Explaining Egypt’s January 2011 Revolution between Conspiracy and Conventional Wisdom

Ten years on, conspiracy theories about the root causes of the 2011 Egyptian uprising still abound.

Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in Cairo, Egypt, February 11, 2011. Amr Abdallah/Reuters

Like all major historical events, the January 2011 Revolution gave rise to many questions about its causes, actors, trajectory and consequences. These questions are important because they address the accountability and responsibility for the human cost the country incurred. In 18 days, hundreds of Egyptians were killed and thousands injured. In the two tumultuous years which followed, between the fall of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011 and the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood rule on July 3, 2013, thousands more would be killed and wounded.

Since then, the armed forces were instrumental in restoring order and bringing the country back to an authoritarian order not very different from the one which preceded the January Revolution. The Egypt scenario was one of a series of revolutions that broke out in no less than four other Arab countries and which all ended in a general erosion of what was until then considered an Arab regional order to the benefit of non-Arab Middle Eastern countries. It is therefore legitimate to inquire about the actors who produced this drastic shift in domestic and regional power relations. 

Political scientists tried to shed light on these events, offering their own interpretations. Some argued that they were the last phase of Democracy’s third wave putting an end to the so-called “Arab exceptionalism”. Others argued that they were the product of the socio-economic tensions unleashed by the neo-liberal policies “recommended” or “dictated” by international financial institutions. A third explanation located these events in a wider perspective of a global wave of protests against an emerging world capitalist order. Still, some of them found the answer in the dialectics of modernization which raises levels of expectations among mobilized masses but deprives them of the capabilities necessary to fulfill these expectations.

These interpretations could be consumption items for scholars of different disciplines in their academic meetings and publications. However, Arab public opinion did not seem to be much concerned with their debates and did not offer a convincing explanation of the causes that brought to the ground the apparently solid structures of authoritarianism in most of the countries which were swept by this wave of massive protest. For Arab public opinion, such suffering, bloodshed, large scale displacement and forced migration of millions of people in Syria, Yemen and Libya, and the free play of regional and foreign powers all over the Arab world could not be the work of impersonal forces of democracy’s third wave, neo-liberal policies, and dialectics of modernization or globalization. For several Arab commentators, all these blows to Arab dignity and position in the world system must have been the work of an evil power that does not wish good for the Arabs. For them, this “evil power”, could not be other than the United States—”leader of the imperial west, the historical enemy of Arab nationalism and of Islam”.

This belief that the United States was the power behind this “human disaster” that befell the Arab world did not come out of academic debates but was the stuff of narratives of a conspiracy skillfully woven by the leading country in the international system.

Conspiracy theories are not new in the Arab world, nor are they uniquely an Arab phenomenon. They feed popular imagination in nearly all countries, highly advanced and the poor, in the North and the South, in the past and at present. The most recent of such theories was articulated in the United States among supporters of former President Donald Trump who thought that foreign powers including China, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations secretly planned to remove the country from its leadership position on the world stage.

Conspiracy theory could be defined as a theory that rejects the standard explanation of an event and instead credits a covert group or organization with carrying out a secret plot. Such a plot could be a manifestation of an irrational mind, or a feature of a certain societal culture. It usually prevails among less educated people. No matter which of these theoretical definitions is accepted by scholars, it is also true that conspiracies did and do take place in domestic and international politics. Examples abound of conspiracies that preceded major events in world history in specific countries. The First World War broke out in the wake of an action by a Serbian nationalist who conspired to assassinate the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

Another example well-known in Arab history was the drawing of the map of the modern Middle East in secret negotiations between British and French officials during the First World War. Such negotiations ironically took place at a time when a British spy popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia was promising Sharif Hussein, the prince of Mecca, and Arab revolutionaries that Great Britain would recognize an independent Arab Kingdom extending from the Levant to the whole of Arabia to be ruled by the Hussein family.

Such a promise was conditioned on Arabs revolting against the Ottoman Empire which was in control of most of the region. Wasn’t the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917 which paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel, another conspiracy against the Palestinians who were the majority inhabitants of that territory? The conspiracy element in all these stories was to be found in the secrecy that shrouded the actions of state officials planning behind closed doors schemes that ran counter to their public declarations.

Popular “conspiracy theories” are usually rejected by scholars as merely irrational narratives, products of the imagination of misinformed masses or megalomaniac individuals. They should not be dismissed, however, not only because they find a receptive audience among millions of people but also because they could be believed by policy-makers themselves and inspire their actions. Policy-makers are vulnerable to such narratives, particularly when they offer a seemingly plausible explanation of events that put them in complex situations for which they were unprepared, and whose origins they could not fathom.

