Maha Abdelrahman, Egypt`s Long Revolution: Protest Movements and Uprisings. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Maha Abdelrahman (MA): The idea for the book began to crystallize in the second half of the 2000s, but the book I started writing was not the same as the one I finished! At the time, I was one of a group of researchers that was studying the rise of new forms of activism and a new political culture of resistance in Egypt during this tumultuous decade of protest. The country was teeming with unprecedented levels of mobilization in this period. I am not referring only to the intensifying activities of pro-democracy groups such as Kefaya, March 9 for Academic Freedom, AGEG, and Doctors without Rights. Less publicized but equally important were labor strikes against aggressive waves of privatization and pro-capital laws and farmers’ protests against new tenancy laws and the squeeze being applied on small farmers in general by large state-backed agribusiness and landlords. My intention was to write a book that would analyze this unparalleled wave of protest and its causes while studying its major actors. The plan was to write an account that would end with the close of the decade and conclude with questions about the future and potential of these movements.
After conducting most of my research and completing parts of the manuscript, both Egypt and, on an obviously much smaller scale, my book project, were overtaken by events that culminated in the astonishing uprising of 2011. The book project momentarily seemed no longer relevant to me. For how could one settle into the role of an academic in a quiet room and attempt to write a scholarly manuscript when the history of Egypt, and perhaps the whole region, was being written? However, after the initial euphoria had worn off somewhat and the realization of imminent threats to the revolutionary process had set in, I promptly returned to the book project, this time with a slightly different eye.
Aware of the fast-growing body of literature that was reducing the uprising, and the revolutionary process that engendered it, to a single event, I focused on showing the historical lineage of the uprising as a long, unfolding process. Furthermore, I aimed to highlight how the history and nature of the activism and mobilization that had preceded the 25 January uprising continued to shape the unfolding political process in the turbulent three years that followed. I particularly set out to examine the challenges faced by new social movements in developing a radical project for change in the post-Mubarak years.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MA: A book concerned with uprisings and revolutionary processes, not surprisingly, starts from a reading of theories of revolutions and new social movements. The book describes a revolutionary process that started over a decade before the January 25 uprising and which in my view will continue into the future for as long as the structural conditions that gave rise to the mobilization of millions of disaffected Egyptians remain unchanged. One of the main underlying themes of the book, therefore, is the nature of these structural conditions that developed under a new economic and political order that had begun to emerge in Egypt in the 1990s. The book examines the construction of this new order by focusing on the rise of a growing political class, the strategies of dispossession it implements, the institutions it relies on for its dominance, and the methods it has been employing to establish and protect its hegemony.
It was this neoliberal order, which gathered force under Mubarak, which spawned intensive waves of mobilization that spanned the decade, culminating in the massive 25 January uprising. This new order was a tightly knit network of interests that brought the military and the state-capital nexus together in an imposing edifice closely protected by the bulwark of a set of institutions whose function was to reproduce and protect the system. The book demonstrates that, in the face of this powerful system, the overthrow of the Mubarak regime was an even more daunting task than seemed apparent.
One of the main arguments the book puts forward is that, as Gramsci reminds us, objective structural conditions do not necessarily by themselves create successful mobilization on such a large scale. The process of small- and large-scale mobilization, its dynamics, the forms it takes, and the actors involved, therefore, are the main subjects of the book. This is particularly necessary given some of the mainstream narratives of the January uprising, which portray the events of the eighteen days of Tahrir as a peaceful protest led by middle-class, technology-savvy, urban youth demanding greater political freedom. Absent from this narrative is the role of large sections of the Egyptian population, such as workers, farmers, and the urban poor, who have equally shaped events before and after 25 January 2011. The book is keen to show that apart from the pro-democracy movement, workers, farmers, and, indeed, almost everybody else have been at the heart of this process. Moreover, the nature of change for which this gamut of protestors was agitating was much more fundamental than establishing electoral politics.
