25 Jan 2012

Egypt’s revolution a year on: what next?

On the first anniversary of protests which swept Egypt and led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year presidency, Channel 4 News asks: what has the revolution meant for Egypt?

Demonstrators take part in a protest against the Egyptian military council at Tahrir Square, Cairo (Reuters)

25 January has been declared a national holiday by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control following the toppling of President Mubarak, and there will be parades, concerts and high-profile celebrations across the country.

Yet despite Cairo’s first freely elected parliament holding its first session on Monday, questions remain over the ever-present might of the Egyptian military and the country’s continued economic worries. Have things really changed, people will ask?

“You see Egyptian youths on the news, and they are saying there’s been no improvement,” said Dr John Chalcraft, of the London School of Economics Department of Government. “It’s a rapid entry into politics by the ‘Facebook youth’. A lot of them only started in political activism two or three years ago, and they are asking: what has happened as a result?”

That they have cause for concern is clear. New MPs have to agree a transfer of power with the ruling military council, just over a month after dozens died and were injured by soldiers who stormed into crowds of demonstrators calling for an end to military rule.

In pictures - a photo gallery of Egypt, one year on from the revolution

Laleh Khalili, a senior lecturer in Middle Eastern politics at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London, said: “I don’t think it’s a complete revolution. And I don’t think the people on the streets do either. This is an ongoing revolution which is taking place at multiple levels.

“The military are very present in Egypt. The military have been running things under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Historically, they have been internally very powerful, bolstered by $1.3bn in aid from the US [in 2010]. They also occupy the economic sphere, and have administrative roles. They have been backed by the US, who, I think, will be loath to seem them lose power.”

Dr Chalcraft agrees that the role of the armed forces is crucial: “The power of the military is probably the single biggest problem for Egypt after 25 January, as correctly identified by the initial protesters. It is the biggest threat to the dignity and freedom of Egypt. It has a vested interest in between 10 to 40 per cent of the Egyptian economy, and they are determined to preserve their interests.”

Crony capitalism

At the same time, says Ms Khalili, competing regional interests remain a threat to Egypt. “The Qataris and the Saudis have a degree of interest and influence in the region, and we will need to see to what extent they are going to try and influence the country.”

She added: “The economy is in tatters. It was a destroyed economy anyway, before Mubarak was overthrown, because it was held up by tourism and the crony capitalism of Mubarak. That is going to be a huge issue that they will have to deal with over the coming years.”

It’s a rapid entry into politics by ‘Facebook youth’. A lot of them only started in political activism two or three years ago, and they are asking: what has happened as a result? Laleh Khalili

In addition, the new parliament must formulate a new constitution, and it remains to be seen how the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party uses majority.

If politicians fail to deliver on such things as social provision, health reforms and infrastructure projects, then Dr Chalcraft predicts the people could mobilise against them. “It’s happened before in the region – in Iran in 1905, then in Egypt in the 1920s. They couldn’t deliver on the social and economic questions, and large sections were disillusioned.”

But for Laleh Khalili this is a cause of optimism for the region. She said: “There is now an experience of political mobilisation, of having gained some power through demonstrating on the streets, through innovative forms of protest.”

And will army officers return to their barracks and relinquish power they have held for so long? Dr Chalfract believes they will – eventually. “But the question of how much of an imprint they will have left, on the constitutional structure, on the economy, in political parties and in the cabinet remains to be seen.”