On January 25, 2011, on the heels of the Tunisian demonstrations, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians flooded the streets in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and Nile Delta cities in an astonishing show of solidarity against President Hosni Mubarak.
Within weeks, a large portion of the Middle East was in the midst of an anti-status quo, pro-democracy upheaval. Protesters in Egypt united across ideological lines in opposition to President Mubarak’s authoritarian regime and the stagnant Egyptian economy that has left millions of their ranks jobless.
Utilizing the power of social media and building on previously organized communities, youth and other revolutionaries organized weeks of almost entirely nonviolent protests without the overt support of established parties or clear leadership. In the time leading up to Mubarak’s departure, coalition-building was a efficient tool for powerful parties and vulnerable groups alike to unite under their common opposition to the regime.
But what comes next for Egyptians in a post-Mubarak Egypt has yet to be made clear. Perhaps the best place to start is by exploring the first few months of 2011.
The protesters in Tahrir Square and in other locations around Egypt in January 2011, though diverse and cross-sectarian, were composed primarily of urban, politically independent people with access to social media and connections with the urban labor rights movement. Impressively organized in terms of protest tactics and coordination, this heterogeneous population has been striving to form an entity capable of articulating its political and economic demands.
Should that entity be a political party? Several political parties? A non-governmental organization tasked with monitoring politics in a post-Mubarak Egypt? A business-oriented faction with union leanings? How will marginal populations, such as women and Coptic Christians, fit into this picture, and through which mechanisms will they articulate their needs as a community or simply as Egyptians?
A constitutional referendum on 19 March, in which “voters were asked to either accept or reject eight constitutional amendments as a whole – all of them designed to establish the foundations for coming elections,” saw 41% of 45 million eligible voters hit the polls.
Results indicated that 77% of voters favored the package, in accordance with mainstream Muslim Brotherhood opinion, and 23% stood with the revolutionaries and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei in opposing the reforms contained therein. These reforms included term-limits for the president and a commission to draft a new constitution following the parliamentary election, among others.
Some voters who were opposed to the reform package voted no because they believe that “early elections would give extraordinary advantage to Mubarak’s old political party and the Muslim Brotherhood, which have strong organizational structures and would move to centralize power.” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed this concern and recommended that elections be delayed in order to give up-and-coming parties a chance to organize.
With parliamentary and presidential elections anticipated before the end of 2011, communities that were once more easily categorized but are now undergoing a shift in identity and aspiration (such as revolutionary, laborer, Muslim Brother, businessman) are being courted by both existing and developing parties.
Who participated in the demonstrations?
Acknowledging that “any direct association with the [Muslim] Brotherhood would discredit it in the eyes of many,” revolutionaries informed the Brotherhood of their plans and, “once it saw that the movement was succeeding, the Brotherhood joined in fully” on January 27th. In addition to labor issues, the April 6 Movement was also active on “support for bloggers being persecuted by the government … [and] ending sanctions on the Gaza Strip.”
Shortly after the protests began, many of these dissident parties came together under the umbrella of the Revolution Youth Coalition, with representatives "from the April 6 Youth movement, ElBaradei supporters..., two Muslim Brother[s], [two] from the Democratic Front Party and [two] from the Youth for Justice and Freedom."
The Coalition is not entirely representative of the plethora of opposition groups. Despite that, one coalition member, Ahmed Ezzat, expressed the hope that “it expands to include all the other young activists, including young members from the Karama party, Labor party, Kifaya and all others, including independent bloggers and Internet activists.”
Forming a single coalition like the Revolution Youth Coalition can reduce friction among parties with similar agendas and constituents and help diminish the chances of potential ‘cannibalization’. Forming an organized coalition can create credibility and legitimacy for the parties within the coalition by proving to Egyptians (and the world) that the youth are not only organized enough to revolt, but also organized enough to govern. A coalition of like-minded parties that fronts only a few main candidates is more likely to ensure that they are represented in government. Otherwise, constituent voters may split their votes, possibly denying these emerging parties a seat at the table. Emerging groups will need to establish a clear platform along well-defined ideological lines in order to clarify their position for voters and to differentiate themselves from other major parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The coalition’s chief purpose has been to serve as a forum for opposition groups in order to “provide representation for the young who have played a role in political life in Egypt and have contributed to the current revolt” and to “articulate its demands and keep them at the forefront of public consciousness as Egypt prepares for change.” Those elementary demands have been the uniting factor for the heterogeneous groups belonging to the Coalition, including free and fair elections, the removal of President Mubarak, and the elimination of emergency law, although now that the President has stepped down, the Coalition had to reexamine its mandate. These groups will need to revise their strategies in a way that takes into account the absence of Mubarak but also the presence of the institutions and structures that he has left behind.
