Social and Cultural Transformation in Egypt
The Genealogy of the "Egyptian Spring"

The Egyptians have long been considered a peaceable, patient people. However, contrary to appearances, the recent protests have not materialised out of thin air. Egypt is much further down the line than we like to think, writes Stefan Winkler

A young man demonstrating against the Mubarak regime in Cairo (photo: AP)
The will to express themselves: young Egyptians want to openly articulate their hopes, worries and yearnings, and no long want to be bullied by representatives of the regime, writes Stefan Winkler

​​The extent and the intensity of the protests in Egypt have surprised many people both in Egypt and abroad. Were the Egyptians not a peaceable, almost phlegmatic people, whose last great rebellion took place against the British in 1919? Considering the events of recent years and their consequences, the question must be why the powder keg did not ignite much earlier.

Historic events are subject to contingency. The direct catalyst was certainly the Tunisian coup. Foundations were laid via online networks, primarily via Facebook. Events then took on a momentum of their own – a momentum that was significantly boosted by media dissemination.

There are almost 1,000 satellite channels in the Arab world, as well as social networks, blogs, text messaging and mobile phone video clips that can be swiftly uploaded to YouTube. It was no wonder, therefore, that one of the first things the Egyptian regime did was to almost completely shut down these systems. But it was already too late.

Huge loss of faith in the state

The "Egyptian Spring" does have a genealogy; the protest has not materialised out of thin air.

The malaise has been steadily increasing in recent years, with protesters expressing their dissatisfaction at rising prices for basic foodstuffs, widespread corruption, despotism and police violence, a lack of job prospects, a flawed education system, political repression and electoral fraud. Several major accidents involving trains and ships led to vehement discussions over those responsible and their failures.

Khalil al-Anani, an expert on political Islam, described this loss of faith in state institutions and the increase in social tension in the newspaper al-Hayat as far back as July 2008.

Wafd Party supporters protesting about electoral fraud (photo: AP)
Supporters of the nationalist liberal Wafd Party in Egypt protested against electoral fraud that benefitted Mubarak's ruling NDP

​​The governing National Democratic Party (NDP) apparently won 95 per cent of the vote in the last election in November/December 2010. After parliamentary elections in 2005 – which were slightly more open than previous ballots, but were accompanied by violent clashes – the screw was tightened again in 2010, leaving the opposition practically empty-handed.

There had already been electoral fraud on a massive scale in 2005. Mubarak claimed 89 per cent of the vote in the presidential poll, although there was barely any evidence of public support for him.

The 6th April Movement

The Egyptian Movement for Change, "Kifaya" (Enough), which was founded in 2004 and initially focussed its attention on fighting against a fifth term in office for President Mubarak, organised numerous rallies across the country.

2006 and 2007 saw an increased number of strikes in response to the privatisation of state enterprises, which culminated in a large-scale protest by textile workers in the city of al-Mahalla al-Kubra on 6 April 2008. The "6th April Movement" was born, and the Egyptians became accustomed to protests and demonstrations.

The independent press was often harassed, with detentions and fines repeatedly meted out to journalists and newspaper publishers. Blogger Kareem Amer from Alexandria had to spend four years in prison for insulting Islam and the president; he was only recently released.

The case of Khaled Said became a thorn in the side of the regime. The young Alexandrian was beaten to death at a police station in Alexandria on 8 June 2010. A photograph of his horribly disfigured face was disseminated via Facebook. Thousands took to the streets in response to protest against police violence.

A young man takes part in a solidarity demonstration in memory of Khaled Said (photo: AP)
Victim of brutal police violence and a thorn in the side of the Egyptian regime: the young Alexandrian Khaled Said was beaten to death at a police station in Alexandria on 8 June 2010

​​But Facebook didn't just facilitate the organisation of demonstrations, it also paved the way for far-reaching socio-cultural change. In the summer of 2007, only 70,000 Egyptians were on Facebook, just a few months later it was 500,000. Today, more than five million Egyptians use the social networking site. But just how exactly do these changes manifest themselves?

Anonymity and security

In a society that does not tolerate social and cultural views that challenge the status quo, the Internet presents many possibilities. It shows people that they are not alone, that there are like-minded individuals out there; it provides a platform for the exchange of views with those like-minded individuals and for the establishment of local, national or international networks.

The relative anonymity provides users with the security to express themselves more freely. It provides both access to inspirational figures and a window on the situation in other countries. And of course, users can arrange to meet up – either virtually or physically.

Arabic is now a fully integrated Internet language, which means that those who are not familiar with a foreign language are not excluded. Users are a reflection of Egypt's demographic: More than 50 per cent of the country's population is under 25, a generation that worries about its professional prospects and is frustrated by the insufficient opportunities for political and economic participation.

Emerging subcultures

Subcultures have formed through the process of socio-cultural change. These subcultures – whether they be Islamists or secularists, rappers, break-dancers, homosexuals, emos or heavy metal fans – are networking. Anyone recalling the Egypt of the 1990s will realise just how disparate modern society has become there.

The consequences of this change are also evident in the cultural sphere: young filmmakers, musicians and writers make successful and effective use of the social networks to publicise their events and latest projects.

Young people calling for a restoration of the Internet in Egypt (photo: AP)
According to Stefan Winkler, the Internet has become vitally important for Egyptians as it provides a platform for the exchange of views with like-minded individuals and for the establishment of local, national or international networks

​​The young literary scene is booming. It utilises a language, often inflected with dialect and youth slang, that the readers – most of whom are of the young authors' generation – can fully relate to and understand. It also addresses issues that effect young people's lives.

New cultural vehicles of expression are taking root: graphic novels such as the comic Metro by Magey El Shafee or blogs that appear as books, such as I want to get married! by the young female blogger Ghada Abdelaal. A novel based on experiences in the drugs underworld could only be self-published, but it was advertised on the Internet, became a best seller and is now being turned into a film.

These are examples of the creative outpourings of a generation that openly articulates its hopes, worries and yearnings, young people who are no longer allowing themselves to be bullied by representatives of the regime. They have reached the end of their tether.

Stefan Winkler

© 2011

Stefan Winkler was director of the Goethe Institute in Alexandria and currently works in the Special Functions section of the board of the Goethe Institute in Munich. He is also coordinator of the Anna Lindh Foundation in Germany.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/
US Reaction to the Protests in Egypt
The Good Dictator
The United States' reaction to the ongoing protests in Egypt has been markedly different to its reaction to the popular protests in Iran 18 months ago. It also contrasts sharply with the vision of the world outlined by Obama in his speech in Cairo in June 2009. Joseph Mayton investigates why this is so

Arab Protest Movements and the West
The Spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood
Faced with popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Western politicians are having trouble ridding themselves of their black-and-white view of the Arab-Islamic world. Michael Lüders sends us this analysis

Interview with Saad Eddin Ibrahim
"Europe Should Work for the Promotion of Democracy"
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is an Egyptian-American sociologist and one of Egypt's leading human rights and democracy activists. He is severely critical of Hosni Mubarak's regime. Giancarlo Bosetti spoke to him about the prospects for democratic change in the Islamic world

Related Topics