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Contested Meanings in the Egyptian Revolution

Significations contestées dans la révolution égyptienne
Sarah Anne Rennick
p. 81-98


La révolution égyptienne s’est caractérisée par l’absence de toute idéologie sectaire ou politique. Deux ans plus tard, cependant, la scène postrévolutionnaire semble très différente : le pays est profondément polarisé et la vision politique de ce que l’Égypte devrait devenir est vivement contestée. On évoque le soi-disant détournement de la révolution par les islamistes, mais cela implique que la révolution ait un sens défini dont les paramètres sont reconnus. Je me prononce contre cette idée. En utilisant le concept de mobilisation multi-sectorielle de Dobry (1983), l’article décortique le mythe d’un mouvement de masse unifié et plaide plutôt en faveur de la « mobilisation dispersée ». Les différences d’interprétation des slogans de la révolution sont exposées, révélant la contestation idéationnelle des demandes et des objectifs et la façon dont ceux-ci sont convertis en batailles politiques spécifiques. En ce sens, la révolution ne doit pas être conçue comme seulement les dix-huit jours de protestation anti-Moubarak, mais plutôt comme un processus continu et toujours en cours.

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1The image of the 2011 uprisings across the Arab world has been severely tarnished in the last few years. A distinct air of uncertainty hangs over the region today, and Egypt, its cultural and political centerpiece, is no exception. The poignant images of diverse sectors of society coming together in Tahrir Square and demanding the same basic rights seem far removed from today’s political reality. The Egyptian revolution was carried out under a banner notable for its distinct lack of divisive sectarian or political ideology, conjuring up the picture of a unified movement of the masses. Yet two-and-a-half years later, the post-revolutionary scene looks strikingly different. The period from 2011-2013 has been marked by myriad protests and counter-protests, clashes that frequently turn deadly, and the increasingly audible sentiment that the country was better off under President Mubarak. These tensions culminated in summer 2013 with a popularly supported military coup and the profound polarization of society.

2Numerous factors of course contributed to the fracturing of the post-revolutionary scene. The vested interests of the military and the pressures exerted by the deep state to maintain privileges, the disorganization of the country’s fledgling political parties, the deterioration of the police forces and mounting problems of insecurity (whether real or perceived), and a profound economic crisis all contributed to Egypt’s instability and to its incapacity to institutionalize its revolutionary gains. Yet beyond these structural issues, an ideational battle over the revolution’s meaning also became a source of social and political fracture. The demands and goals of the Egyptian revolution were points of contention themselves, tracing sharp dividing lines between different groups and influencing their individual maneuvers within the political sphere.

3A common narrative before the July 3 coup was the supposed hijacking of the revolution by Islamists, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. The decisions and policies the organization’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, put into place after winning power were interpreted by many as antithetical to the revolution and its goals. As a result, revolutionary forces (youth groups, leftist/liberal/secular parties) were pitted against the Brotherhood in an effort to continue the pursuit of the revolution’s aims. In my view, this narrative is somewhat problematic. The Muslim Brotherhood, along with other Islamist groups, was actively involved in the mass mobilization that led to the departure of Mubarak. While it is true that the organization joined the protest movement only three days after it began, their participation was genuinely welcomed. The fact that they marched alongside other protestors without objection demonstrates the existence of at least some degree of mutually perceived unity of purpose.

4More importantly, however, the notion of a hijacked movement implies that the revolution – the demands of the protestors and the political, social, and economic vision of a new Egypt – has one defined meaning whose parameters are commonly recognized. Categorizing certain groups as upholding the values of the revolution while others oppose them creates a subtext implying that the revolution’s “true” meaning is fixed and known. I would argue against this. Though protestors from across the political spectrum used the same slogans during the 18 days of collective action in 2011, thereby giving the impression of a unified movement, the demands they embodied were not understood in the same way. On the contrary, there were important differences in the meaning of the revolution’s demands and goals across different groups.

