Class Dynamics Explain the Egyptian Revolution

Bread and Freedom: Egypt’s Revolutionary Situation is a riveting account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. But it ignores class and capitalism and fails to explain the reasons behind Egypt’s mass mobilization and why it was defeated.

A woman lays out dough for bread in Dakhla Oasis, Egypt. (DeAgostini / Getty Images)

The Egyptian uprising in 2011 has been extensively studied. Scholars have investigated its causes and consequences as well as whether the revolt was a sign of authoritarian weakness, how movements for change were able to mobilize in such numbers, and how the counterrevolution was able to put an end to the upheaval and crush mobilizations.

In Bread and Freedom: Egypt’s Revolutionary Situation, Egyptian political scientist Mona El-Ghobashy posits “revolutionary situation” as a key concept for understanding the Egyptian uprising, a synoptic device to show how the old regime faced challenges to its rule and how indeterminacy characterized the trajectory of its confrontation with protesters. For her, the concept captures how distinct political events relate to each other and shape outcomes.

Her method rests on a relational approach to understanding social life, with each point in the conflict a product of multiple interactions. She contrasts this with the structure-versus-agency approaches to revolutions in which, she says, actors are either prisoners of their inherited structures or self-directed agents. In her own account, actors are “enmeshed in webs of relations with other actors.” El-Ghobahsy is, therefore, critical of state- or class-centered approaches that examine causes and consequences, in which “the selected causes are explicated and arranged, then marched through the pages to their expected consequences.” Rather than identifying causal origins, she traces trajectories of events.

But despite an excellent, riveting account of the revolt, the theoretical approach employed ultimately impedes her ability to explain it. The book gives no satisfactory explanations for the rise of unrest under President Hosni Mubarak, its mass nature, or the failure of opposition forces to gain long-term democratic concessions.

Narrating “Revolutionary Situation”

Bread and Freedom is organized around a series of confrontations between the Egyptian government of President Mubarak, who held power for thirty years, and opposition forces. It covers the period of the revolutionary era until the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its representative, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s president since the military coup of 2013, solidified their rule. Each chapter tells the story of the interactions between actors that shaped key episodes and outcomes — namely, elections, protests, and crucial court decisions.

Partly because of her approach, El-Gobashy is devoted to detail, and she’s good at capturing key political events using short phrases as well as providing beautifully written thick descriptions. She opens the book by taking the reader back to the confrontations during the initial phases of the uprising in 2011, accounting for all the sectors that made the uprising possible and allowed the people to overwhelm the police. From early on, El-Ghobashy displays the allegiances of SCAF to Mubarak, and this sets the stage for the key role SCAF plays in its opposition to the revolution.

El-Ghobashy provides a compelling account of the mobilizations against Mubarak’s government, covering key actors and events. In line with her relational approach, she does not see a linear relationship between the growing power of social movements and the declining power of authorities but rather shifts in power due to recurrent cycles of mobilization and state repression. Events take center stage in her account.

She starts with political confrontations through parliamentary elections, beginning in the 1990s, among opposition figures, their supporters, and the regime. She then moves to court cases as another terrain of struggle, used by citizens and lawyers to file lawsuits to protect citizens against executive officers. Though the state tried to divert cases from courts to state bureaucracy, this largely failed because of an increase in the volume of lawsuits between 2000 and 2009.

The regime also faced the challenge of a growing protest culture that included neighborhood, associational, and workplace events, signaling a shift in power. El-Ghobashy also describes the makeup of protests in Egypt. The Kifaya (meaning “Enough!”), for example, a loose middle-class network, modeled a new political identity and created an option for the public to be politically engaged, pushing opposition forces to be active. Youth groups, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and opposition parties united to disqualify their ruler. “Their power,” writes El-Ghobashy, “was in producing an effective mobilizing idea, a frame, to make sense of their collective experience and to launch action, as they did on January 25, 2011.” Street action and workplace protest disrupted regime operations. All these forms of protest escalated mass action, on January 25, 2011, into a revolutionary situation.

El-Ghobashy proceeds to describe postrevolutionary confrontations. Among the strengths of these chapters is to show how the democratic opening in Egypt during the revolution was real and how the result of confrontations was not set in advance. SCAF, El-Ghobashy astutely argues, had envisioned an easier transition in which their power was not contested. They soon discovered that, in each corner and sector, there were revolutionary demands to overthrow the old authoritarian structure. Egyptians were politically activated, and new parties and alliances were formed. El-Ghobashy shows how SCAF had to contend with a democratically elected parliament in which the MB was the biggest party.