Conspiracy theory and Arab “Dignity Revolts”

This is particularly the case with some of the popular narratives of the origins of the Arab Dignity Revolts, commonly known as the “Arab Spring”. The initial successes of these revolts in removing autocrats in three Arab countries in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; and challenging the authority of two others in Yemen and Syria, were followed soon after not only by government instability in all these countries but more grave consequences in terms of the loss of national sovereignty, opening the door to foreign intervention and protracted civil wars in three Arab countries, namely Libya, Syria and Yemen, with serious implications for their domestic and regional security. How is it then that the optimistic expectations of establishing rule of law, under which people exercise civil and political rights and freely elect their rulers, were not realized and instead, either the old ways of ruling persisted or sovereign states became free play arenas for regional and foreign powers to settle their differences by the force of arms. 

Instead of ushering in a new dawn of democracy and well-being for Arab peoples, this region was transformed into the New Sick Man of the world. How could the self-immolation of a street vendor in a small town in Tunisia trigger the fall from power of four Arab leaders,  spawn civil wars in three Arab countries and inspire mass protests in other countries of the region? Some Arab commentators suggest that such developments ultimately played to the benefit of non-Arab countries of the region—such as Iran, Turkey, Israel; and even encouraged Ethiopia to embark on the building of the GRED that threatens to deprive Egypt of its historically recognized share of Nile water—and therefore could not have come about unintentionally. 

For many people in the region, these developments with their negative consequences were not accidental. They were either provoked or master-minded by an external actor who did not wish well for the Arabs. These commentators wonder which external actor is capable of instigating such an earthquake in the Arab World but were it not for the United States. 

The claim that the January Revolution as well as all the other Arab Dignity Revolts were an American conspiracy is so common in Arab media that it would take no more than a simple search on the internet under the phrase America and Arab revolutions in Arabic to get hundreds of articles offering a detailed account of an American conspiracy against Arab peoples. Such narratives are not limited to one Arab country as one can find this claim echoed in many countries. I found an expression of this claim in the media of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. Those who are articulating such narratives include journalists, television talk show hosts and anchors, former generals, professors of history and even government institutions. 

For the advocates of this narrative, there is a common agreement that the “conspiracy” did not start under the Obama Administration. Many commentators took it back to December 2004 under President George W. Bush and the establishment of the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA) and the holding of the Forum for Future conferences that brought together representatives of governments, business and civil society organizations from Arab and non-Arab countries. According to such narratives, the way envisaged to bring about democratic change in the Middle was to offer assistance to civil society organizations, such as human rights and women groups who call for democracy, and to train their leaders on methods of peaceful protest that could escalate into massive revolts that could topple authoritarian governments, similar to what had happened in the “colored revolutions” of Central and Eastern Europe. Some versions of this story added that the United States was even complicit in getting Islamists to power in Egypt and Tunisia and was sympathetic to Islamists in Libya following the fall of Muammar Al Gaddafi’s regime. 

Hostile reactions by U.S. media, Congressional leaders and the limited sanctions imposed by the Obama administration following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Egypt on July 3, 2013 were taken as concrete evidence that Washington even engineered the January Revolution in order to get the Islamists to power. The WikiLeaks publication of email communications from former U.S. Secretary of State (2009-2012) Hillary Clinton, including references to a visit by MB members to Washington in 2012 and their meetings with Department of State senior officials, was seen in the Egyptian media as unmistakable evidence that not only was she in favor of the MB running the government in Egypt but was also giving them instructions on how to sow trouble in the country. The meetings took place in April 2012 just a few weeks before presidential elections that brought Mohammed Morsi to the Egyptian presidency.

Interestingly enough, the role of the armed forces was not mentioned in these narratives whether as supporters of the demand for change or defenders of the existing order.

The perceived rationale for this preference for a political movement that had been known for its anti-Western views was a commitment on the part of MB to safeguard U.S. interests in the region in return for Washington’s support of their quest for power. 

 The role attributed to the United States in these narratives was that of encouraging the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world but none of these narratives went as far as suggesting that U.S. officials or agencies were directly involved in the planning or the steering of protest actions.

