Amy Austin Holmes, Coups and Revolutions: Mass Mobilization, the Egyptian Military, and the United States from Mubarak to Sisi (Oxford University Press, 2019; paperback spring 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Amy Austin Holmes (AAH): Initially I had no plans to write a book on Egypt. I moved to Cairo in 2008 when I was hired as an assistant professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC). One of the classes I was hired to teach was on social movements and revolutions, a course previously taught by Saad Eddin Ibrahim—until he was sentenced to prison and essentially forced into exile in the late years of the Mubarak regime. Working in Cairo during that time was like living in a laboratory of radical social change—the very phenomena I had dedicated myself to analyzing as a scholar. I witnessed varieties of mass defiance I had never read about anywhere. I still remember the feeling of exhilaration, and how the Egyptian people expanded my understanding of what is possible in this world. But I was also disturbed by some of what was being written about the revolution.
As I argue in my book, even the term “Arab Spring” is problematic because it erases the agency of non-Arabs, such as the Nubian minority. Thus, my book highlights a wide spectrum of activist groups during what I see as three waves of revolutionary uprisings followed by two waves of counterrevolution. Even during the period of counterrevolution, when the regime escalated its repression to new levels, I explained how some of these groups were able to wrest concessions from the state. Due to the efforts of Nubian rights advocates, Egypt’s 2014 constitution recognized some of the Nubians’ historic grievances.
Second, I also wanted to challenge the popular scholarly narrative about how the Egyptian military allegedly defected from the regime (it never did). I disagreed with the dual narratives coming out of Washington about the alleged professionalism of the Egyptian military (why did “professional” soldiers in tanks do nothing as thugs killed protesters during the Battle of the Camel?) and the supposed spread of democracy (it felt more like the spread of repression).
Third, I disagreed with those who portrayed the revolution as a dichotomous power struggle between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Or those who focused only on explaining the overthrow of Mubarak and then Morsi, but ignored what I called the second wave of revolution against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF)—which I believe was in many ways the most significant. If Egypt ever transitions away from military to civilian rule, it will be because anti-SCAF activists laid the groundwork.
Finally, very little had been written about the counterrevolution. There were lots of reports of the mounting repression, but not much systematic analysis. I wanted to bring all this together in one book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AAH: The book makes empirical, theoretical, and methodological contributions to the study of revolutions, counterrevolutions, military coups, and American foreign policy. Empirically, I document the revolutionary process from 2011 to 2018 and provide the first systematic comparison of the four actors who were most crucial: the Egyptian military, the business elite, the United States, and the multi-headed opposition. In my analysis the United States functions as a pillar of the regime—not just an external actor.
It is true that many authoritarian regimes are opaque. But this should not be an excuse for scholars to not do their homework. While not claiming to peer inside the “deep state,” I explain who was targeted by state repression, when, why, and with what type of repression. This allows me to provide insights into the regime’s agenda, even if they do not reveal it themselves.
Methodologically, I bring together the literature on revolutions and military coups. In order to analyze the state apparatus during a chaotic period of revolutionary upheaval, I argue that it is necessary to distinguish between what I call “tools of the regime” (security forces, state-controlled media, and the National Democratic Party) and “pillars of support for the regime” (Mubarak’s network of elite allies, the military, the United States, and the citizenry). These pillars of the regime had more agency, they had the ability to decide: do we continue to prop up Mubarak, or pressure him to step down? For this reason, I see them as the four social forces whose support for the regime, or withdrawal thereof, was the most decisive.
Theoretically, I introduce the concept of a coup from below as a confluence of social protest and military intervention. I argue that the nature of the coup largely determined the nature of the crackdown that followed: because it was a coup from below in which the civilians (not the military) were the protagonists, they were also the first to be targeted in the wave of repression. In other types of military coups, the first victims are sometimes rival branches within the military or security apparatus. But in Egypt they went after the civilians. I contrast the coup from below to the revolution from above that happened under Nasser in the 1950s.
Finally, I show how my analytical framework can be used to understand the removal of leaders in Thailand and Burkina Faso in 2014. The attempted coup in Turkey in 2016 against Erdogan constitutes a negative case.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AAH: My research is situated at the intersection of contentious politics and international security relations. My first book, Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945, published with Cambridge University Press, tackles a rather large and unwieldly issue: the global network of American overseas military bases. How does the United States manage its empire of bases? My case studies of Turkey and Germany tried to answer this, by analyzing a range of contentious politics that spanned seven decades: non-violent civil disobedience, labor strikes, armed militant attacks, and opposition in the parliaments.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AAH: For one, I hope people will stop calling it an “Arab Spring.” Second, the anti-militarist activism that emerged under the SCAF should be taken more seriously. Many of these groups were led by women. They deserve recognition as such. Third, my concept of the coup from below could be of analytical value to both scholars and policymakers—and I showed how it can travel outside the Middle East. As I argued in a short piece in Foreign Policy, the assault on the Capitol on January 6 could be understood as an attempted coup from below, where Trump followed Sisi’s playbook by inciting civilians to try and overturn the outcome of the elections. While Sisi succeeded, Trump failed. Finally, it is high time the United States shifts out of auto-pilot mode, and drastically slashes our military aid to Egypt. Sisi does not deserve it.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AAH: I am working on my next book on the semi-autonomous region of North and East Syria, tentatively titled Beyond Rojava: How Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrians Beat ISIS and Built a Statelet. I am the first and, so far, only person to have conducted a field survey of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which grew out of the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units, known in Kurmanji as Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG) and Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (YPJ). Using this exclusive data combined with interviews I conducted during multiple trips to Syria since 2015, my book will explain how the Kurdish-led SDF created a de-facto statelet. They see their local self-administration as an alternative governance model to the authoritarianism of Assad. This semi-autonomous region is of course a work-in-progress, and it is unclear if it will survive.
