This short expose’ considers the dimension of space in explaining the inability of the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia to respond or to act during the protests of 2011. The only action the ousted regimes could take was inaction, mostly brittle violence against the people, dooming both to the dustbin of history.

Without Tunisia and Egypt, the term “Arab Spring” would have been non-existent or hollow. The former launched it through a spectacular, infectious, and pioneering exercise in people’s power. The latter massively consolidated it, boosting popular confidence that Arab autocrats may be no more than men of straw whose power is a façade kept together by secular and religious propaganda. Fear tactics and coercion by police and military bureaucracies eroded the loyalty of the people to the state.

Seven months after the ouster of dictator Zine El-‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali on January 14, 2011 and six months after the ouster of his Egyptian counterpart Muhammad Husni Mubarak on the February 11, 2011, Libyan rebels overran Tripoli and entered Qadhafi’s den in the massive Bab al-Aziziya compound from which the “brother-leader” singularly controlled Libya for 42 years. Even with Qadhafi at large, three neighboring Arab states with populations totalling 100 million people and a combined surface area of more than 3 million square kilometers are free of authoritarian rule. Indeed, this is the moment when students of Middle East politics can truly talk about the birth of a “New Arab Middle East” (NAME).

Integral to the emerging NAME is the proliferation of the “gymnasiums” of civic action, which have crippled regimes’ action and response in the face of rising popular protest and creative exercise of mass disobedience against authoritarian rule. What follows is a brief analysis of how this has unfolded in Egypt and Tunisia, focusing on how societal civic action rendered regime responses as inadequate “in-action” doomed to failure and regime change. The analysis begins with a brief description of the action-inaction dynamic, as a functional framework for understanding the authoritarian state’s inability to act. Secondly, a single example of civic action is given in order to illustrate how the action-inaction dynamic unfolded in the “gymnasiums” of popular struggle in both Egypt and Tunisia. Therein lies the secret success of the protesters that produced “clean” ousters in Egypt and Tunisia: the ability of societal action to incapacitate state reaction through the most typical devices used historically to de-mobilize protest. This is where there is a huge difference between the action-reaction of the bread riots of the 1970s and 1980s and the protests of 2011.[1] Then the state always managed to respond with pork-barrelling when coercion failed. In the “Arab Spring,” as illustrated by the cases of Egypt and Tunisia, neither bribing nor coercing the populace were available as devices of control in the inventory of statist resources.

Action-Inaction: Blunting Authoritarian Rule

Winston Churchill’s famous saying “I never worry about action, but only about inaction” springs to mind when reflecting on the state techniques of demobilizing civic struggle and societal instruments for civic engagement in their quest to resist authoritarianism. It is not the action of the authoritarian structures in Egypt and Tunisia that matter in the context of the “Arab Spring;” rather, it is their inaction. One can talk about an action-reaction-inaction spiral of responses and counter responses. The type of action invoked here specifically refers to civic resistance — that is, in the case of Egypt and Tunisia, action making use of a range of civic acts, including performing disobedience, protest, boycott, strikes, marches, and sustained occupation of public space. All of these techniques describe peaceful or nonviolent activities all of which, however, are confrontational. Their confrontational nature stems from the protesters’ ability to transcend all fear of state coercion. This is the same fear which had been relied upon by the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia to produce a “bystander-effect,” whereby harm to an individual, a group of citizens, a region, or a cluster of interests speaking on behalf of an ideology or a cause isolates and renders anti-regime mobilization ineffective in creating communal solidarity. In the 2011 protests, the formerly inactive but potentially mobilizable reservoir of rebellious energy (mass protest, public disobedience, and widespread nonviolent resistance) were visibly and palpably activated or mobilized as a source of civic resistance against the Ben ‘Ali and Mubarak regimes. It is the reclamation of this energy and its subsequent use by society that have blunted authoritarian rule. Thus, societal action succeeded in yielding both a critical mass and a tipping point, with the two regimes failing to successfully employ:

coercion (owing to unprecedented fearlessness);

bribing (due to the fact that Tunisians reached a critical mass that made them aware that no bribe would be equivalent to Ben ‘Ali’s ouster; for the Egyptians, the Tunisian precedent made them adamant from the moment of the launching of the January 25 revolution that they would not be happy with anything less than raheel, that is, Mubarak’s departure from power); and

former tactics of “divide and rule” as protests in both Egypt and Tunisia spread in provincial towns then shifted to metropolitan centers as a marker of solidarity and unity in resistance and the pursuit of a common goal: ousting the dictators.

Thus, the reaction of both regimes was rendered ineffective, as if it were inaction, by its failure to measure up to the high expectations of the civic action mobilized and invested into the process of critical-mass build-up. The song of “degage” launched in the Habib Bourguiba Boulevard in Tunis became too potent to suppress, eventually positively infecting the masses from Cairo to Sana‘a, and crippling regimes with an incurable virus, signalling the end of the long-ill body-politic. The agency enacted to blunt authoritarianism in popular revolts may be, tentatively at least, analyzed by looking at one dimension visible in the Egyptian and Tunisian “gymnasiums” of civic struggle: public space.

The Dimension of Space

It can be said that all space under Arab authoritarian rule claimed by the rulers is state space, not public space. There is nothing earth-shattering about this statement. From Cairo through Libya to Tunis, the central squares developed by the postcolonial authoritarian states’ urban planners and named after political icons or iconic historical events were part and parcel of a form of socio-political engineering aimed at defining the territory of power and, largely, of state-holders. Tahrir [Liberation] Square, with the adjacent mugamma‘ edifice, stood as powerful reminders and symbols of the Egyptian state’s authoritarian-bureaucratic clout. Tahrir as liberation is a powerful idiom conveying messages of historicity as well as legitimacy. The mugamma‘ is the one inevitability the majority of the Egyptian citizenry cannot avoid where sat the huge bureaucracy producing their legal personas and paperwork for the construction of their identities. Under the control of autocrats, the mugamma‘ had effectively, as its name in Arabic denotes, been the collective unifying repository through which Egyptian citizenry was filtered, as if the very conception of Egyptian-ness could not be imagined outside the Interior Ministry’s labyrinth of windows and clerks forming the bureaucratic mill inside the mugamma‘. That link to the Interior Ministry was a thread that “shackled” the collective psyche to fear of state power and of the over-bureaucratization that served as an additional device of control over the citizenry and the construction of millions of identities since the time of the Free Officers’ takeover of the state in 1952.

In Tunisia, the capital’s Boulevard, at the end of which stood the Interior Ministry’s massive building, was named after the country’s postcolonial leader and national mentor, the late Habib Bourguiba. Like him, the Boulevard that his urban planners named after him was an example of how the politics of space was never innocent. Bourguiba and the space — squares, gardens, memorials, libraries, and streets — all represented value-laden signifiers of power.[2] They stood in the case of Tunisia as an Ataturk-like brand of nation- and state-building inspired by the former colonial metropolis, Paris. So the first thing his successor did following the bloodless coup of November 1987 was to rename the squares, often deleting “Habib Bourguiba” to cede to the new administration’s politico-social engineering label “7th of November,” supposedly a symbol and idiom of the ousted dictator’s “New Deal” — a deal that never was. The Habib Bourguiba Boulevard survived the architectural purge of the public space redesigning. As in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the Interior Ministry stood as an eyesore in the Bourguiba Boulevard, a powerful reminder of the police state Ben ‘Ali and his henchmen built over 23 years of authoritarian rule. Like the mugamma‘, it evoked fear as well as indignation, and it is this indignation that proved resourceful and momentous in both countries’ protests in the January–February 2011 period.

So what is the relevance of the dimension of space in the politics of civic resistance in Cairo and Tunis in 2011?

The Tunisian and Egyptian protesters contested regime monopoly over control, use, manipulation of, and claim over space — squares. When the Tunisian protesters began their build-up of a critical mass they had first to take back the space the state claimed as its own, hub of its centrality, as a physical edifice and politico-moral authority. The critical mass needed to reoccupy the geography of the authoritarian state and the terrain from which it organized the lives of the citizenry. Just as the authoritarian state purged the citizenry from the terrain on which it pitched, designed, diffused, and sustained the reproduction of its authority, the citizenry had to recover that terrain and redesign it as its own as it navigate the unknown territory of mass resistance against state hegemony. Just as the state purged the citizenry from its geography of power, the protesters had to purge the state from that very space. That space is thus converted into forums for mass organization and mobilization. It is within the precincts of that space that a new reimagining of community and democratic politics was made possible by the protesters in both Egypt and Tunisia. Literally, the space was turned from authoritarian space into popular space. This space is reorganized into forums for democratic articulation, displays of solidarity, and the communication of universal messages of rejection of authoritarianism — designed and redesigned through the use of all kinds of techniques ranging from music of national hymns to communal prayers or marches. It is the ability of society to turn the central space — squares for instance — into “gymnasiums” of civic activism whereby the citizenry sharpens not only its skills of anti-systemic protest, but also the people’s appetite for democratic politics through sustained and creative mass protest. In this way societies in Egypt and Tunisia were able to reinvent themselves by contesting the authoritarian state’s politics and programs openly. Ultimately, this is what led to the repurposing of former places of state authority into public space for re-enacting popular sovereignty and collective re-ownership of the state. In these reclaimed places — Tahrir Square in Cairo, and the Habib Bourguiba Boulevard and the Kasbah in Tunis — the fight against authoritarianism was concretized, built into a critical mass, and defiantly sustained to eventually lead to the tipping point that brought down the authoritarian structure.

The transferable value of the above angle on the “Arab Spring,” through exploration of the dimension of space, is today evident in Syria. Thus far, in neither Damascus nor Aleppo has a public space developed where mass protesters can directly display solidarity and resist hegemony. They are yet unable to express themselves through collective, direct participatory action that renders the state unable to act or to offer acceptable responses as the public resolve, once focused in a space it claims as its own, shifts from the former politics of accommodation with the state to total defiance and rejection of authoritarianism. The Libyan rebels themselves felt the need to occupy Qadhafi’s compounds and “Green Square,” renaming it “Martyrs’ Square,” in order to claim possession of their revolt and realize some kind of political closure against the overthrown political order. Thus, it can be said that in the “Arab Spring,” the authoritarian states in Egypt and Tunisia were left with only one course of action: to exit history as their final act of self-cancellation.


[1] Larbi Sadiki, “Popular Uprisings and Arab Democratisation,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 32 (2000), pp. 71–95.


[2] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (New York: Beacon Press, 1994).