This was written a few weeks ago as the first part of a much larger project. I have yet to get around to addressing the third part. So I am publishing this for the most part as it was written. The material and some of the links may seem dated at this point, but I want to get the conclusion out there.
Over the last three weeks, I have started writing several times. Unfortunately, I’ve found it impossible to focus on anything other than following the unfolding minutia and so have been unable to get very far. Now that the immediacy of the uprising has ended with a military coup, perhaps it is time to join the rush to comment without critical distance on the antecedents to the 25 January mass uprising, the challenges to its stated aspirations and outlooks for the future.
A lot has been written over the last couple of weeks (Sarah Carr, Jack Shenker) as well as long before the January 2011 Arab uprisings about all of the efforts undertaken and progress made over the last decade or so. Even a cumulative reading of the most recent writing leaves some linkages unmentioned. I emphasize the role of the decade long process of youth organization and politicization.
There are many factors that have led us to this point and even with critical distance it will be difficult to unravel a straight forward narrative. There are so many intertwined strands. The socioeconomic factors are key as is the way in which the regime has increasingly relied on force and corruption to maintain itself, alienating pretty much the entire population, including (as was evident by their turnout in the uprising) the elite. At various points external factors have played a role, including regional events (I touch upon the Intifada and the invasion of Iraq) that served to galvanize opposition, and international pressure (which I don’t mention any further) that helped open up politics for a crucial moment around 2004-05 creating a wedge for the opposition and media that proved impossible to close. The bulk of this narrative, however, is centered on youth, attempting to tease out the decade-long building of their capacity and political consciousness.
Egypt observers have been talking about a revolution for at least a decade, if not longer. Time and again predictions were made of its imminence. A large part of the focus was on all the reasons for explaining the lack of a revolution: cultural relativist arguments such as that the Egyptians are a quiet, humble, accepting people; that they’ve been ruled by dictators for millennia; social explanations such as patriarchic nature of society or the remnants of tribalism; socioeconomic ones such as that the social networks guarantee that no one is starving; political ones about the lack of a rallying point in the post-Camp David era; and all sorts of other drivel that we deluded ourselves into thinking made sense. It was hard to not fall into this trap. After all, it seemed like Egypt was defying all the odds. Evidently, all of the pieces were not yet in place.
Perhaps we needed the restarting of the stalled neoliberal, Washington consensus-dictated structural adjustment “reform” programs. Perhaps we needed Gamal to enter stage right with his coterie of corrupt capitalists that would over the course of only a few years accelerate the siphoning off of massive amounts of Egyptian wealth into their pockets (not to mention Swiss bank accounts, New York investment funds and London properties). While the process of crony capitalism had been unfolding since Sadat’s Infitah, maybe the army officers that were the center of this still had some degree of pride in their nation and if not little modesty, then at least a sense that they were in fact benefiting disproportionately and unfairly. And so, while no doubt amassing significant wealth, their capitalism was still Egypt-centered and the benefits they derived relatively inconspicuous.
In any case, Gamal’s rise to power in the NDP and his technocrat/capitalist entourage made sure that the benefits were conspicuous. Over the course of the last decade, and particularly since 2004, the regime rapidly deregulated the economy, gradually tried to lift subsidies, sold off not only banks and large parts of the public sector (to themselves it seems), but practically gave away the public land on which the grotesquely designed and grossly inequitable and insanely unsustainable gated golf-courses, megamalls and cookie-cutter beach resorts would be built for the uber-rich. Aside from the fact that this US-imported de-urbanization has proven to be a great folly even in parts of the US where there isn’t a looming water catastrophe, if nothing else it served to underscore the massive societal class divisions that were being exacerbated by the neoliberal policies, where the rich got richer and the poor poorer, a pattern that has followed IMF interventions across the globe starting with Latin America in the seventies and eighties. The change was so rapid that it did not take any political economic schooling to understand; everyone could see what was happening and knew why.
One key point that I think differentiated the new crony capitalists was the audacity and sense of entitlement with which they ruled. A friend at Yale’s School of Management has related the story of one of the simulations they took part in. The (market) simulation was rigged by the organizers to favor a certain group so that if they won, the odds of their continuing to win were much higher. He tells me that, while the disadvantaged groups caught on to this fact, those who were winning (himself included) had the conviction that they were just shrewder than the rest.
There is little reason to elaborate further. The socioeconomic drivers had long been in place but were accelerated and put on prominent display by the Gamal and Ezz-led, Nazif-managed crony capitalist neoliberalization of the economy.
