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The Fate of Post-Revolutionary Egypt: An Interview with Mona Abaza

Mona Abaza.

February 17, 2017

Mona Abaza is professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. She is a renowned scholar of contemporary Egypt, having written many books including Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt: Shifting Worlds (2002), The Changing Consumer Culture of Modern Egypt (2006), The Cotton Plantation Remembered (2013). She has held visiting positions all over the world in Sweden, Singapore, Germany, France, Malaysia, Italy, and the Netherlands. In recent years she has written on contemporary political changes in Egypt, two of them having appeared in Global Dialogue (GD1.4 and GD3.3). Here, in an interview with Michael Burawoy, she reflects on the years since the January 25 Revolution of 2011.


MB: You have written a great deal, including for Global Dialogue, about the January 25 (2011) “revolutionary” events that ended the 30-year reign of then-President Hosni Mubarak, setting in motion a political process that led to the presidential election of Mohammed Morsi and the short-lived ascendency of Islamic rule (2012-2013). Morsi was deposed in July 2013 in a military seizure of power and General El-Sisi took power and declared President of Egypt in 2014. How do you now assess these tumultuous six years since the January 25 revolution, and in particular the role of the military?

MA: There is much controversy regarding the army’s involvement since the 25th of January Revolution when the tanks took to the streets and encircled Tahrir Square before Mubarak’s ousting. They were supposedly protecting the protesters from the thugs of the Mubarak regime. Most probably Mubarak’s ousting would not have been thinkable had not the armed forces received the green light from Washington to remain neutral towards the revolution. If a form a “fraternization”[1] between the “people” and the army took place in the early days of January 2011, there is a myriad of readings and interpretations of the deteriorating popularity of the army as time went by.

Remember the iconic images that circulated in 2011 globally, images of the protesters sleeping under the tanks, or the insults and anti-Mubarak slogans that were written on the army tanks or the elderly women kissing soldiers in Tahrir after Mubarak’s ousting. But we shouldn’t forget that the same rather antiquated army tanks (probably completely unpractical for conducting any urban warfare) took over and encircled the television building in Maspero Street on the 28th of January. This can be interpreted as a rather symbolic reenactment of the Free Officers taking over the broadcasting station to announce the July 1952 Coup/Revolution when they overthrew King Farouk. However, after taking over the SCAF (The Supreme Council of Armed Forces), the popularity of the army kept on declining. Unfolding incidents such as the attacks on the protesters in Tahrir in March 2011, the torture and the compulsory virginity tests of female protesters, the Maspero massacre in October 2011, the Ultra’s Ahly massacre in Port Said, and then the violent incidents of Mohammed Mahmud Street in November and December 2011, all signified the army shifting over to the side of the counter-revolution.

Looking back, one has to question the interpretation that the army was really on the side of the protestors in January. The army’s intervention was perhaps less a matter of supporting the aspiration for freedom and democracy, and more that Tahrir Square offered a golden opportunity to get rid of Hosni Mubarak, his putative heir Gamal Mubarak with his entourage of crony capitalists whose economic grip clashed with the army’s parallel control of a significant portion of the economy. But the military ousting of Morsi in 2013 was a very different affair, as El-Sisi was now portrayed as a nationalist hero opposing the global Islamic networks promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Kasr al Aini wall which has since been removed and replaced by a
gate. Graffiti by Alaa Awad. Photo by Mona Abaza, December 7, 2012.

MB: We will return to the nationalist ideology and its economic basis later, but the military was also obsessed with restoring order, was it not?

MA: Indeed, the military was omnipresent after January 2011, especially visible in the remaking of cities. In the collective memory army tanks in the streets of the city center constantly appeared, disappeared and reappeared from 2011 until 2014. We witnessed the erection of concrete walls as buffer zones between protesters and police forces, the piercing and demolition of these isolating and paralyzing walls by citizens, the blockading of entire areas for security measures; the vertical control of the city through menacing helicopters, circling overhead at peak moments; the numerous and unfolding attacks, retreats, and killings by the police forces in the bustling, central streets of the city that took place between 2011 and 2013; the lethal tear gas resulting in numerous deaths and epileptic fits; the emergence of newly created paramilitary troops parading in the city. A culminating episode in these urban wars was the Rabe’a al-‘Adawiyya massacre of members of the Muslim Brotherhood in August, 2013. The increasingly militarized terrorist attacks by the Islamists gave rise to a military offensive presented as a “war on terror,” followed by the erection of gigantic concave walls (imitating the Green Zone in Baghdad) around official buildings and embassies all over the city. We have so many vivid images of the mounting militarization of daily urban life, giving rise to a new way of life to deal with, circumvent, or resist military control.

