How to prepare a square: Neil Ketchley and the Egyptian revolution

This post is a summary of a public lecture given by Dr Neil Ketchley, from King’s College London’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies, on his forthcoming book Egypt in a Time of Revolution: Contentious Politics and the Arab Spring, and particularly one specific chapter touching the conditions of emergence of the revolutionary movement in Egypt. As usual this summary must be considered as what it is: my own recollection of the presentation rather than the author’s exact words. I think the work represents a generation of oh-so-awaited serious studies on the “Arab Springs” and the end of what was mostly speed-thinking until now (except for a few exceptions, among which Gunning and Baron’s, Combes, Garibay, and Goirand’s (eds.), or Vairel and Beinin’s (eds.) works). My opinion is that after the mediatic craze and the emergence of dodgy studies aplenty, the time needed for the production of serious work has passed. And, as we were right to expect, said work crushes a few prejudices.

"Ali and Aisha at the Battle of the Camel", author unknown

“Ali and Aisha at the Battle of the Camel”, author unknown

Ketchley’s presentation started with the enunciation of an opinion which has increasingly become, since 2011, an admitted truth on the recent Egyptian Revolution: in the dominant revolutionary representations of the moment, as for the media, and an important part of the international community, the Egyptian Revolution was essentially a sudden and peaceful movement, the violence exerced having essentially been on the government’s side during the days between the 25th of January and the 11th of February 2011. This periodicisation is essential in the author’s model, who adopts roughly the same approach as proposed by Michel Dobry in his Sociology of Political Crises (1986, still under correction for its English translation). That is, the author does not choose to approach the Revolution through its causes or the long-term structural transformations conducting to it, but as it unfolds and through what one could call a “tactical” perspective. The author therefore isolates the days of the Revolution to observe, through an essentially quantitative perspective, the conditions of its success.

Tahrir and the rest

Geographically, the study relies on a division of Egypt by local administrative scale, and isolating Tahrir from the rest of the observed contentious events. Through reports and an important work of crossing news, the author has isolated and classified contentious events across the country. The isolation of Tahrir corresponds to the choice to focus on the broad context in which the revolution occurs: the central square is sociologically distinct from the rest of the country and observes its own dynamics, while the mapping of the contentious events shows some patterns emerging and leading to categories emerging.

Roughly, while the time sequences are more or less similar, what one can observe is the important differences between areas which have known important contentious activity, and those which have not, in parallel to an overall trend marking the increase of contention in general. Leading to the question of why, during an overall takeoff of the Revolution, some areas have been more contentious than others.

Repression and counter-repression

The argument of repression has often been present in social movement studies, and prevalent has been the question of how repression can be circumvented to lead to contentious sequences. The proposal made by the author here is at the same time new and rooted in a range of theory which can be associated to a localised perception of political opportunities. While the common or mainstream approach to political opportunities considers them as structural transformations of the relations of power between groups, this approach still highlights the importance of opportunities, but insists on the way they are made “from below”, as it were, or correspond to the capacity of mobilisation entrepreneurs to use the broad context to forge contention. An opportunity is not an opportunity if it is not perceived and constructed as such, in other words.

In Ketchley’s work, the essential element is the destructions or attacks of police stations prior to the emergence of contention, which leads up to one out of every four district police stations in the country to have been destroyed at the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution. These attacks, rooted in an important concrete and imaginary register in the Egyptian society (the attacking of police stations features in previous events, but also in popular movies) leads to two reactions: the shrinking of the police forces to protect themselves and their effective disappearance from the streets, leading the state to rely increasingly on irregular troops; the subsequent possibility for other, non-violent, publics to take the streets, which was encouraged by the geographic distributions of activists victims of police repression in the early days of the Revolution.

Indeed, when using a regression analysis comparing the correlations of unemployment, number of college graduates, and local victims of the early police violence (eg. the number of dead from the district in question), among others, to number of later contentious events, the strongest correlation found is the latter: the more people dead in police repression, the higher the later contention. Knowing people victims of repression from one’s locality encouraged one to take the streets in the later days of the Revolution.

A peaceful Revolution built on a violent destruction of state repression apparatus

The conclusion is that the Egyptian Revolution has been, mostly, non-violent. But the destruction of the repressive apparatus helping this Revolution to take place was. This relation to violence in the framing of the Revolution has also been subjected to tactical estimates: once the Revolution was over and the transnational importance of presenting it as non-violent (because, in a nutshell, the UN and international media love non-violent revolutions, considered as legitimate while violence in politics is not), and the stakes became the recognition of the victimes of state repression as martyrs of the Revolution, discourses linking violence to it returned easily.

On these observations, the author tries a generalisation as to why the “movements of places” have failed in other contexts: what has been imported was not the techniques of the Egyptian Revolution, but the sympathetic and unrealistic images produced in situation of these techniques. Taking place without the destruction of the repressive state which accompanied the Egyptian movement, the attempts to import it appear to the researcher as incomplete decals, and one can make sense of their failure on this basis.

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