of the media strategy in the party on the 23th and 24th of January 2011.   We estimated there would be 5,000 young activists from the 6th of April group and the Muslim Brothers on the 25th. We agreed during this high level meeting to continue our work after the        25th. No one among us understood that Egypt was ready for a revolution. For us, business as usual reflected our state of mind” (interview with Mahmoud Ibrahim, June 2011).

Three days before the revolution, Ahmad Izz, Jamal’s main confidant as well as owner of Ezz Steel and leader of the ruling National Democratic Party of Egypt (NDP), ordered that all the computers at NDP headquarters be backed up. He had received information that the Muslim Brothers or others demonstrators planned to attack the headquarters. He could not imagine anything bigger. The state security apparatus expected some 50,000 in Cairo. Both sides estimates were well off the mark.

The last time Bilal Fadl, a screenwriter, had demonstrated was in 2005, with Kifaya. After growing accustomed to seeing the same people at gatherings, he asked himself why the event on January 25 should be any different. Now in his mid-thirties, he decided to venture out to express solidarity with Egypt’s youth. Once out in the street, he felt that something different was going on. He found the protesters’ slogans to be polite and minimalist. He recalled that one of the first ones he encountered read, “police, army and people are one.” Another read, “live, freedom, dignity” (eesh–hurriya–karamah).

Bilal recalled:

“There were about 200 people and very few next to Dar al-Hikma [close to downtown]. It was 2 p.m. Then the group agreed to move to Tahrir Square when its numbers rose. I gave a speech; others gave strong speeches. All slogans kept emphasizing that this is a peaceful, nonviolent        protest” (interview with Bilal Fadl).

A friend then told Bilal that 10,000 people had gathered next to the Arab League building. Another friend told him that 20,000 people were coming from Imbaba, on the outskirts. He thought for sure they were both exaggerating and went to the office of the newspaper where he writes a column. While there, a photo came in showing an estimated 60,000 thousand people in Tahrir Square. Only then did he recognize the revolution.

Muhammad Adel relates the following about that day:

“We knew the 25th would be a big day. Everyone was calling and asking me what are we doing on the 25th. We prepared ourselves very well for the day, and we believed that we would pull [off] a revolution. My mobile was not working all day on the 25th. I arrived with my group at the Maydan al-Tahrir when it was empty, but we were there early, before most of the crowd. This exposed us. We were arrested and beaten in the police car till the premises of the American University of Cairo. I found myself in front of the director of Cairo security. I learned later from my friends that we took over Tahrir Square at 4 p.m. on the 25th. I realized there is something different in the spirit of our people, [especially after] the city of Suez also started demonstrating.”(interview with Muhammad Adel, 2011).

Adel goes on, “During the first night of the revolution, we were about 700 hundred in jail in one place. During the second night, they divided us in groups. Anyone who asked about us—our friends and family—was told we are not here. Then they let us leave on the 27th.”

The Mubarak team underestimated the event from the first day which helped to further inflame the movement. Mubarak’s aides told him, “The demonstrations are made up of some Brothers, Facebook groups and pro-Americans. Do not worry; it is a manageable situation” (interview with Ahmad Shabaan, 2011).

This lack of understanding among regime members resulted in their resorting to the only response for which they were well-prepared: repression. Several demonstrators were shot and killed in Suez on January 25. The regime’s clamp down on the internet and attacks on demonstrations ignited protesters’ passion.

Only after the regime exhibited its brutality did the demonstrators begin to chant their signature slogan: “Down with Mubarak. The people want to end the regime.” On January 26 and 27, demonstrations took on a life of their own. The protesters declared Friday, January 28, a Day of Anger. The Muslim Brothers joined the protests. After hours of confrontations, the police withdrew from city streets.

After the regime's years of  exertion towards discrediting any viable opposition (loyal or otherwise), it found there was no one to help stem the tide washing across Tahrir Square. Traditional parties had fragmented and weakened 10. And the revolution had a spirit, not a leader (interview with Nabil Farouk, June 2011). The two million people who gathered in Tahrir Square were organized; they arranged for food, shelter, and bathrooms and faced down state security. Even when internet access was disrupted, they managed to find alternative ways to communicate. The youth groups exhibited an amazing degree of cooperation. The revolution’s program evolved on the ground and by the day.