5This article proposes to unravel these differences in meaning as a partial explanation to the virulent battles present in Egypt today. Using Dobry’s (1983) concept of multisectorial mobilization, the article posits that the 2011 revolution was an example of “dispersed mobilization” that is not indicative of collective goals or shared values. This leads to a discussion of the three main slogans of the revolution, understood here as collective action frames, and of how they were universally adopted despite important ideological differences between different sectors. In the third section, the differences in the interpretation of the frames’ meanings are exposed, revealing them as sites of ideational contestation that have translated into specific political battles.

Multisectoral Mobilization: From Planned Protest to Unplanned Revolution

6Dobry’s theoretical framework for analyzing political crises takes as its point of departure the inherent continuity of political mechanisms between normal (routine) times and moments of crisis, conceptualized as a moment of multisectorial mobilization of resources through strategic moves that produce a range of effects within the broader political arena. For Dobry, “strategy” is not to be understood in terms of rational choice but rather as decisions taken within specific cultural and institutional contexts, and in relation to the fluctuating, unpredictable dynamics of a crisis. Within this theoretical framework, “sectors” are understood as social fields, each one of them subject to its own specific logic, exercising control over its constituents and determining margins of maneuver in the political arena. These sectorial logics impact on their constituents’ perception of reality through the imposition of social relations and constraints that are perceived as externally objective, a characteristic that Dobry refers to as the “degree of objectivation” (1983: 403). In normal times, sectors are autonomous, although collusion between them can exist. However, moments of political crisis, which is when multisectorial mobilization is produced, disrupt these characteristics and thus bring about fluid social relations. This is marked by a unified social space and reduced sectorial autonomy, interdependence in tactical activity, and structural uncertainty. Such moments of fluid social relations create disobjectivation and as such influence the perception of social relations (often producing collective feelings of euphoria) and suspend social complexity. However, such moments of multisectorial mobilization do not imply a unified mass movement or common goals. On the contrary, different sectors may imbue their mobilization with different significations, causing initiators to lose control over the interpretation of meaning. The spatio-temporal convergence of heterogeneous mobilizations is what Dobry calls “dispersed mobilization” (1983: 400). The Egyptian revolution provides an instructive example of this phenomenon.

7While early analyses of the 2011 revolution focused on the supposedly sudden eruption of collective action, this perspective has been partially recanted in light of accounts by the key organizations behind the initial protest held on January 25th: the April 6th Youth Movement and the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page. Nonetheless, although the first day of protest was a pre-planned event, the protest gained momentum and quickly took on a life of its own, marked by the rapid adhesion of different sectors, as well as by several dramatic moments of repression at the hands of the regime, further spurring bystander participation (see also El Chazli, 2012).

8The idea to organize a protest on January 25, 2011 – Police Day, declared a national holiday had been under discussion amongst the leadership structure of April 6th from as early as November 2010. By December 2010, We Are All Khaled Said was also considering this possibility, and thus a decision was taken to work together for that purpose. In the initial plan, the protest was envisioned as a smallish event, one in a series of actions that were to be held throughout 2011; the vision for this protest, however, underwent a transformation in the days before it was to occur in light of a perceived political opportunity. The fall of the Tunisian regime on January 14th, 2011, had a dramatic effect on how activists perceived their margins of maneuver and the possibilities for mass collective action. The success of the Tunisian people in toppling a long-standing and highly repressive autocrat provided activists with a model of action and further boosted their motivation (Khosrokhavar, 2012). Movement leaders thus aimed for a much larger event on January 25th, hoping to mobilize 100,000 protestors (Ghonim, 2012) – but expecting far fewer.

9To achieve such numbers, the organizations behind the initial protest employed a number of strategies, including gathering tactics (marching through working class districts with the aim of collecting bystanders) and coalition-building (recruiting allied organizations or other interested networks). While such strategies were actively discussed and planned by the organizations’ most experienced activists, the results that would be achieved and the next steps to be taken were somewhat overlooked. Given the success of the event, however, a call was quickly made for a second day of protest on January 28th, dubbed the “Day of Rage”. Far larger in scale, and encompassing many more sectors, the 28th proved decisive in transforming the initial protest into the Egyptian revolution. What allowed the creation of a movement of mass proportions to be achieved were the decisions taken independently by various other sectors to join, based on each individual group’s calculation of its own interest. Labor unions, for example, who joined on February 9th via general strikes, were not allies of the initial organizers and on the contrary largely rejected the efforts of groups such as April 6th. For wildcat strikers, alliance with youth movements implied a politicization of their movement, which they saw as detrimental to achieving their objectives (Abdalla, 2012). Their adhesion to the revolution, thus, does not imply their adhesion to the youth groups’ values and goals, but rather their assessment of the opportunity that the space that had opened for contestation presented in their own quest for higher wages and improved working conditions.

