Egypt’s January revolution and the Eastern European experience

“Solidarność” (Poland), “Civil Forum” (Czech Republic), “Otpor” (Serbia)… etc., are actors that have a special significance in Egypt. Egyptian political activists have certainly been inspired by the Eastern European experience and have usually dreamt about achieving similar political changes.

Foto: Visegrad Insight

With the 25th of January Revolution, this dream has become a reality. Egypt is currently passing through a very critical time in its history and the Eastern Europe transition to democracy is more relevant than ever. Let us first look at steps that lead to Egyptian revolution and then draw possible lessons from Eastern Europe.

2005: Call for Freedom

In 2005, the Mubarak regime was forced by domestic and international pressure to slightly open. For the first time, an amendment to article 76 of the constitution was made, providing Egypt the opportunity to hold direct presidential elections. Profiting from this political openness, the period witnessed the rise of two main actors: the Kefaya (Enough) Movement  that organized anti-Mubarak and anti-succession demonstrations and the liberal Ghad Party that advanced a candidate against Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections.

Those political groups presented voices of change, and allowed young activists to enter political life and get trained in socio-political participation. For the next few years, the politically active Egyptian youth distinguished itself from the stagnant old generation through cyber activism, which forged the youth’s new opposition identity.

2006: Call for Social Justice

As in many other Arab countries, economic liberalization and high rates of economic growth in Egypt had no impact on the society at large, primarily because of corruption and lack of just distribution. For this reason, 40% of the population still lived under the poverty line, while inflation and unemployment was as high as 20%. Furthermore, increasing privatization resulted in the deterioration of the public sector, which lead to less employment and a lack of economic rights for those working in the growing private sector.

In this context of social frustration and dissatisfaction, principally over the socio-economic policies of the regime, in December 2006, over 24 000 textile workers in Mahalla El-Kobra, a city north of Cairo, went on strike to fight for their financial rights. This huge strike produced a spillover effect on social protests in the country. Driven by an increasing population, new sectors of the labor force, such as doctors, teachers and academics, joined the working class protests. The absolute number of protests consequently increased from 266 to 614 from 2006-2007, eventually peaking around 900 in 2010.

2008: Call for a National Strike

As in 2006, Mahalla El-Kobra textile workers decided to hold a sit-in strike in their company, demanding additional economic rights they previously didn’t achieve. For the first time, young Egyptian cyber activists took up the initiative of calling for a national strike in the whole of Egypt in solidarity with the workers. They also expressed anger because of bad political and economic conditions.

The call was established via a Facebook group, which eventually had around 70 000 members. Even if this call didn’t succeed, since few responded to it, their success was elsewhere. This was the first time any activist had the courage to ask for a protest on the national level. From this point onward, two interlinked factors emerged: the youth and social protests, both demanding change. An active, politicized youth slowly took the place of the old and official opposition in Egypt. For instance, the youth who called for this strike founded a political movement called the 6th of April Movement, one of the movements responsible for organizing the 25th of January protests.

2010 – 2011: Call  for Dignity and Alternatives

In the years leading up to the 2011 revolution, politicized youth became one of the main forces in the struggle for freedom and democratic change. One of the most important youth movements that emerged at this time was the El Baradei Campaign for Change Movement. This movement sought to mobilize people for change by promoting Mohamed El-Bardei, ex-director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as an alternative to the regime and plausible presidential candidate in the 2011 elections.

As in 2005, a number of youth became active in politics through the El-Baradei Campaign movement. In this context, the death of Khaled Said, a young man who was beaten to death by police, triggered several youth demonstrations. This event, in which police killed a young “non-activist”, was decisive in pressing the youth to search for dignity. Khaled Said was the symbol of the undignified life they were being compelled to live.

By November 2010, regime strategy abruptly changed because of the influence of the new guard leaded by Gamal Mubarak within the NDP party (the former ruling party). The parliamentary elections were completely rigged (in 2005 it was partially rigged) and social frustration grew enormously, hence the call for a nationwide protest on the 25th of January 2011 through several youth groups and movements.

As with the 6th of April 2008, Facebook was the tool for spreading the call. Due to the Tunisian revolution, the youth got an unexpectedly large response. In the first phase, until February 7th, people responded to the youth appeal and massive crowds gathered in Tahrir Square under the slogan: “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”. The second phase, until February 11th, came close to civil disobedience. Frustrated since 2006, as it was previously mentioned, workers organized strikes that involved all economic sectors (including military mills) and spread all over the country. Through civil unrest, Mubarak was forced to step down.

Poland and Serbia as inspirations

After the 6th of April 2008, two Eastern European countries become especially relevant to Egypt: Serbia and Poland. For the youth, the Otpor experience of Serbia was inspiring. Films relating the techniques used by Otpor to mobilize people and fight authoritarian rule were widely disseminated in political oppositions areas. From the first day of their foundation, the 6th of April movement has taken Otpor movement as a guide, and they even took their logo as their own. With the help of militant intellectuals, activists began to lecture about Optor’s success and the lessons that Egyptian youth could take from it.

The strength of non-violent resistance and peaceful strategies for change was the main focus. Mobilizing people and protesting through original methods was also an important technique that youth movements began to use, especially in the 6th of April movement and “The Campaign for El-Baradei Movement”. This was especially visible with the “Khaled Said” method of demonstration. Protests were organized in an original way: Young people stood for hours facing the sea, dressed in black, each protestor five meters apart from the next. Those protests appeared to be a very strong way to show the power of well-organized peaceful protests.

