Journal Essay

Egypt's Spring: Causes of the Revolution

Ann M. Lesch

Fall 2011, Volume XVIII, Number 3

Dr. Lesch is a professor of political science at The American University in Cairo.

On January 25, 2011, thousands poured into Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of Cairo. They streamed across the venerable Qasr al-Nil bridge, broke through security barriers as they raced through downtown streets, and marched in small clusters or long lines along the Nile Corniche from the southern and northern districts. Chanting and waving placards, they denounced the security forces and the hated minister of interior and called for karama (dignity) and hurriyyah (freedom). By late afternoon, it seemed that nearly all of the 90,000 people who had responded to the Facebook request to demonstrate on Police Day had filled the square, crowded into central Alexandria, and confronted the security forces in Suez City. This huge outpouring of anger astonished the youthful organizers, whose previous attempts to demonstrate had usually resulted in a mere one hundred people assembling in Tahrir Square — and those few were quickly surrounded and detained by riot police.

This time the activists went into the streets to appeal directly for support. For example, thousands of men and women from Boulaq al-Dakrour, a severely deprived district that suffered intense police repression, responded to the appeals of the young activists. The crowd swelled as they walked through upscale districts toward the city center.

Once in the square, the protesters outnumbered the heavily armed riot police. Even though trucks with powerful water cannons charged into the crowds, and police shot tear gas and rubber bullets, the demonstrators held their ground chanting "silmiyya! silmiyya!" (Peaceful! Peaceful!) They pushed back against the barricades, seeking to reach the nearby People's Assembly, Council of Ministers and Ministry of Interior. A protest seeking limited reforms was swiftly transformed into a revolutionary uprising. By that evening, people were calling, not just for police brutality to end, but for President Hosni Mubarak to leave.

Anger at Mubarak's rule had built up over the past decade. An accidental president, who came to power because of Anwar Sadat's assassination on October 6, 1981, Mubarak initially calmed the public, stressed the rule of law, released political prisoners and encouraged parliamentary elections. However, as soon as he began his second term, in 1987, he refused to reform the constitution, extended the state of emergency, promulgated laws to exclude opposition parties from local councils and tightened the grip of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) over parliament. He denounced opposition groups for criticizing his policies and asserted, threateningly, "I am in charge, and I have the authority to adopt measures…. I have all the pieces of the puzzle, while you do not."1


The political system over which Mubarak presided concentrated power in the executive branch of government. The candidate for president was selected by the People's Assembly and ratified by a public referendum, where the choice was "yes" or "no." The president served a six-year term, renewable indefinitely by referendum. He had the power to appoint — and remove — the prime minister and council of ministers, dissolve the bicameral parliament at any time, veto laws, and by-pass the legislature by putting issues to a vote in public refer­enda. The NDP controlled at least three-quarters of the seats in the People's Assembly, except for 1995 and 2010, when the NDP won 94 percent and 97 percent of the seats, respectively. Moreover, the president appointed all the governors, mayors and deputy mayors. Local councils were elected according to a winner-take-all system that guaranteed the NDP's monopoly of power. This monopoly encouraged widespread corruption among local government officials.2

The State of Emergency consolidated the president's absolute authority by empowering him — and, by delegation, the prime minister and minister of interior — to restrain the movement of individuals, search persons or places without warrants, tap telephones, monitor and ban publications, forbid meetings and intern suspects without trial. Gatherings of more than five people were illegal. The state could choose to refer civilians not only to the criminal courts but also to Emergency State Security Courts and draconian military courts, where officers served as judges and there was no judicial appeals process.

Security forces were initially unleashed against violent Islamist groups that destabilized Egypt in the 1990s. However, after the Islamist groups renounced violence in 1997, emergency and military courts continued to operate. They prosecuted civilians charged with nonviolent infractions, such as Muslim Brothers who met to prepare for professional syndicate elections or journalists who "slandered" regime figures. Police increasingly harassed people on the street, demanding bribes from shop owners and minivan drivers and free food from vendors and restaurants. They seized and beat people in order to coerce false confessions or to pressure them to become informers. They harassed people who came to the police station to get IDs or other routine documents, and they nabbed those who "talked back" to them. Amnesty International concluded that torture was "systematic in police stations, prisons and [State Security Investigations] SSI detention centers and, for the most part, committed with impunity…. [Security and plainclothes police assault people] openly and in public as if unconcerned about possible consequences."3 Even the government-appointed National Council on Human Rights, in its first annual report (2004), expressed deep concern about the 74 cases of "blatant" torture and 34 persons who had died in police or SSI detention that year.4 A U.S. diplomat cabled in 2009 to Washington that Omar Suleiman, director of the General Intelligence Directorate, and Interior Minister Habib al-Adly "keep the domestic beasts at bay, and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics."5

All aspects of public life were controlled, ranging from censorship of cultural and media production to the operation of labor unions. Public-sector workers were required to join a union under the authority of the Egyptian Trade Unions Federation (ETUF), which was led by NDP officials who were often businessmen themselves. Workers were banned from striking and, since the change in the labor law in 2003, were often hired on short-term contracts, under which they had no medical — or social — insurance benefits. The monthly minimum wage had not been raised since 1984, when it was set at LE 35 (in 2011 the equivalent of $6).6 The ETUF enforced government policy rather than represented its millions of members.

