Tag Archives: Egypt

Regimes and Movements: Thoughts on Contentious Politics and the Arab Spring

In this essay, I aim to reflect on two ongoing discussions concerning the so-called Arab Spring. The first discussion is taking place among several academics who study the politics of the Middle East. This discussion started after the start of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and concerns a presumed conflict over whether to prioritize the study of regimes or movements. The second discussion is taking place among scholars of social movements in the U.S. about the benefits of movement-centered vs. institutional-centered analysis of movements. Both discussions are taking place for different reasons and perhaps in different academic spheres. The first was motivated by the need to question the politics and the priorities of the scholarship concerning the study of Middle East politics during and after the Arab Spring. But the main drive of the second discussion was the question of how and why movements matter. Although the parallelism in the two discussions is interesting, my aim in this essay is not to compare or analyze these differences (which is an important research question in itself). I realized that one common theme in the two discussions is worth commenting on  here: the relationship between regimes and movements. Continue reading


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#HashtagActivism: Wannabe Protest, or Something More?

On June 23rd, an Egyptian court convicted three Al Jazeera English journalists—Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed—of aiding a terrorist organization and damaging national security by producing false news. Their sentences range from 7 to 10 years and have sparked international condemnation from journalists, activists, politicians, and non-governmental organizations. In response, the hashtag #FreeAJStaff has become reinvigorated as the touchstone slogan of protest, appearing not just on Twitter, but in mainstream media and on other social media platforms as well. Photographs of journalists, activists, celebrities, and concerned individuals displaying the hashtag with their mouths taped shut have proliferated, like this example below. (A Tumblr collection of protest selfies can be viewed here.)


This hashtag, which emerged after the initial imprisonment of the journalists last year, has itself been a focus of concern and of reporting. Prior to the conviction, concerned Twitter users noted that the hashtag was lagging and urged their followers to keep up the momentum. As Kamahl Santamaria (@KamahlAJE) of Al Jazeera English tweeted on June 22, “The #FreeAJStaff hashtag/trend is way too quiet. Let’s get moving people…” The conviction on the following day prompted #FreeAJStaff to be tweeted over 50,000 times, according to #BBCTrending.

Another well-known hashtag campaign, #BringBackOurGirls (sometimes #BringOurGirlsBack), emerged in response to the May kidnapping of hundreds of young girls by the now infamous extremist organization Boko Haram in Nigeria. David Cameron and Michelle Obama were just two notable figures who publicized this hashtag along with expressions of concern and calls for action. The same #BBCTrending article cited above noted that #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted over 4.5 million times to date.

Michelle Obama joins in.

Tweets and retweets, it is commonly acknowledged, are an indicator of global concern and signify critical events that warrant our attention and action. But the question remains: does hashtag activism actually matter? If so, how might it matter?

The question of whether online gestures matter elicits groans from scholars and activists, partly because such activities come off as Protest Lite. After all, it only takes a second (maybe less) to retweet a call to action or a news byline. As journalist and former Labour MP Dan Hodges wrote recently for The Telegraph, it’s fast, transient, and comes off as superficial. Hashtag activism focuses our attention on certain issues to the neglect of others—such as the 60 women and girls and 31 boys kidnapped by Boko Haram this week, and the 16,000 political prisoners currently languishing in prison, tortured, or disappeared in Egypt. In addition, activists’ time and resources may be disproportionately focused on accruing retweets. The hesitation to ascribe any importance to this form of collective activism reflects legitimate concerns over how fleeting and narrowly-focused online activism can be.

But before we lambaste hashtag activism as useless—or even harmful—let’s consider what it can do. The creation of online publicity by organizations and individuals is a form a collective action that raises awareness about a particular social problem. It is true that some crises get hyped at the expense of others, and that hashtag slogans lack nuance. But these are problems that exists in all forms of media and activism, not just the online variety. We also know that raising awareness in and of itself does not solve social problems. Sympathetic publics alone cannot usually produce meaningful outcomes for the victims of injustice and violence. As Hodges writes, “Boko Haram didn’t #bringbackourgirls.” In the absence of real-world action, hashtag campaigns look weak, and even foolish. But this activism also lets people with at least some capacity to raise a fuss, such as politicians, know that the public (however briefly) cares. And we shouldn’t assume that the tweets stand alone. On the contrary, this form of activism is often partnered with offline actions and diplomatic efforts. Online activism often compliments, rather than substitutes for, mobilization in the form of protests, lobbying, and direct action.


Consider a parallel example from the pre-internet age: television and print media coverage of violence enacted against peaceful Civil Rights Movement protesters did not by itself produce policy changes. But it has been widely credited in sociological literature with turning the tide of public opinion against southern segregationists and justifying federal intervention. Rather than thinking of internet-based awareness as an insufficient condition for action, it may be more accurate to think of it as a necessary condition that prods external actors into taking concrete actions in some cases.