However, the main difference between Serbian and Egyptian youth was the lack of a united strategy for change. Young people in Serbia were working through a clear strategy put in place by Otpor leaders, with the support of the West. By contrast, Egyptian youth were divided into various political movements and parties. The first time they managed to coordinate was on the eve of the 25th of January Revolution.

Moving to social protests movements and labor movements, the Solidarity movement and trade union experience in Poland was extremely relevant. Leftist activists, who began to spread short films and notes about it, especially emphasized the later. The main focus was on the capacity of the labor movements to coordinate and make national strikes that could compel the regime to step down or make large concessions, as Solidarity had in 1980 and 1989.

If this idea was very clear in the mind of leftist activists in Egypt, the situation was different for actors in the labor movement, who were reluctant to coordinate. Every labor movement was mostly focusing on the problems of its own sector. Hence, contrary to the Polish experience, where change occurred through a unified labour movement paralyzing the regime, Egyptian strikes were simultaneous but uncoordinated.

Later in the summer of 2010, with the presidential elections closer, Egypt’s political activists become very interested in studying the electoral revolutions of Ukraine and Serbia. This scenario appeared to be the last chance to achieve change in Egypt. Seminars and films were spread. Activists, especially those from the “Campaign El-Baradei”, were seriously thinking about such a scenario, given that they were pushing Mohamed El-Baradei to run in the September 2011 elections. However, the revolution erupted before that date ever arrived.

Round Table Agreements

The Round Table agreements that were held between the old regime and new forces in Eastern Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, etc.) helped to set all the legal, political and economic rules that governed the transition process in those countries. The transition period then went smoothly.

In Egypt, by contrast, there was no agreement on the following: 1. The end date of the transition period, and the transfer of power to civilian authorities, 2. A concrete agenda of reform. In addition, no formal channel of communication between the SCAF and political forces has been established. Now, on the eve of writing a new constitution, we think that two roundtables (or a dynamic similar to the roundtable) need to be held: the first should be held between opposition forces to achieve a consensus about the constitution, while the second should be held between opposition forces and SCAF, in order to set the rules that will govern the rest of the transition period and military-civilian relations.

In this context, the Hungarian round table talks, which were held first among the opposition forces themselves, and second between the opposition forces and the old regime forces, could be inspiring for Egypt, given that it has a fragmented opposition that needs to achieve consensus about a democratic and constitutional agenda.

Institutional Reforms

Institutional reforms are the anchor of any transition to democracy. The first wave of the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc.) was vastly more successful than the second wave at the beginning of the 2000s (Ukraine, Serbia, Georgia, etc.) for one important reason (although there were certainly more factors): institutional reform.

In countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, reforms were clear and radical, contrary to the examples of Ukraine and Serbia where the failure of institutional reforms led to a backlash. This is an extremely important lesson for Egypt, if it wants to see its transition to democracy succeed. In Egypt, the state institution has yet to be reformed. The old system still prevails in all state institutions, since figures changed but the system has not.

The violent events Egypt witnessed last month prove that fact. The same unprofessional and pro-regime discourse is present in the media and police violence is still the order of the day, without even mentioning the institutions of education and healthcare (that require a full overhaul). Hence, a schedule for effective reform will be the key for a successful transition to democracy in Egypt, with the security sector and media at the top. The independence of the judiciary has to be realized immediately.

What Next

Egypt is not yet witnessing a decisive phase in its history, as three major challenges stand in the way of its transition to democracy. Firstly, an agreement between political forces and the SCAF has to be achieved on the rules that should govern the rest of the transition process and military-civilian relations after it ends. Secondly, a consensus has to be established between political forces for writing a constitution that could represent all Egyptians and not only political currents or parties that receive the majority in parliamentary elections, taking in account that it is the parliament who will have the duty to choose the constitutional assembly.

Finally, we need a pro-change president, since the counter-revolutionary powers are still powerful in Egypt. Here, we should also stress the fact that a pro-change president is never sufficient alone, but should be strong enough to apply a democratic agenda by reforming state institutions. The example of Ukraine is certainly important in that respect.

In conclusion, we should not forget that Egypt’s transition success will have an extraordinary effect on the future of the Arab Spring as a whole: It is obvious that in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the overthrow of the regime did not come at the hands of the military – the traditional guardian of revolution and political change in the Middle East – but through civil society embodied by a large popular movement. Egyptian youth were inspired by their Tunisian peers.

Libyan and Syrian rebels were in touch with the Egyptians online and in exchanges. Hence, we can say that a sort of grassroots cooperation dynamic is already present between Arab Spring actors. Thus, the possibility of accession to power of those who were supportive to revolutionary movement will certainly increase the possibility of regional cooperation at an official level, calling to mind the fact that the “Visegrad Group” was established in 1991, only when pro-change forces were in power.

This is an abbreviated version of article published in Visegrad Insight 1/2012.

Nadine Abdalla

Nadine Abdalla

is Research Fellow, Arab Forum for Alternatives Studies (AFA) in Cairo and PhD candidate at the Institute for Political Studies (IEP) of Grenoble, France.