The lore surrounding the rise of activism over the last decade has by now become in some senses mystified. Ask a dozen activists about it and you will get a dozen answers. But some themes are consistent:
- The Second Intifada is thought to have been the first key event. It brought many sympathizers out into the streets and on to the campuses. Perhaps key for the future of activism was the committee for the assistance of Palestine (I may be getting exact name wrong, but the idea was to gather and deliver in kind donations) which served as the first point of coordination and communication among diverse groups. Another oft-quoted benefit was that the older activists from the seventies were reconnected, in some cases for the first time in decades.
- The March 2003 invasion of Iraq witnessed massive outpourings across the region. In Cairo protesters from AUC, Cairo University and beyond converged upon Tahrir in the first massive mobilization in decades. Again, this was a crucial platform for coordination among old and new activists.
Kifaya and the Rise of the Youth
These two key events sowed the seeds of what was to become Kifaya, the umbrella group formed in late 2004 to reject any further terms for Mubarak or his son. Much has been written about the rise and fall of this group, but I would like to emphasize the role of the so called Kifaya youth (shabab min agal il taghyeer, youth for change). The people involved included youth from the Muslim Brotherhood, the old and new parties, the revolutionary socialists (who by then had been operating for several years on campuses) as well as youth that previously had little or no political affiliation. It included street organizers, campus activists and perhaps critically, the tech-savvy vanguard of the internet, some of who were already politicized and others for whom politics was a new venture.
As the spring of 2005 progressed, cracks began to appear between the youth and what they often derogatorily called the “ties” (as in the suits), with the youth agitating for a more active and aggressive role than the veterans were willing to sanction. No doubt there was the idealism and gung-ho spirit that comes with youth at play.
But in retrospect, there was something else going on. Youth were learning (not always successfully) to debate, organize and, crucially, to unleash their creativity in circumventing the regime. Often with support and advice from the veterans (but certainly not always), they developed ways in which to make large protests more orderly as well as ways in which to keep the regime unbalanced. For example, there were the oxymoronic “secret protests” in which only a handful of people would know the actual pre-scouted location (usually in popular quarters). They would ensure that others appeared nearby, would guide them to the location at which point a seemingly spontaneous protest would erupt, march through a marketplace and then just as suddenly disperse some thirty minutes later.
Over the years, youth have learned from their counterparts abroad as well. I’m not talking about the Western money poured into “training” programs on citizenship and democracy. I’m sure they’ve had some value, but more crucial has been learning from fellow activists and dissenters.
Blogs and the Internet
While I have long been disdainful of the whole facebook-activism, twitter-revolution sensationalism (read this on the difference between strong and weak ties; and this for a very interesting take on the role of social media), I have maintained that at least from a theoretical perspective: social media, the internet and, more broadly, the still unfolding ICT revolution, offer the possibility of a similar socio-political revolutionary impact to that of the Gutenberg press. The spread of information and ideas in places where there has historically been a monopoly on the Truth (to carry the analogy, akin to that of the medieval Church), could have (and arguably is having) significant impacts on society.
To return to the point, it was, naturally, the youth that took to the emerging blogs and internet most readily. It can be argued that the internet not only created a space for debate and organizing but also made it possible for secular leftists and Islamists to communicate and cooperate with respect for each other despite the fact that their leaders could not. (Though, to be fair, the trend was started offline as early as a decade earlier by the revolutionary socialists). This is not to ignore the conflicts, but there was definitely something happening here in terms of laying the groundwork for intelligent, respectful dialog.
For all the challenges, the petty squabbling and the subsequent disintegration of Kifaya as an institution (if it ever was that), the youth were building networks, learning and creating a body of experience about dissent, and developing means of communication that would prove crucial building blocks. But this group of several hundred on- and offline activists’ efforts had remained frustrated for many years. The running sardonic joke was that protests were a good excuse to meet up with people you don’t see day to day. There were other important moments along the way that I am aware I am glossing over, such as the judges that spoke out against the fraudulent 2005 parliamentary elections and the campaign to support them; the Israeli attacks on Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008-09). But, none of this gained much traction beyond a core group. And, though there is no way to test this, I would argue that had Tunisia happened a year earlier, Egypt may not have had its uprising. So, what has changed over the last year?
Mohamed El Bardie
While there is much ambivalence surrounding his role and his suitability as a leader in Egypt, I find it hard to dismiss the evidence that the appearance of an educated, successful, internationalist, untainted by the necessary corruption of making a name over the last few decades and bolstered by the prestige of standing up to the Bush administration and a Nobel Peace prize to boot has drawn in a certain segment of young people: the educated, foreign-language speaking, usually private school educated and private sector employed, ambitious middle and especially upper middle class. While El Baradie may have little street cred, his organization nevertheless did garner a million signatures to their agenda for change and, perhaps more importantly, drew in a previously unpoliticized, yet critical, segment of society.
