The Egyptian protests on Tuesday were extraordinary. The geographic extent of the popular protests—unprecedented since the 1970s—and the sheer number of participating citizens made it a critical day. There are five simple factors that distinguish the Egyptian “Day of Anger” from any other day of protest.
First, the timing was inspired by the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. The unrest in Tunisia prompted citizens in other Arab countries, such as Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen, to take to the streets demanding their economic, social, and political rights. There was an expectation that the uprising might loosen the grip of security apparatuses on the citizens of other Arab countries, and this became a reality as the Egyptian protests emerged as the most profound byproduct of the great Tunisian revolution.
The Day of Anger coincided with the annual holiday commemorating the heroism of police officers who confronted British occupation forces in 1952. The timing highlights the contradiction between the original role tasked to the police—defending the nation and protecting citizens without discrimination—with the one it now plays. Today, the security apparatus, particularly under the auspices of emergency law, commits human rights violations, represses and tortures opposition members, political activists, and on many other occasions, ordinary citizens.
Second, the citizens’ protests in Egypt were purely driven by domestic demands. No signs read “death to Israel, America, and global imperialism” or “together to free Palestine and Iraq.” In the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez, the only slogans heard demanded change, freedom, social justice, and a stop to corruption in Egypt. The differences with protests following major regional events—the invasion of Iraq in 2003, war in Lebanon in 2006, and war over Gaza in 2008-2009—are markedly clear. Egyptian demands for reform and democracy were too often mixed with regional matters, particularly Israeli and U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Egyptians are rediscovering the real meaning of politics: politics, before anything else, is concern about citizens’ living conditions within the borders of the relevant nation-state. The Jasmine Revolution and all current protests in other Arab countries are displaying the same realistic and mature inclination toward domestic concerns—they are prioritizing local issues over regional ones.
Third, there was a complete absence of the ideological rhetoric that has dominated Egypt’s political and public space for many years. While the Muslim Brotherhood youth and some of their leaders participated in the protests, there were no signs saying, “Islam is the solution.” Similarly, activists from small leftist organizations attended, but the usual denunciations of global imperialism, colonialism, and Zionism were absent.
There have been signs for years that ideology is less effective in recruiting and mobilizing citizens. Two reasons for this stand out. One, party and non-party forces using ideological rhetoric—namely the Muslim Brotherhood and some leftist activists—have failed to realize socioeconomic change and true political reform. In the wake of the parliamentary elections in 2010, they all appeared to be in a position of weakness and crisis that sharply limited the attractiveness of their messages in Egypt. And two, this week’s protests were organized by youth movements and organizations free of an ideological component. They were able to effectively recruit in the virtual world through social media—the groups succeeded in organizing people to participate using their own voice and language to demand socioeconomic and political change.
Fourth, there was a record presence of youth in the protests. Egyptians have grown accustomed to the same political forces and opposition personalities in the streets—they paid little attention to sit-ins and strikes by the odd group of laborers here or state employees there. But this fundamentally changed. True, the youth of parties and opposition movements that boycotted or withdrew from the parliamentary elections participated in the protests—including from Al-Ghad, Democratic Front, Wafd, and Muslim Brotherhood. But it was the youth unaffiliated with any political movement that formed the greatest bloc among the protestors’ ranks.
This is clear evidence that the recruitment and mobilization efforts of youth movements and societies have succeeded in bridging the gulf between activists and the youth of the general public. It also demonstrates the power of virtual networking in effectively mobilizing society. While it is true that there is a considerable gap in the number of those involved in online movements—such as the April 6 Youth Movement—and those actually protesting, the involvement of youth is still a welcome and dynamic development regardless of what transpires in the coming days.
Fifth, the demands on bread and butter issues were combined with calls for specific political reforms and measures to combat corruption. This merging of socioeconomic and political issues has long been absent from the protest scene. The reason for this is tied to contempt by some political forces that label socioeconomic demands as classist. Also, those citizens who did protest poor living conditions distrusted the opposition and worried that their demands could be politicized against their better interest.
Sustaining this integration will deprive the regime of one of its preferred tools for maintaining order: by detaching socioeconomic demands from political ones, the regime can manage popular discontent by making partial concessions on the former while arbitrarily dismissing the latter. A direct and effective mix of the two components should continue. If opposition parties and movements are then able to translate the mixture into specific proposals, the regime will find itself facing a comprehensive set of demands seeking “a better nation for us all.”
The leaders of Al-Ghad, Democratic Front, Wafd, and National Society for Change did a good job on Tuesday of embracing protestors’ demands and proposals for implementing them. Namely, they called for the end of the emergency law, the release political detainees, the dissolution of both houses of parliament, new elections, and the prohibition of President Mubarak’s candidacy, after five consecutive presidential terms, in upcoming presidential elections. Still, they neglected the socioeconomic demands that the protestors raised even though they were the predominant factor driving demonstrators into the streets in the first place.
These five characteristics signal that the wall of fear in Egypt has been broken. The protests created an opening for broadened popular participation recognizing that socioeconomic and political demands go together. The regime will fail to see the point by assuming the situation can be managed with repression on some occasions, and partial concessions and vague promises on others.
Egyptian society is suffering from inadequate living conditions, frightening gap between rich and poor, tensions between Muslims and Copts, and a grave crisis of legitimacy in the wake of the 2010 parliamentary elections. These crises make it imperative that Egypt distances itself from the specter of chaos and allow real reform to begin now.
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