CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition
“He held it out to me, and suddenly, with no warning, I was into one of those definitive instants, a moment of the Great Fork. Here I was in Chicago, in a scene that had all the makings of a total Armageddon, with my adrenaline up so high for so long that I knew I’d collapse when I came down... ten feet in front of a row of gleaming bayonets with plain-clothes cops all around me and cameras popping every few seconds at almost everybody... [...] For two days and two nights I’d been running around the streets of Chicago, writing longhand notebook wisdom about all of the people who were being forced, by the drama of this convention, to take sides in a very basic way...” [1]

1Tuesday morning, 25 January, time itself is in suspense. Significant – though not excessive – demonstrations have taken shape in several of Egypt’s big cities, most notably in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. This day is the first of eighteen days of “political crisis” [2] that, on 11 February, will result in the departure of Hosni Moubarak, Head of State since 1981. Observers are left perplexed by the speed and magnitude of the movement. The “revolution” has just begun.

2The event’s chronological and emotional proximity make it difficult to grasp, and the problem of comprehension is only worsened by a lack of reliable information on the many actors caught within this “broadened tactical interdependence”. [3] For the time being it thus seems impossible to provide some sort of reading that would convey the “truth” behind the events of January-February 2011, which were unprecedented to say the least. By considering the situation from several angles and vantage points, it does however seem possible to explore a few hypotheses pertaining to the way in which these events played out on the ground.

3The angle adopted in this article engages key issues fundamental to the study of major political crises, especially in the context of authoritarian regimes. [4] Indeed, one might even claim with a certain degree of confidence that there is nothing particularly surprising – nothing particularly revolutionary – to be observed in battle-hardened activists who have lived through their fair share of protests taking part in yet another protest action they themselves had called for. To be sure, the manner in which they participated, the estimates and the expectations that they formulated concerning their participation, the justifications or framing of the situation that they produced, might all have varied considerably. Nevertheless, the elucidation of their shift into concrete action is not such a difficult task. The “surprise” engendered by these events had little to do with the participation of the Youth of the 6th of April [5] (Y6A) or of the Revolutionary Socialists [6] (RS). In other words, the unprecedented nature of these events lay not so much in the fact that collective protest action took place, but rather that this action went well beyond the usual activist circles. Arithmetically, the fact that tens of thousands of people took to the Egyptian streets must lead us to believe that the revolutionary masses were in fact largely made up of “lay” people.

4Howthen are we to understand the Egyptians’ move to action during the eighteen days between 25 January and 11 February, especially by those who had never been active in this way before?

5By studying the specific ways in which the Egyptian youth mobilised, despite their lack of prior political experience, I attempt to identify those mechanisms that lead “depoliticised” individuals to become “revolutionaries”. This mobilisation becomes a privileged vantage point for observing several dynamics: firstly, it enables us to grasp the impact of the tactical choices made by mobilisation entrepreneurs on the subsequent trajectory of the mobilisation. Secondly, this approach allows us to observe how the sequential chains of “ordinary” events leads individuals to become involved in an extraordinary event (and thus, to its redefinition). Finally, it provides insight into the role played by “daily life” in Tahrir Square, and of how this space was constructed – through practices and discourses – as the physical and symbolic epicentre of the revolution.

6I begin with a description of what the activists did, in order to make clear two important aspects. On the one hand, I look at the importance of the logic of the activist field and of activist “dispositions” in defining the issues of the moment and the route to be followed (i.e. what is to be done, concretely?). [7] In contrast, it might be said that the logic of the activist field and of activist dispositions played a lesser role in determining the move to mobilisation of “lay people”, for whom dynamics of “emergence” [8] linked to the fluidity of circumstance played a more pivotal role. Moreover, a brief description of these interactions will shed light on the very concrete effects of the activists’ efforts to mobilise lay people. The activists’ tactical choices bore direct consequences for the manner in which certain protests took shape, even if these same activists suddenly found themselves unable to properly control how the protest developed and the meanings which were ascribed to it. In the second part of this article, I will show how these “lay people” were persuaded to mobilise (sometimes for the first time) and how they gradually became “revolutionaries” [9] in their own right. I focus on two elements in order to properly illustrate this process: on the one hand, the chain of micro-events that drew these youths into the mobilisation; and on the other hand, the shifting perceptual environment in which they were immersed, and which helped to reinforce within their imaginary the idea that we’re in a revolution.

Methodological precautions

7There are numerous ways in which a revolutionary situation can be understood. The term “Revolution” is in itself problematic, inviting the scepticism of many a political scientist. I will make reference to the “Egyptian Revolution” or of the “Revolution of 25 January” for two main reasons. On the one hand, the eighteen-day period from 25 January until 11 February in 2011 corresponds more or less to the definition given by Charles Tilly of “revolutionary situations”. [10] On the other hand, and perhaps somewhat more simply, this description of the events of January and February is one that is currently used today in Egypt, at least in the media and in official discourse.

8The object can be analysed from its causes, by tracing its aetiology, or by analysing its results or consequences. I nevertheless prefer to approach the event solely through a description of some of its episodes, and mainly through analysis of individual trajectories. This reading can only ever be partial and fragmented, but it enables us to understand concretely how individuals were persuaded to mobilise (or were mobilised) by a wider movement; how the everyday aspects of the action playing out on the ground influenced the direction that this action took; and how enduring dispositions or prior experiences were reactivated by the immediacy of the event, or came into conflict with it. In this respect, this contribution does not pretend to proffer a “holistic” illumination nor a “general” explanation of “the Revolution”; it attempts instead to shed light on certain observable phenomena that, when aggregated with others, constitute something that can be referred to as a revolutionary situation.

9The final methodological point that is somewhat problematic concerns the terms employed to categorise the interviewees’ relationship to politics. I do not wish here to reopen the tricky debate surrounding the politicisation/depoliticisation binary. [11] I use the terms lay/depoliticised/everyday protestor as equivalent in this article, contrasting these categories of actor with professional/politicised/battle-hardened protestors (otherwise encompassed by the label “activist”). The activists are individuals with long-term involvement in forms of collective protest action (in the context of movements, groups or campaigns that were structured to at least some extent) in the period prior to January 2011. Depoliticisation is thus meant here in the restrictive sense of non-participation in any kind of politics (conventional or non-conventional).

10The contingency of the event, most notably on 30 January, led me to follow a group of young people whom I did not previously know. [12] The core of the group comprised four young men and two young women, all of them aged between 23 and 32 years old. They had all completed graduate studies (to a bachelors or masters level). The four young men (Mohsen, Salah, Mahmoud and Haridi) [13] grew up in the same neighbourhood, el-Haram, [14] the first three studied together (architecture) and the fourth was a sound engineer (radio). The two young women (Heba and Siham) were Alexandrian. [15] They both worked in the cultural sector (in a cultural centre and an independent cinema, respectively). The members of the group knew one another through a third person who was absent during the mobilisation, a mutual friend known to one of the young men and the young women. Though she did not herself belong to a political movement, Heba (and to a lesser extent, Siham) was relatively politicised and often participated in protests. [16] At the time, the most recent protest in which she had participated was one in solidarity with the victims of the attack on the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria, on 1 January. [17] At the opposite end of the spectrum, the young men all declared – almost proudly so – that they had never participated in protests, and illustrated a pronounced lack of knowledge of and disinterest in Egyptian political life. Their disapproval of the regime [18] expressed itself principally in the form of a marked apprehensiveness towards the police, due to various “bad memories” [19] of their dealings with officers. Finally, if we accept the somewhat schematic use of the term, they can be considered as “social dropouts” [déclassés sociaux], in the sense that they saw their own objective position within the social strata as completely out of phase with that to which they aspired. [20]

Activists confronted by the revolutionary moment

A chronological reminder of the facts

11Read and analysed in hindsight, the crisis of the “18 days” can be divided into three phases. [21] The first phase runs from 25 to 28 January. During these three days (the 25th, 26th and 27th), protests exploded more or less all over the country. While they might have initially reflected the organisational work carried out by the young activists (meeting places, general instructions, slogans, demands, etc.; see below), these protests quickly went beyond their initial parameters and embedded themselves within neighbourhood logics based on confrontation with the security forces. In other words, from that moment onwards the protests began to obey situational logics that were beyond the concrete and symbolic control of the activists. The activists undertook to organise a major national protest for Friday 28 January. Faced with a government crackdown and the surprise number of people who participated in the demonstrations, their demands were revised upwards and numerous actors who might usually have hesitated entered with full force into the fray. One such actor was opposition member Mohammed El-Baradei, [22] who returned hurriedly from a period abroad in order to join the Friday of Rage protest (28 January 2011). Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood, after initial hesitation on 25 January, made it known to the other political forces that they would be lending their full weight and strength to the demonstration.

