By June 23, 2013 Read More →
Why did Egyptians Revolt? Hazem Kandil on the Origins of the Egyptian Uprising

Why did Egyptians Revolt? Hazem Kandil on the Origins of the Egyptian Uprising

Since January 2011, much ink has been spilled in commentary on the unfolding of the “Arab Spring”. On who might come out “on top”, on who should come out “on top” and why a “victory” for one or another party, group or movement would spell either redemption -or utter disaster for those caught in the whirlwind of political upheaval. Some lament the coming of an Islamist Winter. Others, if somewhat more persuasively, present the ongoing political chaos in Egypt and Tunisia as a natural stage in the democracy-building process.

If history has taught us anything, it could be that “the outcome of revolution rarely corresponds with the intentions of those who carry it out. . .”* Bearing this in mind -and rather than submit to the urge to engage in tantalising, though mostly fruitless ‘predictionizing’ – a good place to start might be with the simplest of questions: HOW did we get here? A move in this direction is helpful for several reasons. Chief among them would be that if we can at least attempt to understand the mix of structural factors, path-dependency, human agency and historical contingency that led to the explosions of public anger across the Arab world in early 2011, a range of possible (and sensibly informed) future outcomes might begin to appear. The fog is thick, and the complexity of the task humbling.

In this vein, Cambridge political sociologist Hazem Kandil offers much insight. Mixing deep historical knowledge with an uncommonly (for a sociologist) user-friendly writing style, Kandil offers a persuasive account of the roots of the Egyptian uprising; the short version is introduced below and continues HERE. The long version can be found in his recently published and highly readable Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt (Verso, 2012).

Over the last few years, a rebellion had been brewing under the surface. There was a general sense that the status quo could not be sustained. Movies, novels, songs were permeated by the theme of revolt: it was everywhere in people’s imagination. Two developments were responsible for making ordinary, apolitical Egyptians feel they could no longer carry on with their normal lives. The first was the dissolution of the social contract governing state–society relations since Nasser’s coup in the fifties. The contract involved a divit exchange: the regime offered free education, employment in an expanding public sector, affordable healthcare, cheap housing and other forms of social protection, in return for obedience. You could have—or at any rate hope for—these benefits, so long as domestic or foreign policies were not questioned and political power was not contested. In other words, people understood that they were trading their political rights for social welfare. From the eighties onwards, this contract was eroded, but it was not until the new millennium that it was fully abrogated. By this time the regime felt that it had eliminated organized resistance so thoroughly that it no longer needed to pay the traditional social bribes to guarantee political acquiescence. Viewing a population that appeared utterly passive, fragmented and demoralized, the regime believed it was time for plunder, on a grand scale. In the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), a faction clustered around the President’s son Gamal Mubarak increasingly took charge through a new body called the Policy Committee. It had two components. One consisted of corrupt, state-nurtured capitalists with monopoly control over profitable sectors of the economy. The other was composed of neo-liberal intellectuals, typically economists with links to international financial institutions.”


(Wikimedia Commons image courtesy of Jonathan Rashad)

Posted in: Egypt, Middle East

About the Author:

William Oliver is Nabateans’ editor for international economics and Middle East current affairs. He obtained his degree in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. While his studies focused on the Middle East in the 18th and 19th centuries, William has a long-standing interest in international finance and the political economy of development. William’s work is aimed at understanding how the Middle East integrates with the global economy, and into the wider geopolitical landscape.

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