MB: And behind the growing militarization of urban life, what was happening to the competition for the control of the economy?  

MA: Zeinab Abul-Magd’s crucial work[2] is perhaps among the first studies to have pointed to the paramount role of the army’s involvement in the current economy and why their activities have been kept opaque. According to Abul-Magd, the armed forces have been financially involved for many decades, contributing an estimated 25 to 40% of Egypt’s economy. This includes mega projects, large factories in the food and beverage industries, running cafeterias and gas stations. As I said, this explains why the army opted for the ousting of Mubarak and his son’s clique of crony capitalists since they constituted a parallel competing elite.

But above all the military have been able to appropriate huge amounts of real estate, thanks to a law allowing them to obtain any land for commercial purposes. Most significant is the army’s visible involvement in gargantuan projects in the desert where it has developed joint ventures and lucrative financial speculation. This became all the more evident with Mada Masr reports on the Armed Forces Land Projects Agency that, together with Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi, recently took over 16,000 acres and the supervision of the building of the New Capital City.[3] A year earlier El-Sisi announced the military’s involvement in a $40-billion joint housing with the Arabtec Company from the Emirates.[4] Then the Cairobserver informs us that in 2014 the Defense Ministry signed an agreement with Emaar, the mega company based in the UAE, to construct a huge Emaar Square that would include the largest shopping center in uptown Cairo, counterposing to Tahrir Square a neo-liberal market oriented to Dubai.

This dream of a market economy is envisaged under an authoritarian military rule in which the army controls vast land markets without any transparency on its transactions.[5] Of course, this is not the first time a market economy with neo-liberal dreams works hand in hand with authoritarian militarism.

The newly created concave wall, erected opposite the entrance gate
to the American University in Cairo. Photo by Mona Abaza, September
21, 2015.

MB: You have described what the ascent to power of General El-Sisi has meant for economic elites. What has it meant for the rest of the population, especially for the “streets” that became so famous in the Arab Spring and about which you have written so much?

MA: After the short rule of the Islamists under Morsi, 2012-2013, for many the army’s occupation of the streets meant “restoring order,” but it seems to have also meant reinstating the political figures and financial tycoons of the ancient regime. After January 2011, the street witnessed the rule of thugs (even if these were the thugs of the ancient regime) together with an increase of criminality and violence. Thousands of street vendors conquered all imaginable and unimaginable spaces, occupied entire streets, corners under and on bridges, passages and alleys across the entire city, and, of course blocked traffic – all this symbolized for the middle classes an abhorrent “disorder.” But the public visibility of street vendors tells us much about the consequences of many years of failed neo-liberal policies that pauperized millions, including university graduates, leaving them with street vending as their only option for survival.

El-Sisi’s restoration of the city took place with a massive campaign to “clean up” downtown, through the forcible eviction of street vendors who constitute some five million people surviving on the informal sector.

MB: So the military have managed to reassert control over the streets, that is a negative form of power, but has El-Sisi managed to secure popular support for military rule?  

MA: Contrary to what some Western pundits believe, El-Sisi gained popularity with the discourse of restoring “order” and stability in the country even before he became president. How else can one interpret the regime’s successful promotion of citizen participation in purchasing shares and bonds for the Suez Canal project? In just a few weeks, some $8.5 billion were raised from local investors. Evidently, El-Sisi’s ability to touch the cord of nationalist sentiments was highly effective.[6] 

David Harvey reminds us how Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s – Napoleon III who ruled from 1852 to 1870 – restoration of Paris depended on extracting surplus value through capitalist appropriation of the city.[7] The transformation of Paris that occurred under Napoleon went hand in hand with practicing further despotism and expropriation of rights – a striking analogy to the regime of El-Sisi. Both regimes of order were enamored with grandiose infrastructural projects. Both saw the Suez Canal as a nation-building project. Napoleon financed the digging of the Canal while El-Sisi is currently working on enlarging it. The “restorations” bear close similarities: both recognized that infrastructure expansion is essential for appropriating the capitalist resources of the city. For example, the Egyptian army has been extremely busy constructing highways and bridges to provincial towns and all around Cairo.

MB: The comparison is most intriguing, but if we are looking for historical parallels closer to home then what about those between El-Sisi’s nationalist project and that of Nasser?

