Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Making Sense of the Arab Spring: Conducting Research on the Egyptian Uprising

Guest contibutor, Kira Jumet, a doctoral candidate in the Political Science Department, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA, who recently returned from conducting research in Egypt, shares her analysis of its Arab Spring uprising.

It has been a little more than two years since the beginning of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. As anyone who reads the news can tell, the Revolution continues. From the early stages of the uprising, scholars began to write pieces on the causes of the anti-regime protests, initially writing from their office desks far away from the action, and later taking summer research trips to interview people on the ground. 

Now that we have moved beyond the “what just happened” phase, there are a number of considerations that those wishing to study the 2011 Egyptian Revolution should keep in mind. After just returning from seven months in Egypt, where I conducted preliminary interviews and research for my project, I hope my insights can be helpful to others going into the field to do their own research.  Following are seven considerations for researching in Egypt.

First, Location is important: It is important for researchers to note the potential variations in motivations, protester populations, and mobilization tactics in different Egyptian cities. Cairo was not the only place that held protests on January 25, 2011. In addition to the more well-known cities of Alexandria and Suez, there were also protests in Mansura, Tanta, Aswan, Asyut and a number of other towns after the 25th, protests spread nationwide. 

Cairo is the most easily accessible city, particularly given the escalating violence in places such as Port Said and Ismailia,  Despite being the capital and Egypt's largest city, Cairo did not a revolution make. Thus, claims about the revolution as a whole, without conducting research in other cities, may be overstated. With the little information on other regions reported in international newspapers and the virtual absence of academic publications on the political history of many of these cities, I urge researchers to move beyond Cairo to include other locations in their studies. Such information is greatly needed.

Second, Variables: The grievances listed repeatedly as the cause of the Revolution include: low wages, high food prices, unemployment, corruption, police brutality, the emergency laws, electoral fraud, and lack of various freedoms. While I do not dispute that these were the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people, they did not all carry the same causal weight. 

The aim of research is to determine which of these grievances were most important. Did different social classes have different complaints? Were some of these variables more important in one city than in another? If we are to uncover potential tipping points, we must examine which grievances were most important at that time and whether they varied between and even within cities. 

Third, Causal Mechanisms: The variables that were just listed, and they most definitely do not encompass all the variables to be examined, do not cause a revolution. High food prices, unemployment, and police brutality are an unfortunate reality in many societies that have not revolted against their regimes. Only through on the ground extensive interviewing can we determine the causal mechanisms that lead grievances to become transformed into public protest. 

In Eva Bellin’s “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East,” she provides a helpful start by identifying emotional triggers, such as anger, fear, and euphoria. Let Bellin’s work serve as a starting point for further exploration, possibly through process tracing, of the causal mechanisms that led so many Egyptians to protest in the streets.
Fourth, Social Class: While many associate the examination of social class in a revolutionary context with a Marxist approach, there are in fact many ways to look at class in the Revolution. Through my preliminary research, I have identified a number of issues pertaining to class that warrant further examination. 

All members of the middle class that I interviewed, both young and old, who protested on January 25th, learned about the protests from social media. Thus, for those studying social media and the revolution, class should not be viewed simply as an issue of the digital divide, where some will have greater access to the Internet than others. Initial calls for protest occurred online and the early spreading of information about the protests occurred online. 

Thus, we may pose the question: Was a politically mobilized middle class a prerequisite to initiating a revolution or was there potential for anti-regime mobilization in the lower classes? Second, the primary grievances of the middle class were police brutality and system issues, such as education and health care. These grievances may not have been the primary complaints of the lower classes. How did the middle class who mobilized opposition promote frames of reference that resonated with all sectors of the population? Did different variables act as causes of protest among the middle as opposed to lower?
Fifth,  Cost/Benefit analysis: Related to the issue of social class is the cost/benefit analysis employed by the protesters. In many of the articles published since the Revolution, there is an assumption that the costs and benefits of protest remained constant among all sectors of the population.  he benefit was the expression of grievances and the potential for change and the cost was the probability of being imprisoned and/or subject to police brutality. 

However, the costs of protesting were not constant among social classes and even classes may be divided by cross-cutting cleavages when examining costs. I find that the middle class must be further divided into middle class students and the working middle class. While the cost for many middle class students was imprisonment, working members of the middle class had the additional cost of potential financial loss due to the instability that an uprising would bring, namely through lost wages or even loss of one;s job. 

