In December 2011, a wave of protests erupted from Tunisia and spread to several other MENA countries. The proceedings and outcomes of these demonstrations differed widely. But the hopes of many western commentators for a democratic awakening of a geographic area that has been historically characterized by authoritarianism were greatly disappointed. Violence, coup d’états, civil war, and bloodshed have been the result of many of the uprisings against authority in the region. Most notably, demonstrations against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria have led to a spectacularly brutal civil war without any prospects of resolution.
Interrogating the causes of this sudden and widespread uprising, one can point to income inequality and the dramatic economic consequences of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, which laid the economic foundation for political discontent in the area. Poverty had long been a grievance in the MENA region, as 50% of the Egyptian population lived on $2 a day before the revolution. In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis public dissatisfaction continuously increased due to the lacking availability of housing, public transportation, healthcare, and employment.
A factor that is of importance to the Arab Spring is the demography of the region. The countries have distinctly young populations and feature numerous young unemployed men, that were easily recruited for radical ideas and violent action due to low opportunity costs.
Due to the undemocratic political structures of the countries in question, it was arguably necessary to divert anger over economic grievances towards the government and the political class through violent means. Other channels of political influence for the public were either not available or perceived to be ineffective. The political elites of the region were perceived to be unaccountable to public will and were the only party benefitting economically from the then-present institutions, receiving rents from monopolies and through state contracts because of rampant corruption.
Therefore, the deteriorating economic situation for the young, in the context of corrupt elites and lacking channels of political influence made violent revolution the only avenue for political change in the interest of the masses.
Egypt is one of the countries that were first engulfed in the protests of the Arab Spring. Inspired by the revolutionary events in Tunisia, protests erupted in major Egyptian cities in January 2011. These were met with violent opposition by government forces until President Hosni Mubarak effectively stepped down in February 2011. Protests continued until the end of 2011 as the Egyptian military had taken control of the government.
In mid-2012 Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected President as the first democratically legitimised president of the country. The result left large factions of the Egyptian public wanting, as the election was rushed and the Muslim Brotherhood was perceived to be threatening to parts of the population.
Violent protests broke out in November 2012 as Morsi attempted to change the constitution to extend the executive power of the president. In July 2013, the military overthrew the Morsi-government and General el-Sisi took over the presidency of the country after being elected. This aggressive move by the military against the perceived power-grab of Morsi was endorsed even by Nobel Peace prize laureate El-Baradei. In effect though, it represented a coup d’état against a democratically legitimised president, delivering a blow to the hopes for a genuine change to democratic institutions in Egypt. Once in office, El-Sisi unleashed a crackdown on political dissidents. In the wake of his presidency, the economy deteriorated and average incomes declined, worsening living conditions for most of the population.
The revolution in Egypt seems to have ultimately returned the government to oppressive structures rather than opened it for democracy. It is thus to be argued whether the Arab Spring did result in any real change in Egypt. Politically this is certainly the case, for now, as the hope for democratic change has been stomped by the military and the legislature of Al-Sisi. The political institutions of Egypt are arguably even more oppressive now than they were before the revolution.
The economic effect of the revolution has been profoundly negative. The safety of business and foreign direct investment has deteriorated in the face of violent protests, crackdowns of the government, and an overall reduction in security within the country. As a result, average incomes, and financial security of large parts of the populations have been seriously hurt.
However, The Arab Spring has laid a precedent as to what collective action can achieve, especially through the medium of social media. The organisation of anti-government groups has evolved as the Egyptian protests were mostly organised via Facebook. Social media has increased the political mobilization as well as the political organization of the Egyptian public.
Further, the Arab Spring has resulted in a destabilization of Egypt, as many unsatisfied factions within the country are willing to organise against the government and often resort to violent action. The government has answered these developments with a drastic increase of violence of its own. Political and religious violence has increased as the state is actively pursuing dissidents and tensions between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have risen. It is questionable whether democratic forces will be able to increase their control in Egypt soon, although many factions of society have been mobilised politically.
The Arab Spring has certainly changed Egypt, but for the moment, this change has not been positive for the average person. Political change is often accompanied by violence and democratic change is rarely straightforward. It is thus premature to argue that Egypt will not democratise in the future. However, it is possible to state that the democratic efforts of 2011, have been in vain for now. The government of Al-Sisi is gaining control and upholding control through the force of the military and will thus unlikely be ousted through violent revolution. But the spark of the Arab Spring is likely to motivate democratic forces in the future.