What determines when protest movements take off in Egypt and the success of these movements? This question asked so frequently today is addressed by Rabab El-Mahdi in a 2009 article in Comparative Political Studies. In “Enough!: Egypt’s Quest for Democracy,” El-Mahdi argues that increased political opportunities, in addition to successful cultural framing and mobilization structures, enabled the prodemocracy movement in 2004-2005 in Egypt to have some success.
El-Mahdi argues that scholarship on democratization in the Middle East is too focused on state actors and political elites, and does not give enough attention to mass movements, a finding that rings particularly true now. Her work suggests that social movement theory may lend analytic leverage to those trying to analyze the prognosis of Egypt’s current demonstrations.
El-Mahdi argues that the prodemocracy mobilization in 2004-2005 centered around Kifaya was made possible by a change in Egypt’s political opportunity structures. In particular, the “democratic bargain” where Egyptians traded political rights for economic security and other nationalist causes became less compelling in the face of Egypt’s economic troubles over the last decade. Additionally, regional dynamics lent credence to the protest movement as well. Egypt’s failure to play a leading role in either the second Palestinian intifada or in opposing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq added to the popular sentiment against President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
Prodemocracy groups were also able to successfully frame their movement in the tropes of resistance that were popular during the second intifada and at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
However, ultimately the 2004-2005 protests experienced limited successes. El-Mahdi reports that the limits of political opportunity structures, cultural framing, and mobilization structures prevented more change from occurring. In particular, Egypt’s clientalist system, through which millions of individuals are dependent on the regime for jobs, and fragmented opposition limited the success of the movement. Additionally, the prodemocracy movement framed its concerns in political language, rather than using the more salient language of socio-economic concerns.
El-Mahdi closes her article asking about the relationship between the 2004-2005 prodemocracy protests and labor protests that began in Egypt in December 2006, saying that future research is necessary to explore to what extent the 2004-2005 protests paved the way for later protests. While there is still more research to be done accordingly, El-Mahdi’s article suggests that social movement theory may lend analytic leverage to those trying to analyze the prognosis for Egypt’s current demonstrations.