The revolution in Egypt is unprecedented but not unexpected, says Salwa Ismail
The sustained mass protests that began in Egypt on 25 January lit the spark of revolution in a country long subject to repressive rule. The scale of the protests, the resilience of the protesters and their firm resolve to bring down the regime represented an unprecedented movement in Egypt and come as a wonderful corrective to the unfounded view of Egyptians as politically apathetic. For more than a decade now, Egypt has been witnessing increased levels of collective action involving broad segments of society. Between 1998 and 2008, industrial workers mounted thousands of protests, numerous strikes and sit-ins. The textile workers revived their long-established tradition of activism, best exemplified by 10,000 workers of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in al Mahala al Kubra going on strike in 2008. There have been newcomers on the scene of public engagement and action as well, most notably the tax collectors who staged an 11-day occupation of central Cairo demanding better pay, also in 2008. Alongside this mobilisation for economic change, other groups in society organised and pressed for political reform. In April 2006, in a widely publicised and well-regarded move, a group of prominent judges held a sit-in led by the Judges’ Association to denounce electoral fraud in the 2005 elections. The regime responded with punitive measures, bringing a number of the judges before disciplinary panels to sanction them. Subsequently, judicial oversight of elections was repealed in the constitutional amendments of 2007.
These high-level and well-organised activities have been complemented by spontaneous popular activism for basic rights. In towns and villages throughout Egypt, ordinary people have gathered to protest against poor infrastructure and police abuse. Stand-offs between the people and the police have often ensued, sometimes ending in violence.
In a sense, Egypt was building up to, and possibly rehearsing for, a showdown with the regime. Although the revolution is unprecedented, it was not entirely unexpected. The early activism and the ongoing mass protests have succeeded, in a remarkable way, in breaking down the wall of fear erected by the police over many years. To appreciate the magnitude and significance of these events, we should consider the kind of restrictions that were imposed on any expression of opposition to the regime and its policies. A web of regulations and decrees has encircled Egyptian citizens, undermining their capacity to organise and act collectively.
Although Egypt formally has a multi-party system, it has been dominated by one party for 35 years. The National Democratic Party (NDP), headed by Hosni Mubarak until his resignation from the post in early February, maintained a monopoly position in state institutions and government. To maintain this dominance, the regime devised regulations that made it virtually impossible to challenge it on a level playing field. These regulations set restrictions on the formation of political parties through a committee, affiliated with the shura council (the upper house of parliament) and comprising prominent NDP figures. Political parties in formation like the al Wasat party (formed by a dissident group of Muslim Brothers members) and the al Karama party (formed by a dissident group of Nasserist party members) were refused legal recognition on several occasions and their appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court was rejected in 2007. Existing parties have also been given little space to manoeuvre: they were subject to security oversight intended to limit any outreach to constituents or to the wider public.
As the National Democratic Party resorted to electoral fraud, elections increasingly lost their relevance for participatory politics. Vote rigging, buying of votes, violations of electoral rules and the use of thuggery at election time were the norm and reached a flagrant level in the parliamentary elections last November, in which the NDP won 93 per cent of the vote. It is worth noting that the NDP leadership introduced measures to prevent its own members from running as independents if they do not win party nominations. The party introduced the novel, and possibly unique, practice of devising nominations lists with multiple NDP candidates for the same seat. The November elections were therefore run primarily as a contest among NDP members.
In a sense, parliamentary contests and the continued dominance of the NDP were elements of the consolidation of the extensive executive powers concentrated in the hands of the president. The 1971 constitution, and subsequent amendments, invested the president with absolute authority over key institutions (e.g. as commander of the armed forces, and head of the Supreme Council which oversees judicial organisations), with rights to appoint and dismiss the prime minister, his deputies and cabinet members. In 2007, amendments to the constitution effectively foreclosed the possibility of non-NDP candidates running for the presidency. According to Article 67, nominations to the presidency required the endorsement of at least one-third of the members of the People’s Assembly. The nominee who won one-third of the votes of assembly members would become the candidate for the post of president of the republic and the candidacy referred to the people for election (or, more properly, ratification) in a plebiscite. Needless to say, with an absolute majority in the assembly, only NDP-supported nominees would become candidates for the presidency.
