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The Power of Being Powerless in Egypt

September 24, 2014

As the regimes commitment to neoliberalism creates more and more powerless people, their collective power increases, argues a recent article. Photo: Hossam al-Hamalawy. Creative commons.

As the regimes commitment to neoliberalism creates more and more powerless people in institutional terms, their collective real power increases, argues a recent article by Girijesh Pant. Photo: Hossam al-Hamalawy. Creative commons.

It is the “power of being powerless” that allows the Egyptian protests to continue, even after they have drive two regime changes, claims an article in the most recent edition of the journal International Studies.

In “From the Vantage Point of Tahrir Square: Popular Uprising in the Arab World,” author Girijesh Pant argues that Tahrir Square is a powerful metaphor for the clash between two commitments that seem, in developing nations, to be increasingly opposed: democracy and neoliberalism.

Discontent with the economy stems from very real ecnomic inequalities, Pant argues. He points out that while it is true that the number of people living under $2 day fell during the Mubarak regime, prosperity peaked around the millennium; after that, the number of people living on less than $8 a day rose, while the number of those living on $10 a day or more shrank.

Pant argues that as Egypt adjusted its agricultural system to meet foreign exchange requirements, it went from a country that produced the majority of its own food to a country dependent on food (especially cereal grain) imports.

Poverty thus rose higher in the rural areas, producing a 70 percent increase in urbanization. And this rising tide of poor is overwhelmingly young.

In the face of this rising tide of young Egyptians with nothing to lose, we see the emergence of the power of the powerless:

The socio-political space created by Tahrir Square has invested a unique sense of power in the disempowered people without their being in power in institutional terms. It is this notion of power that deters the powerful military or even those who have institutionally acquired power through an electoral procedure to exercise and assert power in absolute terms.

Social media became a powerful tool both for building solidarity and for organizing agency and activity.

Pant argues that protest activities will not end until a regime appears that can offer a plausible narrative that combines economic reform and social justice. Efforts to achieve this with more of the same–that is, a return to neoliberal approaches to economic reform, or to the measures the Mubarak regime employed for resisting activism–will only exacerbate the protests.

Here’s the abstract:

The continuation of the uprising in the Arab world beyond the third year, despite a regime change, can be explained by locating it within the structural crisis of a neoliberal regime. The objective conditions of exclusion created a unique sense of power in being powerless, making it possible for diverse stakeholders to define a collective cause. This has been further reinforced by a sense of community fostered by electronic communication across the countries of the region and beyond. Thus, the street protests have garnered unprecedented support, giving it a global dimension. Ironically, the solidarity of the collective cause lost its cohesion in transforming itself into an institution. The attempt to construct a sectarian polity is failing due to massive opposition. Clearly, any attempt to impose a framework that does not have a representative character and which does not reflect popular aspirations in terms of a holistic social contract is not going to be acceptable to the protestors. Thus, the boundaries of public protest are expanding and expressions are changing but the sentiments are the same; it continues to be a struggle for inclusion, social justice and dignity.



Pant, Girijesh. 2014. From the Vantage Point of Tahrir Square: Popular Uprising in the Arab World. International Studies 49 (3-4): 331-350.


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