The Egyptian uprising that began on January 25 has been rightly celebrated as a momentous event. Eighteen continuous days of mass protests forced the end of Hosni Mubarak’s three decades of strongman rule.
A revolution is inherently romantic, so it’s no surprise that Egypt’s has inspired exceptional narratives. Journalists saw something fundamentally novel in the eighteen days and the subsequent small-scale protests—“a new culture of street demonstrations,” said USA Today. The uprising became the defining event of Egyptian politics, a turning point separating before and after. Before, a brutal dictatorship maintained fear and silence. After, liberated citizens poured into the streets to exercise their freedom.
Against this temptation to cast the uprising as a watershed is the equally attractive idea that Egypt was ripe for revolt. In this telling, various public ills—rising food prices, unemployment, government corruption—are strung together into a neat chain that leads inexorably to social explosion.
But neither story does the revolution justice. The first erases the uprising’s pre-history; the second overdoses on the role of the past. Both conceal the very real contingency of the event, neither inevitable nor entirely alien to Egyptian politics.
Egypt’s was no cartoon dictatorship that indiscriminately banned protests. For at least a decade before Mubarak’s ouster, Egyptians were doing their politics outdoors. Citizens assembled daily on highways, in factory courtyards, and in public squares to rally against their unrepresentative government. Mubarak’s regime responded with a million-man police force that alternately cajoled and crushed the demonstrators. The goal was not to ban protests, but to obstruct any attempt to unify different groups and prevent sympathetic bystanders joining them.
Egypt’s uprising happened when three distinct currents of protest—labor, professional, and popular—finally converged. That convergence transformed a routine political demonstration calling for reforms into a nationwide cry for regime change. Together, the protesters defeated a formidable police force and brought down a tenacious president. Now they are shaping the politics of post-revolutionary Egypt, resisting the military rulers’ efforts to take them off the streets.
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For years before the revolution, newspapers competed to cover demonstrations taking place every day, all over the country. Editors sent energetic reporters to protest-heavy universities and labor strongholds. Even the government-owned press rode the bandwagon. State newspaper Ruz al-Yusuf designated 2007 “The Year of the Sit-in,” devoting its entire year-in-review issue to the hundreds of demonstrations big and small that had taken place in the previous twelve months. Talk-show hosts offered protesters a national soapbox. Students, nurses, farmers, workers, Copts, Bedouins, and dissident parliamentarians all got their fifteen minutes of fame.
Raw numbers document the remarkable increase in protests in the decade before the uprising. The Land Center for Human Rights, an Egyptian human rights organization, has shown a nearly fivefold increase in worker agitation between 2000 and 2008, from 135 protests in 2000 to 609 in 2008. Even the normally staid civil service joined in. In a preview of Tahrir Square, 55,000 property tax collectors launched a well-organized eleven-day strike and sit-in in 2007 that captured the public imagination and inspired protests among postal workers and education administrators.
But labor protests tell only a third of the story. Professional associations have a long history of street politics in Egypt; students, lawyers, journalists, and engineers are especially politics-prone. In 2000 they made common cause with pro-Palestine social movements and four years later gained international exposure with the emergence of the pro-democracy Kifaya (Enough) Movement, a coalition of professionals and activists that organized weekly demonstrations in Cairo against Mubarak’s rule. In 2006, groups organized weekly protests to support reformist judges holding a sit-in for judicial independence. In another preview of Tahrir, the sit-in garnered international sympathy; the Christian Science Monitor ran an editorial headlined, “All rise for the judges of Egypt.”
Even more frequent than labor and white-collar demonstrations are protests by neighborhood and town residents. The press typically labels the protests “rioting.” But this type of action has a long history in Egypt and elsewhere, especially where citizens lack access to professional organizations or labor unions. Historian E. P. Thompson described one such riot in eighteenth-century England as “a highly complex form of direct popular action, disciplined and with clear objectives.” A close look at the hundreds of events in Egypt reveals a pattern of similarly focused popular action, always targeting concrete government policies and personnel.
