The Middle East Channel

The anatomy of protest in Egypt and Tunisia

The anatomy of protest in Egypt and Tunisia

Commentators have offered numerous theories for what caused the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and who participated in them. They range from youth and their chronic unemployment, to liberal activists and their demands for civil rights, to workers and absolute levels of material deprivation. Stories of individual participants and analyses of specific groups taking part in the uprisings have provided much insight into this question, but only a representative sample of participants can help weigh the importance of different factors driving protesters. The latest wave of the Arab Barometer, a nationally representative survey administered in the wake of the protests, provides some answers. 

Conducted in over the spring and summer of 2011, the Arab Barometer surveyed 1,220 people in Egypt and 1,196 in Tunisia using area probability sampling techniques. Findings from the surveys suggest that the recent Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings were disproportionately middle class, though the Tunisian Revolution was slightly more diverse in age and occupational background. In Egypt, eight percent of the sample reported participating in demonstrations surrounding the revolution, compared to 16 percent of those surveyed in Tunisia. This difference in rates of participation may seem puzzling at first glance, but differences in population size and geographical dispersion provide some basic insight about the divergent rates of participation in these two countries. The Tunisian protests began in a small provincial town (Sidi Bouzid) and slowly made their way to the capital over the course of several weeks. The Egyptian protests, by contrast, began in the country’s two major cities, Cairo and Alexandria, and had millions on the street within four days of the first protest. The fact that Egypt has over 80 million inhabitants to Tunisia’s roughly 11 million means that, in spite of the differing rates of participation, the absolute number of protesters was far higher in Egypt.

The survey also sheds light on the participation of women and youth. Protesters were disproportionately male in both countries (77 percent in Egypt and 79 percent in Tunisia), but the women who did protest looked very similar to the males who protested in terms of occupational profile. The group of women who stayed home disproportionately was housewives, suggesting that the resources and autonomy allowing some women to participate in the labor force — or the economic exigencies compelling them to do so — were related to working women’s elevated rates of participation. The Arab Barometer data also suggest a more nuanced picture of youth participation. While youths featured prominently in leadership roles and the events sparking both revolutions, participants came from across the age spectrum. Nevertheless, there were differences in age composition across the two cases; Tunisian protesters were disproportionately young (35 percent were under 24 years of age) and Egyptians were disproportionately of working age (59 percent of participants were between 25 and 44 years old).

Although the size and composition of protests varies, the reasons protesters cited for participation are quite similar emphasizing primarily economic and not political grievances. We conducted a statistical latent cluster analysis to identify groups of protesters by their reasons for participating. Among Egyptian participants, the largest cluster (38 percent of participants) consisted of those who identified the reasons for participation as being primarily the economy and secondarily corruption, while another cluster (22 percent) identified these same reasons only in reverse order (primarily about corruption, and secondarily about the economy). A third cluster (22 percent) identified the main reason for participation as opposition to the succession of Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal. The smallest cluster (18 percent) identified the main reason for participation as demands for civil and political freedoms. 

Among participants in the Tunisian Revolution, the largest cluster of participants (32 percent) similarly identified the reasons for participation as mainly the economy and secondarily corruption, while a much smaller cluster (15 percent) identified the reasons for participation as mainly corruption and secondarily the economy. A third cluster (26 percent) understood the reasons for participation as mainly the economy and secondarily civil and political freedoms, while a fourth cluster (21 percent) identified civil and political freedoms as the main motivation and corruption as a secondary motivation. Finally, a very small cluster (6 percent) identified establishing an Islamic regime as the main motivation for participation.

Thus, while parties advocating a larger role for Islam in public and political life came to power in the competitive elections following both revolutions, only a very small group of participants in either were motivated by specifically Islamist purposes. This paradoxical turn of events speaks less to a widespread desire for Islamic revolution than that Islamist parties in both countries were seen as viable "catch-all" oppositions that people believed could address the blatant abuses of the past.

The overwhelming evidence indicates that protesters in both Egypt and Tunisia prioritize a better economic future. Since the revolutions, these countries have suffered additional economic hardships. With International Monetary Fund loan talks currently stalled in Egypt due to fears of democratic instability and future loans to Tunisia still outstanding, the economic future of these countries remains bleak to say the least. For the Arab Spring to address citizen grievances, the reform agenda for the region must underscore the importance of economic development. Political reform on its own will not bring the region the necessary levels of stability sought after by external actors. Any political reform agenda must be accompanied by an ambitious economic strategy.

Mark Beissinger is professor of politics at Princeton University. Amaney Jamal is associate professor of politics at Princeton University. Kevin Mazur is a PhD student in the department of politics at Princeton University.