Egypt’s Revolution has Produced Two Years of Political, Economic Strife

Journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous delivers annual McGill Lecture

HARTFORD, CT, April 4, 2013 – The 18 heady days of rebellion in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January 2011 were filled with hope, promise and the expectation of a better life. But the events of the past two years have not unfolded as envisioned by the tens of thousands of Egyptians who took part in the Tahrir Square demonstrations that led to the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

Sharif Abdel Kouddous
Sharif Abdel Kouddous delivers the annual Patricia C. and Charles H. McGill III ’63 Lecture in International Studies
 Those were among the major conclusions drawn by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, an independent Cairo-based journalist, who on Tuesday delivered the annual Patricia C. and Charles H. McGill III ’63 Lecture in International Studies in Mather Hall. Kouddous’ lecture was entitled, “Egypt: Is it a Revolution?”

The overthrow of Mubarak, an autocrat who had been in power for three decades, was among the first of several uprisings in the Middle East that came to be known as the Arab Spring, and were thought to be the beginnings of democracy taking root in countries where dictatorships had long flourished.

Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s ouster, “foreigners would smile and congratulate me,” said Kouddous. “Today I get a much different reaction – a look of pity. People ask me, ‘What happened?’ Is the revolution over?’ What are the prospects for change?’”

Two years, two referenda and three elections later, answers to those questions remain elusive. Freedoms have not been restored, the military and police are largely in control, inflation is rampant, food and fuel shortages abound, unemployment is high, the Egyptian currency has been devalued and the nation of 82 million people is waiting to see if it will get a low-interest loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to keep the economy afloat, said Kouddous, who has spent much of the past two years reporting from Egypt, Gaza, Syria and Bahrain.

Still, all is not hopeless, said Kouddous, who described the uprising during the winter of 2011 as “one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences for me.” He called the revolutionary experience “truly magical.”

Kouddous told his audience that the problems took a turn for the worse when Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president who took office in June 2012, granted himself unlimited powers to protect the nation, as well as the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review. That occurred in November, and prompted massive demonstrations. A month later, Morsi annulled his decree but said the effects of the new constitution would stand. As a result, civil liberties have remained curtailed, women’s rights are in jeopardy and the role of religion in legislative affairs may increase.

In addition, said Kouddous, “the new constitution grants the military all of its key demands.” Although that is not new, he explained, what’s important is that those demands are enshrined in the Egyptian constitution for the first time.

Kouddous referred repeatedly to the huge “disconnect” between the ruling regime and the lower socio-economic classes. The populace doesn’t have anyone to articulate its grievances, Kouddous said, and members of the middle and lower classes have remained the target of police and military abuse.

Kouddous was especially critical of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, which he said has abandoned any pretense of trying to reform the political, economic and social culture and instead has been obsessed with “controlling and dividing up the post-Mubarak cake, ignoring vast swaths of the population.”

In essence, he said, Morsi’s government has become a “new form of the old regime” but Kouddous doesn’t see another group with the organizational ability or power to defeat the 600,000-member Brotherhood in elections.

Since December, Kouddous described a country where the president and the Muslim Brotherhood have ignored the rule of law; where demonstrators have been tortured and murdered; where arrest warrants have been issued for bloggers and activists; where the poor have been labeled as “thugs”; where women have become increasingly oppressed and the victims of sexual assault; and where children have been “beaten in unprecedented numbers.”

Kouddous asserted that the government spends more on maintaining its police force than it does on health and education. If anything, he said, the situation is deteriorating. A new study shows that Egypt has the highest rate of protests in the world, mostly over labor and economic grievances. And it’s not uncommon for younger Egyptians, plagued by a bourgeoning unemployment rate, to battle police.

Meanwhile, the economy is caught in a death spiral and the only thing that’s saving it is “cash injections from other Arab countries,” Kouddous said. Should the IMF ultimately approve the loan, it will require spending cuts and higher taxes, neither of which will be popular and could foment more unrest.

Although there are “plenty of reasons to be pessimistic,” Kouddous said, the people in the streets feel a sense of empowerment and have a “deep desire to carry on and risk their lives until their dreams and ambitions are met.”

Asked about Egypt’s near- and long-term future, Kouddous responded, “Everything is up in the air.” But he added that it’s hard to imagine Morsi staying in power for four years. “The greatest risk,” he noted, “is the economic situation. Hunger could lead to widespread violence.”

In sum, Kouddous said, he’s not optimistic that things are going to change soon or for the better. But, he concluded, “Revolutions take time.”

Kouddous is a correspondent for the TV/radio program, Democracy Now, and a fellow at The Nation Institute. Over the past two years, he has been interviewed on national and international TV programs, including MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, Hardball with Chris Matthews, BBC World News, and on Al Jazeera English.

His articles have been published in The Nation, Foreign Policy, The Progressive, and Egypt Independent. He was the 2012 recipient of the Izzy Award, named for muckraking journalism I.F. Stone, an honor he shared with the Center for Media and Democracy.

Prior to his work in the Middle East, Kouddous spent eight years as senior producer, co-host and correspondent for Democracy Now where he reported from Iraq, Haiti, Bolivia and the United States.

From a prominent Egyptian family, Kouddous grew up in Cairo, and later left for the United States when he was 18 years old. He attended Duke University.

He has reported from Baghdad during the Iraq War, New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Haiti in the days after the January 2010 earthquake and during the return of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2011. Kouddous returned to Egypt in 2011 to cover the Egyptian revolution. His actions as a journalist during the revolution were a major feature in the 2012 documentary, In Tahrir Square: 18 Days of Egypt's Unfinished Revolution.

The McGill International Studies Fund was established in 1996 with a gift from Patricia C. and Charles H. McGill III ’63. The gift helped secure a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The income from the fund supports the appointment of visiting humanities scholars, primarily international scholars, in the academic areas of international studies that include African studies, Asian studies, Latin American studies, Middle Eastern studies, post-colonial studies, and Russian and Eurasian studies.

Charles McGill is a nationally recognized expert in mergers and acquisitions, and corporate strategic planning and restructuring, with significant experience in consumer products, restaurant and food service, and information services. McGill is the founding partner of Sagamore Partners, an acquisitions adviser. Previously, he was a senior executive of Fortune Brands, Dun & Bradstreet, and the Pillsbury Company. McGill is a former member of the Trinity College Board of Trustees and its Board of Fellows. He received the College’s Alumni Medal of Excellence in 1993. The McGills are the parents of a ’94 Trinity graduate.