Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

An Egyptian Revolution? Yes… but Shwaya Shwaya

Paul S. Rowe


An Egyptian Revolution? Yes… but Shwaya Shwaya

July 29, 2013

By Paul S. Rowe


I’m not fluent in Arabic, but I speak enough to get by. When Arabic speakers ask if I speak Arabic, I typically respond “shwaya shwaya” (a little bit). The same term could mean “little by little,” as in “little by little, I’m learning Arabic.”

I think Egyptians wanted just such a revolution back in 2011-- one that ushered in change, but little by little. What they got was something different.

Just over a year ago, there was great cause for optimism as the first free elections for president of Egypt took place. A year later, the first democratically elected president of Egypt was overthrown by the military. There is a sense that the country is descending into a chaotic gloom.  What happened?

Many Egyptians might cynically fault democracy itself for the crisis. But it is easy to forget that democracy is not really an ideological or political program; it is a system based on the will of the people. Democratic outcomes are constrained by our own political choices and our perception of those choices. 

In the first round of presidential elections in May 2012, close to a majority of the people voted for one of two options:  either a return to authoritarian rule under an associate of former President Mubarak, or the embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood under its lackluster candidate Mohammad Morsi. In the second round, a bare majority opted for the latter, but there was little enthusiasm for either choice.

Once in office, President Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) did not seem to understand that Egyptians wanted change little by little and not a complete alteration of the system. Egyptians participating in the Tahrir Square uprising wanted the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and a new respect for the electoral process. What they got was a party that sought to challenge the Egyptian establishment, from the courts to the military. In an advanced democracy, a well-run and well-oiled political machine might be able to introduce such wide-ranging changes in personnel and policy over time. In Egypt, the FJP proved ill equipped to do so.

President Morsi started well by appointing several “assistant presidents” in June 2012 to indicate his commitment to liberalism, to the elevation of the status of women, and to the protection of religious minorities. But if this effort was part of a larger political strategy to reassure the world of his intention to govern in the best interests of all Egyptians, that strategy was laid aside almost immediately. 

Morsi’s efforts to ensure broad support for his rule rapidly ground to a halt in November 2012 when he tried to circumvent the courts by decree, undermining his ability to maintain the goodwill of the liberal opposition. One by one, all of his allies outside the Muslim Brotherhood deserted him and he proceeded to replace them with cronies and Brotherhood acolytes. 

As Morsi resorted to nepotism and patronage in appointing the assembly drafting the new Egyptian constitution, he lost sight of the fact that such a body needed to represent all of the Egyptian people. At that moment, he lost his legitimacy in the sight of the majority of Egyptians and plunged the country into a constitutional crisis which ended with his ouster.

In that light, although the military’s decision to depose Morsi on June 30th could be seen as a move designed to restore respect for a popular constitutional order, it sets a very dangerous and disturbing precedent for democracy in a country with little experience of it.

Economic crisis has deepened the political one. Shortages of basic commodities and petrol have become a serious problem as the government has dithered in accepting aid proffered by the International Monetary Fund. Egypt is short on sources of foreign currency and this means rampant inflation and a run on the already battered Egyptian pound. Today, ordinary Egyptians are more interested in the restoration of stability than in deepening the political reforms promised by the revolution. Revolution, yes… but shwaya shwaya.

The military’s indelicate manipulation of public protests against Morsi as a justification for his ouster is hardly emblematic of such a revolution. Western allies must press for a renewed effort to craft representative constitutional institutions, followed by new elections. A new government must emphasize the restoration of economic stability and public order prior to deepening the political effects of the revolution. The success of the politicians of the future will depend on them figuring out what the revolution was and wasn’t about and focusing on incremental change over crafting a new political order. 


-  Paul S. Rowe is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History, Geography, and Political and International Studies at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada. 


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”