Egypt as a Case Study in the Causes of Political Inertia

For LARB, Max Strasser has just reviewed (here) Thanassis Cambanis’ new book on the arc of Egyptian revolution (here). I haven’t read the book, but from Strasser’s review, it sounds like Cambanis’ account makes for a useful case study on the causal mechanisms of political inertia.

Here, for example, is how we are to understand how the military managed to retain and even strengthen its hold on political power in Egypt over the course of the past four years:

After the initial protests forced President Hosni Mubarak from power, a military junta known as the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) took control of Egypt.

I think this sentence gets the sequence wrong—that the officers who formed SCAF played a direct role in forcing Mubarak’s departure to clear the way for their junta (source). That is no minor detail when we’re talking about how those officers managed to avert transformational change. Anyway, back to Strasser:

The generals vociferously claimed they were the defenders of the revolution, but they did everything in their power to stymy [sic] radical change. They fast-tracked constitutions and dissolved parliaments, they cut backroom deals and initiated prosecutions. Most of all, they sowed fear and chaos that ultimately served them perfectly.

The “men with guns” sowed that fear through violence—at Maspero, at Port Said, and in many other situations that challenged their claim to power. In this behavior, we see how entrenched hierarchical organizations deploy familiar routines that simultaneously protect and reproduce their established positions. The marginal costs of deploying these routines are relatively low, precisely because they are routinized. In their parts if not in their whole, they have been rehearsed and repeated, and their propriety is etched in the extant culture. Metaphorically speaking, no new software is required; instead, organizational leaders only have to hit ‘run’ on the scripts in place. When circumstances demand innovation, preexisting modules—parts of organizations and behavioral routines—can be reassembled or lightly tweaked and then employed in short order.

And what about the revolutionaries? They possess none of those advantages, and it shows. Back to Strasser:

The revolutionaries — the leftists and liberals who formed the core of the uprising and tried to keep its goals alive amid military massacres and Brotherhood backroom dealing — do not emerge blameless from the tumultuous 2011–2013 period. Cambanis is unabashedly sympathetic to them. (I was, and am, too.) But he can’t help but point out their foibles. The revolutionaries failed to take advantage of electoral politics; they neglected political organizing in the countryside and the small cities in favor of Cairo and Alexandria (and Tahrir Square in particular); they made demands on the government that were at times unreasonable; they squandered opportunities to have their voices heard by those who held power; far too often they fought among themselves. (Something that some — such as the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, of which Moaz, one of Cambanis’s central characters, was a member — came to admit only too late.)

Nothing exemplifies the revolutionaries’ pitfalls and failures as well as the ill-fated Tahrir Square sit-in of July 2011. Amid feelings that the revolution had stalled under military rule, the revolutionary groups repaired to their favorite tactic: a tent camp in the center of Cairo. But unlike the initial uprising demanding Mubarak leave the presidency, this time the goals were diffuse and hazy. Protesters called for prosecution of members of the former regime, including hanging Mubarak, but other arguments were presented poorly. The protesters gathered under the conveniently ambiguous slogan “The Revolution First.” Once they were stuck in the square — in the sweltering weather of Cairo in July — they couldn’t back down. Each group was concerned about looking somehow less revolutionary than the others. The sit-in lacked public support and petered out. The memory of the July sit-in, like so much from that decisive year, will likely wither into oblivion. It was one of many missteps. But by focusing a chapter around it (“Stuck in the Square”), by describing the way the revolutionaries argued among themselves and aimlessly checked social media on their iPhones from the center of Tahrir, Cambanis makes clear what exactly went wrong, giving a microcosmic preview of the ways the revolution would falter. Every political organizing meeting in Cairo that devolved into pointless bickering under a cloud of cigarette smoke feels like a tragic missed connection — what if that one had only worked out?

To gain power, the forces seeking deep change must act collectively and purposefully. Unfortunately for them, the organizations and routines through which they would do those things do not exist, and they are difficult and costly to create. Even when participants agree on the broad objectives, inevitable and frequent disputes over the details—and, crucially, the procedures by which those disputes will be resolved—hamper efforts to convert shared intentions into effective action. Absent prior routines for taxing and policing members, free-rider problems abound. Organizations that have already solved some of these problems—in Egypt in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood—enjoy significant advantages over their aspiring civic collaborators and rivals, but they rarely match the capacity of their bureaucratized rivals within state.

So, in most cases most of the time, even when incumbents are unloved and frustrations abound, the revolutionary moment never emerges. And in the rare instances that it does, incumbent power-holders usually manage to repress it or ride it out. These outcomes have less to do with the attraction of the underlying ideas and individuals than the power of prior organization. Routines are hard to create, and then hard to dislodge once created.

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  1. Weekly Links | Political Violence @ a Glance

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