On Tuesday, January 25, 2011, young Mohamed* stood in trepidation and anxiety on an empty street in east Alexandria. He looked around for any familiar signs of police presence but saw none. At 11 am, he started calling the 10 phone numbers that were given to him earlier in the morning, following the plan established by his organization. He was assigned to the popular district of Asafra, in the northeast part of the city. The then 20-year-old instructed his group to meet at 12 pm around the Asafra hospital. “Be there at 12 sharp. At 12:05, we won’t be there,” he reminded them over the phone.
“Time was against us. We couldn’t afford to get arrested before even starting. That’s why I was telling them that we would leave right away,” he explains. The neighborhood had been prepared for the march. On January 24, Mohamed and others had distributed hundreds of flyers calling on people to participate. They had spoken to people from all walks of life, encouraging them to take part, discussing their opinions and soothing their angst.
As anxious as he was himself, Mohamed was nevertheless very hopeful. Despite constraints imposed on him by his family, he was determined to participate in the protests. On the days leading up to January 25, he posted reassuring messages on the necessity and possibility of change on his Facebook profile and those of his friends.
Mohamed led his small group to a meeting point, which he received information about just minutes before from the main field organizer of the Asafra demonstration, Sameh. A more seasoned activist, he was supposed to lead the march and decide how it evolved according to an evaluation of potential risks. “We started walking around and people would ask us, ‘Is this the demonstration?’”Mohamed remembers. “We began chanting around 1 pm. At that point, we were maybe 15, 20, 25 … not more than 30, in any case.”
To his amazement, numbers started growing very quickly and the crowds that joined started responding to the chants of the small group. As soon as the demonstration was big enough, with a few hundred more people, Sameh, Mohamed and the others began to lead to the march through the narrow streets and alleys of Asafra’s Abu Kharouf neighborhood.
A little more than a kilometer away from Sameh and Mohamed, Abdel Samad was also getting ready to lead a demonstration from another neighborhood in Asafra. At around 1:30 pm, he started calling up group heads. The sum of the groups amounted to 30 or 40 people. Since Abdel Samad had good relations with Muslim Brotherhood youth, about 15 or 20 of them also decided to join him in the protest. This demonstration was due to start in front of the Abdel Halim Mahmoud Mosque. Abdel Samad recalls, “As soon as we started walking, the ‘Down, down [with Hosni Mubarak]’ chant started being heard. People started chanting their own slogans that even we, as demonstration leaders, hadn’t prepared.”
A few blocks away, another protest was unfolding almost simultaneously. “We were no more than five. We started chanting for at least 45 minutes. People were not responsive. Police started arriving and roughing us up, and tried to arrest one of us,” Essam, an April 6 Youth Movement activist, recalls. It seemed as if it would be ending before even starting, as usual. Nevertheless, the activists began talking to people.
“‘Do you remember meat? Do you know how much it costs today? Even the lentils that you eat, how much does that cost? Can you buy any of that for your son?’” they asked. Following these discussions, they started chanting about social issues, instead of more political ones, like calling for free elections or constitutional reforms. The people in the market started to be responsive. At that moment, the security had decided it was going to shut down the protest, and started preparing to charge.
Luckily enough for these youth, at that very moment, Abdel Samad’s demonstration was arriving from behind the Central Security Forces units. “They were confused by our arrival. The officers started talking to us politely saying that we could do a sit-in but not to get out,” Abdel Samad recounts.
“Suddenly, there were 2,000 of us. The police changed their tone, and started to negotiate. ‘Do not go outside,’ they’d say. But it wasn’t us anymore. The people were deciding,” Essam notes. The security tried to stop the demonstration by splitting the march in two, but failed to contain the movement and eventually had to withdraw. “We then reached the Gamal Abdel Nasser Avenue,” Essam says, referring to one of the main arteries of east Alexandria.
To the activists’ bewilderment, the demonstrations were taking off, and they were having more and more difficulty keeping up.
As the demonstration grew larger, Sameh, Mohamed, and the others tried to keep the excited crowd under control. Sameh was sitting on the shoulders of a fellow activist, wearing an Egyptian flag as a cape. Shouting as loudly as possible, he tried to give guidelines to the protesters: “Anyone who passes by a car, do not hit it. Do not stand on it. Do not damage any property. We are respectable people. We are a respectable population.”
Protesters cheered, applauded and waved their little flags. “Long live Egypt! Long live Egypt!” they repeated. As he shouted the century-old slogan, the march started moving again through the narrow alleys.
While they kept walking through the maze of Abu Kharouf, and more people joined the march, a high-ranking officer approached the leaders of the march, those spearheading the chanting. “‘Don’t leave here. Stay [in the alleyways],’ he told me. ‘It’s just for your safety,’ but obviously, it wasn’t about our safety. He didn’t know how to deal with us. The numbers were too big. That’s why he was so polite,” Sameh says.
Nevertheless, at that point, they felt that their numbers were still not big enough, so they complied and went back around the neighborhood, gathering even more people. The protest was now growing really big. “We felt that [the officer] was scared, as if 100,000 questions were racing in his head: ‘Where did all these people come from? What are we going to do with them?’” Mohamed remembers. This time though, when the police tried to convince them to stay within the alleys, Sameh simply waived in disdain to the astonished officer, and the crowd spilled into the main street.
Informal neighborhoods in Alexandria, like those in most of Egypt, consist of a built environment within a maze of narrow streets that make them particularly difficult for the police to control. These labyrinthine alleyways pour out into bigger roads, where Central Security troops tend to be stationed during protests. The demonstration leaders were responsible for deciding to leave the narrower streets for the main ones. It was in no way an easy decision to make. Activism in Alexandria, and in Egypt more generally, was shaped in previous years by this subtle relationship with police forces, which French political sociologist Frédéric Vairel described as “going far enough but never too far.” Crossing a red line, breaking one of these tacitly negotiated boundaries, could initiate a violent onslaught on demonstrators. Ethically and strategically, this could prove problematic; as responsible for the demonstrators, leaders did not want the arrests, or, even worse, the injury and death of fellow Egyptians, weighing on their consciences.
“We were now on the main street. When that happened, we saw the numbers for the first time … They were huge. Spontaneously, we found ourselves in tears at the sight,” Mohamed says. In those first few minutes, the activists made a reassessment of the situation. They observed their surroundings and looked for telling signs: Older citizens waving and giving victory signs from their balconies, a street vendor using his megaphone to chant “Down with Hosni Mubarak,” people pouring out of buildings to march, the arrival of other protests to join forces.
Not very far away, Abdel Samad and Essam’s protest was experiencing a similar trajectory. “The numbers were incredible, unbelievable. We were congratulating each other, as if we had already won. But now what? We were calling our April 6 friends who left from Shubra in Cairo, telling each other about the turnout. We were trying to figure out where should we go. What would make sense in Alexandria?” says Abdel Samad. While activists were desperately trying to keep control of the protest, they faced the structural uncertainty typical of any political upheaval. As most of the unspoken rules governing contentious politics were quickly crumbling down, they found themselves invaded by a crippling sense of confusion.
“An officer told me, ‘Tell them to stop!’ and I said, ‘If you can’t control them, I can’t control them either.’ They weren’t able to deal with us. They didn’t engage. They just stared at us and let us go. When I called the [April 6 Youth Movement] operations room, they said, ‘Use your best judgment. You’re the one on the ground.’ We kept walking without knowing where we were going. When we met again with security forces, they had blockaded a street to prevent us from going back. Before I could even think of what we should do, people had already pushed back against the cordon, and went through. We just followed now.”
It was evermore clear to the activists that it was getting tougher to control the demonstration. The numbers were continuing to grow. But more importantly, the activists were already exhausted, not only because of the effort they had made in the few hours before, running back and forth, shouting and chanting. They were also physically and psychologically exhausted from the past two weeks of organizing. “We were not sleeping,” Essam says. “Fear and horror at the idea that the day would fail, and that the regime would unleash its wrath on us because of what we’d done. Imagine if, after all of that organizing, no one showed up.” Now the demonstration had its own life, its own dynamic. People’s chants were much more radical than the chant list chosen by the “We are all Khaled Saeed” page and even by field activists.
Meanwhile, news was spreading that police forces had violently responded to another protest, one that had started in the downtown district of Mansheya, around the Sidi Gaber area. “We tried to halt the march and explain what was happening. We said that our youth were being attacked by the police in Sidi Gaber, and asked what we should do. The final decision was the street’s to take. To a certain extent, our mission was over. A young man shouted that the protest should go and **** the police. It was like they weren’t afraid anymore,” Mohamed remembers.
The march kept on going until it reached the corniche, filling up one side and leaving the other to traffic. It eventually reached the Sidi Gaber area, almost seven kilometers away. When they arrived, the authorities had cut off the electricity in the neighborhood. Central Security Forces were firing tear gas heavily. The protesters did not flee in the face of the attack. Rather, they hid in the multiple alleyways. People would regroup and start small marches, reproducing what they had just done a few hours earlier. “It was extremely impressive,” recalls Mohamed, grinning. “Our people were slowly leaving. Activists weren’t chanting. The people were. They were the ones leading the marches.”
“Raoul Duke: What’s the score here? What’s next?” Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
In his account of the preparation of the marches, Essam underlined a central feature of street protests during the Hosni Mubarak days. “You know, our problem was that, since we began this experience, security forces would end the protests. We never had to think of how to end them,” he laughs.
Most of the activists quickly found themselves in a strange dilemma: They hadn’t planned for their marches to succeed, so they hadn’t really planned on how the day should end accordingly. Their best-case scenario was to leave the alleyways and hold a main street for a few hours. “Before starting, we had to discuss the issue of how to end. If the turnout is low, and there is not much responsiveness from people, then we should walk for an hour, and then stop. If the numbers reached a thousand protesters, and that was our maximal hope, we would try to take Street 45,” Essam says, referring to the main road in Alexandria’s Miami district. For others, including radical leftist activists, the idea was to create momentum in a popular neighborhood that would become the social base that they lacked for subsequent political action.
Activists had to improvise with very little information at hand, Abdel Samad remembers. “At that point, we did not know what was going on the other side, in downtown. We weren’t really communicating with them.” The scarce news arriving indicated that clashes were ongoing in the Sidi Gaber area. This became a natural destination. Others decided to head for the governorate building, “because this was what represented the state in Alexandria.”
“People were asking me, ‘Where to now?’ and the operations room had left everything in my hands. They just informed me that there was another protest ahead of us, and one behind us. People in the crowd were suggesting destinations, and agreed on the governorate building. It’s very far, but we were like, why not?” Abdel Samad recalls.
As soon as they got there, the power was cut off from the neighborhood, and the police started to fire tear gas canisters. An activist described the sound of the incessant shooting and of the armored vehicles racing in the streets as “horrifying.” He then went to a café in Muharram Bey. “At that point, we decided that the day was over. At least for us,” says, Essam.
By the evening, most of the activists were exhausted. Feeling that what was going on was out of their hands, they slowly left the streets and started regrouping in cafés and in some of their headquarters. For the first time, they started seeing the news coming out of Tahrir Square. Images were confirming their feeling about what was going on: This was a different scale from what they were used to. The different groups started to reflect on what their next steps should be. Meanwhile, many activists had been arrested around the city. People were starting to gather information, heading to police stations and looking for friends and colleagues who weren’t answering their phones or replying to text messages. The day had taken a very strange turn for most participants. And as excited as they were, they felt completely distraught in the face of what might come next. Total uncertainty ruled. They had been waiting for that moment for a long time. But now what?
