On the five-year anniversary of the January 25 revolution, empty streets and the absence of people, protests, or even official commemorations have been commentators’ dominant themes. A regime that allowed, instigated, and exaggerated the size of protests to legitimize the ouster of Mohamed Morsi has now seemingly put an end to protests altogether. But things are not as they seem.
The foundational narrative of the regime led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt is that Mohamed Morsi’s rule had to be terminated because the country was wracked by a record-breaking number of protests. With millions of people flooding the streets and demanding that he relinquish power, the military was merely responding to the will of the people—not staging a power grab. While few sober observers are willing to believe the anonymous military sources that claimed that up to 33 million people were on the streets, many would still agree that Morsi faced an unusually high level of street protests during his year in power.
Protest data call this narrative into question. Instead of focusing on the size of short-lived protests—however important or symbolic they may have been—the picture becomes more complicated when we look at the average number of protests per day over a longer period of time. Data show the average number of protests per day almost tripled after Morsi was ousted. The five months following the coup against Morsi were characterized by the highest level of protests (107.5 per day) since the 2011 uprising that led to Mubarak’s ouster. By contrast, during Morsi’s year in power, there were, on average, 38.6 protests per day.
It was not until interim President Adly Mansour passed the protest law on November 24, 2013 that protest activity severely declined, leading to a 52 percent decrease in total protests. Gamal Eid, the Executive Director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, described the law as more draconian than the 1914 protest law it replaced, which was passed by colonial officers when Egypt was still a protectorate of the British Empire.
From the beginning of the large anti-Morsi protests on June 30, 2013 until December 31, 2015, the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) recorded 54,677 protests in Egypt. GDELT counts the number of protests as reported in print, broadcast, and web media in 100 languages from nearly every country in the world, thus avoiding the biases of both the Western and Egyptian media. But as GDELT relies on automated gathering of news sources, it tends to overstate some events that were heavily reported. Moreover, since general access to news has increased and continues to increase in recent years, it tends to underestimate earlier protests during earlier years. However, since we are comparing protests from mid-2012 until the end of 2015, this is not a serious issue, as protests in Egypt have had wide coverage during the entire time.
However, the protest data do not account for the size of each protest. A small protest is counted in the same way as a large protest. This also means that the surge in protests after Morsi’s ouster cannot be attributed to the massive sit-ins at Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque and al-Nahda Square in Cairo. Although the Rabaa sit-in was much larger than the sit-ins in Tahrir Square in 2011 in terms of the physical space it occupied, it only counted as one protest out of the 107.5 protests that occurred on average per day after the coup and before the protest law was passed.
The data also reveal that from the time Sisi was inaugurated as president on June 8, 2014 until the end of December 2015, there were an average of 29.1 protests per day. While this number is lower than the average 38.6 protests per day while Morsi was in power, it is also much higher than the number of protests during the last decade of Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
Even during the 2008 resurgence of the labor movement and strike wave that began in the industrial city of Mahalla—the biggest strike wave in Egypt since the 1940s—the average number of protests per day in 2008 was only 3.9. The average number of protests in 2009 was 4.4, and in 2010 it was 5.8. In other words, there are approximately five times as many protests taking place on average per day under Sisi as there were from 2008 to 2010 under Mubarak. Furthermore, the number of protests since February 2014 has remained more or less constant.
The data speak to the effectiveness of both media censorship and repression. Within minutes of ousting Morsi, the regime shut down Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated television channels. Comedian Bassem Youssef’s Al Bernameg and Reem Maged’s Baladna Bel Masry programs, both critical of the regime, were also subsequently taken off the air. While such blatant media censorship may deprive Egyptians of alternative sources of information—and comic relief—it is also ineffective in the era of big data. Because GDELT derives its information from media sources all over the world, the sheer number of outside media reports can offset censorship within Egypt. There may be fewer media outlets in Egypt reporting about protests, but precisely this censorship may lead to more media scrutiny—and protest reporting—from outside Egypt.
The regime used collective street action to legitimize the ouster of Morsi but then immediately moved to silence any such collective action in a vicious crackdown. This included killing over 1,000 civilians on a single day at Rabaa and thereby committing the largest massacre in post-colonial Egyptian history, declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, issuing mass death sentences, and passing the new draconian protest law. The wave of repression continues today. From August until November 2015, approximately 340 people have been disappeared. In advance of the five-year anniversary of Egypt’s revolution, over 5,000 homes in downtown Cairo were subjected to raids.
This crackdown has led many observers to believe that another mass uprising is unlikely, arguing that the biggest threat to Sisi comes not from protests but from within his own regime. Yet, by taking a longer view that moves beyond a few symbolic dates, data show that the overall number of protests since February 2014 has shown no sign of tapering off. It seems that neither repression nor media censorship has put an end to protests in Egypt—or brought about the stability Sisi promised. The demonstrations under Sisi have not been as large as on June 30, 2013. Instead, the distinguishing feature of protests under Sisi is their stubborn, unrelenting quality. And the sheer number of demonstrations that have taken place since Sisi’s election is still remarkably high: approximately five times the level it was during Mubarak’s last years. Despite unprecedented repression and media censorship, Sisi has faced a persistent wave of protests. For Egypt, big data may tell us more than the emptiness of a once-occupied square.
Amy Austin Holmes is an associate professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo and author of Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945 (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Hussein Baoumi is the programs director at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF).