The Arab Spring refers to a period of protests beginning on December 18, 2010 in Tunisia, which quickly spread to numerous other Arab nations and resulted in regime change in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, and repression and/or violence in Syria, Bahrain, Sudan, and elsewhere. In Egypt, protests and strikes began on January 25, 2011 (National Police Day) and lasted for 18 days, bringing together various opposition groups representing a wide cross section of Egyptian society including secularists, feminists, Islamists, anti-capitalists, and many others. Notably, while the January 25 protests were initiated by a group of opposition activists, the Egyptian Arab Spring did not have a centralized leadership and no single element of the opposition was in control.
We Are All Khaled Said
While it was the death of Muhammad Bouazizi in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring in Tunisia, then elsewhere, in Egypt another death proved an important symbolic catalyst for revolution. In 2010, a young man named Khaled Said was beaten to death by two police officers after being dragged out of a cybercafé in in Alexandria. Photographs of his disfigured body were shared online. Wael Ghoneim, an Egyptian Google Executive living in Dubai—who would go on to become a prominent Arab Spring youth activist—created a Facebook group called “We Are All Khaled Said,” which quickly drew membership in the hundreds of thousands.
What seemed to have particular impact was the fact that Said had neither been a political dissident nor an Islamic radical, but rather a young Egyptian Everyman victimized by the police. Said’s remembrance was articulated through the lens of religious martyrdom, which has deep historical resonance among Egyptian Muslims and Christians. The Facebook page and other social media sites became public forums for the remembrance of Said and for discourse around what he died for. These issues became fundamental to the outbreak of protests in the coming year. Though police brutality could account for scores of other deaths in Egypt, it was the role of new media that made this death particularly salient. Police claimed that Said died by suffocation after attempting to swallow a bag of hashish; however, during the trial it became apparent that Said had been targeted by police for posting a video online accusing the police of colluding with drug dealers. Small-scale, local demonstrations took place protesting Said’s death, but it was on Ghoneim’s Facebook page that the announcement for the January 25 protests—held on January 25, National Police Day—was first publicized.
Arab Spring Protests
Chanting “The People Want to Bring Down Regime” (al-shaab yurid isqat al-nizam), a broad spectrum of protestors, from labor and youth activists to feminists and individual members of the Muslim Brotherhood (there without sanction from the organization),sought political change in the wake of decades of corruption, police brutality, media censorship, unemployment, inflation, and other problems. The protest took various forms, from the occupation of downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square, to labor strikes, acts of civil disobedience, clashes with armed forces, and others. Violence between protestors and the police resulted in 846 deaths and several thousand injuries.
President Hosni Mubarak—in office since 1981—was deposed on February 11, 2011, after which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) dissolved the Egyptian Parliament, suspended the constitution, and dissolved the nation’s “emergency laws.” Protestor deaths formed the basis of allegations against Mubarak, for which he was sentenced to life in prison in June, 2012, but was released in August 2013 under the post-coup military government.
Islamism and the Arab Spring
While individual Islamists may have been present during the early days of the protests, as cohesive entities, Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood did not sanction the first protests. However, the Brotherhood did endorse protests beginning on January 28, 2011, and supported Muhammad El-Baradei’s candidacy for transitional president in the days following. When Islamist groups did participate—including Salafi groups—they embraced the same non-violent tactics used by secular activists.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamist groups were able to legally form political parties for the first time in Egyptian history. A variety of parties emerged representing a broad spectrum of political thought, from the moderate and business-oriented Muslim Brotherhood which had decades of experience on the margins of Egyptian politics, to Salafi parties that had no political experience. Islamist parties were remarkably successful; the Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party candidate, Muhammad Morsi, became president on June 30, 2012. These gains have since been eroded by the popular military coup on a year later, and changes to the constitution that bar political parties based on religious ideology.
Al-Azhar and the Arab Spring
Senior members of Al-Azhar took a cautious stance on the Arab Spring protests; Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb affirmed the legitimacy of President Mubarak, and Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa urged protestors to return home, citing concerns for public welfare. However individual members of the faculty (including prominent members of the ‘ulama) and students did participate in demonstrations. As fervor built, protests occurred on Al-Azhar’s campuses, including among university employees. The revolution had the effect of reviving oppositional scholarly networks, including supporters of the Brotherhood and Salafis, who were able to openly engage with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and president of the university, for the first time.
The Arab Spring has brought change to Al-Azhar. Since 1961 the university has been under strict government oversight, making it an extension of subsequent military regimes. In the weeks and months that followed the Arab Spring, faculty members and Egyptian society more broadly supported greater independence for Al-Azhar and its related institutions, for example, by making the position of Grand Imam an elected as opposed to government-installed position. On June 20, 2011, Al-Azhar issued the “Al-Azhar Document,” an 11-point program recommending changes to benefit Egyptian society, which promoted constitutional democracy. It also promoted its own institutional independence and its role as the highest Islamic authority in Egypt. Despite public support of institutional independence, Al-Azhar remains under government oversight. However, these debates have exposed a variety of schisms within the ‘ulama including generational differences, relationships to the previous regime, support for Sufism or Salafism, and others that have heightened tensions within Al-Azhar.
Christians and the Arab Spring
The Coptic Church urged Christians not to participate in protests (WHY), though powerful images in the media showed Coptic Christians protesters protecting Muslim protesters at prayer following state attacks against praying Muslim protesters. Similar images of Muslims protecting Coptic Christians suggested solidarity among protestors. This solidarity unraveled in the months to follow when a Copts gathered to protest the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt, and was attacked by state security forces, resulting in 28 deaths and hundreds of injuries.
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood heightened interreligious tensions, particularly as some emboldened Islamists began attacking and destroying Coptic churches. The deposition of President Muhammad Morsi has intensified violence against the Copts, whom many Islamists presumed had widely supported his removal. At the same time, other Muslims have supported their Coptic friends and neighbors, by forming protective barriers around churches, for example.
Women and the Arab Spring
Women actively participated in the Arab Spring protests, sharing the same concerns as male protestors, and included veteran women’s rights activists as well as scores of young women who had never before been politically engaged. Many hoped that regime change would bring greater attention to issues of gender justice in Egypt.
Beginning with the transitional period led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, it was clear that women’s issues were being neglected in articulations of a remade state. Worse, the Morsi regime was willing to roll back reforms that had been achieved in previous decades. Sexual violence was increasingly used to target female protestors, with rumors that it was directed by the government via paid thugs. Nonetheless, women continued to protest against the SCAF and against the Muhammad Morsi government. Female supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood also actively participated in protests against the 2013 coup.
Alaa Al-Din Arafat, Hosni Mubarak and the Future of Democracy in Egypt
Nathan J. Brown, “Post-Revolutionary Al-Azhar,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2011, accessed January 13, 2014.
Jeffrey R. Halverson, Scott W. Ruston and Angela Tretheway, “Mediated Martyrs of the Arab Spring: New Media, Civil Religion, and Narrative in Tunisia and Egypt,” Journal of Communication, Vol. 63, No. 2 (2013), pp. 312-332.
Noha El-Hennawy, “Al-Azhar reform draft law stirs controversy,” Egypt Independent, September 1, 2012, accessed January 16, 2014.
Ioana E. Matesan, “The Impact of the Arab Spring on Islamist Strategies,” Journal of Strategic Security, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2012), pp. 27-46.
Manalal-Natour, “The role of women in the Egyptian revolutionof 25 January 2011” Arab Spring and Arab Women, ed. Muhamad S. Olimat (New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 70-85.
"Untitled," Sarah Carr, from Flickr Creative Commons.