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Jessica Winegar in Egypt
Jessica Winegar in Egypt

After the Revolution

Weinberg Scholars Shed Light on The Arab Spring and Its Impact

This fall, when anthropologist Jessica Winegar discusses the Arab Spring with her classes, she will be speaking both as a scholar and as a witness to the dramatic events of the Egyptian Revolution. She was in Egypt for the past year, researching a book on cultural development programs for disadvantaged youths. At a crucial moment, she was in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, shortly before pro-Mubarak forces on camels charged the protestors, swinging their swords. She felt afraid, she says, but mostly during those days in late January and early February, she felt hopeful that the revolution would succeed, bringing an end to a corrupt government in which people had long ago lost faith.

“More important than personal safety was concern for the country and concern for the Egyptians who were being beaten and were dying,” says Winegar.

“That Tuesday night [February 1],” she recalls, “Mubarak had given a speech in which he said, ‘You need me; I’m going to be buried in Egypt. I won’t run again, but give me six more months….’ And I thought, ‘He just killed the revolution.’ People were becoming despondent that nothing would change. So I went to Tahrir Square the next morning with an Egyptian friend to ‘give bodies to the revolution.’ And I saw people forming a human chain near the [Egyptian] Museum to protect it. And one man there with his son—who couldn’t have been older than 10—told me, ‘Don’t worry, Madam. We will stop them.’ It was getting dangerous; the thugs were coming with their swords. This man and his boy looked poor and they looked like they were ready to die for this.” Winegar left the square before the violence, but found herself scanning posters for days, hoping she wouldn’t find their faces among the martyrs.

Winegar is one of Weinberg’s Middle East experts who bring to their students firsthand experience of the region, adding an immediacy to their lectures and a depth and color to the knowledge they impart. Brian Edwards has traveled to Egypt five times in the last two-and-a-half years, researching a book on a new generation of writers. Wendy Pearlman was teaching Middle East politics on campus this winter, and when the whole region exploded, she was able to bridge the old and the new for her students. “It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to talk with students about what was happening that morning, that afternoon. The students were absolutely energized and engaged.”

To bring Crosscurrents’ readers the same kind of expertise, we spoke with four faculty members on the Middle East: Winegar, the anthropologist; Pearlman, the political scientist; Edwards, a literature scholar; and Carl Petry, a historian.

Before January, there had been demonstrations that had gone nowhere. Why did this one tip over into a revolution?

Jessica Winegar: People had just reached their limit. If you look back objectively, you can see it coming. In the months leading up, I had numerous encounters with people who said, ‘We just can’t take it anymore,’ or they would use a phrase in Arabic which translates as ‘My blood is boiled.’ People were being economically squeezed. When you literally can’t put food on the table for your children and there really is no hope in life, it has reached an endpoint.

The other factor is the organizational connections which grew between protest movements and oppositional groups. In Egypt in the past five years, there had been over 3,000 strikes at various workplaces. And all those people started talking to each other. Secular people started talking to Muslim Brotherhood activists, young people to old people, student groups to labor unions. These groups had not seen each other as connected before; now everything was in place organizationally for a protest movement to succeed.

Wendy Pearlman: People who study revolutions have difficulty predicting what will be the spark that begins to change the equation. First we had the situation in Tunisia, where, as we know, a young man set himself on fire and got protests going. In Egypt, there were labor strikes and Internet-fueled activism. A lot of it was grouped around Facebook, blogging, and other social media, and much of it focused on police brutality. As pictures and stories became public about people who were detained, tortured, and killed by police, they became a rallying cry. When Tunisia happened, activists who were already connected in networks in Egypt, said to themselves, ‘If Tunisia can do it, we can do it too.’

The army was also a huge factor. When you look at democratization movements, social movements, and revolutions, often a critical factor is to what degree the regime coalition holds together and to what degree there are defections. In Egypt, one of the critical elements was that the military ultimately had a cohesive corporate identity that was not one and the same with the regime. When the army saw that Mubarak had become a liability rather than an asset, they ultimately made the decision to ‘throw him under the train.’ They did not intervene to crush the revolution.

What were people there revolting against?

Pearlman: What you have throughout the Arab world are authoritarian regimes which have, for a long time, ruled through a combination of repression, co-optation, and corruption. They created coalitions by getting certain political and business elites on board and complicit in the regime. They suppressed dissent by restricting liberties and using actual violent repression, such as arrests of political prisoners, torture, and so forth. Most of the people most of the time resented that system but went along with it because of two barriers that kept them from participating in protest activities: fear and a sense of powerlessness.

The social networks were helpful in getting that initial mass of people on the street. If only a few people assemble on the street, they will probably all be arrested. But when there are 20,000, people have the sense that the regime can’t hurt everyone. Once everyone in the nation could see that many demonstrators, I think more and more people were emboldened and these barriers of fear and powerlessness were broken. That created the momentum to sustain protest for days on end.

Is the Mubarak government rightly blamed for creating the conditions against which Egyptians revolted?

Winegar: I don’t believe in painting all the government projects with a negative brush because there were some, especially in the cultural realm, that gave people opportunities. The cultural programs I am researching were spearheaded by former first lady Suzanne Mubarak, so I am thinking about what it going to happen now that Mubarak is out of office. But underneath the programs was this corruption that, despite people’s best intentions—and there are a lot of good people in the government—just took over. When corruption dominates, you can’t even operate in the system unless you are corrupt.

Pearlman: Under Mubarak, an entire system in Egypt told people, ‘You, the little guy, are dispensible.’ People didn’t have a fair judicial system which protected their rights or held elites accountable when they stole public funds or gave each other corrupt contracts. That system was stifling to live under and it’s thrilling to see it go.

What should we know about Egyptian history in order to better understand the current situation?

Carl Petry: The ancient Egyptians, starting in 3100 B.C., were the inventors of bureaucracy. They have been doing things in an organized way long before Europeans knew what organization was. In the modern context, when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, it was the first time in modern history that a major military institution in the central Islamic world went down to ignominious defeat. That sent shock waves through almost every literate aspect of Egyptian society and gave them an awareness that this European presence was something quite different than anything they had encountered. In many levels of society there was a desire to find out what made these French tick.

After three years, when Napoleon left the country, an Albanian army officer, Muhammad Ali Pasha, set up an independent dynasty. Although it was autocratic, it was oriented towards modernization. A major objective was to establish a modern military establishment, which meant European, and resulted in a large number of Egyptians being sent abroad to study. When students can read French, they can also read the philosophers and the works of the Enlightenment. Doors were opened. Under this dynasty, Egypt launched a major modernization program. Modern Cairo was founded by the sons and grandsons of Muhammad Ali Pasha.

Egypt was subjected to another major European presence when the British began to occupy the country in 1882 and continued to do so for the next 70 years. Although the British stymied indigenous industrial development in Egypt, the country moved toward a parliamentary system, press and journalistic institutions, and a reading public. Cairo became a mecca for this enlightenment; almost all educated people in Cairo knew English and French. This exposure wasn’t happening in other parts of the Arab world.

Because of these developments of the last 200 years, Egypt has built a substantial base of civic institutions, and maintains a high level of education. It explains in large measure why the revolution has evolved the way it has in Egypt, compared with other parts of the region.

Are there vast differences in the underpinnings of Egypt and Libya, another spot of upheaval?

Petry: Egypt’s population is around 80 million; Libya’s is only a few million. Libya had a brief colonial experience with Italy, but it doesn’t have Egypt’s institutional base at all. In modern times, Libya became a military clique with Muammar Gaddafi at the top. He has been quite determined to put up a fight, as do people with a stake in his survival. Because of their oil wealth, they’ve managed to buy a lot of weapons. But keep in mind that in the last decade, Gaddafi has not exuded normalcy. That’s not something many Libyans are very proud of so he doesn’t have a broad base of support. Outside the country, he has almost none. So yes, the situations are radically different.

Pearlman: Across all the countries in the region, there are differences in how regimes held together before the uprisings. That is shaping how events unfold in each country after the uprisings got started. Over the years, Mubarak allowed more space for civil society to develop. So all of these political and labor groups already existed, and they were able to join forces to lead mass mobilization. Also, Egypt had real institutions. When the president left, the state held together. Libya is a different story. When Gaddafi took power in 1969, he did so with a new philosophy of government: a state without state institutions. Gaddafi ruled in a personalistic way, diving people against each other and allowing no space for civil society groups. He didn’t allow the development of a cohesive army, which meant that there was no army in Libya to play the role that the army played in Mubarak’s downfall in Egypt. Instead, the country splintered and protests evolved into a long, bloody fight.