MA: Indeed, when Morsi was ousted by the army in 2013, El-Sisi was often compared to Gamal Abdel Nasser – El-Sisi went to great pains to emphasize nationalist rhetoric, as opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic internationalist networks (presumably terrorist) that were portrayed as dangerous. When the recent inauguration of the enlarging of the “New Suez Canal” took place in August 2015, El-Sisi once again struck a nationalist cord in the symbolism he adopted. The flotilla that inaugurated the ceremony belonged to the former ousted royal family – the same flotilla that carried Empress Eugenie at the original inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869. The ceremony could be interpreted as a wish to join nationalist pride in grandiose infrastructural projects by making reference to colonial/cosmopolitan culture that appeals to neo-liberal sentiments. That President François Hollande was given the lion’s share of attention among the international delegates in 2015 marked the historical continuity with France. It is interesting, too, that the 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal under Nasser was hardly referred to.

MB: Very good, so you point to megaprojects that seek to project nationalist sentiment, but what about nationalist orchestration of everyday life? I know you are very interested in the architecture of the city, what has changed in this realm?  

MA: Here too we can see changes reminiscent of past nationalisms. As we speak, the Belle Époque downtown, built in the late 19th century and early 20th century, is undergoing a face-lift through a massive whitening of the facades, for example, of the buildings surrounding Talaat Harb Square, exactly as was done under Mubarak.[8] The large Orabi Square has been transformed into a pedestrian zone while the authorities continue to close down almost all the popular cafés on Sherifein Street. Once again, this could be interpreted as a populist move, boosting national sentiment of grandeur and above all “order” in the street.

MB: And here, too, are there economic interests lurking behind these populist moves?  

MA: Yes, here too there are vested interests in revamping the Belle Époque downtown whose historic buildings have attracted capitalists and tycoons with the intention of appropriating the center and its surplus value. The Al-Ismaelia Real Estate Company has been acquiring a significant number of historic buildings in Downtown Cairo such as the Art Deco Gharib Morcos Building, constructed in 1916, the Kodak Buildings constructed in 1924, the Davis Bryan Buildings, the Abdel Khalek Tharwat Buildings constructed in the 1920s, and the Cinema Radio built in the 1930s.[9] The Kodak buildings, including the wide passages around the Jewish synagogue, have been renovated in an exceedingly sophisticated way.  

MB: So the nationalist projects hide economic interests but are there other interests playing in the shadow of El-Sisi’s populism?  

MA: Indeed, the discourse of the return of “order” and stability has overshadowed concerns about the violation of human rights, the massive incarcerations and disappearances of activists. All these seem to receive less attention than in previous years. However, the decisive issue remains the unresolved and acute economic crisis, the systematic corruption among official circles and the ongoing police repression as if no revolution had occurred. The growing discontent of the so far silent majority, invites the prediction of another social explosion, although the human cost of a possible rebellion against the army can be very high as it will certainly involve further violence.

[1] See Ketchley, N. (2014) “The people and the army are one hand!” Comparative Studies in Society and History 56(1): 155-186.
[2] Abul-Magd, Z. (2016) “The Army and the Economy in Egypt.” Midan Masr, August 7, 2016, http://www.midanmasr.com/en/article.aspx?ArticleID=222
[3] Sawaf, L. (2016) “The Armed Forces and Egypt’s Land.” Mada Masr, April 26, 2016, http://www.madamasr.com/en/2016/04/26/feature/economy/the-armed-forces-and-egypts-land/
[4] Saba, J. (2014) “The military and the state: The role of the armed forces in post-30 June Egypt.” September 27, 2014, http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2014/09/27/military-state-role-armed-forces-post-30-june-egypt/
[5] “From Tahrir Square to Emaar Square,” Cairobserver, February 23, 2014, http://cairobserver.com/post/77533681187/from-tahrir-square-to-emaar-square#.WHN1ptLhCM8
[6] Oakford, S. (2014) “Egypt’s Expansion of the Suez Canal Could Ruin the Mediterranean Sea,” October 9, 2014, https://news.vice.com/article/egypts-expansion-of-the-suez-canal-could-ruin-the-mediterranean-sea (accessed December 2, 2016).
[7] Abaza, M. (2014) “Post January Revolution Cairo: Urban Wars and the Reshaping of Public Space.” Theory, Culture & Society, published online September 30, 2014.
[8] Ibid.
[9] http://al-ismaelia.com/buildings/, accessed December 2, 2016.

Mona Abaza <mona.abaza@gmail.com>

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