It was a small group that set out on January 25, marching on National Police Day to decry the quotidian indignities they suffered at the hands of Husni Mubarak’s abusive police. Public protest in Egypt had long been a minority practice, rarely mustering more than a few hundred, or at best a few thousand, core movement activists. The organizers of the January 25 march expected the same base of dedicated demonstrators, and were shocked when the crowd swelled to more than 10,000. Even more surprising was the demand that swelled organically from the crowd: not a call for better policing, but a daring cry, punishable as treason under President Husni Mubarak’s pharaonic rule — “The people want the fall of the regime,” the crowd chanted.

As the uprising progressed, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians occupied Tahrir Square, eventually forcing Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, 2011. The huge crowds quickly dissipated, leaving a reenergized group of activists who have since continued to orchestrate recurrent waves of protests and have purported to negotiate on behalf of “the revolution” with the military junta that inherited power from Mubarak. The leadership team of this group, which I shall call the revolutionary vanguard, expanded from the original coalition that sparked the January 25 protests, but in essence remained markedly continuous with the stakeholders that drove Egypt’s pre-January 25 dissident community.

Egypt’s uprising raises many pointed questions about nonviolent political transformation. As of the summer of 2011 it would be premature to call Egypt’s ongoing efforts a revolution, since the country remains an authoritarian military dictatorship, though one in the throes of a vibrant and contentious reexamination of its system of governance. In this essay, I want to examine the role of a small, elite minority in sparking the January 25 uprising and in shepherding Egypt’s political awakening and attempt at radical systemic reform. Was it, in fact, a comparatively tiny group of elite activists that challenged Egypt’s military dictatorship? Did those vanguard activists manage to create broader roots in society? And finally, does Egypt’s centralized, hierarchical authoritarian state minimize the influence of public opinion, essentially sidelining the “silent majority?”

Who challenged Egypt’s dictatorship?

The recent history of Egypt’s protest movement included manifold small players. The Kifaya movement received much attention in 2005, the year of Mubarak’s last presidential campaign, and mobilized many influential members of the older generation of secular human rights activists. The Muslim Brotherhood campaigned vociferously that year as well, and many thousands of its members were imprisoned. In 2008, the April 6 movement gained importance after the Mahalla textile strikes. All along a quiet mobilization was taking place among labor activists, apolitical NGOs, election-monitoring groups, and human rights organizations, all of which were subject to extensive government pressure regardless of whether they were secular, nationalist, Islamist, or apolitical. Some of the pre-revolutionary political parties, including Ayman Nour’s Ghad [Tomorrow] Party, the Gabha [Democratic Front] Party, and Tagammu‘ [National Progressive Unionist] Party, rallied the enthusiasm of some youth.

By the summer of 2010, two major movements actively courted public anti-regime support: the Brotherhood and Mohammed ElBaradei’s loose reform campaign, which called for Egypt to amend its laws and open the system to genuine political competition. The two groups joined forces to gather a million signatures in a petition drive ahead of the fall 2010 elections. Many signatories (a bold act in Mubarak’s police state) were driven to that minimal action by their rage at Mubarak’s machinations to install his lackluster son Gamal as his heir. Simultaneously, an online campaign organized demonstrators in response to (and channeled rage about) the killing of Khaled Said, who appeared to have been beaten to death by police in Alexandria because of his political views.

These three forces, by January 2011, could be best understood as catalysts or organizational umbrellas rather than as distinct activist constellations. The demonstrations themselves drew on multitudes of unaffiliated people, many of them without a political history, along with hundreds of independent activists. Organizationally, however, the Tahrir Square demonstrations notably depended on the tactical savvy and strategic thinking of the following groups, most of them small:

Muslim Brotherhood youth, in defiance of their leadership

The April 6 Movement

The Freedom and Justice Movement (a secular youth organization not to be confused with the Muslim Brotherhood’s newly formed Freedom and Justice Party)

The Gabha Party

The ElBaradei Campaign

These organizations quickly coalesced in the Revolutionary Youth Committee that continues to play a central leadership role even as its member groups differ over many major political issues and plan to compete with one another in elections. Socialists, workers, and soccer fan clubs known as “ultras” all played a visible role in the street protests but were less visible at setting the protest agenda or shaping its tactics. During the key protests, the official leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood provided crucial muscle, organizing security, medical care, and other key logistics with a capacity that no other group could muster.

In the post-Mubarak age, new political parties and civil society organizations are taking shape at a precipitous rate, and it has yet to be determined which NGOs and political parties will wield influence. Some are clearly players:

The Free Egyptians Party, founded and funded by billionaire Coptic Christian magnate Naguib Sawiris, as an old-fashioned liberal party intended to attract Christians and members of the former ruling party.

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party, a center-left party founded by many leading members of the ElBaradei campaign.

Labor unions, increasingly freed from state control and expressing the frustration of their membership.

Professional syndicates, which until now were mostly controlled or dominated by the state, but which now are electing their own leadership.

Socialists, represented by many left-wing parties.

Salafist Islamists, whose political views could be defined as counter-revolutionary, but who have seized on their new legal status after Mubarak to plunge into political activity.

Since Mubarak’s resignation, the protest movement has periodically reoccupied Tahrir Square, and has marched on various government offices, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior, and has clashed with riot police, most notably on June 27. This contingent includes the five core youth movements involved on January 25, along with increasing numbers of unaffiliated youth. It notably does not include the Muslim Brotherhood, any organized Islamists, or the pre-revolutionary political opposition parties.

The non-revolutionary opposition, including parties that existed under Mubarak, like the Wafd, the Ghad, the Nasserists, and the Brotherhood, have opportunistically coordinated electoral strategies, negotiated with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and have distanced themselves from protesters; in fact, they often join the SCAF in painting continuing protests as radical and destabilizing.

It was a relatively small contingent of politicized youth that first marched on Tahrir and that has since articulated clear revolutionary demands: civilian authority over the military, free speech and political activity, accountability for the former regime’s crimes, and full housecleaning of the state’s violent internal security apparatus. Even half a year after the revolution, with Egypt opaquely ruled by the same group of generals, the revolutionaries, with their demands for systemic reform, are still portrayed as fringe radicals. The numbers in Tahrir Square dwindled during the month-long summer sit-in, and often faded to tiny numbers in between monthly or bimonthly peaks. Some core activists, increasingly politicized and frustrated by the military’s continuation of Mubarak era tactics (arbitrary detentions, secret trials, slander, intimidation), have grown increasingly dismissive of public opinion and the frequently invoked “silent majority.” As one activist told me, “We made the revolution without the silent majority. We don’t need them now.”

Has the activist vanguard put down deep roots in society?

Increasing disenchantment among some revolutionaries, along with griping among the public and on state media, appears to indicate a disconnect between the revolutionaries and the public. It would be premature and unfounded, however, to conclude that such a rift exists. It might exist now or it might emerge in the future, but it is too early in Egypt’s process of political transformation to discern whether the political vanguard speaks for, or is catalyzing, a deep groundswell of support for its aims, or whether its utopian idealism is out of step with Egypt’s popular will.

The events and personalities of the first half of 2011 (and the six years of protests that preceded it) suggest that Egypt’s revolutionary movement has so far remained a relatively elite affair, but one which drew in broader swathes of the public than any political activity since Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser and the Free Officers seized power in 1952 and ended their country’s experiment with liberal democracy. January 25 succeeded at pressuring the regime to make major concessions, including Mubarak’s resignation, for many reasons, chief among them:

Sustained nationwide resistance to the police, which incapacitated the security state’s capacity to oppress.

The support of key constituencies for revolutionary goals, including labor and members of the nation’s economic elite.

The size of the crowds in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and other cities, and their determination to fight back against police brutality.

None of these factors relies on a broad shift in public opinion. In fact, the regime has continued to cultivate anti-revolutionary and anti-reform public opinion using the same tactics as Mubarak. During the initial uprising and in the months since, the state-controlled media, which dominates the Egyptian television and newspaper market, has continued to follow the propaganda line set during Mubarak’s rule. Broadcasts and talk shows routinely exclude opposition figures and articulate members of the opposition. In fact, state television and newspapers showcase spurious reports that portray demonstrators as thugs, mischaracterize their demands, and fan public fear about security and economic well-being with un-sourced and often verifiably false reports of lawlessness and economic emergency.

