Since Euromaidan in 2014, Ukrainians have grown sensitive to the subject of revolutions, their aftermath, and the successes and failures of revolutionary goals.
But long before Ukraine ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, the so-called Arab Spring — a series of protests and revolutions between 2010 and 2012 in the Middle East — captured the world's attention. Over five years later, the Arab Spring offers insight into revolutions as political events, the lessons activists should learn, and the mechanisms used to discredit pro-democracy actors.
The current Egyptian authorities, under the leadership of President Abdel El-Sisi, have cracked on civil society, NGOs and the media. Twenty-seven independent media outlets were forced to close earlier this year, and an estimated seventy thousand people have been imprisoned for political reasons. However, according to Ahmed Naguib, co-founder of the Council of Trustees of the Revolution of Egypt, the government’s fear of civil society shows that progress has been made since the revolution in 2011.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to assess the outcome of the revolution. In its wake, Egypt's economy has struggled. The country's external debt has doubled from $35 billion to close to $70 billion, and the Egyptian Pound is now worth half its former value. In the political realm, the government is actively using smear campaigns to undermine the credibility of civil society and activists.
In Egypt, “the political realm of dissidence is very fragmented,” says Naguib. Hence, civil society is unable to provide a plausible, digestible narrative for the population at large. This fragmentation also allows the government to claim that NGOs and civil society represent Western attacks on Egyptian nationhood and identity.
Hromadske sat down with Naguib to talk about the situation in his country.
Ukrainians feel very passionately about the revolutions. You drew the parallels between what we had. And, of course, we are living at a time when you see the results of it: what had failed. And, particularly in the case of Egypt, it has already been five years. This is a time to assess. You can see what went right, what went wrong, which goals the society has reached, what [was] the counter-revolution. So how could you describe the state of the economy? The state of the political system after those five years? The situation with civil society? They are broad questions, but maybe you can give us a general overview.
Well, those are a lot of questions. Five years is a mid-interim assessment. I mean, if you want to assess a revolution, ten to twenty years is where you get the bigger picture. But five years is when you can start assessing how the direction is, projecting how things are going. There have been things we gained, and things that we have lost in the last five years. People say, your revolution has failed. I argued that if you take what the current government is doing, crackdown on the media, shutdown of 20 independent media outlets, the imprisonment of over 70,000 people in three years, the new NGO law to more or less to contain the NGOs and civil society, and make it very hard for them to operate. So all of those are severe and harsh measures, and that’s only a sign that the main establishment fears civil society, fears independent media. That in itself is a success. How sustainable is that situation? I don’t think it is very sustainable. I mean, Egypt is not North Korea and it can never be North Korea in that sense. So I think we have gained a lot of things, but we also lost a lot of other things.
Ahmed Naguib, co-founder of the Council of Trustees of the Revolution of Egypt. Photo: screenshot from the video
Economically, Egypt is in such an economic turmoil it might actually induce a third wave to the revolution. We are currently…When the Revolution took place in 2011, Egypt had an international, or external debt of close to 35 billion USD, now it is 70 or 75 billion USD. We had an internal debt that was around, close to a trillion, now it is 2.4 trillion. So it doubled. We devalued the Egyptian Pound and the Dollar jumped to double its worth before the devaluation in November. So people woke up, losing 50 percent of their savings, and now everything has doubled. They cannot make ends meet. And they have lifted on subsidies on energy, and they will further lift more subsidies on energy and gas. So people will inevitably be put in such a situation that they will be forced to go out on the streets again.
Speaking about civil society, there were recent arrests. So how many people are behind bars? And in what state? How can you describe the stage of civil society? In Ukraine, you do have different people. You have some who have joined the government, some who have failed, some who are now fierce opponents of the government, who they help be in power because of the Ukrainian revolution. But there are also a lot of smear campaigns against the activists. So what is the Egyptian situation and experience?
It seems there are manuals for revolutionists and anti-revolutionists, so everyone follows the same path more or less. Those who made the revolution now are being demonized, smear campaigns, sometimes imprisonment. There’s always creating distrust in the media, so the public will always doubt those activists as agents of the West as always everywhere. So, again, this has definitely been a challenge and an issue for civil society and civil society actors and changemakers. But people have stood their ground. Definitely there are. Do I have a specific number of people behind bars? It’s not that easy, but we are talking about definitely above 40,000. Of which in 2013 alone, 17,000 people were tortured in prison.
The interesting thing there, when you just mentioned this kind of playbooks for revolutionaries and anti-revolutionaries. So what kind of civil of the smear campaigns, what is there? What are the practical challenges civil society having? Because this is where we can really relate.