J: In your book, Coups and Revolutions, you argue that the counterrevolution in Egypt took place in two distinct waves. What do you mean by this, and how did it affect you personally?
AAH: The first wave of the counterrevolution began after the ouster of Morsi in 2013. The authorities tried hard to create the appearance of civilian rule. They had a civilian interim President, a civilian Vice President, and civilian Prime Minister. Nonetheless there was no civilian control of the armed forces. The goal was to crush any group that could mobilize for street protests, regardless of ideology. After carrying out numerous massacres of the Muslim Brotherhood, secular and independent activists were next. The Protest Law essentially criminalized protests and allowed the state to regain control of the streets.
During the second wave of the counterrevolution, the regime turned against civil society at large, including groups that played no role in mobilizing for street protests, as well as those who had even supported the coup. The objective was to silence virtually all forms of independent civil society: NGOs, charities, the media, universities, researchers, lawyers, and minority groups including the LGBTQ community and the Nubian minority.
I see what happened to me as part of the pattern of the second wave of the counterrevolution. Just before the “elections” in 2018, the state-controlled media construed absurd allegations about my research, insinuating I was part of a conspiracy and making references to “fourth generation warfare against Egypt.” These allegations were entirely false. Although my research project had been fully approved by AUC, and although I had followed all of AUC's guidelines, no public statement was ever issued in my defense. I then asked for some assurance that it was safe for me to return to Egypt. I never received any such statement. I then requested to either teach online, or set up a semester abroad program in DC for AUC students, or to just extend my unpaid leave. Everything was denied. So, after twelve years, I quit. I had been offered a fellowship through the Council on Foreign Relations that places scholars in government for a year, but because I did not want to work for the Trump Administration, I deferred it. As a result, I went from being a tenured professor to having had no income for the past year. But some of my Egyptian friends are still in prison or under travel ban. They are paying a much higher price.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter One: Revolutionary Risings in Egypt, pp. 4-6)
The revolution in Egypt has played out in three waves of rebellion: the first was against President Hosni Mubarak; the second, against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF); and the third, against President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. It was the second wave that was the most radical, and yet it remains the least understood. Activists targeted the entrenched power of the American-sponsored armed forces in Egypt. At the pinnacle of this power structure stood the unelected junta, known as the SCAF. It is because of the threat of a potential fourth wave of mass mobilization against President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and the rise of antimilitarism under the SCAF, that the ongoing crackdown is so ferocious.
When mass protests first erupted on January 25, 2011, many hoped a transition to democracy was in the offing. Instead, the period from 2011 to 2018 is better understood as a process of revolution and counterrevolution. The three waves of revolutionary uprisings were followed by what I see as two distinct waves of counterrevolution. Throughout the waves of protests, there has been a three-way power struggle among three conflicting factions who have each vied to transform Egyptian society according to their own vision. Briefly, these blocs included: a largely youthful secular camp who demanded a radical democratization of Egyptian society and demilitarization of the state without attempting to take power themselves; the Muslim Brotherhood who, after winning the presidency and a majority in the parliament, proceeded to preach conservative values and place their followers in leading positions within the state, without fundamentally altering social or economic arrangements; and, finally, a powerful third group that has worked more or less consistently to shield the old regime from prosecution and then, eventually, to resurrect it. I argue that each wave was propelled forward by a fierce, antisystemic opposition that demanded more than the ouster of the ruler at the pinnacle of the regime. Secondly, each uprising represented a struggle against three distinct forms of authoritarian rule: the autocratic Mubarak regime and the police state that protected it, the unelected military junta with their unaudited financial holdings, and finally the religious authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood.
What gave the first uprising its revolutionary character is that it went far beyond the demand to oust Mubarak. The resounding chants for “bread, freedom, and social justice” represented wide-ranging demands for economic, social, and political rights. But more than this, the protesters wanted the downfall of the regime. This was not merely a rhetorical device or an empty protest slogan. Often overlooked by outside observers is the fact that the Tahririans specifically named a whole slew of Mubarak cronies whom they wanted to oust from power. Activists were not content with the ouster of Mubarak but insisted that neither his son Gamal Mubarak nor spy-chief Omar Suleiman would replace him. Police stations across the country were set ablaze, and certain business tycoons panicked and fled the country, fearing prosecution.
