Between organization and spontaneity of protests: the 2010–2011 Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings

This paper investigates the role of social groups in mobilizing resources for protests in repressive contexts. In particular, it examines the impact of organizations and informal groups on individual engagement in the protests developed in 2010 in Tunisia and in 2011 in Egypt. The empirical analysis draws on the following data sources: the second wave of the Arab Barometer (2010–2011), two focus groups in Egypt conducted between 2011 and 2015 with members of trade unions and of Popular Committees who had participated in the 2011 protests in Egypt, eight semi-structured interviews conducted in 2017 to workers in Tunisia who had engaged in the 2010–2011 protests, and interviews conducted in January and February 2011 to 100 women in Tunisia within a study tackling police violence against women during the Tunisian uprisings.

Findings show that both in Egypt and Tunisia protests were neither spontaneous nor fully organized as formal organizations and informal and spontaneous groups strictly interconnected in sustaining protests. In Egypt, established Islamic charity networks provided the structural basis for Popular Committees to engage in the 2011 protests and the initially spontaneous workers’ groups, institutionalized through the legalization of EFITU, were crucial for national wide protests occurred throughout 2011. In Tunisia, the major trade union UGTT was essential for mobilizing workers in the initial stages of protests but was backed by informal and spontaneous groups of workers during the process of protest diffusion.

Results remark that the 2010–2011 Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings were therefore well-grounded on intermediate mobilizing structures capable to survive in the interstices of an authoritarian context. Findings suggest to consider that, in repressive context, spontaneous groups and more established and formal organizations continuously switch from one form to another, overlap, and transform themselves faster than they would do in democratic contexts.

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