12For the authorities, these three days were characterised by an astonishing lapse into silence. The official media acted as if nothing was happening and the political leaders remained particularly laconic on the subject. Furthermore, alongside both targeted and random arrests, [23] the regime tried to hinder the means of communication, hoping to shut down the movement. Different forms of communication were thus gradually targeted (starting with mobile phones within the city centre, then the websites of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, etc.). This clampdown was to reach its peak from dawn on the 28 January 2011, when mobile phones and ADSL internet connections [24] were cut throughout the country.

13The 28 January, baptised the “Friday of Rage”, was extremely violent. Several battles [25] between protestors and security forces influenced the outlook of many and subsequently became days that were transformative [26] of actors’ perceptions and of the power equilibria within the political field. The event which marked this transformation took place in the early evening, as central security forces fled before the protesters, leaving their helmets and shields behind them. Cars were set on fire. The armed forces arrived. The protestors became revolutionaries.

14The second phase of the crisis stretches from the evening of 28 January until Wednesday 2 February. This was the radicalisation phase of the revolutionary process. These days bore witness to a massive acceleration of the violence between actors as the exceptional nature of the crisis became more concretely expressed, visible in a multitude of micro-events that, only a few days earlier, might have seemed surreal: Moubarak addressing the nation and acknowledging the “legitimate demands” of the protestors; the government’s dissolution; nomination of a vice-president; [27] the police fleeing before the protestors and their disappearance from Egypt’s major cities; prison escapes on a massive scale; the army setting up a presence in Egypt’s strategic places. Moreover, from the evening of 29 January a sort of “Great Fear” took hold that would come to be named “the loss of security control” (al-infilat al-amni). The mosques called for neighbouthood residents to come and protect their goods, and to form popular committees [28] that would patrol the neighbourhoods in relays. This all happened within a context of scarce information and phenomenally prolific rumours.

15On the Tahrir Square front, a revolutionary atmosphere set in, and the square’s autonomy (described below) was gradually established. The milyuniyya (million-strong marches) – those giant demonstrations that saturated the square and were estimated to include some hundreds of thousands of protestors, or even more than a million on certain days – became progressively institutionalised over the following days. These giant demonstrations took place simultaneously in the capital and in Egypt’s main cities, notably in Alexandria, which saw record rates of mobilisation. The opposition attempted to organise itself, coalitions were made and unmade, and the regime launched negotiations with the opposition seeking an “exit from the crisis”. The “Tahrir” entity became progressively more autonomous from the traditional opposition forces who were negotiating this exit from the crisis, and became a force which could not be tamed by the professional politicians.

16On Tuesday 1 February during the evening, after a gigantic demonstration, President Moubarak gave a speech in which he proposed a certain number of concessions. The most striking element of this discourse was the melancholic tone employed by the President. On the square, the effect was instantaneous. Moubarak is ready to leave, he is sincere, a sufficient number of concessions have already been made, grant him some time. The square was visibly emptier in the aftermath of the speech, and many a fierce debate broke out between those who considered that the time had come to put an end to a crisis that had lasted for more than ten days, and those whose chosen path was more radical in its aims, and who felt that promises alone were not enough. [29] The next day, a day that came to be called the “Battle of the Camel” (Mawqi’at al Gamal), marked the end of the second phase of the crisis. This day witnessed extreme violence, most notably by the henceforth-famous incursion of the camel- and horse-riders into the square. [30] The confrontations between the pro- and anti-Moubarak factions lasted close to fifteen hours. Along with the 28 January, these were the two bloodiest days of the “Revolution of the 25th of January”. The experience definitively radicalised the occupiers of the square and pushed many people – formerly reticent – to take part in the protests.

17This then, in broad strokes, describes the unprecedented political context of the first days of the uprising. This event-based narrative – a standard account – should not be allowed to mask the multitude of dynamics and actors drawn into this mobilisation. Having completed this necessary review of the facts, we return now to the beginnings of these eighteen days, bringing the focus back to the activists involved in the call to protest and in the organisation of the event.

Dispositions, situational constraints and self-limitation by activists

18Two episodes shed light on the dynamics that determined the tactical choices made by the activists and further serve to illustrate one of the central differences distinguishing them from the “lay” actors. The hypothesis underlying these episodes is that the activists’ choices between different positions and modes of action were strongly conditioned by two elements: their prior activist careers (dispositions) and the logics of the Egyptian political field in which they evolved (field logics). If one is to follow Olivier Fillieule’s hypothesis, in which the activist career “allows for an understanding of how, in each step of the biography, attitudes and behaviours are determined by past attitudes and in turn condition what is possible, thus situating periods of engagement within the individual’s entire lifecycle”, [31] then we should pay close attention to the manner in which the activists’ past experiences condition what is thinkable and what is doable, and thus direct choices towards one mode of action at the expense of another. Moreover, the activists’ parallel involvement with both the political field and the protest field mean that they are obliged to abide by the logics governing these two fields. [32]

Figure 1

Map and diagram of Tahrir Square

Figure 1

Map and diagram of Tahrir Square

Source: New York Times, 6 February 2011

Episode 1: 20 January 2011. Cairo

19In the modest premises of the Centre for Socialist Renewal several groups of young activists held a meeting (another would be held on the 24 January). [33] These young adults were by no means meeting for the very first time (see below). The principal actors of the young Egyptian activist generation were all present: Islamist, left-wing, nationalist and liberal. [34] They came together to organise a protest for 25 January, national Police Day. [35] Nevertheless, this year, the meeting was markedly different. The political “context” had changed. On 14 January, Ben Ali, the unshakeable president of Tunisia, had fled to Saudi Arabia, chased out by a “Revolution”. For the young activists, it was important to capitalise on the event and to dare to hope for a little more than usual. [36] The practical details of the protest were discussed during these two meetings, not without provoking tensions between those present. [37] How could a blow really be struck? How could they organise a protest that wouldn’t go unnoticed?

20The discussion was tense. It centred on three main points: 1) Which would be the main places for assembly? 2) What were to be the terms of the logistical coordination with the administrators of the We are all Khaled Saïd (WKS) Facebook page, who were still at that point strangers to the political groups? 3) How should they (re)present themselves during the protest? These three points constituted major divisions. [38] Concerning the first point, the discord resulted from two opposing visions: on one side, those who wanted to assemble in a working-class neighbourhood and then march to the chosen destination; on the other side, those who wanted to call for people to assemble directly in front of the Interior Ministry, on the edges of Tahrir Square. The second point concerned opposition from the most radical minority of activists, who refused to coordinate [39] such a sensitive political act with strangers, even if, since June 2010, the Facebook page in question had played an undeniable role in bringing about a recent mobilisation cycle. Finally, the third point discussed concerned the manner in which political forces were supposed to (re)present themselves during the protests. Should there be flags, distinctive signs for each movement present? Or should all of the groups seek to meld together into one big movement by homogenising their demands, their slogans, and their forms of identification? [40]

21Such disagreements were in part founded on these activists’ prior experiences. A considerable proportion of those present had undergone their political socialisation during the mass gatherings of the “Kifaya” cycle between 2004 and 2006. They had been through several political movements, had experimented with micro-mobilisations that had left some personally disappointed, [41] or they had experienced failure with calls sent out on the internet, not to mention all of the agonies of political repression. They were familiar with the “street” and never missed a demonstration. Yet, with this experience behind them, they were conscious of several problems, which influenced their attitudes and preferences. First of all, they were conscious of the limits of street-based protest action, notably those of the stand-in, [42] whose routinisation over the preceding years had by and large neutralised its supposed destabilising effects. [43] These activists knew all too well that a fixed protest could take place without any major problems. It is for this reason that many proposed masira (marches), instead of a stand-in in front of the Interior Ministry. [44]


“Personally I was amongst the group that saw this day as important […] and that’s why I helped to push for changing the location of the demonstration instead of being in front of the Interior Ministry, so that it wouldn’t simply become a protest that is repressed and then that’s all… we had to start using new spaces…” [45]

23It is interesting to note that the same people who had participated only a few weeks earlier in the marches for solidarity with the victims of the Alexandria attack had opted for a static assembly. [46] This slight (yet decisive) transformation in the mode of action came after the Tunisian “event”, [47] but it was also related to the particular nature of certain “spontaneous” demonstrations in reaction to the Alexandria attacks.


