Predicting the Egyptian uprising

With hindsight, revolutions always seem so easy to predict. It is not difficult to point to a combination of poverty and repression  and then claim it catalysed a regime’s fall. Although acutely aware of the humiliation many endured on a daily basis, we assumed Mubarak was strong enough to withstand the ire of his population. When this turned out to be a mistake, commentators scrambled about for answers, many of which remain unsatisfactory. Our reasons for oversight were twofold: lack of expectation and the outdated lens through which we examine events in the Middle East. On the first point, we have undoubtedly become accustomed to viewing the region through pessimistic eyes. In Egypt, our collective memories are dominated by the cycle of liberalisation then repression that has come to define public life. Mubarak’s reign has been no different: the first decade saw a period of relative political openness, but that was followed by the slow and steady strangulation of meaningful public activity. Given this fact, it is unsurprising that we were not willing to conceive of the ‘Tunisia effect’ spreading to Egypt. In a country where the right to assembly is increasingly stifled, a Million Man March would seem unthinkable. Yet hope is a powerful thing.

More importantly, our failure to spot the signs has exposed the flaws in the limited analytical framework through which we view politics. An examination of the traditional channels of mobilization would have revealed little. Political parties, for example, played no important role in the uprising. The past decade has been a particularly difficult time for opposition groups as Mubarak’s powerful security apparatus has systematically monitored, repressed and eliminated political activists. As a result, it has been increasingly difficult to articulate dissent through party channels. Even if a new movement did emerge to challenge the regime at the ballot box, it would struggle to succeed as it has become very difficult to form new parties. In order to register, movements must demonstrate that they offer something new to the electorate and that their manifesto is dissimilar that of any existing party. The other traditional avenue for mobilisation is civil society and again, this has played a limited role to date. Over the course of Mubarak’s reign, trade unions and social organisations have been faced increasingly tight laws, the most draconian of which was introduced last year. As with political parties, Egypt’s civil society has been rendered politically impotent by a regime that refuses to tolerate challenges to its authority.

So if it was our focus on traditional avenues that caused us to miss the revolutionary upsurge, where should we look? The answer lies online and in the streets. The protests did not erupt spontaneously on January 25th.  In fact, the past decade has seen a wave of small protests sweeping Egypt: examined in isolation, it may have appeared that they mattered little. A sit in here, a day of protest there. But the continuation of unconnected protests has provided the protests with one of their greatest strengths: diversity. As Dr Maha Abdulrahman has argued, the ‘pro-democracy’ movement represents the loosest of coalitions. Their aims are varied yet overlapping and range from the suspension of Egypt’s emergency law to the wholesale fall of the regime. Crucially, it is cross-ideological. People from all backgrounds and political persuasions have united outside the political sphere to demand change. Unlike in years gone by, it is difficult to divide them. The regime can attempt to buy off sections of the crowd but will inevitably remain outnumbered by the other groups it has not sought to appease. As the days wore on, one could have reasonably assumed that tensions would have become more apparent, but the overwhelming turnout in Tahrir Square shows that millions are still willing to downplay their differences whilst united against the regime.

The uprising has now entered a second phase as traditional actors encourage a move from mass demonstration to structured negotiation. Political parties have reemerged, offering their own candidates to represent the masses in Tahrir Square. The trade union movement has also been empowered. Today, more than 6000 workers went on strike in the vital port of Suez, a move that has the potential to cause huge disruption. But the fact still remains: traditional actors have only reemerged in the context of a new political arena created from outside. Although the uprising is far from over, one thing is clear: the events of the past fortnight have exposed the flaws in our traditional approaches to analyzing dissent. We have entered a new era of expectation in Egypt and we must alter our political lenses accordingly.

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