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H.A. Hellyer is senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. 


It was an uprising that grabbed the attention of the world, keeping people outside Egypt glued to their television screens and Internet feeds, eager for the latest news. I was in Cairo at the time, and remained there through the dramatic events that followed – the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak; the introduction of direct military rule; the election of an Islamist politician, Mohammed Morsi, as president and his forced ejection from office; and the launch of another military officer into the presidency.

Five years after it all began, many now wonder, is another Egyptian revolution on the horizon?

When Jan. 25, 2011, dawned, few thought an uprising was imminent. Economically, Egypt was doing well. The Mubarak regime was a true regime; it controlled so very much, cohesively, and many tentacles were aligned well with the executive.

An entire generation had grown up with Mr. Mubarak, a former military leader, and knew nothing but him and his rule. And those who did remember a time before him didn't seem to want to do much about him.

But beneath all the reassurances that the Mubarak regime offered about the stability of his administration, and the chaos and anarchy that would result if anyone but he were in charge, Egypt was a pressure cooker. Gross domestic product was rising, but Egyptians weren't happy.

There was little to no economic trickle down; the rich got ever richer, but most Egyptians didn't feel any positive effects. Opinion surveys found that people were deeply worried about the future and overall well-being. (It was a similar situation in Tunisia: an increase in overall GDP, but a drop in the social health of the population.)

The haves continued to have a lot; the have-nots continued to get very little. And the have-nots were, by far, the vast majority. The tinder was there. It was only a question of what spark would put it aflame.

The Mubarak regime could have, at many points, calmed or defused the situation. Instead, it – and Mr. Mubarak personally – inflamed it. The president, who had ruled for 30 years, found himself considered an obstacle and a liability not simply by the millions of protesters, but also by significant portions of the Egyptian state that underpinned his regime – in particular, the Egyptian military.

Five years after the massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square and across the country, the situation isn't quite the same, despite protestations that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2016 is Mr. Mubarak at the end of 2010. In fact, the situation might be even more pressing.

The Egyptian population is younger – 70 per cent is under the age of 35, the average age is about 24 – and GDP is much lower than it was in 2010. There is still no economic trickle down.

And although Mr. el-Sisi's rule is a "non-regime," it is underpinned by autocracy and "multiestablishments" – a set of interconnected, self-governing islands. If accountability were at the root of this, it could make for a rather good form of decentralized government. But it is not accountability that underlines it; it is simply the ability and capacity to exert power.

Perhaps more important, a generation of Egyptians today remember, very clearly, the notion of revolt, of protest, of mobilization, of change. The people who led the charge five years ago had no such experience to draw from – they had only the yearning for change. The 2016 generation can draw from both.

After all, when it comes to the main structural issues that Egyptians faced in 2011, nothing has changed.

The security sector remains unreformed, and human-rights groups have identified abysmal failings of that sector in the past five years. The judiciary has its own issues. And there are new challenges, such as repression of the Islamist trend; though this group may be a minority, it is a significant one that feels wholly disenfranchised.

In addition to the structural problems that existed in 2011, Egyptian society is polarized today. Worse, the country is navigating a far more dangerous environment than in 2011, considering the situations in Syria, Libya, Iraq and the growth of the Islamic State.

In 2011, the Egyptian uprising was, in a sense, inevitable. A pressure cooker can't contain the pressure indefinitely. The uprising was a forced safety valve, not an immediate explosion, thankfully, but a massive blast.

In 2016, conditions for an uprising remain. The current administration in Cairo isn't about to crumble and fall, but it must heed the lessons of 2011.

It needs more, not fewer, safety valves, because even if every unjust policy were changed overnight – whether it involves prison conditions, security-sector excesses, judicial failings or the crackdown on protests – Egypt would still be a pressure cooker.

And Cairo isn't changing unjust policies overnight. On the contrary, the administration seems unwilling to adjust. Those in power today ought to remember, as one of the 2011 revolutionaries noted, that the power of the people remains an unpredictable thing.

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