While the formal political structure and the institutions of political participation were closed off, emergency laws have further undermined ordinary citizens’ civil rights. These laws have been in effect since Mubarak came to power in 1981 and allow administrative detention without trial on the order of the minister of the interior. Under detention regulations, imprisonment does not issue from a court order, nor does it follow a court order of arrest. Rather, people are arrested at the police officers’ discretion and detained for months or years. Once the police have submitted a report to the security division, claiming that a particular individual constitutes a threat to national security, an internment order can be issued by the Ministry of the Interior. The detention rules deny civil liberties and guarantees of due process and leave citizens at the mercy of the police.
The Egyptian police departments govern vast areas of social life. They have responsibilities for security and public order, but also include jurisdiction over the regulation of outdoor markets, the use of public utilities such as electricity and the implementation of municipal building codes. With regular outdoor market raids and campaigns to monitor citizens’ use of these utilities, the police have intruded into the daily life of ordinary citizens. Endowed with the arbitrary powers of emergency laws, the police have engaged in extortion, and used violence to intimidate and silence any questioning of their powers.
The police have carried out numerous types of policing campaigns, maintaining continuous monitoring and surveillance of the population. Within the remit of what is called “traffic committees” (lijan murur ), they randomly stop drivers to verify driving licences or identity cards, and to inspect cars. Similarly, “security committees” (lijan amniya) target drivers and pedestrians and subject them to investigation procedures. Security checks and roadblocks on the streets of Cairo and many other cities have been part of Egyptian citizens’ daily reality. Young men, feared by the regime for their potential for activism and resistance, have been the main target of these practices, particularly those living in low-income neighbourhoods, and they are commonly stopped and asked to present their identity cards; following inspection, they may be hauled into the police station and subjected to what is known as “suspicion and investigation procedures” (ishtibah wa tahari ). This involves detention in the police station for up to three days while the police verify whether or not the detainee has a criminal record.
These practices are aimed at the control of the population, undermining Egyptians’ ability to challenge the police and ultimately the ruling regime. Indeed, in response to these practices, ordinary citizens have devised means of avoiding dealing with police. For example, young men from low-income neighbourhoods refrain from frequenting areas with roadblocks and checkpoints. Furthermore, women have stepped in as intermediaries with the agents and agencies of the state, including the police. I have noted in my work on the politics of everyday life in Cairo that women process applications for utilities services, negotiate fines issued by the police for violations of rules relating, for instance, to the use of electricity utilities, or for unauthorised occupation of public space by vendors in the informal markets.
The police’s arbitrary powers have been exercised with impunity under the emergency laws, which include the power to detain without charge individuals who are deemed a threat to national security. In the 80s and 90s, these provisions were applied, in the first instance, to suspected Islamist militants, but by the late 90s, they were used by the police to silence any questioning of their abuse of power and their engagement in illegal activities. It is estimated that the number of administrative detainees reached 30,000 in the late noughties. In addition to the use of systematic torture of suspects in police stations, the police engage in monitoring and surveillance and use a large number of informants and thugs. Indeed, the police have hired thugs, used them as informants in low-income quarters of the city and rewarded them with licenses to operate kiosks or run minibus services.
Under conditions such as these, organising for political reform, and social and economic transformation, using traditional channels and within existing institutions, became an increasingly fruitless exercise. Ordinary citizens and activists were aware that elections were not likely to change the regime, but were rather a means for achieving its consolidation. Analysts interpreted the results of the elections last November as laying the groundwork for the succession of the president’s son Gamal to the presidency. The absolute majority of the NDP in parliament, secured through unfair and illegitimate tactics, appeared certain to guarantee that only the party elite’s candidate would be nominated, and the prevalent speculation had been that Gamal Mubarak was the person of choice. Emergency laws were extended until 2012 and the politics of security was intensified, aided by constitutional amendments that introduced new anti-terrorism laws in 2007, in effect normalising emergency rule.
Protests became the only means of voicing demands and expressing opposition. In 2009 and 2010, various groups organised sit-ins in front of the National Assembly and the Council of Ministers with the objective of making representations to parliament and to the cabinet. These actions were often dismissed and the protesters’ demands sidestepped. Given that opposition political parties had their hands tied, civil society organisations, youth groups and broad short-term coalitions coalesced around demands for change. Activists of diverse social and political backgrounds agreed on the importance of ending Mubarak’s presidency and thwarting plans for his son’s succession. The movement of Kifaya (Enough) as well as the National Association for Change emerged to express these demands, organising protests focused on free and fair elections, and open democracy. They have a core group of activists, but participants in their events remained small in number.
