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Egypt, One Year Later

A year ago today, I sat glued to my computer screen watching the unfolding images of downtown Cairo on Al Jazeera’s live-streaming English channel. I would remain in a virtual state of media-induced catatonic awe for the following 18 days. One year later, it feels somewhat difficult determining how much and how little things have changed in post-Mubarak Egypt.

First, let me be absolutely clear about what I think happened in Egypt a year ago today. Whatever it was, it was not a “revolution.” I side with Theda Skocpol on this question, and consider true “revolution” to necessitate more than simply a change of faces at the political apex. Revolution demolishes existing sociopolitical structures and slowly replaces them with new ones pieced together from the revolutionary rubble.

What happened in Egypt was, at best, a serf uprising against the individual lordship of Hosni Mubarak, who had treated the state as his personal fiefdom for three decades. Whatever intentions the activists in the streets of Egypt’s cities had at the outset of the protests, whatever they hoped would happen in the wake of Mubarak’s resignation, does not matter. What matters is the reality of the aftermath – the reality that virtually nothing changed. The pyramid of power, with the base government bureaucrats and big-business technocrats supporting the apex military elite, remains firmly ensconced in power. The only difference being that, now, the national legislature is run by the Muslim Brotherhood and popular elections are not farcically rigged.

While free elections and an open legislature are certainly steps in the right direction, what changes there have been in Egypt’s political structure are dwarfed by those of nearby Tunisia, whose uprising inspired and propelled Egypt’s own. Egypt’s constitution remains intact (save the changes made by the military to protect and legalize their “stewardship”), Egypt’s socioeconomic have-nots remain poor and relatively powerless, and, above all, the Egyptian military continues to balk at handing over its power. As I wrote several months ago,

Combined with its strong corporatist and elitist ethos, as well as a deeply embedded network of patron-client relationships, the coercive strength and political power of the Egyptian military represents the single greatest potential obstacle to a legitimate and uninterrupted transition to open democratic governance in Egypt.

I believed that then and I believe it now. So what can we say about Egypt one year after the Uprising of January 25? The more things change, the more they stay the same? Or, perhaps, meet the old boss, same as the new boss? Either way, there’s a rough road ahead.

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