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New Civilities in the Egyptian Uprising

June 19, 2012

Unlike earlier protests, which were about economic issues, particularly changes in food subsidies, the current uprisings were about restoring civil dignity argues Salwa Ismail.

The largest protests and demonstrations before the current revolution in Egypt had been bread riots, carried out mainly by members of the lower classes and poverty-stricken people whose main concern was the rising price of food threatening them with starvation.  The 2011 Egyptian uprising was about something much deeper–seeking to reclaim the dignity and character of an entire nation.

That’s one of the central points made by Salwa Ismail in her paper “Civilities, Subjectivities, and Collective Action: Preliminary Reflections in Light of the Egyptian Revolution” published in Third World Quarterly.

The article was one of two by Ismail in a special issue on “civility“–the forms of “mutual deference” (Boyd 2004) and “self-restraint” (Salvatore 2011) that allows particular forms of active citizenship to come into play–just at the time that the ways civility is constructed is being radically transformed in the face of the revolution

Ismail looks at how Egyptian “national character”–as expressed in the ways people interact with one another and the agents of the state–changed in light of the revolution.  She describes how, for example, in the aftermath of the police being called off the streets in the first few days of the Revolution, ordinary Egyptians took it upon themselves to, among other things, keep the streets clean, form public protection committees, and regulate traffic.

She sees these actions as the first signs of a new form of citizenship among the Egyptian population, which had not been in evidence prior to the revolution.  These acts were extraordinary in what they symbolized: for the first time, the people of Egypt were taking the matters of their country into their own hands, and acting as if they did in fact have a say in how the country was run.

Though these acts were small in nature, they helped the Egyptian people reclaim their country from the corrupt governmental apparatus of Hosni Mubarak.  Ismail writes that before the revolution, the terms “ihana” and “mahana” (humiliation) were the two main terms that Egyptians would use to describe their interactions with governmental agents, most often the police.  As a result, there was almost no civic identity in the country.  Writes Ismail:

Youths in popular neighborhoods in Cairo viewed their humiliation by police as undermining their self identification as sons of the country–a subjectivity that is enabled by being able to act freely.

This reclamation of national dignity was prominently commented on during the uprising and its immediate aftermath, and is illustrated here. She notes that groups that had been previously marginalized, such as workers, students, unemployed youth, and others participated in the revolution.

Another prominent theme in Ismail’s article concerns the methods through which the revolution manifested itself.  Because the current revolution was not primarily about the removal of food subsidies, like prior revolts, itchose different strategies and targets.  She writes:

At one level the widespread engagement against government and the goal of bringing down the regime and system…could be described as a revolution for dignity.  As such, it makes sense that the first targets of the anti-regime protestors were, for the most part, police stations.

That is, since the Egyptian populace’s main interaction with the regime usually came about in the form of police activity, and the feeling of humiliation that it caused many Egyptians was palpable, these agents became the main target of the uprising.

By Jack Nelson and Mark Allen Peterson


Boyd, Richard. 2004.  Uncivil Society: The Perils of Pluralism and the Making of Modern Liberalism. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ismail, Salwa. 2011. Authoritarian Government, Neoliberalism and Everyday Civilities in Egypt. Third World Quarterly, 32 (5): 845 – 862.

Ismail, Salwa. 2011. ‘Civilities, Subjectivities and Collective Action: Preliminary Reflections in light of the Egyptian Revolution.’ Third World Quarterly, 32 (5): 989-995.

Salvatore, Armando. 2011. Civility: Between Disciplined Interaction and Local/Translocal Connectedness. Third World Quarterly 32(5): 807 – 825

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