“There was a rift over the point of departure for the demonstration. There were two main schools of thought: either, across from the Interior Ministry, or from a working-class neighbourhood. We were considering Shubra in particular, undoubtedly because the January 1 protests hadn’t long taken place […] when the Muslims and the Christians had been protesting together against the police and were accusing the state of negligence.” [48]
(My emphasis)

Episode 2. 25 January 2011. Cairo, 7pm – Midnight

25Tahrir Square was swarming like an anthill. Small groups (made up of ten to over fifty people sometimes) circulated around the square intoning different chants and slogans, in particular those which had been decided upon by the leaders of the young activists. [49] Nevertheless, other slogans also appeared. Young people who had never in their lives chanted a single slogan outside of a football stadium thundered “The people want the downfall of the regime!”. An absolute euphoria took hold of the crowd. They experienced a “moment of madness”. [50] The activists shared in this euphoria, though they did not quite know what to make of these few extraordinary moments… but, most of all, they didn’t know what to do. [51] As Chaymaa Hassabo has suggested “the situation went beyond […] the logic, aspirations and expectations of its own instigators and organisers”. [52] The account of another activist is illuminating on this subject:


“The 25th of January, when we arrived in Tahrir Square […], we were joined by the representatives of the different political forces; Îbrâhîm ‘Issâ and Kamâl Abû ‘Ayta were there and we didn’t know what to do. We had talked about the option of i’tissâm [occupation] of the premises; and even if we were prepared to go down that road, in any case, we wouldn’t have known what to do with the people or how to ask them to leave, or what would make them go home… Every two hours, we [53] got together to figure out what to do… […] the discussions: we evacuate everyone, we suspend the demonstration and the sit-in, and we demand the dismissal of Al-’Adlî [the Interior Minister], as well as the overthrow of a number of corrupt ministers [sic].” [54]

27The completely unexpected outcome of this protest episode overturned the actors’ strategies. Worse still, these actors gradually became conscious of the fact that they had lost any real control over what was happening. While certain youths – undoubtedly emulating the Tunisian images relayed by Al Jazeera – were already calling for an end to the regime, the activists were caught up in debates which seemed to have little to do with the situation. In their perpetual anxiety and fear of things getting out of control, certain activists already thought that they had gone too far. [55] Others drafted a declaration that they circulated amongst those present in the square, calling for “the seizure of the Parliament”. [56] Finally, the dynamics of competition within the protest space were keenly felt, and certain activists were marginalised for fear that they were “too radical” in their demands. [57]

28Quite quickly however, the activists’ political calculations (al-hisabat as-siyasiyya), which were the result of the strategies and issues of the protest space, appeared out of synch with the parameters of the situation. The activists soon became aware that they had considerable trouble coordinating the protestors, controlling them and imposing good sense onto what was happening. The capital these activists possessed, which had a certain value in the political field (past experiences, repression or time spent in prison, connections to an activist family) could not be leveraged in Tahrir Square. While they might occupy a privileged position within the political field at a microcosmic scale, they were unable to transfer such capital – which was above all symbolic – in such a way as to influence the protestors, who had in general never even heard of them. Faced with this new situation – especially the following morning when news came in of numerous protests across the country which were independent of their efforts – the activists decided on a “strategic retreat” in order to let the “People’ act.” [58]

29These two episodes illustrate the difficulty which the activists experienced in situations when social space was conjuncturally fluid. For the most part, they remained prisoners of their dispositions and of the competing logics of the protest space; they struggled to evaluate, anticipate, calculate and adapt to their shifting environment. In contrast, as we shall see, the tactical choices they made in a very specific context (at the intersection of dispositions and field logics) would go on to have a considerable impact on other individuals who were outside this field. Finally, we can see the extent to which the mobilisation of “lay people” differs in its logic from activist mobilisations; doubtless one of the blindspots in the understanding of revolutionary phenomena.

The missing link between the activist and the “lay” person: on the (physical and symbolic) paths that lead to Tahrir

30For many years, Cairo’s city-centre (West el-Balad or Downtown) was the habitual space for collective protest actions with political demands. Tahrir Square, more specifically, represents an important symbolic space for Egyptian activism. It functioned as such for the “70s generation”, [59] because it was one of the locations in which the “bread intifada” mobilised on the 18 and 19 January 1977. [60] But it also played this role for the young activists socialised at the beginning of the 2000s. In March of 2003, the protests opposing American intervention in Iraq, which marked a shift in collective street protest, elevated the square – which was occupied for two days by some 50,000 people – into a symbolic site for this embryonic activist generation. Finally, in the second half of the 2000s, the area around the square (especially the building housing the Council of Ministers) became a public stage from which to make social demands. [61] It was for this reason that the activists’ “desired” objective – their vain aspiration – was to march on Tahrir. [62]

31This point is crucial to understanding the events of the eighteen days, for two main reasons. On the one hand, retrospectively, the significant media coverage given to Tahrir, which became the symbolic and physical epicentre of the Egyptian revolution, obscured the different paths that led all of these protestors to the square. Hasty analyses of these paths make them seem linear and teleological. They give the impression that, on the morning of 25 January, having read the calls to protest published online, the protestors had made a quick calculation and subsequently decided to go and “have a Revolution” on Tahrir Square. In this manner, the (reasons underlying the) protests were smoothed out so that to a certain extent they resembled one another. The protests thus became an arithmetical accumulation of individuals. All the different individual paths, as well as the different small groups that took shape on every street corner during the course of the action itself, were erased in favor of a national rhetorical mold of the “Egyptian Revolution”. The image of an harmonious union of Egyptians which was conveyed (and felt) during these eighteen days would go on to reinforce this particular reading. It is important here to recognise that the political discourse of unity (“the People are United in Revolution”) should not be confused with the scholarly attempt to understand precisely such processes underlying the unity and “disunity” of the mobilised masses. [63] For we must not forget that that while the different routes to mobilisation might seem comparable, they are in no way identical. [64]

32On the other hand, this theoretical problem concerning how mobilisations are understood goes hand-in-hand with a practical problem of which the activists (especially those of the younger generations) were, as it turned out, only too aware. Many studies have illustrated that political opposition members active under authoritarian regimes tend to self-impose limits, be it with regard to the demands that they prioritise or in the modes of action they employ. [65] This tendency was reinforced amongst the older generation of elite opposition members, who were rarely in favour of any action outside of the limits drawn up with the authorities. [66] Over the years, the young activists had come to realise that the stand-in had become a relatively innocuous form of action. The protestors were subject to a dual form of containment: they found themselves isolated in media terms (via disinformation campaigns) and in terms of physical space (by a police cordon that blocked anyone from stopping to observe). The idea of the march (masira) thus brought with it two major innovations: on the one hand, a march made it possible to make the event public, expanding its reach beyond the city-centre, and, on the other hand, by organising several simultaneous marches, it made the security forces’ task more arduous. It is important to note that the choice of this mode of action for the 25 January was in no way neutral or random. [67]

33This “localisation” of the protest action – here, in the sense of a physical embedding of protest action into new geographical spaces – certainly played an important role in getting people who were not previously in the habit of protesting to participate. The marches thus became grassroots demonstrations, more visible, more accessible, playing out in the places that were more familiar to individuals. Moreover, the activists had developed different “sensitising devices” [68] that served to incite the emotions of spectators instead of simply hiding behind an abstract political discourse, distant from the present audience. This took the form, for example, of shouting the now classic marching chants, such as “Come out! Come out!” to the curious faces looking on from the balconies and windows, or “Our dear families, come and join us!” (ya ahalina, dummu ‘alena).

34On 25 January, the activists and those who had responded to the first call sent out via the internet assembled in five different areas in Cairo. A significant contingent of the Trotskyist activists (revolutionary socialists), for example, gathered in the Shubra neighbourhood and, by using the back alleys, attempted to avoid the security forces and to involve the passers-by by chanting essentially “social” slogans, focusing on high living costs or on unemployment, to appeal to the residents of this working-class neighbourhood. The beginnings of a protest are not always simple. At one point, the activists were chased about by the central security forces (CSF), and at another, dirty water and insults rained down on them from the overhanging balconies. [69] Before the day was over, around forty were arrested, among them a veteran protestor and a few battle-hardened activists, people protesting for the first time and a few passers-by snapped up erroneously. The night spent in detention (hagz) turned out to be an excellent opportunity for the activists to convince a significant number of the detainees to join the cause. The activists who set out from the residential neighbourhood of Mohandesin, on the other hand, targeted young people from middle-class and petit-bourgeois backgrounds.

35As we see here then, a significant portion of those who came to the meeting points were thus already interested. They had followed the debates and taken the risk of participation. Such was not however the case of all of those who participated by accident. Other mechanisms must be considered in order to explain their shift towards concrete action. Prior politicisation and the desire for engagement (the “choice” of a shift into action) disappear behind the sequences of micro-events which constituted the event’s contingency. And it is precisely this fabric of interlocking sequences that itself became the driving force of the action. [70] In the case of my interviewees, this was very clear. [71] Unlike the two young women, who had already protested and who had responded to the call by We are all Khaled Saïd (WKS), the three young men were reluctant to participate in the early days. They kept up to date with the events as they played out, but only partially believed in their potential for success. Their perception of the likelihood that the collective action would succeed or fail was conditioned by their negative view of protest acts in general. And yet, they were not hostile to the movement, to its slogans and its demands. Their non-participation was by no means a form of consent to the ruling regime and its practices. On the contrary, they were even quite hostile to the regime, and particularly towards the police. [72] Theoretically, the focus of the demands upon general socio-economic problems and against the impunity of the Interior Ministry should have resonated with these young men. Despite all of this, their judgment of whether the protest action was opportune, useful or effective remained negative. [73]


Y:What was the first day that you began to participate in the protests?
Mohsen: “Listen man, like I told you, I had really begun to lose all hope in this country, and I had never participated in anything like this sort of thing… And I’m not going to lie to you: we heard about the protests on the 25th and 26th from the television, and I didn’t really believe in it, I said to myself that it was more or less the same thing as the 6th of April [74] or Khaled Saïd, [75] or that sort of thing, which had already happened y’know? Like, a whole bunch of protests and then everyone goes home”.
Y:So then, when did you go down and join the protests? Had you already protested before?
Salah: “Oh man, me and politics? No thanks! The slogans and all of that stuff, y’know like, banners and everything; that’s not my thing. It’s completely pointless! No, those first days, I thought that that would be it, just another hundred people with ready-made slogans and banners, y’know? All of the usual stuff, with tons of police everywhere, and then basta. That was not my thing at all.”

