Saturday, June 4, 2011

Debunking conventional knowledge about Egypt's revolution

I'm attending a conference for the next few days confusingly titled, "From Tahrir: Revolution or Democratic Transition?"  Great lineup of speakers.  I'm not sure if the curious mix of academics who speak in theoretical terms about democratic trajectories, cultural revivalism, pacted vs. participatory transition, and even made up words like "transitionists" and "possibilism" - and, alternatively, Egyptian activists and civil society leaders who talk about realities on the ground- is intentional.  But it highlights the vastly different ways in which the Egyptian case and perhaps the "Arab Spring" altogether are being approached.  There are many highlights from the first day, but much of discussion was devoted towards debunking conventional knowledge about Egypt's revolution. 5 main points:

1. The Egyptian revolution was not sudden or unexpected, but was the culmination of more than a decade of popular struggle.  This activism began in 2000 with the formation of the Popular Committee for the Support of the Palestinian Intifada and evolved through different movements like Kifaya and the April 6th Youth.  (As per Rabab El-Mahdi, Dina Shehata, and others).

2. It was not merely a "Facebook" revolution, or one of young activists.  It was the participation of Egypt's subaltern- lower class segments of society who are excluded from power structures and are certainly not plugged into the internet- that truly boosted the revolution's momentum.  These people contributed important revolutionary know-how to protests, for example tactics in dealing with the riot police.  Also, it was workers strikes that pushed collective action over the edge, cornering Mubarak. Famous activist/blogger Hossam El Hamalawy commented that he actually finds terms like Facebook or Twitter revolution insulting, as it diminishes Egyptians' activism on the ground.


3. The revolution was not peaceful.  Protestors fired RPGs at a police station in the Northern Sinai and burned others to the ground.  Hossam El Hamalawy explained that though Egyptians chanted "silmiyya," meaning "peaceful," they didn't really mean it... simultaneously, they were throwing rocks and molotov cocktails at the police.  In Hamalawy's words, "This was not a dinner party.  It was not an AUC lecture.  People died." 

4. The revolution cannot be "hijacked."  This was actually a debatable claim from Maya Abdelrahman (Cambridge University), but food for thought nonetheless.  She explained that hijacking is a misleading term because it implies that somebody owns the revolution in the first place.  A process of competition is now taking place between the immense variety of ideological, political, and religious groups that participated in Tahrir- none of whom dominated the discourse.  The appropriate question is who gets to shape the next phase of the revolution... and simply because we don't like them doesn't mean they lacked legitimacy or bullied other groups.

5. The revolution is not over.  This was perhaps the most dominant theme of the day.  Overthrowing Mubarak was the first step in a much longer-term, fluid, and transformational process.  Democracy should not be assumed as the end goal.  Like Phillippe Schmitter (European University Institute) said, "Democracy is not inevitable, and it is revocable. It's not necessary. It's not an ethic imperative of social evolution, nor a precursor for economic liberalism."

6. Even though we were all wrong about Mubarak's staying power, theories of authoritarianism are still relevant. Steve Heydemann from US Institute of Peace advanced this point.  Although his theories on the durability of the Mubarak regime were wrong- the most humorous of which being that it was "earthquake resistant"- he argues that they can still inform debate and provide early warning signs for regression into a new type of authoritarianism.  There is still an authoritarian elite in Egypt, for example, that could prove durable.

Stay tuned for more reflections tomorrow.  


  1. Really good overview for those not "on the ground." If you think there's a lot of misinformation where you are, can you imagine the way the American media skews it....

  2. Hi Sarah, I liked your comments on so called Egypt transition, specially the one about "revolution isn't over". I find it very interesting the ongoing movement within the working class trough strikes and independent union organization. Greetings from Argentina.

  3. Great stuff. Enjoying the blog sarah, keep it up.


  4. They shouldn't be insulted by the idea of a "Facebook revolution". The term is not really about a trite technology, it's more akin to a branded term signifying the general public and especially youth taking more interest and pooling their voice, two essential ingredients in a revolution. It's a positive association that doesn't overshadow the true ten year foundation, it enhances it.