Egypt’s Dignity Revolution

3 February 2011
Salwa Ismail

Egyptians' experience of a police state is behind calls not just for Mubarak's resignation but a fundamental overhaul of state structures.

In commenting on the unfolding Egyptian revolution, media and analysts have emphasised the role of social media in building up networks of dissidents and facilitating the organisation of protests. Some have credited the ‘Facebook generation’ with lighting the spark of collective action. Undoubtedly, social media activists, in calling for ‘ the day of anger’, put the tools of virtual communication to remarkable use. However these 'days of anger’ can only be understood if we look at what the vast majority of Egyptians have experienced over the last three decades under Mubarak’s rule .

Successive waves of protests by wide segments of the population, particularly over the last decade, have also given a clear indication of growing opposition to the regime’s economic and social policies and its instruments of government and control. Prior to the recent protests, there were numerous massive strikes by textile workers demanding better pay, week-long street occupation by tax collectors protesting their low wages, and various sit-ins by university professors, doctors and lawyers calling for policy change.

Under Mubarak, the Egyptian state abandoned its welfare responsibilities and left citizens to fend for themselves. The so called free market became dominated by monopolies and oligopolies, with party elites and regime cronies controlling entire markets in basic and strategic commodities such as iron and steel, cement, and wood.   The ruling clique and its business partners appropriated the country’s lands converting publicly-owned property into gated communities and turning entire coastal areas into exclusive resorts for the super rich. Built on vast areas of privatised state land, enclaves like Qatamiyya Heights and Mirage City catered to multi-million dollar palaces for the very privileged few.  The scale of the land grab has threatened to deprive future generations of any chance of descent housing and a share of the country’s resources and wealth.

At the same time, masked and not-so-masked privatisation of education and health robbed citizens of the few citizenship rights gained in the country’s post-independence period. Social disparities have grown at extraordinary rates as state offices turned into personal fiefdoms in order to maintain the regime and its clients and to implement the neo-liberal agenda of economic reform.

To try and prevent growing resistance to these economic and social policies, Egypt and the Egyptians became subject to a police government. The Egyptian police departments govern vast areas of social life. They have responsibilities over security and public order, but also have jurisdiction over the regulation of, among other things, outdoor markets, the use of public utilities such as electricity, and the implementation of municipal building codes. With regular outdoor market raids and campaigns to monitor citizens’ use of these utilities, the police intruded into the daily life of ordinary citizens.  Endowed with the arbitrary powers of emergency laws, the police engaged in practices of extortion, and used violence to intimidate and silence any questioning of their powers. 

Security checks and roadblocks on the streets of Cairo and many other cities were part of Egyptian citizens’ daily reality. Drivers and pedestrians were randomly stopped, arrested and subjected to arbitrary investigation. Young men, feared by the regime for their potential for activism and resistance, were the main target of these practices. The everyday experience of humiliation at the hands of the police fuelled the youth’s opposition and rejection of the regime and its coercive arm, the police.

It was befitting that the revolution had its spectacular beginning on Police Day and that the youth would take the lead in breaking down the barrier of fear that the police have erected over a long period of time.  Egypt’s youth have bravely put themselves forward along with vast segments of society to reassert their right to dignity and freedom. They have taken the first steps towards reclaiming their rights and towards exercising fully the responsibilities of citizenship. It is in reference to these objectives that the protesters’ main and most powerful slogan “the people want to bring down the system” should be understood. The desired change is nothing short of an overhaul of the institutions and structures of government.

Salwa Ismail is Professor of Politics with reference to the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

Recent publications from Peace & Security

On the Issue of Nuclear Terrorism

It is time for a closer look at the self-serving claim by nuclear weapons states that one of the greatest dangers is that of nuclear weapons being built or falling into the hands of ‘terrorist groups’.

Eurodrones, Inc.

How far reaching is the EU's financing and support for the emerging drone industry? With what intended purpose? And what will be the consequences for European citizens?

Race, space and punishment in urban sociology

Structural circumstances of deprivation and criminalization facing African-Americans and the racialized perceptions of criminality appear to be some of the salient features that recently led to a young black teenager being killed by neighborhood watch patrolman George Zimmerman.

How international rules on countering the financing of terrorism impact civil society

Making banks and non-profits liable for the acts and social networks of their customers and beneficiaries while holding charities and CSOs responsible for the ‘extremist’ views and actions of their associates stifles freedom of association and expression and promotes self-censorship.