10In addition, the reactions of the army and the regime also played decisive roles in the mobilization process, as did the ensuing media battle. The decision of the army not to employ force to disperse protestors was not something the organizers had planned, yet it nevertheless contributed to the movement’s flourishing by galvanizing participants and infusing bystanders with a sense of security. Likewise, the regime’s reaction to the protests – its refusal to make concessions, its blatant use of violence – also resulted in increased mobilization fervor. In an effort to contain the movement, the regime resorted to deadly repression on a number of occasions, most importantly in Suez on January 26th and during the infamous Battle of the Camel on Tahrir Square on February 2nd. In the collective memory of the revolution’s participants, these acts of repression marked turning points in the 18 days of collective action, whereby the general anger of the people increased as the regime’s legitimacy decreased – resulting in the further mobilization of bystanders and non-aligned, average citizens (Shehata, 2011). Finally, the drastic discrepancies between the news reports broadcast by private and international media outlets versus those circulated by state-run ones also propelled mobilization. Though state-run news attempted to either downplay or outright ignore the mass protests taking place, the existence of alternative media sources such as Al Jazeera not only allowed for the dissemination of events but further fueled anger towards the regime for its blatant effort to obscure the truth.

11The various dynamics at work over the course of the Egyptian revolution reveal that it was not simply one stream of mobilization that created a movement of the masses. Had different decisions been made at different points during those 18 days, the strategic moves made by each sector could have changed and differences between groups – and specifically those willing to negotiate with Mubarak – could have emerged, thereby rupturing the image of unity which they projected. In this sense, it was not exclusively adherence to the movement launched by youth groups that led to the revolution, but rather the dispersed mobilization of different groups, which saw a chance to further their own causes or positions by joining forces. This phenomenon of different sectors benefiting from one another and creating mutual possibilities for contestation was not specific to the revolution but had in fact been observed in Egypt throughout the 2000s (Hamid, 2010). Indeed, the period before the 2011 revolution was marked by a massive increase in social movement activity across the board, alongside a de-monopolization of the media field that allowed for the birth of cross-movement collaboration and the de-sequestering of social sectors, as well as the proliferation of oppositional voices and critiques, leading to an overall decrease in the barrier of fear (Vannetzel, 2011). While these trends should not be understood as the causal mechanisms of the revolution, they provide a broader context for understanding multisectorial mobilization and bystander activism. Nonetheless, what united groups in the decade prior to Mubarak’s ousting was not specific goals or political leanings but rather opposition to the regime more generally.

Collective Action Frames and Their Widespread Adoption

12What gave the Egyptian uprising the image of a unified set of demands – and what allowed disparate groups to march alongside each other without factional divisions being visible – was the use of broad yet imprecise slogans. Three primary slogans came to symbolize the Egyptian revolution: aish, horreya, adala egtema’eya (bread, freedom, social justice); al-shaab yurid isqat al-nizam (the people want the overthrow of the regime); and irhal (get out). These should not be understood merely as catch phrases chanted by protestors but rather as representing collective action frames that served a specific mobilization purpose. As defined by Goffman (1974), frames, or schemata, are tools that allow individuals to make sense of their world through the imposition of standardized structures onto various experiences. Collective action frames, for their part, go one step further by moving beyond a merely interpretative role to an action-oriented one. Collective frames are defined as “sets of beliefs and meanings that inspire and legitimate the activities and campaigns of a social movement organization” (Benford and Snow, 2000: 614). They serve to transform individual grievances into collectively understood senses of injustice. Further, they pinpoint the source of this injustice, define solutions via prescribed actions, and motivate those who adopt them to mobilize. As such, collective action frames delegitimize opponents, produce a shared sense of purpose, and contribute to the recruitment of participants. In the case of the Egyptian revolution, the construction of the three dominant collective action frames demonstrates a mixture of strategic, deliberate efforts as undertaken by social movement actors as well as organic, unexpected outbursts arising from participants, that spread rapidly. This combination of strategic and organic processes mirrors both the planned and un-planned nature of the Egyptian revolution.

