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Why I Got It Completely Wrong

February 11, 2011

There's a reason experts keep referring to these protests as "unprecedented"

In my course “Introduction to International Studies” at Miami University, we spend the first fifteen minutes of most classes talking about the news. When the Tunisian uprising reached its climax and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled, my students asked me whether I thought it was likely that this would occur elsewhere in the region, perhaps in Egypt.

“Almost certainly not,” I assured them. “Egypt is a very different country than Tunisia. There might well be protests, but they won’t reach the level of uprising we saw in Tunisia.”

I was completely wrong.

Let me make one thing clear: I stand by my answer. It was the right answer to give in that class to those students; it was just incorrect. Here’s why:

I am a social scientist. In answering questions I make hypotheses (educated guesses) based on the available data. I’m not alone; among scholars of Egypt, nobody saw this uprising coming, although once it was underway we all knew why it was happening.

Egypt has had frequent anti-Mubarak protests since the 1980s. These fall roughly into two categories: labor unrest and political reform movements. No protest on either side has been even moderately successful at bringing about economic or political reform by the regime.

Labor Protests

Labor unrest is driven primarily by the devastating effects on factory workers of the efforts to transform Egypt’s economy from a paternalistic socialist economy to a neoliberal economy. As in many other countries in Africa, Asia and South America where “structural adjustments” were imposed at the recommendation of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, there were enormous economic dislocations—lay-offs, inflation rising faster than wages, loss of benefits—that deeply affected the millions of people working for state-owned enterprises.

Nor did these workers ever see the supposed benefits of their sacrifices, because the regime never really instituted capitalism either. As I describe in my book,

most of what has been called “privatization” since then has not, in fact, put companies under the control of non–public sector actors or agencies; it has consisted of public offerings of stock (usually limited to no more than 10 percent of the company), opportunities for employees to buy into the company (again, usually limited to 10 percent), and sales of assets. Sixty-four percent of privatization transactions thus did not actually remove companies from government control but rather provided the government holding com­panies with much-needed infusions of cash … (Connected in Cairo, p. 177)

The Egyptian Government does not keep reliable public records of strikes and other labor protests. In 1999 I helped supervise a thesis in which a student went through a newspapers searching for tiny stories buried in the back pages of newspapers as a way to get a sense of how much labor unrest there was. The student found dozens of strikes every year, mostly consisting of individual factories, or a few hundred laborers at most. Collectively, worker unrest has included tens of thousands of workers.

Joel Beinen calculates that there have been more than 3000 strikes or protests over the past ten years involving 2 million workers.

Such labor protests were relatively easy to put down by the police apparatus, but because they failed to address root causes, the numbers of striking workers has continued to increase. For example, “textile workers took part in a wave of strikes from 2004 to 2007, with more than 7,000 laborers and their supporters participating in mass demonstrations to protest structural adjustments” (Connected in Cairo, p. 177-178). As always, these were eventually settled by a combination of promises of reform, and force.

Political Protest

Political unrest in Egypt has stemmed from many causes which are dealt with separately in this web site: corruption, the education crisis, rising poverty, failing infrastructure, pro-Israeli policies out of step with the will of the people, censorship, police brutality and the Emergency Law that gives police the authority to violate peoples’ constitutional rights.

There have been a growing number of political protests especially in the last decade. The emergence of the kafir (“enough”) movement, which was able to bring together protestors with different immediate motives under a common focus of ending Hosni Mubarak’s seemingly endless presidency and preventing it from turning into a dynastic succession, was especially influential.

I was in Cairo with my daughter in 2005 when the then largest protests to date were being held. “Enough” {kifaya) was on many peoples’ lips, and some thought revolution was around the corner.

But it wasn’t. Every protest is allowed to ferment for a period of time, then put down harshly by police with truncheons, tear gas and hoses and, if necessary, rubber bullets or even live ammunition.

Predictable Patterns

There is even a clear pattern to protest events. A murmur goes through a community such as a college campus or factory floor. Leaflets are distributed inviting people to a protest. The protesters gather, in the hundreds or thousands. Emboldened by their numbers, they march.

Meanwhile, plainclothes security police or baltigiyya (hired thugs) infiltrate the protesters. They urge violence, throw bricks through windows and harass and assault women (stories were told after the 2005 protests of women being pulled out of the crowd down an alleyway and raped, then being told it’s what they deserve for protesting).

The following day leaders call for more protests, but find a heavy police presence at various staging points. Protests occur in small pockets but are either put down by the police or dissolve on their own when they fail to achieve a critical mass.

Something Different

On the 25th of January, I had no idea something unprecedented was about to happen. Indeed, expect for the unexpectedly high turnout of 20,000 protesters, the sequence of events followed the standard pattern, with the police moving in at around 1am to clear Tahrir Square.

The next day, as predicted, the police closed off Tahrir Square and set out after the pockets of protest that popped up around the city.

Then events left the script. There were far more pockets of protest than anyone would have expected. The numbers of these protesters was greater than one would predicted from past events. And emboldened by their numbers, the protesters regrouped.

After that it was one surprise after another. The creativity, persistence and shrewdness of the protesters in the face of every obstacle has left me speechless. Each time I have felt sure the uprising was doomed–especially the first week–they have proven me wrong.

So now I tell my students, “Who can guess how this will turn out? Watch and learn…”

Like me, Nina knows what’s going on but not what is going to happen next:

For More Information:

Beinin, Joel. 2007. The Militancy of Mahalla al-Kubra. Middle East Report Online, Sept. 29.

Page, John. 2001. Getting Ready for Globalization: A New Privatization Strategy for the Middle East? In State-Owned Enterprises in the Middle East and North Africa: Privatization, Performance and Reform, ed. Merih Celasun. Pp. 63–88. London: Routledge.

Posusney, Marsha Pripstein. 1997. Labor and the State in Egypt: Workers, Unions, and Economic Reconstruction. New York: Columbia University Press.

Pripstein, Marsha. 1995. Egypt’s New Labor Law Removes Worker Provisions. Middle East Report 194–195: 52–53, 64.

Toth, James. 1999. Rural Labor Movements in Egypt and Their Impact on the State, 1961–1992. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Striking Egyptian Workers Fuel the Uprising After 10 Years of Labor Organizing. Democracy Now.  (includes interview with Joel Beinin)

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