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Middle East Studies | Uprisings in the Middle East: Diane Singerman

My particular understanding of the dynamics and partial success of the Egyptian uprising draws from understandings of the anti-globalization movement, the meaning and presence of informal political networks in the Middle East, and the influence of neoliberalism on Arab economies and polities. I would argue that we need to situate the Egyptian uprising within the context of globalization and social movement theory which grew out of the anti-globalization movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This perspective highlights the importance of neoliberalism, networks, coalitions, and young people to understand the Arab uprisings and mass protest in late 2010 and early 2011, although other contingent factors were also critical to the diffusion and success of protest in some countries. While my focus here today is on the Egyptian uprising, my comments are also relevant to some of the other successful and failed rebellions across the region.

Transnational collective action has been described by social movement scholars Donatella della Porta and Sidney Tarrow as “the most dramatic change we see in the world of contentious politics.”[1]  This is a change not only in frequency of interactions across borders but also in the complexity of campaigns, the density and design of networks, their adaptability to rapidly changing events, the fluidity of alliances that bring together a wide range of issues, actors, and perspectives, and the boldness, assertiveness, and creativity with which demands for profound, systemic change are put forth. Tarrow and Della Porta link this trend toward increased transnational activism with the global spread of neoliberalism which created greater opportunities for “contacts among groups, associations, networks, organizations, and individuals with very different histories, forms of action, and social and cultural backgrounds” as they confronted similar economic predicaments.[2] 

In Egypt and across the Arab world neoliberalism has redrawn the economic and social landscape. The Arab Spring is as much a reaction to these policies as it is to the regimes and leaders who instituted them. While protests broke out in Tunisia originally, the super-targets of these uprisings and master frames [“the fall of the regime” and “dignity, freedom and social justice”] were widely diffused across the region, since neoliberalism and the global recession provoked shared political and economic grievances such as high youth unemployment (particularly among the educated), a weakened social safety net and rising consumer prices, externally oriented and dependent sectors of the economy, sharper divisions between rich and poor, fewer ‘good’ jobs, and increased residential segregation and walled enclaves protecting the rich and regime cronies.[3]     

Patronage politics and authoritarian repression over decades, constraints on the media, political participation, and the rule of law had fueled the political opposition to President Mubarak and many other regional leaders. The self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in December 2010 resonated across the region, not only due to the particular circumstances of his abuse and humiliation at the hands of the authorities, but because of previous organizing efforts that had protested human rights violations and torture. Many people throughout the region experience the everyday abuse and arbitrary power of the police and security forces and thus could immediately sympathize with the desperation and anger of Bouazizi. It was the crack that broke the damn of the authoritarian age in the Middle East. Young people, in particular, were at the forefront of these protests in Tunisia and elsewhere because they have been disproportionately disadvantaged by neoliberalism. They were economically excluded by high unemployment and the lack of ‘good jobs’ in the formal sector after structural adjustment and privatization programs; they were politically excluded by authoritarianism and state repression; and they were socially excluded by the limbo of “waithood” or prolonged adolescence as marriage, and entry into adulthood, was delayed, in part due to greater educational achievements and the high cost of marriage.[4] 

The groundswell of protest in Tunisia, enabled by its labor movement, young people, and a cross section of opposition groups and citizens, unseated Ben Ali’s regime and it was this success that galvanized those in Egypt to break the “fear barrier” of protest and rebellion. As James Scott has argued, “[s]ome grievances are so deep-rooted and shared by a very large group that when there is a possibility for some political action -- a change in the conditions of repression – the revolt spreads like ‘wildfire’ looking like a very organized, coordinated uprising, when it fact, it was not.”[5] 

Della Porta et. al. argue that a new net-like, complex, intricate model of interaction brought together associations and smaller affinity groups to protest neoliberal globalization and like their colleagues in Europe and Latin America people across the Arab world are also reclaiming and occupying public space while demanding “dignity, freedom, and social justice.”[6]  The “movement of movements” in European and Latin American social movements had network features which allowed for greater heterogeneity and solidarity across weak ties. This same flexible organizational approach allows particular groups in the Arab world (such as secular youth, the Muslim Brothers, the women’s movement, citizen journalists and activist bloggers, the left, political artists, workers, liberals, professional syndicates, the labor movement, political parties, the human rights movement) to maintain their separate identities even as they jointly search for common meaning and strengthen a coalition large enough to engineer the “fall of the regime.” 