13One element in the mobilization strategy of the initial protest’s organizers was the development of an inclusive collective action frame that could effectively bridge the gap between youth activists, interested in political change, and the Egyptian masses, mostly concerned with their own socio-economic well-being. The process by which social movement actors build collective action frames is frame alignment, an umbrella term referring to a number of discursive and strategic processes (Snow et al., 1986). Of interest here is frame amplification – the embellishment or valorisation of an existing societal value on which to build the collective action frame. I argue that the organizers of the January 25th protest drew upon a socio-cultural master frame of redistributive social welfare in order to delegitimize the Mubarak regime and highlight its failure to uphold the social contract in the hope of achieving wider mobilization. It was via this strategic process of frame amplification that the “bread, freedom, social justice” frame was produced.

14Arab political thought since the classical period has defined the social contract in terms of redistributive social welfare as upheld by the ruling authority (Ismael and Ismael, 2008). The notion of redistributive social welfare derives from the Islamic depiction of the moral economy, which includes the protection of the weak, the charitable redistribution of wealth, and the prohibition of usury. Ensuring such a socio-economic system has been a key duty of ruling authorities in the Muslim world since its elaboration by Islamic jurists in medieval times, and has translated in the modern period into a deeply rooted norm regarding what social justice might look like and who should be responsible for achieving it. This ideal of redistributive social welfare has shaped social policy and state-society relations in Egypt from the national liberation movement of the 1950s until the present day. Egypt’s first post-independence president, the charismatic Gamal Abd Al-Nasser, placed socialist economic policy at the heart of his construction of the modern republic. This included providing jobs, access to healthcare and education, and subsidizing basic items. This established a system founded on quiescent loyalty between the authorities and the lower classes and served as a foundation for the regime’s authoritarian power (Sadiki, 2000). However, the dismantling of the system during the economic restructuring of the 1970s (Infitah), including the cutting of many subsidies as well as the drastic reduction in public sector employment, breached the social contract, leading to massive riots (the so-called “bread riots”) and calls for political reform. The phenomenon of social mobilization resulting from breaches in the norm of redistributive social welfare continued throughout the Mubarak years as the economic and political situation in Egypt led to increasing disenfranchisement and corruption, further exacerbating the differences between the classes. Moreover, the space opened by the absence of the state from the social service sector allowed opposition groups, and most importantly the Muslim Brotherhood, to increase their foothold by assuming the role of provider. As such, the question of redistributive social welfare was not only a source of discursive contestation but also carved out domains for oppositional action. This norm of redistributive social welfare and its link to the question of political legitimacy was thus a driver of popular mobilization and opposition for decades, and acted as a bridge between socio-economic demands and calls for participatory politics.

15In seeking to extend popular mobilization, the organizers drew upon this socio-cultural master frame to develop the collective action frame of the event. Initially billed as the “Revolution against Torture, Poverty, Corruption, and Unemployment” on Facebook, and shortened to the simpler “bread, freedom, social justice” in street chants, the collective action frame served several purposes. Through the inclusion of the word “bread”, the organizers made a direct link between their action and the 1970s bread riots and Egypt’s historical legacy of popular mobilization. For the members of April 6th and We Are All Khaled Said, the use of a socio-economic collective action frame was paramount, as they were keenly aware that a purely political message would not motivate the disenfranchised Egyptian masses. Yet by also including the term “freedom”, they met the political aspirations of the youth movements. This political element was left deliberately simple so as not to reduce the movement to a dialogue amongst elites (Ghonim, 2012). In this vein, instructions were given to the members of different groups to eschew slogans or messages that were specific to their particular movement or ideology. As such, the frame was able to link disparate groups and effectively satisfy the demands of each. More important, however, was the inclusion of “social justice”, which makes clear reference to the societal master frame. By directly mentioning social justice, the organizers aimed to delegitimize the Mubarak regime by implicitly referencing Egypt’s broken social contract. In amplifying an existing societal norm, the protest’s frame was thereby able to strike a chord even with those not suffering economic woes and speak to multiple sectors of the opposition.