37These two accounts help to cast light on how the mechanism of depoliticisation functions. Here it plays the role of conditioning perceptions of the possible. But they also highlight the error of equating depoliticisation with apathy or a lack of interest. Above all else, they demonstrate the error of interpreting (in)action as a symptom of diagnosed depoliticisation: in other words, the tautological belief that individuals are depoliticised because they do not act politically, and that, given that they do not act, they do not become politicised.


Mohsen: “I started hearing that the protests were spreading throughout the city, all over the place, and on the 27th, to be quite honest, I live in el-Haram, I heard that the protests had reached my neighbourhood and of course, as always, I acted like nothing was up, and I went out to buy a bit of hashish, and then man, as I was leaving I saw that the protests were actually there, I could actually see them! So I called up my cousin and told him ‘get the hell over here, it’s going off, we’re going to kick their asses this time! for real!’… and that day, that was the first time that I got hit by tear-gas! After that, my cousin – who lives opposite me – and I decided to go and take part in the major demonstration of Friday the 28th, and the big battle had begun and… well you know what happens next!”
Salah: “I didn’t really want to go, in general I didn’t really care much for that sort of thing. But then, on the 26th, that evening, there were guys who I liked, friends from my neighbourhood y’know, they came back from Tahrir with their clothes all ripped, with bruises everywhere, etc., you know what I mean? And then these guys, they’re actually younger than me y’know? They’re kids dammit! They kind of looked up to me in the neighbourhood, and I was really ashamed of myself. And after all, giving one to the cops was definitely my sort of thing, rather than going there just for the slogans. So around Thursday I heard that I wasn’t the only one who was ready to go, there was a bunch of us, so we were just like ‘let’s go!’”.

39In actual fact we can identify two elements that play a key role in motivating the shift to protest action. First, neighbourhood social connections and dispositions play a central role in the move to action due to the networks of familiarity and solidarity to be found there. Second, the interconnection of entirely contingent micro-events grafted onto this relationship to the neighbourhood made the shift into concrete action possible. Two criteria can thus be used to explain the swing into action (without, however, exhausting the extent of the “causes” behind this swing), while a third explains its radicalisation: physical proximity, the social configurations of the neighbourhood (solidarity, friendship and neighbourhood networks) and the use of violence (police repression). The first two criteria influence to a certain extent the perceived costs of engagement, reducing these as familiarity with the action increases. The protest takes place in the neighbourhood, in familiar streets that are known like the back of their hands; the protestors know one another, and the dynamics of repression mean something different when that repression is taking place “just outside home”. This manipulation of proximity was to be further reinforced after 28 January and the establishment of “popular committees”. [76]

40From the minute they took shape within the different neighbourhoods, the marches were violently repressed by the Central Security Forces (Quwwat al-amn al-markazi) and numerous random arrests took place. The stories told about these hazardous journeys towards Tahrir Square, particularly during the “Friday of Rage”, are often very moving, and it is easy to identify their transformative impact on people’s perception of the situation. Thus, all of the interviewees agreed that the events shifted from the status of demonstrations to that of Revolution on 28 January. This shift in status was consecrated by the flight of the security forces and the arrival of the armed forces – experienced on the ground as a sudden acceleration of history inducing both anxiety and euphoria. [77]

41The “Tahrir” social space [78] was created as several marches across the capital converged upon the geographical space of Tahrir, directly in the centre of the city. [79] The (literal) “obstacle course” leading to the square was an integral part of the way in which it was invested with meaning. In concrete terms, those coordinating the young activists had distributed tasks between the different movements represented. At the assembly points selected and announced on Facebook – which were to welcome the lay protestors who were motivated by the online call to action – were the “heads” of the march, tasked with coordinating the gathered masses, calling out the slogans, and guiding the march. [80]

42One does thus not go to Tahrir, one is brought there. The preceding arguments, which dealt with the shift into mobilisation, and thus with the “upstream” of Tahrir, make the case for taking seriously the banal, contingent, and ordinary building-blocks of the extraordinary. For the extraordinary was indeed constructed on the path toward Tahrir, and then lived by the protestors in Tahrir Square itself.

The ordinary origins of an extraordinary mobilisation

43Let us turn, lastly, to the everyday of the Revolution. We took as our point of departure the idea that there were several “moments” or “episodes” that allow us to understand the engagement of certain young Egyptians. The last of these episodes, and by no means the least important, is the lived experience of the revolutionary moment by these young people. Tahrir was experienced as an extraordinary moment for many Egyptians; this was evident from my periods of observation and during interviews throughout the following year. The emotion with which these eighteen days were often described was born of this collective experience in Tahrir. It is thus necessary, as part of a comprehensive approach, and in order to be able to understand the socialising effects of this event, to imagine the extent to which someone arriving in the square was ambushed from all sides by shouts, images, scenes, smells and chants, embedding the newcomer within a radically new universe.

44Liberation Square (Maydan at-Tahrir) was the object of intense media coverage, but it was also the object of many struggles to define and construct the meaning of the revolution. In all of the stories told by people present on Tahrir Square, there is always a powerful account of how the square represented something new and radically different, and constituted a break with the Egypt that existed before 25 January. Some on the square liked to talk of the “Tahrir Republic”. This imaginary republic was the aggregate outcome of meanings co-produced through interactions between the thousands of individuals present, as well as by the constraints imposed by the situation (political coups, different actors’ tactics), but it was also (and this is key to the present analysis) “framed” by the physical, concrete space of the square. Habits, the symbols displayed, the slogans, the banners and graffiti, how people came about supplies and met their needs: all this constituted the daily life of the square, and played a role in defining the situation, and thus in how individuals came to think and act in such circumstances.

45In order to better situate the following description, we should recall that, although the activists were disconcerted by the “all too easy” [81] arrival of the different marches in Tahrir on 25 January, their leaders were resolved to take control of Tahrir during the large demonstration of Friday 28 January, especially given that many notable political actors had made moves perceived of as advantageous to the movement. [82] The heads of the marches were to guide them towards the city-centre. Following the great battles of the Friday of Rage [83] and the taking of Tahrir, the different political movements took the decision to occupy the square until the demands of what was henceforth named “The Revolution” had been met. Once the square had been occupied, routines were gradually established.

46I will thus try to describe the perceptual environment physically embedded within the square, which enveloped each protestor; those routines which, when aggregated, made of this event an extraordinary moment for the individuals present.


4731 January 3:00pm. As they approach the bridge of Qasr Nil, the main access to Tahrir Square for the protestors arriving from the west of the city (notably those from Gizeh), Mohsen, Salah and Mahmoud describe their trials and tribulations in the popular committees. They had arranged to meet in their neighbourhood and have come on the march together. Haridi, who has professional obligations, will join them in the early evening. Despite his hoarseness and the visible bruise on Mohsen’s face (due to a rubber bullet), their lack of sleep and the obvious fatigue apparent in the faces of these revolutionary apprentices, they are ecstatic. Salah is struggling to contain little cries of joy and to stop himself from announcing periodically, his voice warm with emotion: “Despite everything we’ve seen, I am so happy, so happy! Look at all this beauty!” They finally reach the first human blockades separating the square from the rest of the city.

48For the protestors who wish to join in at Tahrir square, entry follows a very precise ritual. Once the military blockades have been traversed – where the entrants are patted-down and security-checked – it is then the turn of several rows of organisational committees (lagnet et-tanzim) to pat-down and security-check the protestors. The number of pat-downs depends on the path taken [84] to access the square, and generally varies between two and six levels, sometimes only a few metres apart. The people to be patted down are divided by sex. The main goal is to ensure the person is not armed, and then their identity papers are checked to make sure they don’t belong to the security forces. Once the main point of access has been reached (the Qasr Nil bridge), the symbolic dimensions of this ritual begin to multiply. A narrow path allows people to enter and access the square, which is cut across at several points by pat-downs and lined along the sides by people applauding and encouraging the newly-arrived. You hear them call out “Welcome!”, “Don’t give up guys!”, “May God be with you”, “We’re going to make it”. Sometimes quite specific advice is called out: “We need people in the medical station”, “Go towards the Museum, we need more people there”, and so on. On the other side of the street, in the direction leaving the square, a similar mechanism has been established fulfilling the opposite function. The persons surrounding those leaving remind them that they are being counted upon, that they have to come back, and that they have to hold on, ending with “We’ll see you tomorrow, guys!”.

