The Arab Revolutions Seven Years On: The State of Social Movements in Egypt and Syria

Arab Reform Initiative The Arab Revolutions Seven Years On: The State of Social Movements in Egypt and Syria
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Social movements in Egypt and Syria played a central role in sparking the 2011 revolutions. Yet, despite their profound influence both before and during these critical moments of popular mobilization, they have since been sidelined. In Egypt, the role of social movements has been severely diminished because of the now-restricted political sphere, which has become increasingly inaccessible since the 30 June 2013 revolution and the subsequent military intervention. In Syria, civil society groups and political movements have become less important as a result of the militarization of the revolution, which the Syrian government successfully transformed into armed conflict.

This policy paper, which is based on various research papers conducted under the Arab Research Support Programme, provides insight on social movements in these two countries, three main factors that affect a movement’s ability to mobilize communities and that help explain how social movements are affected by increased state repression. These include movement’s ability to understand the changing political context and shift strategies and tactics accordingly; organizational structure and flexibility; and patterns of repression and oppression by the state.

This paper finds that social movements grow or decline depending on the strategies chosen to navigate given political contexts, as well as their ability to organize and appeal to a wide audience. For social movements to succeed, they must also be cognizant of a community’s unique characteristics and strengths. This includes its collective memory and fears, dynamics of cohesion and integration, and its historical relation with authoritarian regimes. Understanding these dynamics is essential for a movement to expand and to grow sustainably, especially as tensions rise within a community.

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Social movements and civil society were the driving force behind the Egyptian revolution and were the catalysts for later events. This is also true in the context of Syria. Understanding the dynamics between social movements and the political context in which they operate, as well as why they are now less active and visible, is important in understanding why the revolutions began as well as prospects.

This paper, the first in a series of three based on the research conducted as part of the Arab Research Support Programme, examines eight research papers that studied social movements primarily in Egypt but also in Syria, to explore the two-way interaction between social movements and the surrounding political context; the role of organizational structures in mobilizing a community; and the correlation between repressing social movements and community mobilization. In assessing these eight papers, we find several overarching insights. This paper finds that social movements grow or decline depending on the strategies chosen to navigate given political contexts, as well as their ability to organize and appeal to a wide audience. For social movements to succeed, they must also be cognizant of a community’s unique characteristics and strengths. This includes its collective memory and fears, dynamics of cohesion and integration, and its historical relation with authoritarian regimes. Understanding these dynamics is essential for a movement to expand and to grow sustainably, especially as tensions rise within a community.

Social Movements and their Surrounding Political Context: A Two-Way Dynamic

The strategies and tactics that a social movement chooses to navigate a given political context are crucial to its long-term viability. By shifting tactics as needed, social movements become more agile and able to exploit political opportunities as they arise and, as a result, are more likely to be able to operate during times of heavier restrictions and more limited space for action. That said, if the wrong strategies are adopted, social movements can find themselves unable to operate at all. Indeed, this is a clear cross-cutting theme across the research papers on social movements in Egypt, which include the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated movements after President Morsi’s removal in July 2013, and “civil” society movements during and after the January 2011 revolution, the 30 June 2013 mobilization, as well as the subsequent military intervention of July 2013.

In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group showed their adaptability when they altered strategies and tactics after President Morsi was removed from power. In “The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey and Across Borders: A New Method of Political Participation” Shimaa Majd notes that since its inception, the Brotherhood has seized every opportunity to participate in Egyptian politics, from running in elections to joining professional unions and syndicates to forming student groups. Despite this, the group also embraced a new transnational strategy to adapt to changing political contexts and broadcasted shows via satellite channels from Turkey to Egypt – a strategy they were forced to adopt because of increased restrictions and political opposition to the Brotherhood in Egypt. And though unable to participate in Turkish politics, they were able to use financial and legal opportunities available in Turkey for the purpose of broadcasting in Egypt.

