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Egypt: What are the drivers of change?

February 17, 2011
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An edited version of this piece appeared today on the Guardian’s ‘Poverty Matters’ blog.

When interpreting something like the Egyptian upheaval, people tend to project their own passions onto the screen. The twitterati see a social media revolution; the foodies see food price hikes at its core; others see a hunger for democratization; the human rights groups see a backlash against torture and abuse. So I thought I’d try to pull together a more comprehensive overview, using the ‘How Change Happens’ framework from From Poverty to Power.

The diagram sets out a schematic way to analyse the drivers of change, dividing them up (with inevitable overlaps) How Change Happensinto the categories of Context, Institutions, Agents and Events.

Demographics: an explosive mix of high population growth, leading to a ‘youth bulge’, combined with urbanization, jobless growth, and the rapid expansion of university education has produced what the BBC’s Paul Mason calls ‘a new sociological type, the graduate with no future’. Two thirds of Egypt’s people are under 30 and each year, 700,000 new graduates chase 200,000 new jobs.

Technology: Although I still instinctively share Malcolm Gladwell’s scepticism on this, social media (and new old media like Al Jazeera) have clearly played an important part. Ranil Dissanayake on Aid Thoughts concludes:

‘I think the most important lesson from these demonstrations, the lesson that is spreading with such incredible rapidity across the region, is not of the outcomes: it is far from clear how much Tunisia’s state has changed, and Egypt is far from resolution still. The big message here is that the lowest and weakest sections of society can act independently as a force for change: that popular discontent can work in these societies as long as it is mobilised in great enough numbers and with enough intransigence. And once it happened in one place, the ordinariness of how it starts was quickly made apparent to people across the world through the media but also through social networking (and this could be the real impact of FB and Twitter, rather than any organisational function – they emphasised that demonstration and revolution were being undertaken by ordinary people, demystifying the process).’

Egypt’s Foreign Policy has also been an important factor, divorced from public opinion for many years, particularly on Israel and Palestine. According to Oxfam’s Cairo-based Adam Taylor-Awny this cemented the feeling that the government was a US puppet government and delegitimized it in many eyes. 

An increasingly sclerotic state + aging president have produced a threefold institutional deficit summarized by Sufyan Alissa in a 2007 paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as:

“Institutions that influence the work of the bureaucracy, institutions that shape politicians’ behavior by punishing or rewarding certain types of behavior—influencing the accountability and transparency of politicians—and institutions that widen political space and participation for Egyptian citizens.”

That sclerosis both undermined the state’s legitimacy, and made it unable to respond quickly and effectively to the rising tide of protests.

At a more visceral level, the routine and growing presence of torture and corruption became the common enemy that bound protesters together across classes. Heba Morayef, the Human Rights Watch advocate in Egypt is quoted by an excellent analysis in the Observer saying “Prior to that, demonstrations in favour of political reform struck many ordinary Egyptians as somewhat abstract, even if they had vague sympathy with the sentiments being expressed. Police cruelty, however, was something that touched people personally and it inspired a whole new, cross-class section of society to adopt a more combative stance towards the state.”

One institution that has apparently emerged with its reputation enhanced (at least so far) is the army, but will it step down and make way for more open government and if so, under what conditions? In addition, the failure to act of some actors was central: Mubarak’s age and inept response; Washington’s confusion and contradictory messages reduced its influence. In Paul Mason’s view, the ‘War on Terror’ failed to generate a binding threat on a par with the Cold War to make global and national elites come together and block change.

The most celebrated event of the protests (other than the overthrow of two presidents and counting) was of course the catalytic sacrifice of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation sparked Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’, and the ensuing domino effect across the Arab world.  Others include the impact of the wikileaks revelations that US diplomats saw Tunisia as a ‘mafia state’ run by President Ben Ali and has hated wife, Leila Trabelsi – did that weaken elite support for Ben Ali?

