It is six years since the revolutionary uprising in Egypt (25 January 2011), the second upset of the Arab Awakening of 2010-2011 and the one that arguably led to the rest of the uprisings in other Arab countries to take root.

But late January this year also marks the beginning of a new era across the Atlantic, in the United States of America, as Donald Trump takes power against the backdrop of huge dissent against him. Meanwhile in Europe, an equally tectonic shift is happening as right-wing populist forces huddle, looking for opportunities to exploit in a post-Brexit referendum continent.

It is all too often in Western capitals that we readily see lessons we have learned in our own history being ignored in countries in the post-colonial world. Perhaps it is a sign of our own self-assurance and privilege. But if the last few years – and this month in particular – should have reminded us: we're not immune from much of what we have criticised in the Arab world.

When Donald Trump's spokesperson point-blank denied that the inauguration of his president saw smaller crowds than that of Barack Obama in 2009 (rather unnecessarily, it seems; it's just a crowd), it immediately brought to mind the bare-faced lies that so many official government representatives in the Arab world openly declare on a regular basis.

When Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and other far-right leaders gather to declare that "2016 was the year the Anglo-Saxon world woke up", it is eerily similar to the rabid sectarianism that many on the Islamist right in the Arab world instrumentalise and encourage for political gain. There are some parallels, even when they are worlds apart.

Progressive forces in the United States and Europe need to be able to produce and show truly inspirational figures that can play that role

But that ought not to be a source of despair and despondency because there are many other parallels, even though they are in contradistinction. Or, to put it another way, the West can learn from the mistakes of the Arab revolutionary uprisings as well.

As a half-English-European academic and analyst based in two Western think tanks, I witnessed first-hand the choices the British electorate made in deciding to leave the European Union (although I was a Remainer) and the rise of Donald Trump in the West.

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As a half-Egyptian Arab, I lived through the revolutionary uprising of 2011, the anniversary of which I ponder today. As much as I remain inspired by the early revolutionary period of Egypt's recent history, and the spirit of pluralism that it represented and represents, there were also missteps that the revolutionary camp engaged in.

Many of those missteps were taken undoubtedly in good faith – but there are lessons to be drawn from beyond as we try to understand the revolutionary period in Egypt's recent history.

When the uprising began in the various cities and towns of Egypt – and not simply in Tahrir Square of Cairo, which was more pronounced because the world's media happened to be stationed close to or around it – there were no leaders of the revolution.

At the time, many who supported Egypt's uprising thought that was a good thing because it meant pluralism would be forced to have a chance, with power being dissipated among different leaders. It was a complete misreading – movements require visible, identifiable, inspirational figures. They don't require strongmen who will bully the masses – they require human beings who will articulate and lead.

Otherwise, by default, the most organised forces would make facts on the ground, even if their argument is worse. In Egypt, that was clear: the Muslim Brotherhood appropriated the revolution for their own ends, and succeeded for a time; the Mubarak stalwarts did the same, and succeeded thereafter.

The revolutionary camp had a few influential instances in the aftermath of the uprising, but they were rare indeed. If progressive forces in the United States and Europe want to push back against what is undeniably a truly destructive set of forces operating from within, they need to be able to produce and show truly inspirational figures that can play that role.

People take part in Friday prayers during a protest at Tahrir Square in Cairo
People taking part in Friday prayers during a protest at Tahrir Square in Cairo on 13 May 2011. The banner reads 'Egypt revolution, People and army, Muslim and Christian, Hamas and Fatah all one hand' Reuters

A second point to remember is that in Egypt, the revolutionary camp, for whatever it was worth in terms of demographic support, was also troubled by division. Had that division not taken place, it is almost certain that a pro-revolutionary presidential candidate would have won the Egyptian presidency in 2012.

What might have happened thereafter is another question entirely – but the Egyptian electorate would have been given a choice beyond a remnant of the former Mubarak regime and a figure from the far-right wing of the Muslim Brotherhood universe. It was a terrible choice – and progressive forces on the continent in particular, though this applies to the US to some degree, have to bear this in mind. The far-right forces in Europe are coalescing, and setting aside former differences, precisely for this reason.

Trump struck a chord; Brexit struck a chord – why? And how can that chord be struck, without shifting to the right in a populist fashion?

A third point is the reliance on protest – a tool that is invaluable and indispensable. It is visible, it shows resistance, it galvanises morale – but it can also be perceived by many protesters as an end unto itself, and diverts precious energy away from other tools that are equally important.

In Egypt, protesters learnt that when enough people went to the street, politics changed. It led to the downfall of a president. But what far too many protesters failed to realise was that when not enough people went to the street, the protest could be wholly counter-productive.

As a Gallup senior consultant at the time, I saw opinion polls time and again reveal that the vast majority of Egyptians opposed protests in 2011 and 2012 after the downfall of Mubarak – they wanted stability, and they, rightly or wrongly, perceived protests as counter to that. Moreover, when energies are put into protests alone, the forms of normal politics that exist are left to the less scrupulous – and that also happened.

Protesters clash with riot police in downtown Cairo
Protesters clashing with riot police in downtown Cairo on 25 January 2011 Reuters

The Women's March recently revealed a number of different people and figures – they cannot be left to the protest movement alone. Some must also engage in formal politics, and be the link between the two. Otherwise, the protest would forever be on the margins of power, and seldom affect power.

When I saw those polls about broader Egyptian public opinion vis-à-vis protests, as compared with those in the protest movement, it revealed a very key reality – that the protesters, all too often, and entirely with good intentions, often lived in universes very much detached from the wider majority.

This is hopefully a lesson that Remainers in the UK and anti-Trump activists in the US have now learned – there is a world out there that doesn't accept much of what we take for granted. We needn't accept all their principles – but we do need to know what they are, and appreciate their concerns, their fears, and make our arguments accordingly.

Trump struck a chord; Brexit struck a chord – why? And how can that chord be struck without shifting to the right in a populist fashion, which is what so many on the right wing and increasingly the left wing are doing today in Europe and America?

Finally – we all need to take a bit of a deep breath. The forces backing a more progressive form of politics, whether on the right or the left, are not without substantial and consequential support. There is already a real and existing set of infrastructures; political parties, media institutions, financial bases, grassroots movements – we're not starting from scratch.

We have the institutions that allow us, regularly, to make a political change – as dastardly as the Trump presidency may be, there is no foreseeable possibility of him cancelling the next presidential elections, or refusing to step down if he loses.

This entire episode is serious – but an American or European Winter is not going to be down to right wing populist forces using what they have. If either happen, it will be because the more progressive forces of change squandered and wasted the monumental political and cultural capital they already have. It's theirs to lose – which means it is also theirs to gain.


Dr HA Hellyer, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council in DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London, is the author of 'A Revolution Undone: Egypt's Road Beyond Revolt'.