An old proverb urges us to remember that it is the winds and not the sails that move the ship. The winds that have moved Egypt after January 25, 2011, have not blown in the direction expected by Western analysts.
Rather the opposite happened: most developments came by surprise, which created a state of confusion and bewilderment that caused misunderstandings and tensions. This was reflected on the street, and at times it provoked conspiracy theories.
But the confusion didn’t begin with the June 30 protests and the subsequent end to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule: It began earlier, on January 25, 2011.
As the number of protesters increased, it grew more and more apparent that people were confused. It was especially clear in the American stances, which changed daily. At first they offered advice to former president Hosni Mubarak, until eventually the regime appeared unable to survive, and they switched to calling for his departure.
It is best left to historians to evaluate this period, and it is difficult to say for certain that anybody truly predicted what was going to happen. True, there had been some calls for reform and greater political openness, and maybe some protests and low-level political unrest. None of that was new to Egypt, which has witnessed major protests every few years since the 1970s. But nobody anticipated events of the scale of January 25.
Next, the wind blew favorably for the Brotherhood, and they took control of the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council. They saw the first president from their movement take power, after 80 years operating both underground and in the open.
Nobody predicted the Brotherhood’s rule would end in less than a year, especially as all indications showed they were the most powerful political organization on the ground in Egypt. Of all the political forces, they had the greatest capacity to mobilize the people, and the greatest capacity to use violence.
This, in turn, brought massive crowds out to the streets on June 30 to protest their rule. These protests, and the actions of the army’s then-commander, the current presidential candidate Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, surprised and confused officials and analysts in the West.
It is natural that the events of last summer caused such confusion. The prevailing political discourse held that this was the era of political Islam, and people were devising strategies to approach it as though it would be around for decades, not months or weeks.
If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that the confusion surrounding the Brotherhood’s rise and fall was not confined to foreign capitals and international analysts. Egyptians also succumbed to that confusion, and this brought the Brotherhood to power in the absence of other well-organized political movements.
The greatest degree of confusion in the West came after the toppling of the Brotherhood’s rule and the formation of the interim government led by interim president Adly Mansour, and the drafting of a new political road map.
Among the reasons for this confusion were the Western dislike of military interventions in politics, which have a poor reputation because of the activities of Latin American juntas. But this does not take into account the specifics of the situation in Egypt, where military intervention had popular backing. The army was also viewed differently by the people, and its intervention was not seen as meaning direct military rule.
Despite its confusion, the West began to understand the phenomenon of Sisi’s growing popularity as it gathered momentum until he eventually became a presidential candidate. It has become clearer with time that he is genuinely popular on the street as a result of a number of factors, the most important of which was his decisive action after June 30, and the desire for a strong president after a number of stormy years.
With the approach of the election, we can expect the understanding of Egypt’s situation abroad to grow clearer.