Egypt: Reflections on Revolution

By Barbara Borst —

Professor Khaled Fahmy says that Egypt’s transition from autocracy since January 2011 has been difficult because the society is dealing with two large questions simultaneously – one concerns modernization and political change, the other religion and culture.

First published in January 2014 on

Fahmy, chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo, recently spoke at the International Peace Institute  in New York. He is a prominent  advocate for academic freedom and freedom of information, and against torture and other human rights abuses. He criticizes both the way the Muslim Brotherhood governed after it was elected to power in 2012 and the army’s ouster of the party in July 2013. Here are some of the topics he covered:

The difficult transition: 

The 2011 revolution is “the beginning of an ongoing thing that will take a long, long time,” Fahmy said. “The country’s problems are so deep; they cannot be resolved the military way. The country is still divided.” He referred to three factions: Islamists, the military and the liberal secularists who led the 2011 revolution.

This was “a revolution against the very nature of the modern Egyptian state … whereby the state assumes a patronizing, patrimonial attitude” toward the people. From the 19th century until today, the Egyptian state has not been based on an inherent contract between the people and the regime, Fahmy said.

“The way I read the Arab Spring is that, finally, it was our people’s turn to have a say. We had had enough of foreign intervention” by colonizers and oil developers and in the Arab-Israeli conflict, he added.

The Egyptian public showed that it wanted both freedom and security, but Egyptians don’t have an earlier period of democracy that they can hark back to for guidance in this transition. People have a voice now, but they lack a tradition for dealing with differences, he said.

Army intervention in July:

Fahmy joined huge protests on June 30 against the policies and power grabs of President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. However, Fahmy opposed the takeover by the army that was welcomed by many liberals and secularists.

“It gave the kiss of life to the Islamists,” he said. “We are witnessing a serious moment of counter-revolution….Many of my friends ‘til today are happy with what the army has done.” But Fahmy said the army intervention stopped the process of the public challenging the Muslim Brotherhood by demanding that it follow the will of the people.

Dissatisfaction with Muslim Brotherhood rule:

“It’s not the economy; no one expected that would be easily fixed,” Fahmy said. “It’s not the condescending attitude with which they spoke to the people. That is something Egyptians are used to. It was a certain kind of organization that failed to transform itself into a political party.”

Fahmy said that the Muslim Brotherhood “prides itself on secrecy.” After it won office in 2012, it did not reach out to the broader public. “Mostly, it failed to speak to Egyptians,” he added. “It spoke to its followers.” He questions whether the party has the capacity to evolve or will simply see itself as victimized.

Women, youth and the revolution:

The 2011 uprising was “a revolution of youth, women. None of the factions had the power to dominate all the others,” he said. It “triggered an amazing outpouring of creativity” in political activism, film, poetry, song and human rights campaigns that were “indicative of a very vibrant society.” It also triggered reactions against women’s rights, in the form of attacks that made it unsafe for women to join the protests.

Fahmy said that a question hangs over women’s rights in Egypt today because Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the ousted long-time president Hosni Mubarak, had championed that cause. In the eyes of some, he noted, that means the issue is “tainted.”

(Egyptian universities have been engulfed in the political competition during the transition, as Mohammed Abdel Salam writes in Sada Journal.)

History and the archives:

Fahmy said he had an unusual chance to speak out for freedom of information when then-President Morsi appointed another man named Khaled Fahmy to close the national archives, which has millions of documents. Professor Fahmy publicly spoke against closure and against tampering with the records.

He was among those who proposed freedom of information guarantees, taking their models from Algeria, India and South Africa. However, “the present draft (of the law) is way short of our expectations,” he added

Security is so tight at the national archives, he said, that only about eight people visit each day. He said his current research on the history behind recent events will show the public that, “in an effort to confront torture, we are not starting from scratch.”

Fahmy said that knowledge of history can help Egyptians resolve the deep divides in their society.  “This is why I believe in opening the archives, access to information and academic freedom.”

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