And how did all these factors interact? What were the pathways and dynamics of change? A few observations:

The most striking aspect is path dependency – how a sequence of events and actions was able to overcome the deep-rooted (and well-justified) fears of potential protesters, getting enough people onto the streets to give them a degree of immunity. Some of this was a domino effect – the revolution in Tunisia clearly inspired protests across the region. In other cases it appears to have been the result of deliberate tactics: In Egypt, small groups put on simultaneous ‘flash mob’ demonstrations in numerous locations, out maneuvering the security forces in a new kind of urban, social media driven guerrilla protest. As Ahmed Salah, one of the protest organizers, told the Observer ‘this time, we were determined to do something different – be multi-polar, fast-moving and too mobile for the security forces, giving us the chance to walk down hundreds of different roads and show normal passers-by that taking to the streets was actually possible.’

And in case you think all this was entirely spontaneous, here’s Al Jazeera’s 25 minute account of 3 years of preparation for the uprising, prior to the Tunisian spark. [h/t Jo Rowlands]

Finally, protesters used humour –a weapon that always seems to baffle autocrats. One example from Global Dashboard should bring a tear to the eye of any remaining Chicago fans.

I’m left with lots of questions, of course: what was the level of ‘granularity’ of the protest movement (mass movements are almost never entirely homogeneous, but ‘lumpy’, with smaller, more durable building blocks such as workers’and farmers’organizations, mosques, youth and community groups etc). According to Oxfam’s Ihab El Sakkout:

‘The vast majority of the demonstrators were at quite a distance from any organized activist group. On the other hand, the fact that some of the protestors were parts of organized groups played an important role at critical points. The example that best springs to mind is on 2nd and 3rd of Feb when the protestors were attacked viciously by regime thugs: the Muslim brotherhood and organized football fan groups (not to be equated in their politics with European hooligans!) played a key role in defending the square (principally by being able to convey quick decisions via their groups, showing extreme courage and discipline under attack, quickly building barricades, managing counter-attacks, etc.), which helped to turn those in the square from a mass of individuals into a cohesive group able to defend itself.’

What degree of interaction did the protest movement have with fractions of the political or business elite? How did cross-class and cross-group alliances evolve? What was the gender breakdown of the protests – men seemed to dominate the TV images (Ihab guesstimates the proportion of the women in the protests at 10-15%, though that may well be high by the region’s historical standards), but some interesting blogs are emerging on women’s activism in the protests [h/t Caroline Sweetman].

And of course, the biggest question of all: what happens next, both in Egypt and elsewhere – are new dominoes about to fall in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen or elsewhere?

That’s it for now. I’d particularly welcome two kinds of comments: what’s missing from this analysis and what do you think of the framework – does it add anything and how can it be improved?


  1. Ever since the popular uprising in Tunisia and Egypt, I’ve been searching for analyses that uses the How Change Happens framework, and so I welcome this very much.

    Both events have some similarities with the People Power in the Philippines during the 80s.

    I think in addition to the factors that you have cited in your blog, the role that US played in the exit of Marcos (in the case of Philippines) and Mubarak (for Egypt) can be studied further.

  2. One thing that might be worth adding is the value of an existing proven strategy. A number of stories have noted that protesters got advice from Otpor, which has produced a guide to non violent protest based on its experiences in Serbia in the 1990s, which in turn drew on Gene Sharp’s work on non violent protest.

    Gene Sharp,,14846311,00.html

  3. I’m amazed by the statistic that there are 700,000 Egyptian graduates per year. That’s about twice the number than in the UK for an economy about 1/10 the size.

    duncan: Errm, it was in the Observer so it must be true?………

  4. What happens next is all that matters. Not trying to guess whether this will spread to other countries, but what happens next IN EGYPT!

    The fact of the matter is that very few stable governments, never mind functioning democracies, have come about immediately following (for want of a better word) a revolution.