Take the road blockade, a common tactic used to gain the attention of negligent authorities. In July 2007, residents of the fishing town of Borg al-Borollos were fed up with a chronic shortage of potable water and brought traffic to a standstill for twelve hours on the major highway abutting the town. The residents forced a response from the governor and spurred similar actions in other water-starved towns. A year later they used the same strategy to protest the lifting of subsidies on flour rations. And in 2010 they shut down the highway again to protest parliamentary elections rigged by the government against their chosen candidate. Each time, reporters descended on the town to profile its feisty residents and pelt the un-elected governor with hardball questions.
Pundits have gone to great lengths to classify labor protests as economic, white-collar protests as political, and neighborhood protests as insignificant. But the labels mask the similarities among the three currents: citizens fill streets to organize pressure on an unrepresentative, repressive state. To be sure, journalists demonstrating to lift prison sentences use different rhetoric and methods than residents demanding services or workers struggling for fairer labor conditions. Yet the logic is the same, as protesters aim to induce authorities to bargain. The demonstration can end in government concessions, stalemate, or arrests and beatings. Regardless of the outcome, the core objective is to reach policymakers in the absence of other functioning channels of organized pressure
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The uprising started as a routine demonstration organized by social movements, turned into an insurrection, and, when labor groups joined in, culminated in a broad-based rebellion. Though it’s been portrayed as an eighteen-day standoff between Tahrir Square and Hosni Mubarak, the uprising was effective because of its national reach, synchronizing the entire country in revolution. Tahrir was the telegenic epicenter, but demonstrations were held in teeming neighborhoods, shop floors, and boulevards all over Egypt.
Organizers hoped to increase turnout by demonstrating on National Police Day, January 25. The holiday presented an opportunity to protest police brutality, an affliction that organizers knew Egyptians would rally around. Rather than centralize the protest in front of familiar landmarks such as Parliament or the High Court, the organizers picked several less typical neighborhoods. They hoped to prevent riot troops arriving first in the usual spots and tightly corralling demonstrators, a police measure that had crippled earlier protests.
This “capillary” strategy worked. Instead of the standard scenario in which several hundred Cairo activists yell slogans and then go home, a wide cross-section of Egyptians streamed out of their homes. Unexpected scenes of thousands marching hinted that this was no ordinary opposition protest, especially given the charged political climate in the wake of Egypt’s rigged parliamentary elections and the toppling of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. As the day wore on, the size of the marches grew. Bystanders enthusiastically took up the crowds’ slogan, “Bread! Freedom! Social Justice!”
As news spread of fierce clashes with police in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Dar al-Salam and the killing of two protesters by police in Suez, rage gripped the demonstrators in Cairo. A loosely coordinated decision was made to head to Tahrir Square, where thousands of people congregated despite the tear gas and rubber rounds. By nightfall, as police intensified their attempts to rout the protesters from the square, the slogan changed to the one coined by the Tunisians, “The people want to overthrow the regime!”
Organized by the Cairo political class, the January 25 demonstration soon took on the character of a popular insurrection. Long-standing grievances against the state from every corner of Egypt fueled the revolt. Armed with intimate knowledge of neighborhood geography, residents sustained a war of attrition with police. As in other revolutionary situations, police violence catalyzed further popular mobilization. Solemn funeral processions for those killed in Suez sparked fierce anti-regime demonstrations all over the country. On day three of the unrest, the police killed a young Bedouin protester in North Sinai, hastening the planning of a national “Friday of Rage.”
By sundown on Friday, January 28, after bloody battles and hundreds more dead, an outnumbered and defeated police force retreated, and army tanks rolled through the streets to jubilant cries. (The army’s popularity rests on its reputation for professionalism. The same can’t be said for the corrupt police force that daily extorts and brutalizes citizens.) The people had completely taken over Tahrir Square and sites of state power in the provinces. Ninety-nine police stations and 3,000 police trucks stood burned, and provincial capital buildings were under siege. An indelible image of the regime’s defeat circulated around the world: black clouds wafting up from the torched headquarters of Mubarak’s party headquarters in Cairo.