Well, there are many independent websites and media outlets that have gained traction and attention in the last couple of years such as Mada Masr. Trying to do investigative reporting, which was not very prevalent before that. We are talking about the professional level of investigative journalism. And it had major achievements and successes, especially when it comes to accountability, the role of the military in economy, and what is happening in Sinai, the war on terrorism and all that, and all the violations of human rights. So it has been a challenge for the government, and it has cracked down on them. It just took out 27 different media outlets, of which Mada Masr was part of those that were taken off-air. But again, the smear campaigns are non-stop. You have got the state-media, and you have got the private media that is basically lackey to the government. That’s the main establishment. And they continuously propagate smear campaigns against activists, against independent media, and it is ongoing. It nevertheless now people understand, five years later on, those people are just lackeys. They are marionettes of the regime. So people lost trust in them as well.
But how does it work? Why am I so interested to ask, you sometimes see the details are still not in your place or other place, and then you find out that it appears. So that is why I remember speaking to people like Ahmed Mahmud, they were speaking about the fake social media webpages, creating the totally absurd accusations. For instance, this Egyptian blogger, Walid Abbas, he was accused of being an agent of Mossad, of KGB, of the CIA at the same time. There were other things, there would be some fragmentation. First stage, the activists would be, you know, argue among themselves and that would be create this division that would later be misused.
Very true. Well, we definitely have had internal challenges. It is not that were victims all together. There are responsibilities. The political scene, the liberals. We have pseudo-liberals really in Egypt. Those are liberals who want the narrative which is most convenient for them, the political scene. They sided with the military and joined forces with the military coup. So they are not really liberals, they are pseudo-liberals. Then you have the very fragmented liberal scene and a fragmented socialist scene. So, the political realm of dissidence is very fragmented. We cannot get our acts straight and we have not provided a plausible alternative narrative to what is going on, something the public can buy into. This is a challenge. And again, to go back to the smear campaigns, this is normal, this is done immediately when you want to change the status quo of the main establishment. You are accused of being an agent of the West and this is all a conspiracy. And they play on populist rhetoric and discourse. They play the ultra-nationalist tools that this is an existential attack against our identity, those people want to change how we live, and they want to introduce concepts that are alien to us, all of that.
Photo: screenshot from the video
So, how does the international geopolitical situation influence this situation on the ground in Egypt? You have this very strong squeeze of freedoms. It is very obvious that this is taking place. You have the current relations with the U.S., you have the current Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who controls the military. Can you go into details? How does the international partners be players? Do they help the society, and maybe if they don’t?
There’s no easy way to answer that question, but the situation is very fluid. With the previous administration, U.S. administration, Egypt had tense relationship in 2013 with the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Italy, and others. Some of those relationships have changed a little bit, especially the U.S. Even under Obama administration, even more so now. President Trump and Sisi are having a bromance. Trump says that he finds that Sisi’s leadership is exemplary, and that he wishes he would be in situation like Sisi. On the other hand, you will find Sisi having good relationship with Putin as well. And he’s got friendships with other populist, totalitarian, you know, leaders. At that point, what can the West for instance do? You have Germany who has put an embargo on sending weapons to Egypt. You have Italy doing the same thing for a long time, and definitely, the U.K. There’s the carrot-stick thing, it doesn’t always work, because at the end of the day, those countries have stake in Egypt, in economy, in trade. So they can also under pressure and hurt their own interests. On the government level, they are always interested in maintaining certain degree of relationships.
There was a time we can already analyze, we’ve discussed civil society. But what exactly were the tools the current government are coming with the popular coup? You know, there was a very interesting situation when Sisi had come with the coup which was supported by millions of people. So how do they manage to take control over everything? What were these tools the old system used to get back to power? To reinvent themselves? Playing with the activists.
Well, if you take what happened since 2011 and now, you’ll find that the military rule in Egypt since 2011 for 18 months became, the military council took over the presidency. And they created a situation where people had started disbelieving the revolution because they made things worse for Egyptians. So it was collective punishment. You wanted change, here’s what you get when you change. And then, they played on people’s need for security and stability. The word stability has been used on and on and on through the past six years by the different regimes that came in. And people are always running after that mirage, believing this or that group will bring stability. Not really understanding that stability won’t come until everyone is on the time, discussing the future together. And without excluding anyone. The real changes has not happened; on the contrary, the police went from bad to worse. The military has tightened its grip over the economy. So the public feels shut down, it’s a very challenging position.
What do you think what you would have/could have done differently?
I would say that we were very naïve and romantic and idealistic at the beginning of the experience. We did not have any political experience, because there was no political sphere. So many of us were in the kumbaya attitude and mood all the time. We were not pragmatic enough. We were not practical enough. We didn’t understand that within the broader realm of the revolution, there were people with their own agendas that they bring on to the table. So not accommodating, excluding, sometimes pushing out, overpowering. The dynamics did not really help. But I don’t think there would have been any other way given all we were in, not having those experiences, not knowing how to deal with the mainstream establishment and the popular demands. So I think we have learned so much, this was all necessary. All those mistakes were necessary. Perhaps, because of all those shortcomings, we might have a better chance in the future. Because we have learned, hopefully we have learned from our mistakes.
/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk
/Text by Chen Ou Yang