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The Public Sphere: The Other Side of the Arab Spring

Maryam Jamshidi

Without Egypt, the start of the Arab Spring would have been like a fish without water—its likelihood of survival would have been zero. In ousting long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak in only eighteen days, Egyptians arguably gave the region's revolutions their most spectacular and stunning victory. As the most populous Arab state with a historical legacy of social and cultural influence, Egypt helped transform an uprising in Tunisia in December 2010 into a seemingly unstoppable series of mobilizations that overtook the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011.

Three years later, as political scandal, economic crises, and popular discontent have tarnished these once gilded revolutions, the entire undertaking again seems tied to Egypt's fate. Since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013, that future appears headed for the precipice. Running as the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Morsi narrowly won the country's first free and open presidential elections only one year before. While the story of Egypt's retrogression is complex, at its forefront is the gutting of a nascent public sphere, by both elite and ordinary Egyptians alike.

The Rise of Egypt's Public Sphere

All signs seemed, however, to point in a more positive direction after the overthrow of the middling, octogenarian Mubarak on February 11, 2011. At the time, Egypt was at the forefront in developing a vibrant public arena in the region. The creation of this critical environment, which happened across the Arab world after the revolutions began, remains one of the most preternatural, but sadly unappreciated, legacies of the Arab Spring, a precious prize won by those who took to the streets at great personal risk to oppose the political oppression, corruption, and economic stagnation that had long devastated their countries. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, these newly constituted public spheres radiated the spirit of collaboration, unity, and human connection generated by the revolutions. They also embodied a commitment to promoting and nurturing freedom of thought, speech, and action.

The stark contrast between these vibrant new arenas and public life before the Arab Spring cannot be overstated. Prior to the revolutions' unfolding, there were few places where like-minded individuals could meet and work together to contribute to the common good. For generations, the pursuit of civically minded work remained on the social fringes, pursued by an exceedingly small group of singularly devoted activists, but disconnected from the broader public.

As the Arab Spring kicked off, people from different walks of life poured onto the streets, meeting and connecting with other individuals, with whom they spoke, debated, sang, marched, and fought in pitched battles against security forces. It was through these experiences and material (rather than digital) networks, which formed at the inception of the popular uprisings, that the roots of the region's new public arena were formed.

Those who participated in the early days of the Arab Spring revealed themselves to one another and to their fellow citizens, in ways only possible in the public sphere. As the political theorist and diagnostician of the human condition Hannah Arendt explains,

[The] revelatory quality of speech and actions comes to the fore where people are with others and neither for nor against them—that is, in sheer human togetherness. Although nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word, he must be willing to risk the disclosure. . . . Because of its inherent tendency to disclose the agent together with the act, action needs for its full appearance the shining brightness we once called glory, and which is only possible in the public realm.1

Thanks to these unique spaces, civic engagement spread rapidly throughout the region. After January 25, 2011, when its revolution began, Egypt birthed countless grassroots initiatives that contributed to a growing sense of popular investment in local communities and a desire to solve pressing problems, whether political, economic, social, or cultural in nature. In my recently published book, The Future of the Arab Spring: Civic Entrepreneurship in Politics, Art, and Technology Startups , I document a handful of the countless organizations, movements, collectives, and startups that have contributed to the expansion of the fledgling public sphere in Egypt and across the Arab world. Many of these groups have served as microcosms of the kinds of societies in which their members hope to live, providing a space where they can experiment with new ideas, try different forms of collective action, and remain connected and united to one another.

The Other Side of the Public Sphere

But as a result of events that began shortly before Morsi's ouster, Egypt has fallen victim to another, more sinister side of the public sphere, in which majoritarianism has replaced tolerance and exclusion has devoured unity. As these developments demonstrate, the public square is not immune to manipulation or fatal mistakes. That being said, where it ceases to support a plurality of opinions, perspectives, and actions, the public arena plays Russian roulette with its own survival.

