Three Lessons For Social Movement Research From the Egyptian Revolution

By Atef Said

Jack Goldstone famously argued that revolutions are like earthquakes: unpredictable. Once an earthquake happens, however, we study it to learn something new (Goldstone 1991: 59, 149). In the same vein, sociologists Mohamed Bamyeh and Sari Hanafi recently stated “Revolutions, therefore, are opportunities to learn something new. The worst analytical insult to a revolution is to use it as an opportunity to apply mechanically an existing theory or model.” (Bamyeh and Hanafi 2015: 343) What can we learn from the Arab Spring today, 6 years later? A general Google search brings up 11,700,000 entries that roughly have some version of “Lessons from the Arab spring” in the title. These lessons/conclusions vary from blaming some actors (such as the political Islamists, or the “revolutionary youth”) or forces of the old regimes (such as the military or the security apparatuses), or the elite (intellectual or the political elite, which varies from liberal, nationalists to Marxist leftists) or discussing the problem of a lack of organization or leadership. And there is a multitude of lessons to be learned, depending on the perspective of the scholar or observer.

Without delving into the debate about the success or failure of the Arab spring, or the reasons for its apparent abrupt ending, I would simply agree with those scholars who observed that there is a fierce counter-revolution which followed the events of the Arab spring, and that there is an intensification of the geopolitical ramifications of the aftermath of the Arab Spring (Achcar 2016; Bameyh 2016). There is also is a strong sense of defeat among most actors who participated in the uprisings. Nevertheless, I believe it is simplistic to say that the Arab spring “ended.” The Arab spring has made a lasting impact on millions of subjects. And it has radically opened up contentious politics in the region. The kinds of authoritarianism that exist in the region today are not the same types of authoritarianism that prevailed before the Arab spring.

Inspired by the scholarly observation I opened this post with, I prefer to highlight some lessons from studying the Arab spring, as a scholar of social movement and revolutions. I will underscore three lessons from my research on the Egyptian revolution of 2011. The first relates to social media and social movements, the second to the question of organization in revolution, and the third addresses the question of repertoires of contention.

The first lesson to be learned from the Arab spring concerns the intersection of social media and mobilization. As the readers of Mobilizing Ideas know, many scholars and observers agree that social media was crucial in the events of the Egyptian revolution and the Arab spring at large. Some analysts went so far as to suggest that social media was the most critical feature of the uprising (Zhuo 2011). Here I agree with Merlyna Lim’s assertion that we should reject the false tension between describing the Egyptian uprising as either a “people’s revolution” or as “Facebook” Or “Twitter Revolution” (Lim 2012:232) because ultimately “people” are the agents operating social media. Social media may be a site of contestation, but we should think of it as both a space and technology (Lim 2012:234).

As sociologists of revolutions and mobilizations, we should reject a techno-deterministic account that studies social media in a social vacuum. And if we are to do justice to the complexities of the story, we should also reject ahistorical accounts of social media that see it as stagnant. Obviously, social media played a different role with respect to mobilizing the various Arab spring countries. The real question is not whether or not social media was a (or the) decisive factor in the Arab spring, but in what ways online activism intersected with offline activism, as well as why the interaction between the two changed from time to time, within the same context. Rather than merely analyze the advantages and limitations of social media use, we should focus on the dynamics and processes of how social media intersects with mobilization, and the temporal shifts of this intersection.

Activists used social media for a number of purposes: to plan mobilization, to create frames, and to share tips about protests, among other things. But social media’s intersection with mobilization shifted in Egypt during the uprising. This shifting role went through at least three distinct stages. In the first stage, spanning roughly from mid-December 2010 to January 27, the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page played an important role in the initial mobilization of the revolution. In the second stage, spanning from January 28 to February 1, 2011, the Social Media Blackout had the opposite effect on mobilization than the one intended by the government.[1] One significant consequence of the blackout was that many people went into the streets to check things out, and ended up participating in the uprising. In the third stage, Feb 2- Feb 11, 2011, after social media was restored in Egypt, there was what I describe as the iconization of Tahrir Square, which drew global attention to that space (Said, Forthcoming). I propose that it is extremely difficult to draw a clear line between online and offline mobilization, especially in an authoritarian context, where many developments that appear to happen online are in fact the outcome of organizations behind the scenes. Additionally, during the counter-revolutionary period, social media became less effective in mobilization. This was due to many reasons, including the military regime’s targeting activists in social media and streets alike. The military regime invested heavily in surveillance of social media, and hired very large armies of paid informants and pro-regime actors to spread rumors and delegitimize activism and the revolution. In light of these complications, one cannot predict the ways social media would intersect with mobilization in the future in Egypt or other Arab Spring countries. It may well continue to play a role, but we cannot predict any specific type of configurations of this role. On this note, the terminology of techno-optimism or techno-pessimism with respect to the role of social media and movements strikes me as limited, reflecting more of a psycho-political stance than an analytical one. We do not have to give up sociological rigor as we have to learn from scholars of communications (Earl et al, 2016).

