Tahrir and Change Squares: Two Models of Subverted Revolts

RSIS presents the following commentary Tahrir and Change Squares:
Two Models of Subverted Revolts by James M. Dorsey. It is also
available online at this link.
(To print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or
feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at

 No. 187/2011 dated 22 December 2011

Tahrir and Change Squares: 
Two Models of Subverted Revolts

By James M. Dorsey

Continuing demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Sanaa’s Change Square 
represent the protracted struggle for power in the Middle East-North Africa region: 
one against the dominant military, the other against the reincarnated regime of an 
ousted president. Both also show how Saudi-led efforts to support Egypt’s 
military-led regime and Yemen’s newly appointed government have deprived 
protesters of the fruits of their revolt. 

THE POPULAR revolts in Egypt and Yemen have been put on the defensive by 
a combination of Islamist electoral success and Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council 
(GCC) support for Egypt’s military and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Despite 
being under siege, Saleh has been showing an uncanny ability to neutralise a 
GCC-negotiated agreement that would ease him out of office by February.

Islamists have successfully exploited Egypt’s first post-revolt election to marginalise 
the protesters on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, who battled with security forces last month, 
resulting in 42 dead. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Al Nur movement 
together won an absolute majority in the first two of three rounds in the first 
parliamentary elections since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last February. 
The final outcome will be determined in a third round of voting in January.

From square to ballot box

The intial election result has positioned the Salafis as the main competitor of the 
protesters on Tahrir Square in challenging establishment political parties and forces, 
whether remnants of the ancien regime, the country’s military rulers or the Muslim 
Brotherhood (MB), with the MB being viewed by many as the opposition wing of the 
old established order. The new parliament is expected to appoint most of the 
members of the committee that will be tasked with drafting a new constitution in 
advance of a presidential election in June 2012.

The electoral success of the MB and their rivals, the Salafis – a heterogeneous 
movement of fundamentalist Muslims who want to return to the practices of Islam’s 
7th century Caliphs -- has shifted the battle against the old regime, the military rulers 
and established political parties, from the square to the ballot box.

The military, despite contradictory statements on whether it would recognise the 
election result by allowing parliament to exercise power, sought to reinforce that 
shift in bitter battles with protesters camped out in front of the newly appointed prime 
minister’s office. At least 10 people were killed and more than 300 wounded in ongoing 
clashes. The military is trying to move the protesters away from the prime minister’s 
office and out of the square in the belief that a majority of Egyptians, by casting 
their vote, have opted for electoral politics.

The Egyptian military and the Salafis may be on opposite side of the fence, but they 
both in their respective ways serve Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) efforts 
to blunt the edge of popular revolts sweeping the Middle East that have also toppled the 
leaders of Tunisia and Libya, forced the exit of Yemen’s President Saleh and pushed 
Syria to the brink of civil war. Both the military council and Salafis are supported by the 
Saudis through US $4 billion in assistance to the military regime and reported funding 
for the Salafis through public and private donations.

The Salafis electoral success however constitutes a mixed blessing for the Saudis. 
The participation of a strand of Islam closely associated with that of the kingdom 
implicitly challenges Saudi assertions that democracy contradicts Islam.

Backfiring in Yemen
While the Saudi strategy is effectively rendering the Egyptian protesters marginal, 
it is backfiring in Yemen where a GCC-negotiated agreement for Saleh’s departure 
from power has enabled him to maintain his grip even though he has officially handed 
over to his vice-president. Since his return from medical treatment in Riyadh Saleh’s 
agreement to leave office following an election scheduled for February 2012 leaves him 
enough time and space to consolidate his power instead. He has also authorised his 
vice-president to appoint a new cabinet -- in violation of the constitution.

Under the GCC agreement Saleh gets to remain in Yemen with immunity from 
prosecution, while his family members retain control of key military units and his 
vice-president becomes president for the next two years as a new constitution is drafted.

All this has stiffened the opposition of the protesters on Sanaa’s Change Square who reject 
the deal. Unlike the protesters on Tahrir Square who have faded from public view, the 
protests on Change Square have been reinforced by the recent awarding of a Nobel peace 
prize to a Change Square leader Tawakkol Karman.

Their resolve is further strengthened by the failure of the energy-rich Gulf states to 
alleviate the economic suffering in the Arab world’s poorest state. Though Yemen, far 
more than Egypt, is dependent on foreign aid for relief, the Gulf states have refused 
Yemen’s repeated appeals for improved access of Yemeni workers to GCC labour markets. 
These have been restricted since the expulsion in the early 1990s of one million Yemenis 
 from Saudi Arabia in retaliation for Yemeni support of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. 
Opening up labour markets would allow labourers to send remittances back to a country in 
economic collapse.

One striking exception, and a model for what Saudi Arabia and other GCC states could do 
to prevent further destabilisation of Yemen and a potential threat to Gulf security, is an 
initiative by a foundation headed by the wife of the emir of Qatar, Sheikha Moza. Her foundation 
acts to create jobs in Yemen, whose labour force is largely under-skilled and where youth 
unemployment is estimated at 50 per cent, to increase vocational training in Yemen and 
incubate start-ups.

Islamist tide
Nonetheless, on both Tahrir Square and Change Square, protesters have found themselves
marginalised. The main factors behind this marginalisation are the established political forces
with the political machinery and experience to exploit the transition for their own ends, and
the Saudi-supported Salafis who are riding the Islamist tide sweeping the region. The fate of
the Tahrir Square protesters will depend on whether the elections, due to end in mid-January,
are perceived as having advanced the revolt’s cause.
By contrast, Sanaa’s Change Square still has wind in its sails. There is a growing perception
that the GCC agreement has failed to oust Saleh while Yemen’s wealthy neighbours stand by
as the country sinks into a deeper morass. As a result Change Square seems to have a longer
lease of life than its more famous counterpart in Cairo.
James Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS),
Nanyang Technological University. He has been a journalist covering the Middle East for
over 30 years

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