In a previous article, I argued that the events of Sidi Bouzid are rooted in an accumulated heritage of social struggles and, in turn, will provide inspiration for social struggles throughout the Arab world. But will the Jasmine Revolution necessarily mark the beginning of an ‘Arab Spring’? Will the fall of Ben Ali reverberate across the Arab world—an ‘arc where politics is frozen’ as one analyst called it?
Tens of journalists and academics have speculated, and thousands of online and offline activists, tweeps, bloggers and protesters are claiming an ‘Arab Spring’ has just began with the regimes in Algiers, Tripoli, Cairo and Amman at the forefront.
Despite the transnational and pan-Arab potentials of the Jasmine Revolution, I revert back to my academic background and adopt caution and vigilance in assessing the impact it will have on social struggles throughout the region: after all, political science preaches that revolutions are rare in human history, and history tells us that this is more-so in the Arab world.
Essentialism and neo-Orientalism aside, the culmination of social struggles into a revolution is indeed rare and requires a number of historical conditions.
Despite what defenders of the regime in Egypt may claim, the current Egyptian regime and the recently fallen Tunisian regime are, in many ways, similar: they both derive(d) some legitimacy from anti-colonial struggles; both govern(ed) post-colonial states which have traditionally been more developed than their own societies; and both are/were headed by strong figureheads with a tight grip on state institutions. Furthermore, in both Tunisia and Egypt, the distribution of lucrative economic and business opportunities is/was often based on nepotism, favoritism and corruption; both Ben Ali and Mubarak eliminated meaningful opposition; and both regimes depend(ed) heavily on a notorious security apparatus.
Why then has social struggle in Tunisia matured into the events of Sidi Bouzid and culminated in the Jasmine Revolution? Can the struggle of Egypt’s working classes, unemployed university graduates and torture victims reach the same degree of maturity and bring down the regime?
The short answer is ‘no’. In the remainder of this article I will highlight some of the missing links in Egypt that lead me to this conclusion.
Social Struggle in Egypt
For the past six years, Egypt has witnessed unrelenting social unrest involving groups from a wide array of social, occupational and ideological backgrounds. The social dynamics of the past few years demonstrate at least three progressive developments.
The first and most remarkable aspect of social struggle in Egypt today is that both the lower and middle classes of society display signs of frustration, disenchantment and dismay at the ruling regime. While working class riots have soared since 2006 in Al-Mahala, the educated middle classes have grown more and more frustrated with rising prices, unemployment and, most significantly, police brutality.
Secondly, the struggles of Egypt’s industrial working class have demonstrated a degree of politicization unprecedented since Mubarak’s rise to power. Today, factory workers no longer protest demanding wage increases or social benefits; they protest the corrupt and unsustainable policies of privatization and demand an equitable minimum wage and the reform of labor laws. The politicization of labor protest movements has been translated into the relocation of protests and sit-ins from factory premises throughout the country to the parliament and the relevant ministries.
Likewise, unionists and informal associations of bus drivers, lorry drivers and others have progressively taken up strikes and demonstrations in their struggle against state policies and to protest monopolies and rising fuel prices.
Thirdly, protest movements in Egypt have significantly expanded beyond the capital. Although labor protests have traditionally been held in the country’s numerous industrial and agricultural cities, protests against police brutality and the killing of Khalid Said in Alexandria triggered a wave of weekly protests which spanned the country. This was most noticeable in 2010 when tens of thousands were seen dressed in black facing the Nile and raising placards with photos of the slain 28-year-old Alexandrian ‘entrepreneur’ (read ‘unemployed’) and torture victim.
With both the lower and middle classes involved in social and protest movements and with the increased politicization of interest-driven social struggles, why then can Egypt not produce a Jasmine Revolution?
In contrast to the Jasmine Revolution, social struggle in Egypt features a number of characteristics which, I believe, will prevent it from developing into a revolutionary struggle in the immediate future.
The duality of social movements in Egypt
Sidi Bouzid demonstrated the bidirectional flow of revolutionary fervor. Much as unionists, the intelligentsia and activists write, theorize and spell out the dynamics of society in Tunisia, the deprived lower classes and the inhabitants of the under-developed inland governorates of the country have felt equally strong about voicing their concerns and shaping the revolution. After all, the events of Sidi Bouzid were not triggered by the intelligentsia or activists but by the actions of a young man of modest background from a deprived town. In Egypt, social struggle continues to be unidirectional, whereby a body of veteran activists sees it their role to ‘set the bearing,’ ‘lead the masses’ and ‘make sure the revolution doesn’t go astray.’
