The Egyptian Protests Are a Many Constituencied Thing

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

All of us who have been watching the Egyptian protests over the last few weeks have been told many times that the demonstrations have been “spontaneous” and “leaderless,” sparked by the Tunisian rebellion and spread via the Internet.

Those intent on repeating this storyline can count me as skeptical. As I previously wrote, such depictions of social movements are not unusual, yet often they are more a reflection of ignorance than reality:

[W]hen demonstrations like these erupt, they’re inevitably labeled ‘spontaneous uprisings.’ However, that characterization is usually more a product of previous media neglect and ignorance than it is an accurate description of protest activity. If you’re not paying any attention to a country’s politics and only swoop in when things have reached a crisis point, events will invariably look out-of-the-blue. Yet that’s hardly the whole story.

Yes, there are extraordinary moments when public demonstrations take on a mass character and people who would otherwise not have dreamed of taking part in an uprising rush onto the streets. But these protests are typically built upon years of organizing and preparation on the part of social movements.

There are elements of the “spontaneity” narrative that I think have some truth to them. The Egyptian protests are decentralized, not controlled by any single figurehead or political party. And in terms of social movement theory, moments of dramatic upheaval present a legitimate challenge to some of the ways we might normally look at groups that are pushing for social change.

Without going too deep into the theoretical debate: approaches aligned with Resource Mobilization Theory, which focuses on organized networks and their ability to deploy community resources in prompting social change, are good at understanding the slow, year-in-and-year-out work of building up oppositional organizations. But they tend to be weaker in accounting for moments of mass upheaval, when huge protests take on a life of their own and the legitimacy of a previously dominant order seems to crumble overnight.

Among those who have challenged the Resource Mobilization school, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have emphasized the disruptive qualities of mass movements, suggesting that such movements can wield significant power even without particularly well-established organizational structures. Theories of strategic nonviolent conflict, working in the lineage of Gene Sharp, offer an independent set of conceptual tools—and a rich set at that—for understanding the art of unarmed uprising.

With regard to Egypt, the tension between these different schools of thought raises a lot of interesting questions—too many to sort out here. But there are some relevant points I think we should keep in mind as we look at the developing story.

First, the skills that it takes to create and sustain a period of mass protest are not the same as those needed to institutionalize the gains of mass demonstrations—to carry forward after the moment of upheaval has passed. Right now, those who are savvy at engaging the media and creating protest scenarios that convey a sense of excitement and forward momentum are very important. However, when it comes to determining how mass action will translate into lasting social change, more traditional organizers, who can develop local leaders and create stable networks of commitment and accountability, will be essential.

With reference to the U.S. civil rights movement, historian Charles Payne distinguishes between two different activist traditions. In the South there was, he argues, a “community-mobilizing tradition, focused on large-scale, relatively short term public events“—a “tradition best symbolized by the work of Martin Luther King.” At the same time, there was also a “community organizing tradition,” with a “greater emphasis on the long-term development of leadership in ordinary men and women“—epitomized by the likes of SNCC and Ella Baker. Both mass mobilization and long-term leadership development are organizing, and both can be extremely valuable. And, at times, they can overlap. But it’s useful to understand that they are distinct processes.

A second point: Even during a moment of dramatic upheaval, there are dangers in ignoring the organizational networks that make up more established social movements. If you view a mass movement as “spontaneous” and “leaderless“—leaving its constituent groups unexamined—it makes it much easier to employ the language of “chaos” and “riots” in describing popular mobilizations. These descriptions lend themselves to a fear of the mob that robs movement participants of their legitimate democratic agency. They’ve been useful for right-wing commentators who argue that we should be wary of the pro-democracy movement (and supportive of the United States’s historic backing of Mubarak), since “chaos” in Egypt will inevitably produce a radical Islamic regime hostile to U.S. interests.

In this type of conservative account (represented in a particularly nutty form here), Mohamed ElBaradei becomes a “self-appointed spokesman for the Egyptian ‘revolution’”—despite the fact that he has significant support from anti-government groups across the political spectrum.

