Egypt's Civil Society, Long Idle, Finds Its Voice

April 6, 2008 was an important day in Egypt — not for what happened, but for what didn’t happen. I was living in Egypt at the time, and I remember driving into Tahrir Square, anxiously awaiting massive protests. I figured if I were lucky I’d see revolution in action. Thousands of people would storm the streets and clash with police. I would witness it all firsthand while my friends and family sat at home glued to the 24 hour news cycle. But it was nothing more than hype.

I mention the 2008 protests because they tell us a lot about 2011. Three years ago, a food crisis, low wages, and political events in Gaza instigated a Facebook-organized strike in the textile industry that spread to a more general strike against the government. They encouraged people to wear black clothes, hang Egyptian flags from their homes, and skip work and school. Anticipation was high among the media and the public. But that’s where the similarities end. In reality, the strikes fizzled and died before they really started. The motivation and political will simply did not exist to instigate a widespread uprising.

Egyptian civil society has long been characterized as apathetic. Until this past week, Egyptians not only lacked political influence, they didn’t even seem to desire political influence. To be fair, at least part of this is due to an effective state security apparatus that can arrest, detain, and disqualify anyone who stands in the way of the National Democratic Party. But, Egyptians themselves also share blame for not standing up to a repressive government. One Egyptian was quoted in a Los Angeles Times article on the April 6 strikes, saying, “People are passive and don’t have the strike culture. They don’t even know how to hold a strike.”

Don’t know how to strike? Clearly something is different this time around. There is no doubt that the Tunisian revolution instilled confidence among the Egyptian public. Other demographic and economic factors are at play as well, such as a growing number of politically active young people. And the maturing April 6 political group is far better organized than ever before. The bottom line is that the Egyptian civil society, long apathetic, is suddenly empowered.

The only question remaining is the degree of this newfound empowerment. As the protests move into their second week, Egyptians have already won some concessions from the government, most notably a cabinet shakeup. But, Mubarak still precariously hangs on to power. If the protestors can find the will to keep building momentum, they may hang on just long enough to tip the scales. I never would have believed this in 2008.

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