    Egypt needs some clear thinking across the board right now. So does any other country that sweeps aside its current Gov’t: the real work begins now.

  5. As this Al Jazeera People & Power episode reinforces to me, challenging the bonds of poverty and oppression is about extending to people the feeling that they matter. The events in Tahrir Square and elsewhere remind me that real “D”evelopment comes when people awaken from fear and they can look forward to a future in which they feel secure, valued, and honored.

    And that, ultimately, this must come from within.

    Which leads me to question, as aid workers, do we question the sources of power in “D”evelopment enough in our day-to-day work? Do we acknowledge and challenge the policies and practices that marginalize and demotivate people, especially local activists? In all of the seemingly mundane acts of planning, coordinating and monitoring development projects, do we acknowledge the deep and profound difference between social change and delivering services? And if the development industry, as a whole, remains divorced from this, are we missing the whole point?

  6. Hi Duncan – very nice piece. The framework is great, it really helps put the key factors of the rising together.

    I think alongside the ‘granularity’ question you pose, we also need to consider how leadership will evolve out of the protests. Many groups with divergent aims (to a greater or lesser extent) coalesced to force Mubarak out; at some point they will need to either find common ground or engage in an act of political competition to determine who leads Egypt in the immediate term.

    The protests lacked clear political figureheads, which means the next step is actually fluid. In a way it’s like the invasion of Iraq: the agents were so concerned with the immediate term (removing Hussein) that they forgot that that would leave a power vacuum that needs to be filled. Right now the army is in that vacuum; if it expands to fill the space, we may only emerge into Mubarak pt. 2.

    A clear figurehead needs to emerge, and relatively soon.

  7. About the missing ‘clear figurehead’ etc.

    Following Mancur Olson’s Dictatorship, Democracy and Development and not minding the gaps of the individualistic, utilitarian methodology for a while, the missing figurehead could very well be a most positive thing. Countering that perspective is the presence of the Army in it all. But this is where I think there might be something missing in the framework.

    I do not know anything in particular about Egypt but is the Army rightfully defined simply as an agent? I predict that the unfolding change will be highly influenced by the nature of the Egyptian Army as both context, institution, and agent and the next step decided by what it is most in these days….

  8. Soren – can you elaborate on this? I’m at a loss to see how this situation can progress in any sense until there emerges some sort of leadership to take control of the country. Options are either: 1) the army; or 2) some democratically elected or selected figure, and whoever wins the elections will be the person who wins over the malcontented.

  9. Thanks, I think this is a helpful schematic in that pretty well all the bases seem to be covered. The issue is that the real interest lies in the parts a schematic like this doesn’t cover – all the interelationships between the lines eg between technological change and culture,between economic crisis and the environment and so on.

    We also need to unpack a bit further what you call ‘institutions’, and to include in there the role of aid programmes and of donors, including NGOs. How many of those in Tahrir Square – including the leaders – had been the beneficiaries of ‘awareness raising’ and ‘capacity building’ programmes? How do we ensure that such programmes are really part of the way forward??

  10. Duncan nice post. I think of things that is perhaps missing is the role of feedback in the process. This is something that the complexity literature brings to the analysis. For example the fact that the army did not act sent a signal which fed back into the process and changed it as a result. Traditional and social media are important because they amplify feedback both in terms of speed and scale. Similar arguments can be made for the role of international players and how their interventions, or lack of them, and how this effected local actors and vice-versa.

    The program that Ben Ramlingham has recently flagged in his latest post – The Secret Life of Chaos – – explains how this works in the natural world really well.

  11. Very helpful and interesting, thanks. Related to Kate’s comment: was there any role of “formal” or “aided” civil society in these events, both before (catalyst?) and during the protests? And will there be a role now, and if so, what will it be? Are organisations already doing useful stuff anywhere?

  12. What happens when you apply the same thinking about demographics to China, with its 6m university students graduating each year. Anyone have data on how many of those were unemployed in 2010?

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