With increasing rhetoric about Muslim extremism coming from the highest offices in the federal government, it’s easy to forget that just a few years ago a movement for democracy swept the Middle East. The countries most affected by that movement were ruled by nationalist, authoritarian regimes, several with the explicit support of the United States. Unlike U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf States, none of those regimes espoused fundamentalist Islam; they were corrupt governments that saw liberal Western values and fundamentalist Islamic values as threats to their rule.
The revolts, called the “Arab Spring,” were facilitated by new social media technologies that gave young middle-class activists in police states tools for communicating and organizing.
Egypt had effectively been a police state for decades. In 2011 — after a decade of economic decline, clashes in the streets with police and the rise of various groups for liberation — a protest movement grew. With the support of the military, the government was overthrown, and President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for decades, was removed. Free elections brought Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, to power.
Within a year and a half, the newly elected government had become unpopular because of its corruption and repressiveness. New protests erupted, but this time the movement was split between those who supported the new government and those who did not. The military again stepped in, this time to remove the elected government from power and to repress the movement. For some Egyptians, this was a moment of disillusionment; for others, it was a solution to a chaotic situation. Elections in 2014 confirmed the military ruler, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, as legitimate president of the country.
Through stories of several middle-class activists of varying political persuasions, British journalist Rachel Aspden’s “Generation Revolution” (Other Press, 2016) traces some of the threads that led to Mubarak’s overthrow and the disillusionment and reaction that followed.
What sparked your interest in Egypt?
When I arrived there, I was 23. I’d never been to the Middle East. I didn’t speak any Arabic. We had the march against the war in Iraq. [We were] hearing Tony Blair say we were in this existential struggle against Muslim extremism, hearing the Middle East characterized as scary, irrational, fanatical masses of people. Because of my opposition to the war, I started to think, “No, I want to understand what is actually happening there.”
One thing you found in Egypt — an ally of the U.K. and the U.S. — was a police state.
The security services are estimated to be about 2 million people, bigger than the armed forces. Surveillance is just a fact of life and it’s not always necessarily by scary secret agents. It can be your neighbors, your doorman, the eyes and ears where anything is happening, a waiter in a café. You have to assume that you’ll be watched and listened to.
The young people you profile were activists who wanted to change things in Egypt. But you also talk about the conservatism of traditional Egyptian society, regardless of which brand of Islam people practice, and the difficulty, even for otherwise liberal, middle-class people, to break out of conservative roles.
We go looking for what we think of as consistency and that’s just not how humans work. Social mores — particularly stuff to do about gender, sex, marriage, forming relationships — were the things that were most resistant to change. That was the last thing that anyone wanted to mess with. Often people who would consider themselves very politically liberal and, in fact, activists, were still very determined that they would have a very traditional family life.
In the West, we assume that women who get an education will want to live less conservative lives than less-educated women. But you talk about how in Egypt, women’s dress has gotten more conservative among the middle class, and even well-educated women may choose traditional roles and conservative dress. Taking an example you give in the book, why would a woman with three degrees wear a face veil and cover her hands?
To generalize, it offers her something that she isn’t getting from any other source. Extreme religious conservatism offered people certainty in the midst of an incredibly unstable, uncertain situation, and certainly offers people a way of looking at the world, in which it’s possible to feel that you can control the world and make sure that your actions in it have positive outcomes. Similarly, there is this immense social pressure to conform to those norms and the cost of visibly defying them is very high.
People have a desire for political change, but don’t necessarily have a desire for religious and social change. Muslim youth movements became incredibly popular before the revolution. The reason for that was that all other avenues were closed to them. And suddenly, these guys came along who were directly inspired by American televangelists who reformulated Islam for these kids who’d grown up with movies and TV. Instead of being the old guy in a turban and robe droning along in classical Arabic, it was suddenly a guy in jeans talking about “Am I allowed to hang out with girls at the beach?” Making it very relatable. Many of these young people saw an avenue in which they could aspire, they could achieve.
This movement and others like it ended up helping to politicize a lot of those young people, through showing them that despite the manifest problems in Egypt and the state’s unwillingness or inability to do anything about them, they could start to chip away at that. So these movements that we might think of as being regressive fed directly into the revolution.
In terms of conservatism, you remarked that Western governments have pitted conservative Islam against very fundamentalist Islam.
The peace deal with Israel and the U.S. military support for Egypt are really at heart a lot of what has happened. It’s ensured that the military has stayed and will survive and there isn’t really a viable alternative.
