The people revolt: why we got it wrong for the Arab world

7 February 2011
Cairo protesters. Ivor Prickett / PanosMariz Tadros - 7 February 2011

Why did diplomats, policymakers, analysts and academics fail to see and understand the growing popular unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries?

It seems that the reasons why we thought a revolution impossible were wrong, our identification of the agents of change was misguided and our understanding of how collective mobilisation happens was too narrow. We need new ways to capture what is happening on the ground through the eyes of these countries' people.

Failing to make sense of the protests

Egypt has witnessed a number of protests in the past five years. Demonstrators clearly showed that they were defying the restrictions of political activism and breaking through the fear barrier. We missed these hints of public dissent because these forms of collective action did not fit our checklist of what constitutes the 'right kind' of citizen mobilisation that would shake an authoritarian regime.

The constant flare up of protests, sit-ins, demonstrations and encroachments on public space all led by citizens, whether workers in their thousands or young Egyptian Christian youth more recently were often dismissed as too small, inconsequential or too narrow in their demands to be of significance for regime change.

However, to assume that the masses would not rise shows how dismissive we have been of the power of unruly politics

The impact of state security on citizens' lives

While policymakers and analysts focused on the oppressive role of the police force in dealing with the formal institutions and establishments - the media, the political parties - what was almost entirely neglected was the extent and scope of state security monitoring of ordinary citizens. The domestic intelligence service had created unsustainable levels of paranoia, fear and mistrust that gripped citizens in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia. By focusing on the formal institutional actors, we failed to ‘see like citizens' and missed out on the experiences citizens faced on a day-to-day basis.

Citizens tried to adapt to living with the security services - and the thousands of informants - breathing down their necks but together with the increasing economic deprivation, the provocations of a regime that does democracy through rigged ballots and the absence of choices elsewhere, their breaking point was clearly nearing.

The economic figures that don't add up on the ground

The official economic story, measured by the international community in terms of economic growth rates, suggested that Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen were weathering the economic crises. Yet on the ground, the story was very different.

In Yemen, as part of IDS research on the impact of the economic crises on the poor, interviews conducted with families in Sanaa in April 2010 revealed the extent to which a war in the north, inflation and diminishing economic opportunities were taking their toll on their survival. Families were having to cut down severely on food and reduce their children's school attendance because conditions had become so dire. The poor were fully aware of why this was happening: a corrupt government that is blind to the people's suffering.

When the conventional saviours have no saving powers

Current understanding of the democracy process pinpoints three groups believed to be instrumental in challenging authoritarian regimes. These are, the political parties, the Islamist movement, and human rights associations and other civil society organisations. In short, the focus has been on highly institutionalised actors operating in the formal, public sphere.

Opposition parties did not catalyse, organise or lead the citizen movements who took to the streets in Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen. These actors were almost missing from the scene at the outset. As for the human rights associations, their role in awakening citizens or mobilising them into activism has been minimal, almost non-existent.

Human rights organisations, like some vocal political party activists, have been instrumental in exposing the violation of human rights by existing regimes. But foreign funding for democracy promotion, has led to it becoming increasingly professional in nature, and in some instances depoliticisation as well. In the bid to prove that civil society organisations will be the sites for igniting social activism, western policy-makers and scholars have looked to development and human rights organisations for engagement in contentious politics - but in the process, missed out on where the organic activism was unfolding.

Political analysts and scholars have been strongly advocating for the West to forge dialogues with 'moderate' Islamist forces on account of their large popular support base and the fact that they represent the most significant political opposition to existing authoritarian regimes. But we may have all grossly over-estimated the power of the Islamists on the ground. The Muslim Brotherhood's position on the protests that erupted on 25 January 2011 was ambivalent, and even when they joined in the uprising on the Friday Day of Fury, it was evident that they were not leading, nor did they have a conspicuous presence.

Seeing like citizens

Informed by social movement theory about actors, agency and how change happens, we ended up asking the wrong questions as to why the people have risen. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, was there an organised social movement? Certainly not: Did they have visible leadership? No. Did they have a massive, or at least significant following? Not in the conventional sense of a mobilised constituency.

Our analytical perspectives failed to enable us to ‘see like citizens' and understand that people were overcoming barriers of fear and reaching breaking point.

However, it is not too late to be responsive: international diplomats need to side with the people now. Otherwise, it is not only the legitimacy of the current Egyptian regime that is at stake, but the legitimacy of the entire international human rights framework.

Find out more:

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), and a participant in the Pathways of Women's Empowerment Research Programme Consortium. Prior to joining IDS, she was an assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo and journalist for Al-Ahram Weekly.