Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Did the Egyptian protests lead to change?

Egypt’s period of euphoria following the toppling of Mubarak in 2011 was followed by the sobering realities of the political transition process. This column reports research showing how a wave of dissatisfaction overtook the popular mood, providing support for the conservative backlash in the presidential elections of 2012.

In a nutshell

Revolutionary movements combined with unmet expectations can lead to a conservative backlash among disenchanted segments of the population.

From Egypt’s period of euphoria following the toppling of Mubarak to the sobering realities of the political transition process, a wave of pessimism and general dissatisfaction overtook the popular mood.

The share of votes for candidates associated with the former regime during the first free presidential elections increased in districts where the demonstrations were most intense.

Inspired by the Tunisian revolution that began in late 2010, 25 January 2011 marked the beginning of the Egyptian revolution. The spark that ignited the Egyptian protests was the death of a 28-year-old man called Khalid Said after an encounter with the police in Alexandria.

The story of this murder rapidly spread via blogs and social media, creating moral outrage that built up to trigger the 2011 uprisings. In the wake of 18 days of protests unfolding all over Egypt, most poignantly in the famous Tahrir (Liberation) Square, Hosni Mubarak stepped down after 30 years in power.

But despite expectations that the Egyptian revolution would increase public support for radical social change, my research finds evidence of the exact opposite outcome. The share of votes for candidates associated with the former regime during Egypt’s first free presidential elections actually increased in the districts where the demonstrations were most intense.

In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s resignation and before elections could be held, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took power in Egypt. Under this transitional phase, a constitutional review committee was formed and on 19 March 2011, a constitutional declaration was approved by referendum. A term limit for future presidents, separation of powers and call for judicial oversight over elections were the main constitutional amendments dictated by the transitional context.

Egypt’s first free presidential elections were subsequently held in two rounds in May and June 2012. Thirteen candidates qualified to contest the first round and in the second, Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, vied for the presidency with Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister under Mubarak.

The elections thus set the stage for political competition along Islamist versus secular lines; they also highlighted opposition versus support for the old regime. Morsi won the presidential elections with 51.7% of the vote and became Egypt’s first elected Islamist president.

Although the 2012 elections have been associated with the 2011 demonstrations, my study examines the causal relationship between protests and political change in the context of the Egyptian revolution.

My analysis combines several datasets, including the Statistical Database of the Egyptian Revolution, administered by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social rights (a non-governmental organisation that carries out research and advocacy projects on economic, social and cultural rights in several countries around the world, in collaboration with local human rights advocates and activists).

I also use the official election results collected from the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission website for the first and second rounds of the 2012 elections; the Egypt Population, Housing and Establishments Census 2006 (the most recent census available in Egypt), conducted by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, Egypt’s statistical agency; as well as the Arab Barometer surveys conducted in Egypt in cooperation with the Ahram-Center for Strategic Studies.

Relying on geographical variation in Egyptian districts’ exposure to the protests, my analysis suggests that higher exposure to protests led to a higher share of votes accrued by the former regime figures, during both the first and second rounds of the 2012 elections.

While it might be expected that the protests would contribute to politicising people who were previously not politically active, these results suggest that the protests in fact led to a conservative backlash among those segments of the population that fear radical political change.

My research also provides several explanations for this conservative backlash drawing on the Arab Barometer surveys. These surveys consist of face-to-face interviews conducted in Arabic with a sample of adults in Egyptian governorates. They seek to measure citizen attitudes and values with respect to freedoms, trust in government’s institutions and agencies, political identities, conceptions of governance and democracy, civic engagement and political participation.

I find that the protests had affected negatively the popular mood in Egypt over the course of the two years following the 2011 revolution through several channels: negative economic expectations; general dissatisfaction with the government and its performance in managing the democratic transition, creating employment opportunities and improving health services; decreasing levels of trust towards public institutions including the police, the army and religious leaders; as well as increasing recognition of limitations on civil and political liberties.

From the period of euphoria following the toppling of Mubarak to the sobering realities of the political transition process in 2013, my analysis suggests that a wave of pessimism and general dissatisfaction overtook the popular mood in Egypt. That shift in mood provided support for the conservative backlash in the elections.

These findings shed light on how protests influence electoral choices, which is key to evaluating the effectiveness of such modes of political action. The study is not only relevant to Egypt but also to several other countries in the Middle East and North Africa – and beyond – that have witnessed similar revolutionary movements with varying levels of intensity.

Egypt’s experience is informative since it indicates how revolutionary movements combined with unmet expectations can lead to a conservative backlash among disenchanted segments of the population.

Further reading

El-Mallakh, Nelly (2017) ‘Did the Egyptian Protests Lead to Change? Evidence from Egypt’s First Free Presidential Elections’, Centre d’Economie de la Sorbonne (CES) working paper, October.

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