The traditional opposition, including the Muslim Brothers, took positions based on what they thought the street wanted.


During the first two days of the revolution, regime supporters felt disbelief and fell into disarray. Mahmoud Ibrahim woke up on January 26 and when he checked the news was astonished to find that Tahrir Square was still filled with people. He thought the day before had been a nightmare that would go away, but it did not. He met up with some party leaders near Tahrir to try to reorganize and help find a way to clear the square.

The scope of events soon became clear to him. In the square, he saw the collapse of his party and the state. He was truly surprised when the army deployed into the streets as a neutral party, essentially granting the demonstrators immunity. The army announced that it would do nothing until Mubarak and the demonstrators agreed on something. Ibrahim recalled: “I realized then we [had] lost the battle.” Indeed, two days later the NDP collapsed, and its headquarters were burned. Ahmad Izz resigned as NDP leader, under suspicion that other members of the leadership circle had pushed him, not recognizing the beginning of the end and that such actions would be of no significance. Jamal Mubarak resigned as well. It was all too little too late (interviews with Abdullah Kamal and Mahmoud Ibrahi, 2011).

Wael Jamal, a leftist writer and journalist, noted that Tahrir Square was not the only place where the people confronted the government: “You cannot have a revolution in the maydan of downtown Cairo alone.” Rebellions took place all over Egypt. Transportation workers held a nationwide strike (interview with Wael Jamal, 2011). Civil society activists and associations ignited the revolution, but labor made it possible. The demonstrators in the heart of Cairo began to sense victory only after they learned that labor had joined the movement. This changed the landscape a few short days into the revolution. A circle connecting the various segments of Egyptian society had been drawn.


Mubarak Speaks

On day three of the revolution, Egyptians learned that their refusal to surrender in their confrontations with the police had prompted the Ministry of Interior to release prisoners in its custody in an attempt to present Egyptians with a choice: the Mubarak regime or anarchy. The regime’s strategy was to keep people at home, worrying about looting, thugs, and crime in general (interview with Nabil Farouk, June 2011).

On February 1, President Mubarak delivered his third and most powerful speech to the nation. In his statement he attempted to appeal to Egyptians’ emotions, announcing that he would not seek reelection and that he wanted to die in Egypt. He appointed Omar Suleiman as vice president to try to appease Egyptians who opposed Jamal Mubarak succeeding him.

Some of the demonstrators began to leave Tahrir, but others were not sure that they should. A debate ensued at the heart of the revolution. Some, including novelist Nabil Farouk, felt that they should give Mubarak the benefit of the doubt. Others wondered whether they should or could trust him. What guarantees did they have that he wouldn’t order them arrested by the thousands if they called off demonstrations and he remained in office? They could not be sure that people would rejoin the movement if they quit at that moment (interview with Nabil Farouk, 2011).

Tahani al-Jabali, deputy chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court at the time, remembers that on Wednesday, February 2, she got a call from some youths in Tahrir Square. She related:

“I was invited to Maydan al-Tahrir to be consulted on whether the youth should continue or stop the revolution. They asked questions of a legal nature. They wanted me to tell them as a judge if any of the decisions and promises by Omar Suleiman or Mubarak were legally binding. I was so            impressed and could not believe that I was in Egypt talking to Egyptian youth involved in a major revolution and making history”.  (interview with Tahani al-Jabali, June 2011).

Tahani also recalled her impression of the square that day: “I was shocked to see the maydan ( Square) in front of me. I saw young and old, men and women; even coffeemakers came to the maydan to offer free coffee to the revolutionaries. Stars, singers, actors, writers, medical doctors, stand-up [comedians] were all in the maydan.”

As some of the protesters seemed ready to concede and give Mubarak a chance, men on camels charged in, using swords, knives, and rocks to injure people. The attack was vicious, provoking battles that lasted for two days. Eleven people are believed to have been killed and 2,000 injured on February 2 and 3 in and around Tahrir Square. The Muslim Brothers, who had fought hard in the square, secured most of its roads.

