A Problem of Understanding: The Egyptian Revolution 2011-2013

With a situation as complex as the Egyptian Revolution, the tendency might be to throw your hands up in the air and proclaim ignorance. However, that is not good enough for a country and region that is so important not only unto itself, but also in the context of our geopolitical world. It would be simple to proclaim what has happened as just another example of American and Israeli imperialism. While that is certainly a key element, it goes deeper than that, perhaps encapsulated best by two intertwined, but I think still helpful, concepts: Power and Money. Broadly, I will focus the concept of “Power” on the domestic sphere; on who has controlled the country and why. With “Money” I will deal with the international players and how both military and direct monetary aid have dramatically affected the crisis.


To understand 2013 you have to go back as far as 1981. At least. It was in that year that Hosni Mubarak became the President of Egypt in the wake of the assassination of his predecessor Anwar Sadat, a man who in many ways lay the groundwork for the US-Israel-Egypt connection. From 1981 to 2011 Mubarak ran the country as a dictatorship, holding sham elections every few years, but truly running a one-party system. That party, the National Democratic Party (NDP) ruled with reckless abandon, controlling the media, the military, the police and every other branch of the government.

It also had a trick up its sleeve, one that takes us back even farther in time to 1967. It was in that year that Egypt first enacted Law No.162 as it found itself engaged in the Six-Day War with Israel. This law, more commonly known as the Emergency Law, allows for the government to extend its powers even further: arresting and detaining people without charges, violently suppressing the press and so on. In 1981, because of the crisis surrounding the murder of Sadat, Mubarak used Law No.162 supposedly to quell that particular crisis . . . and then he just never bothered to take it back. Mubarak was a master politician in this regard, justifying the law to the international media and the UN in whatever way was suitable at the time: sectarian violence, Communism, Terrorism. He would maintain his power any way he could, and the world either bought it or turned their heads in silence.

By 2010, Mubarak was responsible for imprisoning approximately 10,000 people with no charge. This is one of the main reasons that power began to shift these last few years–as he utilized this law again and again to hang on to control, the circle of people being attacked widened. Individuals in the press, feminists, anti-capitalists and anti-Western thinkers were all targeted. However, above all, it was the Muslim Brotherhood, a socio-political Islamic organization, that was most under the microscope. Perhaps as many as half of those found in Egyptian prisons with no trial at the genesis of the revolution had direct ties to the Brotherhood.

Another element of power which cannot be discounted is that of succession. With Hosni Mubarak aging, rumors persisted from at least 2000 that he was grooming his son Gamal to take power once he stepped down. Both father and son dismissed this allegation, stating that Egypt was a democracy, but never leaving out the possibility that Gamal could take power in a legal election as his father supposedly had. With American and European aid dollars flowing into the country in huge sums, many suggested that the international players would support this “smooth” transition to ensure their investments would not be devalued.

In any case, by January 25th, 2011 (not coincidentally “National Police Day”), power had become so centralized and so criminal, that protests exploded throughout the country, with people demanding a myriad of things. Two targets were common to virtually all those in the streets: repeal the Emergency Law and remove Mubarak from power. The protestors’ diversity, so critical in Mubarak stepping down from power on February 11th, 2011, would soon prove to be a mixed-blessing at best.

Next, an interim government led by Omar Suleiman was nominally in charge, but it was really the military in control under the guise of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). In the final days of Mubarak’s rule his Security Forces remained loyal, but the armed forces quickly switched sides . . . more on this later. It was decided that they would control power for six months until an election could be held, but further massive protests sped up the timeline.

On June 21st, 2012 it was announced that former Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi had been elected with 51.7% of the vote. Power had been transferred from the hands of a dictator to the Islamists of Egypt, moderates by some standards, but still a group that the West (and particularly the United States) looked upon with great trepidation. Perhaps Sadat and Mubarak had ruled undemocratically, but imperialistic nations could look the other way because aid monies ensured a close union. The Brotherhood was a different story altogether.

On November 22nd, Morsi issued a decree that immunized his own decision-making, thus widely expanding his powers beyond what was designed by the Egyptian Constitution. People were in the streets once again, and Morsi was forced to back down and repealed the decree only 16 days later, his hold on the country now shaky. In the end, his rule lasted for almost exactly one year, as protests against his own concentration of power began June 21st, 2013. He was deposed in another military coup on July 3rd and replaced by military commander Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Once again the army held the reins, but this time power was placed in the hands of the Supreme Court, led by Adly Mansour. As recent massacres of pro-Morsi protestors have shown, it is the US-backed military that continues to run Egypt, whomever gives the speeches and goes on television.


To begin with, Mubarak’s Egypt was a wealthy regime, especially for those at the top of the pyramid. Centralizing power does indeed allow for a certain kind of efficiency. With no opposition, many things can be done, and done quickly. Of course, this kind of regime also leads itself to immense amounts of corruption.

However, the words “corruption” and “government” nearly always go hand in hand, so who was funding that well-equipped military? Why, it’s none other than an organization that would make Mubarak’s cronies and their petty corruption blush: the American Government! And why would the US want to support violent, autocratic demagogues like Mubarak and Sadat? “Defense of Israel”, of course.

Massive military aid to Egypt dates back at least to the Camp David Accords of 1978. It was there that US president Jimmy Carter, Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin hashed out a deal that would, amongst other things, commit billions of US dollars through grants and military aid to both Israel and Egypt. For the next twenty years, continuing unabated as power transferred to Mubarak, Egypt would receive over one billion dollars annually, creating the massive and modern Egyptian military of today. In 2008 alone the US supplied Egypt with more than $1.5 Billion in foreign and military aid. This is second in the world behind only Israel for dollars received. “Defense of Israel” was oft cited as the reason for this flow of weapons and money, but of course the arms dealers who hold such power in the US were more than happy to both encourage and profit from this arrangement.