Private-sector workers suffered even more, as the 2003 labor law failed to provide any protection to employees negotiating length of contract, salary level, hours at work, overtime compensation, vacation or lunch breaks. Workers often lacked health and injury insurance. Many private-sector firms forced new hires to sign, along with the contract, Form No. 6, which allowed the employer to fire them without warning, cause or severance pay.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were regulated under laws promulgated in 1964 and 2002 by the Ministry of Social Affairs, later renamed (without irony) the Ministry of Social Solidarity. The ministry approved NGO bylaws, boards of directors, budgets and activity programs, regulated fundraising, and could close down the NGO, replace members of the governing boards, and transfer funds to another NGO.

Although the government exerted tight control over political and social life, it privatized the economy. In 1991, Egypt signed an Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Program with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The government canceled progressive income taxes that year, privatized nearly 200 firms during the decade and abruptly ended the 1954 Land Reform provisions by passing Law 96 in 1992, implemented in 1997.7 Tenant farmers, whose tenancies were permanent (and inherited) under Land Reform, lost all their rights. Landowners could take back the land or impose whatever rental rate they desired. Security forces helped landowners seize land, closing off entire villages while they ransacked houses and arrested the tenant farmers. In cases where landowners did not seize the land, they increased the rent tenfold or more, which the tenants found impossible to pay. They also leased the land for a year or less, destroying the tenants' incentive to invest in long-term improvements.

As the government had already closed the agricultural cooperative services and stopped subsidizing fertilizers and pesticides, small landowners often resorted to usurious loans from the Bank of Development and Agricultural Credit (BDAC) in order to purchase necessities. When they could not pay back the loan, BDAC seized the property and threw them in jail. Living expenses also rose when the government privatized water, electricity and phone services, and stopped cleaning irrigation canals. To survive, farming families resorted to daily wage labor on the landowners' estates, even indenturing their children by accessing cash against the children's labor time. Not surprisingly, primary-school enrollment dropped markedly after 1997, exacerbating a vicious circle insofar as the highest poverty rates in rural areas are found among the illiterate and the landless.

Impoverishment of the rural and urban labor force contrasted with the increased concentration of wealth and concomitant corruption. The Central Auditing Organization unveiled numerous scandals, which sometimes resulted in prison sentences and fines. But, in many cases, those responsible were let off scot-free or fled abroad. Cases included those of seven senior officials sentenced for embezzlement in the Port Said Free Zone and bank officials jailed for facilitating loans and credit to businessmen without the required guarantees. Some ministers and governors distributed state lands to favored persons or sold land at suspiciously low prices. Perhaps the most notorious official was Ibrahim Suleiman, minister of housing and new urban communities. He provided 8,000 acres free in the mid-1990s to the Talaat Mustafa Company to build the luxurious Madinaty gated community (a deal that the judiciary voided in autumn 2010);8 sold land in Marina resort and along the Fayoum desert road at minimal prices; razed 129 blocks of low-income housing in Qatameya in 1996, when an upscale golf course and villa complex were built nearby; and tried to seize two islands in the Nile in southern Cairo for a resort. The last action caused a huge outcry, as it would have displaced poor villagers and fishermen.


During the 2000s, a mostly new set of politicians led by the president's youthful son Gamal sidelined the "old guard" who had entrenched themselves in the government, the NDP and parliament during the first 20 years of Mubarak's rule. Gamal had returned to Cairo in the late 1990s, after a six-year stint in London as an investment banker with the Bank of America. His father appointed him to the NDP general secretariat in February 2000. Then, when the NDP performed poorly in the parliamentary elections in autumn 2000, Gamal accelerated his takeover. An important change was signaled when Deputy Prime Minister Yusif Wali was removed as NDP secretary general in 2002 and lost the Agricultural Ministry portfolio in 2004, which he had held for 22 years. At the NDP congress in September 2002, convened under the slogan "A New Style of Thinking," Gamal created and headed the party's powerful Policies Secretariat. In his view, "We need audacious leaders who are able to prepare their country for the future and implement some reforms even when they are unpopular."9

The key move came in the July 2004 cabinet reshuffle that elevated Atef Ebeid from minister of communications and information technology to prime minister. The 14 new cabinet members represented not just a generational change but a change in approach. Lauded as "modernizers," they claimed that they would reduce the bureaucratic stranglehold and reinvigorate economic growth.

The most important ministers controlled all the key economic portfolios, notably the World Bank-oriented Youssef Boutros Ghali, who moved from the economics ministry to finance; Rachid Mohamed Rachid, a wealthy businessman tasked with liberalizing industry and international trade; Ahmed al-Maghraby, a major player in the hotel and property field tapped as minister of housing; car-dealer and financier Mohamed Mansour, minister of transport; the largest cotton trader, Amin Abaza, minister of agriculture; and Zuhair Garana, director of one of the largest travel and hotel companies, minister of tourism. Even the minister of health, Dr. Hatem al-Gabali, was a businessman in the field of medical management who owned the expensive private Dar al-Fouad Hospital.

