Egypt: What are the drivers of change?

February 17, 2011 13 By admin

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?