After Sadat’s death, Mubarak maintained his power, both domestically and internationally, with amazing consistency throughout his rule, but when the protests truly became too vast to ignore in 2011, one of his earlier decisions came back to haunt him. Starting as early as 1982, Mubarak began to give some of the best business contracts to members of the military. He hoped that having the armed forces ensconced in the Egyptian economy would foster loyalty, as they now had a direct relationship with both himself and the stockmarket. This concept worked for nearly 30 years, but when the regime seemed on the verge of collapse, it was revealed where the military’s loyalties really lay: their pocketbooks. Rather than support Mubarak in a bloody war against the people, the military recognized (as do all “good” Capitalists) that stability is the key to making as much money as possible. Thus, the army could both profit not only from the protests by keeping things “business as usual” in terms of their precious stockholdings, but also play the role of pro-democracy heroes for the international media.

The people were not to be fooled. Even though the military did take control in 2011, they were watched closely by both civilian-groups and the media, and anger quickly turned against them whenever they tried to concentrate power. Crucially, no matter how much money the businessmen claimed to be making, nor what the GDP figures showed, Egyptian wealth had never spread to the vast majority of citizens. In 2010, 40% of the population was living on less than the equivalent of $2 US per day. This included massive youth joblessness for a well-educated, but under-employed demographic of both men and women between the ages of 19 and 30. In fact, one of the major demands of the original radical demonstrators was for a new, much higher minimum wage and, maybe even more ambitious, a maximum wage. Funny though, as the various new regimes took power and the other demands for governmental reform were met or at least addressed, the issue of wages has not changed at all since 2011.

Back to where we started: Power and Money. Since this all began in early 2011, at least 846 Egyptian citizens have been killed, 6,000 have been seriously injured, and 90 police stations have burned to the ground. The Egyptian Revolution called for great changes in a variety of sectors and the call was heard throughout the region and the world. The so-called Arab Spring, beginning with the uprising in Tunisia, followed soon after by Egypt, did not happen in isolation. In the subsequent months major rallies were held in Algeria, Syria, Bahrain, Iran amongst others . . . but what has changed? Wealth is still distributed unequally, the army still rules with reckless abandon, and power has not truly been placed in the hands of the Egyptian people. The uprising itself certainly has shown that collective unity can be a powerful force in the modern world, but it has also made clear the limits of that power. An international economic system dependent on oil and/or American money is simply unsustainable for the vast majority of the globe’s population, and until that system is fundamentally and collectively addressed, the cries of the protestors will continue to fall on deaf ears.

1. This does not include Afghanistan ($8.9B) and Iraq ($7.5B) which are generally not counted since much of this money filters directly to American troops and corporations.

Stop Line 9

Many Americans know about the Keystone XL pipeline designed to connect the vast tar sand oil resources of Alberta, Canada with Texas refineries. Much has been made of the environmental devastation that will follow as the snake-like pipes wind their way through the American countryside destroying whatever ecosystems lie in their path. Beyond local leakage concerns is the reality that opening up ‘unconventional’ oil sources will accelerate global warming since oil from tar sands generates more emissions per unit of energy than traditionally produced oil. What is perhaps less well known, in the US, is the already-in construction alternative to the Keystone XL pipeline that could have similar dire consequences for Eastern Canada and beyond.

The alternative pipeline is known as Line 9, and is designed to move oil between Sarnia, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec with the ultimate goal of sending this ‘black death’ from Western Canada to Portland, Maine, where it can then be distributed globally. As activists, the key to developing a strategy of how to counter this on-going disaster is to understand that fighting against the building of Keystone XL or Line 9 in isolation is simply not enough.

In Toronto, Ontario, activists have been protesting the construction for months, realizing, as their American counterparts have, that these pipelines will be disastrous. The diluted bitumen tar sand oil that will move through the pipeline is the raw form of petroleum which some have referred to as “super-hot sandpaper.” It can lead to more brittle pipelines, and in turn increase the likelihood of spills. These spills threaten entire above ground ecosystems. According to a 2012 National Resources Defense Council report, diluted bitumen contains “benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, n-hexane, toxins, vanadium, nickel, arsenic, and other heavy metals in significantly larger quantities than occur in conventional crude.” All of these substances have the potential for cumulative long term effects for both humans and wildlife. The proposed Line 9 crosses three major rivers leading to Lake Ontario — a major source of drinking water for the city of Toronto and neighboring communities.

Given that Canadian and American activists are dealing with same issues with Keystone and Line 9, we must work not as separate groups operating in parallel, but rather as huge masses of people organizing as one entity with the same goal: Stop the tar sands. Companies like Enbridge, the massive corporation based in Calgary, Alberta that is behind these plans, will not stop just because people stand up in one part of the continent and say, “Not in my backyard.” Enbridge and the oil lobby as a whole have no regard for the effects of their large-scale projects, and thus, they must be attacked as a single entity.

Of course, this kind of unity has been historically difficult in activist circles. Different parts of North America have unique pasts and heritages, and thus, will choose to wage this struggle in disparate ways. Be that as it may, everyone’s fight should be essentially the same, and it seems that tactics have become less important than being clear about the message. We can collectively examine how all energy is produced in our communities by questioning the way in which we interact with the environment. This must not only address our species’ narrow concerns, but the future of all living things.

If the Obama administration denies the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, this could buoy the spirits of anti-tar sands activists, but as American environmentalist Bill McKibben clarifies, “Blocking one pipeline was never going to stop Global Warming.” Nonetheless, the halting of the Tar Sands project as a whole retains the chance to be a real example of people’s collective power.
This article is heavily indebted to stopline9-toronto.ca.