The second lesson relates to the question of organization and the notion of the “leaderless” feature of the Egyptian revolution. Scholarship on the Egyptian revolution emphasized the idea that the Egyptian revolution was leaderless and that horizontalism was a key feature in the mobilization during the uprising (Chalcraft 2012; Ross 2011; Tugal 2013). Horizontalism here refers to the absence of traditional charismatic leadership, as in past revolutions. Despite my agreement with this characterization, my research urges further clarification of this assertion. First, it is a common mistake to assume that leaderless means organizationless. Horizontalism in mobilization simply refers to a unique type of organization that is non-hierarchical. Second, we need further elaboration about what the actors opposed in this revolution, and the ways they organized. As my research shows, protestors in Tahrir were against traditional leadership, but they were not against leadership altogether, for I found that there were indeed many leaders in Tahrir camp who were responsible for various processes of survival and organization, as well as mobilization and communications. In my ethnographic study of the famous protest camp in Tahrir, I found that one of the keys to the sit-in’s success in Tahrir was the fact that protestors employed a combination of organization and spontaneity. Experienced organizers were helpful in setting up the camp in the beginning, drawing on their experiences from previous sit-ins, but they and other, less experienced protestors were also quite innovative and skilled at adapting on the fly in ways that contributed to the durability and effectiveness of the camp.

Protestors in Tahrir, then, were opposed to the old-style leaders, but not against any and all leadership. I also found that a degree of hierarchy did exist in the Tahrir camp. The Youth Coalition of the Revolution (YCR), which was the main coalition in the revolution, and played one of the most critical roles of mobilization during the uprising, had some sort of hierarchical organization. The coalition included six youth groups: Justice and Freedom (leftist), the 6th of April group (liberally oriented), ElBaradie supporters (liberally oriented), youth of the Muslim Brotherhood, and youth of the Democratic Front Party (liberally oriented). The leadership of the YCR included selected members of these groups. Most of these groups were horizontally organized, but some, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were not. With the exception of some members, mostly youth, of the Muslim Brotherhood organization operated hierarchically in Tahrir and the revolution. Additionally, the leadership office was the directive body of these six groups at once during the uprising. As one scholar of the Egyptian revolution put it, the mobilization in this revolution is best described as “leaderfull” rather than “leaderless” (Chalcraft 2012). My research shows that the leaders of YCR played an important role in mobilizing their groups and organization in the Tahrir camp. Many other groups also emerged in the camp. These groups were composed of experienced and inexperienced activists. These groups had leaders, but again not in the traditional sense. I propose, then, that we need further elaboration and theorization about horizontalism in relation to organizing. We should develop some deeper sociological work on the importance and the limitations of horizontalism, given that it is a focal point in recent conversations about the Arab Spring, against the shallow romanticized perception of that notion (Van de Sande 2013). Equating “leaderless” and horizontalism may not be an accurate theoretical move. We need to stop discussing horizontalism as an empty cliché that does not provide us with a decent analytical power about what was going on in movements. Similarly, it may be necessary to question the claim that future mobilization is reserved only for horizontal mobilization.