Why the attack on Tahrir after Mubarak’s speech? From information gathered during interviews, it seems that Mubarak had known about the planned raid and had hoped it would end the demonstrations in the square (interview with Mustafa al-Fiqqi, 2011).11 A group of Mubarak loyalists had wanted to exploit any divisions among Egyptians, particularly targeting people of limited means who lived on tourism and whose livelihoods might be suffering because of the protests. Ultimately, the attack contributed to the radicalization of the revolution and to the fall of Mubarak one week later. The camel raid provided the demonstrators in the square with the clarity needed to stick to their original position and stay put. They united once more.

One theory from the revolution holds that the military did not like the idea of Jamal coming to power. It understood the regime’s weaknesses and welcomed a limited rebellion. As events unfolded, however, the rebellion turned into a revolution, and the generals could not control it. This in part explains the snipers on the day of the camel raid and the sniping against demonstrators in Alexandria, Cairo, Suez, and other cities. It also explains the actions of Majid Bolis, a Coptic army officer, who prevented an attack on the demonstrators on one side of the square despite orders to do otherwise (interview with Abdul-Jalil al-Sharouby, June 2011 12).

Al-Fiqqi is former head of the foreign relations committee of the Shura Council and leading member of the NDP, June 2011. He resigned from the NDP after the revolution.
Al-Sharnouby is chief editor of Ikhwanonline, the official website of the Muslim Brotherhood.


Eyewitnesses believe the army had had orders to facilitate the camel attack in the aftermath of Mubarak’s offer to “compromise” by appointing Suleiman as vice president. The army wanted to stop things there, but the rebellion had a life of its own.

The Mubarak regime mismanaged events at every step. If the president had come out on January 26 and apologized for the deaths, announced he would not run again, appointed a vice president, and pledged to stop state violence against the people, the revolution might have taken a different turn.

From the perspective of Mustafa al-Fiqqi, who had close ties to the regime, Mubarak could have immediately forced al-Adly out and dissolved the government. By the time he acted, however, the stakes had increased, and Mubarak repeatedly came up short (interview with Mustafa al-Fiqqi, June 2011).

According to Abdullah Kamal, “The team on the regime side that dealt with the crises was divided. One team represented the interior, which controlled state security [and] wanted to keep the system at any cost; another, led by the moderate director of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, wanted reconciliation and changes in the structure of power at the top.” From the first day, the army was with the demonstrators, though not necessarily all the way. It definitely supported stage one—blocking Jamal Mubarak from the presidency. For the army leadership, the fight worth winning was over the presidency after Mubarak.

On February 10, the leadership of the army met without a portrait of Mubarak in sight. It was clear that a decision had been made. The day before Mubarak’s resignation, Chief of Staff Sami Anan was said to have explained to him, “If we leave the demonstrators endlessly, it is as if we are surrendering to them, and if we attack them, this is [the] start of a civil war.” The army wanted Mubarak out (interview with Ahmad Shabaan, June 2011). Mubarak resigned via Omar Suleiman on February 11, 2011.

In the Egyptians 2011 revolution, some 12,000 people were injured, 1,000 went missing, and 1,000 died. According to Muhammad Adel of the 6th of April movement, “We made a revolution with 6,785 Egyptian pounds. All our support came from contributions by Egyptian supporters. People contributed blankets, food, time, their own cars, and transportation” (interview with Muhammad Adel, June 2011).


The Muslim Brothers Engage

During the first two days of the revolution, according to businessman and politician Najuib Sawiris, the army made an agreement with the Muslim Brotherhood. The army realized that a collapse of the security forces would lead to anarchy and, that under such a scenario, the Brothers could end up in control. Therefore, in return for the Brothers agreeing not to take actions that might split the army, the military would allow the Brothers to openly take part in political activity after the protests ended. No one, including the Brothers and the military leadership, fully understood the direction events would take. At the time of the agreement, according to Sawiris, the army felt it could at the least limit the rebellion and empower itself at the expense of Jamal Mubarak. The situation, however, changed dramatically on the third day (interview with Naguib Sawiris, June 2011 13).

