On The Decentralized Nature of the Egyptian Revolution

In 2011 the Egyptian protest movement rocked not just the Middle East, but the world as well. A population long deemed to be pacified and placated demolished the Mubarak Regime, challenging the preconceived notions about the region held by many. We still feel its repercussions today, as the Egyptian government doubles-down on its authoritarian modality. Despite its ostensible unpredictability, there was a clear tension and method of political agitation that contributed to the revolutions we understand to be a key part of the Arab Spring.

This essay asserts that first, neoliberalism is the world’s dominant economic system, and thus places certain pressures on governments wishing to participate. Second, authoritarianism is the mechanism to enforce and maintain the neoliberal structure, and in doing so, prevented neoliberalism’s traditionally coherent opposition, labor, from forming. Third, opposition took a decidedly decentralized and broad path toward agitation. To expand on the relationship between the three points, authoritarianism is utilized to maintain Egypt’s neoliberal structures, and in doing so, created the movement(s) that ultimately overthrew the government. We cannot pinpoint one specific cause to explain the Egyptian protests. Instead, it is the synthesis of systems of economics and government, the institutions that reinforce those systems, and the subversive responses to those paradigms that explains the events of 2011.

Neoliberalism, Authoritarianism, and Opposition

Before synthesizing how these points combined to produce the Egyptian Revolution, a great deal of operationalization is necessary. Forming an accurate comprehension of the Egyptian Revolution demands an understanding of the interplay between neoliberalism and authoritarianism and how they might generate a specific type of opposition. While these points are likely applicable to other situations, they manifest most clearly in Egypt and thus offer us the best opportunity to form an understanding of the Revolution.

To begin, neoliberalism as an economic theory refers to the freeing of markets and fiscal conservatism, and in essence, the expansion of capitalist policies. These principles generally manifest in deregulation, privatization, and commercialized social programs. For example, a baker receiving subsidies from the government to keep bread prices low would have them revoked, forcing them to sell their product at the market price, which may potentially be too high for the baker’s customers.

The result of neoliberal policies is the subordination of labor to capital, in which individuals in the subaltern, or urban underclass lose agency and power to those in the capitalist class. Neoliberal policies are often a quixotic endeavor, and are typically used to develop the global south. Rather than distributing development gains equitably, benefits of the new neoliberal system are distributed in a way that amplifies already geographically stratified wealth distributions. Essentially, neoliberalism’s evisceration of the social safety net obliterated the Fordism-Keynesianism compromise of capitalism plus social welfare and replaced it with a new trickle-down ideology in which pure economic production would purportedly increase the general welfare of everyone. What ultimately happened was the widening of wealth disparities and the severe marginalization of the subaltern, which prevented members of the underclass from exercising agency.

The main driving force behind the amplification of spatial disparities is the idea of the mega-project. Neoliberalism places specific pressures on governments and economies to remain attractive to industry. Cities are reimagined for the outsider (consumers, tourists, investors, etc.), while those who actually live there are forced to suffer the consequences of the urban space’s sanitization and gentrification. Amplified spatial disparities without an effective safety net concentrated Cario’s subaltern into certain areas without a guarantee of a certain quality of life, creating densely packed areas of disenfranchised and alienated individuals lacking access to resources and thus the means to exercise agency. Indeed, Egyptians likely joined protest movements en-masse to increase agency, highlighting the link between agitation and alienation.

Understandably, the subaltern did not respond positively to the neoliberal system. While the Egyptian urban bourgeoisie enjoyed their newfound access to international capital, Cairo’s subaltern were increasingly alienated from their access to resources they had long enjoyed. Yet, the state’s coercive apparatus subverted attempts at political agitation. The authoritarian state’s ability to suppress opposition depends on the “strength, coherence, and effectiveness” of its coercive institutions. Democratic opposition manifests when coercive apparatuses are weak, incoherent, and ineffective. Indeed, utilizing security apparatuses to violently repress the masses is a commonly considered strategy for authoritarian regimes. A strong security service will violently suppress organized opposition and in turn, fomenting disorganization.

Securitization of civil society in Egypt was the process in which the security organizations regulated and confined the assemblages of the general population. Security organizations utilized torture and forced disappearances to dissuade organized opposition. The targeting of specific groups prevented opposition consolidation and kept dissidents from coordinating too closely. This strategy undermined cohesive opposition and forced dissent into localized and individualized incidents. While this process is far from unique to Egypt, it played a key role in creating the type of agitation that manifested during the revolution.