It is possible that the parties’ experiences within the Coalition have primed them for a nonviolent transition to democracy. Even if the parties within a coalition do not all agree on a common for-agenda besides an against-agenda, a coalition creates a space where these diverse factions interact regularly and are forced to discuss their ideas. Diversity and pluralism become the norm, and extreme ideas and tactics are subject to examination and become less acceptable. As anthropologist Talal Asad stated in a 2008 lecture on the Kifaya coalition,
"It is not that there is now a happy union of all these elements, but that an irreducible plurality persists as a foundation of political sensibility…However, this situation is not merely negative [oppositional]; it also provides a space of daily interaction and negotiation."
The Revolution Youth Coalition boasted representatives from a multiplicity of opposition groups, but it lacked well-defined leadership roles and figureheads. In the process of the demonstrations in January and February, this lack of clear leadership was an advantage that made it more difficult for the regime to negotiate with or target the opposition movement. In the post-Mubarak era, however, the parties’ transition into politics demands clear leadership. This could be an advantage for the recently formed groups in that the calcified leadership of the older ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood display a rigidity and structure that may not appeal to Egyptian voters in an upcoming election. In addition, the revolutionaries’ demonstrated ability to reach out to frustrated Egyptians in the course of the protests bodes well for their capacity to form a political entity that can connect with these supporters.
Substantial use of social media and virtual political activism aided the success of the January revolution, and built on a growing trend of youth engagement in digital political activism.
The expansion in usage of social media networks in concert with an enlarged (though not complete) freedom of the press within Egypt created a space for young Egyptians to carve out a political niche for themselves, outside of the confines of traditional identity lines and protected from the repercussions of declaring such an identity in the ‘real world’.
After Kifaya was founded in 2004 with immense support from the blogosphere, “the number of blogs [in 2005] had jumped from a handful to the hundreds and are now estimated in the thousands.” As a greater diversity of bloggers and Facebook users entered the scene, cross-community interaction allowed activists to find common ground in their opposition to President Mubarak despite their other ideological differences. "The blog and Facebook format, with its personal profile page, allows for individual bloggers to fashion a political persona that transcends the Islamist-versus-secular divide, allowing young women and men to write critically about hot political issues."
Regional and international powers have been consistently supportive of democracy in theory, but will find it necessary to readjust to a new democracy that takes Egypt and the Middle East away from the status quo of carefully negotiated treaties and economic structures that do not benefit the average citizen. The United States is providing more aid to Egypt, but the implicitly (and explicitly) attached strings are not a harbinger of genuine U.S. support for the Egyptian people.
Economic interests are also a significant aspect of the upcoming pre-election period. The established political and economic structures of Mubarak’s decades in power mutually reinforce each other. Professor Bassam Haddad explores this nexus between political and economic elites, coming to the conclusion that, “initially, it is the public sector, which explains the initial informal relations and networks that develop between state officials and businesspeople using the public sector as the cash cow or the golden goose.” Haddad continues,
“the more business actors can accomplish without state patronage, protection, facilitation, the more they can be independent and, depending on how political economies develop, this can lead to even more mutual interests between power and capital—because capital becomes power.”
Egyptian scholar Emad Shahin recommended that, at the very least, these revolutionary groups should “organize into pressure groups and operate at the grassroots level to monitor the government, participate in development-related projects and engage the population.” In fact, on 7 April 2011, the April 6 Movement announced its decision to, “instead, become a non-governmental organization advocating for civil liberties, democracy and human rights.” As an NGO, the April 6 Movement can certainly endorse particular candidates in the upcoming elections, but the organization’s wide-reaching networks and ‘revolutionary legitimacy’ may be better put to use as a monitoring and advocacy organization.
A 41% turnout on the recent constitutional referendum may have broken records, but that number does not represent society-wide consensus among all classes of Egyptians. A get-out-the-vote campaign, undertaken by emerging parties and established parties alike, can educate the masses on new political platforms and ideologies before elections occur. Coalitions are perfectly situated for this endeavor, with wide-reaching social media networks, connections within the labor rights scene, and tried-and-true organizing techniques that have given them a degree of transparency and legitimacy not common among contemporary Egyptian parties.
Perhaps a Yalla Vote campaign is next? More demonstrations? Economic and political restructuring? One thing is for certain: the revolution is not complete.
Here are some great pics of some of the younger Egyptian demonstrators:
(the child's forehead says 'Egypt' in Arabic)
Do you think that the demonstrators used appropriate tactics of resistance? What should they do next to ensure their interests are represented in the upcoming elections?