Monopolizing power accelerated in 2005, even though a competitive presidential election was held for the first time and opposition politicians won 23 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly that fall. The presidential election was highly problematic. After the Wafd's Numan Gomaa won a mere 2.7 percent of the votes (according to the official count), the government engineered splits that paralyzed the party. Ayman Nour, arrested in early 2005 on charges that he forged signatures on petitions to found al-Ghad party, gained 7.6 percent of the votes but was immediately rearrested and sentenced to five years in prison. Evidently the regime would not tolerate the slightest opposition to Mubarak — or to his son's anticipated succession.

One of the problems was that, even though judges sat in the polling stations to ensure transparency in voting, they did not supervise the election process as a whole. NDP operatives bussed public-sector workers to the polling stations, gave voters pre-marked ballots, provided tangible favors and bribes, and employed the police to prevent people from entering the polling stations. When the Judges Club lobbied to uphold judicial independence and voting transparency, the government retaliated by referring two senior judges to a disciplinary tribunal and removing judges entirely from the polling stations. It even canceled the Higher Judiciary Council's authority to appoint judges, handing that over to the executive branch.

Meanwhile, the president elevated Gamal in February 2006 to be one of three deputy secretary generals in the NDP and included him in diplomatic missions. Gamal's Policies Secretariat drafted the 2007 constitutional amendments that cleared the barriers to his own succession. At the NDP annual congress in September 2008, Gamal launched and headed the new 46-member Higher Policies Council.

The power plays culminated in the blatant rigging of the fall 2010 parliamentary elections by NDP Secretary General of Organizational Affairs Ahmed Ezz. This resulted in the NDP's (including allied independent candidates) winning 97 percent of the seats. Eight seats were relegated to opposition parties. The government had arrested hundreds of Muslim Brothers during the year before, making it nearly impossible for the Brothers to run strong candidates. One of their leaders concluded, "The elections are completely in the hands of the interior minister now. He decides who wins and who loses and who can run."10 The Wafd party and Muslim Brothers boycotted the run-off elections so as not to legitimize the outcome. Nonetheless, at the NDP congress in December, Gamal and Ezz arrogantly proclaimed that the NDP's "crushing victory" validated their plans for a new wave of neoliberal economic policies.11 Coming in the wake of the president's serious operation in spring 2010, and months before the fall 2011 presidential elections, this deepened expectations — and fears — that Gamal was the anointed successor. An NDP member of parliament commented in retrospect that Ahmed Ezz went too far: "The stupid part is, we had the opposition inside the parliament under a covered roof. He took the opposition into the street."12


The exclusion of opposition forces from the political arena in fall 2010 was accompanied by systematic crackdowns on the media, cultural expression and university life. The regime wanted to prevent critical commentary from being aired in independent newspapers and on private satellite stations. The government closed down 19 TV and satellite channels, hacked or blocked several websites, and pressured private businessmen to cancel outspoken critics' positions as editors, opinion writers and talk-show hosts. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) concluded: "The Ministry of Mass Media and Communication has tightened its fist over all media channels to markedly reduce the space for freedom of expression, especially [during and] after the last parliamentary elections."13

Already, press and cultural output were managed through myriad control boards. Journalists were beaten, jailed and/or fined if they investigated corruption or police brutality and were charged with incitement or libel when they criticized government policies or political leaders. AFTE also reported heavy-handed censorship of movies, plays and books.

The crackdown on university life accelerated after the 1979 student charter was amended in 2007 to give administrative bodies — and, behind them, the SSI — the right to bar students from running in university elections. By then, the SSI was interfering deeply in university operations: approving the appointment of rectors and deans, exercising a veto over teaching-staff employment and promotions, vetting graduate teaching assistants, determining the eligibility of students to live in dormitories, and interfering in scientific research, textbooks choices, and faculty permissions to travel abroad to participate in conferences.14 The SSI presence was overtly threatening; guards stood at the gates and at each building. Plainclothes SSI officers quelled demonstrations as well as threatening and arresting student activists. Then, in October 2010, the government refused to implement the Supreme Administrative Court ruling that banned SSI guards from the campuses and also blocked anti-regime candidates from contesting seats in the student-union elections.15


Along with promoting privatization, many ministers appointed in the mid-2000s promoted corruption on an unprecedented scale. They sold significant portions of the public sector for their personal benefit and decreased public investment in agriculture, land reclamation, housing, education and health. In turn, they promoted private investment in rarely successful export-oriented agriculture, the construction of gated communities for the elite, and the establishment of for-profit private universities and hospitals.

The fall 2010 elections consolidated this nexus of government, party, parliament and crony capitalism. All the cabinet ministers who ran for parliament were elected, using their official positions to pay for campaign literature, promise services, coerce employees to vote and bribe others to support them. Top businessmen with close ties to the Mubaraks and to cabinet ministers became MPs, enabling them to raid the government coffers from within, not just from outside.