In addition to the important regional effects of Mohammed Bouazizi’s death and the fall of the Tunisian government, I would argue that the mass protests which emerged in Egypt were not only due to the previous organizing of civil society, the April 6th Coalition, the National Association for Change, Islamist, or labor activists, but to the ubiquitous presence of informal networks. Informal networks, which are a product of decades of political exclusion and the strong communal and family bonds of Egyptian society, are used to negotiate demands and fulfill needs across the bureaucracy, neighborhood, markets and workplaces (for housing, jobs, education, etc.), religious institutions, private charitable associations, public institutions, and formal political institutions. Their ubiquity allowed innovative and entrepreneurial young activists, who had experimented with leaderless coalitions during the Kifaya movement in 2004-2006 and had grown tired of diva-like leaders in political parties and other organizations, to adopt the non-hierarchical, flexible, inclusive, heterogeneous organizational ‘movement of movement’ model when new political opportunities opened up, or were created by their own activism and exogenous factors. While many analysts have discussed the key strategic and normative commitment of activists in 2011 to non-violence, which may or may not have been influenced by theorists such as Gene Sharp and global training abroad, they also need to pay more attention to the affinity between the “movement of movement’s” reticular, net-like model of organization and informal networks across Egyptian society. Both this network organizational strategy and ideological commitment to consensual and non-hierarchical leaderless politics made it easier to bridge differences among various unrelated constituencies and organizations when new opportunities arose. Finally, activists from Facebook groups such as “We are all Khaled Said” and the April 6th Coalition, contributed a new technology which is itself a networked model, transforming faceless individuals into virtual activists and politically engaged supporters. This new technology reduced the costs of collective action and aggregated collective action virtually before it was strong enough to move out into the streets and reclaim public space and political power.

The organizational strategy of protest in many of the Arab uprisings will pose problems as unity fades and electoral arrangements hopefully are created to replace some of these regimes. The diversity of the “movement of movements” and a commitment to coalitions and leaderless, coalition politics is obviously much harder to sustain in the long run. Yet, despite the huge problems ahead, “publics” have emerged in the Arab world that have greater possibility to sustain themselves while attracting electoral and representative constituencies to solve public goods questions.


[1] Donatella della Porta and Sidney G. Tarrow, eds., Transnational Protest and Global Activism (People, Passions, and Power) (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 6.

[2] Della Porta, Donatella et. al.  2006. Globalization from Below: Transnational Activists and Protest Networks. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, p. 28. 

[3] Informal sector workers typically do not receive minimum wage protection, health insurance, pensions, sick leave, paid vacations, maternity benefits, or trade union protection. Reductions in the formal public sector work force have not been offset by the creation of private sector formal jobs, but by informal private sector jobs. Only 19 percent of men (18 to 49) who ever worked obtained ‘good’ jobs, as defined by the ILO.  Binzel & Assaad, “Pathways to Marriage in Egypt,” Middle East Youth Initiative, Brookings Institute, September 2008; p.18

[4]In many Middle Eastern countries, there are more young people than ever before due to a demographic youth bulge. While economists speak of the phenomenon of “wait employment” or the pattern of young people enduring temporary employment in order to find a high status ‘permanent’ position, I have coined the term “waithood” to understand they ways in which young people endure years of waiting while they accumulate the considerable socially proscribed costs of marriage.  Young people, particularly urban young men who marry in their late twenties and thirties, are in this period of “waithood” or prolonged adolescent limbo, as they largely live at home and are financially dependent on their parents.  In this liminal, complex world, many face unemployment (particularly women), the informalization of the labor force, and underemployment as well as conservative social constraints on intimacy, since sexuality is ‘housed’ within marriage.  For further detail see “The Economic Imperatives of Marriage: Emerging Practices and Identities among Youth in the Middle East.” Middle East Youth Initiative Working Paper.  Wolfensohn Center for Development, The Brookings Institution, No. 6, September, 2007.  Washington, D.C. 

[5] James C. Scott. Domination and the Arts of Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990, p. 224

[6] Della Porta et. al. 2006, p. 22.

About Diane Singerman

Diane Singerman is Associate Professor in the Department of Government, School of Public Affairs at American University (in Washington, DC). She received her BA, MA, and PhD from Princeton University and did graduate work at the American University in Cairo, living in Egypt for several years throughout her career. She is interested in comparative politics, gender and politics in Egypt and the Middle East, informal politics, political participation, urban studies, globalization, and social movements. Her recent research interests include Personal Status Law reform, the cost of marriage, poverty, and the problems which young people face in the Middle East, and urban politics in the era of globalization. She is the co-founder and co-director of Middle East Studies@ American University.   

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