What happened during the famous eighteen days, when Hosni Mubarak was unexpectedly toppled by a mass uprising? Mythologized in gauzy memory yet seldom narrated in detail, the period between January 25, 2011, and February 11, 2011, is recounted here through the voices of participants, eyewitnesses, bystanders, international observers, foreign government officials, and scores of journalists. The prologue toggles back and forth between Cairo's Tahrir Square and Egypt's provincial capitals and towns, reconstructing how the revolutionary situation was made by countless anonymous citizens, police agents, ministerial officials, governors, and other parties who rarely appear in retrospective accounts of the uprising. Nothing was inevitable during the eighteen days; the only certainty was that Egypt had arrived at a critical juncture that opened up several possibilities for how the most populous Arab state would be ruled.
The 2011 uprising was the biggest accident in Egyptian political history. After Hosni Mubarak's ouster on February 11, Egypt experienced a rapid succession of three regimes: a sixteen-month period of interim military rule; a crisis-filled year under a civilian president; then the popularly supported military-coup-turned-dictatorship that continues to govern Egypt. How did this happen? The chapter presents the book's anchoring concept of a "revolutionary situation," arguing that it makes more sense of what happened between 2011 and the present than the existing alternatives of epic tragedy, failed revolution, dysfunctional democratic transition, or perspectives that see everything that happened after 2011 as the result of a shrewd military plan. A revolutionary situation brings forth a different understanding of revolution, not as a purposive project by a revolutionary class but as a conjuncture of acute political struggle over state powers.
From what kind of environment did the 2011 uprising emerge? As with many complex authoritarian regimes, the rule of Hosni Mubarak entailed a paradoxical combination of popular participation and governmental domination. This chapter offers a conceptual map of the political world out of which the uprising grew, analyzing how elections, street protests, and courtrooms became the three most salient arenas for doing politics during the thirty years of Mubarak's incumbency. Over time, rather than a linear trajectory of a weakening state and an emboldened society, public politics took the form of recurrent cycles of mobilization, state repression, provisional settlements, and new rounds of conflict. Egyptian politics before the uprising was neither a dry run for mass rebellion nor ephemera that did not fundamentally change the political system. The chapter analyzes pre-2011 politics on their own terms as spaces of political mobilization and repression.
This chapter confronts the inherent ambiguity in the strategic situation after Hosni Mubarak's fall. On February 11, the revolution was over, and the revolution had just begun. When the generals seized power from Mubarak on the uprising's eighteenth day, they extinguished the possibility of Tahrir turning into a countergovernment. But their emergency action inaugurated a juncture of uncertainty over who would govern Egypt and on what basis it would be ruled. The chapter analyzes how the generals built their claim to rule and how, after a brief period of popular jubilation and trust in the military as "protectors of the revolution," that claim came to be fiercely contested. Egyptians' collective capacity-building and powers of disruption enabled them to effectively challenge the generals' claim to rule, but without being able to eject them from the political arena, and so civilians were unable to install themselves as masters of the state.
The first half of 2012 constituted the maximum moment of conflict in Egypt's revolutionary situation. The seating of the first democratically elected legislature since 1950 began a new phase of multiple sovereignty, with legislative power held by parliament; executive power remaining with the military council; and Tahrir retaining crowds' power to certify or denounce national authorities. At the same time, eagerly anticipated elections for the post-Mubarak presidency began with a dozen contenders, while parliament was asserting its authority to choose a hundred constitution-drafters. The simultaneous, high-stakes battles over parliament, the presidency, and a new constitution mobilized more actors and institutions into revolutionary politics, most notably different types of courts, deepening uncertainty over how Egypt would be governed. Rather than elections smoothly devolving power from old to new elites and pacifying raucous popular participation, in Egypt the activity of parliament and elections had mobilizing effects.
Egypt's first democratically elected civilian president was in office for 368 days before he was ousted by mass demonstrations and a military coup. This chapter reconstructs Mohamed Morsi's crisis-filled one-year presidency, focusing on how the new president struggled to build governing authority amid mounting problems. There was the destabilizing effect of political violence; a new opposition alliance against the president that brought together losing presidential candidates and Mubarak regime personalities; increasingly vocal threats by the military generals; and the second round of constitution-writing which exploded into controversy, landing on Morsi's doorstep. Unlike the widespread view that places the blame on Morsi for his aborted tenure, this chapter places his year in office in a wider context, that of first-time elected civilian chief executives facing hostile entrenched interests.
This chapter shows how Egypt's revolutionary situation terminated in a nonrevolutionary outcome, with the military council reconquering the state and building a new counterrevolutionary order. Its central argument is that the counterrevolution is not a return to the Mubarak order, a dialing back of the clock to the political world of 2010 with a powerful presidency managing an array of parliamentary and extraparliamentary opposition. The regime led by general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a blend of familiar autocratic modes of rule and new administrative and ideological arrangements. Its animating ideology is restoring "state prestige," meant as a reimposition of public awe, obedience, and fear of a mystified state. The chapter returns to the three political arenas identified in chapter 2, tracing why the state-led counterrevolutionary project targeted the spaces of elections, courts, and street protests for repression.
This book has taken uncertainty, which nearly every study on Egypt's uprising mentions in passing, and placed it at the center of the analysis as its foundational framework, taking seriously what political interaction looks like in the midst of so many intersecting, opaque, and confounding circumstances. The conclusion discusses the ambivalence of the social sciences toward junctures of extreme political volatility, reflecting on what a case study of such volatility can contribute to our understanding of political contention in "normal" times. It ends with a look back at a founding slogan of the revolution and an interpretation of what it tells us about the inversions at the heart of democracy and revolution.