Corruption assumed multiple forms. The bases of President Mubarak's wealth are still being investigated, and the prosecutor is sorting through the myriad charitable accounts that Suzanne Mubarak controlled. It is known that the Mubaraks' sons took commissions on business deals,16 held free or discounted shares in businesses, used their roles in investment agencies to leverage business for themselves and their business partners, and received land and villas gratis or for minimal payment. Gamal Mubarak's MED Invest Partners received substantial fees for advising western investors on the purchase of stocks and entire companies in Egypt. Gamal's 18 percent stake in EFG Private Equity, the largest investment bank in Egypt and a subsidiary of EFG-Hermes, reaped 37 million Egyptian pounds (about $6.25 million) profits for him in the first nine months of 2010 alone.17 Not surprisingly, the government designated EFG-Hermes to establish a LE 2.5 million fund (about $425,000) in 2010 to manage (and benefit from) public-private investment in infrastructure and public-sector projects. In addition, the Mubarak brothers obtained free or reduced-rate shares, amounting to as much as 50 percent of the capital, in the largest trade and industrial companies operating in Egypt.18 And the Mubaraks obtained favorable deals in land and villas in choice locations. As noted, Alaa and Gamal received land by "direct order" from housing ministers Suleiman and al-Maghrabi and benefited from tourism projects licensed by tourism minister Garana.

Some of the most complex networks of corruption involved land deals by the ministers of housing (Ahmed al-Maghrabi), tourism (Zuhair Garana) and transportation (Mohamed Mansour). Al-Maghrabi was the cousin of both Mansour and Garana, and Mansour and al-Maghrabi were partners in Mansour & Maghrabi Investment and Development (MMID). That conglomerate's interests extended across tobacco, vehicles, food and computers; they also controlled Crédit Agricole Bank.19 Mansour's brother Yassin chaired Palm Hills Urban Developer, the second-largest land-holding company in Egypt, which MMID founded. Al-Maghrabi not only favored the Mubaraks in his land deals, but also gave state land and flats intended for low-income tenants to public figures and employees. Most notably, he has been charged with a blatant gift to himself: As minister, he sold land at below-market prices in Qatamiyya to Akhbar al-Youm Investment Company, which that company resold to MMID's Palm Hills.20 Such sweetheart deals made other ministers' activities pale in comparison.

Ahmed Ezz's rise to power offers an even more extraordinary example. After opening a small steel factory in Sadat City in 1995, he bought several public-sector steel companies and quickly emerged as the billionaire owner of 60 percent of Egypt's steel and iron production.21 He controlled (and arbitrarily raised) the price of steel and thereby manipulated construction costs throughout the country. His special relationship with Gamal Mubarak enabled him to get unsecured bank loans and pay back old loans by taking out new ones. Businessmen and ministers did favors for him — as he did for them. The U.S. ambassador called Ezz the most "reviled" of the corrupt politico-businessmen.22 (Indeed, Ezz Steel's headquarters in Mohandesseen was torched on the night of January 28, 2011, the only corporate office attacked during the revolution.)

Ezz's political star rose simultaneously with his economic power, reflecting his close ties to the president's son. He became secretary of organizational affairs of the NDP and a member of parliament in 2000, joined Gamal's new policy committee of the NDP in 2002 and was reelected to the People's Assembly in 2005. In his post as chair of the assembly's planning and budget committee and a member of the committee for legislation, he made sure that the 2006 Law on Protection of Competition and Prohibition of Monopolistic Practices would be too weak to affect his interests. Finally, he orchestrated the NDP monopoly of the elections in November 2010. His economic clout enabled him to ignore the label "the consumer's number 1 enemy,"23 and he thought he had the political clout to similarly ignore popular anger at his political machinations.

Meanwhile, the divide between rich and poor became acute. The rich constructed gated communities while urban infrastructure decayed and "informal" housing burgeoned. Nearly half the residents of Cairo lived in unplanned areas that lacked basic utilities, sometimes living in wooden shacks.24 With the informal sector comprising 60 percent of the work force — and growing, as thousands of blue collar workers lost their jobs and more than a million farmers lost their land — the World Bank reported that, by 2006, 62 percent of Egyptians were struggling to subsist on less than $2 a day. Deteriorating public health and education systems25 and escalating food prices meant that the vast majority of the population could not access the glittering high-tech industries and costly private hospitals and schools. Indeed, 92 percent of all students were crowded into poorly serviced public schools. The government lacked a serious economic-growth strategy, implementing policies that benefited large corporations but undermined small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Unemployment soared among young people, who became seriously disaffected.

