A group of young ladies carrying a large banner saying "bread - freedom - human dignity"[lit. khobz - huriyya - karama insaniyya] in Tahrir Square on 01 February 2011. © Image: Osama M. Hijji.
Egypt Trapped in Transformational Process - MPC Journal - Hakim Khatib - A group of young ladies carrying a large banner saying "bread - freedom - human dignity"[lit. khobz - huriyya - karama insaniyya] in Tahrir Square on 01 February 2011. © Image: Osama M. Hijji.
A group of young ladies carrying a large banner saying “bread – freedom – human dignity”[lit. khobz – huriyya – karama insaniyya] in Tahrir Square on 01 February 2011. © Image: Osama M. Hijji

The so-called “Arab Spring” began on December 17, 2010 in Tunisia when Mohammad Bouazizi, a vegetable salesman in informal economy, set himself on fire on January 4, 2011. He was denied the opportunity to continue his low-paid job and his action was to protest against mistreatment by the local police and government authorities. Protests, which were attended by informal workers, lawyers and most importantly the youth, spread quickly from rural areas to urban locations in Tunisia. This civil protest led to the removal of Zine Al-Abdin Bin Ali after two decades of dictatorship.

These protests then spread to Egypt where they were instrumental in toppling Husni Mubarak, who had been in power for almost three decades. Following the January demonstrations in Egypt, protests spread to Yemen, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia. There were also some protests in Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, but these were not sustained long enough to resonate in the media.

The uprising in Egypt was predominantly a campaign of nonviolent civil resistance which featured a series of demonstrations, marches, acts of civil disobedience, and labor strikes. The key motivations for these mass demonstrations in Egypt were political (repression and restrictions on civil liberties and political rights) and economic (inequality, poverty, unemployment, inflation, and corruption). Neither purely political concerns such as the desire of Arab populations for democracy, nor simple economic trends can wholly explain the protesters’ desire to overthrow the autocratic rulers.

The interaction of both factors caused the uprisings. Furthermore, the collective incapacity, that was unable to make significant change, turned into a collective action manifested by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators demanding their rights to end the authoritarian rule. While people had no other channels to express themselves, they mounted banners and drawings and chanted songs and slogans to convey clear messages to the internal and external frontiers of their society. Consequently, a constructional process of semantic structures has emerged to express peoples’ demands.

While the demands of people at Tahrir Square were pretty straightforward, they have been partially or completely neutralized paving the way for a polarization process of the very semantic messages they demanded. But the question here iswhy could these messages unify Egyptians at the times of demonstrations and then fragment them throughout the process?

The semantic structures produced during the demonstrations at Tahrir Square in 2011served as a catalyst of unity among Egyptians because they merely achieved change but as a catalyst of division because they collided with the Egyptian traditional discourses about the same messages. Although the messages were straightforward, they weremore complicated than it was anticipated due to a lack of a profound debate to define their underlying concepts. People had different and rather conflicting perceptions of these underlying concepts.

The semantic structures of people’s demands and messages worked as catalysts to initially unite them against authoritarianism but thento fragment them. Unifying because every party or individual saw their own understanding in these concepts, and thus, joined the momentum to form a collective action. Fragmenting because of the lack of previous debates to define the underlying concepts of these messages. Such debates have not occurred yet in Egyptian discourses. While they are still lacking, the traditional discourses remained intact.

People marched to Tahrir Square with simple demands but were entrapped in a transformation process replete with polarization. People drew on some words from Egyptian historical and cultural contexts and gave them meanings based on their own understanding.

The political and religious polarization processes Egypt witnessed after the removal of Mubarak,followed by the sheer control of the army, then by the strong hold of the Muslim Brotherhood on power, then by the army again, increased violations of human right to dramatize the functions of unification and fragmentation.

Several years have already passed and people’s demands still have not been crystallized yet. Political constructs are not of a better quality; economic growth is wobbling and freedoms of journalism, speech and expressionhave become worse.

The uncertain future of Egypt cordially invited Islamists to the political landscape and intensely eliminated them. The semantic structures constructed by Egyptians at Tahrir Square primarily signified that not only Egyptians are ready to coalesce and cooperate to reach their goals and reconstruct their efforts but also ready to coordinate and collide while doing so.

Read in depth on CyberOrient: 2011 Tahrir Square Demonstrations in Egypt: Semantic Structures That Unify And Divide

By Hakim Charles

Hakim Charles studied political science of the Middle East, European Studies, journalism and linguistics. He has been lecturing at different German universities since 2011 on issues related to ideology and the interplay of power thereof in socio-political life, and religion and its relationship to contemporary politics in the regions of West Asia and North Africa, especially Egypt and Syria. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Mashreq Politics & Culture Journal (MPC Journal) since 2014 and has published over 100 articles in different languages, academic and otherwise, in a wide spectrum of on-line and printed newspapers, journals and think tanks. His current research focuses on Islam-inspired political ideologies such as Islamist extremism and Salafism, radicalisation, de-radicalisation processes in Germany as well as peace and conflict in the Middle East.

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