49In reality, the pat-down is everything but thorough. It is done rapidly and without any particular precision. The identity cards are looked at without any form of actual verification. [85] This passage instead fulfils a socialising function, marking the real and symbolic frontier between the exterior and the interior. Those charged with the pat-downs apologise to the newcomers : “Really sorry for this boys, it’s for your security!”, and the protestors respond: “There’s no problem! We’re all together here! You’re doing a good job!” Sometimes one of the protestors even admonishes the person patting them down and asks them to be more conscientious: “You didn’t look at my card properly like you ought to! What if I was a cop?”; or even, if someone has not looked through a backpack as they are supposed to: “Ask me to empty it out! In this bag, I could have all sorts of stuff! You have to be careful boys, the cops are everywhere!”. A story is unfolding, the situation is interpreted live at each moment. People praise the effective organisation; remind one another that they can get by just fine without the security forces. The whole thing constitutes a spatial performance, where the protestor is both actor and spectator, and allows for the homogenisation and diffusion of certain kinds of representations and discourse about the event. The actors themselves “perform” [86] “new” social norms, as opposed to the “old” norms.

50The protest space is divided into different sites. There are podiums from which young activists, politicians, or sometimes intellectuals and artists come to speak. An “island” (gezira) in the middle of the square hosts the tents of those occupying the square. The tents are decorated to signify people’s political affiliation, to a movement or school of thought, even a professional (workers from a given industry) or regional affiliation (Suez or Sinaï). Dozens of debates (halaqat niqashiyya) are happening all over the square. People talk about politics, both theory and practice, abstract ideas and concrete initiatives, about the future of the Revolution, possible scenarios, and so forth.

51Party politics are, in a sense, invisible. To an extent, this is the result of a deliberate strategy by political actors who have made a concerted effort to erase[87] political affiliations in order to project an image of unity. One of the podiums, however, emits chants with religious overtones, and the speeches betray the habitus of Islamist militants, either via a particular bodily hexis or through an ensemble of lexical codes. “That’s the [Muslim] Brotherhood, isn’t it?”, the spectators quickly ask one another. A little later in the day I happen across a young liberal activist from the leadership, raging against the “methods” employed by the Brotherhood. He tries to raise some funds in order to construct a new podium on the other side of the square where protest singers (such as Ramy Essam) might perform, and thus break the Brotherhood’s material monopoly over the square.

52Wherever one looks, one’s field of vision is saturated by images of all kinds. Thousands of placards and posters have been made, often using touches of humour. These are extremely individual: everyone writes their own placard and puts his or her own message to the public upon it, posing for the cameras or mobile phones. A whole way of dressing has been conceived of for the occasion. Thus, the Palestinian keffieh[88] becomes an indispensable tool of selfpresentation (especially given that it is only the end of January and still rather cold). Those who had been subject to the repression of the first days of protest proudly display their wounds and bruises, showing them to the passers-by. Finally, “trophies” taken from the battlefield are worn with a particular pride (police helmets or insignia, cartridges and used tear-gas canisters, etc.). But the military’s armoured vehicles remain visible, stationed at the entries to the square, as does the military helicopter hovering above the protestors for several days.

Forming groups

53The young men locate Heba and Siham a few dozen metres behind the blockades. The group exchanges the latest information and rumours for ten minutes or so. The most important information is without a doubt the nomination of a vice president and that of a new government. Mohsen declares: “That’s not going to do it, it’s too late, they’re done, the people have woken up”. After this, the group discusses the program for the day. It must be borne in mind that it is rare to come to Tahrir on one’s own. One comes in a group: of friends, of family, of neighbours, of colleagues. Physically integrating the space is achieved via the routinisation of certain habits, including the choice of a preferred spot. [89] This place, chosen on the first day rather at random, becomes the meeting point for the following days, the place at which the group can regather if they lose one another (which happens more or less constantly), the “HQ”. The place where the group meets is thus chosen as its HQ, and then humorously baptised “el-maqarr el tawri”[90] (literally, the “revolutionary head-office”): “With this huge crowd, if we get split up, we’ll meet back at the revolutionary head-office, ok?”

54A changing number of people surrounds this central core of friends that we have been following: friends passing by, neighbours, and family members come and go. While from time to time certain members of the group might interact with other groups, it is nevertheless relatively rare. Sometimes a neighbour joins the conversation, for instance, criticising Moubarak (“kharab el-balad Allah yekhreb betu” – he ruined the country, may God ruin him, an old man yells to us), or lamenting the state of the country. Such conversation rarely goes much further. The frontiers between groups remain quite well demarcated, and the space of Tahrir Square appears as an enormous juxtaposition of pre-existing mutually acquainted groups, instead of a site for constructing new groups. [91] I will return to this point in the conclusion.

Killing time

55Most of the time spent on the square is “downtime”. From 28 January (the date when the police forces left and the army arrived), very few confrontations took place in the square and in its surrounding areas, apart from those few infamous times of extreme violence (on 2 February, for example, the pro-Moubarak attack). It’s a matter of long hours spent ensuring that the regime’s forces do not retake the square.

56Starting from “HQ”, the group makes rounds in the square, checking out what’s going on. The ambience is fairly close to what you might find at a music festival or carnival. It’s a time for experimentation and there is a wide choice of new experiences. People stop for a moment at a poetry stand; read the different placards; listen to a prayer or a song; vaguely attend to an activist’s discourse. From time to time they merge with a march and yell out its slogans, before leaving again in another direction. Lastly, they taking advantage of this rare moment of togetherness to flirt and chat one another up.

57These long days also see interminable discussions between the members of the group, and because of this they play a socialising role. Everyone is talking politics, giving their opinion on this or that leader. A thousand and one small anecdotes of the corruption and nefarious practices of the ancien regime are told: stories of the “Old Egypt”, of the “Egypt before the 25th of January”. In these long stretches of time people tell jokes and riddles. Some say: “It’s like the night of Ramadan!” The festive atmosphere and the feeling of “killing time” clearly remind people of the holy month of Islam.

58Ways of speaking are adapted to the circumstances. Thus, the adjective “revolutionary” is injected into every conceivable context: “Shall we go grab a revolutionary bite to eat guys?”, “I’ve got a revolutionary appetite”, “where did our revolutionary buddy go?”, “he went off ‘revolutioning’ somewhere”, and so forth. Long periods are spent telling stories about the first days in conflict with the security forces. Some even claim, laughing, that they miss the police: “It’s less fun now, after all, I’ve no one left to beat up…”.

59The day is punctuated by long breaks in the surrounding cafés where “revolutionary chicha” is smoked over tea and conversations about the future. Everything in the Tahrir moment constitutes a form of socialisation, and through this socialisation, the performance of new social norms. One observes in these long discussions a process of retrospectively bringing meaning and order to the event, which helps to reinforce the reasons why these newcomers engaged with the political arena. The event becomes a way to “declare” new group preferences, [92] and thus through this act create a new social group: the revolutionaries. [93]

By way of conclusion

60As we have seen, any division of protestors into lay protestors and activists is problematic, regardless of the terms employed (politicised vs. depoliticised; lay vs. professional; ordinary vs. battle-hardened protestor, etc.). Such terms are problematic first and foremost due to their inability to translate cleanly into empirically observable realities. Despite the inadequacies of binary reasoning – which obscures the different degrees of acquisition of “political competence” [94] (to employ a narrow definition of politicisation) or the complexity of the “continuous relational processes of interiorising frameworks of perception and action, which relate to the political world or are part of a political relationship to the world” [95] (to employ an extensive and dynamic conception of political socialisation) – I felt the need to differentiate, insofar as it is possible, between these two “categories”.

61A study examining the activists’ reasons for action, or indeed the manner in which they behaved on the square, would have been quite different. The interactions between the small groups were numerous and repeated. The most striking element is that the new arrivals – excepting those who were able to use recently acquired and significant political capital (a wound sustained during the first days, for example) – were to a large extent sidelined by the established political movements. In this sense, the two categories experienced the revolution in parallel. My objective here was thus to attempt to reconstruct how these newcomers arrived.

62Previous work in this area has illustrated that we must observe different moments and scales if we are to understand the dynamics of revolutionary situations.

63Firstly, without embracing a strategic interpretation that claims that the activists opted for one mode of action over another because they anticipated the result that would follow this choice, we must revisit the way in which such choices operated within a given situation, how they were influenced by the actors’ dispositions and by the field logics within which their struggle took place. One can easily observe the extent to which the embeddedness of these actors within a very stabilised and routinised universe of meanings and practices translated into certain choices. But it is also apparent that an “event” was able to trouble this universe of meaning, increasingly becoming as much a constraint as an opportunity for these actors. In this manner, while the choices of such actors directly influenced the engagement of the “lay” protestors (albeit not always deliberately so), the relative autonomisation of the protest sequence in relation to the dynamics of different fields (or sectors, to reprise Michel Dobry’s terminology) meant that the activists lost their effective grasp over the mobilisations.

