What power do the Egyptian protesters have?

For the past week I’ve eagerly checked the news every morning for the lastest from Egypt. This whole ‘arab uprising’ thing gets me very excited. It also stimulates me to analysis.

In particular, it makes me want to ask: when protests make a result happen, i.e. exercise power, what sort of power do they exercise? Here are three ways to answer:

1) They exercise symbolic or communicative power – they send a message, make a statement, convey an image, which then changes how others act and how things happens;

2) They exercise direct power, i.e. they produce an effect through taking actions which themselves, in some sense, add up to that action itself. This might include taking control of an area and keeping it, capturing a politician, reclaiming stolen wealth (or looting), etc;

3) They exercise generalised disruptive power, i.e. they refuse to go along with, or actively obstruct, other people’s actions, without being able to pick out a particular target to impede in this way. This might be as mild as blocking traffic for a few hours, up through scaring away tourists, preventing businesses from opening, fighting with police and making areas unsafe to visit.

The easiest thing to note is that number 2., even though it may be highly effective when it happens, doesn’t usually happen: broadly speaking, you go on a protest because you can’t resolve your problem directly. I’ve often found myself, on a dreary afternoon surrounded by monotonous speeches, struck by the oddness of the whole practice: you want jobs/freedom/land/whatever, so you go and stand in a group in the middle of the street. There’s no direct means-end connection there.

That leaves number 1. and number 3. I think there is a common idea that floats around that ‘the point’ of protests is all about number 1., symbolic power. Indeed, this is already suggested in the words themselves: to ‘protest about something’ or ‘demonstrate something’ are speech acts, ways of using words to convey meaning.

This fits with the idea that people have a fundamental right to protest, because it’s just a matter of free speech, freely expressing a view. It also fits with the response usually expected of rulers – to say ‘I am listening to you, and I hear what you’re saying, and I will do something about it (so please stop now).’

But then how do you ‘force someone to resign’ with demonstrations? Even in a philosophy department, demonstrations rarely serve to force someone to change their mind, let alone flee the country. No matter how cogent, such symbolic power won’t force out a ruler who’s held power for decades and happily resorted to repressing opposition, manipulating elections, perverting the law, etc.

So it seems that in cases like that – in cases where it would be unreasonable to expect a ‘willing conversational partner’ – the point of protest lies in its generalised disruptive power, its ability to mess everything up for everyone. Of course this itself has a communicative element: the demonstration not only disrupts, but ‘demonstrates’ that people are able and willing to continue such disruption, making an implicit threat. And ‘persuasive power’ may be vital to securing this power to disrupt – you need to get people on your side, avoid alienating them, etc.

The upshot is that protests are (at least in many cases) much more like strikes than they are like petitions. They’re a withdrawl of co-operation in a context (an industry or a state) where co-operation is relied upon for smooth functioning.

However, protests and strikes are often rhetorically constructed as bearing different sorts of relationships to what we might call the social fabric, the multi-layered web of mutual recognition and predictable interaction that weaves individuals into something that can be called a ‘society’.

The ‘conversational’ view of protests, as ‘expressing greivances’, makes protest seem like something that presupposes and hence validates the social fabric that binds the protesters to their target government.

Now, this is misleading if protests work (in at least many cases) precisely by tearing up this fabric in different degrees, by refusing and withdrawing the forms of rule-following and schedule-following that constitute it.

Hence the dichotomy always drawn between ‘peaceful protesters’ and ‘a minority of extremists’. The latter are positioned as attacking the social fabric and hence attacking every person in the country indirectly – attacking, in fact, you. It’s important that they be a ‘minority’ because to the extent that they might represent the majority, the majority would be dissolving…itself.

With strikes, one can certainly also find the image of the attack on society, the ‘enemy within’, when they become large or significant. But in more mundane cases, rather than being seen as validating and maintaining a sense of community with the employer, they’re seen as a form of hostile negotiation. The key point here is that hostile negotiation can involve voluntarily withdrawing from a ‘contract’, threatening to ‘leave’ unless terms are improved.

The fact that protests are seldom presented under this aspect, then, might be taken to reflect the fact that mainstream culture does not regard people as having the right to re-negotiate or withdraw from their state. Which, indeed, it does not. The law is the law.
Whether such a stance is reasonable is of course another matter.

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