In the space of two years, ordinary Egyptian citizens have organized and led two revolutions that caused two distinct dictatorial regimes to fall. These were street-led revolutions against autocratic regimes that had the support of the U.S. and were thus seen to be invincible.
Although a large majority of Egyptians regard the two events as movements within a single revolution, they were very different in motive and structure, just as the two regimes differed radically from one another. The 2011 revolution, which brought down Hosni Mubarak, was led by the upper-middle class, who recognized the need for large-scale social change to address widespread unemployment, an ailing economy, and rampant political corruption. The more recent revolution was a movement for all, brought about by Mohamed Mursi’s government and its inability to address the root causes of discontent — poverty, inequality, the decline of living standards — and their focus, instead, on securing their own grip on power.
This distinction has been lost on many observers. In the month leading up to the June 30th demonstrations, I was amazed by how a great many of my friends and colleagues outside Egypt regarded events within the country. Most of them believed that the Muslim Brotherhood had the support of the poor and marginalized, and that the only people calling for change were the young, ideological revolutionaries or middle-class Egyptians who had been educated overseas.
The reality is much more complicated. A considerable number of people from small villages participated in the June 30th movement. Urban squatters and people from conservative Upper Egypt — the southern part of the country, home to the majority of Egypt’s poorest citizens — were among the first demonstrators. Unlike the middle class, which demonstrated because of ideological convictions, low-income Egyptians had more practical reasons for taking to the streets: hungry families, shuttered schools and no prospects of employment.
For context, consider that a quarter of Egypt’s citizens now live below the poverty line; many more risk slipping into poverty. Living conditions for many low-income families have worsened since the 2008 global economic recession, compounded by issues such as high unemployment and a rapidly growing population. These problems have been further aggravated by the political instability that has characterized the post-2011 revolution period, with security diminishing, foreign investment and tourism dwindling and the economy stagnating. The official unemployment rate increased from 9.6 percent prior to the revolution to over 13 percent last year.