Due to the Egyptian Revolution’s origins in the neoliberal transformation and its policies of structural adjustment (the reorientation of the economic system toward neoliberalism in exchange for outside funding), the grievances of the protesters’ opposition to the neoliberal system and its oppressive reinforcement mechanisms originally manifested in labor oriented agitation. Yet the state’s coercive apparatuses, the preponderance of which is a hallmark of the governments that the Arab Spring challenged, prevented large-scale labor mobilization against the neoliberal system. Opposition, thus, took a less cohesive approach, and instead, followed a decentralized and flexible path. It was more a rage against the systems oppressing the subaltern than a specific call to action.  

While this section pinpoints the neoliberal source of the grievances, the mechanism to enforce the neoliberal system, and classifies the modes of opposition, the following utilizes the Egyptian case to demonstrate how the three factors synthesized to produce revolution in 2011.


Beginning in the 1970s, Anwar Sadat’s Egypt underwent a neoliberal transformation (Infitah), in which the government remade urban centers, cut social spending, and privatized jobs and social services. As Egypt continued its neoliberal transition, urban development became one method to attract industry, facilitated by the mega project. A mega project should be understood as a massive reorganization of private and public space. In essence, these mega projects force the subaltern into informal residential quarters built on public or agricultural land. Urban redevelopment projects are a direct result of the pressures placed on the neoliberal state. When entering the capitalist space, competition becomes a driver of action. To attract business and skilled workers, the state needs to create an “attractive” place for them to live and work, as the plans for the development project Cairo 2050 showcase. So while these programs certainly generated wealth, the de facto exile of the subaltern from their traditional homes to informal or grossly inadequate public housing, combined with social security’s evisceration meant that the subaltern became increasingly alienated and marginalized, creating the main demographic behind the 2011 revolution.

To reinforce and secure the tenability of Egypt’s developmental authoritarian project, the state increasingly relied on security services such as the State Security Investigations Service (SSI). The SSI tortured dissidents, kidnapped troublemakers, and specifically targeted Islamists but continued to harass other groups, spreading fear and doubt and keeping opposition from consolidating. Egypt’s Emergency Law, a 1981 provision after Sadat’s assassination granting emergency powers to the state, has been in effect since its passage. The Emergency Law provides legality to the SSI’s actions. Under the law, the SSI could arrest anyone at anytime, without warrant. Especially germane to this essay’s aim is the SSI’s targeted harassment, kidnapping, detention, and torture. The fear that this strategy sows prevents neoliberalism’s traditional counterweight, labor, from mounting a cohesive, sustained, open and effective opposition to the state’s policies.

Two aspects created the opposition that drove the 2011 protests, the effects of neoliberalism, and the SSI’s abuse of state power. Kefeya, Egypt’s alternative to labor centric protests, was officially created in 2004, although its origins can be traced back decades before. The Egyptian Kefaya (Enough!) movement showcases the difficulties and alternative tactics necessary when protesting through institutions such as labor organizations is impossible. Kefaya’s lack of specificity is also demonstrative of the subaltern’s grievances. The subaltern was upset at a broad and complicated system and the coercive mechanisms used to reinforce it. Kefaya is more an expression of the general outrage at an inequitable system than a pointed critique of specific issues. It is open to all political trends and ideologies as well as all party members (only if they remove party insignia and other identifiers at meetings). While neoliberalism created the necessary demographic for opposition, the state’s ability to suppress specific countercurrents meant that the opposition became a decentralized, bottom up collage of multiple ideas, identities and strands.

Neoliberalism’s push to reimagine the city to attract foreign business resulted in the alienation of the subaltern. Forced into densely packed areas with inadequate or nonexistent public services, and without a safety net to fall back on, alienation swiftly spread. Labor, which was the traditional outlet for agitation on behalf of the poor, was unable to consolidate and thus opposition formed in the decentralized Kefaya movement, which became the major force behind the 2011 protests.

While well known political scientists such as Joel Beinin purport that labor was the main driving force behind the 2011 protests, they are only half right. Beinin and his peers understand that the main grievance of the protests, whether explicitly stated or not, is the subordination of the proletariat to capital, but his claim that labor took the central role in the Egyptian protests is incorrect. In actuality, it is the synthesis of the neoliberal system (creating the protestor demographic) and the securitized authoritarian enforcement of the neoliberal system (creating the method of agitation) that explains the 2011 Egyptian protests. Pinpointing a single explanation, as Beinin supposes, does not offer us the full picture. It is the pressures of neoliberalism and authoritarianism that made the mélange of individualized and localized beliefs that manifested in Kefaya and spurred change in 2011.   

Adam Goldstein

About Adam Goldstein

American University senior on the BA/MA track for Comparative Politics. Unapologetically obsessed with Iranian politics, political science, and Phish. Contributing editor and Middle East/Africa columnist.