This Feature has not been recently maintained and therefore may contain outdated information.

The Egyptian Revolution


The Egyptian Revolution was one of the most prominent in a wave of protests that swept the Middle East beginning in early 2011. While many countries, including Bahrain, Yemen and Syria also experienced social reverberations that emanated from Tunisia's popular protests, a social movement that some referred to as the "Arab Spring." The intensity and apparent success of the Egyptian Revolution captivated the world during and since the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The revolution also focused attention on political and social conditions in one of the most populous and economically diverse countries in North Africa and the Middle East.


Although the protests that ousted Mubarak in 2011 bore similarities to protests across the region known as the Arab Spring, the country has not always been in lockstep with the politics of other Middle Eastern countries. A historic peace deal brokered in 1979 by US President Jimmy Carter between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, known as the Camp David Accords, preceded Sadat's assassination in 1981 at the hands of Islamic extremists. His death instigated the expulsion of Egypt from the Arab League until 1989. Following Sadat's assassination, Egypt re-enacted the country's emergency laws in 1981, which stifled political dissent and enabled the country's security forces to actively oppress opposition political parties. The emergency laws originally came into force in 1967 — the same year as the Six-Day War in which Israel defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and took control of the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. When Mubarak took over following Sadat's assassination, the country enjoyed a time of stability and economic growth. However, the emergency laws bred corruption in the country as the government cracked down on political dissent.

Egypt's emergency laws were renewed in May 2008, notwithstanding a December 2006 promise from Mubarak to repeal the laws. Human Rights Watch (HRW) sharply criticized the renewal, saying the move showed "contempt for the rule of law." In May 2010, the Egyptian Parliament voted to extend the country's state of emergency for two years, which drew protest from opposition groups who claimed the laws were ineffective and used to stifle dissent. The Egyptian government often used the country's emergency laws against opposition parties to arrest and indefinitely detain individuals it considered a threat to state security, including the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which the Egyptian government accused of trying to create an Islamic theocracy through violence. In July 2010, the trial of 26 individuals with alleged ties to Hezbollah was transferred to a court established under the emergency laws.

Following the renewal of Egypt's emergency laws in October 2010, Egypt issued new media restrictions that critics claimed effectively put all live television media — including talk shows and news shows — under government control. The telecommunications regulator cancelled the broadcast permits of all private media companies, forcing them to apply for new licenses through the state television agency. Critics argued that the measure was meant to stifle the media in the run-up to the November 2010 parliamentary and the 2011 presidential elections.

Controversy also surrounded the Egyptian parliamentary elections on November 28, 2010, as violence accompanied accusations of corruption, fraud and political suppression. Reports surfaced of vote-buying and the ejection of independent vote monitors from polling locations. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) took tough measures to hold onto its control of the 508-seat Egyptian Parliament. The week before, 11 people had been found guilty of taking part in election demonstrations and campaigning for the banned MB — the only legitimate opposition party threat. At least 1,200 supporters of the MB were arrested during the run-up to the election, which raised issues for the presidential elections the following year.

Transition to Democracy

Mubarak's resignation from office was followed shortly by an announcement from SCAF that it would be lifting the country's emergency laws. Though the SCAF has attempted to democratize Egypt, its actions — as well as the very nature of this executory body — can be said to resemble the old dictatorial regime.

Having protected protestors during the revolution, the SCAF was met with general support from the Egyptian population. The Egyptian government met with opposition leaders, including leaders of the MB, to discuss potential changes to the constitution. The MB, previously banned from Egypt, is the oldest and largest Islamic political group in the world. Additionally, SCAF announced that it had formed a committee of judges and politicians to oversee amending the Egyptian constitution prior to holding a public referendum on the proposed changes. Among the proposed changes was an eight year term limit on the presidency. On March 19, 2011, an overwhelming majority of citizens in Egypt voted in favor of the proposed constitutional amendments.