Ironically, without a pulsing public sphere, the recent series of disturbing occurrences in Egypt would not have been impossible. Despite resembling a coup more than a revolution, Morsi's removal was the result of unprecedented levels of civic engagement across a broad stretch of Egyptian society. The Tamarrod movement, which helped bring an end to Morsi's rule, was a beneficiary of the connection and collaboration that ruled public life after Mubarak's fall. Tamarrod, which means "Rebellion," began in early May 2013, as a grassroots initiative to gather 15 million signatures on a petition demanding early presidential elections, and calling for protests to be held on June 30.

At first, the movement seemed to be just another drop in the country's rising sea of political activity after January 25—while its founders seemed passionate and well-intentioned, many observers assumed Tamarrod's impact would be limited. Soon enough, though, thousands of volunteers began pushing Tamarrod petitions on Egypt's streets. By the end of May, the movement's organizers claimed to have gathered 7 million signatures—by the eve of the June 30 demonstration, they purportedly hit the 15 million mark, surpassing the 13 million votes that had propelled Morsi into office. On the day of the protests, millions of people gathered across the country in demonstrations that were the largest seen since the revolution's early days.

By this point, the movement had become a repository for anti-Morsi sentiment. Some supporters had ideological reasons for joining Tamarrod, rooted in decades of state-sponsored propaganda against the Brotherhood. Others were upset by Morsi's disastrous year in office and failure to bring stability to the country. Still others, including a cadre of committed revolutionaries, aligned themselves with the movement for pragmatic reasons. For these individuals, Tamarrod was one of the few viable bulwarks to backstop Brotherhood rule, which had done little to realize the revolution's demands of bread, justice, and dignity. As one keen observer noted, "bright and dynamic Tamarrod supporters have played into this political game out of fear that abstaining from the political process will condemn Egypt to perpetual deep state status."

While the massive popular force of Tamarrod made Morsi's ouster possible, support from the country's Mubarak-era elites, especially its overlords in the military and interior ministry, guaranteed his overthrow. As the Tamarrod protests continued past June 30, the military issued an ultimatum to the doomed president on July 1, 2013. Using the vaguest of terms, the country's military commanders demanded that Morsi satisfy "the public's demands" within two days, or else they would impose their "own 'road map'" to resolve the crisis. On July 3, military commander Abdel al-Fatah el Sisi announced Morsi's ouster in a live television broadcast, surrounded by a cast of characters from Egypt's establishment institutions.

In the aftermath of the military coup, reports in a variety of different outlets suggested that Tamarrod had received substantial help from a rich and powerful clique of Egyptians. These included wealthy Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris, Tahani el-Gebali, a former judge on the Supreme Constitutional Court who is close to the ruling generals, and Shawki al-Sayed, a legal adviser to Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's last prime minister who had run for president and lost against Morsi. According to investigative reporting by Reuters, one of the most anti-Brotherhood government branches, the Interior Ministry, was particularly active in supporting Tamarrod. Ministry officials and police officers helped collect signatures for and distribute the Tamarrod petitions, signed the petition themselves, and joined the protests.

After coming to power, the Brotherhood had done little to curb the continuing might and influence of Egypt's elites and dismantle the deep state, the shadowy combination of private and public sector actors controlling the country from behind the scenes. As Tamarrod gained steam, these counter-revolutionary forces saw an opportunity to rid themselves of the Brotherhood and install a government that would more solidly support their interests. Commenting in the New York Times on his support for Tamarrod, Tahani el-Gebali noted, "We saw that there was movement and popular creativity, so we wanted to see if it would have an effect and a constitutional basis."