In social sciences, one can easily be led to ask the wrong questions, which is probably more problematic than coming up with a faulty answer. One of these questions is why do revolutions occur? A commonsensical or standard way of looking at would be to consider them as products of mass discontent, anger and frustration. They are breaking points, explosions, the straw that broke the camel’s back. They are accumulations, and once they occur, we can select and isolate in hindsight all the steps that cumulatively led to this breaking point.
This logic is simple and elegant, but it is flawed. Above all, it is tautological and circular.
Another problem in the traditional interpretations of revolutions stems from what a critical scholar of revolutions, Rod Aya, calls the “two-stage leap of faith”, from social change to grievances and from grievances to revolt. Aya argues that a lot of the literature assumes that social change (neoliberalization, for instance) creates grievances, and that grievances produce revolt.
We are not arguing that this isn’t the case, but rather that very little is done to show how there is nothing guaranteed about this chain reaction of grievances to revolt. There are a lot of attitudes that people can have toward change and grievance may be one of them. But grievances can lead to many types of (in)action. In today’s world, there is no shortage of grievances or anger in people’s lives. Yet, revolutions remain a rare occurrence in human history.
The revolution, as many of us have lived it, is a grandiose event. So if one asks why they occur, a grandiose response is due. Nevertheless, revolutions need us to look at how they work, their underpinnings, the multiplicity of interactions that make small innocuous events evolve in disproportion and bring about unforeseen and unforeseeable changes, moments when, as Amy Austin Holmes puts it, decades can happen in mere weeks.
This may appear to be an academic’s pet peeve, but I think it has political implications. Understanding how things work means being realistic about them.
If you ask me why I decided to pursue an academic career, I’d probably have 10 different explanations or justifications: because I like science, because I like the work of the intellect, because I love reading, or that it is God’s will. There is probably truth in all of them. If you ask me how I ended up as an academic, the answer will be very different. I will tell you a story of contingent events, personal history and dispositions, choices or lack thereof that led me to where I am today.
If we take this to another level, the Tiran and Sanafir case can serve as a good example. Many have wondered why it is that this case has garnered so much support, and why did it, in a sense, work and succeed, while other more pressing issues have failed. By asking this type of “why” question, one will resort to logical explanations: for instance, because Egyptians care more about land, even though many of them had never heard about. But asking oneself what chain of events and interactions led us to where we are now will show us that it is because many different actors with heterogeneous interests (opposition and regime journalists, historians, lawyers, activists) intervened in a case, struggling to define the situation, drawing on different repertoires — legal, historical, moral and religious — using different forms of performance, including protests, judicial proceedings, historical essays, and so on. What happened was thus the largely unanticipated result of an interaction between different players in different social spheres.
Perhaps the importance of social, empirically powered research, lies here, in the writing of this history.
Both activists and security apparatuses didn’t believe that the mobilization would amount to anything on January 25. The direct consequence of that was that all players didn’t plan. While activists were skeptical and most of them had no plan for an ending for what they had organized, the security apparatus never imagined that these mobilizations would differ from their previous experiences with protesters. They didn’t plan an alternative strategy to their usual “beat and arrest.” That is why, on the ground, most of the CSF squads didn’t know what to do. They stood confused and didn’t react, at least at first.
In a chain reaction, as people saw others protesting and not being repressed, more started to join. The decision to radicalize the demonstration, crossing symbolic or physical red lines, was informed by other signs decoded by activists on the ground, such as the popular support in the street or from balconies, greater turnout than usual, the participation of ordinary people, like older women and people of different social classes. These were all interpreted as signs of a shifting situation.
In describing the protests in Alexandria on January 25 and in remembering the Egyptian revolution and trying to write its history, it becomes important to take into account the multiplicity of simultaneous contingent actions and interactions, which brought a multitude of marginal localized action to great unanticipated consequences. Tracing these contingencies does not mean that we fall back on an old eventful history that obfuscates social structures and their impact. It means a whole a new opening in our understanding of the event.
*All names have been changed.