Four Myths about Protest

Four Myths about Protest

It’s now widely recognized that social protest has become a staple of Egyptian politics, what some journalists and researchers have taken to calling an emergent “culture of protest” among an aggrieved citizenry. Opinions differ on when to date the formation of this ‘culture.’ Some date it to 2002 with the pro-Palestine solidarity protests, others to 2004 with labour protests and the birth of Kifaya, still others to 2005 with the mobilisation accompanying the presidential and parliamentary elections. I’m inclined to see it as a grand wave of protest that began in 2000 with several triggers, including the recession and the outbreak of al-Aqsa Intifada. But even more important than the issue of dating protests is interpreting their causes and effects. Since 2005 when pundits dubbed protests a phenomenon, there have been several stock ideas repeated over and over again as if they were self-evident. I want to focus on four that are especially egregious, ideas that are quick to either laud or dismiss protest but are no help in understanding it.

The four myths can be roughly divided into two that are chiefly concerned with the causes of protest and two with its effects. The bad ideas about protest causes assert that: a) the government allows protest as a safety valve and b) that social protest is not about politics, it’s about survival. The bad ideas about protest effects claim that a) widespread protest will topple Mubarak’s regime and b) protest will lead to democracy.

A Grand Wave of Protest

First a few remarks about the current protest wave. It’s not the first such protest surge in the country’s political history, but recalls earlier moments of heightened social conflict in 1946-1952, 1968-1972, and 1977-1980 when various sectors of the population took to the streets to make a variety of claims. What is unique about the current wave is that it’s longer in duration and broader in scope, oscillating between intense peaks and extended troughs. It can be classified categorically, with electoral, rural, industrial, sectarian, cost-of-living, and democracy protests as some of the obvious categories. It can also be broken down into sets of distinct protest issues, participants, and techniques. Spatially, protest is now commonplace in diverse social locations, from campuses to villages to shop floors to marketplaces to schoolyards to train stations, and on the steps of ministries, police stations, courthouses, professional unions, agricultural cooperatives, municipal buildings, and—intriguingly—parliament. This is not counting the street, the public square, and now the highway as commonsense locations for social protest.

We know all this because of the rise of a competitive field of independent media in the past few years that has featured excellent coverage of protest events. Photographs and footage of angry, demonstrating citizens make for juicy teasers that attract more viewers and readers, so editors have their own incentives to cover protest. But increased news coverage has salutary effects: it generates more opinion pieces, more demands on government officials to explain their policies, and more incentives for protesters to clarify (and sometimes escalate) their demands. I’ve always been a news junkie, but reading the independent papers and watching the satellite channels these days is unusually edifying, revealing the extraordinary range of social problems and popular collective action that the government wants hidden or distorted. Consider this random selection of protest events culled from recent news reports: car repairmen amass in front of a police station to protest the municipality’s forcible closure of their workshops; displaced residents of Kafr al-Elw protest in front of parliament to demand compensation housing; three months earlier, Port Said residents had done the same; 300 Basateen families congregate at the Abdeen courthouse to publicise their suit against the municipality for ordering their houses demolished; Beheira villagers erect a road blockade for five hours to protest the killing of a woman and child, blaming a police official for their death; residents of Ezbet Khairallah protest in front of the Cairo governorate building, blaming officials for failing to provide potable water and trash collection.

Fortunately for us press junkies, both the independent and the government media also offer outlets for all sorts of ideas about protest, the good, the bad, and the banal. Let’s focus on the bad.

Bad Ideas

1. Widespread social protest will destabilize or topple Mubarak’s regime. This may be the heartfelt wish of anti-Mubarak activists and the worst nightmare for Mubarak’s rotten shilla, that Egypt will be another Iran circa 1978-1979 or the Philippines in 1986 or Serbia in 2000. It’s especially tempting given that protests characterized Nasser and Sadat’s final years in power, and Mubarak’s succession problem further nourishes the notion that his regime is particularly unstable. For example, both times that demonstrators tore down and destroyed the huge posters of Mubarak (in Cairo in 2003 and Mahalla in 2008), some commentators feared or hoped that this prefigured an actual ouster.

It’s certainly possible for social protests to remove autocrats from power, but it’s definitely not inevitable nor common. It’s doubtful that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi or Ferdinand Marcos were brought down by protests alone. Retrospective accounts may stress the defining role of a tremendous popular revolt, but in reality the autocrats’ downfall was the outcome of a years-long process of regime disintegration, including defection of key regime loyalists, economic and fiscal crisis, and a withdrawal in American support.

