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Reform conflicts in Egypt and Tunisia

Justice, Power, Protest

stylized image of protesting people, one sign says Game Over.
Photo: scossargilbert via flickr (edited), CC BY 2.0.

Socioeconomic protests were among the central drivers of the “Arab Spring” protests and revolutions. But even after various dictators were toppled, the situation did not improve for most people. Reforms tackled by the new governments often met with fierce opposition. Irene Weipert-Fenner conducted research on this issue in the project “Struggles over Socioeconomic Reforms,” which was completed in 2022. This marked the conclusion of eight years of cooperation between North Africa and Latin America experts from Egypt, Germany and Tunisia.

In conversation with Irene Weipert-Fenner

The research project, which was completed in 2022, analyzed conflicts over socioeconomic reforms that have been fought out in Egypt and Tunisia in recent years, sometimes with fierce confrontations. What were the disputes about?

The conflicts we studied revolved, for example, around taxes, subsidies or labor law. It was important for us to look at conflicts that were really about something, about money and power. To whom is something given, from whom is something taken away? We were able to observe how different actors try to position themselves and secure or defend their share.

Tunisia was still relatively democratic and free during the period under study, and public protests played a greater role there. The case studies on Egypt rather show conflicts taking place behind the scenes.

Which actors were central in both countries and what influence were they able to exert on the respective political order?

In both Tunisia, which was democratic at the time, and in autocratic Egypt, the ruling elite is only one actor among many. In both countries, economic elites are heavily involved, but so are trade unions.

In Tunisia, unions play a central role, and the union confederation has real veto power. This was demonstrated in 2019 when it managed to push through an increase in public sector salaries with a general strike. In doing so, it had not only won within the Tunisian arena, but also prevailed against the IMF, which at the time had put the government under intense pressure with demands for cuts in the public sector. In contrast, protests in 2018, which were not backed by a strong actor, failed to prevent the increase in value-added tax.

Interestingly, however, trade unions also play a role in Egypt. This was shown by our case study on the discussion of a new labor law. Independent trade unions have been politically marginalized in Egypt since the revolution. Nevertheless, an umbrella organization had managed to be present in the process. Of course, this is not so easy to evaluate: Was it really about making better decisions together, or perhaps just about immobilizing labor, further dividing the labor movement – or did the Sisi regime want a counterweight to the influential economic elites? In the end, the new law did not come about; the interests of the economic elites prevailed – and, interestingly, not those of the Sisi regime.

You have already talked about the different types of regimes. What influence does the type of regime have on the prospects of protest movements? And can socioeconomic reforms be implemented more efficiently in autocracies?

We have found that regime type alone is not sufficient to explain whether reforms are implemented or not. Who is part of the conversation and has a say in decision-making, or even veto power, goes back primarily to the political-economic power relations that have evolved over decades. In general, one can see that political-economic structures can be well explained by the incorporation of certain groups and the exclusion of broad sections of society; Steffen Hertog speaks here of insiders and outsiders. Certain groups, be they businesses or labor groups, have good connections to the regime and are on the “inside.” Others are excluded. They simply have less leverage to fight back. If the burden of reform is not so great that it exceeds a certain threshold, then the costs are borne – both in democracies and autocracies. However, it is of course the case that an autocratic regime can act with greater severity against outsiders. In Egypt, we observed extremely high levels of repression during the period under study. In both types of regimes, the insiders manage to assert their interests in the conflict, while the outsiders have little chance, even if the possibilities are even smaller in autocracies.

You collaborated with a team of researchers from different countries. How can we picture this cooperation?

I think cooperation with local colleagues is central. The problematic structure in knowledge production still dominates, that the comparative perspective mostly comes from Europe or the USA and the experts from different countries write solely about their countries. The interesting thing about our project is that we were involved with three countries, complemented by the perspective of interregional comparison with Latin America, brought in by my colleague Jonas Wolff. By making comparisons together as a team, we were able to broaden our perspective. Another important aspect of the cooperation was the promotion of young scientists. We had a doctoral student at each of the partner institutions, were able to facilitate guest stays here, and promote training and networking in the region and to Europe. This was also a great learning process for us here. For example, we discussed methods of field research, generally brought perspectives from the global South here, and promoted the internationalization of the institute.

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You are also working on protest movements as part of the ConTrust research initiative. There, together with researchers from PRIF and Goethe University Frankfurt, you are investigating how trust can arise in conflicts. Now, one would probably think that protests are more an expression of a lack of trust. Is that wrong?

It is undisputed that trust is a central element of living together. But people often think that trust is there when there is no conflict, and vice versa. From my research in terms of social movements and protest, that seems to me to be insufficiently complex. The movements that made up the so-called “Arab Spring,” but also the second wave of Arab uprisings that took place in Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria in 2019, these are longer processes in which different social movements interact. There are issues of coalition and network building at play, different relationships with social actors, a lot of distrust of political parties – and yet we have mobilization. To protest in authoritarian regimes, trust in other protesters is particularly important, especially the longer one protests, because one becomes more and more visible and thus could be exposed to more and more repression.

The second wave of Arab uprisings, however, was characterized by protests not only across social lines of conflict, but explicitly against them. There were demands, especially in Lebanon and Iraq, to abolish political systems based on a distribution of power along ethno-religious identities. To demand that when you yourself are dependent on these networks, first of all, is very powerful, especially when societies are deeply divided and have a history of violent conflict. Where do these demands come from and when do they actually appear in mass movements? In Iraq and Lebanon, for example, right at the beginning of the protest movement. This cannot always be explained rationally; emotions always play a major role in revolutions. What is interesting here is what happens in this extraordinary moment and whether extraordinary trust is perpetuated in the revolutionary movement. And what happens to it when revolutions are considered to have failed?

stylized photo of city with old towers and high-rise buildings
Photo: Omar Elsharawy/Unsplash, Unsplash License.

One last question: What will you be dealing with in your next research projects?

With regard to protest movements, it is important not only to look at the revolutionary episode, but to zoom out in time. The lines of conflict that are at stake usually have a long history. In 2019, for example, we saw protest actors themselves explicitly drawing on protest history by saying, “We used to be divided along an ethnic conflict line, we don't do that anymore. We've learned from that.” And even if protest movements fail directly, for example, because they do not succeed in overthrowing a particular regime, they still set transformation processes in motion. To gain insight into these aspects, we need to embed the protests in their longer history. In addition, I will continue to research conflicts over social justice in the future. As a result of Corona, but also the Russia-Ukraine war, the economic situation in many countries has deteriorated dramatically. At the same time, we have also seen dictatorships in North Africa and West Asia rehabilitated because of the need for new energy suppliers. In addition, there are efforts to get green hydrogen from these countries as well, because of climate change. What effects does this have, or what development potentials would there perhaps also be? How would German and European politics have to act in order not simply to build up new extractivist structures, but to promote an actual transformation of political-economic conditions? I am working on this together with colleagues from the Arab-German Young Academy.


Themed Section with articles from the project

The results of the project were summarized in a Themed Section in the journal Mediterranean Politics in 2023, which appeared online first. Introduction:

Weipert-Fenner, Irene: Socioeconomic reforms in times of political transformation: Conflicts over the political economy in Egypt and Tunisia post-2011, in: Mediterranean Politics, 2023. DOI: 10.1080/13629395.2023.2207428.