As a counter to this nonsense, I have been pleased over the past week to see some thoughtful and detailed analysis of the protest movement appear, giving attention to some of the different constituencies that have contributed to the uprising.

Juan Cole, at his appropriated named Informed Comment blog, calls the protesters a “broad-based, multi-class movement, with working-class Egyptians clearly making up a significant proportion of the crowd in Tahrir Square.” In arguing why “Egypt in 2011 is not Iran in 1979,” Cole further breaks down why the “social forces making the revolution in Egypt,” including the Muslim Brotherhood, “have a significantly different profile and different dynamics than in Iran.”

Robert Dreyfuss at the Nation also does a good job discussing “Who’s Behind Egypt’s Revolt,” noting:

Contrary to some media reports, which have portrayed the upsurge in Egypt as a leaderless rebellion, a fairly well organized movement is emerging to take charge, comprising students, labor activists, lawyers, a network of intellectuals, Egypt’s Islamists, a handful of political parties and miscellaneous advocates for ‘change.’

He pays particular attention to youth constituencies:

First, by all accounts, is the April 6 Youth Movement. Leftists, socialists and pro-labor people know that the movement takes its name from April 6, 2008, when a series of strikes and labor actions by textile workers in Mahalla led to a growing general strike by workers and residents and then, on April 6, faced a brutal crackdown by security forces. A second, allied movement of young Egyptians developed in response to the killing by police of Khaled Said, a university graduate, in Alexandria. Both the April 6 group and another group, called We Are All Khaled Said, built networks through Facebook, and according to one account the April 6 group has more than 80,000 members on Facebook. The two groups, which work together, are nearly entirely secular, pro-labor and support the overthrow of Mubarak and the creation of a democratic republic.

Overlapping with the youth movement is labor. David Macaray makes the case that “Egypt’s current political unrest was inspired and energized by the actions of the country’s labor movement”:

According to a report presented at a symposium hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in February, 2010, there have been more than 3,000 labor protests by Egyptian workers since 2004. That’s an astounding number. The report declared that this figure ‘[dwarfs] Egyptian political protests in both scale and consequence.’ …Joel Beinin, a Stanford University professor, referred to Egypt’s labor activism as ‘…the largest social movement in the Arab world since World War II.’

U.C. Santa Barbara Professor Paul Amar elaborates on this in an excellent assessment of Egyptian civil society:

Paralleling the return of organized national(ist) capital associated with the military and ranged against the police (a process that also occurred during the struggle with British colonialism in the 1930s-50s) there has been a return of very powerful and vastly organized labor movements, principally among youth. 2009 and 2010 were marked by mass national strikes, nation-wide sit-ins, and visible labor protests often in the same locations that spawned this 2011 uprising. And the rural areas have been rising up against the government’s efforts to evict small farmers from their lands, opposing the regime’s attempts to re-create the vast landowner fiefdoms that defined the countryside during the Ottoman and British Colonial periods.

In 2008 we saw the 100,000 strong April 6 Youth Movement emerge, leading a national general strike. And in 2008 and just in December 2010 we saw the first independent public sector unions emerge. Then just on 30 January 2011 clusters of unions from most major industrial towns gathered to form an Independent Trade Union Federation. These movements are organized by new leftist political parties that have no relation to the Muslim Brotherhood, nor are they connected to the past generation of Nasserism. They do not identify against Islam, of course, and do not make an issue of policing the secular-religious divide. Their interest in protecting national manufacturing and agricultural smallholdings, and in demanding public investment in national economic development dovetails with some of the interests of the new nationalist capital alliance.

At this point, I hope a vibrant, resourceful, and decentralized protest movement will remain in the streets of Cairo and other cities throughout Egypt until Mubarak and his cronies are out for good. But I also hope that Egypt’s labor movement, its youth organizations, and all those who will be organizing long after the international press departs gain plenty of enduring fans and international supporters to make their work ahead a little easier.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising.