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The three phases of Egypt’s popular protests

The trends of Egypt’s crowd politics since Tahrir Square can also be seen in Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
Supporters of Egypt's army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hold a poster of him in Tahrir square in Cairo, on the third anniversary of Egypt's uprising, January 25, 2014. The death toll from clashes during protests in Egypt on Saturday climbed to 29, state television quoted a health ministry official as saying. The fighting erupted on the third anniversary of the popular uprising which toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Security forces fought opponents of the army-backed government which replaced Islamist P

Behind every uprising are chronic frustrations from citizens betrayed by corrupt leaders, their repression, poor governance and a loss of hope in any political process that fulfills their aspiration for democracy, freedom and prosperity. Such events are always associated with frustration and cumulative anger that ultimately explode in the streets. The nature of street protests and their long-term impacts can vary depending on various dynamics in each country, and there are some alarming trends that were associated with the Arab uprisings that have resurfaced again with popular movements in other parts of the world.

First, romanticism:

Perhaps it is no surprise that the Egyptian Oscar-nominated film "The Square" was shown in Kiev. The ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak after years of tyranny has inspired many around the globe. It is doubtful, however, that the Ukrainian organizers have told their enthusiastic crowd about how the Egyptian uprising was struggling to fulfill its promises to the youth who congregated in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Like many protest leaders, Ukrainian opposition figures were seemingly more preoccupied with toppling the corrupt Ukrainian president than with the day after his ouster. The film has done the job: Many were seemingly delighted to break with the past, but the Russian invasion of the Crimean region of the Ukraine was a rude awakening to many optimistic Ukrainians. Just as the Egyptians realized after their January 2011 revolution within a different context that the baggage of the past may continue to haunt them.

Egypt and Ukraine are clear examples of how increasing hype and unrealistic expectations have long-term, negative consequences on the transition from the street to a more robust political process. Protest organizers need to realize that the street is only step one in a long and often tricky journey of establishing a functional democracy. Without a plan that tackles the rest of the challenges, a more bitter reality will quickly turn the romantic dream into a frightening nightmare.

Second, creeping violence:

The new wave of protests has reignited the old debate about violent and nonviolent protests. Many protest movements started peacefully and then slowly turned to violent confrontations. Failure to achieve the aspired outcomes can tempt some protesters to push the boundaries of peacefulness under the slogan of “resisting the police” and “reject submission.”

In Ukraine, after weeks of responding peacefully to police brutality, a group of protesters decided to take the fight to the police, including members of the far-right party Svoboda. In Venezuela, a group of academics and politicians have written a letter deploring what they describe as “a wave of violence from minority and extremist sections of Venezuela’s opposition,” citing physical assaults on government institutions, including gunshots and Molotov cocktail attacks on the state TV channel and a state governor's residence. Egypt also had its share of violent confrontations. The rise of mysterious groups like the Molotov movement, which regularly claim responsibility for violent attacks on the police, signals a new turn toward violence by the “anti-coup movements,” particularly after the ruthless, forced end of the Islamists’ sit-ins in Cairo in August 2013.

Anger is a natural human response to brutality; it can lead to irrationality and emotional response. However, it is counterproductive and self-defeating. Police brutality is not just aimed at restoring order but also, after triggering violence, it is used as a pretext for more brutality. Revising the history of protests helps increase understanding of the deeper impact of violent protest on the strength of the state. In her book Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth found that violent resistance movements, even if they succeed, can create a lot of long-term problems.

Losing peacefulness is like banging on the wall after losing the door key. It will either drain one’s energy or break the wall, but both are futile and potentially destructive, and can ruin the state that the protesters initially aim to salvage.

Third, foreign meddling:

Once instability affects any country, the temptation of foreign players to intervene increases sharply. The nature and degree of intervention vary, depending on various factors — from direct intervention (as in the case of NATO in Libya, Saudi Arabia in Bahrain or Russia in the Crimean region); indirect meddling, as in support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt by both Qatar and Turkey; Saudi backing of the military-backed regime in Cairo; financing radical groups in Syria; or the backing of the ruthless Syrian regime by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran and Russia.

All the above examples highlight how foreign meddling can produce a plethora of negative consequences and potential pitfalls, including the following:

  • Incomplete mission: Libya is a stark example of an initial success in saving lives and deposing a manic dictator, but also a sad example of how arming civilian protesters turns a country into a lawless state with weak central authority. It was understandable why NATO bombed Libya and why it opted not to be involved directly in a post-Moammar Gadhafi era; nonetheless, without an immediate demilitarization of militias and solid support of central authority after the deposing of Gadhafi, Libya was doomed to chaos.
  • Radicalism: Syria is another example of how partial arming of protesters has ultimately led to the collapse of the state without getting rid of the dictator who stirred the peaceful protest in the first place. Together with the outpouring of radical jihadist groups that fueled more destruction, and compounded by the misery of the local communities, there was (and still is) no easy solution to the Syrian conundrum. However, there is one clear lesson to be learned: Half-measures are not an answer to any complex conflict.
  • Loss of territorial integrity: When geopolitics collide with Arab Spring-style protest movements, confrontation between regional players is inevitable. The Crimean region of Ukraine is the new example in a long list of contemporary examples of that collusion.
  • Encouraging delusions: It is arguable that the international Islamists' support for protesters in Egypt’s Rabia al-Adawiya and Nahada squares sit-ins has contributed heavily to their miscalculated and deluded defiance, and even encouraged them to turn the male-dominated sit-ins to a family gathering, which compounded the number of innocent deaths. That example is not to whitewash police brutality and crimes against peaceful protesters, but it is a lesson to any sit-in organizers that bringing children and families to potentially contentious locations is a reckless political move.

The main role in street politics is the lack of any set of rules. It can be spontaneous, leaderless and chaotic. This is precisely why it is crucial to understand its limitations and risks if we are serious about supporting democracy in our messy world. There is a delicate relationship between the protest movement and the state. A regime collapse ends any protest but it also inevitably brings a destructive start to the functionality of the state. This destruction can be short and limited, but also can be long and painful, with bad outcomes that can be worse than the original crisis that triggered the protests in the first place. It all depends on the wisdom of local leaders and their outside supporters. They both can help the emergence of a new, prosperous state from the ashes of tyranny, or can add a new name to the long list of failed states scattered around the globe.

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