Things came to a head between the MB and liberal opposition forces, first over MB reluctance to join key protests in the initial confrontations with SCAF; then in the writing of the constitution, when opposition forces boycotted the constitutional assembly because their voices were not represented; and again when MB leader Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected president, centralized power in his own hands. The conflict ended when some of the leading figures in the opposition allied with SCAF against the MB, conducting the coup to remove the MB from power and instituting the military rule still in place today.

No Structural Explanations or Determinations

However, El-Ghobashy’s relational approach comes with considerable limitations. Without what she calls a “system-structural” account, we are left with an empirically driven narrative that has a weak explanatory force, and we cannot understand the main causes for the social unrest in the 2000s — which El-Ghobashy purposefully avoids. El-Ghobashy stresses that there was no breakdown in the authoritarian system, and that we can only talk about cycles of confrontations that resulted in power shifts. Indeed, while shifts in power resulting from confrontation characterize challenges to authoritarian regimes, revolutions are rarer. Moreover, authoritarian systems do not need to experience a breakdown for mobilizations to grow. Changes in power structures create gaps in the system, key for explaining unprecedented unrest. El-Ghobashy’s reliance on social movement concepts such as “cycles of protests” and “frames” to explain protest dynamics also precludes her from undertaking structural analyses. Contra mainstream social movement theories, protests are institutionally structured.

In addition, her insistence on a relational account that only examines how perceptions and interactions between groups in conflict shape outcomes prevents her from weighing up the impact of the different actors on outcomes. It is true that, to some degree, the results of political confrontations are not predetermined in advance, and her use of the term “revolutionary situation” helps capture this element of indeterminacy. But we can also analyze the consequences of the uprising based on an analysis of power structures. And we can examine how organizational capacities and interests of key agents and political actors, like the labor movement and the MB, affected the success of mass mobilizations in 2011 and contributed to the weakness of the revolutionary camp in the post-Mubarak period.

These shortcomings are evident in El-Ghobashy’s inability to adequately address the cause of social unrest, the role of labor in revolutions, and MB conduct during the uprising.

Unrest, Workers, Movements

The question of the spread of social unrest in Egypt is causally connected to the decline of traditional revenues from rent, oil, the Suez Canal, and foreign aid by 2000.1 These changes led to the increasingly prominent role of private capitalists in politics and in the economy. As the regime was no longer able to continue with its previous distributive policies, new economic elites were stepping in and providing provisions previously run through the state and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).2 El-Ghobashy addresses the involvement of the new business elites on infighting over the elections, but she does not connect their rise to growing social unrest. It is significant that the changes in elite structures preceded the ascent of labor and the social unrest of the 2000s. The rise of these elites led to changes in Egypt’s clientelist relations, undermining the power of the ruling NDP and leading to a decline in corporatism in Egypt. These new elites were no longer interested in the previous state-labor arrangements; indeed, changes in labor laws to undermine union power ensued when they assumed control in the 2000s.

This had a direct effect of fomenting social unrest in Egypt. Worker protests cannot simply be explained by how interactions among different actors and events shape behavior. The decline in corporatism is key to understanding the explosion in labor unrest.3 By the 2000s, workers were no longer able to advance their interests from within state institutions like their labor unions. It is no coincidence that public sector workers unleashed the wave of unrest in Egypt and were overrepresented among protest participants during the eighteen days of the uprising.4

It is also noteworthy that workers in key export sectors, such as textiles and food, helped spur the movement, and concessions made to textile workers backfired and fueled further unrest.5 Other scholars have already noted that, in the 2000s, there was interest in resuming work operations quickly in key sectors for international markets.6 The growing role of private and international capital also meant that many members of the middle classes, who now worked in the private sector rather than the previously dominant public sector, had no ties to state institutions and were thus more likely to mobilize for regime change. Against El-Ghobashy’s assertion, the instigation of labor and social unrest is in fact system-structural.

Labor swayed elite decisions and the trajectory of the uprisings because of its role in the economy. Labor unrest in Egypt reached massive levels, involving millions of workers. By their sheer numbers alone, workers’ impact on protest culture in Egypt trumps that of other actors.

Moreover, workers’ participation in the eruption of protest and in the postrevolutionary era influenced the economy and elite coalitions. It is significant that even high-paid workers in key economic sectors such as petrol were joining the strikes in large numbers during the last three days of the occupation of Tahrir Square.7 And we know that economic losses resulting from strikes stressed elites before Mubarak’s ouster.8 Could the occupation of Tahrir have been isolated if workers were not escalating their strikes? El-Ghobashy avoids such questions.