The broadening of the agenda for change came with the first call for a general strike by textile workers on 6 April 2008, which drew wide attention and support from a cross section of society. A group of young activists formed what has come to be called the 6 April youth movement (shabab sita ibril ) in support of this call, using the internet to organise and develop ideas about the course and direction of change. The movement’s website provides a virtual space for discussion and for the circulation of information. Using Facebook, the movement publicised events and mobilised its social circles. Importantly, the activists and supporters of the movement were open to members of diverse political groupings including the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. A brief survey of their website reveals that their concerns are focused on broad social issues of equality and social justice, and on the protection of freedoms and civil liberties. These broad demands are articulated along with a vision for open and representative political government.
The protection of civil liberties is central to the youth movement and independent political activists: the level of abuse and humiliation of ordinary citizens by the police has been a catalyst in mobilising people. Human rights organisations have documented widespread cases of torture in police stations and the severity of the situation has acquired greater publicity following specific cases. A well-organised campaign against torture has also sensitised the public to the severity of the abuses. In 2006, a video was circulated on YouTube showing police abuse that shocked Egyptian society. The video, recorded by the police on a mobile phone, showed police officers severely beating and sexually abusing a young male minibus driver, Imad al Kabir, from the Greater Cairo quarter of Bulaq al Dakrur. Last year, the murder of Khaled Said, who was dragged out of an internet cafe in Alexandria by two policemen in civilian clothes and violently beaten to death, further escalated concerns. The “We are all Khaled Said” group that formed in 2010 has captured the indignation of citizens who have come to fear for their own security, in a society where the rule of law is disregarded. Khaled Said became one of the iconic figures of the unfolding revolution.
Citizens’ daily experience of humiliation on the streets, the growing social disparities – whereby a small elite has monopolised the wealth and resources of the country – and the blockage of formal political avenues, have all been factors driving the organisation of independent opposition to the regime and the widespread mobilisation to bring it down. The unfolding revolution in Egypt began when the 6 April youths called for “a day of anger” on 25 January, using Facebook and their website to publicise the call. On 18 January, in a powerful video message, Asmaa Mahfouz, one of the group’s founders, addressed her fellow citizens, particularly young men, to join her in public protest. In a moving and emotional speech, she underlined that they all had a responsibility to take part and that their success or failure depended on acting together. In her video log, she summed up the collective desire for liberty and dignity in the following statement: “I’m making this video to give you one simple message. We want to go down to Tahrir Square on 25 January. If we still have honour and we want to live in dignity on this land, we have to go down on 25 January. We’ll go down and demand our rights, our fundamental human rights. I won’t even talk about any political rights… We want our human rights and nothing else.”
It is too early to provide a comprehensive account of all the factors that have contributed to the people’s uprising and to the revolution. The media and analysts have both emphasised the role of social media in building up networks of dissidents and facilitating the organisation of protests. Some have credited the “Facebook generation” with lighting the spark of collective action. Undoubtedly, social media activists put the tools of virtual communication to remarkable use in calling for “the day of anger”. However, events can only be understood if we look at the experience of the vast majority of Egyptians over the last three decades under Mubarak’s rule.
It was fitting that the revolution had its spectacular beginning on Police Day and that the young took the lead in breaking down the barrier of fear that the police have erected over a long period of time. Egypt’s youth has bravely come forward, along with broad segments of society, to reassert their right to dignity and freedom. They have taken the first steps towards exercising fully the responsibilities of citizenship. It is in reference to these objectives that the protesters’ main and most powerful slogan, “the people want to bring down the regime”, should be understood. The desired change is nothing short of an overhaul of the institutions and structures of government.
Salwa Ismail is professor of politics with reference to the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and author of Political Life in Cairo’s New Quarters: Encountering the Everyday State (University of Minnesota Press)
This article is taken from the upcoming issue of Index on Censorship magazine, The Net Effect, out on 15 March. Click here to subscribe