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EGYPT: Day of anger suggests a new protest scene driven by youth, free of ideology

January 28, 2011 |  1:15 am

Egypt-mubarak

 The Egyptian protests on Tuesday were extraordinary.

The geographic extent of the popular protests—unprecedented since the 1970s—and the sheer number of participating citizens made it a critical day.

Carnegie logo There are five simple factors that distinguish the Egyptian “Day of Anger” from any other day of protest.

First, the timing was inspired by the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. The unrest in Tunisia prompted citizens in other Arab countries, such as Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen, to take to the streets demanding their economic, social and political rights. There was an expectation that the uprising might loosen the grip of security apparatuses on the citizens of other Arab countries, and this became a reality as the Egyptian protests emerged as the most profound byproduct of the great Tunisian revolution.

Second, the citizens’ protests in Egypt were driven purely by domestic demands. No signs read “death to Israel, America, and global imperialism” or “together to free Palestine and Iraq.” In the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez the only slogans heard demanded change, freedom, social justice and a stop to corruption in Egypt—they weren’t mixed with regional matters. Egyptians are rediscovering that  politics, before anything else, is concerned with citizens’ living conditions within the borders of the relevant nation-state.

Third, there was a complete absence of the ideological rhetoric that has dominated Egypt’s political and public space for many years. While the Muslim Brotherhood youth and some of their leaders participated in the protests, there were no signs saying, “Islam is the solution.” Similarly, activists from small leftist organizations attended, but the usual denunciations of global imperialism, colonialism, and Zionism were absent.

There have been signs for years that ideology is less effective in recruiting and mobilizing citizens. This is because party and non-party forces using ideological rhetoric have failed to realize socioeconomic change and true political reform. Also, this week’s protests were organized by youth movements and organizations who were able to recruit in the virtual world.

Fourth, there was a record presence of youth in the protests. Egyptians have grown accustomed to the same political forces and opposition personalities in the streets, but this fundamentally changed. It was the youth unaffiliated with any political movement that formed the greatest bloc of protesters, showing  that the recruitment and mobilization efforts of youth movements and societies have bridged the gulf between activists and the youth of the general public. Regardless of what transpires in the coming days, this is a welcome and dynamic development.

Fifth, the demands on bread-and-butter issues were combined with calls for specific political reforms and measures to combat corruption. This merging of socioeconomic and political issues has long been absent from the protest scene. Sustaining this integration will deprive the regime of one of its preferred tools for maintaining order: by detaching socioeconomic demands from political ones, the regime can manage popular discontent by making partial concessions on the former while arbitrarily dismissing the latter. A direct and effective mix of the two components should continue.

These five characteristics signal that the wall of fear in Egypt has been broken. The protests created an opening for broadened popular participation recognizing that socioeconomic and political demands go together. The regime will fail to see the point by assuming the situation can be managed with repression on some occasions, and partial concessions and vague promises on others.

Egyptian society is suffering from inadequate living conditions, a frightening gap between rich and poor, tensions between Muslims and Copts, and a grave crisis of legitimacy in the wake of the 2010 parliamentary elections. These crises make it imperative that Egypt distances itself from the specter of chaos and allows real reform to begin now.

-- Amr Hamzawy in Beirut

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Photo: Egyptian demonstrators tear a huge portrait of President Hosni Mubarak during Tuesday's protest against his rule in the northern port city of Alexandria. Credit: AFP/Getty Images 

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