What Happened to the “Arab Street?”

Neha Sahgal

Why do opposition movements engage in protest under some circumstances but not inothers? Why did the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt organize large scale protest during the 2005regime initiated political reforms while remaining largely off the streets during the United States’led war in Iraq in 2003? There is a common notion among Western public opinion and policymakers that United States’ policies in the Middle East have led to greater political activismamong Islamic fundamentalists. Yet, while citizens around the world protested the war in Iraq,Egypt remained largely quiet. The lack of protest and other acts of opposition were surprisinggiven the history of Arab-anti colonial struggle, the 1950s street politics in Egypt that broughtNasser to power and the flourishing civil society organizations in the region exemplified byIslamist parties, non governmental organizations and professional syndicates. More importantly,with the 2005 regime initiated political opening in Egypt, the country’s largest oppositionmovement, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood organized high levels of protests anddemonstrations exposing undemocratic practices of the current government and seeking greaterpolitical freedom. The year 2005, was marked by a “wave of contention” in Egypt standing instark contrast to the lack of mobilization against the Iraq war. Clearly, Muslim Brotherhoodprotest activity is guided by factors other than the prevalence of “anti-Americanism.”Scholars of contentions politics have developed and tested various theories that explainand predict protest behavior. Strain and breakdown theories explain protest as an outcome ofeconomic conditions while resource mobilization theories have stressed the role of material andorganizational constraints in organizing protest. Yet others have argued that protests are spurredby structural changes, for example, divisions or breakdown in the government. In this paper, Iargue that explaining the protest behavior of one group should take into account the group’sinteraction with other opposition actors. Opposition groups operate in a dense network of allies,adversaries as well as counter movements. Therefore their strategies influence each other intangible ways. I present an analysis of how the 2005 political opening in Egypt led to changes inlegal parties such as al-Ghad and al-Wafd that were allowed to contest presidential andparliamentary elections. Further, the new movement Kifaya, originally formed to expressopposition to the Iraq war, also gained momentum as an anti-Mubarak, pro-democracy alliance.The changes in the parties that were allowed to contest elections and the emergence of newmovements altered the socio-political context for the “officially banned, yet tolerated,” MuslimBrotherhood. The Brotherhood tried to reassert itself as the main voice of political opposition inthe country by organizing greater protest activity and in this way established similarity with legalopposition parties. While legal opposition parties remain weak and ineffective in Egypt, andnewer opposition movements are still small in their membership, they may still influence eachothers’ strategies in tangible ways.

Filed Under: AfricaArticlesEgyptFeaturedIssuesMiddle EastMuslim Brotherhood


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