The Egyptian Revolutionaries: What Went Wrong

02/17/2015 04:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

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Photo by Randa Khorshid: Mohamed Mahmoud Clashes, November 2011

Critics often blame Egypt's revolutionaries - those opposed to both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military's role in the political and economic spheres rule - for failing to organize and move the country forward after the 18 days of protest that led to Mubarak's ouster. They started united by one cause - ousting the regime. Today, however, they are fragmented and confused. Many have given up; others still persevere albeit with little hope. Four years after Mubarak's ouster, the question remains as to what went wrong. What path they should have taken, if any, to avoid ending up at the point where they (and Egypt) are now?

Sayyed, a lower-middle class Egyptian in his thirties, is one of the disillusioned revolutionaries. He participated in the 18 days of protest but now struggles to raise and educate his children. In the end, he says that those outside the elite "cannot achieve anything in this country or get anything from the state."

Sayyed had no hope before January 25 that Mubarak would ever be ousted. "But when people started to take to the streets and the picture started to change, I began to feel that there was a new hope that the people will obtain their rights from their oppressors."

Today, he has little hope. When asked about the revolutionaries' mistakes, Sayyed says it is not about mistakes, it is about the reality on the ground: "No change can happen because the people are weaker than the forces that control the country." He believes that the people could oust Mubarak mainly because their will happened to coincide with the military's interests at the time. Many observers believe that the military was opposed to the rise of Mubarak's son Gamal to the presidency). At the same time, Sayyed adds, the people had no choice but to chant, "The army and the people hand in hand" because they knew they were too weak to triumph alone.

Others from the revolutionary camp, like Abdelrahman Mansour, disagree with Sayyed about where the revolutionaries went wrong. Mansour is one of the key organizers of the January 2011 protests and the co-administrator of the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, which was created in 2010 after two security informants reportedly tortured the young man to death. The page saw tens of thousands of youth discuss the plans for the then-upcoming protests.

Abdelrahman believes that the revolutionaries' first mistake is that they "underestimated their own strength." He explains that, "those who started the revolution from the beginning were a minority that consisted of youth." It was only when the masses realized that the equation was tilting in the revolution's favor that they joined the youth.

Another mistake the revolutionaries made, Abdelrahman adds, is that they stayed away from politics. He notes that revolutionaries' activity was mostly "an expression of anger" with no focus on political work or forming political parties. In addition to the demonstrations, he believes the youth should have also presented their own political platform, as the Brotherhood and the pro-Mubarak camp did. This issue has been the subject of debate since the build-up to the 2011 parliamentary elections, when the Muslim Brotherhood and a segment of revolutionaries supported a halt on street demonstrations and called on revolutionaries to shift their attention to elections and the political process.

But perhaps their biggest mistake was not in their abandoning political engagement, but in getting consumed and distracted by side battles that were dictated by the Mubarak-era elite, including the Mubarak-appointed military council that took over from the ousted president as well as the old-generation, Mubarak-era opposition parties and forces that never lived outside the framework that Mubarak's regime put them in for 30 years until they became part and parcel of the very regime they were opposing.

The process of political transition was largely dominated and predetermined by the military council, which designed the "transition roadmap" and drafted an interim constitution to guide the political process in a way they deemed fit. This meant that the rules of the game were largely set and controlled by the old regime that the revolution had originally sought to oust, while the revolutionaries were left reacting to decisions initiated by others. They failed to agree on strategic demands and were not able to challenge or change the rules, leading them to focus mainly on personalities rather than policies and processes.

In the rare cases when revolutionaries seized control of events, betrayals occurred, shifting the situation in the counterrevolution's favor once again. A case in point is the Mohamed Mahmoud events that saw scores of youth die in protests and clashes with security forces, drawing tens of thousands of protesters back to Tahrir Square and the surrounding streets. The Muslim Brotherhood explicitly boycotted the protests because they were preparing for the parliamentary elections.

But despite the Brotherhood's opposition to the protests, they and other "political forces," mainly old-generation leaders of political parties, were summoned by the military council to an "urgent dialogue" to find solutions to the crisis. Ironically, the youth who spearheaded the Mohamed Mahmoud events, which resulted in the replacement of the prime minister but not more substantive reforms, were not represented in the dialogue at all.

Among the youth who were on the front lines of clashes during the Mohamed Mahmoud events is Shady. Now in his early 20s, Shady, a student in mass communication student at a private university, has matured beyond his years. The revolution erupted when he was in his late teens and over the past four years he has dedicated his life to the revolution's cause. He opposes "fascism" in all forms and believes that justice and democracy cannot take root under either the Brotherhood's rule or the military's hegemony.

He says he cannot name any mistakes that he and other young revolutionaries made or some better path they could have pursued. He disagrees with critics who accuse the youth of focusing on demonstrations and failing to provide an alternative vision.

"We did present [detailed] alternatives, such as the mechanisms we proposed for reforming the police, for example," he said, "but the whole state was against us. The media was against it. They only accused us of wanting to bring down the state."

Today, "the revolution has been almost laid to its grave," Shady admits. Even his ability to demonstrate has been severely restricted by the protest and assembly law and the authorities' uncompromising crackdown on protesters. Many of his friends have been detained and the revolution has been demonized, thanks to the state-owned media and the private media outlets owned by businessmen allied to the regime.

"Until last year, when I rode the underground train and busses, I saw people debating politics. Now, everybody is silent. Commuters seem to be aware of the possibility that their fellow commuters could report them to the authorities if they discuss politics."

But unlike Sayyed and Abdelrahman, Shady did take part in protests staged on the fourth anniversary of January 25's. Before heading to the streets, he said, "I am afraid and I know this is suicidal. I also know protesting is ineffective and that the people are opposed to it, but there is nothing else I can do. I cannot stand still while my friends are in jail and they think we are taking action outside prison for their sake."

Many argue that the public is longing for stability and has become tired of protests and protesters. "I have to do my part, at least by witnessing and documenting the revolution's last breaths. I am taking my camera with me. If this is the end for us anyway, then new generations and history books should be able know what really happened."

It is difficult to overlook the divide between Shady and the ruling regime. Over the past few years, this divide occasionally turned into an all-out war when a trigger emerged and surprised both sides. More than four years after the murder of Khaled Said, the murder of peaceful protester Shaimaa El-Sabbagh, reportedly at the hands of security forces, has ignited yet another wave of anger. Hundreds of protesters took part in a protest to express their anger over Shaimaa's killing, defying the restrictions that the current regime has put on demonstrations and other forms of dissidence in the past two years. Shaimaa's killing also led to a rare condemnation in the leading state-owned and -run newspaper, with the editor blaming the police and implicitly criticizing President Sisi.

But if the revolutionary camp made a small victory with Shaimaa's death, forcing Sisi himself to call her in public a "martyr" and to acknowledge that her murder was a "mistake" by the police, revolutionaries stood still when, 10 days after Shaimaa's incident, a court sentenced pro-revolution activist Ahmed Douma to life in prison and fined him 17 million Egyptian pounds ($2 million).

If there is a struggle between the revolutionaries and the regime, it is not settled yet. Even if the January 2011 events cannot be repeated, since the context now is clearly different and pro-democracy forces are weaker than they were four years ago, it is wrong to jump to a conclusion about an ultimate victory for the regime and the counter-revolutionary camp in general. The regime has been weakened too, notwithstanding its vicious crackdown on dissidents. It is this crackdown that proves that the ruling elite realizes that it cannot withstand opposition. How the situation in Egypt will unfold and whether any particular camp will eventually emerge victorious remains to be seen.