Protests in Egypt are therefore dominated by familiar faces of honest, brave and resilient protesters who take to the streets hoping to attract onlookers and ‘cause the revolution.’ These activists have been vigorously seeking a leader whose charisma, prestige and presence can place them, the ‘critical mass’ of the Egyptian pro-democracy movement, in a position to lead the masses. Figures like Kifaya’s George Ishak, Al-Ghad’s Ayman Noor and, now, El-Baradei have filled this position interchangeably since 2003.
As a result, a gap continues to exist between vibrant labor protests and the growing pro-democracy movement—the former is almost entirely absent in the social struggle against police brutality and state repression, while the latter provides little more than token gestures of support for workers’ struggles. Although this duality existed for most of the past six years, it was overshadowed by the charismatic and revolutionary fervor of earlier protest movements such as ‘Kefaya’ and ‘6 April’ which appeared on either side of the divide. However, the formation of the Egyptian Movement for Change, the emergence of El-Baradei as its figurehead and the rise of the anti-torture ‘Khalid Sa`id’ campaign emboldened this rift and have earned El-Baradei and the Movement much criticism.
The Egyptian middle class
Although increasingly involved in the social dynamics of change in Egypt, the middle class has failed to transcend the deeply entrenched classism characteristic of Egyptian society. Unlike in Tunisia, social classes in Egypt depend on more than education and occupation. In Egypt, the social class is a lifestyle and a set of mannerisms. As a ‘colonial middle class’ par excellence,[i] the Egyptian middle class adheres to the rigid mannerisms and remnants of pre-capitalist and, even, pre-modern social elites.
As such, the middle classes in Egypt fail to develop politically active sympathy with the grievances of the lower classes. This is only exacerbated by the fact that illiteracy is widespread amongst the lower classes. The educational gap between a middle class whose members are almost all university graduates and the lower classes whose members vary widely (from the illiterate to the university graduate) has only helped entrench classism and prevent the emergence of a truly democratic inclusive protest movement.
Another significant difference between Tunisia and Egypt is the occupational background of the professional middle class. By and large, it is safe to say that the professional middle class in Egypt is increasingly business oriented: more Egyptians are seeking university degrees in business related subjects. This means that, occupationally, the professional middle class is gradually leaning towards accountants, marketers and financiers, with a significant number of the sons and daughters of middle class professionals leaving this class and joining the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie.
Essentially, the significant shift towards business oriented occupations will increase the middle class’ dependence on the neoliberal market economy and will enhance the organic relationship between this business oriented middle class and the business elite. Conversely, the middle class’ commitment to the business-tertiary sector at the expense of the agricultural and industrial sectors further detaches the middle classes from the lower classes.
The strengthened connection between the business elite and middle classes in Egypt is in stark contrast to Tunisia where the middle classes were relatively distant from the business elite and, hence, were more likely to criticize the corruption, nepotism and favoritism of the regime and its business elite. In Egypt, much is being said about the relationship between the regime, the president, the president’s family and the business classes, but an increasingly small segment of the Egyptian middle class is willing to voice such concerns or rise up against such practices. In fact, at times, the lower and middle classes in Egypt will converge in opposition to police brutality or torture in prisons, but in the larger context, the socioeconomic interests of these two social classes seem to head in opposite directions, with the interests of the middle classes sliding towards the interests of the business elite.
Social solidarity and civil disobedience
Finally, the third significant distinction between the dynamics of social struggle in Egypt and Tunisia is the remarkable level of social solidarity and civility that characterized the Jasmine Revolution. The civility of the revolution in Tunisia contrasts with the ‘sectarianization’ and denialism that formed the reaction to contemporaneous events in Egypt following the terrorist attack on the Al-Qidissain Coptic Church in Alexandria during midnight mass on New Year’s Eve (NYE).
In Tunisia, anger and frustration at the regime’s failure to deliver on promises and uneven economic development triggered social discontent and rallied the masses in a unified cause. In Egypt on the other hand, the Ministry of Interior’s failure to fight crime and terrorism and police brutality against the average citizen against a backdrop of socioeconomic grievances and growing wealth disparities has, so far, failed to trigger revolutionary civil disobedience. Instead, the failure of state institutions was only coupled with the failure of civil society to capitalize on the society’s wealthy experience in social struggle. As a result, the Coptic community sought the protection of the Church and adopted an increasingly sectarian undertone, while Muslims were divided in their reaction to the epic NYE attack. Between those who externalized responsibility and threw the blame on ‘alien’ ideologies, ‘unEgyptian criminals,’ ‘untrue’ Islams and ‘foreign hands’ and those who indulged in endless debates regarding the religious permissibility of going to church or raising the Crescent and the Cross symbol in a show of solidarity, the real causes of Egypt’s ills were obscured.