The characteristics of this process of mobilization, and the different groups involved in it, are also a focus of the book. Across the board, activist groups were employing similar tactics and strategies to those of other social movements and protest networks across the world. They were based on informal, cross-ideological, loosely-organized structures, with activists opposed to centralized leadership and top-down hierarchies. The book examines these features and how they served as tactical tools, enabling activists to survive the brutality of the Mubarak regime and to create spaces for mobilization that would not otherwise have been possible relying on the old forms and tactics of traditional opposition politics. The book goes on to investigate how these same tactics employed by new social movements have fared during a different phase of Egypt’s revolutionary process since the downfall of Mubarak.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
MA: My research interests have always been within the framework of state/civil society relations in the Middle East. My earlier research focused on civil society as both a theoretically and politically contested terrain where, in the latter, different state and non-state actors competed over the creation of hegemony and counter-hegemonic projects. In particular, my first book, Civil Society Exposed: The Politics of NGOs in Egypt (2004), examined civil society in Egypt and how the politics of NGOs provided a microcosm of Egyptian politics dominated by the interplay of authoritarian regimes, international donors, and financial institutions promoting neoliberal policies. In the following years, my work examined diverse yet related themes, such as the debate on human rights by both state and non-state actors within the space of civil society, changing labor market dynamics perceived through the lens of NGOs, and the commodification of Islam related to the changing directions of the Islamicization of society in Egypt.
Still engaged with the state/society framework and the changing political landscape of the twenty-first century, I continued to research the development of new actors within the sphere of civil society and their battle against the regime and the global capitalist order it serves. Many years before popular publications on the Arab uprisings appeared, I had produced a series of articles on protests and activism in Egypt in which I dealt with questions of the tactics and strategies used by these new groups and movements. Major themes included the links between domestic opposition groups and global protest movements, the changing politics of the Left, and the relevance of tactics employed by new social movements of the twentieth century for changing global and national politics.
This book is a culmination of painstaking research on these themes conducted over the last decade. It builds on my previous research, but it departs from this previous work in focusing on state/society relations during a revolutionary moment.
J: What methodologies did you use in your research for this book?
MA: My methodological starting point for this research was a critical engagement with the literature on new social movements, especially focusing on new forms of protest networks within a rising global crisis of capitalism. At the same time, I was a witness to and a participant in many of the forms of protest that were sweeping the streets of Egypt. For example, I participated in the mass protest against the war on Iraq on 20 March 2003, which ended in the occupation of Tahrir Square for one day, a day that I later described as a “dress rehearsal” for the 25 January uprising. For a decade, I attended every chapter of the annual Cairo Conference against Imperialism and Zionism, which brought together activists from across the world and which I use in the book as an example of a forum in which many activists crystallized their struggles during the ensuing decade.
During the actual writing of the book, I carried out an intensive schedule of interviews with many activists who were at the forefront of “leading” Egypt’s new opposition politics. I chose my interviewees from across a broad range of groups, networks, and political and ideological backgrounds to reflect the complexity and richness of my subject matter. I also relied on the publications of a small number of research/activist centers, as well as the archives of some “independent” newspapers such as Almasry Alyom for detailed coverage of protest actions over the decade.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MA: I wrote Egypt’s Long Revolution with several audiences in my mind. The book targets scholars of Middle East politics and sociology. I hope students and researchers of the state, civil society, and social movements in the region will find it relevant. The book is also of particular interest to those who are more specifically interested in the Arab uprisings and the future of opposition politics in the region.
While the book focuses on the history of mobilization and protests in Egypt, the research raises theoretical questions on protest and social movements during revolutionary moments in general. The book analyses the Egyptian case within a broader lens that takes in similar events, processes, and tactics by movements everywhere. The book is therefore also relevant to readers interested in social movements and networks of protest and resistance against the global capitalist order and its nationalist agents in the twenty-first century.
