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EGYPT'S 25th JANUARY:

A revolution and its roots

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By Chérine CHAMS EL DINE

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The Montréal Review, March 2011

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Inspired by the success of the Tunisian popular uprising, "Kolana Khaled Said" (We are all Khaled Said) - a Facebook group created in late 2010 to honour a young blogger beaten to death by police forces - called for a "day of anger" on the 25th of January 2011. After eighteen days of popular demonstrations, violently repressed by the security forces and the regime's thugs, the Egyptian president Husni Mubarak stepped down putting an end to his thirty years presidency and thus realizing one of the revolution's primary goals. In order to understand Egypt's current political changes, we need to set this successful popular uprising into its political, social and economic context.

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Egypt under Mubarak was ruled by a very subtle semi-authoritarian regime, neither purely authoritarian nor democratic. Despite granting a certain degree of freedom and openness to its citizens, illustrated by the existence of an independent press, private TV channels and a flourishing business sector, as well as the adoption of formal democratic features with the organization of fictive elections, it maintained strong mechanisms to prevent the transfer of power to new political elites through free elections. The former Egyptian regime heavily relied on its coercion forces and on the support of the so-called "crony capitalists". Forces of coercion and different security forces under Mubarak enjoyed relative autonomy and wide latitude of action to arrest and monitor potential political opponents. The Ministry of Interior and the central security forces hired "baltagiyya" (thugs) who had free hands in using physical torture as well as moral humiliation to punish protesters, intimidate detainees and even discourage voters during elections. Moreover, police forces turned to be a "nightmare" for small businesses as some police agents imposed protection rackets as a condition for business survival. As for the "crony capitalists" close to President Mubarak's son Gamal, they developed a friendly cooperation with the political incumbents - rather than pushing for democratization. This special business-political elites relationship was crucial to their economic success, by granting privileges in exchange of their acquiescence to the political status quo. Thus these "crony capitalists" were involved in the privatization of Egypt's assets for the last fifteen years and benefited from the regime's largesse in terms of loans and government's lands for derisory prices.

Egypt's deteriorated domestic conditions - reflected in high unemployment rate, poor public services, daily widespread corruption, illegal "marriage" of wealth and political power, rise of Islamic conservatism - had created an alarming state of frustration and bitterness among different segments of the population. This situation had led to the emergence of non-institutional anti-establishment movements since 2004 to express political and socio-economic demands that could not be channelled through the weak existing political parties or the pro-governmental trade unions. Such a trend started with the creation of "Kefaya" ("Enough") movement in 2004 that gained much more visibility one year later during the constitutional referendum and the presidential electoral campaign when the movement opposed Mubarak's "unlimited" presidential terms and the "hereditary" transfer of power to his son Gamal. Since 2006, Egypt has witnessed a return of large organized labour movements through a series of strikes and protests organised by the "Mahalla el-Kubra Workers' Movement" (by the name of an industrial city in the Nile Delta) that was asking for better wages and improved working conditions, and was overtly criticising corrupted official trade unions. Initially created to support the "Mahalla el-Kubra Movement ", a Facebook group called the "6 April Youth Movement " was founded in 2008, calling for a general strike to support the workers' protests. This movement was initiated by educated, internet-savvy young generation. Their Facebook group quickly became a discussion forum where young Egyptians expressed their concerns about freedom of speech, nepotism in the public sector and the stagnation of the economy. Finally in 2010, emerged the "National Association for Change " that gathered Egyptians from various political trends and ages around Mohamed El-Baradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The aim of the group was to bring about major constitutional and political reforms that could pave the way to Egypt's democratization.

Without doubt the emergence of these movements was a sign of both increasing public anger about corruption involving the regime's key political figures and aggressive economic transformation, and rising demands for better representation and government's accountability. But the straw that breaks the camel's back was the December 2010 parliamentary elections that confirmed the complete domination of the ruling National Democratic Party over the assembly with 93.3% of the seats, while the remaining ones were attributed to "marginal" opposition parties and independents. This meant that on the occasion of these parliamentary elections the regime decided to abandon its normal modus operandi, as it had used to calibrate elections' rigging in order to let in some legislative opponents and disarm domestic and international critics. Instead of this skilful use of opposition, the ruling clique preferred to rely on its kit of electoral skulduggery where constant rigging and stuffed ballot boxes were the rules of the game. In doing so, Mubarak's regime prepared its own coffin as it opted to close off all the outlets instead of expanding representative channels to absorb growing collective grievances.

The 25th January Revolution can thus be considered as an outcome of years of neglected popular demands and aspirations to political reforms and better living conditions. It has inaugurated a challenging transitional period that could lead to historical constitutional and political reforms in Egypt and the Arab region, if the Egyptians fully realize their heavy responsibility in shaping Egypt's future.

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Chérine CHAMS EL DINE is assistant professor of political science, Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University ( Egypt ).

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