Egypt settled into a revolutionary rhythm. The neighborhood groups that had defeated the police were instantly repurposed into citizen governance committees. In cosmopolitan centers and small towns alike, bands of young men directed traffic and set up checkpoints to search cars for weapons looted from the stormed police stations. In the northern province of Kafr al-Shaykh, youth committees encircled banks and government buildings to fend off looters. In the city of Banha, near Cairo, citizens set up a human chain around the prison to prevent escapes.
Residents and soldiers took control in the flash-point province of Suez, where thirteen more people had died on January 28. Citizen patrols arrested outlaws and handed them over to military police. All over the country, popular committees regulated the market, punishing price-gouging shopkeepers and preventing hoarding at bakeries. With popular rule carrying the day, residents pressured local officials, who were now unable to call on police to repress the people’s demands. Residents of Gurna, in Upper Egypt, held the un-elected mayor hostage for six hours, demanding that he rescind all unjust fees and decrees. In the Cairo shantytown of Qalaat al-Kabsh, residents denounced state media for smearing them as violent rabble who had destroyed public property. They summoned the media to witness their meeting with the local police chief, who hailed the residents for shielding the neighborhood from looters.
Meanwhile, at the once-commanding heights of state power, Mubarak scrambled to resuscitate his political apparatus. For 30 years, he was a paragon of resilient authoritarianism, his hold on Egypt never in doubt. Now, in less than one week, thousands of unarmed citizens had broken his coercion machine and shown a remarkable facility for self-governance. Mubarak tried to bargain, first reshuffling his cabinet and, when that failed, promising not to run for a sixth term in September elections. With the second concession, he nearly succeeded in dividing the gathering consensus that he must go immediately. But when government-organized attackers armed with knives and guns invaded Tahrir Square on horseback, public opinion returned permanently to the opposition, and the street demonstrations regained momentum.
With the police incapacitated, the three currents of protest hit the regime simultaneously. Youth groups and social movements selected Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays for mass demonstrations. On those days, Tahrir Square filled with demonstrators under giant banners and flags, and tens of thousands marched in all major cities, chanting “We won’t go! He must go!” But the streets were not empty the rest of the week. Residents continued their familiar mode of direct action to gain the attention of officials, but in doing so amid the national protests, they threatened to spread local unrest even further and cripple the workings of government. In several provinces, shantytown residents protested to demand the housing units long promised them by local authorities, in one instance blockading a major highway. Then, on day fourteen, blue-collar workers and civil servants started protesting in earnest, calling for higher wages and fairer working conditions.
The regime hastened to make further concessions. By tailoring an offering to each protest group, it hoped to split the mass movement into political and economic factions. For the social movements and political activists, the regime promised to loosen its stranglehold on political life by amending five unpopular constitutional articles. For labor and the poor, it approved a 15 percent raise in salaries and pensions. Ministers and governors announced plentiful job opportunities and newly available housing units. But the divide-and-rule strategy failed.
On February 9 and 10, ten years of protest climaxed in 48 hours of civil disobedience on a national scale. A commander in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) now ruling Egypt told the Washington Post, “On February 10, there were demonstrations that amounted to millions of people all over the country.” In Cairo protesters spilled out from the Square and filled the streets surrounding Parliament and other major government buildings. Strikes by industrial labor and civil servants snowballed; one newspaper counted 65 protests that day. The demonstrations hit every government sector, including transport, ports, communications, education, energy, agriculture, and the state-owned press. And residents escalated their direct action. In Port Said, 5,000 shantytown dwellers camped in front of the governor’s headquarters demanding information on their applications for public housing. When the governor refused to respond, they stormed the building, dragged its fancy furnishings outside, and set them ablaze along with the governor’s Mercedes-Benz.