My third and last point relates to the idea of repertoires of contention. The following is not in any way a comprehensive account of how repertoires of contention operated in the Egyptian revolution in general. I will limit this to the question of the centrality of the occupation of Tahrir Square in the Egyptian revolution as a main mode of action in the revolution. Many scholars addressed the significance of Tahrir Square in the Egyptian revolution already (Gregory 2013; Gunning and Baron 2014; McCurdy et al 2016; Ramadan 2013). But I proposed elsewhere that we cannot understand why Tahrir was chosen as a site of protest, and occupation as a main mode of action during the uprising, without investigating the history of political mobilization in Egypt (Said 2015). I also propose that it is one thing to analyze how and why occupation was the main repertoire in the Egyptian revolution, and another to reduce the Egyptian revolution to what happened in Tahrir. I agree here with historian Zeinab Abul-Magd that it is simplistic and far from accurate to reduce the Egyptian revolution to the acts of the middle class youth whose main site of protest was Tahrir (Abul-Magd 2012). But while many scholars addressed how Tahrir Square was central to the revolution, I investigate in my research how this centralization took domestic and global attention from other modes of actions, outside of Tahrir. I also study how, after the Revolution, protestors continued to go to Tahrir, thinking they could repeat or replicate the revolution. And I study how the consecutive administrations in Egypt in the aftermath of the uprising were prepared with military tanks in Tahrir. Not only was the element of surprise missing, but the repertoire of “occupy” had lost its power, in a sense. Why did this seem to work during the revolution in Egypt in 2011, but not in its aftermath? Did this hinge on the element of surprise?

Why occupy became a globally dominant repertoire in the aftermath of the Arab Spring is an important question of course. This dominance may have taken place due to the inspiration of the Tahrir experience, or it may be simply a response to the attacks of what I describe as “neo-liberal authoritarianisms” attack on public spaces and freedom of organizing. There may be tones of other reasons. But with the growing reliance on protest camps today as repertoire of contention, it is incumbent on us to rescue the concept from its current treatment as simple protest tactic or an empty performance, and to go back to the original thick Tillian formulation of the concept, as context-specific and time-specific and as operating in relation with the regimes against which a given movement is using a specific repertoire (Tilly 2006).


Works Cited

Abul-Magd, Zeinab. “Occupying Tahrir Square: the myths and the realities of the Egyptian revolution.” South Atlantic Quarterly 111, no. 3 (2012): 565-572.

Achcar, Gilbert. Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising. Stanford University Press, 2016.

Bamyeh, Mohammed. “Will the Spring Come Again?” R/evolutions: Global Trends & Regional Issues, Vol 4, No. 1, 2016, (ISSN: 2449-6413), pp. 74-86.

Bamyeh, Mohammed, and Sari Hanafi. “Introduction to the special issue on Arab uprisings.” International Sociology. (2015): 343-347.

Chalcraft, John. Horizontalism in the Egyptian revolutionary process. Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), 2012. Available in this link: (Last accessed Feb 24, 2017).

Earl, Jennifer, Jayson Hunt, Kelly Garret and Aysenur Dal. “New Technologies and Social Movements,” in Donatella della Porta and Mario Diani (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Social Movements (Oxford Handbooks) 1st, 2016: 355-366

Goldstone, Jack A. Revolution and rebellion in the early modern world. U of California Press, 1991.

Gregory, Derek. “Tahrir: Politics, publics and performances of space.” Middle East Critique 22, no. 3 (2013): 235-246.

Gunning, Jeroen, and Ilan Zvi Baron. Why occupy a square? People, protests and movements in the Egyptian revolution. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Lim, Merlyna. “Clicks, cabs, and coffee houses: Social media and oppositional movements in Egypt, 2004–2011.” Journal of Communication 62, no. 2 (2012): 231-248.

McCurdy, Patrick, Anna Feigenbaum, and Fabian Frenzel. “Protest Camps and Repertoires of Contention.” Social Movement Studies 15, no. 1 (2016): 97-104.

Ramadan, Adam. “From Tahrir to the world: The camp as a political public space.” European Urban and Regional Studies 20, no. 1 (2013): 145-149.

Ross, Carne. The leaderless revolution: how ordinary people will take power and change politics in the 21st century. Simon and Schuster, 2011.

Said, Atef. Forthcoming. The Tahrir Effect: Protest, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Contemporary Egypt.

Said, Atef. “We ought to be here: Historicizing space and mobilization in Tahrir Square.” International Sociology 30, no. 4 (2015): 348-366.

Tilly, Charles. Regimes and repertoires. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Tugal, Cihan. “The End of the ‘Leaderless’ Revolution.” Counterpunch. July 10, 2013. Available at this link: (last accessed Feb 26, 2017)

Van de Sande, Mathijs. “The prefigurative politics of Tahrir Square–An alternative perspective on the 2011 revolutions.” Res Publica 19, no. 3 (2013): 223-239.

Zhuo, Xiaolin, Barry Wellman, and Justine Yu. “Egypt: the first internet revolt?” Peace magazine 27, no. 3 (2011): 6-10.







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