The leadership of the Brothers made a wise decision on the evening of January 25 when they told their cadre that they were free to participate as individuals in the protests but not as representatives of the movement. If they formally participated as an organization, it would have allowed the regime to paint the revolution as an attempt by extremist Islamists to seize power.

From the first Friday gathering, young Brothers protected the maydan, taking charge of the frontline.  They had more discipline than others in the area. Their most important contributions occurred on January 28 ( the first major Friday gathering) and during the February 2 camel raid. The Brothers did not initiate the revolution, and it was not theirs, but their structure and organization was visible throughout it. They set up clinics, provided medics, first aid, and ambulances (interview with Abdul-Jalil al-Sharnouby, June 2011).

Sawiris was executive chairman of Wind Telecom and Orascom Telecom Holding (the largest employer in Egypt) before entering politics in May 2011. He is committed to liberalism and launched the Free Egyptians (al-Masryyin al-Ahrar) party.

Negotiating the Revolution

Although the revolution had no leader, the Mubarak regime wanted to negotiate with someone to try to keep the situation under control. Therefore, it sought out someone in the maydan( Square) to represent the revolutionaries. Abdul Rahman Yusuf, a member of the group of youths who went to Tahrir on day one, is a well-known poet and was leading member of the National Association for Change.  Four days into the revolution on the 29th of January President Mubarak appointed, Ahmad Shafiq, a close associate, well-known air marshall, and member of the Mubarak government since 2002 as prime minister. Yusuf and two others met with the new PM on the 3rd of February. He was, according to Yusuf, a non-political military man who did not understand what was going on in the street.

Yusuf recalled, “We met with the prime minister. Our message was clear: Mubarak has to leave immediately and delegate all his rights to his deputy Omar Suleiman. Shafiq did not get it. He answers: ‘The man is old and only has a few more years to live.’ This meeting ended with nothing substantial.”

On another day during the revolution, Yusuf met with Suleiman:

“He sat with us. We were three: Yaser al-Hawwari, Mustapha al-Najjar, and myself. He was very collected and calm. When you talk to Omar Suleiman, you see nothing beyond a face of steel with no expression. He is a man of security. Suleiman was blunt: He said, ‘What is going on in       the maydan is     prompted by external forces and Brothers.’ He told us Egypt will suffer from a    military coup if, we, the demonstrators, do not stop. … This did not shake us: We have been   under army rule for sixty years anyway” (interview with Abdul Rahman Yusuf, June 2011).



The 2011 revolution will radically change Egypt. The rebellion’s effect will take several years to mature and settle. Street confrontations in late November 2011 and again during 2012 looked like Round Two in the standoff to install a political system that reflects the changes for which so many Egyptians had struggled.

After Mubarak stepped down on February 11, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the highest military authority in Egypt, assumed the powers of the presidency for a transitional period. This meant that most of the old regime remained in place.

On the ground, a new dynamic developed between the forces of the revolution and the SCAF as well as between the Islamist and liberal social democratic components of the revolution. This explains the Fridays of protest and anger in Tahrir Square against the council and its practices and the rise in differences over the content of the future constitution, formation of a constitutional assembly, and elections.

Egypr's revolution is one of several stages and rounds. Each stage lasting from one year to two will only open the way to the next stage. The spirit of change will bot settle in Egypt before dismantling the old authoritarian system and replacing it with a working democracy based on social justice and a strong civil society that can deal with the issues and problems of corruption, unregulated areas around Cairo, poor education, health, housing, and employment (interview with Ahmad Shabaan, June 2011).

The revolutionaries fear that the military is trying to stay in power and shift public opinion oward accepting another authoritarian regime. This is at the center of the struggle in Egypt today. As Bilal Fadl asserted, “Youth were the vanguard, the core that made the revolution. If it was not for youth, history could write one day [that] ‘The army of Egypt rebelled and the people of Egypt supported it’ ” (interview with Bilal Fadl). Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and intellectual, said, “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is not aware that this is a revolution and that the people of Egypt want to remake Egypt” (interview with Ahdaf Soueif, interview, June, 2011).