Similarly, during the second wave of unrest, activists were not simply demanding elections or removal of Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the SCAF. The activists exposed egregious human rights violations committed by security forces. They also uncovered the unaudited financial holdings of the armed forces, making wide-ranging demands for reform and greater accountability of the military establishment that had entrenched itself in the political system since 1952. The growth of this type of antimilitarist activism in Egypt was unprecedented. If Egypt ever transitions away from military rule, it will be because anti-SCAF activists laid the groundwork.
Finally, during the third wave of the revolution, it was not merely President Morsi who was denounced for having failed to deliver his election promises but also the larger leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood from which he hailed. I argue that the movement that toppled Morsi took the form of a large coalition that can be roughly divided into two broad wings: one that could be described as Nasserist or pro-military; and another that was opposed to the military returning to power. Although initially lauded as a pro-democracy rebellion, such categories may obscure more than they explain. While the first uprising against Mubarak may be understood as a demand for representative democracy, the third wave against Morsi displayed an impatience with electoral democracy.
While charting this power struggle, I will tackle a number of questions: How could Mubarak, an entrenched autocratic ruler who had clung to power for three decades, be toppled in a mere 18 days? Did his elite cronies turn against him? The spectacle of occupied Tahrir was clearly the focal point of revolutionary energy, but how important was it really in forcing Mubarak to step down compared to the influence of pressure from the United States? What role did these same actors (the business elite, the military, the United States, and the opposition) play during the second and third waves of revolutionary upheaval? Which social forces joined the mass mobilization against the SCAF, and then against Morsi, and which remained loyal? When did calls to end specific grievances or address certain issues change into broad demands for the fall of the regime? During the first and third waves, the armed forces were instrumental in removing Mubarak and Morsi, while during the second wave, the military itself was the target of popular rage. What is the relationship between the military and each wave of mass mobilization?
Although both Mubarak and Morsi were removed by the armed forces, to describe their ousters as conventional military coups obscures the mass mobilization of civilians that was a crucial element of what should be understood as a historical process rather than a singular event on a single day. Recognizing that the ousters of Mubarak and Morsi were not conventional coups, some authors have described their removal as a “democratic coup,” a “popularly supported coup,” or a “revolutionary coup.” However, these conceptual devices suggest that the objectives of the ruling brass and the activists on the streets were aligned. But that was not the case. Furthermore, such terms conceal the fact that the military interventions precipitated large-scale repression and reversed the process of democratic opening. For this reason I have found it necessary to develop a new conceptual framework that describes not only an event but also a process in and through time. A coup may take place within the space of a single day, but a revolution does not happen so quickly.
Before we can answer these questions and begin to understand the revolution, however, we must first understand the regime against which it was directed. This requires putting the recent events in their proper historical context. Egypt, after all, has a revolutionary history. Since the late nineteenth century, Egypt has undergone five mass uprisings: the Urabi revolt in 1881–1882, the revolution in 1919, the Free Officers coup in 1952, the anti-Mubarak uprising in 2011,and the anti-Morsi revolt in 2013. The twentieth century in particular was marked by mass mobilization and growth of the armed forces—which also involved the mobilization of the citizenry. Revolution and warfare both defined the twentieth century, and both involved the entry of the masses into the political arena. As Jeff Goodwin has pointed out, there were many more revolutions during the Cold War era from 1945 to 1991 than during the period from 1789 to 1848; Eric Hobsbawm has referred to the latter as the “age of revolution.” Indeed, the sheer number of revolutions and regime-threatening rebellions across the world over the past century makes doing any rigorous analysis an unwieldy task. And yet, as Mark Katz has argued, three countries can be singled out for their significance. This is not necessarily because of the staying power or success of their revolutions but rather because they acted as trailblazers in uncharted territory, forging a path that others attempted to follow. Katz argues that there were three great “central revolutions” of the twentieth century—and they were led by Russia, Iran, and Egypt. All of these countries were incubators of a unique and heretofore historically unprecedented type of revolution, which then triggered a revolutionary wave. The following “central revolutions” were emulated by others: the Marxist-Leninist revolution led by Russia, the Islamic revolution led by Iran, and the Arab nationalist revolution led by Egypt. After the “central revolution” led by Egypt in 1952, what Katz refers to as “affiliate revolutions” took place in Syria and Iraq in 1958, Algeria and South Yemen in 1962, and Sudan and Libya in 1969. In other words, the affiliate revolutions in Sudan and Libya, inspired by Egypt’s 1952 revolution, happened a full 17 years later. If we apply the same time frame to the current wave of unrest that began in Tunisia in 2010 and Egypt in 2011, the early risers of the Arab Spring, we may be seeing affiliate protests across the region until 2027 or 2028.