16At odds with this strategic and deliberate process of frame construction, however, was the organic and non-directed manner in which the revolution’s other two main frames arose. Both “the people want the overthrow of the regime” and “get out” seem to have come about quite naturally in the midst of the protests. Their origin, however, is not Egyptian but rather Tunisian: both frames were used in the Tunisian revolution, likely pointing to a process of diffusion. As such, they are not the product of any one social movement organization or its associated mission and goals; rather, they reflect a desire on the part of the Egyptian people to emulate the success of Tunisia and successfully topple those in power.

17The scope of these frames reveals that cohesion over revolutionary demands and goals was not necessary for them to be widely adopted. While “bread, freedom, social justice” does include a few basic notions regarding the protesters’ political and economic vision for Egypt, the frame was deliberately constructed to be ambiguous and inclusive so as to de-emphasize the very real divisions between different groups and sectors. As for the other two frames (“the people want the overthrow of the regime” and “get out”) they did not explicitly state what was wanted but rather what was not wanted: the Mubarak regime. In this sense, they were exclusively backward-looking. It is thus the combination of references to a societal master frame as well as the Tunisian experience, in addition to the vagueness of the protesters’ vision and the fact that their stance was predominantly one of rejection rather than projection, that accounts for the protesters’ adoption en masse of these revolutionary slogans – and not the uniform interpretation of their meaning.

18Participants speak of the 18 days on Tahrir Square in near mythical terms, describing a utopic microcosm where differences between groups, whether based on political ideology, creed, gender, or class, disappeared. Such a description closely mirrors the unification of social space and de-complexification of social relations as theorized by multisectorial mobilization. This profound sentiment of “communitas” (Peterson, 2012), or feeling of community and solidarity, as well as social equality, as a result of shared experience and the breakdown of social classification, undoubtedly contributed to a perception of unity of purpose. However, as was revealed after the euphoric moment of mass protest, as the difficult task of transition loomed, the protesters seem to have only been aligned around the most basic and backward-looking frame: “get-out”. In the wake of the revolution, and with the re-establishment of sectorial autonomy, ideational differences regarding the overthrow of the regime and the call for social justice came into full force and played out in important political battles between sectors – reaching their climax with the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

Ideational and Political Contests in the Post-Revolutionary Scene

19The different interpretations of the revolution’s demands and goals reflect rigid ideological boundaries between sectors and drastically influence their positions and actions towards the state and its institutions, as well as towards each other. These differences in attributed meaning are a result of the inherent ambiguity attached to the phrases “social justice” and “overthrow the regime” when it comes to translating them into concrete political programs.

20For revolutionary forces, such as the host of social movements that have emerged since the revolution, and their allied (leftist, liberal, secular) political parties, social justice is understood less as a specific socio-economic system than as a profound change in the state’s relationship with its citizens. This is not to imply that specific demands are absent; on the contrary, revolutionary forces acknowledge that social justice encompasses the normative elements of redistributive social welfare such as access to healthcare and education, the right to employment, and reduced costs of living for the poor. However, the question of how these goals are to be achieved in terms of the socio-economic system to be adopted is open to debate and is not the primary focus of their ideational battle. For these groups, social justice is an umbrella term that not only includes a renewed social contract, but is also inextricably linked to values of respect, tolerance, and equality. It is synonymous with a broader demand for human dignity (karama ensaneya) that includes freedom from discrimination and abuse, as well as improved standards of living. The demand is thus for a reconceptualization of the state as an institution in the service of its citizens that includes not only the guarantee of quality of life but also the erasure of social classifications and divisions, and the absence of corruption. As such, the demands for social justice of the revolutionary forces presupposed the redistribution of wealth, mechanisms of accountability, and the institutionalization of equality. In practical terms, this interpretation of the meaning of social justice translated into specific demands for the reform of the Ministry of the Interior and the police, an increased minimum wage, and a radical redrafting of the (now defunct) constitution.