One must concede that some NDP members of parliament were fed up with Finance Minister Boutros Ghali's policies. During 2010, members of the People's Assembly's agricultural committee expressed anger that he "ignores farmers' rightful demands." The head of the assembly's health committee complained, "We get headaches from [his] many wrong decisions." Even the national-security undersecretary for parliament exclaimed that Boutros Ghali's policies made people hate him.26

It should also be noted that, throughout this era, government agencies assiduously collected data and compiled reports on illegal activities in the public sector. These reports covered the budgets of ministries and state agencies and their associated companies and banks. They detailed instances of squandering funds, selling or purchasing by direct order rather than tender, and failing to follow legal processes, among other infractions. The head of an investigative unit within the Ministry of Interior even fled to Zurich in 2005, where he proclaimed, "The Mubarak era will be known … as the era of thieves. His official business is the looting of public money, and we find that the super-corrupt, ultra-delinquents have attained state posts."27

Laws against money laundering and bribery were supplemented by the anti-monopoly law that Ezz had watered down, but they were rarely enforced. Well before the revolution, the press was flooded with reports on corrupt ministers and politicians, to the extent that non-NDP MPs formed a "front against corruption," forcing the assembly to debate tougher anti-corruption laws. 28 It was not surprising that, post-February 11, people chanted, "We cleaned the regime; now it's time to clean all the sectors."


Given the overwhelming power of the state, the severe restrictions imposed by the State of Emergency on public gatherings, and the unchecked violence by police and security forces, people were fearful of protesting in the streets. Nonetheless, there were many efforts to expose the conditions. Novels and films highlighted corruption, police brutality, urban poverty and sexual harassment.29 Some art exhibits displayed in-your-face paintings depicting torture and military repression. Human-rights groups reported on poverty in the countryside and cities, deteriorating environmental conditions, harassment of women and activists, restrictions on the press, police coercion, and thuggery during elections.

Political-action groups emerged that protested both internal and foreign policy issues. The Palestinian intifada and Israeli reinvasion of the West Bank during 2000-02 had heightened political awareness. This culminated in large demonstrations in March and April 2003 in Tahrir Square against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the largest protests since the bread riots of 1977. Founders of the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kefaya/Enough), the March 9 Movement, and the April 6 Youth Movement were influenced by those demonstrations. Street protests increasingly merged labor-oriented concerns with the need for political rights, as in the demands of "Doctors without Rights" and "Youth for Change." Journalists and lawyers protested on the steps of their syndicate headquarters, but overall the demonstrations attracted so few people that they could be readily contained by the security forces.

The March 9 Movement, formed in 2004 to call for university and academic independence, took its name from the date in 1932 when the first president of Fuad I University (now Cairo University) resigned to protest the firing of the noted intellectual Taha Hussein as dean of arts. The March 9 Movement held annual demonstrations and publicized infringements on the freedom of faculty and students in the classroom, but less than 700 professors joined, fearing that they would be disciplined or dismissed.

Kefaya was founded in 2004 by intellectuals and community activists concerned about the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. They spoke out on the intertwined issues of corruption, the state of emergency, Mubarak's running for a fifth term in September 2005 and dynastic succession. Three hundred people joined Kefaya's first protest in December 2004 outside the High Court in Cairo. This was followed by symbolic protests at the Cairo International Book Fair, various universities and Tahrir Square, and simultaneous demonstrations in 14 cities in April 2005. Kefaya brought together people from across the political spectrum with a simple message, "enough," and was the first movement to call directly for regime change. But few people joined the demonstrations, and the movement suffered internal tensions that weakened its effectiveness.

Meanwhile, struggles rooted in labor grievances broke out in fall 2004, as the new government renewed the drive to sell public-sector factories to Egyptian and foreign businessmen. Public-sector workers were deeply concerned at the loss of benefits, forced retirement with inadequate (or unpaid) compensation packages, and the shrinkage of job opportunities in both the public and private sectors. Workers had the coherence and strength to speak out, unlike farmers, who could not resist orders to hand over their land holdings.

The first strike was emblematic of subsequent protests: a ten-day struggle in October 2004 by hundreds of workers at Qalyub Spinning Company, one of six mills operated by the ESCO conglomerate in northern Cairo.30 The mill had just been sold to a private investor. Workers objected on the grounds that they had not been consulted, even though they owned a 10 percent share in the company. They also feared that they would be fired (and denied retirement benefits) or paid lower wages and benefits. The government then promised an early-retirement package, on which it failed to deliver. The strike resumed in February 2005 but was quickly repressed.

In December 2006, when workers in the giant textile factories in Al-Mahalla al-Kubra protested the government's failure to pay end-of-year bonuses and called for the dismantling of the ETUF, the government hastily reinstated the bonus. These protests escalated as privatization accelerated and food prices skyrocketed. When workers in Misr Spinning and Weaving Company struck on April 6, 2008, demanding a LE 1200 (about $250, at that time) monthly minimum wage, security forces cracked down hard. Moreover, the newly formed and mostly online April 6 Youth Movement tried (but failed) to transform the Misr strike into a nationwide one-day general strike, linking economic issues to the call for democracy.