Rarely, if ever, is a Twitter campaign going to produce policy change or direct intervention on behalf of victims across borders. But maybe what it does—if only for a few days or weeks—is to signify that people care. This kind of global solidarity may never produce immediate, tangible results (which is, ironically, what hashtags call for), but it can provide much-needed moral support for grieving family members and for activists who aim to take direct action, especially for those who face risks in doing so. It may also signal to media outlets, whose articles on the subject are being bitly’d and retweeted along with the hashtag, that they should continue to commit resources to the issue at hand.

Perhaps more than anything, hashtag activism suggests the limits of symbolic gestures. But aren’t most protests symbolic gestures? And isn’t online outrage more productive than no outrage? Share your thoughts in the comments, or tweet them with the hashtag #dohashtagsmatter.


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Egyptian Election Update

Today was the third day of Egypt’s second presidential elections in the past three years. Elections were extended for a third day, and an impromptu last-minute national holiday were announced, due to low voter turnout.[1] This is not surprising given the tense, repressive, current political climate in Egypt.

Votes are currently being counted, and pro-Sisi celebratory elections have already begun in Egypt.

General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who removed Egypt’s democratically elected president ten months ago, is not surprisingly the only serious contender in the election. If/when Sisi wins, he will hold a tremendous amount of political power. The parliament is currently disbanded, which allows Sisi to issue laws by presidential degree. Sisi also has support of the military, and a considerable degree of public support.

If Sisi gets elected, there is little hope for democracy in Egypt in the near future. As military chief, his crackdown on dissent far exceeded that of Mubarak. Sisi has indicated in television interviews he has no tolerance for the labor strikes and other street demonstrations against the military. He is also sure to send the Muslim Brotherhood underground. He ousted former President Muhammed Morsi in July and has pledged to end the Brotherhood’s existence in Egypt.[2] Yet the Brotherhood has survived many cycles of repression before (see Davis and Robinson’s (2012) book). They are sure to do so again given their massive network of civic organizations which permeate Egyptian society. Repression of the Brotherhood not only excludes them from the conversation and makes  democracy in Egypt impossible, but it also creates the conditions for future violence and unrest.

Deputy Research Director of the newly formed Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Allison McManus, is tracking the elections on the Institute’s webpage at: http://timep.org/presidential-elections-monitoring. The website compiles media coverage, voter experiences, and gives overviews of the election and its candidates.

[1] www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/27/egypt-presidential-election-extended-third-day;


[2] http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303749904579579782275804034


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Beyond the Repression-Dissent Nexus: Putting Violence in Its Place

By Dana M. Moss

Studies of mobilization have long been preoccupied with understanding the effects of repression on protest. However, as Mark Lichbach remarks, the search for models—whether linear, U-shaped, S-shaped, or otherwise—leaves scholars “forever correlating the total aggregate level of one output (government repression) with the total aggregate level of the other output (opposition activity)” (1987: 288). Furthermore, conceptual and analytical inconsistencies persist; aggregated event counts and indicators denoting low, moderate, and high levels of repression vary based on what type of crackdowns “count” as severe and have been accounted for in the media or NGO reports (Davenport 2007).

Because the question “does repression increase or decrease protest?” has dominated the research agenda, I suggest that we revisit our orienting questions. For example, what kinds of repression do activists perceive as severe? Which governmental agents, entities, and affiliates do the repressing, and what does this mean for the short-term outcomes of movement-government standoffs? Which social movements are most at risk for violent repression?  And how does the character of a regime shape its propensity for violence?  In an effort to expand our conceptualization of the repression-dissent nexus in potentially fruitful and specific ways, I outline several suggestions below. Continue reading

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“The Game’s Afoot”: Protest in Repressive States and Its Field of Play

by Hank Johnston

In Egypt, Tunisia, and Ukraine, political regimes were brought down by mass movements of political protest. In contrast, peaceful Syrian protests against the al-Assad regime took a different course and spiraled into violence and civil war. One need only recall the unsuccessful Iranian protests against the fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the unrealized Chinese “jasmine revolution” in 2011 to ponder the contingencies of the repression-mobilization relationship. In the Iranian and Chinese cases, the state effectively quashed protests. In the Syrian case, state violence led to escalation that al-Assad’s piecemeal reforms were unable to stop. In the Ukrainian case, police violence against waning protests caused public outrage and reinvigorated mobilization. Continue reading

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Repression Works – when it works (and not, when not)

by Jack Goldstone

Much recent research has highlighted the success of non-violent protest. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s data analysis had demonstrated that disciplined, non-violent protests succeed more often than violent ones, even in the face of repressive actions by regimes.

And yet recent events in Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Ukraine give one pause. While Tunisia offers the example of a relatively peaceful protest campaign that overturned a dictatorship, in Libya civil war seemed necessary to overturn a regime about to massacre peaceful protestors in Benghazi. In Egypt, the peaceful protestors who brought down the Mubarak regime were soon marginalized, with the Muslim Brotherhood now outlawed and suffering mass executions at the hands of a counter-revolutionary military regime. In Syria, the dictatorship responded to peaceful protests with brutalizing attacks and seems likely to have crushed the protests if they had not recruited defecting soldiers and become militarized (although to be sure, we do not know what would have happened if the protestors had stuck to non-violence). Finally, in Bahrain, the most massive peaceful protests seen in the region, as a percentage of the population participating, were crushed by the military. By contrast, in Ukraine, it was only after peaceful protestors were galvanized by more violent “ultranationalists” who attacked police and burned buildings that the ruler fled (although again we cannot be sure what would have followed if this turn to violence had not occurred). Continue reading

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The Whole World is Texting

by Heidi Reynolds-Stenson and Jennifer Earl

How repression impacts mobilization, and specifically why repression is effective at deterring protest in some cases and not others, is a perennial question among repression scholars. Studies have found markedly different results: some research suggests that repression can be effective in discouraging participation or otherwise quelling protest but other findings demonstrate that repression can “backfire,” escalating mobilization and/or galvanizing commitment. Classic work by Barkan, for instance, showed that violent repression, in particular, might galvanize bystanders and lead to movement victories where failure would have otherwise been likely. We argue that recent unrest in Syria, Venezuela, and Ukraine can be read as contemporary evidence of backfire. At the very least, these are stories in which state repression failed to quell protest. After providing some quick evidence on this point, we consider a larger theoretical question raised by these recent events: might digital media use be affecting the underlying likelihood of backlash? Continue reading

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The Arab Uprisings Have Not Failed: They Are Continuing

By Joel Beinin

Ignited by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the impoverished Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, a prairie fire engulfed much of the Arab world during 2011. Social movements of the previous decade converged in the uprisings: broad pro-democracy activism exemplified by Egypt’s Kifaya (Enough!), campaigns against police brutality, in defense of judicial independence, prisoners’ rights, women’s rights, and in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Morocco, workers’ actions to defend their standard of living. However, the 2011 occupations of public space proclaiming “the people want the fall of the regime” and demanding “bread, freedom, and social justice” were much more than a social movement. They were popular rebellions with a revolutionary thrust directed, albeit vaguely and without a clear program, against both autocratic neo-patrimonial rule and neo-liberal crony capitalism. Continue reading

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Disruption and Dysfunction

Just over a week ago, tens of thousands of protesters converged in Bangkok to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first female PM. They overran the streets and occupied government offices in the name of a “people’s revolution.” On December 9th, Yingluck (Thai politicians are referred to by their first names) dissolved parliament, and snap elections have been scheduled for February 2nd. However, the protesters want Yingluck out of office for good, and they continue to demand her removal from politics.

Tens of thousands descend on Bangkok to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai party.

Late November, 2013: tens of thousands descend on Bangkok to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai party.

Thailand’s democracy has been weak (at best) since the 1932 coup marking its transition to a constitutional monarchy. Since then, the country has had 17 different constitutions and charters, a series of coups, and 28 prime ministers. That’s a lot of turnover, to say the least. Check out this table listing Thailand’s prime ministers. It’s chaos. Almost every term ends with dissolution, resignation, or removal. Continue reading


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The People and the Revolution


A poster that was circulated widely on the internet during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011

“Revolutions are messy affairs. If you want them sparkling clean, sanitary and sanitized, with a love interest and happy ending under a fluttering revolutionary flag—well, go to Hollywood.”

“Where many have seen the turbulence of the past 30 months of Egyptian political history in terms of ‘elite’ conflicts (civil and military, civil forces and ‘deep state’, secularists and Islamists, liberals, Muslim Brothers, leftists and feloul*), I see first and foremost the hand print of the revolutionary upsurge of an Egyptian people unchained, battling on for emancipation.”

 Hani Shukrallah (Egyptian Writer)

Recently prominent leftist journalist and writer Hani Shukrallah wrote a series of articles under the title of “The People’s History of the Egyptian Revolution.”


Hani Shukrallah

Shukrallah was the former editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, the best English-language paper in Egypt, between 1991 and 2005. He is also the founder of Al-Ahram Online, and was its editor-in-chief from 2011 until early 2013 when the Muslim Brotherhood government forced him to resign. He is the author of Egypt, the Arabs and the World: Reflections at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, published in 2011 by the American University in Cairo Press. He is perhaps one of the most elegant political writers in the English language in Egypt.

Against the numerous narrow accounts that have been offered of events in Egypt—particularly those that leapt to huge conclusions after short-term successes—Shukrallah’s series offers a careful, nuanced analysis. He discusses how messy the trajectory of events was, and also how unprepared the revolutionaries were. He also warns us against one-dimensional analyses. We cannot, for example, focus only on the celebrated 18 days of revolution in 2011, without examining what led to those protests and their aftermath. Continue reading

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