21For the working class sector, however, social justice is much more narrowly understood as concerned with wages and workers’ rights. Many of the larger political battles were thus dismissed as mostly beside the point, so long as economic stability was maintained and tangible gains were achieved in terms of salary and labor conditions. After the fall of the Mubarak regime, workers organized themselves into over 1,000 unions and held several thousand strikes or work stoppages (Beinin, 2013a) in the pursuit of what they understood to be social justice. These actions engendered important ruptures with the revolutionary forces, and provoked a new political battle with President Morsi and his government. Revolutionary forces tended to discredit the workers’ actions as detrimental to the achievement of their broader political objectives, criticizing their divisive pursuit of individual rights, as opposed to global ones; workers, for their part, rejected the seemingly endless political protests for their destabilizing economic effect. This in turn resulted in the loss of an important constituent base for the leftist and liberal political parties. Moreover, the near perpetual strike activity in Egypt led the Morsi government to pass repressive measures designed to control unions and prevent strikes. This included Decree 97, which amended the law on unions and would have effectively led to the installation of Muslim Brotherhood members at the helm of the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions, as well Article 52 of the constitution, which gave the judiciary the right to dissolve unions (Beinin, 2013a). Such measures – along with the economic free-fall – were decried by workers and their unions, leading them to withdraw their support to the Morsi regime and actively participate in the Tamarod campaign (Beinin, 2013b).

22As for the Muslim Brotherhood, they interpret social justice through a neo-liberal prism that reflects internal demographic changes in the organization’s leadership structure and their distinctive repositioning of the social question (Tammam and Haenni, 2009). Despite their significant charitable work and efforts to reach out to the poor, the Brotherhood’s leadership structure consists of businessmen who have benefitted from liberal economic policies and support the diminishment of the welfare state. Moreover, addressing socio-economic issues directly through political discourse or action is seen as potentially threatening to social cohesion and the holistic Islamist vision of society. As such, the issue of social justice is removed from the political sphere and reimagined under the rubric of charity and solidarity as opposed to socialist economic policy and state-managed redistribution. It is via the Islamization of social values and ethics – which will in turn promote donations by the rich, the establishment of charitable organizations, etc… – that social justice will be achieved. Thus although they do not necessarily interpret social justice differently than other groups or sectors, the way in which it is to be implemented and the state’s role in this process diverge significantly. After winning power, the Muslim Brotherhood pursued decidedly neo-liberal economic policies, with extensive cuts to subsidies and planned increases in privatization schemes, along with efforts to secure an IMF loan and its economic restructuring requirements (though the forceful removal of the group from power prevented the full implementation of these plans).

23A similar schism in interpretation of meaning and ensuing political battle was present with the demand for the overthrow of the regime. Indeed, though seemingly straightforward this became perhaps the most divisive ideological component of the revolution’s demands. For the revolutionary forces, isqat al-nizam translates into radical change and a complete overhaul of the political structure along with a purging of any vestige of the old regime or National Democratic Party (NDP) members (feloul, a derogatory term for “remnants”) from political life. The entire state apparatus must be dismantled, including the deep state and the role of the military in Egypt’s economy. For many revolutionaries, this also includes Egypt’s foreign policy and in particular the country’s perceived submissiveness towards the United States and Israel. This particular interpretation of the phrase “overthrow the regime” greatly affected the perception of the political priorities and tactical maneuvers of the revolutionary forces. In the early post-revolutionary period, these groups protested the SCAF’s authority, as well as the proposed electoral calendar for transition to civilian rule, thereby placing themselves in a largely rejectionist position. While seemingly contradictory, this dual stance reflected their belief that a total overhaul of the system cannot be achieved either under military tutorship or through the mere imposition of elections onto the existing institutional structure, but rather requires a lengthier civilian transitional process. Similarly, their understanding of what overthrowing the regime means in practical terms also explains the decision on the part of many revolutionaries to vote for Morsi in the presidential run-off election of 2012. Despite serious misgivings, the Muslim Brotherhood was at this point still seen as preferable to feloul. This tenuous support for the Morsi government quickly dissipated, however, as the Brotherhood came to be seen as more interested in reform than radical change. Indeed, the perception of the “Brotherhoodization” of the state (as opposed to its transformation) birthed the fall-out between the revolutionary forces and the organization, leading to the launch of the Tamarod campaign. For revolutionaries, the removal of President Morsi had become synonymous with isqat al-nizam.

