The Egyptian opposition: from protestors to revolutionaries?

The failure to translate the momentum of the heady days of the January 2011 protests in Egypt into an effective revolutionary force is closely related to the organisational forms adopted by oppositional movements. This poses broader questions for social movements worldwide, argues Maha Abdelrahman

Maha Abdelrahman
22 April 2013

Except for shy enthusiasm within small circles of activists on social media, the first annual conferences of the Strong Egypt  and the Socialist Popular Alliance parties in March 2013 went almost unnoticed. The enthusiasm was mostly focused on the rise of young members of the parties into the ranks through the first party elections. By contrast, the dismal failure of the National Salvation Front to stand up to Morsi’s infamous constitutional reforms weeks earlier was met with a wide public debate and condemnation.

Between the struggling efforts of young political hopefuls and the total irrelevance of the performance of old guard opposition figures lies the fundamental question at the heart of Egypt’s revolutionary process since January 2011: what kind of organisation(s) will lead into the post-Mubarak era? Mass-based organisations led by young activists with roots going back to social movements which swept Egypt for a decade leading up to downfall of Mubarak?  Broad-based coalitions of seasoned political figures? Traditional political parties working along the same old authoritarian style? A hybrid of these or something completely different? More importantly, will a radical transformative project in Egypt emerge from within the narrowly defined realm of electoral politics or should we be keeping an eye on new possibilities for  more innovative initiatives?

These questions become more daunting against the background of Morsi’s ill-conceived constitution, which is yet another addition to a wide array of tools and measures, ranging from legal manipulation to regimes of co-optation and naked violence, used by Egypt’s rulers over the course of the twentieth century to arrest the development of mass-based, autonomous, political or civil organisations. By contrast, the rising popularity of new forms of activism which swept the world from Seattle to Milan, and from Thailand to Moscow, at the dawn of the new millennium provided activists in Egypt and elsewhere with alternative organisational structures and new tools for mobilisation.

In the first decade of the 21st century, Egyptian activists within blossoming yet embryonic labour and prodemocracy movements, participated in groups and networks that were characterised by decentralised and fluid organisational structures, diffuse boundaries and dependence on members rather than a centralised leadership - all features typical of new social movements. Such features not only served Egyptian activists to elude the repressive Mubarak regime, but even to bring down its chief altogether.

 In a matter of days during the uprisings of  January 2011, these same activists found their status transformed from protestors, demonstrators and strikers, who were members of loosely structured networks, to that of ‘revolutionaries’. These newly-minted revolutionaries were now suddenly confronted with the expectation that they would either capture or renegotiate state power, provide a vision for the future emanating from the iconic image of Tahrir square, and transform both polity and society. The activists/revolutionaries, however, had no ready plan, grand or otherwise, for the day after. Despite their fearless efforts to challenge the regime and its institutions, they had never intended to replace it by themselves. Their focus was on perfecting tools and tactics to change the nature of traditional politics. Along this journey, they did not develop the kinds of skills, including organisational ones, that could one day equip them to match the might of the military establishment or the iron discipline and mass base of the Muslim Brothers (MBs) whose organization has been in existence since 1928.

The absence of structures capable of harnessing the revolutionary potential of millions of Egyptians to propose  post-Mubarak alternatives became a challenge when revolutionaries were drawn into a marathon of electoral politics. This article does not, for a moment, advocate the notion of a Leninist revolutionary party, involving a rigid hierarchy and centralisation of power, iron discipline and leadership by a professional elite. Nor does it promote any other tired old brand of vanguard organisation. The focus here, instead, is to investigate the historical context and consider the nexus between loose organisational structures and a sustained revolutionary process.

The celebration of new social-movement style activism, with horizontal networks needing no leader, capable of organising without a central authority and based on a diffuse notion of power, derives from one feature that sets them apart from ‘old’ social movements: their political objective is not to capture the state. In re-visiting his earlier analysis of anti-systemic movements, Immanuel Wallerstein emphasises the deep suspicion of the state and state-oriented action as a defining feature of new social movements. In their  analysis of the two-staged approach adopted by old social movements, whereby  capturing state power was the first step before transforming the world, committed new social movement activists usually concluded that:

...state power was more limited than they had thought…the cadres of a militant mobilising movement became the functionaries of a party in power. Their social positions were transformed and so, inevitably, were their individual psychologies...the militant, syndicalist tactics that had been the daily bread of the social movement became counter-revolutionary.

It is this perceived betrayal of the movements’ goals, and the inability of revolutionaries/new rulers to resist the corrupting influence of power and party politics, which has created this deep suspicion among members of later generations of social movements. Their objective, therefore, has been no longer to take over state power but to challenge the boundaries of traditional politics and to establish decentralised alternatives.

