Five years ago, the leaders of Egypt’s protest movement shocked themselves by successfully bringing down President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power since before many of them were born. In those days, it was not unusual to hear talk of a new dawn for Egyptian politics and the Arab world. It is difficult to find many leaders of that movement who are so cheerful today. And their disappointment is broadly shared in academic, policy, and media circles around the world. Young and disaffected Egyptians, the story goes, revolted against a stultified regime and demanded a democratic government, a freer society, and more economic rights. They won the battle but lost the war, as the military, initially along with the Muslim Brotherhood and later without it, gained the upper hand and defeated the revolutionaries.
But there is a very different way to tell the story of 2011. This tale is not one of high but disappointed hope, but one of threatened chaos and rescue. From the perspective of Egypt’s security institutions—its military, police, and intelligence forces—the uprising threatened to bring down not only Egypt’s president but its entire social and political order. Averting such an outcome was an arduous task, one that the Egyptian armed forces still see themselves as undertaking.
In January 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—a long-standing military body that eventually led the interim government after Mubarak was ousted and before Mohamed Morsi was elected—did, in fact, share some of the protesters’ grievances, including outright opposition to Mubarak’s attempts to pass the presidency on to his son Gamal, a civilian, and discontent with the growing powers of the Interior Ministry in the political system. In fact, soon after the protests began, the military leaned on the aging president to remove his son and his close associates from their ruling party positions. Habib el-Adli, a Mubarak ally and powerful minister of interior, was relieved of his duties as