6 Things You Should Know About Egypt but Were Too Embarrassed to Ask

The protests, power plays, and religious conflicts can be hard to keep track of.

Pro–Mohamed Morsi university students occupy Tahrir Square in Cairo on Dec. 1, 2013, for the first time since the Egyptian president's removal. (Photo: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Jan 17, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Sarah Parvini is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles.

Three years ago, protests spilled out in Egypt's Tahrir Square, and the world watched the unprecedented drama with bated breath. Turmoil had erupted in Cairo, at the heart of the Arab world's most populous country.

Violence, bloodshed, and unrest have rocked the nation ever since the people first demanded the downfall of Hosni Mubarak's inept regime in 2011. Tahrir Square, as depicted in our film division's Academy Award–nominated documentary The Square, became the platform on which revolution, frustration, and protest took center stage. That's where the disaffected, dissatisfied, and dispossessed put their lives on the line to become the heart of the Egyptian Revolution.

The unrest has rattled along through the years, from Mubarak's fall to last July, when we watched as the second Egyptian president was ousted within three years.

For those who haven't kept their eyes fixed on the region, recent events can be confusing. What we are seeing is what happens after decades' worth of political instability reaches its boiling point. What are the key forces at play, and who are the people behind them? Here's what you need to know to follow the story.

Why They Revolted in the First Place

Political instability and discontent had simmered in Egypt for decades, long before millions of protesters took to Tahrir Square in January 2011 and demanded that their president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, step down. Chief among the factors that led up to the protests in Tahrir Square were feelings of dissatisfaction with and distrust of Egypt's political structure that spanned all classes.

Members of the lower class were upset because of unemployment issues—the International Monetary Fund had warned of a "time bomb" ticking in the millions of jobless Egyptians. The middle class saw problems with mobility, securing homes, and obtaining a good education. Among the elite, youths yearned for basic freedoms such as freedom of speech. These tensions erupted into flames on Jan. 25, 2011, the day of revolt.

Mubarak stepped down the following month, and the military took power. The military then dissolved Parliament and suspended the constitution—two key demands of protesters intended to stop the ways the Egyptian regime had ruled and legislated in its own favor.

The Economy Was Dysfunctional

In the years leading up to the revolution, more people were slipping below the poverty line. As poverty took its toll, Egyptian youths' dissatisfaction with the government only increased.

Labor unions and the workers' movement played a large role on Jan. 25, which is not surprising. These laborers saw their wages decline, and some had not been paid for some time. Some were laid off, and some were pushed into jobs for which they were overqualified.

Sadly, they haven't won much in concessions or change as a result of the revolution because the country is still facing a major economic crisis. A lack of steady government has left Egypt unable to move forward and engage in economic reform or change.

They Got a New Leader—but He Was Deposed Too

After Mubarak was forced to resign, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohamed Morsi, with a 3 percent advantage in the polls, was narrowly elected president and took power in the summer of 2012. He led Egypt for a year before accusations of corruption and "hostile acts" led to his ousting by the military.

The military acted at the behest of the people, who called for his resignation in protests throughout the country because of fuel and electricity shortages.

The military told the country's civilian government it had limited time to "meet the demands of the people" or it would step in to restore order. Morsi didn’t deliver, and he was deposed. Morsi is now on trial on criminal charges.

Religious Minorities Are in Danger

Several of the world's major religions come from the Middle East, so it's no surprise that Egypt has always been a religiously divided country. The country’s Muslims were accused of cruelty by religious minorities after Morsi came to power. His party, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, advocates a specific brand of Islam. It is not just Sunni; it aims to create a state ruled by Sharia law because “Islam is the solution.”

Egypt's Coptic Christians—the largest Christian community in the region—suffered greatly under the Morsi regime’s Islamic state. Building churches became a struggle, and attacks on churches began to crop up: In recent months churches have been burned to the ground. It’s a problem in a state where 5 percent of the population, more than 4 million people, are Christians.

The latest discord has been marked by Egypt's new constitution, which was overwhelmingly approved in a national referendum this week. Copts supported the new constitution, while Muslims remained divided; the Muslim Brotherhood rejects a military-backed political process, considering its ranks have been thinned. The constitutional vote marks the first time Egyptians will take to the polls since the military ousted Morsi last July.

Freedom Doesn't Mean Good Leaders Are Available

The political battle that has taken shape since the revolution is far from over. The power vacuum that opened when Mubarak stepped down was reopened when Morsi was ousted and placed incommunicado, and it has left those in the highest ranks of government vying for power. And the new freedom to conceptualize a future for Egypt has led to an unprecedented diversity of ideas about which direction the country should go. The result is a confused nation.

The most recent vote is being seen as a sign of national longing for stability and an end to the coups that have repeatedly taken hold in Egypt. Considering Egypt's long history as a leader in the Arab world and the deep sense of pride Egyptians have in their national history—from pharaohs to pyramids and more—its citizens long for the ability to take pride in a successful and stable form of leadership.

Egyptians May Not Even Want Democracy

The next step in stability will mean a new president for Egypt, and army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is favored as a front-runner. He's unpopular with the Muslim Brotherhood, which sees Sisi as the driving force behind the coup that unseated its leader and sparked more internal struggle in Egypt. However, Sisi holds appeal for many Egyptians who have grown weary of the political turmoil that has decimated Egypt's already-weak economy since 2011. They view Sisi as a strong figure who can make tough decisions during turbulent times. If he runs for president, Sisi is expected to win.

With such rough divides, is Egypt ungovernable, as some experts have suggested? At the moment it is, says Nezar AlSayyad, a leading expert in Egyptian politics at U.C. Berkeley. The people have gone from ousting a totalitarian leader to calling for the military to lead instead of a democratically elected leader. Some campaign for Sisi because they view him as a strongman who can contain the violence and keep control.

“At the moment it is ungovernable,” AlSayyad says. “It is truly sad that in the mind of Egyptians today, the only solution is to get the military back in power.”

This content was created in partnership with our parent company Participant Media.