We are all Khalid Said
The role of Khalid Said’s unfortunate though all too common death at the hands of Egypt’s notoriously thuggish police forces is perhaps more evident. Again, it drew in a large number of previously apolitical middle class youth. One of the challenges that activists have long struggled with is the popular perception, particularly among the middle classes, that if you kept your head low, you could avoid the excesses of the police. But here was a random kid in his twenties with no Islamist or political links. The publicity that surrounded Khalid Said’s murder as well as the arrogant impunity with which the regime managed the fallout was a wake-up call.
A call facilitated, no doubt, by the astute manner in which the support campaign, “We are all Khalid Said,” was managed. By framing the reaction in an apolitical manner, it was possible to mobilize thousands of youth to stand in silent remembrance of the victim of police violence without linking the issue to the larger institutional and systemic issues. It is critical to note that here, again, we see the innovation of youth circumvention of the regime, through, for example calling for people to not communicate, carry banners or stand in groups, technically neutralizing the public assembly restrictions of emergency law.
I have purposefully put off discussing the 6th of April movement to the end of this youth section. Their politics and role have been the subject of much contention. In response to a call by Mahalla workers for a strike in April 2008, a group of youth formed a facebook group in the hopes of rallying around this labor action to link it to broader political issues. The first time around, they managed to keep people at home (most likely out of fear of dealing with the clashes), but by 2009 the irrelevance which veteran activists had insisted upon had become apparent. While I think their intentions were admirable, the crux of their failure was that they had not yet built any real networks with labor. And it is these real-life networks that are key.
On the back of the churning of 2004-05, 2006 witnessed the emergence and spread of labor activism. Hossam el Hamalawy has been tracking this for years and his blog is an archive of much (though I doubt even he would claim most) of the progress over the last few years. (Until this last week, their crowning victory was the April 2009 establishment of the first free union in decades). While initially sporadic and focused on narrow factory issues, it was not long before workers began to link their concerns with those of the system at large including regional issues.
Rather than belabor the matter, I will defer to Hossam and other documenters of the labor movement, save to make two points. First, that, again, like the youth this was a long term process of politicization and organization that has been unfolding for over a decade.
Second, and this is a critical point that is missed in most of the media coverage, in all likelihood it was the mass labor strikes in the second week of February that tipped the balance of the uprising and shook the regime. This is not to discredit the protesters on the street, but while the regime might have imagined it could weather the street protest storm, I think the powers that be realized that they had a lot more to fear from the factory floor and street joining forces, especially when the labor movement has already demonstrated such a strong capacity for organization.
Why this is all so important is to dispel some of the mystification of the January 25 seemingly spontaneous mass uprising. The narrative for much of the last three weeks has been that a handful of anonymous online activists issued a call on facebook to which tens of thousands of people responded. The details are still emerging, but this is clearly not an accurate depiction of what happened.
In fact, a lot more organizing went into it than had been presumed as depicted by this WSJ article and the previously cited Shekner post. To summarize: A diverse group of organizers had been meeting for at least a couple of weeks (no doubt building on years of networking). They realized they had to overwhelm the security apparatus and spread them thinly – no easy task with over 1.2 million people in the security apparatus. Twenty sites were announced. But this was not enough: A 21st site, in the popular district of Bulaq al-Dakrour was kept secret. As outlined above, this was not an innovation; it was the incorporation of a tactic used at least as far back as 2005. Again, their years of experience meant that they knew they had to work on timing, which they empirically measured and synchronized. In the end, it was this secret group that finally broke into Tahrir.
By the time the regime realized the magnitude of what had just happened, it was too late. The crack in the fear barrier that was Tunisia had been blown wide open by the people on the street. I say this with caution as somebody that has not had the privilege of being on the ground: It seems to me that the reaction on the ground was a little too good to have been random and spontaneous. I have little doubt that the medical assistance (much as the legal assistance) was spearheaded by long-time activists. It also seems as though the football ultras played a significant role alongside Muslim Brotherhood youth at some of the most critically existential moments for the uprising. Their years of coordination came in handy.
This does not detract from all of the people that stepped up, but the point I am trying to drive home is this: It took a decade of capacity building to get where we are today. Despite all the odds and a lack of any institutional locus, the dedicated activists (though I would like to think that the on-and-offers like me have also contributed somehow) have consciously (and sometimes not so consciously) developed the infrastructure and capacity for dissent against an authoritarian regime.
The question now is: do we have the capacity to build a nation, also against all odds?