JURIST Hotline Guest Columnist Gary C. Gambill argued in March 2011 that the military's privileged status is a detriment to democracy for lack of legislative and judicial checks:

Under this system, the military needs only the cooperation of this one civilian officeholder to rule from the shadows. While most who played leading roles in the "January 25 Revolution" believe that the constitutional powers of the presidency must be drastically scaled back or abolished altogether in favor of a parliamentary system, the transition process mandated by the Supreme Military Council (SMC) is structured to preserve them.
On March 30, 2011, confirming concerns about SCAF's broad executive powers, SCAF introduced an interim constitution which vested the military council with presidential powers, including the ability to introduce legislation, veto existing laws and act as Egypt's representative in the international community.

The country's High Administrative Court dissolved the NDP — a decision that political analysts called an important step in the building of a multi-party system. Additionally, Egypt officially declared the MB a legal political organization, and an Egyptian elections commission approved the formation of the MB's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) after an Egyptian court overturned a ban that prohibited the formation of Islamic-based political party. However, the MB's traditional slogan, "Islam is the solution," was banned under the new electoral guidelines.

Despite advances toward competitive elections, the Egyptian population grew discontented over the SCAF's delay in ending Egypt's emergency laws despite earlier promises. As protests continued, the interim government finally announced in August 2011 that it would take steps to end the laws, adding that it had not utilized any of its "emergency" powers. In September 2011, however, protesters attacked the Isreali Embassy in Egypt, prompting the government to reinstate and expand the scope of the emergency laws. The emergency laws eventually expired on May 31, 2012.

On November 18, 2011, frustrations with the SCAF resulted in a protest of nearly 50,000 people decrying the military's continued rule over the nation in Tahrir Square. The protest, led by the MB, was met with a violent clash with the police. In response, the SCAF apologized and called for an end to violence, reiterating that demonstrations are a protected right.

JURIST Forum Guest Columnist Chibli Mallat echoed the idea that SCAF's power ran contrary to democratization, stating:

If SCAF refuses to relinquish political power and return soldiers to their barracks, things are bound to develop in one of two ways: either like Tiananmen Square, with hundreds of deaths and a repressive rule that only grows worse. Or the revolution prevails and the SCAF leadership ends up in a cell near the dozen top political inmates presently in the Tarra prison. In that case, a lot of people will have also died and the army as an institution might well collapse. This happened in Iran in 1978, and is happening in Syria presently, with incalculable consequences in Egypt and the region.
Egypt's parliamentary election was held over three stages from late November 2011 to January 2012, with an elaborate voting system apportioning parliamentary seats between political parties and individuals. On February 20, 2012, however, the High Administrative Court of Egypt ruled that the voting system used was unconstitutional, though the election was widely viewed as Egypt's freest vote in decades.

Following the decision, the Egyptian parliament began a series of intense debates regarding the composition of the constitutional assembly that would be responsible for writing Egypt's new constitution. On April 10, 2012, Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court suspended Egypt's constitutional panel, upholding the decision that the panel was formed unconstitutionally. On June 12, 2012, the Egyptian parliament elected another panel of 100 delegates to write a new constitution for the country.

On April 24, 2012, the SCAF approved a law drafted by the Egyptian Parliament that prevented anyone who held a rank of party leader or higher during the Mubarak regime from running for president for 10 years, adding uncertainty to the democratic elections. However, the law could not block candidates retroactively. On May 28, 2012, the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) of Egypt announced the presidential election results, declaring that there would be a run-off election between the top two candidates, MB candidate Mohamed Morsi and former Mubarak administration Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik. Morsi won the run-off election by a difference of only 250,000 votes and was sworn in as president on June 30, 2012. President Morsi is Egypt's first freely elected president and the country's first Islamic president.

The Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt dissolved the Egyptian parliament on June 14, 2012, after finding that one-third of its members was elected illegally. Despite the court's ruling, President Morsi issued a decree to reconvene parliament. In response to the decree, the Supreme Constitutional Court issued a televised statement declaring that its decision on the parliament was final and not subject to appeal, preventing the parliament from reconvening. The day before dissolving the country's parliament, the Supreme Constitutional Court broadened the powers of the military, restoring the power to arrest citizens for non-military offenses. Despite the success of the peaceful election of President Morsi, Egypt faces numerous hurdles before it achieves a stable democracy.