Wild-cat strikes were rife in the non-unionized private sector. These ranged from the November 2004 strike by 287 workers at Ora Misr Asbestos Products Company in Ramadan 10 Industrial City, after the Ministry of Labor closed down the factory for health-code violations, to protests against the Turkish-owned Mega Textile Company in Sadat City.31 That factory experienced five labor strikes soon after it opened in 2007, in which workers voiced their sense of injustice over low wages and inadequate overtime pay; lack of bonuses, lunch breaks, meal allowances and medical insurance; the deduction of holidays from wages; and poor ventilation, which caused them to faint and damaged their lungs.

By 2009, workers were angry that challenges to the results of the 2006 ETUF elections, although sustained in court, were not implemented. They began to form independent trade unions that represented municipal real-estate tax collectors, teachers, health technicians and pensioners.32 When the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights won a court case in March 2010 to compel the government to set a LE 1200 national monthly minimum wage (10 times the current one), workers rallied in Cairo on April 3. A delegation tried to present a copy of the court ruling to the Council of Ministers. After the cabinet refused to meet them, hundreds demonstrated on May 2. Despite the massive security deployment, workers held their ground, chanting "A fair minimum wage or let this government go home," and "Down with Mubarak and all those who raise prices." Mubarak, unsettled by this united front, issued his standard warning about the risk of chaos, should workers persist.

The widespread nature of worker protests was symbolized by simultaneous sit-ins in front of the People's Assembly. Despite a severe heat wave in May,33 Amonsito workers called for back pay, and workers from Nubariyya Company for Agricultural Mechanism protested the closure of that company, as did workers from the Telephone Equipment Company, which was closed after being sold to a foreign firm. Forty-five assistant representatives from the State Litigation Authority called for the implementation of a court order to reinstate them in their jobs. And 35 farmers from Omreyyah village in Beheira governorate protested that the local government had just forced three families to surrender ownership of their land. By then, nearly two million workers had participated in organized protests at 3,300 factories or in front of the People's Assembly since 2004.

Meanwhile, noted intellectuals sought ways to resolve the country's crisis. A senior political analyst at al-Ahram newspaper, Salaheddin Hafez, proposed in 2008 that 50 public figures convene to find a way to bring about change, and respected analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal proposed in late 2009 the formation of a 12-member "Board of Trustees of the State and the Constitution." Government media vilified Heikal and several figures whom he proposed — notably Amr Moussa, a popular foreign minister who was serving as secretary general of the League of Arab States; Mohamed ElBaradei, who had just stepped down as director of the International Atomic Energy Agency; and Ahmed Zuwail, who had received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1999. ElBaradei stepped up to the challenge and returned to Cairo in February 2010, declaring that he would only run for president if the constitution were altered and the state of emergency ended. Many members of protest movements rallied around him. By fall 2010, protesters chanted ever louder: "Down with Mubarak.… Long live the independence of universities," and "Egypt is our homeland, not a property inherited by the son."34

Meanwhile, movements like April 6, Kefaya, and the Know Your Rights Campaign galvanized around another potent issue, police torture. That campaign mobilized people who had been silent, on the sidelines. Those protests spread widely after Khaled Said died.


As many observers have pointed out, the cyber-world that emerged over the past decade transformed the mode and content of communication and thereby heightened awareness of state repression and corruption. The growing concern about (and direct experience of) police brutality on the part of young people from all walks of life and their willingness to risk speaking out were crucial in preparing the ground for the January 25 Revolution.

There was public outrage at the very public beating-to-death just before midnight on June 6, 2010, of 28-year-old Khaled Said, seized as he entered an internet café in Alexandria.35 Late that night 70 young men and women gathered across from the police station, demanding that the police be brought to justice. They received the usual response: beaten, dragged along the street, attacked by police dogs, and arrested. Protests continued throughout the summer: funeral prayers at Sidi Gaber mosque, attended by 600 mourners who spilled out into the street afterwards; a vigil outside the Ministry of Interior headquarters in Cairo; a silent protest along waterfronts and bridges throughout Egypt; and numerous violently suppressed protests in downtown areas not only involving well-known politicians and protest groups but also people who felt that Khaled Said could have been themselves, their son, or their grandson. A teenager reflected this perspective, saying: "This is an extraordinary case. This guy was tortured and killed on the street. I did not know him but I cannot shut up forever."36 "For the sake of Khaled! For the sake of Egypt!" (ashan Khalid, ashan masr) became a rallying cry, voiced in fear as well as in the determination to restore individual and collective dignity (karama). On the fortieth day commemorating his death, people shouted outside the High Court: "Our voices will not be silenced… We've waited for 25 years, but our condition has not improved. Tomorrow the revolution will come."37

Dozens of Facebook groups supported the cause, of which "We Are All Khaled Said" became the most famous. They circulated reports about police brutality, many of which had been posted in the past but had not received such intense scrutiny. These included the video of police sodomizing a 21-year-old minivan driver in January 2006. Filmed by police officers in Boulaq al-Dakrour station, the police mailed it to the cell phones of other van drivers to intimidate them. "Everybody in the parking lot will see this tomorrow," they boasted.38 Hafez Abu Saeda, head of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights, noted: "Police brutality is systematic and widespread… The humiliation of the simple citizen has become so widespread that people are fed up."39 Their anger, he warned, could spark a rebellion.


