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A comparative perspective on protest politics

April 10, 2011

I’ve just been reading Zeinobia’s comment on the events in Tahrir Square on Friday night, when the Egyptian army forcefully cleared the square of protesters who refused to obey the curfew. (For a fuller description of what happened, see this post from the Arabist).

There’s much to discuss around what this means for people’s perception of the military in Egypt, around whether the army can control the media narrative, and so on. Zeinobia makes some very important points around the need for transparency and accountability from the ruling military council, and its ham-fisted approach to PR.

However it’s her criticisms of the protesters which has set me thinking. Lots of Egyptian activists and commentators are discussing the fallout from Friday night’s events, and it’s clearly a divisive issue: the protesters were challenging the army through their actions, and knew they were likely to face a pushback, but is it an effective tactic for achieving their ultimate goals?

Zeinobia thinks not:

The [SCAF – Supreme Council of Armed Forces] has made terrible mistakes but Egyptian activists have turned in to their own worst enemies. The Egyptian activists do not want to play politics , they do not want to leave the Tahrir at the right time and return to it at the right time to deliver to get what they want. 

She also echoes one of the main concerns I heard on my recent trip to Cairo about the need for the new generation of activists to make better connections with a wider section of the Egyptian population:

Unfortunately Some of these activists despite bragging of being in the streets all day have lost all the connection to the rest of the Egyptian people who will stand with the Egyptian army despite they know very well that it suffers from corruption just like any other institutions in the country. 

Zeinobia is not the only one asking questions about what can now be achieved by more Tahrir protests. Sandmonkey wrote a very persuasive piece a few weeks back arguing that the Jan25 coalition need to “Start organizing yourselves into an offline grassroots movement, Zenga Zenga style”.

Not being on the ground or part of the movement I couldn’t make a strong case for or against the protest tactics currently being used, but reading these discussions struck a chord with me: I have been having parallel conversations with friends about protest tactics in the anti-cuts movement, following the demonstrations in London on March 26.

While the repercussions of pushing protest boundaries in the UK are nowhere near as severe as those faced by activists in Tahrir, the non-TUC actions on March 26 are something of a parallel issue. I don’t think the non-TUC actions were harmful to the movement, but there are questions about how successful activists who took part were in communicating what they stood for and whether they were able to connect with the majority of the UK public. 

UK Uncut has been quite a savvy campaign and successful in encouraging a broader range of people to engage in peaceful direct action. But targeting Fortnum & Mason – while in no way an illegitimate target – had overtones of “class war”, and in the moment it was difficult to get the message out widely about how the occupation fitted in with UK Uncut’s campaign. Following the mass arrests after the action there is now a risk that UK Uncut activists will get engulfed in the fight against political policing – not unworthy, but also not typically of concern to the non-activist population.

Activists in both the UK and Egypt are taking a step back to think about wider strategies beyond protest for achieving their political goals. In the UK we’ve had much greater freedom to protest than Egyptians in the last 30 years, but we’re still having the same conversations about how to use protests as an effective tactic.

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