Towards the end of the 18 tumultuous days in Tahrir square in January 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the MBs quickly drew on their vast organisational structures and power bases, while groups of activists who were occupying Tahrir square and made Mubarak’s ousting possible, frantically began to create ‘revolutionary’ networks and coalitions in an attempt to represent the millions who had risen up against Mubarak and to negotiate on their behalf. However, the history of these activists and their experience with political organisation in the previous decade has dramatically shaped their ability to assume the task of a revolutionary vanguard. During a decade of vibrant activism, no activist group or network, especially within the pro-democracy or labour wings of the struggle, had entertained the thought of assuming state power. As a consequence, they had neither experienced any need to create institutions that could mobilise and lead towards capturing power, nor worked on articulating a set of long-term political objectives.

On the eve of the January 25th uprising, the streets of Egypt were teeming with an impressive array of activist networks and protest groups. They were, however, no more than that; nascent groups and loose networks still exploring their potential as ‘movements’. While some activists were beginning to realise the limitation of these organisational forms for a long-term strategy, and were struggling with the predicament of finding sustained organisational structures while maintaining the flexibility of their autonomous politics, the majority were mostly content with the tools and tactics they had developed in line with new social movements working both at the global level and in the global South.

Three categories of protests that swept Egypt during the decade leading up to the fall of Mubarak help to illustrate the origins of the dilemma faced by Egypt’s new revolutionaries in the post-Mubarak era.

The Pro-democracy movement

The loosely-termed, pro-democracy movement refers to an array of largely middle-class groups, movements and networks of activists which, since the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, have started to organise around specifically political issues and demands such as reforming the constitution, limiting presidential terms, instituting free elections, ending an emergency law in effect for thirty years, and fighting a dynastic succession in the Mubarak family. In 2004, Kefaya, a predominantly Nasserist movement, became the primary contender for the role of leadership in this area thanks to its daring message and unprecedented success in taking its critique of the regime onto the streets. The main characteristic of these groups was that they worked outside formal political institutions. They were organisationally informal, and in some way they were protesting not only against the regime, but also against the failed formal opposition, such as political parties and professional syndicates which had been rendered ineffective through successive regimes’ policies of co-optation and repression.

The strong appeal of the pro-democracy movement to a new generation of activists resided in the absence of a rigid hierarchy and a traditional leadership. None of these groups had a formal structural set-up and never encouraged a notion of ‘leadership’ which became their strong rallying point. They organised around rotating steering committees whose purpose was coordination rather than decision making. In some quarters, a debate about the sustainability and effectiveness of loose networks of activism was starting to resonate among some activists towards the end of the decade. The absence of an organisational form that could mobilise on a larger scale and better harness the energies of protestors was beginning to be seen as a weakness by some.

Developing from a protest organiser to a movement, and finding an organizational form that allows spontaneity and a lack of rigidity while at the same time ensuring sustainability, was becoming Kefaya’s and other pro-democracy groups’ main challenge. Under relentless police brutality and state security harassment, however, activists did not have the luxury of exploring new forms of organisation which could accommodate both needs at the dawn of a new phase of the revolutionary process.

The fall of Mubarak pushed the same activists, and the vast numbers who have joined with them, to reconsider their role in a new era. Adopting a longer term strategy, and exploiting the lifting of restrictions on political parties, activists rushed into creating parties as launching pads for building mass bases, and as an urgent measure for contesting imminent parliamentary elections designed by the SCAF.  The Sadat and Mubarak regimes’ mixed strategies of repression and accommodation of the MB meant that the organisation created a huge mass base which it built through operating within civil society organisations, professional syndicates, student unions and a huge network of charity and service delivery groups. By contrast, no other group in society including the Left, the Liberals or the Nationalists was allowed the opportunity to operate within the same spaces, nor had the capacity and tools to develop similar organisational or mass structures. The overwhelming success of Islamist parties in the following rounds of elections revealed the huge challenges facing new political parties, most of which allied themselves with other new or old parties in short-term tactical coalitions. However, forging short-term political alliances among parties did not help solve such challenges or provide a sustainable basis for the future. One major problem facing these coalitions is that they were formed along binary secular/Islamist lines as a focal point of unity among disparate groups, despite their great internal heterogeneity in terms of ideological and policy orientations.