64Secondly, the dynamic of contingent micro-events encourages us to establish as great a distance as possible from the discourse of actors caught up in the mobilisations, for whom it is clearly advantageous to frame the event in the most generalising and unifying terms possible. In other words, we cannot truly understand the dynamics of a revolutionary situation without tracing the precise paths that lead the protestors to go and protest. In addition to these dynamics, we also need to take into account the effects of reflection and emulation that strongly influence actors’ perceptions, in particular by reducing the perceived costs of engagement. The fact that so many people mobilised between the 25th and the 28th, that the movement took shape, that slogans crystallised, or that public figures adopted positions in favour of the mobilisations, affects individuals’ perceptions.

65Lastly, the concern to take into account the daily life of the square during the revolution is the result of a process-based and gradualist conception of politicisation and engagement. Actors are not lay protestors on Monday night, then revolutionaries on Tuesday morning. The square, as a site of encounters and discussion between individuals with unequal levels of cultural and social capital (particularly a knowledge of politics), but also as a site for experimenting with different and new values, became an important moment in which political opinions and attitudes were forged. It thus came to constitute a sort of political ideal, which would serve as a new ideological and symbolic touchstone for the many young people who engaged in that moment, and who continue their engagement today. [96]


  • [1]
    Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 19681976 (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 114; my emphasis.
  • [2]
    Michel Dobry, Sociologie des crises politiques (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2009 [1st edn 1986]). Online
  • [3]
    “[…] with the conjunctural desectoralisation of social space and the consequent widening out of sites of confrontation, we are witnessing the gradual emergence of a broadened form of interdependence. This broadened form supplants more local forms of interdependence, which are more compartmentalised and characterised by the ‘content’ of diverse sectoral logics. This broadened tactical interdependence is perceived to play an important role in ‘reducing actors’ control over the impact of their own acts and of the significance attached to them throughout the course of the confrontation.” (M. Dobry, Sociologie des crises politiques, 171 and 155). Online
  • [4]
    Literature on authoritarianism abounds. One of the hypotheses central to many studies on the question explains the absence of political change as linked to the apathy/depoliticisation of the population. For a critical re-reading of such approaches, see: Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi, Olivier Fillieule, “Exit, voice, loyalty, et bien d’autres choses encore…”, in Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi, Olivier Fillieule (eds), Résistances et protestations dans les sociétés musulmanes (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2003), 43-126.
  • [5]
    The Y6A Movement was born in 2008 following the call to strike by workers from the city of Mahalla in April 2008.
  • [6]
    An organisation on the extreme left (of Trotskyist persuasion), very active in street protests and supportive of workers’ movements, most notably throughout the preceding decade.
  • [7]
    Bourdieu’s notions of “field logics” and “dispositions” are used here in the sense given to them by Lilian Mathieu, who has applied them to the analysis of social movements in L’espace des mouvements sociaux (Bellecombe-en-Bauges: Éditions du Croquant, 2012).
  • [8]
    See, with regard to this notion, Hervé Rayner, “Quelle place accorder au contexte dans l’analyse de l’action collective? Le poids des perceptions du possible dans l’émergence et le déclin des ‘rondes citoyennes’ en Italie (2002-2003)”, 8th Congress of the Association française de science politique, Lyon, 14-16 September 2005. In another work, and following in the footsteps of Michel Dobry’s work on fluid circumstances, the same author has developed the idea that “a powerful event can generate emerging dispositions: its protagonists experiment with new manners of seeing and doing, experienced as constraints and/or opportunities”, in “Esquisse d’une théorie de l’événement”, unpublished manuscript, 2011 (my emphasis). See also Ivan Ermakoff’s Ruling Oneself Out. A Theory of Collective Abdications (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), in particular chapter 11 in which the author develops his theory of the event (“The event as statement”). I wish to thank Jean Leca for recommending this reference.
  • [9]
    This sort of approach has most notably been developed by Timothy Tackett in Becoming a Revolutionary. The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture (1789-1790) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
  • [10]
    Charles Tilly distinguishes between two states within a revolution: a “revolutionary situation” and a “revolutionary outcome”. Taking inspiration from Trotsky’s notion of the “duality of power”, he claims that a revolutionary situation becomes visible when it contains: 1/ candidates or coalitions of candidates vying for power, who lay competing claims to the exclusive control of the state, or of one of its components; 2/ a significant portion of citizens rallying behind such claims; 3/ incapacity or a lack of will on behalf of those in power to repress the opposing coalition and/or the citizenry rallying behind its claims. See Charles Tilly, European Revolutions, 1492-1992 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2nd edn, 1995), 10. See also, Léon Trotsky, Histoire de la révolution russe. 1. La révolution de février (Paris: Seuil, 1995 [1st Russian edn 1932]), 251-60.
  • [11]
    I will return to this problem in the conclusion. The debate around politicisation involves both political and academic issues. I will here simply point to the multiple overviews published on the question. See, for example, Myriam Aït-Aoudia, Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi, Jean-Gabriel Contamin, “Indicateurs et vecteurs de la politisation des individus: les vertus heuristiques du croisement des regards”, Critique internationale, 50, 2011, 9-20.
  • [12]
    Except for Heba, whom I met during the protest at the beginning of January 2011 (see below). She is the person whom I encountered by chance when I arrived at the square on 30 January a little after midday, and whom I went on to meet again with her group. The profile of these young people (who had never been engaged in political activities before January 2011) differs considerably from that of the actors whom I habitually follow (who are more battle-hardened activists). I have been following the Egyptian protest space closely since 2007 and had the opportunity to carry out several studies in Cairo (in 2008, 2010, and 2011-2012), in Alexandria (in 2011) and in Kafr ed-Dawwar (in 2011). These studies combined participatory observation, interviews, and monitoring of social networks.
  • [13]
    All names have been changed.
  • [14]
    El-Haram is a neighbourhood situated in the north-west of Greater Cairo (within the governorate of Gizeh), and famous for the plain of the Pyramids. The neighbourhood grew up around the two grand avenues of el-Haram and Fayçal, and is a meeting-point for different social universes, from the petit-bourgeoisie and middle classes to inhabitants of impoverished informal settlements.
  • [15]
    Heba studied at the faculty of mass communication, and Siham at the faculty of tourism. They finished their previous studies in a private establishment run by the Sisters of Alexandria, and were also members of the scout movement linked to the establishment.
  • [16]
    On the political chessboard, they are closer to the relatively minor movements of the non-partisan left (progressivists, Trotskyists, etc.). This closeness is in part due to the infiltration of the independent cultural milieu by many members of the minority left movements who were able to pursue careers more or less coherent with their ideals within this sector.
  • [17]
    See the story of this mobilisation, told in Youssef El Chazli, Chaymaa Hassabo, “Socio-histoire d’un processus révolutionnaire. Analyse de la ‘configuration contestataire’ égyptienne (2003-2011)”, in Amin Allal, Thomas Pierret (eds), Devenir révolutionnaires. Au cœur des révoltes arabes (Paris: Armand Colin, 2013).
  • [18]
    It is here necessary to nuance this point. This general disapproval of the regime, channelled through hatred of the police, was insidious rather than open and declared. The causal link “bad police = bad regime” increasingly became an objective reality in the discourse of actors over the course of the days composing the revolutionary moment.
  • [19]
    Each of my protagonists would go on to tell me at least one story in which they found themselves up against a nefarious police officer, the symbol of arbitrary power acting with impunity.
  • [20]
    This aspect, which is problematic for any sociology of collective action seeking to free itself from explanations based on frustrations and processes of social demotion, is dealt with in greater detail in a study comparing the Egyptian and Tunisian cases: Amin Allal, Youssef El Chazli, “Figures du déclassement et passage au politique dans les situations révolutionnaire égyptienne et tunisienne”, in Ivan Sainsaulieu, Muriel Surdez (eds), Sens politiques du travail (Paris: Armand Colin, 2012), 323-38.
  • [21]
    Youssef El Chazli and Chaymaa Hassabo have proposed this division in “Socio-histoire d’un processus révolutionnaire. Analyse de la ‘configuration contestataire’ égyptienne (2003-2011)”. I will not return here to the third phase running from 3 February until the departure of Moubarak on 11 February.
  • [22]
    An Egyptian diplomat who became an international functionary (for the UN), he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his activity at the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005. Nearing the end of his mandate, he began to position himself publicly in favour of the democratisation of the Egyptian political system. He would go on to participate in 2010 in a renewed Egyptian protest cycle, centred notably on the National Association for Change, a network federating the principal currents of the Egyptian opposition.
  • [23]
