Nadine Sika, Youth Activism and Contentious Politics in Egypt: Dynamics of Continuity and Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Nadine Sika (NS): During the Egyptian uprising of 2011, I was interested not only in participating in the demonstrations, but as a political scientist, I was also interested in understanding the motives behind why people turned out and mobilized against Mubarak. A few months after the uprisings, Oliver Schlumberger proposed that I participate in a research project on youth in the region in cooperation with him and Saloua Zerhouni. The research project was entitled “Arab Youth: From Engagement to Inclusion?” and was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation for a period of two years. This project entailed extensive fieldwork with young activists and university students in Egypt and Morocco. After the research project ended, I was interested in transforming our research findings on Egypt into a book manuscript. I believe that the fieldwork results add a lot of insight to our understanding of the dynamics of contention in the Middle East and North Africa.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NS: The book analyzes the dynamics of mobilization and contestation in authoritarian regimes, with a special focus on the Middle East and Egypt. It combines research tools from social movement theories and authoritarian resilience theories. It shows that through an analysis of youth movements in Egypt from the mid-2000s until today, we can understand how an authoritarian regime influences the mechanisms and processes of contention in youth movements. The regime sets parameters for the context of mobilization, and also for its course, through creating opportunities, threats to, and constraints on the ability of youth movements to mobilize and to network. In addition, the book highlights the influence of an authoritarian regime on the repertoires of contention. At the same time, it also demonstrated that a youth movement’s repertoires can cause a regime to adapt, upgrade, or downgrade its authoritarian tools in an attempt to control, coopt, or disempower the movement. The book also examines other Arab regimes, like Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
NS: I have been working on protest movements and youth movements in authoritarian regimes for the past few years, and this book is a continuation of my work and interest in contentious politics in authoritarian regimes. Prior to this book, I was interested in broader issues of political participation and state-society relations in the Middle East.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NS: I hope that scholars from the region and scholars who analyze the region read this book. The book would be of particular interest for scholars from the political science, sociology, and anthropology disciplines. I also hope that the book attracts interest from social movement actors so that it can help them to understand the extent to which they can impact politics and why and how they are constrained by authoritarian tactics. Finally, I hope that the book generates more debates on contentious politics in authoritarian regimes.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NS: I have been working on a project entitled “Power2Youth” for the past three years. This project was a consortium between different research institutions in Italy, the United Kingdom, Norway, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This project was mainly concerned with understanding young people in the region. The project was not only focused on youth movements per se, but it was also concerned with non-political young actors. It analyzed youth and youth policies on the macro, meso, and micro levels. I am currently in the process of finishing a book manuscript on this project, with a special focus on Egypt. I am also working on a project on social movements in Egypt and Jordan today.
Excerpt from the Book:
This book addresses questions about the emergence and the activities of youth movements during and after the Arab Uprisings of 2010/11 with a special emphasis on Egypt. It argues that what took place in the few years after the Arab Uprisings require new analytical approaches to understand the dynamics of contention in authoritarian regimes in general and in the Middle East and North Africa in particular. What are the mechanisms and processes of youth mobilization in authoritarian regimes? Why do these mechanisms and processes sometimes result in authoritarian breakdown, and at other times in authoritarian resilience? Taking Egypt as a case study, and combining research tools from social movement theories and authoritarian resilience theories, this book demonstrates how youth movements initiated contestation, and how the regime reacted in a display of authoritarian resilience. Through an analysis of youth movements in Egypt from the mid-2000s until today, it is clear that an authoritarian regime influences the mechanisms and behavior of youth movements. The regime sets parameters for the context of mobilization, and also for its course, through creating opportunities, threats to and constraints on the ability of youth movements to mobilize and to network. On the other hand, youth movements’ repertoires can cause a regime to adapt, upgrade, or downgrade its authoritarian resilience tools.
The book is composed of six chapters, an introduction and conclusion. Chapter 1 provides a theoretical background and an analytical framework for the study. Chapter 2 analyses youth mobilization through the contexts of mobilization within the authoritarian regimes of President Mubarak, the interim rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and the rule of President Muhammed Mursi. The institutional impediments to regime change in the Arab world in general, and in Egypt in particular, are examined, and how these institutional barriers represented an opportunity, a constraint, and a threat to the nascent youth movement. The focus is mainly on the regime structure and its influence on the rise of youth movements. Chapter 3 examines the repertoires of contention of youth movements that they developed through their earlier “learned cultural creations” in the first decade of the 2000s. It also looks at the agency of youth movements and their influence, on the regime’s authoritarian upgrading and downgrading strategies. Chapter 4 analyses the survey data from the universities, which demonstrate the relationship between an authoritarian regime and youth activists. The results may be self-evident – that youth think and act politically. However, the data highlight an ambiguous relationship between activists’ political participation and the influence of the authoritarian regime on their political attitudes, especially concerning equality, freedom, and tolerance. Chapter 5 is based on a qualitative analysis of the 52 semi-structured interviews conducted with youth activists between 18 and 30 years. First, the mobilization networks are discussed, and how these operated in the Egyptian public sphere in the early 2000s. Second, how these networks mobilized for public protest within the constraints of an authoritarian regime, and the regime’s extensive measures to control them. Chapter 6 examines contentious politics in four other Arab countries that underwent major demonstrations, but whose regimes have endured – Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan and Morocco. It shows that the main political opportunity for their youth movements developed from the diffusion of protests from one country to another in the region. Their repertoires of contention were largely influenced by those utilized in Tunisia and Egypt, whose protest movements were inspirational to other youth movements in the region. The movements’ weakness and fragmentation in addition to the regimes reliance on authoritarian upgrading measures, especially legitimation and cooptation were the main reason for the regime’s resilience.
Although the outcomes of the Arab uprisings were different from what many hoped or anticipated, this book goes some way toward explaining the complex political and social processes that influenced and constrained youth movements in the Arab world.