Attacking the Public Sphere from Inside and Out

Armed with support from the public sphere, Egypt's elites were emboldened after Morsi's removal. They took swift action against their enemies, eventually perpetrating the most serious and sustained attacks against the public arena since Mubarak's overthrow. The same day Morsi was officially deposed, military and security forces began arresting members of the Brotherhood's leadership. To date, estimates put the number of detained Brotherhood members in the hundreds. Protests by the group's supporters were violently quashed for the rest of the summer, culminating in a bona fide massacre on August 14, 2013, when pro-Brotherhood sit-ins at Rabaa al-Adeway mosque and Nahda Square were dramatically and brutally dispersed.

In post-coup Egypt, critical journalism was also unwelcome. Muslim Brotherhood media outlets were shuttered by the government immediately after Morsi's elimination, along with an Al Jazeera affiliate. After mocking widespread pro-army sentiment in the country, the popular satirical program The Bassem Youssef Show was canceled in November 2013 by a private Egyptian television station. Given the number of reporters arrested or detained since July 3, Egypt more than earned its place as one of the ten worst jailers of journalists in 2013.

Immediately after the August 14 massacre, Egypt's notorious emergency law, which had been in place for over thirty years before expiring in May 2012, reared its ugly head. While initially slated to last one month, it was extended twice before finally coming to an end, by court order, on November 12, 2013. In nearly the same breath, the law was replaced by legislation that officially banned any gathering with more than ten people that did not have government approval. For violating this draconian provision, three of the country's leading revolutionary activists were sentenced in December 2013 to three years' hard labor. They join countless other secular activists who have been detained for peaceful political activities since June 30.

After three months' work, the unelected, fifty-member committee charged with drafting a new constitution produced a document that solidly preserved the military's power and lack of accountability in the country. With the Brotherhood and other groups boycotting the vote, the constitution received overwhelming approval (though a low turnout has been reported) in a referendum held on January 14 and 15, 2014. In the lead-up to voting, the government engaged in an intensive propaganda campaign to encourage Egyptians to vote "yes," while continuing to quash all dissent. Days before the vote was held, seven activists from the Strong Egypt party were arrested and criminally charged for hanging signs that encouraged Egyptians to vote "no" on the constitution.

After a bombing attack against a police station in the city of Mansoura on December 24, 2013, the Egyptian government officially outlawed the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, even though another, unrelated group claimed responsibility for the action. Since July 3, the government had been laying the groundwork for this declaration, consistently and cynically depicting the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, bringing instability to the country. Unwilling to stop there, the military-backed regime engaged in a sustained propaganda campaign to cast the Brotherhood as anti-Egypt and its supporters as crypto-Egyptians.

These narratives have engendered disturbing levels of xenophobia, which have had a devastating effect on the public sphere, and generated the most oppressive forms of nationalism, which has swept in Egyptians and non-Egyptians alike. Since Morsi's ouster, those who are critical of the government's position are viewed as enemies of the state. Being a "true" Egyptian now means whole-heartedly supporting the ruling regime and military. Dissent is equivalent to betrayal, punishable by social alienation and exclusion from public life.

As these trends have developed, the Egyptian people have been anything but passive victims. Instead, the public has actively contributed to this divisive state of affairs, in ways unheard of during the Mubarak regime. Then, the state was the undisputed oppressor. These days, however, the line between citizen and state-fueled repression has become hard to distinguish, taking on multiple forms that include vigilante justice. Cashing in on popular zeal for outing Brotherhood supporters, the Interior ministry has even set up a hotline for people to report anyone they suspect of having ties to the group.

As a community of individuals, the public is very different from, but also very connected to the public sphere—both are shaped and influenced by one another. After June 30, the infusion of new actors arguably changed Egypt's public arena. Many Egyptians, who had never been civically active, joined the Tamarrod protests and spoke out against the Brotherhood. Khalid Fahmy, an Egyptian academic, described this group as the "silent majority" who "were enamored by [the] youth and their creativity … but … were anxious because of the instability."

Once in the public square, these neophytes experienced first-hand the sense of empowerment that comes from acting and speaking in concert with other people. They also influenced the brand of collective speech and action that developed after June 30, as the ousting of the president transformed into the exclusion of a legitimate political group. In this new rendering of the public sphere, those who did not fit the emerging nationalist narrative were persona non grata. As Fahmy observes, these new political actors were also hostile toward the revolution itself, which they equated with economic loss and instability.