Protests and Revolution

The Egyptian Revolution began on January 25, 2011, when demonstrations arose throughout Egypt, including tens of thousands protesters gathering in the country's capital, Cairo. Inspired by the successful revolution in Tunisia that ended with the resignation of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Egyptian demonstrators demanded that Mubarak step down.

Protesters initiated demonstrations, civil resistances and marches demanding political reform in the country through the the end of Mubarak's 30-year regime. The protests started around Tahrir Square in Cairo and Suez, but quickly spread to other Egyptian cities such as Abu Simbel, Alexandria, Asyut, Atfih, Beni Suef, El-Arish, Kharga Oasis, Luxor, Mansoura, Rafah and Sheikh Zoweid.

Deaths and other casualties occurred from the outset. Three victims, including one police officer and two protesters, were killed during the demonstrations in Cairo and Suez on the Day of Revolt. Security forces in Suez reportedly used rubber-coated bullets, water cannons and tear gas against protesters. On the third day of the uprising, the government of Egypt shut down the Internet in most parts of the country in response to calls for mass demonstrations published via social networks like Facebook and Twitter. On the same day, Egyptian reform campaigner and opposition leader Mohamed El-Baradei arrived in Cairo to join the demonstrations. It was reported that more than 1,000 protesters were detained while security officers increased their use of force, resulting in an additional death toll of five that day. Military presence was increased in Cairo and the Ministry of Interior announced that it would tolerate no additional protests.

The "Friday of Anger" protests began on January 28, 2011, when numerous protesters demonstrated in the streets of several Egyptian cities after their Friday prayers. The military was deployed to take the place of police officers in order to bring the demonstrations under control. After Mubarak's first public statement that he would ensure a new government was formed, violent clashes between anti-government protesters and Mubarak's supporters broke out in Tahrir Square, resulting in several injuries and deaths.

On February 1, 2011, Mubarak announced that he would not seek another term but would remain in office to ensure a peaceful transition of power. The announcement caused outrage among protesters, resulting in a major clash between Mubarak's supporters and revolutionaries in Tahrir Square. Despite the increased violence of demonstrations, Mubarak told national news agencies that he did not intend to resign. More than a week later, the country's vice president, Omar Suleiman, announced that Mubarak had approved the formation of a committee charged with overseeing changes to the country's constitution.

On February 10, 2011, Mubarak made another statement, declaring that he would transfer some of his power to Suleiman rather than completely stepping down from office. The statement only intensified demonstrations throughout the nation. One day later, Suleiman announced that Mubarak would resign and that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would take over executive responsibility for the country. Before Mubarak's resignation, SCAF pledged that it would lift the emergency laws as soon as circumstances in the country improved.

Human Rights Violations

Egypt has been sharply criticized by international organizations such as Amnesty International (AI) and HRW for its poor state of human rights before, during and after the 2011 revolution. Protestors demanded the overthrow of Mubarak for grievances related to police brutality, state of emergency laws, lack of free elections, freedom of speech and corruption. Many of the human rights abuses stemmed from Egypt's state of emergency laws. The laws gave the government and security services the authority to censor the media, arrest and detain anyone deemed a threat to state security, ban demonstrations and try civilians in military courts.

Human rights organizations and Egyptian citizens accused the Egyptian government of responding to the country's revolutionary protests with the imprisonment of activists without trials and illegal detentions. Moreover, human rights organizations estimate that at least 840 people were killed and more than 6,000 were injured during the protests.

Even before the revolution began, there were numerous accounts of police brutality. The death of Khaled Mohamed Saeed, who died under disputed circumstances on June 6, 2010, sparked widespread protests across the country. Saeed reportedly released a video of police in possession of illicit drugs obtained in a drug deal. Though the police claimed Saeed died of asphyxiation from swallowing a bag filled with marijuana, numerous witnesses claim he was beaten to death by police. Saeed's death highlighted the frustrations that many Egyptians felt regarding corruption, repression and the use of the emergency laws.