By the end of 2010, people were pushed to the brink by the sharply rising prices of basic foods, escalating unemployment, crackdowns on the media and universities, outrageous rigging of the parliamentary elections, an ever-lengthening list of corrupt actions by the elite, and fear that 82-year-old Mubarak might run for election again in September 2011 or, even worse, hand power over to his hated son. Nonetheless, the protesters themselves agree that it took the swift removal of Ben Ali to make them think that, if sudden change was possible in Tunisia, it might be possible in Egypt.

Even when people broke the barrier of fear on January 25, played cat-and-mouse with security forces on downtown streets on January 26 and 27, and withstood the onslaught all day and night on January 28, they faced a formidable regime, supported by the security forces and the entrenched NDP. The revolution would have been much bloodier if the armed forces had stood by the president. President Mubarak and Interior Minister Habib al-Adly hastened their own demise by unleashing extreme violence on January 28, followed by Adly's abrupt withdrawal of all police forces that night. Enraged, the public created neighborhood watches to ensure the safety of their communities.

Mubarak miscalculated by ordering the armed forces into the streets, even though their loyalty was to the nation — not to the person. He further miscalculated that he could offer minor concessions — such as appointing a vice president, changing the prime minister, and saying that he would not seek another term — on January 28 and again on February 1 and yet follow those placating words by unleashing fierce attacks on February 2. Over the next week, protesters held their ground, thousands of people flooded to city squares to call for dignity and freedom, labor strikes spread, employees in public institutions joined the movement, and lawyers, doctors, and professors marched in their professional garb. Finally, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ended its silent watch and forced Mubarak's hand. When Mubarak resisted leaving, the generals compelled the newly-appointed vice president to inform the president that, if he didn't step down, he would face charges of high treason.

Suddenly on Friday, February 11 — as millions of people surged angrily through the streets — Mubarak vanished. Anger transformed into tears of joy and celebration. And the next morning, young people cleaned up the public spaces, symbolically starting the huge task of cleansing Egypt of the corrupt regime and rebuilding the country. How they would rebuild Egypt remained uncertain, but their mobilization instilled a new and powerful pride, coupled with determination to take control over their future and not be cowed again by any authoritarian ruler.


1 Ann M. Lesch, "Democracy in Doses: Mubarak Launches His Second Term as President," Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4 (1989): 100; on the political system, Lesch's "Politics in Egypt," in Comparative Politics Today, ed. Gabriel A. Almond et al (Pearson Longman, 8th edition, 2004) and Denis Sullivan and Kimberly Jones, "Egypt: Country Report," Freedom House (2007).

2 Kefaya, "Corruption in Egypt: The Black Cloud is Not Disappearing," accessed July 2006, and; in A Latent Danger: Corruption in Egypt, ed. Saaed Abdel Hafez Darwish; "Central Auditing Organization Report," Forum for Development and Human Rights Dialogue (2007), 78.

3 Annual Report for 2010, Amnesty International, (2011); Human Rights Watch (HRW), Work on Him Until He Confesses: Impunity for Torture in Egypt (2011), 4, 21-28; HRW, Behind Closed Doors (1992).

4 HRW, Work on Him Until He Confesses, 34.

5 Wikileaks cited by ABC, February 7, 2011.

6 Hesham Sallam, "Striking Back at Egyptian Workers," MERIP 259 (2011),

7 Ray Bush, "Mubarak's Legacy for Egypt's Rural Poor: Returning Land to the Landlords," Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, August 2005; Land Center for Human Rights ( reports: e.g., "Impact of Law No. 96 of 1992 on the Educational Condition in the Egyptian Rural Areas," No. 11 (2001) and Conditions of Human Rights, Chapter 5 on the impact of Law 96 (2004).

8 Ahram Online, March 20, 2011, reported after Mubarak's fall from power that Mounir Ghabbour offered to pay LE 75 million ($12.5 million), which represented the difference between what he paid for land in Madinaty and the land's market value. Hisham Mustafa Talaat (in prison for murdering his Lebanese girl friend, Suzanne Tamim) confessed to selling housing units in Madinaty at below market prices to Gamal and Alaa Mubarak (Al Masry Al Youm, June 6, 2011).

9 "Gamal Mubarak: We Need Audacious leaders," Middle East Quarterly (winter 2009), trans. Politique Internationale (July 10, 2008); Gamal Essam El-Din, Ahram Online (April 15, 2011) chronicles Gamal Mubarak's meteoric rise.

10 Abdel Moneim Aboul Futouh, Al Masry Al Youm, March 23, 2010.

11 Ahram Online, April 15, 2011.

12 The New York Times, February 11, 2011.

13 AFTE July-December 2010 report,; Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, "Parliamentary Elections: Egyptian Comedy against the Background of Abuses and Human Rights Violations," accessed on December 15, 2010,

14 "Reading between the ‘Red Lines:' The Repression of Academic Freedom in Egypt," (2005), HRW, 29-35.

