No Turning Back on Revolution

Political economics scholar Bessma Momani explains Naguib Sawiris’s populist perspective.

By: /
21 November, 2011
Bessma Momani
By: Bessma Momani

Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow

As CIC Globalist of the Year Naguib Sawiris took to the podium to give his thoughts and reflections on the shape of the Egyptian revolution, one could not help but get the impression that there is no turning back in Egypt, but that the road ahead remains precarious and fraught with many difficulties.

Many political analysts would agree that the Arab Spring was born out of economic frustration. A perfect storm of unemployment, high food prices, corruption, and unequal wealth distribution were among the characteristics shared by the Arab countries where the masses have protested against their governments. It was thus remarkable to hear Sawiris, a self-declared “capitalist from his head to his toes,” point to the necessity of the Arab Spring and its value to Egyptian society.

As an Egyptian billionaire, Sawiris has likely been unaffected by much of the economic frustration experienced by most of his Egyptian compatriots – but he shared in the sense of indignation caused by the regime’s unscrupulous tactics of control. Think of the now-famous Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself ablaze after repeated police harassment for setting up his fruit stand. While not nearly as dramatic, Sawiris had the frustration of seeing his offices ransacked by regime thugs for no good reason. The purpose of the government’s raid on his place of business, in Sawiris’s interpretation, was to intimidate him and remind him of who was in control. Such events illustrate the pervasiveness of the regime’s application of humiliation and suppression, regardless of one’s economic class.

While Sawiris believed there was no turning back, and that the revolution was a good thing for Egypt, he rightly noted that much uncertainty remains. On Nov. 28, Egypt will face its first democratic parliamentary election. In light of this, Sawiris noted how many liberal and secular parties were at a real disadvantage for only having had a few months to get organized. In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists have been organized for over 80 years, building a network of support based on their provisions of social services. While Sawiris stated that he admired the Islamist government of Turkey’s AKP and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for declaring the necessity of preserving secularism, he also noted his own fears that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood would choose to emulate a theocratic Iran rather than a secular Turkey.

The Muslim Brotherhood was suppressed and oppressed under the autocratic Egyptian regime, and its appeal to social justice and welfare remains an attractive message for a country suffering from rampant poverty and inequality. While many analysts believe that the Muslim Brotherhood would garner a minority of support in Egypt, Sawiris’s fear is that liberals and secularists will be apathetic and not take the time to vote on Nov. 28, thus enhancing the Islamists’ power in parliament. The task before the new parliament – including drafting a new constitution that will be put to a referendum in spring 2012 – is crucial to Egypt’s future. Sawiris was critical of the fact that the important task of drafting a constitution was being left to a novice parliament: He would have preferred a group of established, well-respected individuals to draft this constitution, as they would have a better chance of enshrining minority and individual rights.

As a Coptic Christian, Sawiris reflected on his own fears of rising religious intolerance in Egypt. As the Arab world undergoes this dramatic social and political change, there is great fear that the Middle East’s mosaic of religious and ethnic groups will be harmed. In many ways, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a consistent reminder to the Arab world of how democracy promotion can go terribly wrong. Many of Iraq’s minorities were sent into exile as the three predominant Iraqi groups of Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiites, and Kurds fought to divide the spoils of the new Iraqi state. Many of Iraq’s minorities were ignored – or, worse, ended up as global refugees. Arab countries with religious or ethnic diversity – like Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain – that have seen street uprisings are painfully reminded of the Iraqi scenario, in which democracy promotion soon turned into sectarian conflict.

While the future of the Arab Spring is unclear, the fact remains that the region will never be the same. The shackles of fear of government have been broken, people will continue to demand public accountability, social media will always question government information, and the region’s youth bulge will not accept anything less than real reforms and democracy. The Arab Spring has changed the region. It has yet to be determined whether this change is for the better or worse – but there is no turning back now.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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