Sometimes new phenomena appear within the public sphere, creating a non-traditional mode of activism in society.
In Egypt, collective action and mobilisation have been subject to conditions that have been in place for many years. Since the year 2000, there has been an ascending order for access to the public sphere and collective action. The 25 January and 30 June Revolutions were led by figures that had been present in the public sphere for years and by activists and politicians who had long worked within Egypt’s contentious politics. However, new patterns have materialised more recently.
The expatriate actor and contractor Mohamed Ali has emerged as a new face in Egyptian politics through his YouTube videos from abroad. These have received a high rate of viewership, perhaps because he has presented content that has not been present in the Egyptian media for quite a while. However, his allegations lack objective supporting evidence. Moreover, questions must be posed about the sudden appearance of Ali, his attempts to mobilise the public, and his desire to try to gain a place among those who belong to activism in the public sphere.
There is a pattern for how activists in Egypt emerge in the public sphere and engage in attempts at mobilisation. The model instantiated by Ali contradicts long-standing patterns of collective action in Egypt over the past 20 years. Over these years, Egypt has seen organised patterns of collective action, and various phenomena have developed within the public sphere such as the National Campaign for the Support of the Intifada, the Kefaya Movement, the protests at the invasion of Iraq, the March 9th Movement, the April 6th Movement and the Khaled Said Mobilisation.
There is also the question of why Egyptian citizens should believe what Ali has to say. Ali suddenly emerged without any history behind him in the standard patterns of collective action in Egypt. His actions are in contradiction with former phenomena of collective action in the country. First, he has no record of political life in Egypt. Second, he has emerged virtually without any practical presence on the ground or within the public sphere.
He has presented accusations for which he has not provided any evidence, a non-traditional pattern in collective action over the past 20 years. Vulgar criticisms may be flashy and attractive for the media, but they do not necessarily prove any of their allegations. Gaining credibility in the public sphere requires years of action in the Egyptian political context, something that Ali does not possess.
There is no state in the world that does not make mistakes; however, there are procedures to prove those mistakes that go beyond personal statements made in YouTube videos. Ali has two main problems in his discourse and in he himself as a phenomenon. First, he did not exist within the public sphere until very recently, and in fact he claims to have been part of the same national institution for years that he now criticises in his videos. This puts him far outside the public sphere, according to his own arguments. Second, social media and a virtual presence have never been sufficient tools for mobilisation. They almost always must be accompanied by work on the ground.
This takes us to another point that has to do with calls for demonstrations that apparently have no clear grounds. It is impossible for a single individual to mobilise a country that is populated by over one hundred million people. In fact, it is an absurd idea, particularly if that individual has no political history or record of public action in the society he is trying to mobilise. In turn, the calls for mobilisation themselves pose many questions. Perhaps the first of these is about mechanisms for collective action and how these are supposed to make sense.
Bottom-up mobilisation requires build-up in order to exist on the ground. There is a dual perspective here, one that has to do with the capacities of the entities involved in the collective action, and another that has to do with how these entities can adapt to the political environment in which they work.
The current scene does not seem to possess either of these two perspectives. Most of the political and social movements in Egypt are in a state of fragmentation and without any mechanisms for decision-making. The political environment in its various dimensions is another relevant factor. The national struggle against terrorism has closed the public sphere to a large extent, and within this context it is difficult to practise mobilisation or to appear suddenly on social media bearing political messages. It simply does not add up.
Is Egypt witnessing a new wave of collective action due to recent social-media messages calling for political mobilisation? The answer to this question remain to be seen. However, there is nothing objective within Ali’s discourse and no clear understanding of the political environment or of the background to calls for activism on social media or movements on the ground.
Egypt is confronting various challenges today, and the ethics and conditions of access to the public sphere are changing. Collective action that truly represents society needs to spring from it and not from external sources that do not participate in the ordinary traditions of political activism in the country.
We are indeed witnessing a new phenomenon, but we are not witnessing the birth of a new collective movement. New challenges may emerge, but powerful state structures will always be in the frontline before initiatives that lack credibility.
The writer is a senior analyst and director of the Programme for the Mediterranean & North Africa Studies in the Arab & Regional Affairs Unit of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: A new phenomenon in the public sphere?