Politics by Other Means (Egypt, Revolution, Tahrir Square)
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.