Surprisingly, El-Ghobashy does not give much attention to the strikes that threatened the status quo and determined the formation of elite coalitions in the post-Mubarak era. SCAF ended the revolutionary moment in Egypt with great urgency, likely concerned with halting the radicalization of labor and the mushrooming of workplace organizing. Economic elites were also happy to end the revolutionary moment and stop worker radicalization. In fact, the stock market skyrocketed in the aftermath of the coup, indicating their satisfaction with SCAF’s conduct.9

At the same time, the inability of labor groups to form robust organizations disempowered the revolutionary camp in Egypt. The Tunisian General Labour Union’s support for the revolutionary demands in postrevolutionary Tunisia is a good counterexample. At key moments during the confrontation with SCAF in 2012, attempts at general strikes failed because of the organizational weakness of labor. These shortcomings were decisive in the trajectory of events.

There are also issues with El-Ghobashy’s take on the MB. While, in the end, some liberal opposition forces opportunistically allied with SCAF against the MB, from early on, the revolutionary forces felt their own weakness on the ground when the MB abandoned them, and they had to confront SCAF on their own. After all, no group in Egypt had the organizational power that the MB did, so what it did mattered most. For example, SCAF conceded to holding elections in 2012 only after large street protests in which the MB joined forces with other opposition groups.

In addition, focusing on how the MB and the oppositions’ perceptions of each other motivated political behavior prohibits El-Ghobashy from looking deeply at the MB’s ideological commitments and interests as a group. This is especially evident in her treatment of the conflict over the writing of the constitution. The MB excluded opposition forces out of its convictions and its lack of commitment to democratic ideals, not misperception.

Surprisingly again, El-Ghobashy never entertains a possible convergence between the MB and SCAF on key political and economic questions. The events of the uprising indicate that MB interests (especially those of its economic and political leadership) in fact matched those of SCAF on key issues central to revolutionary demands, such as representative democracy and opposition to neoliberal economic policies. This is especially evident when El-Ghobashy engages with MB positions during Morsi’s term and the massive mobilizations against his rule after he tried to centralize power in the executive branch.

El-Gobashy says that what happened to the MB is common among the ruling parties of newly formed democracies when parliaments are dissolved. It is indeed true that the military and the deep state were keen on ending the revolutionary moment. But wasn’t it clear, in that revolutionary situation where the MB was facing SCAF and the old Mubarak regime, that the MB’s only ally was the political opposition and revolutionary forces? What explains its unwillingness to concede to the demands of the opposition, allowing for its voice to be represented in the constitution or in key political decisions later on?

In the conclusion, El-Ghobashy raises alternative explanations for the MB’s behavior. She explains that the MB upholds “majoritarian politics”: it was not willing to share power with the opposition and felt that whoever won in the elections had the right to make final decisions. This contradicted the consociational approach, supported by many in the opposition, that the interests of various groups should be accounted for regardless of electoral size or power. Surely the MB must have taken note of the opposition’s popular and electoral support. Hamdeen Sabahi, the Nasserite presidential candidate and representative of the opposition, came third in the elections but first in Egypt’s two largest cities, Cairo and Alexandria. His success is especially impressive given that no formal large organization or party backed his candidacy. Yet rather than incorporating the opposition in decision-making, Morsi and the MB centralized power in the hands of their president, further alienating all opposition forces and rousing popular dismay with their rule.

Similarly, MB economic policies and positions toward worker unrest ran counter to popular demands. In fact, the MB took positions to worker strikes similar to those of the Mubarak regime in the past. They accused external infiltrators and NDP members of instigating strikes. Labor leaders who had voted for the MB in the 2012 parliamentary elections were surprised to find that the MB was keen on reestablishing the Mubarak-era undemocratic bureaucratic trade unions instead of encouraging independent unionism, a key demand that started under Mubarak and intensified in the postrevolutionary period.

Groups with revolutionary demands, such as labor (even if they had no revolutionary intention or outlook) and the youth and democratic forces, were organizationally too weak to withstand SCAF power. And the group with the only possible counterforce and organizational power, the MB, did not have the same interests and upheld neoliberal economic policies that ran counter to revolutionary demands.

El-Ghobashy’s relational approach allows her to provide an empirically rich account that describes the dynamics between different actors and how they mobilized certain frames or used certain institutions to advance their interests, capturing key interactions and events. But this approach fails to advance explanations for key political events in the Egyptian revolution. To answer the key questions — why the mass revolt happened when it did and how it was crushed so effectively — we need an account that takes class and structure seriously.

About the Author

Nada Matta is assistant professor of global studies and sociology at Drexel University.