In the case of non-Islamist groups, or civil society groups like student movements and the April 6th Youth Movement, reactions to the restrictions that followed the 3 July 2013 coup have varied markedly, leading to different outcomes in terms of operational capacity. In “Student Activism in Post-2011 Egypt: Understanding a Contentious Arena in a Fluctuating Context”, Farah Ramzy outlines how student groups, especially those connected to Mohamad ElBaradei’s Constitution Party, shifted strategies and tactics after Morsi was ousted and the Egyptian government clamped down on all political and social movements. The group quickly stopped protesting, demonstrating, writing political op-eds and graffitiing. Instead, they started expressing their views by organizing exhibits, movie screenings, and discussion forums, allowing them to continue promulgating their democratic perspective albeit through other venues. This extended beyond the student movement, as even the broader organization of the Constitution Party also changed tactics in order to respond to the increasingly repressive political context.

In contrast, the April 6th movement reacted differently. They did not shift their strategy, which was primarily based on protesting and demonstrating, and were in short-order forced underground.  Mahmoud Salah’s paper “Social Movements and the Politics of Change: The April 6th Youth Movement”, finds that the celebrated April 6th group was incapable of changing tactics. As a non-violent grassroots movement, peaceful protests and occupying Tahrir square were not simply tactics but rather were part of the group’s identity and raison d’être. Its legitimacy as a movement vis-à-vis its members and the wider community derived from these modes of mobilization. Indeed, the April 6th movement saw itself as a resistance rather than an opposition movement; as such, shifting tactics would have caused it to lose legitimacy and posed a larger existential issue. Thus, the movement was in open conflict with the military council that took over power after January 2011, as well as with the mobilization efforts behind the July 2013 coup. This means that unlike the student groups, it was severely affected by the crackdown on social movements and civil society groups. And beyond its tactics, the April 6th Youth Movement was incapable of adjusting or changing its organizational structure to a more flexible model, and has constantly refused to form a political party, despite heavily contributing to the start of the revolution and bringing down the Mubarak government. This link between organizational structure and ability to operate in varying political contexts is, in fact, a second major theme that emerges from the research papers reviewed here, as explored below.

Organizational Structure and the Ability to Mobilize

Most social movements see their success as correlated to their ability to mobilize large groups of people. Similarly, the strength of social movements lies in their ability to form formal and informal networks that allow them to mobilize larger groups and advance their objectives. The research on Egypt assessed the impact of structures and networks on the power of social movements and on their ability to affect change. In “The Ultras: A Closer Look at the Movement of Football Fans in Egypt”, Dalia Abdel Hamid highlights the strong structure of the Ultras football fan movement in Egypt and its impressive staging power and ability to have an impact on political processes. Hamid details the strength of the Ultras movement as well as the role fans played in the protests and demonstrations leading up to the January 2011 revolution and its aftermath. Unlike many organizations, the movement was not organized in a pyramidal power structure, instead, its structure resembled a web of interconnected pyramids, like fraternities or lodges, which are uncommon in Egypt except in religious orders. These fraternities were geographically disbursed, and the members of each fraternity were not only connected through football or stadium gatherings, but also in their day-to-day social and family lives. This bond strengthened the individual fraternities which in turn strengthened the entire movement. Indeed, the Ultras accomplished what most civil society movements in Egypt have been unable to do: they have managed to have an impact on policies and have made their voices prominent both during and after the revolution, despite not being a formal political organization.

In the years since the 2011 revolution, the political space in Egypt has narrowed and there has been less room for civic groups and social movements. Not a single movement has succeeded in transforming the values and objectives of the revolutions into tangible change and none have been able to offer a credible and viable political alternative. Shimaa Hatab addresses this in “The Wave of Opposition Policies in Egypt: From the Utopian Dream of Tahrir square to a New National Consensus”. Hatab finds that the lack of a widely-appealing democratic political alternative was the main weakness of the January 2011 revolution, and that Egyptian society failed to channel the momentum of the revolution into a viable political alternative. This became even more pronounced after the coup that removed Morsi, when it became even clearer that there was no third party able to disrupt the historic power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the State. The army proved to be the only entity who could step in and take control, changing the balance of power in Egypt. With the Brotherhood no longer in power, the military became the sole source of authority in Egypt.