Shortly after July 3, seasoned revolutionaries and progressive voices, who had supported Morsi's overthrow, found themselves concerned with the right-ward, authoritarian swing of Egyptian public life. But, many of these individuals chose pragmatism over principles, remaining silent in the hopes the dust would settle and their voices could once again be heard. This did little to stave off the weakening and unraveling of the country's public square, which depends first and foremost on popular unity.

The arrival of new political actors, coupled with pragmatic decision-making on the part of Egypt's seasoned revolutionaries, created a warped, self-destructive public sphere that served the interests of the country's elites. This is the ultimate tragedy of the Egyptian revolution—that the fledgling public square—which had inspired a diverse set of individuals to participate in political processes, create civic initiatives, and bring art, music, and poetry to the lives of their fellow citizens—turned against itself.


The very obvious lessons from these events are legion—alliances between popular and establishment forces inevitably lead to demagoguery, the marginalization of some legitimate political or social groups will often lead to the marginalization of many others, political power is less dangerous when dispersed between different actors (i.e. the Brotherhood, the judiciary etc.) than when consolidated in one particular sector (i.e. the military). But, the most important lesson these events teach anyone with an appetite for learning from past mistakes is that the public sphere cannot survive unless it remains consistently disobedient.

In his book, On Disobedience, social psychologist Erich Fromm describes disobedience as a basic element of freedom:

A person can become free through acts of disobedience by learning to say no to power. But not only is the capacity for disobedience the condition of freedom; freedom is also the condition for disobedience. If I am afraid of freedom, I cannot dare to say 'no.' I cannot have the courage to be disobedient. Indeed freedom and the capacity for disobedience are inseparable.2

Obedience to the state gives the government an upper hand: it clears the way for populist politics, which often use social prejudices to sow division within the population, withering the roots of the public sphere. Where the government is supreme, this obedience is particularly destructive as it eviscerates the most important check on state power, namely grassroots civic and political movements and organizations. While Egypt's public sphere has been upended, its original spirit of tolerance and unity has persisted, though in more limited. In the months since Morsi's ouster, more and more individuals have been organizing to oppose both the Brotherhood and the army. While they remain a minority, their disobedience is a wellspring of hope for Egypt's revolution. To reset the course of the public square, these efforts must be allowed to multiply, a result that cannot be achieved in the face of state oppression and an exclusivist public arena.


A popular motto after Mubarak's ouster, "The army and the people are one hand," has returned with a vengeance, but unity between the people and the military or the people and the government is anathema to the public sphere. In the face of dead protesters and jailed political activists, anything other than united opposition to these developments from the public square will contribute to its own undoing.

Nevertheless, though dissent and freedom go hand in hand, this does not mean opposing the state for the mere sake of it. Rather, it requires remaining pro-actively critical and reasonably disobedient. At a polling booth on January 15, one Egyptian man captured a sense of what this requires. As reported by Mada Masr, "Mostafa Ibrahim, a 27-year-old Alexandrian, voted 'no' as a direct response to pressure to vote 'yes,' even though he supports Sisi and approves of the constitutional draft." Ibrahim said, "'The constitution is good, but I don't like all of this fuss to pressure people to say 'yes' so I voted 'no' just to prove that I can say whatever I want.'"

Saying "no" and then doing something about it is the meaning of participatory politics, the handmaiden of maintaining a meaningful and effective public sphere.

Maryam Jamshidi is the founder of Muftah.org, and the author of The Future of the Arab Spring: Civic Entrepreneurship in Politics, Art, and Technology Startups . Follow her on Twitter at @MsJamshidi.


1 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 180.

2 Erich Fromm, On Disobedience: Why Freedom Means Saying 'No' to Power (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2010), 9.

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