24The Muslim Brotherhood interpreted the demand for the overthrow of the regime much more narrowly and seemed specifically concerned with the replacement of the NDP. In order to position themselves as the victors of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood and their ruling Freedom and Justice Party were content to adopt the existing state apparatus, cut deals with the military, and normalize political life as quickly as possible through electoral instances. Even prior to the 2011 revolution, the Brotherhood were wary of protest movements and the potential power of the “street”; in their vision, social and political change must stem instead from the religious reform of the individual (Ben Néfissa, 2010). They therefore privileged elections and the channeling of revolutionary fervor via institutionalized political action – moves that capitalized on the Brotherhood’s organizational strength and ability to achieve electoral success. This translated into their support for the constitutional referendum of March 19, 2011, which paved the way for elections prior to the adoption of a new constitution, moves seen as largely favourable to well established political groups at the expense of the much younger revolutionary movement. Part and parcel with this was a process of deal-making with the military establishment. Despite fears of prolonged military rule, the SCAF proved uninterested and unfit to rule the country; their priority was instead on maintaining their economic privileges and immunity from oversight and accountability. Thus for different reasons, both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood supported a quick transition to civilian rule without resorting to the far more arduous process of deep institutional reform. To ensure their ascension to power, the Muslim Brotherhood made assurances to the military, and both sides tacitly ignored potentially divisive issues (further illustrating Dobry’s argument about the fluidity of social relations) in order to maintain their tenuous power-sharing arrangement (Collombier, 2012). This move to Brotherize the existing state apparatus also led the organization to try to consolidate their power, most notably by launching into an extensive
battle with the judiciary over their attempt to replace the public prosecutor and force the retirement of thousands of Mubarak-era judges in order to achieve control over this branch of government (Brown, 2013). The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood did not seek to radically change but merely work within the existing political system became evident with the events of summer 2013: political deals made with the military ultimately proved fragile, and the deep state was able to resume its previous position of power. Yet, while important political battles concerning the implementation of isqat al-nizam existed between revolutionary forces and the Brotherhood, the inherent ambiguity of the phrase allowed both sides to proclaim their adherence to this goal.


25The fact that Egypt’s post-revolutionary scene is witness to intense political contests and power struggles is of course not unique to this case. On the contrary, the 2011 revolution depicts a common tradeoff in mass mobilization: the more a movement is extended to different players, the more likely major changes can be achieved; however, extension also creates a loss of coherence in goals and actions, and can provoke power struggles in the post-mobilization period (Jasper, 2004). What was more original in the Egyptian case, however, was the discursive capacity of different sectors espousing opposing policies and political actions to proclaim their faithfulness to the goals of the revolution. The contested meanings of the revolution divided Egypt’s political sphere, and became crystallized into different sets of values and political platforms. It is these contests of meaning and their manifestations in political action that helped create the bitter polarization leading to the ousting of Morsi. Moving forward, however, contests in meaning are likely to involve a different set of claims and demands. The concept of legitimacy in particular seems primed to become Egypt’s key discursive and political battleground.

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Sarah Anne Rennick, « Contested Meanings in the Egyptian Revolution », Socio, 2 | 2013, 81-98.

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Sarah Anne Rennick, « Contested Meanings in the Egyptian Revolution », Socio [En ligne], 2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2014, consulté le 22 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/socio.408

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Sarah Anne Rennick

Doctorante en sciences politiques à l’université de Lund en Suède, et à l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales (ehess), en France. Elle a notamment publié « Personal grievance sharing, frame alignment, and hybrid organizational structures: the role of social media in North Africa’s 2011 uprisings », Journal of Contemporary African Studies et « Social Justice, Restorative Justice, and EU Peacebuilding in the Arab-Islamic World », in Rethinking Peacebuilding: The Quest for Just Peace in the Middle East and Western Balkans, Routledge.

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