    Random arrests constitute an old technique of the Egyptian police, used to abort mobilisations. They consist in removing protestors so that their friends set about looking for them in the different police stations, abandoning the demonstration in the process. The person is held for a short period, and then released. Between 25 and 28 January, this technique was used extensively. In all of the cases that I was personally aware of, this manœuvre served to radicalise the arrested person, even (or especially) when the person had no prior political experience, or had only been passing through the site of the protest and was accidentally arrested.
  • [24]
    Dial-up connections as well as satellite connections (such as one is liable to find in certain hotels) remained intact and were used by the activists to send information out to the international community.
  • [25]
    See the story of these battles given in Y. El Chazli, C. Hassabo, “Socio-histoire d’un processus révolutionnaire…”.
  • [26]
    William H. Sewell, “Historical events as transformations of structures: inventing revolution at the Bastille”, Theory and Society, 25, 1996, 841-81.Online
  • [27]
    The nomination of a vice-president had for many years constituted one of the recurrent demands of the opposition.
  • [28]
    Enrique Klaus, “Égypte: la ‘Révolution du 25 janvier’ en contrechamp. Chroniques des ‘comités populaires’ d’al-Manyal au Caire”, Revue marocaine des sciences sociales et politiques, 6, special edition, 2012, 119-45.
  • [29]
    Observations made by the author.
  • [30]
    In reality, the episode in which the camels and horses made their incursion did not produce many casualties and did not last very long. It was rather the symbolic impact of this image, taken up by the media, that made of it a defining moment for those present.
  • [31]
    Olivier Fillieule, “Propositions pour une analyse processuelle de l’engagement individuel”, Revue française de science politique, 51 (1-2), 2001, 201.
  • [32]
    In particular the dynamics of competition between the different actors in the field. Here I align myself with the vision of a “social movements space” suggested by Lilian Mathieu as a “specific domain of practice and meaning within which the multiple protest phenomena occupy different positions and are united by diverse and evolving relations of interdependence”, thus implying a whole series of effects: Lilian Mathieu, L’espace des mouvements sociaux, 25.
  • [33]
    By youth groups (or juvenile groups, to be more precise, al-magmu’at ash-shababiyya), I here mean both the youth groups of the traditional political organisations (Young Muslim Brotherhood, youth of the al-Ghad party, or from the party of the Democratic Front, etc.) in addition to the autonomous political groups which sprang up between 2005 and 2011. For an analysis of the dynamics internal to such groups, see Chaymaa Hassabo, “La stabilité du régime de Moubarak à l’épreuve d’une situation de succession prolongée: les limites de la consolidation autoritaire”, Ph.D thesis in political science, Grenoble, Institut d’études politiques, 2012, particularly chapter 7 “Lorsque les jeunes font de la politique”, 193-236.
  • [34]
    Among those present were the young people from the campaign in support of El-Baradei, the Youth of the 6th of April movement, the Youth for Justice and Freedom (YJF), the Young Muslim Brotherhood, the youth group from the party of the Democratic Front, as well as the young liberals/independents. Interview conducted by C. Hassabo with K. H., on 8 March 2011.
  • [35]
    The idea of a “counter-event” on 25 January had existed since 2007, most notably due to the impetus of the Y6A. Activities on this day had been on the agenda since well before the explosion of the Tunisian revolution.
  • [36]
    To be more precise, it would be necessary to reconstruct all of the protest events that punctuated the streets of Egypt between February 2010 and January 2011. Y. El Chazli and C. Hassabo have begun work on such a task; see “Socio-histoire d’un processus révolutionnaire…”.
  • [37]
    A call to protest had already been published online on the We are all Khaled Saïd (WKS) Facebook page. The activists had planned to coordinate with its (as yet unknown) administrators (this measure did not please everyone). Note that this group had already published several calls for different events since June 2010, which had had a relatively significant impact, reaching beyond the traditional activist milieus. For further information on WKS, see Youssef El Chazli, “Du ‘mur’ à la rue: la révolte des ‘jeunes de Facebook’ en Égypte”, MédiaMorphoses, 30, September 2011, <,776.html>.
  • [38]
    These positional divisons aligned more or less with the ideological cleavages that existed between the different people present. For example, the activists on the extreme left or the independents (anarchists) were in favour of the idea of bringing the demonstrations into the working-class neighbourhoods.
  • [39]
    Logistical coordination consisted in the communication of information about the chosen sites of assembly, such that the WKS page, with its 300,000 members, could publish these on the eve of 25 January.
  • [40]
    The agreement would finally consolidate around a baseline of minimum demands (political, social and economic reforms that were not considered “excessive”) and the refusal to identify as distinct groups.
  • [41]
    Interviews with several activists, February-March 2010.
  • [42]
    While the term “sit-in” has since entered into the language of political scientists to translate the notion of waqfa ihtigagiyya (literally, “protest halt”), I prefer the translation “stand-in”, which is closer to its literal meaning.
  • [43]
    I subscribe to the remarks made by Frédéric Vairel on the relationship between the institutionalisation of a contentious repertoire and political neutralisation within authoritarian situations. Summarising the outline of his argument, the routinisation of interactions between protestors and the security forces contributes to the formation of red lines that are respected in subsequent interactions; by evacuating the unforeseeable aspect of protest events, this routinisation results in neutralisation. Cf. Frédéric Vairel, “L’opposition en situation autoritaire: statut et modes d’action”, in Olivier Dabène et al., Autoritarismes démocratiques. Démocraties autoritaires au 21e siècle (Paris: La Découverte, 2008), 228-31.
  • [44]
    As we shall see, though this tactical choice might seem innocent, changing the frame of reference was to have a fundamental impact on the “lay” protestors.
  • [45]
    Interview with an Islamist activist, ex-member of the Youth for Change (YFC) and the Y6A.
  • [46]
    With the more experienced activists refusing clearly and decisively to transform the waqfa into a march (observations made in Alexandria, 6 January 2011).
  • [47]
    Hervé Rayner defines the event as the “concomitance of strong fluctuations in perceptions of the possible”, which enables actors to consider certain options as possible, when they might previously have overlooked them. H. Rayner, “Quelle place accorder au contexte…”.
  • [48]
    Interview with K. H. cited in C. Hassabo, “La stabilité du régime Moubarak…”, 407.
  • [49]
    All of the chosen slogans adopt a “reformist” tone and avoided an all-out attack on those at the head of the state. One of the main slogans, for example, was: “Bread, freedom, social justice”, or, in another variation on the same theme, “Bread, freedom, human dignity”.
  • [50]
    Aristide R. Zolberg, “Moments of madness”, Politics & Society, 2(2), 1972, 183-207.
  • [51]
    See, for example, the account of M. L., in C. Hassabo, “La stabilité du régime Moubarak…”, 412-14.
  • [52]
    M. L., in C. Hassabo, “La stabilité du régime Moubarak…”, 414.
  • [53]
    The “we” here refers to a group of youths described in the preceding episode.
  • [54]
    Interview with K. H., cited in C. Hassabo, “La stabilité du régime Moubarak…”, 415.
  • [55]
    F. Vairel, “L’opposition en situation autoritaire…”.
  • [56]
    Interview, January 2012.
  • [57]
    Two activists from different movements, but both committed to radical options from the outset, made this remark to me (interviews, January 2012). According to them, right from these first moments a tendency to “polish” the demands was evident. Clearly this is an example of the situation so aptly described by Frédéric Vairel: “How far should we go so as not to go too far?”.
  • [58]
    C. Hassabo, “La stabilité du régime Moubarak…”, 418-24.
  • [59]
    Dina El-Khawaga, “La génération seventies en Égypte. La société civile comme répertoire d’action alternatif”, in M. Bennani-Chraïbi, O. Fillieule (eds), Résistances…, 271-92.
  • [60]
    Enormous demonstrations – known as the “bread riots” – broke out on the 18 and 19 January 1977, in which the students played a central role. A significant proportion of the students who were deeply engaged in this movement went on to have political careers (notably in left-wing movements, but this was also the case of certain Islamists). See Mohammed Hafez Diab, Intifadas ou révolutions dans l’histoire moderne d’Égypte (Cairo: Dar al-Chourouk, 2011), 209-24 (in Arabic).
  • [61]
    Thus, it had become “normal” to see civil servants, factory workers and other workers camping along the Qasr al-’ayni Boulevard for several weeks waiting for the state to respond to their complaints.
  • [62]
    The accounts gathered by Chaymaa Hassabo (cited above), in addition to those that I was able to gather myself, illustrate that the activists did not expect for a moment to have a sufficient number of people to “march on Tahrir”, and that their objectives were either to undertake an action that was at the very least visible so that it would resonate with the Tunisian events; or, if their numbers were greater, to attempt to occupy some of the smaller squares in several neighbourhoods in Cairo. Without really believing it, the activists thought that if a truly massive movement gradually took shape, then they should march on Tahrir.
  • [63]
    In this regard, it is worth noting that the present author, after having recounted several different struggles internal to the different political factions on Tahrir Square at a conference, was “advised” in private by an Egyptian political scientist to refrain from telling such anecdotes, in order to maintain the image of an Egyptian people united in its revolution.
  • [64]