Besides Libya, which countries are you continuing to watch?

Brian Edwards: Many people think of the Middle East and North Africa as one and the same and yet, there are important differences across the region. In the book I am working on, I have been focusing on three different countries in the region, which are remarkably different: Morocco, Egypt, and Iran.

Morocco and Iran have both seen protests against the ruling class, and people in both countries paid careful attention to what was going on in Tunisia and Egypt this past winter and spring. But things have proceeded in different ways in these two countries. In 2009 in Iran, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected by a much bigger margin than expected, many Iranians suspected irregularities. The large-scale protest movement that followed, known as the Green Movement, was squashed by a heavy hand. Iran is a very cyber-connected country, and during the winter of 2011, young Iranians who identified with the Green Movement watched events in Egypt. Some of them commented online, ‘Look what the Egyptians were able to do that we were not.‘

Morocco also had demonstrations in the wake of the events in Tunisia and Egypt, but not on the same scale. The situation is complex in Morocco. The majority of Moroccans feel attached to their king, who is both the head of state and the highest religious authority in the country (the Commander of the Faithful). Many Moroccans, however, seemed eager to deal with the systematic corruption they see. Despite stereotypes about Morocco within the Arab world—Tunisians told me in past years that the Moroccan monarchy was a vestige of the past, for example—Moroccans have had a greater ability to protest and a much freer press than Tunisia and Egypt since at least the late 1990s. So while Moroccans celebrated the Egyptian protests and the departure of Mubarak, many people in Morocco are hoping for significant reform without the chaos they also witnessed in Egypt. (On July 1, the Moroccan people voted to accept the King’s proposed reforms to the constitution, though there was significant skepticism in Morocco about the surprisingly high percentage of support for the King’s proposals.) We have seen many thousands of people in the streets in Moroccan cities this winter, spring and summer, but the protests are playing out differently.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, when he was here in March, predicted a more democratic Middle East in five years. Do you share his optimism for the future?

Edwards: I was in Egypt in March about a month after Mubarak’s departure, and there was a lot of excitement: “revolutionary” souvenir stands in Tahrir, beautiful graffiti and tributes to people who had died. I went to a couple of music concerts celebrating what had just happened. But it wasn’t pure optimism. People were openly demonstrating still; and there was a vibrant public debate on whether or not to support the constitutional amendments proposed by the army, which came to a referendum while I was in Cairo. Also, there was a significant amount of insecurity in poorer neighborhoods, and a sense of lawlessness that made many Cairenes anxious. Then on March 24, the interim government announced there would be no more public demonstrations. There were demonstrations against that, and later in the spring and early summer, people protested again. It’s hard to say what will happen five years from now. I’d like to know what’s going to happen in five months. (See Edward’s article on Egypt’s revolution at

Pearlman: Peoples of the Middle East are emboldened in a way which is new, exciting, and long overdue. But these regimes have—over the past 30, 40, 50 years—demonstrated a remarkable tenacity for staying in power. Regimes are learning from each other just as protestors are. I wouldn’t make the prediction that we will have a completely democratic Middle East in five years, as much as I would love to see it.

Petry: There is a genuine desire for democracy in Egypt. There is a widespread belief in the country that the time for this has come for Egypt, that it’s mature enough to engage in this kind of political process. There is demand for representative government, with opposition parties. For the immediate future, we need to look at the military and the upcoming elections—which way they go and how they are handled. Will Mubarak’s National Democratic Party rebuild itself? It’s likely that it would happen and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. And the Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest of the formal Muslim political organizations, fully expects to be enfranchised and to propose candidates.

Winegar: The positive thing is: the revolution broke the fear. Egyptians tell me, and I agree with them, that it broke the fear of demonstrating, of fighting for your rights, of talking back to power. And I don’t think [the government] is going to be able to put that fear back in the population again.

What I am not so optimistic about is changing a whole system which was put in place 50 years ago. That takes a lot of time. They want to have elections, but there hasn’t been time to build parties. I am not as alarmist about the Muslim Brotherhood as a lot of commentators, but there isn’t really a wide political field. That and the role of the military are causes for concern. But it’s important to know that if things get bad for the majority of the population again, they can always go to Tahrir and they are not afraid anymore.

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