Most importantly, I wrote this book in the hope that some of the activists who have been at the forefront of Egypt’s long revolution will have the chance to read it and react to it. However, academics in this neoliberal age are in something of a bind when it comes to publishing research. Because of pressures and expectations of universities on academics to publish scholarly work in particular (read exclusive) forums, this book (expensive and published in English!) will not reach this section of the audience I most intended. Breaking the rigid wall between academia and activism and making academic production more relevant is a dilemma I am not alone in battling. My hope for this book is to have it translated into Arabic and thus make it available to those who are its actual subject matter and who will have more to say about its content than anyone else.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MA: During the writing of Egypt’s Long Revolution, I developed a keen interest in researching labor questions. While the book deals with issues related to labor mobilization and collective action under Mubarak and beyond, my new research interest lies within the changing labor conditions and employment practices in the last few decades, which have led to the rise of these recent forms of mobilization. My new project will focus on conditions leading to the growing nature of precarious labor in Egypt and the expansion of precarity to include more groups and new categories of labor such as civil servants and others within formal employment.
My second research interest, which I had already started investigating in the book, is the role of the security apparatus in the service of neoliberal capitalism. I am interested in the role of the police historically as an agent in the service of capital, responsible for the reproduction of power relations and for crushing the expectations of citizenry. My research will focus on the policing of the public sphere in Egypt, as well as its increasing role in the disciplining of labor.
Excerpts from Egypt`s Long Revolution: Protest Movements and Uprisings
From Chapter One: Mubarak’s Brave New World
[…] While a new political project requires a new and committed political class, it also needs new ideologues to advocate and justify its founding principles. Harvey (2003) reminds us how neoliberalism, as a new political economic doctrine in the 1940s, developed into a coherent project through founding exclusive think tanks which produced a steady stream of analysis and polemics in its favor. The Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies (ECES), a think tank established in the 1990s with the support of USAID and a group of powerful businessmen, provided the space for Egypt’s new ideologues…The Centre was an invaluable institution that produced prolific research that emphasized the necessity and inevitability of the reform being carried out by the regime. Among the research produced were recommendations for accelerating privatization and extending it to new economic sectors such as the airline industry [...]. To promote the liberalization of trade and a commitment to international free trade agreements, research was published on the inevitability of trade liberalization and on the success of the highly controversial Qualifying Industrial Zone (QIZ) protocol on the textile and garment industry […].Very quickly, as Rutherford (2008:211) commented, “The ECES became the primary institution for translating the broad principles of neoliberal reform into specific policy proposals…Through…[its] efforts, the private sector’s aspirations for change were converted into a coherent policy agenda.”
From Chapter Four: Praising Organization? Egypt between Activism and Revolution
[…] By contrast, in the years before the uprising, activists who had bravely challenged an increasingly repressive regime, occupied Egypt’s main squares for eighteen days, risked their lives and taken the brunt of brutal state violence were quickly shunted to the margins of this power struggle. The problem was that these activists, over the course of only a couple of weeks, found themselves unexpectedly transformed from protestors, demonstrators and strikers to the status of “revolutionaries.” These newly-minted revolutionaries were now suddenly expected to take part in renegotiating state power and to provide a vision for the future that would transform both polity and society—a task for which they were woefully unprepared. In fact, Egypt’s new revolutionaries had no plan for the day after, grand or otherwise.
From the Conclusion
[…] Movements of protest and resistance against a global capitalist order and its nationalist agents have proliferated since the beginning of the twenty-first century. In 2011, in particular, these movements took the world by storm, from Arab “springs” to Spanish indignados to anti-austerity regimes in Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Chile to occupy movements starting in the US and spanning the world and anticorruption movements in India, Brazil, Uganda, and Thailand. Students, farmers, middle class professionals, workers, the unemployed, indigenous populations and the rest of those dispossessed by neoliberal global capitalism took to the streets, threw governments off guard and dominated public debate for months. The bravery, ingenuity and single-mindedness of these groups have brought up questions which had remained unanswered for over a decade. Beyond episodic waves of protest and momentary destabilization of authorities, what else do these movements aim to achieve and what transformative projects can they offer? This question becomes paramount during instances when the old order that these movements are challenging is actually going through a period of crisis. However, for most members of these social and protest movements, the very phrasing of this question is itself part of this old order, symptomatic of outdated modes of thinking and praxis.
[Excerpted from Egypt`s Long Revolution: Protest Movements and Uprisings, by Maha Abdelrahman, by permission of the author. © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]