It is unclear where public opinion lies. Credible polling only began after Mubarak’s resignation, and there is still a dearth of usable data; as yet it is impossible to track the direction of public opinion. Because of the nature of self-reported opinion in a totalitarian society, along with doubts about the applicability of the polling methods used, most polling data amounts to little more than a guess.[1] But a structural analysis of Egyptian political life suggests that politics remains elitist, and that efforts to change the system entail a competition for power within the Egyptian elite. Although some revolutionary actors claim to want to build new grassroots organizations through which they can educate the public and create new blocs of support, in practice almost no serious political actor on the scene has changed tactics. The only organization convincingly dedicated to mass mobilization is the Muslim Brotherhood, for whom public outreach has always been a staple tactic. Liberal and left-wing groups have so far failed to devote adequate resources to or recruit a sufficient number of members for the kind of community outreach integral to compelling retail politics. The state also continues its old tactics, addressing the citizenry in a top-down style through one-way outlets like broadcast announcements and communiqués published on Facebook.

The activists themselves are well aware of their status as political elite, despite the diversity of their economic and class backgrounds. Many of the most successful activists come from working and middle-class backgrounds, and from political parties or non-profits far outside Egypt’s traditional power centers. In interviews, most of them express a desire to broaden the Egyptian political sphere, an effort echoed by an exploding political consciousness and evident sense of political empowerment among Egyptians.

How much does public opinion or “the silent majority” influence Egyptian decision-makers?

Under Mubarak, both the military and the ruling party behaved as if they were immune to public opinion. As a result, both parties responded with great brittleness to the January 25 uprising. None of the powerful constituencies governing Egypt believed that people would revolt in a meaningful or sustained manner. The bumbling response of the SCAF since it assumed formal power on February 11, 2011 reveals that it still has little capacity to gauge public opinion or respond to it. Elections, if held with minimal manipulation, will serve as something of a corrective, but it will take at least one or two election cycles before meaningful alternative political parties have time to build nationwide organizations and grassroots followings.

Because Egypt’s dictatorship was so heavily centralized, and indifferent to public opinion, it is likely that governance in Egypt will remain a comparatively elite game. If, however, political freedom expands in the post-Mubarak phase, then the size of the politically active population will expand sizably. Free elections in a competitive system eventually will blunt the raw power of elites, who will depend on the electorate for their power.

The military quite clearly responds to public pressure, even if it has not yet incorporated public opinion into a constructive policy-making process. Large crowds toppled Mubarak. In March, public demonstrations prompted the military to back away from a rigid position on imposing a new constitution. Massive demonstrations on May 27 and July 8 convinced the ruling military council that they now had to worry about the street savvy of secular youth organizations, as opposed to just Islamists. Generals fear the unknown sentiments of lower-ranking officers and enlisted troops. They also fear the sheer size and organizational capacity of the Islamists; the defection of influential elites; the ability of the 1–2 million Interior Ministry employees to play a spoiler role; and the possibility of a return of crowds in the millions, as seen in January and February 2011. This cycle of protest and government reaction, while suggesting a brittle and recalcitrant regime only willing to budge and make grudging, minimal concessions under pressure, also illustrates some level of responsiveness to public opinion.


The activists who sparked the January 25 uprising spanned elite activists, formerly apolitical, disenfranchised Egyptians, the working class, and politicized reformist constituents of the old regime. Since the demonstrations began, discussion of the political path forward has engaged not only elites, but also a growing, wider audience. The boisterous and broad debate can be seen in the private media sector, and on state television, despite official pressure. It was also evident in the March referendum on the constitution, in which 18 million Egyptians came out to vote. Compare that to the desultory showing the previous fall, in which the ruling party swept what many believed were rigged elections. As part of the fraud, the government concealed turnout figures, but the most reliable calculations by the Egyptian Association for the Support of Democracy put the number of votes cast around 4 million.

For now, the question is whether the new pro-revolution activists can successfully build organizations and grassroots following, regardless of their ideological bent. Will elections, and the ongoing elite negotiation with the ruling military junta, lead to a system that institutionalizes accountability to public opinion through meaningful elections and rigorous party-based political competition within the government? Or will the composition of the elite at the top of the power pyramid simply change, with one members-only club replacing another?


[1]. Polls have been conducted by Gallup, Pew Research Center, The International Republican Institute, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and some media outlets.