“Was there a revolution in Egypt?” This question was the focus of a lecture given on July 27, 2010 by Prof. Joel Beinin, who teaches Middle East history at Stanford University, in California, at Mada al-Carmel: The Arab Center for Applied Social Research. Beinin arrived straight from Egypt, where he has lived and taught for several years, and served as head of the Middle East Studies Center and lecturer in history at the American University in Cairo. He has published numerous research studies and articles on workers, peasant farmers, and minorities in the Middle East, as well as on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Prof. Nadim Rouhana, Director of Mada al-Carmel, opened and moderated the workshop. In his talk, Beinin began by comparing history’s classic revolutions, such as the English Revolution (1688), the French Revolution (1789), and the Russian Revolution (1917). In his opinion, these revolutions differed from the events in Egypt, and the Egyptian case also differs from the revolutions that have taken place in South America and Eastern Europe.
Beinin said that the popular protest in Egypt is characterized by a lack of unified party leadership and is missing a clear ideological foundation. He argued that nobody expected the magnitude of the protests, and noted that previous protests in the country, since 2009, did not have such a large number of participants. He believed that the organizers of the protests on January 25 of this year did not expect more than a few hundred demonstrators.
Beinin further asserted that the economic and security situation in Egypt was the primary cause of the wave of protests. He outlined how the open-economy policy of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in the 1970s had an immense negative effect on the standard of living and led to a sharp drop in wages. Beinin added that concern about the future, felt especially during the period of the government of Ahmad Nadif, and the role played by Jamal, the son of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak, along with the privatization of the public sector, were among the main causes that propelled the young people in Egypt to protest in Tahrir Square. He explained that Egypt’s military was severely harmed by the liberal economic policy, which threatened the army’s economic strength and independence. The privileges that the Minister of the Interior Habib el-Adly granted to members of the internal-security apparatus endangered the army’s economic status. For these reasons, the army stood on the side of the public, Beinin said.
“The Egyptian revolution is half revolution and half military coup in slow motion. The interests of the army and the interests of the people joined together, with the army taking part for historical reasons,” Beinin asserted. He emphasized that, only recently, young people in the country understand that the army is not really neutral, and that it supports radical change in the country. The army will support democratic and fair elections, he believes, but it will not support revolutionary change in the structure of the regime.
In his concluding comments, Beinin said that the balance of power in Egypt remains unclear, and that there is no guarantee how the revolution will play out. The question, in his opinion, is what will happen during the month of Ramadan. In the end, Beinin says “It is still impossible to claim that a revolution took place in Egypt; it is also impossible to claim that there was no revolution.”