From Fists in the Air to Seats at the Table

Author’s note: This essay has benefited from many conversations with my colleague Chelsey Lepage, who has done extensive thinking on the role of activists during and after political transitions, based on her experiences working directly with human rights activists during a political crackdown in the horn of Africa. 

Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president ousted in 2011, died earlier this week. His passing sparked memories of the Arab Spring in Cairo, when we believed that our protests would lead to a more just social order.

I moved to Cairo from Germany in 2011 to witness the birth of a new Egypt. Following the overthrow of Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for three decades, I wanted to play a small part in making my home country more open, inclusive, and accepting of difference. I wanted to see my fellow Egyptians challenge cronyism and corruption. And I wanted to see our government take care of the people who needed it the most.

Unfortunately, this dream of a new Egypt didn’t last long. We soon found ourselves in the streets again, only weeks after the military took control of the country, to protest for “bread, freedom, social justice,” and a new constitution for all Egyptians. 

I remember distinctly the moment when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces announced that we had been heard, and that there would be a drafting process for a new constitution. We, the protesters, were invited into the room to be a part of the negotiation. And that was where we encountered a huge challenge: we knew how to form alliances and organize protests against injustice, but we were brand new to building consensus at the tables of the powerful. We did not know how to rally around something we would do with—rather than against—those in power. 

Social Movements Form In Opposition

This challenge was not unique to Egypt, nor was the way our movement had formed. From the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia to the Taksim protests in Turkey and the Maidan protests in Ukraine, social upheavals can gain strength suddenly, often around a single violent event, and then go on to challenge deeply entrenched power structures. Precisely what made these movements so powerful was the activists’ willingness to risk life and liberty in their urgent desire to work against—an oppressive regime, discriminatory legislation, a systemic lack of justice—in these early chaotic moments of change.

But in Egypt, as in these other contexts, what came after the big disruption was much less clearly defined than the need for change in the moment. 

What Comes After the Big Disruption

What we hoped for, once activists succeeded in disrupting the status quo, was a non-violent transition to a more just political order. But in many countries, ruling governments have stayed in power by eliminating opposition and harassing leaders of social movements. In practice, this means that the community organizers and political professionals who might run such an orderly transition have been driven underground, or simply don’t exist at all.

In fact in recent years, over one hundred governments—in both democratic and non-democratic states—have introduced legislation restricting the activities of civil society organizations. Regimes deploy formal and informal tactics to disadvantage CSOs, and the number of human rights defenders killed by governments is at a record high across the world.

Political Transitions Amidst Shrinking Civic Space

In an era of shrinking civic space, instead of the orderly political transition we hope for, one or more of the following scenarios usually occur:

  1. Successful leaders of grassroots protest movements blend into the background and political movements take too long to form. Meanwhile, new (often illegitimate and predatory) actors seize power amidst the leadership vacuum. In Egypt, there were a number of such actors, including the Muslim Brotherhood and, importantly, the Egyptian Armed Forces. 
  2. Formerly united protest movements realize that beyond a shared agenda against, there is limited alignment of ideology and objectives. They disintegrate into infighting, with parallel factions vying for leadership positions. There were many nascent, small political parties in Egypt which were unable to collaborate and align, resulting in cannibalization, and leaving  plenty of space for more mature players to take control—like Mubarak’s old cronies, the military, and the Muslim Brotherhood. 
  3. Having worked against the system for long periods of time, activists lack the tools and skills to contribute to political development, that is, to work for and with. That was a challenge we encountered often; in part because of our inexperience in driving consensus, in part because of the persistent, predatory power structures. 

All three of these scenarios occurred in Egypt—and we see them happen all over the world. While transitions offer real opportunities for movement leaders and activists to protect and entrench precious gains, the path to more inclusive political processes is unclear. 

We found that the skills and tactics that enabled us to challenge an oppressive system were ill-matched to the long-term and incremental work of political reform. This led to yet a new challenge: millions of Egyptians were disappointed in movement leaders because the change they hoped for did not materialize. 

Co-Design for Activist Support

These challenges call for urgent and new thinking. How can movement leaders take forward the momentum that they created to build sustainable political change? How can they build the bridge from political disruption to political reform?

Through our work at Reboot, we seek to help answer these questions—to get a deep understanding of where political transitions work well and to develop guidance for success, jointly with those who will use it. Our research, in collaboration with activists, centers on: How can we shift mindsets and tactics from opposition to collaboration, when the time is right? How can activists play a role in aligning the objectives, resources, and capabilities of all the different actors involved in the transition? What key ingredients create the coalitions needed to sustain political reform?

From my perspective, I know that back in 2011 this kind of guidance could have made a real difference in how we managed the transition from working against, to working with. Today, I work so that other movements may have a better shot at taking their seats at the table, and making them count. 

Futher reading.