There are a host of other problems with this idea, but the worst in my view is the implication that protests are only significant insofar as they affect regime “stability,” anything else is irrelevant. This leads to assertions that either exaggerate or belittle protest events to suit one’s political commitments. Thus, activists see in every public demonstration or worker collective action a direct threat to Mubarak’s survival, and regime supporters ridicule every protest as futile, insignificant and/or dangerous. It’s easy to see how this can devolve into a shouting match or the worst sort of cocktail party political chatter, since it’s impossible to predict when or precisely how a regime collapses except after the fact. In the meantime, all the important but unsexy issues are ignored, such as how protestors articulate their claims, how authorities respond, whether (and what kind of) a compromise is worked out, and whether (and how) protest spreads to more societal sectors. Assessing protest exclusively by its impact on regime stability is the favoured activity of intelligence agencies and “political risk” firms (whatever those are), but is not a serious way to understand any political phenomenon.

2. The government allows protest as a safety valve. A position shared by both pro- and anti-government activists, this common dismissal was routine in 2005 when Kifaya was holding demonstrations nearly every week. When it’s explicitly articulated (and it rarely is), the reasoning goes something like this: Mubarak tolerates limited forms of protest either to stave off greater unrest or to deflect international pressure or as a barometer to gauge societal discontent. All of these are cogent reasons, and there’s no doubt that tolerating certain forms of protest is useful for the Mubarak regime. But the notion that the current protest wave is somehow part of a coherent plan by the regime and has been “allowed” to continue is bizarre. It grants a mythical amount of omniscience and omnipotence to rulers, ignores their repression of the vast majority of protests, and conceals a very important political development during Mubarak’s tenure: the routinised management and policing of protest.

The well-worn image of Central Security Forces and trucks encircling every public gathering has become so normalised that we forget how Mubarak’s police officials have worked to devise an elaborate and standardised set of procedures to deal with protest, from master plans sealing off greater Cairo in expectation of unusually large gatherings (as during the funeral of the Ikhwan Murshid Ma’moun al-Hodeiby in early 2004) to street-level tactics like the horrific corralling and then squashing of demonstrators by CSF recruits. Anyone who’s been at a demo has observed the intricacies of protest management, how police commanders and amn al-dawla officers work the crowd, consulting with their superiors via walkie-talkie, negotiating and bantering with the demonstration’s organisers, coordinating with the hired plainclothes thugs, and giving orders to recruits to attack (or refrain from attacking) protestors. It’s not unusual for the Interior Ministry’s all-important Cairo security chief to go into the field and supervise crowd management himself: recall Nabil al-Ezabi’s frequent shouting matches with Kifaya leaders in 2005 (he was later rewarded with the governorship of Assiut), and Ismail al-Shaer’s hands-on management of the pro-judges’ protests in spring 2006 and the 6 April general strike this year.

I don’t pretend to know the details of protest policing strategies hatched in Mubarak’s fortress-like Interior Ministry, but I know that they exist and are bankrolled by vast sums in the state budget. I would guess that they’re a combination of staple tactics inherited from the 1940s, recent innovations emanating from field experiences, and perhaps even the protest policing procedures of other Arab autocracies (the annual Arab Interior Ministers’ conference must be a fun, fun gathering). I’d also conjecture that techniques differ depending on not just the size and location of a protest event but the kind of participants (worker protests are policed differently than elite pro-democracy protests or student demos), the broader political context (the regime’s assessment of risk and threat levels), and the Interior Ministry’s internal bureaucratic politics (I’d give an arm and a leg to be a fly on the wall during their meetings). If we take the protests of 2005 alone, differences between pre-emptive and reactive police repression is immediately clear. Mubarak’s regime doesn’t “allow” protest then, but it does seek to contain, manage, and defuse it, ironically routinising this form of collective action.

3. Social protest is not about politics, it’s about survival. This idea is repeated over and over again as protest spreads to social groups who don’t routinely engage in it and have good reasons for avoiding it, such as the homeless of Qal’at al-Kabsh, Tebbeen, and Qursaya, or the fishermen and farmers in Kafr al-Shaykh and Gharbiyya protesting water scarcity last summer, or the Mahalla youths last month. A sister notion holds that the recent string of protests by doctors, industrial workers, farmers, and tax collectors embody “parochial” demands about wages and working conditions and therefore can’t be classified as important political events.

This is the one of the oldest canards about ordinary people’s collective action, a hoary myth that refuses to die. Not only is it incredibly condescending toward the human striving for a dignified life, but it basically believes that ordinary people are incapable of sustained political thought. It also involves quite a strange conception of politics.

Who said that politics only includes national structures of political power? Politics has always been about local constellations of power, and bread-and-water issues of survival. Politics is involved in any act that makes demands on the rulers and their agents. When homeless poor people amass in front of a municipal building or parliament to demand housing, or when Borollos villagers block a highway for 12 hours to compel their governor to supply them with potable water, or when Qursaya islanders cling to the soil to resist eviction by the army, they’re not “just” fighting for survival. As is obvious to anyone who pays attention, they’re making concrete demands on state officials, regardless of the specific issues at play. If that’s not political, I really don’t know what is. When workers strike to demand increased wages and food allowances, they’re making demands on management, yes, but they’re also demanding that the state either step in and force management to make concessions or enforce a breached compact or regulate exploitative work conditions. Demanding fair wages and defending other “parochial” interests is just as political as establishing a political party or insisting that Hosni Mubarak step down.

