Guest Blogs

Andrey Korotayev: Anatomy of the Egyptian Counterrevolution

By Peter Turchin March 25, 2014 No Comments

Our young Egyptian friends (a sort of “leftist liberal revolutionaries”) consider the post-July 3 events in their country [the ousting of president Morsi by the military] as “counterrevolution”.

And I would tend to agree with them – though not without certain qualifications. Almost by definition, revolutionaries regard the “counterrevolution” as something unequivocally negative; whereas we believe that the present-day political regime has serious positive respects (though, no doubt, its formation has led in the recent months to a significant growth of the authoritarian tendencies). Yes, it may well be denoted as “counterrevolution”, as it returned to power that very block of military, economic, and bureaucratic elites that had ruled the country before the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. However, as we have already demonstrated this before, it ruled Egypt in a rather effective way, securing in the years preceding the Revolution a rather successful (especially, against the global background) economic and social development of this great country.

However, it would be wrong to say that Egypt has returned now precisely to that very state where it was before the revolution. And some newly emerging features contribute evidently to the regime destabilization. This is first of all the radicalization of the Muslim Brothers coupled with the emergence of their very strong media support in the form of al-Jazeerah’s satellite channel “Mubasher Misr”.

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On the other hand, there are much more of those features that have emerged during the Egyptian Revolution and the Egyptian Counterrevolution that contribute to the regime stabilization.

The Egyptian 2011 Revolution was able to achieve a rather easy victory due to the following two points:

First of all, this was a very strong elite conflict (that is important for the success of revolutions in general and that was especially important for the success of the Arab Revolutions in 2011). This was mostly the conflict between the Egyptian military (“the old guard”) and the economic elite (“the young guard”) – a group of the leading Egyptian businessmen headed by Gamal Mubarak (son of Hosni Mubarak). The military group controlled (and continues to control) not only the Egyptian Armed Forces, but also a major part of the Egyptian economy. And these are not only military factories, but also large pieces of land, various real estate, fuel stations, construction and transportation enterprises, as well as various factories that produce not only military production, but also things like TV sets, refrigerators, spaghettis, olive oil, and shoe cream (note also that military factories – virtually possessed by Egyptian generals – have a clear competitive advantage, as they can exploit virtually free labor of the conscripts). Estimates of the share of the Egyptian economy controlled by the military range between 10 and 40% (however, the latter estimate appears to be exaggerated). This group of the Egyptian elites was frightened by the ascent of the “young guard” of the leading Egyptian businessmen (under the leadership of Gamal Mubarak) who controlled the economy block of the Egyptian government. Since 2004 this government had been implementing rather effective economic reforms that led to a significant acceleration of economic growth rates in Egypt. “Over the past decades, the Egyptian military has not limited its focus to security matters; it has also acquired valuable real estate and numerous industries. By one estimate, the military commands up to 40 percent of the Egyptian economy. Before the events of 2011, Egyptian officers expressed concern about President Mubarak’s plan to appoint his son Gamal as his successor. If Gamal took office, many believed that he would implement privatization policies that would dismantle the military’s business holdings”. Indeed, there were all grounds to expect that if Gamal Mubarak were to come to power, the leading Egyptian businessmen from his circle would establish an effective control over the generals’ economic empire – and it would be rather easy to justify this indicating (quite real) ineffectiveness of exploitation of the respective economic assets and the need to optimize it.

The Egyptian elite conflict allows us to understand some events of the Egyptian Revolution that may look mysterious at the first glance. For example, throughout the revolution the army guarded quite rigorously all the official buildings, effectively blocking all the attempts by the protesters to seize them. However, already on the first days of the Revolution (on the 28th and 29th of January, 2011) the army allowed protestors to seize, crash, and burn the headquarters of the ruling party of Mubarak’s Egypt – the National Democratic Party. However, a closer inspection suggests nothing strange – as the real head of this party was Gamal Mubarak; thus, the military elite delivered a very strong blow upon its archenemy with the hands of the protestors.

Within the context of the still rather fashionable interpretation of the Egyptian events of January and February 2011 as a “confrontation between revolutionary masses and the repressive authoritarian regime” one could hardly understand the apparently enigmatic (but extremely famous) “Battle of the Camel”, when there was an attempt to disperse the Tahrir protesters on the part of a motley crew of cameleers – workers of tourist services operating in the Pyramids area and engaged in renting horses and camels to tourists. The cameleers attacked the protesters while riding camels and horses (which, incidentally, lent an exotic color to events of February 2 – and to the Egyptian 2011 Revolution, in general).


However, if this was indeed “the confrontation of popular masses and the repressive authoritarian regime”, why was it necessary for the “authoritarian regime” to employ such strange amateurish figures, and not to use, simply, the professional repressive apparatus? The point is that already on the 2nd of February Tahrir protesters confronted not the professional repressive apparatus controlled by the “old guard” (that took the position of friendly neutrality toward the protesters), but the economic elite clique that in order to counteract the protesters (who demanded the removal of the businessmen’s leader) had to employ semi-criminal elements rather than professional repressive apparatus. Thus, already in early February 2011 the protesters in Tahrir were countered not by the repressive apparatus of the authoritarian state, but by a clique of the businessmen who were very rich, but who did not control the repressive apparatus – which accounts for a very easy “victory of the revolutionary masses”.

To be continued

Published On: March 25, 2014

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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