Unlike proponents of conspiracy theory in other regions who tend usually to come from less educated groups, those who disseminate such theories in the Arab world include people who are highly educated. A reader of their statements would find among them university professors, members of research centers and highly placed former army officers. They strive to find some piece of evidence to demonstrate the validity of their claims, citing statements of American officials or specific programs initiated by the U.S. government. They point to calls by former President G.W. Bush for  the United States to promote democracy in the region; the announcement by Condoleezza Rice, his secretary of state in July 2006 during the Israeli bombardment of Beirut that the “New Middle East” had been born; or the establishment of the Broader Middle East Initiative earlier in 2004; Clinton’s memoirs or her communications with her staff at the State Department in addition to mediation efforts by Anne Patterson U.S. ambassador in Egypt (August 2011-August 2013) between the Muslim Brothers and the military as sufficient proof that Washington’s engineering of the January Revolution was, beyond any doubt, an established fact.

Taking conspiracy theory seriously

Let us assume that such conspiracy theories are indeed accurate in identifying the forces behind the launching of Arab revolts that swept the region in 2011, and led to serious domestic and regional political consequences. Should scholars of the region dismiss such narratives as irrational emanations of uninformed people, or as ideologically-inspired statements driven by nationalist zeal and even anti-Americanism? In fact, such narratives must be taken seriously, because they definitely do not contribute to good friendly relations among countries, even though the “culprit” in these narratives is the U.S. government and not the American people. Past experiences, and more particularly the recent history of terrorist attacks, however, have shown that citizens do often pay the cost of the negative image other countries hold of their government. 

Equally important in this context is that policy-makers are not immune from the influence of such “conspiracy theories”. They may not afford to take a retaliatory action against a government depicted in such negative terms in the popular mind but they may punish some of its citizens or their own citizens believing that they serve the unfriendly interests of that government. During the interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2012, sixteen foreign and seventeen Egyptian citizens, all members of NGOs, were arrested and put on trial in the same year. They were accused of illegally receiving foreign funding and operating without government approval. The foreigners included five Americans, who were working for democracy-promoting institutions (International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House), and Europeans from Germany and Finland—the resident director of the German Konrad Adenuer Stiftung think tank and his assistant. The list also included Serbians as well as people from other Arab countries. The Egyptians were NGO’ activists. The foreigners were released on bail in 2012 and left the country but all were initially sentenced in 2013 to one or up to five years in jail. They were all acquitted by the Cairo Criminal Court in 2018. This case strained U.S.-Egyptian relations throughout all these years.

As the region marks the 10th anniversary of these historical changes, and as a new U.S. administration takes office led by people who had worked closely with former President Barack Obama—who is depicted in these narratives as sympathetic to the MB, it becomes vital to examine the claims made by these conspiracy theories.

Can such claims endure in the face of emerging evidence and accounts from U.S. policy-makers who were in power in 2011 as well as Department of State documents which have been made public? Fortunately, two of the top officials during the Obama administration during these crucial years—Clinton and Obama himself—have published their memoirs and told the story of their reactions to Arab revolts. Some relevant U.S. documents, including the famous Hilary Clinton’s email communications, found their way to WikiLeaks. Unless other credible accounts emerge, we have no other way of substantiating these claims.

But history reveals its own agenda.

The Obama administration resisted pressures to label the events of June-July 2013 as a military coup d’état, which, according to U.S. laws, would have led to the cessation of all military assistance to Egypt. The White House at the time only suspended the release of certain items and resumed full military assistance once the country presumably got an elected president in 2014 and an elected parliament in 2015. 

No matter which argument is used to reject claims that the January Revolution was an American conspiracy to install the MB in power, advocates of the “conspiracy theory” will not be convinced, and would instead offer their own counter-interpretation to whatever truth the counter-evidence proposed. They would say that Clinton did meet MB members in Washington, and that Obama’s Presidential Directive of 2011 was already used to engineer the revolution in Egypt. They will also claim that top U.S. security officials were indeed conspiring with Egyptian army commanders to overthrow Mubarak.

Conspiracy theories have a life of their own, despite all evidence to their contrary. They serve functions other than telling the truth about any event. They offer simple and easy narratives for complex events whose causes and intricacies are difficult to fathom. They relieve political leaders from any responsibility for their failures and setbacks since the conspiracy theories identify powerful forces, over which such actors cannot have any control, as the originators of such events. They also provide political actors with ideological weapons to use against their adversaries, charging them consequently with being agents of foreign powers.

Debating conspiracy theory is, however useful, not only for academic purposes but perhaps equally, to limit their chances of gaining a wider public.

Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid is a professor of Political Science at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University. He has also taught at the American University in Cairo, as well as Harvard and Colgate universities in the United States. Al-Sayyid spent time as a visiting scholar at UCLA and a research fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has published works in English, Arabic and French on issues of civil society, democratization and politics of development in the Middle East.
Read More