A final thought: I’m not convinced by the oft-made, strained argument that economic protests somehow “spill over” into political protests through some vague process of osmosis or something. Economic claims are already political by virtue of targeting government officials, policies, and interests in some fashion or another.

4. Protest will lead to democracy. Let me confess right away that I have a soft spot for this myth and constantly catch myself revelling in it. The reasoning is that more protest leads to more people voicing demands, which leads to more opportunities for powerholders to be subjected to popular consultation, which constrains their power and therefore promotes democracy.

This is most likely right, but only half the time. The other and probably more common outcome is greater repression and a contraction rather than expansion of democratisation. The key flaw with the more protest equals more democracy thesis is that it wrongly equates protestors’ claims with protest outcomes. However, claims are one thing, consequences are something else. We can’t judge protests by their claims, but by their indirect effects. For example, Kifaya and allied social movements demand that Mubarak step down, refrain from handing power to his son, and convoke competitive, free and fair elections. This has not happened. Do we then judge Kifaya’s impact by its failure to oust Mubarak and install democracy? That would be ludicrous, but it would also be wrong to assume that since Kifaya was a pro-democracy movement, it automatically added an increment of democracy to Egyptian politics. The fact is that the consequences of Kifaya’s protests are two-pronged: on one hand, they effectively set the agenda of public discourse for at least a year and acted as a counterweight to the Ikhwan. One the other, and contrary to movement members’ intentions, Kifaya’s protests increased the regime’s repression of democracy-seeking coalitions and may have improved the government’s capacity to throttle future such coalitions in their cradle. It’s not clear yet which of Kifaya’s effects will prevail, the point is that pro-democracy claims do not unambiguously result in pro-democracy consequences.

It also works the other way round: anti-democracy protest claims may paradoxically result in more democratization, if they spur counter-movements to mobilise, thus bringing more participants into the political space and routinising protest as a form of collective pressure on public authorities. The example of Egypt in the inter-war period comes to mind here, with its diverse set of political-ideological groups all taking to the streets and forming coalitions with parliamentary factions, competing with each other for political standing and influence: Ikhwan, Misr al-Fatah, the congeries of socialists and communists, the Wafd and its factions, and endless splinter groups and underground societies. Some were avowedly pro-democracy and others were vocally anti-democracy, but their combined effect on politics was democratising by increasing the numbers of politically active citizens and forcing government accountability through periodic elections.

Ultimately, the consequences of protest on democratisation is very difficult to gauge, precisely because protest has the dual effects of on one hand expanding political participation and subjecting rulers to popular consultation and on the other provoking popular fear of ‘chaos’ and inviting greater state repression. However, we can see the connection more clearly if we don’t confuse protest claims with protest effects. Important mediating factors always step in, confounding intentions.

A Good Idea

So now that I’ve so arrogantly proclaimed some ideas to be so bad, what, pray, are the good ideas?! For starters, the current protest wave needs to be carefully documented; constructing a comprehensive catalogue of protest events is fortunately now feasible, given extensive media coverage and various research and human rights groups’ tracking of protest incidents for some years now. Once we have the information, we can begin the analysis, looking for salient patterns, identifying the likely causes of protest, tracking changes in its morphology, explaining how it diffuses, and understanding government containment strategies. Regarding causes, we know that privatization has triggered the frequent labour strikes, so we can conjecture that government and/or business resource-grabs such as increased taxation and land appropriation are propelling citizens to protest; think of the remarkable Dumyat mobilisation against the planned Agrium facility, or Qursaya islanders’ mobilisation last year, the Dahab and Warraq islanders’ protests in 2001, or traders’ protest against the sales tax in 2001.

Morphological analysis might include constructing typologies of protest claims, protest targets, and protest locations. It ought to examine innovation and diffusion in specific protest techniques, such as my favourite tactic: the increasing resort to protests in front of parliament. There’s also the spread of the internationally resonant candlelight protest, or the intriguing sash phenomenon, which the judges first started in spring 2006, then the Ikhwan MPs mimicked it in their protests against the Lebanon war in August 2006, then it was diffused to opposition MPs protesting the constitutional amendments in March 2007, then Giza lawyers picked it up when they protested lack of courtroom space last autumn, and who knows who’ll borrow it next?

There are so many ways to describe and interpret Egypt’s protest wave, isn’t it a great shame to keep invoking the same reductive, anaemic ideas, ignoring all the rich empirical information right under our noses? In other times and places, sustained protest waves illuminated the intersection between politics and everyday life, tracked momentous changes in political structures and economic organisation, and midwifed new ways of doing politics. Above all, protest waves always transformed relations between citizens and government agents. Beyond their momentous effects, protest waves are intrinsically fascinating. The phenomena of ordinary people struggling to preserve their honour and dignity, organising to make forceful demands on those who control their fates and livelihoods, activating their citizenship, this is an awesome thing to behold.