Thus, the costs for many working members of the middle class were imprisonment and financial loss, meaning the threshold for protest was higher for employed members of the middle class (who are often older) than for middle class students. It appears that the threshold for employed members of the middle class was lowered only when ideology or grievances overcame costs. This is another avenue for research to obtain a better understanding of the drivers of political protest in Egypt and other Arab uprisings. 

In a country whose economy relies heavily on tourism, we should also examine the varying cost/benefit analysis of the lower class. Because social unrest could lead to a loss in tourism, causing financial loss and/or unemployment for members of the lower class, their cost of protesting was imprisonment and financial loss as well.  An area of research that I suggest academics explore further is variation in cost/benefit analyses of protest both within and between classes. 

On the other hand, factory workers, a not insignificant sector of the working class, seek better wages and working conditions.  Indeed, one of the powerful forces behind Ehypt's Arab Spring, the April 6th Movement, derived its name and inspritation from a large 2008 strike at the country's largest textile manufacturing plant at Mahalla al-Kubra in the Egyptian Delta.  

Although the Movement's members were largely young and educated, it also indicates the need to study the linkages between the young and educated middle classes, on the one hand, and industrial workers, on the other.  Were a  strong coalition to develop between these two social classes, it could mount a powerful challenge to Islamists and members of the ancien regime who would like to bring about a return to the status quo ante.

Sixth, Social Media: While my comments on social media may be obvious to academics already conducting research in the Middle East, I hope they can be helpful for those who are just starting out. First, it is crucial that one distinguish between social media sites in English and Arabic. As Khamis and Vaughn point out in their piece, “We are all Khaled Said,” Arabic sites have been geared toward the domestic population, while English sites tend to be used to garner international support. 
If one is examining the effect of social media on mobilizing the domestic population, one must look at the Arabic sites.  Further, when looking at “likes” on a Facebook page, not all the “likes” or comments come from within Egypt. Even on the Arabic pages, they may have come from other countries. Thus, “likes,” comments, and number of members of a page are not an accurate depiction of the page’s reach or impact.

Another problem concerning accuracy and numbers that I discovered in my research is that there were a number of Egyptians who obtained information from political Facebook pages without actually “liking” the page. Thus, the numbers viewed on Facebook may overstate or understate the reach of the page.  Finally, what anyone who has ever sent out a Facebook invite for an event will know, the number of people who say they are attending an event is never the number that actually materializes. 

On January 24, 2011, the Egypt Independent reported that 80,000 Egyptian Facebook users confirmed that they would attend the January 25th protests. However, at the beginning of the day, activists were disappointed with the lower than expected turnout. One interviewee stated that the protesters were initially students, intellectuals, and activists. While the numbers that day finally increased with the aid of people tweeting for others to join those who were already out in the streets and protesters gaining numbers as they marched through popular districts, the number that confirmed attendance on Facebook was clearly not the number that showed up.

Seventh, Women in the field: The last topic of discussion is directed toward women researching in Egypt. With the increasing absence of security on the streets, I would remind readers that the level of harassment and sexual assaults has increased substantially during the transitional period. For women conducting fieldwork in Cairo, while the city is still vibrant, fun, and offers rewarding human interaction, it is important to take the current instability and sensitivities into account. 
First, wear culturally appropriate clothing. This means wearing loose fitting long pants or a long skirt, long sleeves, and a high neckline. Not only will such attire decrease your exposure to harassment, but also when interviewing those who are more religiously conservative, you will meet with more willingness on the part of Egyptians to converse with you. 
Second, I would highly discourage attending protests unless necessary for academic purposes, and then only with the accompaniment of at least one imposing male. The ratio of males to females in a group should be at least equal, though more males to females in preferable. The numerous instances of mob attacks and sexual assaults on women at protests are an unfortunate reality. Even with a male chaperone, a woman’s safety is not guaranteed. 
Finally, be aware of those with whom you are interacting. Customs, such as appropriate methods of greeting, vary by social class, region, and level of religiosity. It is usually better to take a more conservative approach and then adjust depending on the situation.

As academics move away from preliminary explanations of the Revolution into more formal methods of analysis, such as process tracing or using the comparative method, it is important to start thinking about case selection, causal mechanisms, and how variables can be operationalized.  My aim in writing this short piece was to provide some helpful insights for those creating more formal research designs related to the Revolution and planning to conduct fieldwork on the ground. I also hope that I have offered some food for thought for those who are interested in how these protests came began and how they have evolved.  I hope my thoughts and analysis have been helpful.

[This is part of a series of posts on the Arab uprisings on The New Middle East, under the heading, "Making Sense of the Arab Spring" 


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umzug said...

thank u for post


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