Social media played an active role in the planning and organizing of the demonstrations. JURIST Forum Guest Columnist Kevin Govern commented on this phenomenon:

Since January [2011], these protests have challenged the legitimacy of leaders in the Middle East and North Africa. US allies and adversaries have experienced intense public unrest challenging their rule and legal systems. That has taken place due to a twenty-first century manifesto of small changes, enabled by technology, to mobilize those nations' youth against dictatorial regimes. This was not entirely anticipated.
In response to the rapidly growing social media movement and in an attempt to control the increasingly numerous protests, Mubarak ordered internet and mobile phone services shut down. In May 2011, an Egyptian court fined Mubarak $90 million for this act of repression.

Though the majority of protesters advocated peaceful means of protesting, both sides of the conflict contributed to violence. In addition to reports of protesters burning police posts, there were also eyewitness accounts of looting and vigilante groups. To control the demonstrations, police used rubber-coated bullets, water cannons and tear gas manufactured in the US, which further strained international relations.

On Feburary 1, 2011, just days after the beginning of the protests, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay voiced concerns over the casualties and injuries that resulted from the protests, citing Article 21 of the of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

The authorities have a clear responsibility to protect civilians, including their right to life, and to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. People must not be arbitrarily detained, simply for protesting or for expressing their political opinions — however unwelcome those opinions may be to those in power.
Later that week, Pillay called for the release of detained lawyers, journalists and human rights activists. Within weeks following the detentions of journalists and activists, HRW released a report asserting that the Egyptian military was torturing and abusing improperly detained protesters. Soon after, AI released a similar report, asserting new evidence that the SMC had been detaining and torturing protesters.

On June 2, 2012, an Egyptian court found Mubarak guilty of complicity in killing protesters during the protests and sentenced him to life in prison. The court also found former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli guilty of the same charge and sentenced him to a term of life imprisonment. Mubarak's sons, Alaa and Gamal, along with six security officials, were acquitted of charges of corruption. In addition, nearly 200 police officers and other government officials were charged in connection with the deaths of at least 846 protesters, though many have since been acquitted.

On January 16, 2012, HRW called on Egypt's newly elected parliament to pursue an agenda to reform nine areas of Egyptian law that impede freedom and restrict rights. In the report, HRW said:

Over the past year, Egyptians have experienced many of the same human rights abuses that characterized Mubarak's police state. Under the leadership of the SCAF, excessive use of force, torture, attacks on peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrests of peaceful protesters, bloggers, and journalists have become commonplace and illustrate how little has changed. Ending these abuses will only occur when there is political will to break with the past and truly reform the country's oppressive machinery.
Although Egypt's state of emergency officially ended on May 31, 2012, individuals who had already been sentenced or detained under the less-restrictive requirements of the emergency law would not be released, and trials in Egypt's Emergency State Security Court (ESSC) were permitted to continue.

Despite Egypt's transition, controversy regarding the state of human rights continues. After the peaceful election of President Morsi and the end of the emergency laws, the Egyptian military continues to wield broad powers that allow the military to arrest civilians for non-military offenses. JURIST Forum Guest Columnist Chibli Mallat discussed the ongoing challenges, arguing:

After enjoying brief universal popularity when they finally decided to give up on Mubarak, SCAF turned itself, with no popular mandate and no active role in the revolution, into a dictatorship. Military trials of freedom fighters, including women subjected to vile humiliations, ad hoc constitutional declarations issued with no consultation, open support for pre-revolutionary Mubarak cronies like Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri, and wanton killings of nonviolent demonstrators on several occasions — the list of offenses is long. It is time to retire SCAF from the political scene, and it might be useful for the revolution to start considering bringing some of them to trial.
On July 5, 2012, President Morsi issued a decree appointing a fact-finding committee to investigate the deaths of protesters during the demonstrations. On December 26, 2012, President Morsi signed Egypt's new constitution into law.


12/25/2012: Egypt president signed new constitution into law

6/30/2012: President-elect of Egypt Mohamed Morsi sworn in

6/26/2012: Egyptian court struck down a government decree granting arrest powers to Egyptian military officials

6/14/2012: Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt dissolved parliament

6/2/2012: Mubarak sentenced to life in prison

5/31/2012: Egypt's state of emergency ended


Support JURIST

We rely on our readers to keep JURIST running

 Donate now!

© Copyright JURIST Legal News and Research Services, Inc., 2013.