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The Best Story of the Egyptian Uprisings So Far

April 12, 2011

Protest in Tahrir. Photo by Abdelrahman Mostafa.

This is the best account of Egypt’s uprisings so far. I’m referring to a marvelous essay by Mona El-Gobashy, a political scientist at Barnard College, “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution” (okay, it’s not a title to grab lay readers, hence this shout out) appeared in the latest issue of Middle East Review and is available for free from the Middle East Research and Information Project.

El-Gobashy pulls together all the elements I and other peoplehave blogged about. She ties it all together with a narrative describing how a series of cultural and situational factors came together to allow the uprising. At times, she offers detailed, gripping accounts of events, drawn from journalists’ narratives and interviews with key players.

But these are always at the service of a model based on how three different “uprising infrastructures” came together, as a result of multiple contingent actions. El-Gobashy argues that Egypt has always had three distinct “subcultures of protest” each with its own mobilizing structures and repertoire of tactics:

  1. Workplace protest (collective action by industrial laborers, civil servants, students and trade practitioners such as auto mechanics and gold traders).
  2. Neighborhood protest (protests by Copts, Sinai Bedouins and farmers organized along residential lines)
  3. Associational protest (demonstrations by professional associations  and by social movements)

What happened, says El-Gobashy, was that circumstances unforseen by either the regime or the protesters, allowed these three subcultures of protest to operate simultaneously and in conjunction with one another.

The author recognizes that Egypt was not outwardly strong, rotten inside. On the contrary, it was a strong state that had successfully weathered so many protests that no one, including the protesters, had any idea what was going to happen.

Egypt’s momentous uprising did not happen because Egyptians willed it into being. It happened because there was a sudden change in the balance of resources between rulers and ruled. Mubarak’s structures of dominion were thought to be foolproof, and for 30 years they were. What shifted the balance away from the regime were four continuous days of street fighting, January 25–28, that pitted the people against police all over the country. That battle converted a familiar, predictable episode into a revolutionary situation.

and

For a capable autocrat like Mubarak, large protests are no cause for anxiety. The fears are diffusion and linkage. Indeed, the diffusion of collective action in time and space emboldened Egyptians, signaling the unwillingness or incapacity of the coercive apparatus to suppress demonstrations. The simultaneity of protests across very different locations, especially the filling of streets in neighborhoods entirely unused to such processions, revised citizens’ calculations of what was possible and reduced uncertainty about the consequences of action. The second fear is the coordination between the three organizational infrastructures of protest. Indeed, the state security directorate existed to frustrate precisely this bridge building. It had done so quite successfully with the April 6, 2008 general strike, and had a stellar track record in branding each sector of dissent with a different label: Associational protest was “political,” but workplace and neighborhood protest was “economic.”

It ends with acknowledgment of the contingent nature of the ongoing revolution:

At press time, Egypt’s revolution is still in full swing. It must be expected, however, that the revolution will undergo phases of setback, real or apparent. The apparatus of coercion, indeed, has been quickly rehabilitated and is gingerly reinserting itself into civilian life. But on what terms? For Egypt’s revolutionary situation to lead to a revolutionary outcome, existing structures of rule must be transformed. Citizens must be free to choose their presidents, governors, parliamentarians, faculty deans and village mayors, their trade union, student, and professional association leaders. They must have a binding say in the economic decisions that affect their lives. The coming years will reveal how much of that will happen and how. Just as it provided an archetype of durable authoritarian rule, perhaps Egypt is now making a model of revolution.

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