The Labour movement

One prominent feature of labour protests which intensified since 2004 was the ability of workers to organise not only outside of the formal unions but despite these unions. Nasser’s corporatist strategies, which aimed to neutralise any political or social group attempting to challenge his hegemony, meant that the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), established in 1957 as the sole representative of workers at the national level, became a mere appendage of the state. Not only was the co-optation of unions detrimental to the conditions of workers and their ability to organise, other legal measures were continually introduced to limit the potential for industrial action. An infamous example was the Unified Labour Law of 2003 which allowed collective dismissal and legalised extending temporary contracts indefinitely, while criminalising almost all strikes. Despite the draconian restrictions, workers have found ways of  breaking away and coming up with alternative organisational, albeit transient, arrangements. While protest action during the last decade was often spontaneous, a lot of strikes, occupations and sit-ins eventually saw workers develop elected strike committees which took the responsibility of negotiations with the management, and on some occasions, with top regime officials.

The question of organisation was at the heart of workers’ struggles. Not only were they trying to organise outside of the formal, co-opted and corrupt ETUF, but they were, more radically, challenging its long-held monopoly and demanding a renegotiation of the relationship between workers and the state to achieve greater autonomy. A landmark in this process was the successful launch of an independent trade union by the municipal tax collectors in 2008.  However, labour action remained overwhelmingly localised. The absence of representative organisations, and the ever present, stifling state security machinery meant that there was no agent within workers’ groups that was capable of taking the initiative to coordinate protest action or bring labour activists together for an exchange of experiences and setting of future agendas. Nascent organisations, mainly in the form of strike committees, which were set up to represent the demands of protesting workers, remained confined to individual companies and public sector departments with no sectorial or national coordination.

In the aftermath of Mubarak’s downfall,  and in light of their crucial role in tipping the balance of power against Mubarak, workers were emboldened to take radical steps such as the launching of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) only days into the January uprising. It was created to represent and provide support to hundreds of independent unions.  In a Gramscian analysis of revolutionary strategy, this is precisely what workers should aim for at this stage. Rather than aiming for a capture of power, they should pursue a process of revolutionary development rooted in ongoing struggles and culminating in a qualitatively new ‘network’ of proletarian institutions. Indeed, such a process is what hundreds of thousands of Egyptian workers have been engaged in during the last two years. However, the labour struggle and the establishment of  hundreds of new independent unions, as well as the umbrella EFITU, continue to be shackled by legal restrictions, political uncertainties, and the fierce determination of successive governments to arrest their development into mass organisations.

Market-relations based protests

On another level, Egypt was also witnessing a sustained range of protests and acts of civil disobedience carried out by diverse groups - from taxi and tuk tuk drivers to street vendors, and from small farmers to shanty town dwellers and housewives demonstrating against rising food prices and rapidly deteriorating living conditions. These forms of protest were often smaller in number and tended to erupt and dispel quickly, materializing around specific, immediate injustices in people’s living and working spaces. In a way, these types of protests constituted a more immediate reaction to the inability of increasing numbers of people to access, let alone restructure, market relations. This inability to access housing, potable water, health care, food commodities and loans, among other services and goods, was the outcome of aggressive privatisation and the withdrawal of the state from its traditional role of provider for low-income groups. By its very nature, this category of protest saw the least evidence of organisation.

Unlike Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, Egypt saw no neighbourhood committees developing to unite the struggle of small groups of citizens. Such struggles were entirely disjointed and fragmented, with no core or even an embryonic structure which could guarantee their sustainability or potential to evolve into a mass movement. The loose organisational structures of both pro-democracy and labour activism meant that there was no institution capable of bringing the dispersed struggles under a broadly-based coalition.

Although I am well aware of the constraints of speaking in terms of clearly-defined, homogenous ‘revolutionary forces’, it is clearly the inability of these forces, however defined, to create structures capable of articulating alternatives around which the revolutionary potential of a broad swathe of the Egyptian people can be mobilised, that remains the main challenge facing a genuine, radical economic and political transformation. This challenge is even more daunting given the hugely powerful military establishment and a Muslim Brotherhood, which while surprisingly ineffective, incoherent and weak in terms of tactics, strategy and even ideas, still remains easily the largest political organisation in the country.

But all is not gloomy, at least not in the longer run. Egypt today is still teeming with millions of Egyptians who are taking to the streets on a daily basis in an unabashed struggle against the ruling elite’s policies which continue to impoverish and marginalise them. Groups of activists are relentlessly trying to carve spaces for action. The ongoing mobilisation and efforts by different groups of activists to launch new initiatives including political parties, campaigns, independent unions, and more imaginative forums might still eventually give birth to new organisations that can outlive the two dinosaurs of Egyptian politics and achieve this transformation.









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