That evening, in his last speech, Mubarak was defiant. He angrily insisted that he would remain in power until September. The next day, hundreds of thousands poured out of their homes and marched for each province’s version of Tahrir Square, chanting “Mubarak, wake up! Today your time is up!” In Suez the three protest currents flowed into the streets in one 50,000-strong procession. Opposition politicians fronted the protests along with the mothers of 21 Suez residents killed in the uprising, hoisting banners with the names and photos of their departed sons. Behind them were thousands of local factory workers in the strategic Gulf of Suez sector. The march came to a halt in front of the provincial capital building, but demonstrators were blocked from entering by barbed wire. Acceding to the request of the people, troops hung the banners on the façade of the capital. Further afield, young men blockaded the highway leading to the Red Sea resorts, to prevent access by resort owners who were members of Mubarak’s army.
By nightfall on February 11, military commanders had jostled Mubarak out of power and assumed leadership until the parliamentary and presidential elections in late 2011 and early 2012.
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Even with Mubarak gone, protesters continued doing politics in the streets. They understood that toppling the president was only the first act in a prolonged revolutionary drama to transform the mammoth Egyptian state.
The youth groups and social movements that had organized the January 25 demonstration resolved to hold mass protests every Friday in Tahrir Square and at landmarks throughout the provinces. Thus every workweek ended with the nation’s attention turned to burning public issues. On Friday February 25, thousands turned out to demand the resignation of Prime Minister and Mubarak crony Ahmed Shafiq. Shafiq resigned days later, and his successor Essam Sharaf sought the blessing of the Tahrir crowds the following Friday.
In fact, protests by both blue- and white-collar workers spiked after the revolution. Rights groups counted more than 500 strikes and sit-ins from February to June 2011. Protesters made the same demands they had before: higher wages, better working conditions, and a purge of Mubarak-aligned managers, some of whom continued to cling to power.
Local protests resumed their pre-revolutionary tempo. Ordinary citizens went after provincial governors, the mini-Mubaraks who had taxed them mercilessly for decades. Shantytown residents camped in front of public landmarks, embarrassing officials into action. Minority communities staked their claims: Copts defied their pope’s entreaties and staged large protests demanding state protection against church burnings, and Sinai Bedouins continued blockading the highway to demand jobs and an end to police brutality.
Egypt’s interim military rulers immediately acted to contain the eruption of popular sovereignty. Like Mubarak’s police, they sought to cut the links between the three protest currents. Opinion-makers and government officials regularly dismissed labor and residential protests as “sectoral” demonstrations, portraying them as selfish grabs by citizens for scarce resources in a beleaguered economy. SCAF communiqués repeatedly lauded the “youth revolution” while condemning worker strikes as counterproductive. In March the SCAF criminalized strikes in both public- and private-sector establishments, with a penalty of up to one year imprisonment and a maximum fine of $84,000. Five workers were convicted under the new law, receiving one-year suspended sentences.
The offensive worked for a spell, fostering the general public’s fatigue with disruptive street politics. But two incidents shifted the balance back in favor of protest. In Cairo violent clashes between police and families of those killed during the uprising resulted in 1,140 injured, rekindling public outrage at police brutality. And in Suez province, families of the protesters who died blocked a major highway to protest a court order releasing on bail police officers charged with killing unarmed protesters during the uprising.
The injustice felt by protesters’ families inspired a new national consensus. On July 8 the “second wave” of the revolution began. Tens of thousands congregated in Tahrir Square and the provinces and began a three-week sit-in to demand far-reaching changes: the purge of Mubarak-era officials from state institutions, especially the police; speedier prosecution of Mubarak and his people; an increase in the minimum wage and a new state budget favoring the poor; repeal of the anti-strike law; an end to trials of thousands of civilians before military tribunals; and proper reparations for the families of those killed.
