Demonstrations of democracy

By Ellis Goldberg
Submitted to Session P4845 (Activism, Contestation and Political Participation in the Middle East and North Africa, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Although the Egyptian revolution of 2011 was characterized by years of demonstrations, including some that numbered in the hundreds of thousands or millions of participants scholars have paid little attention to them as independent and important moral or political phenomena. They are generally understood as epiphenomena expressive of structural conflicts in Egyptian society or of already existing social movements. In contrast, I argue that between 2011 and 2013 mass demonstrations marked a discontinuity with earlier forms of protest and played an independent role in toppling the old regime and in structuring political conflict. We must therefore understand the connection between mass demonstrations that verged on popular insurrection and our conceptions of democracy and revolution. Why, as a matter of political practice and political discourse, were demonstrations so important for change and how, during the three years in which they formed a dominant form of political practice, did Egyptians understand them? Mass demonstrations, as a form of political action, differ greatly from other forms of direct action such as strikes and sit-ins and also from other forms of mass political participation such as elections. We must think again and more clearly about the nature of contingent and spontaneous mass urban protest and less about leaders and structure if we are to understand the Egyptian events of the last half decade.