This crisis of the third alternative, as it is known in Egypt, is discussed in Ahmad Abdelhameed’s paper “Political Oppression and Demobilization of a Country: The Case of the Road of the Revolution Front”. The Road of the Revolution Front is a political movement created by academics, activists, leftist, and civil society groups. The Front was formed after the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power on 3 July 2013 and would have been an ideal actor to disrupt the polarization of Egyptian politics between the Brotherhood and the military. Unfortunately, the Front did not have an appropriate internal structure, a clearly defined agenda, or a strong base of public support. The problems facing the Front are emblematic of the problems facing other political movements in Egypt, especially those involved in the revolution. There were many scattered attempts to organize and create coalitions but they all lacked even the most basic structure and a defined vision of how to mobilize the Egyptian public. Nonetheless, Abdel Hameed’s paper posits that these movements did succeed in creating a democratic consciousness in Egypt that rejected both the post-3 July military control and the Muslim Brotherhood. Even if they did not transform this movement into a viable reality, the accomplishment is still significant. In this sense, if even organizational structure ultimately impedes mobilization, it is not possible to measure the success of social and political movements against short-term goals only; longer-term societal impact can still be gleaned, even in the case of failed movements.

The Correlation between Oppressed Social Movements and Community Mobilization

The literature on social movements has long tried to answer whether increased repression leads to more support for social movements and increased mobilization, or to demobilization and withdrawal. This question is important in the Arab world, especially in Egypt and Syria. Egypt witnessed large scale repression after Morsi was forcibly removed from power, contrasted with a brief period following the 2011 revolution, where there was a slight reprieve to the usual levels of repression. Syrians, for their part, witnessed an unprecedented wave of protests and demonstrations which were met with widespread violence and repression. In “Political Repression and the Syrian Revolution of 2011”, Rudayna Al Baalbaki sheds light on the factors that accelerated protests and community mobilization despite increased violence and repression in Syria. The first was collective memory – Syrians vividly remembered previous mobilizations, such as those surrounding the violence and repression in Hama in 1982, and mobilizations following the attacks on the Kurdish territories (in 2004, when over 400 Kurds were killed and another five thousand arrested following riots at a football game in Qamishli). These memories motivated Syrians to join protests against the government. A second important factor the author identifies was the close-knit social and family-based networks in a more traditional city like Dara'a (where the revolution began), which translated to a community more willing and able to stand together against repressive violence.

In the case of Egypt, while the peaceful protests of January 2011 did not initially face violence like those in Syria, by 2013, the 30 June and subsequent 03 July events and protests were met with military intervention, signalling the defeat of the social movements. Atef Said, in his paper “The General Political Sphere and Counter-Revolution in Egypt”, suggests that several interconnected factors led to demobilization in Egypt following these events. Fear was a major factor as the military crackdown following 03 July was unexpected and unprecedented in Egypt. Fear of the unknown, as well as a fear that Egypt would become another Syria or Iraq, also contributed to this demobilization. The Egyptian government had a role in engineering this fear and used it to its advantage, further complicating the withdrawal and demobilization of protestors. The people simultaneously feared both the government and the possible outcomes should it collapse. Additionally, there was a pervasive sense of failure and defeat following the 03 July events. A loss of hope furthered the decline and demobilization of social movements in Egypt.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The research on social movements shows that there are three factors influencing the success or failure of social movements like those in Egypt and Syria in the years around 2011. The first determinant is whether social movements are flexible enough to adapt their strategies to the ever-changing political contexts and to take advantage of the arising political opportunities. Flexibility in tactics and structure strongly contributes to a movement’s longevity and sustainability.

The second factor in the strength of a movement depends on its ability to build upon strong social ties in existing community infrastructure, as well as its ability to appeal to a wide audience. A social movement will not be able to achieve any of its goals without strong social networks and a strong support base. Social movements should not just be judged by whether they achieve short term goals but can also be considered successful if they manage to change the way people think and raise awareness in their communities.

The third factor is how the public, as well as the leaders of these movements, react to severe repression. There are two possible scenarios. Repression will either fuel a revolution and mobilize more people, or it will lead to the demobilization of the entire movement. Additional factors that affect how social movements react to repression include collective memories, community solidarity and feelings of fear, hope or despair. The leadership of any social movement must recognize all of these primary and secondary factors to steer the movement in the right direction, especially during times of increased repression and violence.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.