The state is not secular in any way whatsoever. El-Sisi, before he came to power, was considered a very devout Muslim. He was seeking to garner support by recounting this series of prophetic dreams that he’d had, in which he was brandishing a sword, to claim that he was the Islamically sanctioned ruler of Egypt.
It’s not a case of religious conservatism versus secularism, it’s different brands of religion, and the West and the state itself have sought to play those two things off against each other and thereby unleashed forces that they could not control.
What about the Left? Does it have any strength?
I don’t think so. There were labor movements that fed into the 2011 revolution and they were very sympathetic to it. The labor movement’s not something that impinges very much on the lives of the people that I’m writing about, but certainly it was a big factor in the total movement, part of this broad and incongruous coalition of forces that came together. And part of the reason for the events that we’ve seen since then is that this coalition couldn’t agree on anything else. It began to fracture and in fact people worked hard to ensure that it did fail.
Why did the movement fracture?
Take the Muslim Brotherhood, who became the first democratically elected leaders, first civilian government of Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood really emerged as a reaction to colonialism in the Middle East and an attempt to cleanse Egyptian and Muslim society of the taint of the West. They had been formed alongside the military state, so their mentality actually didn’t differ too much. It’s all sectarian. It’s top-down. It really was just to remove the Mubarak-era figures and replace them with their own men, rather than form institutions that might change that.
Then of course you had the state, just a master at scapegoating various minorities and creating a sense of fear and division among society. In the 1990s, they decided that teenage metal music fans were Satanist allies of Israel working to destroy Egyptian society from within.
More recently it could be anything, from gay men to Shia Muslims to Christians to women, and in the period after the military coup [of 2013] it was very much the Muslim Brotherhood who felt the force of that. The Egyptian media, most of which is either state-controlled or owned by tycoons who are friendly to the regime, helped create this atmosphere of absolute hysteria. So you had a very odd situation in which a lot of people, a year [earlier], voted for the Brotherhood, voted Morsi into power, were now calling for the Brotherhood to be executed.
What’s happening now?
Egypt’s in a really terrible situation. Not only is the political repression worse than it’s ever been, but the country is in disastrous shape. They’re facing population explosion and resources are running out. The situation is very bleak.
Did something good come out of the revolution?
Egyptians all had experiences they’d never had before. They were able to see and to take part in a popular protest and see how effective it was. A dictator who had ruled them for 30 years was overthrown. They were able to participate in their first free elections. They were able to experience freedom of speech, even if only for a brief window. Those things can’t be undone. They will have hopefully sown the seeds of a change in the future, so when circumstances are less extreme people will be able to draw on those experiences and use them to move forward.
Forgetting about anything political, once the population grows, once the water runs out, there are even fewer resources than there are now, I don’t think El-Sisi is going to be able to deliver. People say that if there’s another revolution, it’ll be bloodier than the one before.
Will they not trust the military to save them the next time?
I’d like to think that, but the reality is that for most people, there’s nothing to fill that gap; the military is what they’ve known their whole lives, their parents’ lives, their grandparents’ lives, the guarantor of Egypt. It is synonymous with the country and to think of taking that away is really scary for people.
You write about the rise in crime between the revolution and military coup.
Absolutely, and just a real feeling of insecurity. Those things are very easy for the state to play with, to say “If you try and get rid of us, this is what’s going to happen to you,” whether it’s rising crime or the other favorite thing for them to say: “Do you want to be like Iraq or Syria?”
What should Americans do?
That’s difficult to answer, because we’ve already seen President Trump reinforcing El-Sisi. They are men of a similar mindset. I don’t think anything’s going to happen to the military aid, for instance, [that] any conditions are going to be attached to it.
What it boils down to for us is educating ourselves about what is happening there and using that knowledge to further our empathy with marginalized communities at home. We’ve seen how governments have attempted to create this environment of fear and repression around communities in the U.S. and the U.K. as well. So it’s really important to resist that.
Where does that leave the “Generation Revolution” — the young activists that you feature in your book?
They had always been very frustrated with their parents’ generation for making this pact with the state and choosing to always be steering clear of the the state’s red lines just to have a quiet life. So to see [these] people forced into that position is sad and difficult.
Many of the people I wrote about have been forced to leave the country. Most of them are now overseas. One I wrote about is claiming asylum. They don’t see a future for themselves in Egypt. People who are forced into the situation, no matter how much they want to change it, however hopeful they’ve been that positive change might be starting to happen, have to ask themselves, “Do I want to martyr myself to this cause if I’m not going to see any change in my lifetime?”