15 Daily News, November 12, 2010.

16 The most shocking commission allegedly involved Gamal getting 5% and Alaa and Oil Minister Sameh Fahmi each 2.5% on the $1.5 billion deal in May 2005, clinched by the president's close friend Hussein Salem's East Mediterranean Gas Company (EMG) to sell natural gas to Israel. The Guardian, April 25, 2011; Al Masry Al Youm, March 2, 5, 2011; Ahram Online, March 27, 2011.

17 Information from EFG-Hermes; Al Masry Al Youm, February 15, 2011.

18 According to Kefaya, Corruption in Egypt and Marcus Baram in Huffington Post (February 11, 2011), the Mubarak brothers had shares in Marlboro cigarettes, Scoda cars, Hyundai, El Ezz Steel, Vodafone, Mobinil, Ceramica, Dream properties, Movenpick hotels, City Stars mall, Americana fast foods, Chili's restaurants, and McDonalds.

19 Cigarettes (Philip Morris, Marlboro, Merit, L&M), vehicles (Chevrolet, Caterpillar/Mantrac, GM), food (Metro supermarkets, McDonalds), and computers (IBM, HP, Microsoft, Compaq); Ahram Online, March 10, 2011; Kefaya, Corruption in Egypt.

20 Al-Masry al-Youm, February 28, 2011, Ahram Online, April 27 and May 3, 4, 11, 2011; Reuters, April 26 and 27, 2011.

21 Biography of Ezz, Ahram Online, May 7, 2011.

22 Wikileaks cable from Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardoni in 2006, The New York Times, February 5, 2011.

23 The label bestowed on Ezz by "Consumers against Increasing Prices," Ahram Online, May 7, 2011.

24 LCHR, Conditions of Human Rights, Chapter 9; Amnesty 2010 report.

25 Darwish, ed., A Latent Danger, 2007, Chapters 1 (Health) and 3 (Education).

26 Quotations from Al Masry Al Youm, June 21 and February 9, 2010.

27 Mohamed Ghanam, quoted in Baram, Huffington Post, February 11, 2001. Agencies included the Central Auditing Organization, Administrative Oversight Agency, and Illicit Gains Authority.

28 Al Masry Al Youm, February 25, 2010.

29 For example, Alaa al-Aswany's The Yaqoubian Building, Yousef Chahine and Khaled Youssef's Hiya Fawda (This Is Chaos), Youssef's Hena Maysara (When Things Get Better) on slum dwellers, and Mohamed Diab's 678 on the sexual harassment of women.

30 Joel Beinin, "Popular Social Movements and the Future of Egyptian Politics," MERIP online, March 10, 2005, on the Qalyub, Mahalla, and Ora Misr strikes.

31 Ahram Online, May 12, 2011.

32 Beinin, Foreign Policy online (May 12, 2010) on the independent unions and the court case.

33 Al-Masry al-Youm, May 14 and 16, 2010.

34 Kefaya protests outside Cairo University; Daily News, November 12, 2010.

35 According to Khaled Said's uncle, Dr. Ali Khaled, and two eyewitnesses, Khaled had posted a police video showing police officers and drug dealers dividing up the drugs at the Sidi Gaber police station, having retrieved the video when one of the officers had Blue Tooth open on his mobile. The police sent undercover SSI agents to the neighborhood to find out who was circulating the video. They grabbed Khaled as he entered the Space Net internet café, banged his head against the marble shelf and then took him to the entrance of a nearby building, where they hit and kicked him as he cried "I'm dying." A pharmacy student determined that he was dead and a doorman (bawab) placed a sheet over his body. The SSI agents took his body to the Sidi Gaber police station in a police van but returned after 10 minutes, left him on the ground, and called an ambulance. The ambulance driver did not want to take him to the hospital, as he was clearly dead, but was forced to do so. The bawab said he cleaned up the blood, splattered everywhere. As a crowd had gathered, the agents confiscated everyone's mobile phones. When Khaled's brother went to the hospital, he took pictures at 3 a.m. of Khaled's contorted face, fractured skull, broken nose and dislocated jaw. The autopsy was performed at 6 a.m; Work on Him Until He Confesses, 20-21, 53, 61, 67; Nadeem Center statement, June 11, 2010; Christian Science Monitor, June 28, 2010; Al Masry Al Youm, June 14, 20, 30, July 1, 12, 2010; ABC News, February 7, 2011; Amnesty Report for 2010.

36 Comment by a nineteen-year-old standing outside the court building; Al Masry Al Youm, July 27, 2010.

37 Al Masry Al Youm, July 18, 2010.

38 Emad el-Kebir intervened when his brother got into an argument with the police. The police videoed themselves inside the station beating Emad with their hands and sticks and sodomizing him with a broom handle. Emad went to court against the two police officers, who were sentenced to three-year jail terms, but were released after two years and reinstated in the police at the same rank. Work on Him Until He Confesses, 21, 45, 81; Al Masry Al Youm, February 4, 2010.

39 Time/CNN, January 23, 2007,