The protesters overtook elite debates about the sequencing of elections and drafting of a new constitution. In the street the revolution had not yet achieved its goals. The moment brought into the open the tension at the core of the Egyptian uprising: the contest between system-preserving oligarchic rule and system-transforming popular sovereignty. In the initial days of their uprising, Egyptians succeeded in peeling off the high military command from Mubarak. With the deposed president out of the way, citizens confronted oligarchic military rule directly, resisting the junta’s attempts to reestablish the old order.
The dynamic now driving Egyptian politics is not competition between Islamists and secularists, as some Western politicians and pundits have suggested, but between military rule and mass politics. Political parties and presidential candidates constantly adjust their antennae to these two poles of political influence, attending the Tahrir Square rallies to show their revolutionary credentials and simultaneously expressing measured deference to the generals. The Muslim Brothers have excelled at this political balancing act, hitting the streets when public opinion favors the protesters, while promoting the SCAF’s official position that it is the protector of the revolution. Others have thrown their lot in completely with the SCAF. Tahani al-Gebali, Egypt’s only female judge, and prominent presidential candidate Hisham al-Bastawisi both favor inscribing a Turkish-style political role for the military into the new constitution, granting it veto power over the political process under the rubric of “safeguarding republican values.”
Yet even with these allies in the political class, Egypt’s interim military rulers failed to terminate popular mobilization. They made concessions to the July 8 demands, purging 600 police officers, reshuffling old-regime cabinet ministers and provincial governors, and expediting the trials of former top officials, including Mubarak and his two sons. But they have also gone on the offensive. SCAF generals have accused prominent protest groups of being paid foreign agents, criticized protesting workers as obstructionist and unpatriotic, and tarred demonstrators as “thugs.”
For their part protesters adopted a hostile stance toward the SCAF, prompting a SCAF general to complain to the government-owned Al-Ahram, “The army is being depicted as one of occupation, treasonous and counter-revolutionary.” When SCAF General Tareq al-Mahdi went to Tahrir Square to talk to protesters, he was heckled and told to leave. Officials and pundits from across the political spectrum followed the protesters’ cue, criticizing the SCAF for its unilateral we-know-best approach. Yet, the attitude of the hard-core Tahrir protesters and some of their ill-conceived actions alienated public opinion. By the end of July, the national unity inspired by the plight of families of killed demonstrators had been diluted and diverted to criticism of young revolutionaries who had lots of passion but attempted little planning.
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The up-and-down popularity of youth protesters notwithstanding, street mobilization will continue to be the prime mover in Egyptian politics. Attention-grabbing protests are now embedded in the country’s politics, unlikely to wither away with parliamentary elections. Rather than displace popular mobilization, elections will operate as a parallel political currency, one more means of extracting a response from politicians. Egyptians know that remaining on the streets during the long intervals between elections will be the only way they can bend the state to their will.
Many inside and outside Egypt have frowned upon continued protests, seeing them as obstructing progress toward democratic politics. Egyptian political analyst Amr Hamzawy has said that each Egyptian must now “transfer . . . from being a protesting and striking citizen into a participating citizen.” But street demonstrations are participatory politics by other means. They don’t compete with or undermine standard democratic procedures; they deepen democracy by enabling more forms of participation and ensuring that more conventional forms of participation are effective. Now that the uprising is over, Egyptians will not confine their politics to the ballot box. They will enthusiastically vote if elections are free and fair, but they will continue to take to the streets to keep their new rulers in check.
Virtually nothing is certain in fluid post-revolutionary politics. But one thing is becoming clear: influential ideas about transitions from authoritarian rule come up short. The Egyptian transition is not being engineered through decorous elite pacts, wise political leadership, or committed democrats full of trust for one another. The Egyptian revolution has yielded precious few visionary leaders, but many vigilant, mistrustful ordinary citizens. They will be the pacemakers of Egypt’s new political order, continuing the kind of street politics they resorted to by necessity and refined into a national style.
Mona El-Ghobashy is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and a Carnegie Scholar.