    The exaggerated focus on Tahrir recalls another very central problem, that of the “Cairo-centrism” all too common in the understanding of Egyptian politics. In reality, it is necessary to think in terms of scales at which engagement can be observed and understood, which might be thought of in terms of concentric circles, which move outwards from the situational dynamics of face-to-face interaction (the individual who is or is not mobilised, in relation to his or her family, friends, neighbours, and so on) to neighbourhood dynamics, narratives specific to Egyptian cities (mobilisations in Alexandria or in Suez belong far more to specific dynamics and narratives, especially with regard to prior struggles, than to the “national” perspective), finally touching on the “national” facet of this revolutionary situation.
  • [65]
    F. Vairel, “L’opposition en situation autoritaire…”.
  • [66]
    Chaymaa Hassabo’s doctoral thesis quite clearly demonstrated that the desire to differentiate themselves from older generations of activists – notably due to their inaction – played a fundamental role in the genesis and crystallisation of the young activist generation who are to be found in movements such as Youth for Change or the Youth of 6th April. These are the same young people found in the meeting described at the beginning of this article. See C. Hassabo, “La stabilité du régime Moubarak…”.
  • [67]
    Some activists “rehearsed” before the 25th, following the chosen routes, timing them manually, in order to estimate the time necessary to travel the distance separating the marches’ points of departure from the meeting points.
  • [68]
    On the notion of sensitizing devices, see Christophe Traïni, Johanna Siméant, “Introduction. Pourquoi et comment sensibiliser à la cause?”, in Christophe Traïni (ed.), Émotions… Mobilisation! (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2009), 11-34 (13).
  • [69]
    Interviews with RS activists.
  • [70]
    On the autopoietic character of the events, see the remarks by H. Rayner, “Quelle place accorder au contexte…”.
  • [71]
    Other interviewees – particularly those in Alexandria, who are not covered in the present analysis – confirmed this hypothesis.
  • [72]
  • [73]
    To this I could also add (but this would necessitate a supplementary piece of research) a certain negative representation of activism, often found in a number of social milieus, that dates back some years. Chaymaa Hassabo’s doctoral research illustrates how political engagement is often experienced (and perceived) as deviant behaviour in the sense given to this term by Howard Becker. See C. Hassabo, “La stabilité du régime Moubarak…”.
  • [74]
    A call to civil disobedience in solidarity with the textile workers’ strikes had been published on the community website on Facebook in February-March 2008. The date had been fixed as the 6th of April and the day had been considered by a number of activists as a success, despite the absence of the large numbers expected by the organisers, mostly due to the fact of the considerable mobilisation of security forces on that day. The Youth of the 6th April was established in the wake of this event, a group in the vanguard of the revolutionary movement.
  • [75]
    Khaled Saïd is the name of a young Alexandrian beaten to death in the middle of the street in June 2010 by two plain-clothes police officers. He became the figurehead for the fight against torture in Egypt. A Facebook Page was created, entitled “We are All Khalid Saïd”, which called for the organisation of several successful demonstrations throughout 2010. It is on this page that the first call for the demonstration of 25 January 2011 was published, in coordination with the April 6th movement and other political movements. Around the middle of January 2011, 300,000 people were following the group’s updates. At the end of March 2011, the page had been viewed more than a billion times, more than 11 million comments had been posted on it, and more than a million people were members of the group.
  • [76]
    E. Klaus, “Égypte: la ‘Révolution du 25 janvier’…”.
  • [77]
    Recall that the last time that Egypt had experienced a massive deployment of the army was in 1986 and that, for a large proportion of these young people (and therefore of the population as a whole) the sight of an armoured vehicle was a historical first.
  • [78]
    I refer here to social space in the sense that that the physical and geographical space of Tahrir Square was not simply cut off from the rest of the city because traffic and other points of access were blocked, but also because an entire series of rules, of systems of authority and power, and of means of communication, generally in contradiction with “traditional social values”, were put in place by the occupants of the square.
  • [79]
    This should “encourage us to rethink the social construction of reality as a construction that is also, and perhaps above all else, spatial”: Choukri Hmed, “Espace géographique et mouvements sociaux”, in Olivier Fillieule et al., Dictionnaire des mouvements sociaux (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2009), 220-7.
  • [80]
    The choice of these leaders was sometimes symbolic, for example a Christian leading a demonstration at the entry to a mosque, in reference to the “Revolution of 1919”, as did young Mina Daniel, a left-wing activist (YJF) wounded twice on 28 January, and then killed during the October demonstrations (the Maspero massacres).
  • [81]
    One perceives in many of Chaymaa Hassabo’s interviews a degree of surprise from the activists at the “ease” with which Tahrir was taken; an ease which perplexed the activists and paralysed them a little as to what should come “next”.
  • [82]
    Mohammed El-Baradei, following his precipitous return from abroad, announced that he would give the Friday prayer in a Gizeh mosque (which was attended by a number of well-known figures). Moreover, the representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood youth group announced late in the evening of the 27th, that, unlike on the 25th, they would participate with “all their weight” in the Friday demonstrations.
  • [83]
    See the story of these battles in the accounts given by activists and participants in C. Hassabo, “La stabilité du régime Moubarak…”.
  • [84]
    Ten streets lead to Tahrir square, of which four are main streets. With the entries to the metro closed, the only way in was via these streets.
  • [85]
    Generally, only the face of the card was looked at, although the important information (profession) is on the back.
  • [86]
    Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor, 1959).
  • [87]
    The ambivalence of this erasure should be noted however. On the one hand, the actors in question removed the most ostentatious signs of their identity (logos, announcing their affiliations before speaking publicly, etc.); while on the other hand, they employed a series of subterfuge tactics to get their message across. See, for example, the remainder of the present text.
  • [88]
    The symbolic charge of the Palestinian scarf for activists merits its own history given how often it has been used in different contexts, and by different generations and political currents that are at times irreconcilable. It is, moreover, perhaps not so strange that an activist generation largely socialised into political life by pro-Palestinian mobilisations would be so attached to this symbol, which has been integrated into the dress codes of the stereotypical activist. An approach to Egyptian activism through the lens of the Palestinian question is dealt with in my current research, “Questions internationales et mobilisations politiques: la cause palestinienne et le renouveau de la dynamique protestataire en Égypte. Généalogie des engagements pour la Palestine dans l’espace politique égyptien”, doctoral thesis in political science, Université de Lausanne.
  • [89]
    The size of the square, and especially the number of protestors means that people have to find landmarks, develop habits, and identify some calm spots where one can relax from time to time.
  • [90]
    All of the old revolutionary vocabulary, which in Egypt is deeply linked with the Nasser era, was dusted down for the occasion.
  • [91]
    I am obviously here not proposing this as any sort of law, and the inverse could of course be illustrated in other cases.
  • [92]
    Ermakoff, Ruling Oneself Out…, 332.
  • [93]
    The battles for legitimacy that were apparent immediately following Moubarak’s flight are linked to this phenomenon. The claims of legitimacy from the established groups, the traditional opposition groups, and the activist revolutionaries and lay revolutionaries, rapidly came into conflict with one another.
  • [94]
    Daniel Gaxie, Le cens caché (Paris: Seuil, 1978).
  • [95]
    Olivier Fillieule, “Postface. Travail, famille, politisation”, in Ivan Sainsaulieu, Muriel Surdez (eds), Sens politiques du travail (Paris: Armand Colin, 2012), 345-58 (347).
  • [96]
    I wish to thank Amin Allal, Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi, Bernadette Demont, Jean Leca and Inès Weill-Rochant for their incredibly helpful re-reading and advice. This work owes a great deal to the three years of fruitful collaboration with my colleague and friend Chaymaa Hassabo: I thank her sincerely.

The events that shook Egypt early in 2011, since named the “Egyptian Revolution”, raise many questions. One central question is to understand how a population largely considered as apathetic and depoliticised came to participate massively in street demonstrations. That experienced activists should mobilise for the hundredth time is not particularly “revolutionary”, nor does it challenge existing thinking, whereas shedding light on what pushed tens of thousands of Egyptians who had never participated in politics before to take the streets opens up new avenues for research. This article tackles this issue by studying a localised mobilisation of young Cairenes during the “January uprising”.

Youssef El Chazli
Youssef El Chazli is a PhD candidate in political science, assistant at the Université de Lausanne (IEPI), and member of CRAPUL (Centre de recherche sur l’action politique de l’Université de Lausanne). With Amin Allal, he has published “Figures du déclassement et passage au politique dans les situations révolutionnaires égyptienne et tunisienne”, in Ivan Sainsaulieu, Muriel Surdez (eds), Sens politiques du travail (Paris: Armand Colin, 2012), 321-36. (IEPI, Bur. 4321, Quartier UNIL-Mouline, Bât. Geopolis, CH-1015 Lausanne, Suisse
Translated from French by 
Jasper Cooper
Uploaded on on 03/03/2014
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