In spite of this, recent events in Egypt indicate a significant turn in the course of social struggle. Tens were arrested for involvement in violent clashes with police forces. Protesters gathered in Christian-majority neighborhoods and around churches to express solidarity with the Christians and in condemnation of the NYE explosion. Nevertheless, heavy-handed security measures and the Ministry of Interior’s decision to defy court orders to release detained activists have escalated on the street, culminating in riots. El-Warraq Police Station, where a number of detainees were held, was reportedly set on fire by detainees inside it and their families outside. Similarly, angry stone-throwing Copts demonstrated in Cairo and intentionally blocked traffic on the Autostrade and the Salah Salem highways. The significance of the event lies in the fact that it challenged an important symbol of the state: namely, two of the most important autoroutes linking some of Cairo’s more important neighborhoods[ii].
The escalation of social struggle in Egypt to a progressive campaign of civil disobedience, however, remains ‘immature,’ at least in comparison to the rapid and coherent escalation of the events of Sidi Bouzid. The fact remains that while Tunisians reacted to Bouazzizi’s symbolic, and regrettable, self-immolation with a surge in civil struggle and social solidarity, Egyptians reacted to the NYE explosion in Alexandria with a noticeable surge in uncivil vehemence, some adopting an increasingly sectarian rhetoric and others externalizing the blame in denial of the social and political ills of Egyptian society.
Will Egypt react to its Bouazzizis?
It is therefore no surprise that Bouazzizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia elevated him to the status of national hero and resulted in the overthrow of Ben Ali less than a month later. In Egypt on the other hand, three Bouazzizis set themselves on fire within 24 hours—the result: a vigorous debate amongst newspaper readers about the ungodly act of suicide.[iii] More sober readers lamented the victims’ sacrifice-in-vain.
Egypt’s pro-democracy activists, including myself, continue to debate the applicability of a Tunisian scenario in Egypt and are organizing protests against state repression on 25 January, Police Day.
A Jasmine Revolution may not be ripe in Egypt yet but a number of significant developments have accumulated throughout the past decade. Social struggle in Egypt and the Arab world may not be capable of overthrowing more Ben Ali-like dictators in the weeks to come, but the events of Sidi Bouzid are a significant milestone.
As a consequence of Sidi Bouzid, activists on the streets and tweeps alike witnessed a sudden euphoria. Hundreds of slogans, chants and even jokes surfaced on the scene asking Arab regimes and dictators to ‘learn the lesson’ and ‘book their exile mansions’ already. Eventually however, Egyptian activists realized it was they who were more concerned with Sidi Bouzid and the lessons it offered the Arab world.
Protest movements today are growing increasingly critical of the ‘digitalization of the revolution’ and more voices are demanding a return to the streets.[iv] Similarly, many amongst Egypt’s bravest and most vocal activists are critical of the elitism of social struggle in Egypt, and a growing number of them are voicing concerns over the inability to spontaneously mobilize support as Tunisians did in the aftermath of Bouazzizi’s self-immolation on December 17.
Perhaps the dynamics that brought down Ben Ali are not yet as mature in Egypt, Libya or Algeria. And perhaps the events of Sidi Bouzid will not open up a Pandora’s Box in the Arab world, but the Jasmine Revolution will inevitably become a milestone in Arab peoples’ social struggles and will irreversibly change the dynamics of change in the region.
[i] Arab Marxist, Mahdi Amil, refers to Arab bourgeoisies as ‘colonial bourgeoisies’ in his study of Arab modernity and social struggle in Arab societies including Egypt. In Western academic literature, this social class is referred to as ‘peripheral bourgeoisie.’
[ii] Wael Abdel Fattah’s article on the events of Alexandria points to the significance of these events in the context of state-society relations. «انفجار في «الدولة الرخوة»: كوابيس حـرب أهلية في مصر » (An Explosion in the Heart of a Fragile State), Al-Akhbar, 3 January 2011 [http://bit.ly/hUJXRF]
[iv] For example, Mohamed Motasem El Haiwan’s Facebook note, « الثورة لن تذاع على التليفزيون / الفيسبوك / تويتر » (The Revolution will not be broadcast on TV, Facebook or Twitter), on 16 January 2011 [http://on.fb.me/dVc3e1].
Also, a poster designed by Palestinian artist Amal Kawash to publicize the 25 January ‘Police Day’ protest reads « اذا الشعب حقَا أراد الحياة» (If the Nation Really Decided to Live). The poster points to photos of streets exclaiming “this is a street” and points to an icon of Faceboook and exclaims “but this is not!” [http://bit.ly/e8qlcq]