The Irony of Tahrir Square

Letter From Cairo

Protesters shout slogans against President Mohamed Morsi in Tahrir square in Cairo July 1, 2013.
Protesters shout slogans against President Mohamed Morsi in Tahrir square in Cairo July 1, 2013. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Courtesy Reuters)

For the past several days, as Egypt has approached the political cliff, the country has been seized by an ironic sense of nostalgia. Protesters massing to end Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s term have openly invoked the 18-day uprising that ousted the country’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, from power in 2011.

In truth, there are similarities: Like 2011’s protest, the Tamarod (meaning “rebellion”) movement, the grass-roots signature campaign that is demanding early elections, sprang up independently of the formal opposition and has reached citizens that the opposition never touched. And the crowd, festive and optimistic, is socially diverse and organic. Like Mubarak, Morsi has even been given his own demeaning barnyard nickname. Mubarak spent much of his time in power widely known as la vache qui rit -- “the laughing cow” (the brand of a popular French-made cheese) -- because of his perceived lack of intelligence. In chants and signs this week, Morsi has been referred to as al kharouf (“the sheep”) -- implying that he remains subservient to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Council.

Despite the similarities, though, this is not 2011. Whatever happens over the next few days, Egypt is in more dangerous territory than it was 29 months ago -- and the downsides are much more frightening.

For starters, even without a political crisis, Egypt is teetering on the brink of economic failure, which is one of the factors contributing to the unrest. Making things more troubling: One of the country’s most generous patrons, Qatar, is heavily invested in the Brotherhood project. As the must-follow Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr wrote in a recent tweet: “So will Qatar be demanding a refund now, or what?” If Morsi is indeed ousted, that supply of vital Qatari largesse might just dry up, leaving the transitional government scrambling for emergency relief.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis