Reflections on the Revolution تأملات عن الثورة

This weekend the American University in Cairo hosts an open conference entitled From Tahrir: Revolution or Democratic Transition? The conference kicked off today with the following panels: Between Revolution and Democratic Transition: Where to Place Egypt, How to Understand the Current Uprisings: The Role of Labor and the Subaltern, and Youth Movements and Social Media: Their Role and Social Impact. As shown by the schedule, tomorrow’s and Monday’s panels include The Future of Political Parties, Elections in the Region: Enduring Clientelism, Restructuring the Entrenched Security Apparatus, From Authoritarianism to Democracy: Experiences from Central Europe, Mexico and Spain, and After the Transition: Consolidation of Democracy. Unfortunately, I will be unable to attend these subsequent panels as orientation starts tomorrow. Thankfully, all the panels are being recorded and are available online at www.youtube.com/auc.

This conference presents an opportunity to begin the blog’s discussion of the revolution. The events starting in Tahrir Square on January 25 and culminating in the removal of Mubarak and installation of a military junta on February 11 captured the hearts and minds of the international societies and their media for two weeks. Almost four months later, however, revolution has faded from the international eye and only realized purely symbolic changes focused on the persona of Mubarak: The Mubarak metro station has been renamed Al-Shohada` (The Martyrs). His name has been struck from all the Metro signs and the large depictions of his visage no longer watch over every room and street. The military retains the same monopoly on political power it has wielded since Gamal abd al-Nasar’s Revolution in 1952. A democratic transition, therefore, is far from guaranteed.

Indeed, Philippe Schmitter – a panelist whose specialty is political transitions – declared that such transitions are like learning to build a boat at sea in the middle of a storm without consensus on which direction the boat ought to travel. Moreover he posed a series of important points on democratization delineated below:
1. Democracy is not inevitable, necessary, or irrevocable.
2. Democracy takes a myriad of forms. The western, liberal democracy is not the only model in town and it is unlikely that Egyptian democracy (if it is indeed realized) will resemble that model.
2. Not all transitions away from autocracy produce democracy; instead many – in the contemporary world – yield hybrid regimes (wherein democratic institutions exist without accountability and thus rulers retain the capacity to allocate resources as they see fit).
3. Democratization has historically occurred in waves or clusters that yield increasingly more consolidated democracies.
4. Provisional decisions made under imperfect information during a transition often become permanent outcomes.
5. Political parties are no longer the principle force in a democratic transition. Instead, parties respond to rather than create political outcomes.

This later point provides an entry to a brief discussion on the build-up to the Egyptian Revolution. While nobody predicted the events of late January, the revolution did not come out of nowhere. The Second Palestinian Intifada in 2002 not only socialized the new political actors exposing them to the realities of contentious politics but also created the Egyptian Popular Committee on Palestine. This horizontally structured and decentralized committee provided a model for the future youth organizations and committees that made the headlines some five months ago. In 2004 with the emergence of Kifayya contentious politics shifted from away an exclusive focus on external issues and began to embrace their domestic counterparts – especially constitutional reform and the issue of succession. A few years later in 2008, labor movements emerged and took to the streets in strikes to protest low wages and poor working conditions. While the strikes were generally brutally repressed and considered failures, they not only provided valuable learning experiences for both the labor and youth activists but also promoted the idea of sit-ins and occupation of public and governmental places (like Tahrir Square).

To conclude the coverage of the first day of the conference and the blog’s introduction to the revolution, it is necessary to comment on the role of social media. During the coverage of the revolution in January and February, the role of social media was greatly exaggerated. While Facebook groups and Twitter feeds certainly provided valuable tools to disseminate information and increase the likelihood of reaching a tipping point for collective action, a focus on the internet not only ignores the physical roots to the revolution discussed above but also the profound role played by the mainstream media in both inspiring and covering the revolution. Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Tunisian Revolution in early January inspired the Egyptian political activists and broke the barrier of fear that had previously impeded successful collective action. Moreover, Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian Revolution presented activists with the communicative tool they lacked with the shutdown of the Internet and phone networks. Informing Al-Jazeera that a million person protest was scheduled for the next day ensured that that message would be disseminated by the station throughout Egypt and the result was a million person protest.

Lastly, it is imperative to state that social media and the Internet are politically neutral and represent a new sphere of political contestation. Just as youth activists have used the Internet to measure their constituencies and disseminate information, regimes can use the same networks as vehicles of repression, surveillance, and disinformation.

The above discourse, while lengthy, is by no means a comprehensive account of the revolution. For a more intelligent and academic discussion of the above events and more, tune into www.youtube.com/auc.

One thing is clear, however, this revolution has no yet run its course. Indeed, the revolution (and the blog’s discussion of it) has only just begun.

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