The immediate cause of the turmoil in Egypt was the precipitous demonstrations and rioting that occurred first in Tunisia when a vendor, upset with the culture of corruption that permeated Tunisian society, set himself afire on December 18, 2010. The demonstrations that broke out in sympathy with the dead vendor led to the removal from power of long-time dictator President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. International media coverage of events in Tunisia soon led to similar uprisings, with similar results in Libya and Egypt, the most populous Arab nation.
The underlying causes of Egypt’s turmoil, however, go back many years. A country of 83 million people, many desperately poor and crowded into urban slums around Cairo, Alexandria and other cities, Egypt had been ripe for revolution for decades. Long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, as with Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Libya’s Muammar Qhaddafi, was the result of years of pent-up frustrations with endemic poverty, corruption, and repressive government tactics intended to preserve its position in power.
The Arab Spring, as the series of revolutions against autocratic regimes was soon dubbed, saw its ultimate manifestation in Egypt. Mubarak’s government was seen as omnipotent by many. To long-time “Egypt watchers,” however, the revolution should not have been a surprise. The pro-U.S. government, which maintained a peace agreement with the hated “Zionist regime” in Israel, was intensely opposed by a growing number of middle-class Egyptians as well as with the largest single bloc of opposition leaders in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt’s modern history is replete with government repression against democrats and Islamists alike. The 1952 overthrow of King Faourk by a group of army officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser destabilized Egyptian politics and society in such a manner that it never really recovered. Nasser’s obsession with Israel’s destruction and with removing all vestiges of British and French colonialism combined with his focus on pan-Arab nationalism at the expense of Egyptian culture and values brought about a decline in much of that country’s more cosmopolitan features. His repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, drove that organization underground, where it remained, and grew, for decades. It should have been no surprise that the Brotherhood, combined with the even more fundamentalist Salafists, enjoyed such a high level of support in Egypt, where millions of unemployed youth were ripe for indoctrination into the theological and political tenets of Islam, which rejected the modern, and sometimes Western, influences that became visible symbols of the country’s “lost way.”
That Egypt’s military recently retook power in Egypt (former President Mubarak was a career military officer before becoming the late President Anwar Sadat’s – assassinated by Islamic extremists in October 1981 – vice president and successor) was a result of the Army’s insatiable quest for political power combined with serious tactical errors on the part of former President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood followers with regard to its approach to governing – an approach that, again, should have surprised nobody inside or outside of Egypt.