Abdul Rahman Yusuf concurs that Egyptians’ main problem in the future will be the army. Military leaders know that they must relinquish power to an elected government, but they are resisting (interview with Abdul Rahman Yusuf. June 2011).

The army has vested interests in Egypt; it owns factories, schools, delivery services, farms, and industries that manufacture cars, vans, weapons, heaters, and televisions. The army controls a significant portion of the economy, perhaps as much as one-third, and the top generals have unchecked powers in handling its business operations. This tie stands between the revolutionaries and the military.  The revolutionaries maintained pressure on the SCAF regarding freedom of expression, abolishing redlines against expression, challenging attempts at controlling the media, and managing the transition without losing the gains of the revolution.

The challenges will continue to be for a long time: police culture, prosecution of police accused of killing demonstrators and improvement of the court system and Egypt's bureaucracy. Meanwhile, against a backdrop of an explosion of demands by Egyptians, the army warns that constant strikes will cause Egypt’s collapse.


Social Initiatives

Egyptians feel that Egypt is now theirs, and they can shape it as they want. For example in Helwan, an industrial area, residents who never participated in political activities have decided to divide the area into quarters for future elections in order to have a say in the parliament (interview with Tahani al-Jabali). In another example, a group of people established in 2011 a forum, Enlightened Egypt (Masr al-Mutanawirrah), through Twitter and Facebook as a pressure group. Their first meeting, in a hotel, attracted 3,000 participants. Men and women without political experience met with the vision of changing Egypt. Most of them were participating in a public activity for the first time (interview with Tahani al-Jabali, June 2011).

The trend in Egypt after the revolution is to want elections for everything. Elections were held to select a new dean of Cairo University, whereas under Mubarak the dean had to be approved (if not handpicked) by the Ministry of Interior. At Manshiyat al-Bakr, a poor hospital in Cairo, workers, including janitors, formed a union in 2011 with the help of some lawyers. The idea for a union originated with three women: a Muslim doctor, a Christian nurse, and another employee (interview with Ahdaf Soueif, June 2011).


Change inside the Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood consists of three generations (interview with Essam al-Aryan, June 2011 14). The most critical generation among the Brothers is its youngest; its members are the organization’s hope for change. They took part in the revolution. They rebelled against decisions by the leadership on more than one occasion not to participate in it. And they have also been known to criticize statements made by the leadership.

Abdul Minim Abu al-Foutouh, a member of this middle generation of the Muslim Brotherhood, ran as a presidential candidate independently of the Brotherhood. Also, Essam al-Aryan is a leading member of the middle generation.


The Freedom and Justice Party is the new political representative of the Brotherhood. After the revolution it spent millions establishing headquarters in a number of cities. Many of the Brothers respect and admire the Turkish experience with political Islam.

I had an extensive discussion with Abdul-Jalil al-Sharnouby, one of the youth leaders of the Muslim Brothers. The day before we met in June 2011, he had publicly resigned his position in the Brothers on television; he said he did so to spark a debate and create sparks (interview with Abdul Jalil al-Sharnouby).

Abdul-Jalil grew up in Saudi Arabia with his father, who was a Muslim preacher. He was exposed as a teenager to the ideas of the Brotherhood. There were no books at home on other topics, so that was what he read. He became the director of IslamOnline, the wing responsible for the Muslim Brothers’ electronic outreach.

According to Abdul-Jalil, the revolution puzzled the Brothers: “This change will have an impact on their methods and way of thinking. It will impact organizational structures. We will have to in the near future, work publicly to elect leaders in the group and its guidance office. What was normal ten years ago is not acceptable today.” He continued, “A group of youth has rebelled and speaks its mind. For example: the second Friday of Anger on the 27th of May 2011, the Brothers asked that no one participate. On Friday the 27th, many youth Brothers went to Maydan al-Tahrir. They [had] friendships and good relations with all the other youth in Maydan al-Tahrir.”

It is important to realize that the Muslim Brothers were largely underground and that a group of men at the top made all the decisions. Such a structure is not always possible to maintain in a democratic environment. The Brothers, will face the challenge of electing their leaders and evolving from a Leninist-style opposition party into an open and democratic political party. In 2011 they were suspended between the worlds before and after the revolution. There is limited representation of women in the organization. No women sit on the podium at public discussions held by the Brothers.

