Was the Egypt revolution a ‘foreseeable surprise’?

Three organizations — Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University — have come together on a project called Future Tense that is meant to be innovative and forward-thinking but the related Slate article by Merlyna Lim about Egyptian political activism is an embarrassment of poor reasoning and unpersuasive argument.  The author has posted an unedited and more academic version of the piece on her website that adds detail to some of the profiled activist groups but, alas, does not improve upon the argument published by Slate.

The article’s contention is that the Egypt revolution — which the author, in a bit of misplaced metonymy, refers to as ‘Tahrir Square’ though the rest of her piece underscores how the protests had their origin in Muhalla al-Kubra, Alexandria, and elsewhere — was a ‘foreseeable surprise.’  This phrase has a certain oxymoronic appeal but might have benefited from precise definition, in part because Lim calls it an ‘imaginable surprise’ on her website; at any rate, one can surmise it means to suggest that the revolution was more predictable than a Black Swan event.  But the argument made to buttress this claim is feeble: there had been years of civil society activism before the 25 January protests that sparked the revolution; therefore, the revolution was foreseeable.  Well, this is like saying the bursting of a stock market bubble is foreseeable because prices have risen in the past.  The only value of such foresight is in its timing: when will these long-term trends suddenly reach an inflection point?  On this, the Slate article is silent.

Lim writes:

The Jan. 25 protest in Tahrir Square was not caused by the January 2011 Tunisian uprising. Activists had already planned to hold that protest even before Tunisian President Ben Ali was overthrown. However, the Tunis revolt helped inspire the decision to make “bringing down Mubarak” an aim, and to bolster the hope among Egyptians that such a goal was achievable.

This is half right and all wrong.  It is true that the protests had already been called to mark Police Day on 25 January, but many protests had been called many times over many years that did not lead to a revolution.  Bringing down Mubarak was always a long-standing aim of, among others, a group called Kefaya — which means ‘enough’ and what they’d had enough of was Mubarak — which Lim profiles in this piece but whose central ambition she seems not to understand.  But the fact that the Tunisia revolution bolstered “the hope among Egyptians that such a goal was achievable” does not merit a ‘however’ so much as an exclamation point: this sense of possibility was the essential new element that triggered the inflection point.  How does the author miss this?

Worse, she ends with a straw man argument that is closer to the truth than the argument she uses to knock it down:

The common narratives about social media and the Arab uprising tend to focus on “the moment”—the Tahrir Square moment, as if the movement came from nowhere, ignoring key components of history. Every moment has its history. By delving into the historical context, we understand the ingredients—massive social networks, solid shared narratives, strong unifying symbol, ongoing online-offline connections, and international support—that made up the Tahrir revolt are the product [sic] the ongoing struggles against the Mubarak regime. Social media and the Internet were just part of that history.

No one believes the moment came from nowhere.  Observers who paid even a modicum of attention during the revolution will have heard of Khaled Said by now and will have intuited that all the activist groups that use dates in their names are referencing a pre-25 January history of political protest.  But the common narrative is right: the moment is what mattered, because it was only then that the long, lonely, isolated and seemingly futile efforts of a small group of activists became a cause of relevance and hope to millions of Egyptians of all social classes, inspiring them to participate for the first time.  Even now, that moment seems like a kind of miracle.



2 Responses to “Was the Egypt revolution a ‘foreseeable surprise’?”

  1. Anthony says:

    Do you really think something like the Egyptian ‘Revolution’ could happen in a vacuum — i.e., in a moment. It seems almost self-evident that there’s a history worth tracing that led to that moment (not to deny there was some revolutionary improvisation), and the Slate piece at least is a step in that direction.

    My two bits — enjoying your blog and its range very much, indeed.

    • Sean Rocha says:

      I agree the revolution did not happen in a vacuum — far from it. There is a long history of civil society activism in Egypt, much of it predating Kefaya which is where the Slate article begins. The revolution was built on that foundation but the ‘moment’ I talk about is the difference between those early years of protests, which drew a few hundred people to rallies and posed no real challenge to the regime, and the millions who took to the streets during the revolution. Such moments are a kind of alchemy: a magical coming together of despair and frustration and courage and, above all, a new sense that change is possible, which was the missing ingredient in Egypt for decades. I believe such moments are ‘foreseeable’ mostly in retrospect.
      And while the Slate article was a step in the right direction it is precisely because I believe it so important to understand the history of civil society activism in Egypt that I wish Lim had done a better job of it.
      Thanks for writing in, Anthony. I hope you’ll subscribe to my posts, if you haven’t already — the link is in the top right corner of my site.

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