Over the past half decade, a dizzying number of articles, op-eds, monographs, and edited volumes have emerged seeking to make sense of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. With so much ink already spilled, is there anything new to be learned? Neil Ketchley’s Egypt in a Time of Revolution leaves little doubt that there is. His incisive and readable account of the events that shaped the fall and subsequent resurrection of Egypt’s authoritarian regime is novel not only because he lays out an impressive range of original empirical material on the subject but also because his deft analysis of this material allows him to offer some surprisingly fresh insights. Ketchley makes his interventions in the manner of any good social scientist—with carefully collected and rigorously analyzed data. How many people participated in the 18-day revolution? (Probably slightly more than a million.) When did mobilization peak? (Depends on how you measure it—January 28 if counting protests, February 11 if counting participation.) What was the dominant tactic used? (Marches.) Ketchley describes his approach as “conjunctural and interactive” (9). Drawing on the analytical traditions of the contentious politics literature, he traces the relationships between a series of actors and social forces as they mobilized and countermobilized during the tumult of Egypt’s revolutionary and postrevolutionary period. One of his central claims is that by studying these types of bottom-up and emergent micro-mobilizational processes, we may be able to better understand the types of macro-level outcomes that tend to be of core concern to political sociologists: revolution, counterrevolution, regime change, democratization, and the like. The empirical material is both qualitative and quantitative, though the bulk of the analysis is based on a series of “event catalogues” that Ketchley compiled from leading Arabic-language Egyptian dailies. This technique is most often associated with Charles Tilly, who used it to great effect in his studies of protest repertoires in France and Great Britain, and Ketchley deploys it in similar ways to study the evolution of repertoires and the general arc of protest during several key episodes of the revolution. He also draws on a number of interviews conducted with activists and political figures, and from videos and photographs of protests collected from his informants and from the Internet. Ketchley leverages these data to adjudicate a host of scholarly debates that have emerged in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution, and the related wave of revolutions and uprisings commonly termed the Arab Spring. In doing so, he also lays to rest a number of popularly held (mis)conceptions about these events. A good example is chapter 2, “Collective Violence,” which argues that unarmed collective violence (mostly the burning of police stations) in Egypt’s governorates was crucial for assuring the victory of protesters over the Mubarak regime’s feared police forces. Many early accounts of the Egyptian revolution have portrayed it as a largely nonviolent affair, pointing to crowds in Tahrir Square who self-consciously chanted, “Silmiyya, silmiyya” (peaceful, peaceful) in the face of teargas and pro-regime thugs. But away from the television cameras and the international reporters, Egyptians around the country reacted to the violent repression of early protests by attacking and, in many cases, burning to the ground police stations and other facilities associated with the regime’s security forces. Ketchley knows this because he has counted and analyzed the incidents—84 in total—which were well documented in the Egyptian Arabic-language press. Moreover, he is able to argue compellingly that the effect of these attacks was to cow the police into virtual submission, providing the space for the activists in Tahrir to safely launch their 14-day sit-in. Another good example is Ketchley’s analysis of labor’s role in the revolution. A number of scholars writing from a leftist or Marxian perspective have proposed that labor strikes were the key factor in forcing Mubarak from power. But Ketchley’s evidence offers little support for this theory. Indeed, his data show that labor protests only spiked at the end of the 18 days, and were too diffuse and parochial to affect the calculations of elite decisionmakers in Cairo. For all that Ketchley’s quantitative event data are impressive, perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book is the one based solely on qualitative material. In chapter 3, “Fraternization,” Ketchley uses his interviews and an array of visual material to document the important role of fraternization in guaranteeing that the military did not pick up the mantle of the defeated police forces on January 28 and continue their campaign of brutal repression. Through a variety of creative and improvised tactics, protesters forged bonds with the soldiers who took up positions at the edge of Egypt’s squares. In doing so, they were able to protect themselves from further violence (though, as Ketchley points out, they also established a discourse that would be cynically coopted by the generals who assumed power after Mubarak resigned). Occasionally Ketchley makes claims that his empirical material cannot quite substantiate. For example, chapter 5, “Manufacturing Dissent,” focuses on the role of the old regime, and particularly the security forces, in facilitating and supporting the Tamarod movement, which organized a petition campaign demanding the resignation of the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, and called for a major protest on June 30, 2013, the one-year anniversary of Morsi’s presidency. The protest drew a massive outpouring of support (almost as many participants, Ketchley’s data reveal, as the number that participated in the 2011 revolution), and paved the way for the counterrevolutionary coup that deposed Morsi and returned the country to military rule. Ketchley’s primary point in this chapter is that the Tamarod movement and the June 30 protest operated under a different logic than the 2011 revolution; rather than being driven by bottom-up mobilization and popular grievances, it was somehow “manufactured” by old regime elites. Though it is true, as Ketchley and others have documented, that some Tamarod leaders met with and received assistance from Mubarak-era security officials, and that many old regime groups, including the police, supported and joined in the June 30 protests, it is also undeniably true that by the summer of 2013, opposition to the Morsi government was deep and widespread among everyday Egyptians. Moreover, Tamarod did collect large numbers of signatures (though almost certainly never as many as its leaders claimed); garnered support from an array of social forces, movements, and parties (including the secular National Salvation Front coalition); and organized a protest that drew hundreds of thousands of participants. To chalk all of this up to elite manipulation and old-regime instigation seems a step too far. With all of these rich empirics at his disposal, Ketchley perhaps could have done more to structure the book's analysis around a major theoretical question or puzzle. The chapters are each oriented around a discrete debate regarding the Egypt case: Why did the security forces withdraw? Why did the military side with the protesters? Why did the revolutionary coalition split? But these largely empirical questions never fully boil up to a general theoretical one. Is the book trying to explain the failure of democratic transitions, the limits of civic revolutions, or the surprising tenacity of authoritarian regimes, or perhaps all three? Ketchley does argue in the introduction that Egypt in 2011 ought not to be considered a case of revolution. Even under the broader concept of “political revolution,” which frames revolution as an episode of popular regime change, Egypt does not count, Ketchley proposes, because “the Mubarak-era state was never upended” and civilians never exercised “meaningful democratic control over the state” (5). Instead, Ketchley borrows Charles Tilly’s term—a revolutionary situation—to describe the conditions in Egypt from 2011 to 2013. Certainly there are grounds for disagreement over this claim; Egypt did, after all, have two genuinely democratic elections in 2011 and 2012, and for at least a year a civilian government ruled the country, drafting laws, writing a constitution, negotiating with foreign allies, and otherwise holding the reins of state power. But even if Ketchley is right, he never fully explains what the theoretical implications of his proposed recoding ought to be. Coding a case in one way or another only matters if it leads us to adopt certain modes of analysis, provides us with one versus another set of theoretical priors, or draws us to compare with certain cases and not others. Otherwise, whether Egypt is a case of revolution, democratic transition, revolutionary situation, or something else is merely an issue of semantics. Ultimately the strength of the empirical analysis in Ketchley’s book more than makes up for the missed opportunity to offer a big-picture takeaway. It is a rich and important book, shedding light on an array of pressing debates regarding some of the most complex and momentous events in Egypt’s modern political history, and is a must-read both for scholars of the modern Middle East and for those interested in the micro-dynamics of revolution, regime change, and democratization. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
Social Forces – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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