According to Abdul-Jalil (this is what he said in June 2011)

Now the brothers can be in power and are asked to deliver on economics, employment,        corruption, world and regional politics. You can lose public [favor] in one week. This means the Brothers will not survive this era without major changes and opening the way to its new   generation. It will need new thinking. New style (interview with Abdul-Jalil, June 2011).

The Salafis

Many Salafis are lumpen proletarians recruited in the past by the state security forces to counter the Muslim Brothers. Many of them were against the revolution and sided with the forces of the Ministry of Interior. But not all Salafis identified with the regime. They represent a genuinely traditional, ultra-conservative phenomena. Their financing comes from Salafis outside of Egypt, often conservative forces in the Saudi regime or affiliated with groups close to it. They increased their visibility after the revolution 2011 but still play into the hands of the SCAF and the Military.

Al-Azhar’s reach both in the region and internationally decreased during the Mubarak era. The weakening of al-Azhar’s moderate Islam during the last few decades strengthened the Salafis’ extreme and literal interpretations. Under Mubarak, the Sheikh al-Azhar was appointed after an investigation and report by the security sector. The Salafis’ call to “obey the ruler” helped bring them in line with the Mubarak regime. They penetrated al-Azhar as well. The Salafi groups could at some point reach a compromise with the Egyptian environment. They too could evolve if Egypt finds its way to a future of development and genuine reform..



The January 25 Egyptian revolution is a democratic social explosion that  aspired to do more than topple the regime of Hosni Mubarak. It is easy to start a revolution but impossible to control its dynamics and twists and turns. Attempts by the old regime and forces representing its interests to return Egypt to dictatorship will continue, but they are unlikely to succeed given Egyptians’ aspirations and politicization and the changes that have taken place within the society. The price for change will prove to be high, but the single-party, security state of the July 1952 coup or the Sadat and Mubarak era’s is slowly coming to an end. It appears that 25 January 2011 marks the beginning of a long process to slowly replace the old regime, banishing its monopoly on politics and the supremacy of army control.

Since my fieldwork in Egypt and research for this study in 2011, it has become clear that one key to real change in Egypt will be convincing the military to relinquish power to an elected civilian president and a parliament able to exercise their constitutional authorities. Another key is the independence of the courts and the judiciary. These positions were tested by the 2012 election of Mohammad Mursi of the Moslem Brothers as president. While Mursi’s rule exposed the Brotherhood’s shortsightedness, rigidity, lack of political experience and exercise of power, the military utilized public discontent toward it to engineer the coup of July 3, 2013. More that 3,000 Egyptians have died since the coup, and 20,000 have been jailed. The court’s hasty issuance of mass death sentences to hundreds of Egyptians has seriously undermined the judiciary and implicated it as an accomplice of the military.

Since July 2013, Egypt has experienced a crisis marked by street protests and loss of life. As I was finalizing the conclusion of this study in May 2014, Egypt’s interim government had been accused of committing widespread torture and other major violations of human rights against the Islamic and secular opposition. The Moslem Brothers had earlier been declared illegal along with the secular April 6 Movement. Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, will inherit, as president, formidable challenges and problems requiring reconciliation and transitional justice for lasting peace. The struggle for Egypt continues, and it will take several years before the nation settles into a new order. The old military establishment and much of the traditional power structure must exit the scene and allow new forces of change to take the stage.

The next three to five years will be difficult as Egypt tries to find the right balance between revolutionary ideals and realities on the ground, democratic principles, people’s needs and aspirations, and relations between Islamic and secular forces. Dealing with the challenges of the economy, debt, poverty, and corruption, however, demands a less-divided country and responsive civilian rule independent of the military. In the words of a young Egyptian blogger and revolutionary Sand Monkey, “The revolution brought to life a dead body [Egypt]. Lots of things are needed to make the country sustainable. If we succeed, we will have a different Egypt; if we fail, then we who [made] the revolution will be on trial for creating the revolution in the first place.”



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