Mona El-Ghobashy in the Boston Review:
A revolution is inherently romantic, so it’s no surprise that Egypt’s has inspired exceptional narratives. Journalists saw something fundamentally novel in the eighteen days and the subsequent small-scale protests—“a new culture of street demonstrations,” said USA Today. The uprising became the defining event of Egyptian politics, a turning point separating before and after. Before, a brutal dictatorship maintained fear and silence. After, liberated citizens poured into the streets to exercise their freedom.
Against this temptation to cast the uprising as a watershed is the equally attractive idea that Egypt was ripe for revolt. In this telling, various public ills—rising food prices, unemployment, government corruption—are strung together into a neat chain that leads inexorably to social explosion.
But neither story does the revolution justice. The first erases the uprising’s pre-history; the second overdoses on the role of the past. Both conceal the very real contingency of the event, neither inevitable nor entirely alien to Egyptian politics.
Egypt’s was no cartoon dictatorship that indiscriminately banned protests. For at least a decade before Mubarak’s ouster, Egyptians were doing their politics outdoors. Citizens assembled daily on highways, in factory courtyards, and in public squares to rally against their unrepresentative government. Mubarak’s regime responded with a million-man police force that alternately cajoled and crushed the demonstrators. The goal was not to ban protests, but to obstruct any attempt to unify different groups and prevent sympathetic bystanders joining them.
Egypt’s uprising happened when three distinct currents of protest—labor, professional, and popular—finally converged.